Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Dying to self means letting go of all the attachments that keep us from God; it is a purging of all that is not love. This means loosening our grip on our own plans, our desire for comfort and convenience, our tendencies toward selfishness and sin.
We can try to be the boss of our own lives, or we can give Jesus permission to call the shots. If we let Jesus take control, we will face the Cross, but we will also begin to see everything in our lives through His radiant Light.
Only when we throw ourselves upon God’s providence will we find ourselves—our true selves, who God created us to be. Dying to self is not an act of self-abasement but rather an act of faith—that when we cut away all the clutter we will find goodness underneath, that in the core of our being we will find the presence of God. Indeed, this dying to self is the seed of our salvation.
By abandoning our own agenda, we open our hands to receive the truest desires of our hearts. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and He will give us gifts greater than any of the earthly attachments we cling to.
My high school batch at St. Paul College of Pasig, a Catholic school for girls here in the Philippines run by the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, just celebrated its homecoming. We prepared for it for a year, a year that was spent reminiscing about high school memories and organizing a grand celebration dinner.
Among the fond memories of our high school days, a favorite is that of the Intramurals. The Intramural athletic competitions were, and still are, a big thing in our school. Rivalry between batches in volleyball, softball, track-and-field, swimming, and chess events was intense, although everyone played fair and clean most of the time. Even members of the non-athletic majority, such as I, were expected to take the Intramurals seriously as we formed part of their batches’ pep squads in the cheering competitions. The cheering competitions were the biggest events in the Intramurals. We practiced hard for hours amidst the demands of high school homework, and each batch tried to outdo each other in coming up with the most sophisticated and most artistic pep squad and cheer dance routines.
From the conversations and social media interactions among my batch mates, it is clear that the spirit of the Intramurals is still alive among us – especially since we could never forget that we were the champions of the cheering competition during our junior year.
It seems that sports competitions were a big thing, too, to our school’s patron saint. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he used athletics as an example to illustrate the determination and sacrifice it takes for a Christian to reach the highest goal in life, which is union with God: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 10:7).
In other words, St. Paul was cheering on the Christian community in Corinth, “Go! Fight! Win!”
I like the way St. Paul viewed the struggle for sanctity as a sport.
Often, we balk at the suggestion that we should aim to be saints. We tend to think that sanctity is reserved for an elite few, and that the rest of us are doomed to either spiritual mediocrity or damnation. We want to be good but we find it hard.
St. Paul himself knew how hard it is to aim to be a saint. His writings reflect his awareness of his sinful past, and even post-conversion he wrote about “the thorn of the flesh” and having had to be delivered from his “body of death”.
Perhaps it is because he knew how discouraging the struggle against oneself can be, that he wrote about it in terms of sports to encourage his readers. Sports are tough and demanding. They involve pain and hard training. But they are fun, too. They are all about a sense of accomplishment when one wins, hope for another second chance of victory when one loses, and camaraderie with one’s teammates in any case.
It is depressing to examine one’s conscience every night and discover that one has committed the same faults and sins as the day before. But it is less discouraging to see one’s repeated falls as the reps that an athlete must do to master a technique. The struggle for sanctity is not about loathing oneself for being a sinner and beating up oneself to become what one is not. The struggle to be a saint is a spiritual sport. One can win with training (developing virtue), proper nutrition and hydration (the Eucharist and the other sacraments), proper treatment of injuries (the sacrament of confession), following the advice of one’s coach (spiritual direction and the teachings of the Church), the right mental attitude (the theological and cardinal virtues), and teamwork (the support we get from each other as members of the Mystical Body of Christ). Like any other sport, it is enjoyable; one fruit of training in this spiritual sport is joy.
St. Paul’s reference to a “perishable wreath” refers to the fact that during his time, victorious athletes got nothing more than crowns of leaves for all their efforts. Today’s athletes receive more durable prizes – metal or plastic trophies, or medals of gold, silver, or bronze – but just the same, these prizes serve no further purpose than to be displayed. Nevertheless, athletes invest a lot just to win these prizes. The prize for winning the spiritual sport of pursuing sanctity is priceless, and surely worth all the effort involved in attaining it.
When we are defeated in the struggle to be good, we can either give in to discouragement, or we can, like a true athlete, train for the next match and try again as many times as needed to win. One day, we will be able to say, like Saint Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith “ (2 Timothy 4:7)
O my God, I am heartily sorry that I have sinned against Thee. I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend Thee my God, Who art all good and deserving of my love.
I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.
—Act of Contrition
It is the Bountiful and Generous God Who has conferred to us the honor of worshiping His Being and of spreading His religion and its many sciences, so let us endear this service to our hearts.
His Greatness and honor deserves our worship, and true worship resides in sincere devotion to Him alone and in constant remembrance of Him. Indeed, the whole purpose of worship is but to apprehend the reality of the unity of the Divine Principle. So do not act ‘for fear of hell’ or ‘for the sake of heaven.’
—Diary of a Turkish soldier, Refik Bey, who fought at Gallipoli, 1916.
Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven. —Matthew 6:1
An agnostic housemate of mine, who regularly donates blood and volunteers at a legal clinic, said to me, “Isn’t it better for someone to do good things because it’s right, than because he wants to gain favor with God?”
Reflecting upon what he said, I thought of two points:
Firstly, there is a false dichotomy in the query. Certainly, it may seem self-serving for a Christian to want to gain favor with God. But God judges our hearts—it is selfless love that truly conforms us to Him. The more you perform good actions, the more habituated to good you become, and thus the more Godlike, since God is All-good. Heaven is the Beatific Vision, being intimately united with Infinite Goodness. Goodness is thus its own reward. We do not hope for extrinsic rewards like praise or pleasures, although limited and metaphorical human language may make it seem that way. Rather, we become more fully human, more fully ourselves, and more fully like God, the more we do good works—and this enables us to live in the Presence of Goodness forever.
Sin is a corruption of, or detraction from, goodness. Hell is the complete lack of goodness, life, and love. It is the annihilation of everything for which we are made. That is why we fear Hell—because it is eternal separation from our fulfillment, the ground of our being.
Secondly, how do we know what is good? By what standard do we measure goodness? Why should we treat each other well, even sacrificing our own blood, time and resources for complete strangers, and how do we know what constitutes right behavior? What are the grounds of intrinsic human dignity? Why is a drowning stranger more important than your drowning pet?
Simple: if every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and God is Love, then we are all made in the image and likeness of Love. To love is to will the good of another (CCC 1766). God is the Divine Eternal Act of Love. A Spanish Dominican priest in Singapore once described God as a fountain, the wellspring of Life, the dynamic Creator Who holds everything in being and attracts all things towards their ultimate end or telos, Himself, Love.
Now you might be wondering what things like rocks, grass, and volcanoes have to do with Love, especially when there are natural disasters like the earthquake that flattened Norcia anew.
Well, Creation has been out of joint since the Fall. Still, we can read of the Love and Goodness of God in the Book of Nature. The delightful delicacy of a teeny-tiny tendril of moss, the magnificent thunder of a waterfall, the graceful arc of a rainbow all testify to the gloriousness of Love, for Love alone is creative. Love alone creates goodness and beauty in everything.
So: we do good works, because it is right to do so, in accordance with true human nature; this is pleasing to God, Who created us for Good. The etymology of “good” traces its origin to a Proto-Germanic word meaning “fit, adequate, belonging together”. When we do good—with prevenient grace from God, Who alone enables us to do any good—we become good; and when we are good, as befits our nature, we belong with God.
The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?
I am the Lord Who search the heart and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve. —Jeremiah 17:9-10
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. —Romans 2:14-15
For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; His eternal power also, and divinity… —Romans 1:20
In a pluralistic culture like ours, Christians are often led to ponder John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” How do you interpret it?
William T. Cavanaugh: There is a lot that could be said about this verse. The first thing I think of is a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because He said I am the way.”’ Catherine talks about Christ as the bridge between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. The bridge between heaven and earth is already heaven, because it is Christ.
I love this quote because it breaks down the dichotomy between means and ends. The Christian life is not a means to heaven. War is not a means to peace, freedom is not a prerequisite for following Christ. The Christian life is about practicing heaven now, on earth, even if it gets you killed. It’s not about making our way to Christ in some far-off eschaton; Christ is the way.
Most of the liturgical year is comprised of “Ordinary Time”, when the Gospels follow the earthly ministry of Christ. This does not mean that the time is humdrum or nondescript; rather, it refers to ordinal numbers – first, second, third, and so on.
Humans have a compulsion to order things, and Catholics are no exception – we have ordered time according to the Gregorian calendar, constructed by Aloysius Lilius and Christopher Clavius SJ, and introduced by Pope Gregory XIII so that we could celebrate Easter in accordance with the seasons. Monks invented our system of timekeeping in order to pray the Divine Office. Catholics have formed healthcare, charity, school and art patronage systems throughout the ages, ordering human society according to Christian conceptions of what is good, true and beautiful.
Why do we do this? Watching the news is often depressing, because we are constantly reminded of the terrible suffering and disorder throughout the world. A friend asked me, “Can there be a world which is completely good?” We are used to living with contrasts: good and bad, better and worse.
Even just looking at ourselves and our loved ones can be a sobering process. We are so full of faults! Fr. Edmund Campion wrote in A Place in the City: “All attempts to live a religious life are partial, for to be human is to be a failure.”1
Why, then, do we strive so hard for excellence or even perfection?
The word primordial comes from primusordiri, “first” and “to begin”. In the beginning, God created a perfectly good, orderly world; Adam and Eve lived in harmony with God, each other, and creation, in a state of grace. The Greek word kósmos literally means “order”. With sin, humankind’s friendship with God was broken; suffering and chaos entered the world. Sin occurs when we act against our human nature, bringing harm to ourselves or to others.
Most ancient creation myths have the gods creating order out of chaos. The Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in positing creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. It is from this tradition that the Belgian priest and astronomer Msgr. Georges Lemaître formulated the “Big Bang Theory”, or hypothesis of the primeval atom.
Thus, in the Christian tradition, we do not subscribe to dualism. In the beginning, everything was good. Evil is a corruption or absence of goodness; it is not an equal force, but a parasite that distorts the goodness of creation.
Our entire lives are strivings toward things we perceive to be good. The drug addict or chain smoker did not start off the habit of substance abuse simply by deciding to harm themselves thereby – even in a decision to self-harm, there is a perceived good of relief from emotional pain, or destroying what one thinks is irrevocably bad.
People who form cults generally seek some good, based on an ideal. The historian Ian Breward wrote in his book Australia: The Most Godless Place Under Heaven?:
“The desire to experience new kinds of community led a number of thoughtful and idealistic people to reject the patterns of vocation, family life and religion with which they had grown up. Their attempt to establish new patterns of social bonding in uncontaminated rural retreats can be seen as a secular monasticism, but they often discovered that to abolish the boundaries of authority, family and property created a whole series of problems which they did not have the spiritual and personal resources to solve. At their best, such groups have opened up new horizons of discipleship, but they have often learned some hard lessons about the intractable sinfulness and selfishness of partly-redeemed human nature.”2
We are tasked with proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand; at the same time, we are faced with the reality of living out the Gospel in a world wracked by sin, and have to accept the limitations and sufferings which come with it. It is out of these very sufferings that God recreates the world, restoring it according to His divine plan. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but we are marred by concupiscence and sin; we are wonky compasses which need to be realigned with the magnet of the Gospel, so that we may point accurately to Christ, and lead others to Him.
Discord would not offend our ears if there were not a standard of perfect harmony against which to judge all sounds. In the same way the existence of evil is an argument for the existence of God. We should not recognize imperfections as such unless there were a Perfect which they opposed. The world cannot be rationally explained without God; its very complexity forces the mind to believe that there must be something beyond all this, to have put it together. When we see a painting inside a frame, we know that someone has joined the two together. When we see a watch, we know that some intelligence has assembled it. Matter does not form itself into patterns without intelligence to guide it. The whole material universe is an argument for God. — Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Crisis in History
Image: Amsterdam (via Joy-Sorrow).
1A Place in the City, p. 107. [Penguin Books Australia (Sydney, 1994)].
2Australia: The Most Godless Place Under Heaven?, pp. 79-80 [Beacon Hill Books (Melbourne, 1988)].
Every Christian shares in the universal call to partake in the Beatific Vision. His baptism gives him this vocation. The Gospel calls all men to be contemplatives.
Sloth and dissipation distort modern connotations of leisure, which formerly meant contemplation in rest. The Greeks called leisure schole, whence we derive “school.” School provides the place where teachers invite students to contemplate, to enjoy, to wonder. It trains the heart to love aright.
We can take this meditative disposition into all of life. A person who enjoys a sunset for its own sake participates in contemplation. A parent delighting in the mere sight of his child partakes of wonder. This principle helps to distinguish between drinking to get drunk and loving the taste of wine. One tends toward gluttony, the other toward a love of beauty. Rest for Christians should aim not at amusement but at musing.
The vision of beauty has elements of both fear and joy in it. James S. Taylor writes of “the precise moment suspended between wonder (fear) and possession (joy), for the be-hold is to possess, to hold with the cognitive sense of the sensory-emotional response of near-simultaneous, fear-joy: the sensation of one’s heart leaping up in the chest” (Poetic Knowledge, 50). He speaks of a knowledge which sees the essence of a thing and delights in its existence. This vision of the world draws the gazer into union with the things which he sees and loves. When the wonderer glimpses the gratuitousness of the universe, the fact that God did not have to create, but He did, his soul leaps in appreciation. The one who muses walks a fine line between poetry and philosophy, as Josef Pieper observes: “The philosopher, [Aquinas] . . . says, is related to the poet in that both are concerned with mirandum, with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel” (qtd. in Poetic Knowledge, 79). The eyes of the poet-philosopher see the world “as a vibrant arena of visible and invisible reality” (35). Through faith we glimpse the spiritual meaning of the material world.
When we make “linking earth to heaven” the goal of our thoughts, we transcend time (40). Taylor points to “the time lost in childhood play; the time that seems to vanish when lovers are together, alone; the hours that have simply slipped away during a meal where there was wine and lively conversation” (76). When we approach life from a place of rest and gratitude, we will be able to see the truth, beauty, and goodness of everyday life. Taylor observes that “we learn to love what is beautiful and in this way know also the true and the good” (75). Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where charity and love are, God is there.
Beauty is mentioned alongside goodness and truth as something for which all men yearn; yet of the three, beauty itself is most enigmatic. We want to know the truth—that is, we want what we think of reality to actually correspond to reality—and we want to pursue or acquire the good—our actions should thus be ordered to this end. But what about beauty? We long for it, but not necessarily as guide for thought or action: rather, we only want to contemplate it and appreciate it. There is a certain sense in which beauty is a synthesis of goodness and truth, so that beauty rests upon goodness and truth as a foundation; and at the same time it is bound to love, perhaps more effect to cause than cause to effect.
Seeking Goodness and Understanding Truth
Often discussions of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” tend to focus on the first two and ignore the last of this trio (save perhaps discussions of art, architecture, or music). And why not? It seems to me that there are those who order their lives to the good and the true, and who then get beauty as a part of the bargain; and on the other hand those who go for beauty first to the exclusion (and often the inverse) of these, who then consequently lose all three, or else get a twisted and marred beauty .
Thus, goodness and truth stand as a pair of “prerequisites” of sorts to beauty, so that beauty ought not be sought at the expense of these. Yet at the same time, truth and goodness are easier to summarize briefly than beauty. After all, a true statement is one which conforms to the way things are, and so truth exists in the mind when the mind agrees with reality; and goodness is found in those things which satisfy our desires . Beauty is a little harder to get at: after all, truth and goodness go with knowing and desiring—or with thinking and acting—which would seem to cover the possible interaction between man and his environment.
Beauty then is a synthesis of these, and it has elements of both truth and goodness to it—or, more appropriately, of knowledge and desire.
Understanding Truth and Contemplating Beauty
The act of contemplation is similar to that of knowing, in that neither contemplation nor knowledge destroys, exhausts, or really even alters the object known or contemplated. I may contemplate a sunset, or the words of a poem, or the artsmanship of a sculpture without destroying any of these things: indeed, inasmuch as I am aided in my contemplation by beholding these things, I may more easily contemplate them without destroying them. Thus, we can enjoy beauty while sharing it with outs, just as we might understand truth while sharing it (e.g. passing it on) to others.
It is indeed not only possible for us to to share both truth and beauty with other, but often it actually helps us to enjoy the one and understand the other more deeply. A truth which I alone may know can become a burden, a frustration; beauty which I alone can behold becomes a haunted obsession or a melancholy treasure. Both truth and beauty want to be shared with others if they can. At times we are frustrated in our desire to do this , but this attests to the fact that we desired to share these in the first place. That beauty involves a special kind of knowledge can make it even more difficult to share, yet we want to share it all the more.
In his own discussion of beauty—found in How to Think about the Great Ideas—Dr Mortimer J Adler writes of beauty that
The knowledge involved in the experience of beauty is also a special form of knowledge just as the desire that is involved in beauty is a special form of desire. The knowledge involved in the experience of beauty consists in comprehending, almost embracing, it object…Beauty exists in the object of an intuitive knowledge and an intuitive apprehension of the individual thing as a whole. That is why we ordinarily speak of the beautiful as involving an aesthetic intuition and use the word intuition to mean this special kind of knowledge which can’t be expressed in statements or in words.
The knowledge involved in beauty is intuitive—which means that it is difficult to express—perhaps impossible to express—using mere statements or words.
Contemplating Beauty and Pursuing the Good
What about the good? Generally speaking, goods are those objects which satisfy our desires (wants and needs). If I am hungry, then I want food, and so food the the good which satisfies the desire of hunger. Most goods are things we acquire in one form or another. I acquire food when I eat it. I acquire a virtue when it has been inculcated in me so that I practice it whenever the opportunity arises. So generally a good is something I acquire to satisfy a desire.
Some of these goods are goods which I can obtain and then need not further pursue: these are terminitive, and so once they are acquired, I won’t lose them by not pursuing them further. I buy a couch for my living room, and then I have my good, a place for my friends and I to rest; I need not go purchase another couch tomorrow. Others goods are attainable only by pursuit: these are normative goods. Perhaps I wish the honor of being known as a hard worker; this I can gain only by being a hard worker—but if once I am known as a hard-worker, I then allow myself to become lazy, I will lose this reputation, that is, I will lose this good .
On the other hand, we have a desire for beauty, that is, a desire to enjoy that which is beautiful. Need we acquire beauty to appreciate beauty? I answer that we do not, but rather that we need only contemplate it. Our desire for beauty is not so much a desire to obtain beauty as much as a desire to contemplate and appreciate and adore it: a desire for a good which is not acquired. We do not need to use up or consume or deplete beauty to enjoy it—and in fact by doing these things we destroy beauty and deprive ourselves of its further enjoyment.
Knowing and Loving
The desire we have for beauty is therefore in some sense akin to cherishing. And the intuitive knowledge, the contemplation of the beautiful is similarly nearer to appreciation and understanding than to the ordinary knowledge or comprehension reserved for facts, indeed for most truths in general. In other words, the responses to beauty are to know it and to love it: that is, it calls upon the two highest activities of which we are naturally capable, our two highest natural ends, to know and to love. Indeed, beauty calls us most especially to love. It cannot be used, without being corrupted and ruined—and use is, as Pope John Paul the Great tells us, the true opposite of love.
 For the former, see Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birth Mark;” for the latter, see for example the film Seven.
 Hence, a “disordered” desire is one which seeks a lower good at the expense of a higher good, e.g. By seeking pleasure at the expense of virtue or honor at the expense of holiness.
 And as a physics instructor for non-majors, I can attest firsthand to this fact.
 Note that the distinction here is not necessarily “temporary good” vs “permanent good,” since (for example) the couch which is a terminitive good may nevertheless need to be replaced eventually.
 The post images sources are: 1) The sunset in the mountains, a picture I took a few years ago while standing on the deck of my Aunt and Uncle’s house in central Oregon; 2) “The Birthmark,” based on a short story of the same title (see below), which I obtained from this site; 3) the seal of the Order of Preachers, commonly called “Dominicans”, of which my wife and I are lay members; and 4) I found the coffin-couch here.
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