Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.
But store up treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
“The lamp of the body is the eye.
If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light;
but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness.
And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”
Our relationship with God is the lens through which we view the whole world. If we seek Light, if we pursue virtue and beauty and wonder, every experience we have will be illuminated by that encounter. If we truly know how loved we are, it will change everything. But often our selfishness and insecurity and anger cloud our vision and keep us from grasping the reality of Love. When we allow this to happen, all the wonders that surround us become cloaked in darkness. Our joy, too, grows dim.
When our pursuit of earthly treasures distracts us from our relationship with God, the Light inside us begins to fade, and even our earthly treasures fall into shadow and lose their glimmer. But for heavenly treasures, the reverse is true: the more we pursue them, the more brilliantly they shine. For as we increase our desire for holiness, our capacity for God’s Light increases, and we begin to see everything more clearly.
If our vision is rightly ordered, this pursuit of heavenly treasures will follow naturally. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, though he was born into wealth, didn’t consider his riches to be of any importance. He didn’t act in the way you would expect a young man raised in comfort and affluence to behave. Instead of trying to accumulate more and more possessions, he secretly gave his money away to the poor. Instead of trying to impress other people, he embraced humility. This all flowed from the fact that he was able to see his situation more clearly, because he had encountered the Light. He recognized that, in the bigger picture, his wealth was ultimately meaningless, and thus he set about securing a treasure far more important. His wealth was a gift that was meant to be used to pour out grace upon others. If Pier Giorgio had clung to his wealth out of selfishness, it would have been a great burden, holding him back from the greatness to which he was called.
May we too loosen our grip on our earthly treasures, so that we can make room for greater ones; and may we invite God to shine His Light upon us.
1. Antonio de Pereda, The Knight’s Dream / PD-US
2. Jean-François Millet, The Angelus / PD-US
After one sex scandal after another involving clergy has broken out, it has been proposed that since the hierarchy cannot be trusted to weed out corruption from their own ranks, the task of saving the Catholic Church must fall on the laity.
There have been exhortations to the laity to demand accountability – and even resignations – from their bishops, to divert their contributions to the Church from their bishops to more trustworthy channels, and to speak out against misdeeds committed by clergymen. There have even been calls to include laypersons in committees that will investigate erring priests and bishops.
At the outset, I must clarify that I have nothing against these proposals, lest I be misunderstood because of the inherent limitations of online discourse and the intense justified outrage that the recent scandals have provoked. However, a lot has been written about the said proposals already, and it is important to discuss other options for the laity helping the Church recover from the clergy sex scandals.
While the laity can indeed play an important role in saving the Church, this idea can be a temptation to hubris if misunderstood, which would in turn result in sterility or worse. While the proposals mentioned in the first paragraph of this article are good, they can only do so much.
Since the problem of clergy sex scandals is inherently spiritual, the solution to it is spiritual. The clergy sex scandals are, essentially, the failure of the clergy to live consistently with their vocations.
Thus, to respond to these scandals, the laity should examine themselves if they are living unity of life, that is, whether their words, actions, and choices are consistent with their own vocations as lay Christians. Like, choices of entertainment, for example.
The point is not that the laity’s own failures take erring clergymen off the hook. Rather, like good soldiers of Christ, the laity should, as good battle strategy, reinforce the Church’s ranks where there are breaches.
Or rather, the laity – like all Christians – must, as Christ said, be the salt of the earth and preserve the world and the Church from corruption. To do this, they must themselves stay salty and never become insipid.
Furthermore, any reaction of the laity to the clergy sex scandals, to be meaningful and effective, must be realistic. It must take into account the limitations of the laity, as well as the laity’s specific vocation.
While there is room for more participation of the laity in the affairs of the Church, the extent to which the laity can exercise government functions is limited. The laity can never replace the hierarchy in fulfilling the functions of the ministerial priesthood. Nevertheless, there are things that the laity can do which capitalize on their specific strengths and opportunities.
The clergy sex scandals are merely consequences – disastrous, to be sure – of the world’s inability to understand, appreciate, and practice chastity. A big part of solving the problem is to preach chastity through word and example. As St. Josemaria Escriva put it, “There is need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast. And that crusade is a matter for you.” (The Way, 121).
It is true that the clergy are primarily responsible for propagating the Church’s teachings on human sexuality from the pulpit. But there are areas where the laity can do it more effectively.
For example, most, if not all, who work in the arts, in the mass media, in fashion, in advertising, and other similar fields, are laity. By raising their professional standards and challenging the dubious mantra that “sex sells”, they can create a moral environment conducive to the practice of virtue for everyone, including priests.
Some of the laity have more opportunities than others to wage the “crusade of manliness and purity” that St. Josemaria Escriva wrote of. But all of them can wage this crusade. By the way they speak, act, work, deal with others, and entertain themselves, they can raise the spiritual temperature around them wherever they are. They can exert a positive influence on those who come in touch with them, and “undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast.”
To emphasize, this is not to say that more direct actions and reactions to address the clergy sex scandals are unnecessary. Indeed, tough measures must be taken, the truth must be told, justice must be served.
But all Catholics should remember that the clergy sex scandals are also, like other crises in the Church, calls to be holy. The Church is no stranger to difficult times, and difficult times for the Church have, in the past, raised great saints. There is no reason the current crisis cannot raise great saints, including laity living and working in the middle of the world, sanctifying temporal realities by doing so.
Image: François Brunery, An Eminent Gathering /PD-US
The ancient Ark of the Covenant that accompanied the Israelites during the Exodus of Egypt until the Babylonian conquest, has long been understood in the mind of the Church as a symbolic type of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Made of wood and gilded in gold, the ancient Ark of the Old Covenant bore the Presence of God in spirit, while in a far more excellent manner, Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant bore within her womb the very Presence of God made flesh in the Person of Jesus the Word Incarnate. This is saying nothing of the extraordinary dwelling which God had made in Mary’s soul which was “full of grace”.
A Central Theme
It is no wonder then, why for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, a holy day of obligation, both first readings concern the Ark of the Covenant. The vigil Mass, taken from I Chronicles 15, and Mass during the day, from the Book of Revelation (chps. 11 and 12).
The first reading for the Vigil Mass concerns the historical occasion when for the first time David brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city of Jerusalem. The same occasion is described in 2 Samuel 6, painting a broader picture of this festive occasion. We’ll direct our focus to this.
Take 1: Bringing Up the Ark
King David has conquered Jerusalem and has arranged the Levites (the priestly tribe) to process into Jerusalem from the house Abinidab, amidst great jubilation, with the Ark at this stage of the journey being carried along on a “new cart” by a set of oxen. In the words of the Scripture:
“And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” (2 Sam 6:5).
Along the way, the oxen stumble, and Abinidab’s son, named Uzzah, stretches out his hand to stop the Ark falling, and as a consequence of breaking a divine command meets his untimely end with a little aid (okay… more than a little aid) from above. There’s no time to go into that now, as that’s an article of its own. Yet feel free to see the relevant footnote.
Anyway… the party kind of dies at this point. Well… sudden deaths as a result of divine smack-downs do tend to have this affect. Hence David gets upset at God — he probably liked the guy … he maybe even had dinner plans that evening with the fella. Oh well. So feeling like God’s being a bit of a kill-joy, he names the place “Perez-uzzah”, meaning “to break…” or “to burst out against Uzzah,” and being fearful of God and His Ark, David decides to hit stall on the procession, choosing to keep the Ark outside of Jerusalem at the House of Obededom.
The Ark remains at the House of Obededom for three months — paralleling the three months the pregnant Virgin Mary stayed at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. When the word reaches David that “The LORD has blessed the household of Obededom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” (2 Sam 6:12a), he decides to fetch the Ark and bring it into Jerusalem. He is reminded of God’s merciful goodness and doesn’t want to miss out on God’s blessings!
Take 2: Bringing Up the Ark
“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing” (2 Sam 6:12b).
The key word is the Hebrew word וַיַּעַל (vay-ya-al) which the RSV translates as “[he] brought up” — with the root word עָלָה (alah) itself meaning “to go up, ascend, climb”.
Much like Spider Man’s spider-sense our Catholic ‘spiritual-sense’ should be tingling at this moment. We have the imagery of the Ark and the language of ‘bringing up’ and ‘ascending’. Here then is an allegorical allusion to Mary’s Assumption. For it was Jesus, the Son of David by royal lineage, and the New and Eternal David in the sense of being the King of heaven and the entire universe, who by His divine power “brought up” the New Ark of the Covenant — the most sacred body and soul of Mary — into the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:2) to be at His side forever. Doing so with the greatest rejoicing — not only Jesus, but all of heaven, the angels and saints, who like the Levites with their cymbals and tambourines, made festivity as this New Ark was assumed into heaven.
The narrative continues to describe how before the Lord present in the Ark, David danced “with all his might” girded with nothing but “a linen ephod” — so that he was nearly naked.
With the phrase “danced… with all his might” one can almost imagine David’s dancing as being nothing short of ecstatic. Such was David’s intense feeling of liberated freedom, a stark (pun intended) contrast with the fear he had before that stopped him from bringing the Ark into Jerusalem.
This serves as a type of the soul in Christ, whose servile fear of God is washed away by the Spirit of God, and who in turn has become a liberated child of God, free in the Spirit, and confident to the point of crying “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15).
The role of the Ark in facilitating David’s ecstatic response cannot be stressed enough, since the Lord’s Presence, in the context of the Ark’s ascent towards Jerusalem forms the focal point of the whole narrative. This highlights the important role which Mary plays in the life of the Christian. It is only Mary who can truly bring the confident freedom of the children of God to its full maturation. For she is after all the Mother of Jesus, and thus of God, and in turn of us — the children of God.
Michal—She No Like David’s Groove
Continuing the narrative, we read:
“As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.” (2 Sam 6:16).
Later on in the story we are told how Michal, one of the wives of David, never bore a child until the day of her death. Not all infertility is a literal curse brought about by personal sin by any means! But in this case it was. She was cursed by barrenness, and we are to understand from the Scripture that this happened as a consequence of judging David for his jubilant act of praising God. For in her eyes, this wild dancing went against the civility of David’s royal dignity and offended her own sensibilities, and thus undermined her respect for her husband.
Without True Devotion to Mary: Spiritual Barrenness
The barrenness suffered by Michal, besides illustrating the spiritual consequence of judging others and attributing evil to what is good, serves to demonstrate the spiritual repercussions a lack of Marian devotion and a refusal to honor and welcome Mary and the mystery of the Assumption into our lives can have. Michal wasn’t struck dead, nor was she exiled from the Kingdom of Israel — she was made to be barren. Sure, she was made barren because she judged wrongly, but this only occurred because she wasn’t focused on the Lord and His Presence which was coming into Jerusalem, and this in turn was a result of her failure to reverence and failure to recognize the worth of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead, being hardly captivated by the Ark, she lost sight of God’s Presence, and so came to nit-pick on her husband.
Likewise, a failure to reverence the true Ark of God, Mary the Mother of God — not to worship, but to honour as did Jesus, and as did David in type — may or may not lead one into becoming a terribly judgemental Christian, but it certainly will lead to a relative spiritual barrenness. That is, a barrenness which is not absolute, but relative in the sense of limiting ‘what could be’ compared to if we were devoted to Mary. Such relative spiritual barrenness is an automatic spiritual consequence of failing to welcome with loving fervor the Ark of the New Covenant into one’s life, by way of devotion to Mary.
To put it more simply and in the positive sense, a true devotion to Mary can only make one’s spiritual life more fruitful. In the words of St. Louis De Montfort:
When the Holy Spirit, [Mary’s] spouse, finds Mary in a soul, He hastens there and enters fully into it. He gives Himself generously to that soul according to the place it has given to his spouse. One of the main reasons why the Holy Spirit does not work striking wonders in souls is that He fails to find in them a sufficiently close union with His faithful and inseparable spouse.
With True Devotion to Mary: Spiritual Fruitfulness
On this festive occasion of the Solemnity the ancient example of David spurs us on to increase our love and appreciation of Mary, by which means we can only ever grow deeper in union with God, sinking deeper into His Presence. A Presence which is Fruitfulness Itself, and which actualizes through Mary the Ark of God. For she was chosen to bring forth the fruit of God’s Son in the flesh, and likewise, with the Holy Spirit, Mary’s role extends itself to spiritually bringing forth the fruits of grace within our souls.
Bringing Up the True Ark
Just as Jesus brought up Mary to heaven, assuming her body and soul into the New Jerusalem, may we too, by uniting ourselves by faith with this living reality of the Assumption, the light and hope of every Christian, allow our Lord to bring up this Sacred Ark into the Jerusalem of our souls, households. communities and parishes. For then like Obededom, our exterior homes, but more importantly our interior homes will be blessed, along with all our words and deeds — sanctified by God’s Presence working powerfully through Mary; and like David we will be compelled to interiorly dance in the joyful confidence that we are children of God called to share in the splendor of the Risen Christ which shines most brilliantly in Mary herself.
“So David and all the house of Israel”—Jesus in the Assumption, and His Church figuratively in devotion on this Feast Day— “brought up the ark of the LORD”—the Blessed Virgin Mary— “with shouting, and with the sound of the horn.” (2 Sam 6:15).
 It may seem harsh, and it clashes with our middle-class “nice” conception of God, however Uzzah simply reaped the automatic consequence of going against the law which forbid anyone except the chosen Levites from handling the Ark. In the same manner, one who goes against the law of aerodynamics in faultily repairing an aeroplane will inevitably lead to the crashing of the aeroplane. God is no more to blame for the latter, than he is for the former. After all, God is good and merciful, and is incapable of doing anything evil, even if by our limited human perspective, it seems to be the contrary. Besides, if — and God only knows — Uzzah did so out of good-will and without really thinking about God’s command, there is no reason to doubt his salvation.
In this Gospel passage there is seemingly a huge disjuncture between the 1st and 2nd half of the Gospel, but dig deeper and you will find a gem.
In the first half of the Gospel, we see that Jesus says:
“If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.”
The keywords here are “who belong to Christ”.
What does it mean to BELONG TO CHRIST? It means that our whole life is about Jesus: every thought word and deed draws others to Jesus and allows Jesus to shine!
So what does all this have to do with cutting off your hands and being salt of the earth, as seen in the second half of the Gospel?
The answer lies in these two ideas:
1. Turning away from sin
2. Rooting our identity in Christ
Everything that stops us from belonging to Christ must be removed. If we are the obstacle, then we are better off dead (being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around you pretty much equates to death). If we are living a life of sin that causes scandal, or living a wayward life that draws us and others away from God, we need to STOP.
Jesus appears harsh by telling us to cut off the body part that causes us to sin. Let’s look deeper.
Are we willing to cut off whatever draws us away from Christ?
We ARE the salt of the earth. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s worthless. If we lose our identity in Christ, it renders us useless.
NEWSFLASH: We didn’t need to exist! We were created for a reason and purpose — we are created by God for God, in His image and likeness.
Fulfilling the will of God will help us to live a life of peace. It will never be a peace that the world can give. Nay, they will persecute and condemn, claiming us to be holy.
God’s peace is offered to us daily. We can only do that by being the salt of the earth, by belonging to God, and by doing God’s will.
This morning I listened to the always enlightening Bishop Barron talk about Frassati. First of all, Bishop Barron is a national treasure and I 10 out of 10 recommend the Word on Fire Show. Secondly, let’s take a minute to talk about our boy, Frassati.
Frassati’s life is an example of how grace and faith can grow in the most surprising places. Frassati wasn’t raised in a faith-filled home like so many of the Saints. His father was a prominent Italian politician and his mother a well-known painter. His father was agnostic, and his mother was *vaguely* Catholic. Frassati wasn’t given a spiritual upbringing but found one for himself instead.
Even from a young age and without any humanly prompting he was captivated by the Eucharist and the liturgy. He would disappear for hours at a time and visit the chapels for Eucharistic adoration causing his parents to frantically search for him. (Now where have I heard that story before? *cough cough* finding at the temple *Cough cough*)
Similar to his surprising devotion to the faith, he also had a devotion to the poor. He gave all his money and all his time to the poor. He was truly a man of the poor. He was both their caretaker and their advocate. His love of the poor was so brilliant that when he died of polio at the age of 24 his funeral was a HUGE event. It wasn’t his prominent parents’ friends who overwhelmed the event, but the poor. His funeral was a massively-attended event because of the massive amount of people he attended to and cared for while he was living.
When we hear about mountain-climbing Frassati’s “Verso L’alto” we are reminded of his acceptance of grace and his determination to climb closer to Christ. Frassati was a man of action. First, he accepted grace into his life and then boldly ACTED. May he be an example to us all. To the heights!!! Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about Divorce.
Growing up I never thought much about the sacredness of married life. My family was pretty much dysfunctional (this MIGHT be an understatement) and I never thought much about the importance of family — in fact I detested it.
I (shamefully) remember asking my mom one birthday — it was my 7th — for her to divorce my dad as my birthday gift. I did not think it would be a problem — after all, when someone is aggressive to you daily, you leave him… right?
To that she gave a response I’ll never forget for the rest of my life: “This is a cross I must carry.”
Honestly, I thought she was mad for wanting to endure this hardship.
On hindsight, that was her living out her vows of marriage and that planted in me a seed of perseverance and faithfulness to God. It was the wisest thing anyone ever said to me.
The Pharisees quoted the mosaic law and questioned why Moses allowed for divorce. But Jesus explained that God’s intention for our state in life — whether married or single — was to be saints.
Being a saint entails that we rely on the power of God to overcome hardship before we rely on the power of man.
Moses had only permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts.
Male and female are indissolubly united in one flesh in marriage — a sacred and binding union — until death.
Marriage vows are so sacred, and such exemplars of what it means to love truly — you vow to love unconditionally every single moment of every single day, you vow to give yourself totally for the good of the other person. THAT is true love.
After all, from a Theology of the Body (TOB) lens, our entire faith is based on the idea of God wanting to marry us! He — in the person of Jesus Christ — is the groom and we the Church are His bride; the cross the “nuptial bed”. Just like how Jesus was humble to death on the cross, couples must learn to adjust in humility for the marriage to grow and experience success. Many failures in marriages are due to:
– lack of humility
– lack of prayer life
Back to my mom: she may not be educated in theology or the doctrines of the Church. But she is (sure as sure can be) in possession of the Truth and I believe that she is the epitome of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
Prayers for all my married friends, that you realize that God has called you to be saints in your vocation as married people, and may God grant you the graces to be faithful to the end.
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)
Earlier this week a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity on Patheos. In the blog she describes some of the challenges surrounding the use of NFP, particularly the issues that arise when the risk of an unintended pregnancy are so high as to be unacceptable, but abstaining from sexual intercourse is not conducive to mental and emotional health. A priest told her in essence to try her best, and if she failed to know that she really was trying and to leave it in God’s hands. She describes the mind games encouraged by this situation, saying:
“What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.”
I recognize this mind game in my own life. To pick one example, let’s say I have composed a particularly biting and sarcastic email, deliberately not giving myself time to think, stifling that nagging feeling that maybe I should reconsider or at least wait a few hours, and pushed the send button before I could come to my senses. Later on in the throes of regret I told myself it was “in the heat of anger.” It wasn’t. I wanted to be cruel, and I encouraged and hid behind a feeling of anger to make that cruelty possible, and now I allow myself enough regret to make me feel I am not so uncharitable after all.
She goes on to say:
“–the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture… external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well, probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.”
I do not know if the author actually believes this statement of the “dirty little secret” of NFP, i.e. that no one actually practices it strictly. The comment boxes, both on the particular Facebook thread I read, and on the article itself, contained both rebuttals and affirmations of it. In any event, I don’t want to turn this into an NFP blog. For what its worth, my wife and I practice NFP, it doesn’t seem to cause us too much stress (Deo Gratias), and I don’t think I have ever come across this “Catholic chastity culture” she references, so my two cents on the topic would likely be neither here nor there.
Rather, I want to address the unspoken assumption at the heart of some of the comments, and of much of the debate around (insert hot button topic of sexual ethics in the Church today). NFP is one such arena, but I have personally heard this argument used more frequently in regards to debates around homosexual behaviors and lifestyles, and reception of sacraments by divorced and cohabitating couples. Very few are even talking about what I consider to be the real epidemic, that of pornography within the Church. The argument goes something like this:
“Sure the Church teaches X, Y and Z. But that is not what people actually do. Lots of great Catholics do exactly the opposite and they are still good people, and it’s just a shame that they can’t be more open about it until the oppressive, backwards Church changes her teaching to reflect how people actually practice.”
The problem is that this thinking is 100% wrong-headed. It is exactly backwards.
Whenever I hear this argument used, i.e. that the Church should adjust her teaching to practice, because her ethic is just too hard for people to live up to, I can’t help but think they have understated their case. God’s commandments are not too hard.
They are impossible.
Of course NFP is hard (for a lot of people, not for everyone). Chastity in general is hard. And, as Dorothy Sayers would remind us, lust is not the only deadly sin. There are, in fact, six more, though we often tend to ignore them. Temperance is hard, industry and frugality are hard, generosity is hard, honesty and patience are hard, mercy and justice are hard, and of course, don’t even get me started about humility and charity.
Let me repeat the title of this blog: “Catholicism is impossible.” We get hung up on pelvic issues, (NFP, contraception, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, but always on the one that other people are committing) possibly because these are so noticeable, possibly because we are just obsessed with sex as a race. We talk about everyone else’s sleeping arrangements and never notice our own sins of gossip and slander. We neglect to mention the extortion, usury, greed and envy that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. We don’t bat an eye over the gluttony and sloth wreaking havoc on our health and happiness.
Have you read the Sermon on the Mount recently?
“Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Or to pick another example:
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:22-27
Since when has ease or convenience ever been one of the Gospel’s selling points? This is the standard we are called to live up to.
Everyone has a secret failing. For some, NFP is hard. Probably for most. Those for whom it is easy do others a disservice when they act or speak as if it should therefore be easy for everyone, or as if it was easy because of their own merits or strength. Continence, which means perfect control over the appetites, is a gift of God, given to all eventually if they struggle long enough (everyone is continent in Heaven) but very few seem to receive it right away.
Likewise, those for whom patience comes naturally should no go around telling everyone else that patience is easy. The same for every other virtue/vice.
But those who think that the Church should change her teaching to reflect practice have mistaken what the Church’s teaching is. It is not an arbitrary decision that some actions are okay and others are not. When the CDC tells us not to smoke tobacco it is not because a bunch of old white men in D.C. decided that they hate tobacco and are choosing to punish those who like it with cancer. The Church makes statements about what she believes to be fact: e.g. homosexual activity is not in keeping with the best nature of man; usury is not in keeping with love of neighbor; contraception is harmful to marriages and societies; gossip is harmful to communities and souls, and so on and so forth. We may agree or disagree, but let us not have any muddled thinking that these teachings ought to be based upon what people actually do. If people actually were chaste, just, temperate, merciful, humble and charitable, we would not need teachings. We need these teaching because we are, in fact, unchaste, unjust, intemperate, vengeful, proud and selfish. We need to teachings to tell us when we have fallen short, and to warn us to try harder.
I will share with you my own discovery from that process of trying harder, that if you try to battle a besetting sin long enough you will find that two things are true:
You are not really trying as hard as you think you are. You have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have not quit your job, moved towns, smashed your computer, engaged an accountability partner, changed your route to and from work, sold your car, cut off your hand or gouged out your eye. Until you have done those things, you aren’t really trying.
Even when you do really try with every fiber of your being (that in itself is a gift) you will find it is impossible. Sure, you may rope yourself off from the sinful act itself but the desire is still there. Part of you still wants it. It is not a sin in itself, but it is not perfect continence either.
We must strive for perfection, not in the hopes that our striving will accomplish it, but so that our striving and failing may reveal our weakness and frailty to ourselves. Then we will pray as we ought, “Lord, I can do nothing on my own. Have Mercy on me, a Sinner, and save me by your power.”
When the humility, weakness and vulnerability of the Infant Jesus enters our souls and shapes them into His helpless image, (swaddled in a feeding trough, or nailed spread-eagled to a wooden beam, both show the same vulnerability) then His power will be made perfect in our weakness.
I returned last month from a pilgrimage to Western Europe. As usual, I was bombarded by the same question countless times: “How was it?” I replied, “It was very good, but challenging.” Lost luggage right at the very start, pilgrims having to cut short the journey due to a family emergency and last, but not the least dramatic of all, lost passports on the eve of our return. It seemed that whatever could possibly go wrong, went wrong with this trip. And yet, despite all the unplanned emergencies and heart-stopping mishaps, most of us, including the ‘victims,’ emerged strengthened by the whole experience, in fact, doubly certain of God’s Providence and protection. In a way, the surprises were the value-added elements of our pilgrimage – a reminder to be constantly vigilant and be ready for the moment when the Lord decides to change our life’s itinerary.
But in hindsight, no amount of careful pre-planning or caution could have prevented the twist and turns in our itinerary. What then was needed to weather the unannounced storms and detours of life? This is where today’s parable becomes illuminating. Many have focused on the element of wakefulness in today’s parable. But it is important to take note that the passage records that “all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise slept as well as the foolish! But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval from the Lord. It seemed perfectly natural, under the circumstances. This indicates that Christian vigilance does not mean continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Reminders, like the Church’s annual season of Advent, are helpful and needed, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, food must be cooked, laundry washed, school lessons learnt, weddings and funerals held, time for rest and leisure — life must go on.
So, the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish has to do not with staying awake but with having sufficient oil. In unraveling the mystery and the symbolism of the oil, we can perhaps begin to understand the depth and meaning of being prepared in the Christian context. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecration (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled). Likewise, in the life of Christians, nothing good happens without the inspiration, the guidance and the strength afforded by the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism at baptism and Confirmation, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives.
Notice that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids had oil to start with. The difference lay with the extra jar of oil. The vital point in the foolish bridesmaids’ ‘foolishness’ was not that they ‘slumbered and slept’ but that they had no oil in their vessels. They had oil in their ‘lamps’ to start with, a testimony of the sanctifying grace a person receives at baptism. But they failed to bring along an extra supply of oil – indicating the many souls who fail to grow in sanctity, making use of the channels of grace like Holy Communion and frequent confessions, failing to apply themselves to grow spiritually through study, devotion and prayer.
The great danger is that so many have become contented with the mere fact that we are baptized and have done little more to grow in our personal faith life. This is the problem with the foolish bridesmaids. They had forgotten an important lesson in life: it’s not just how you begin the story but how you choose to end it. Our salvation depends on so much more than just being baptized. Our faith must go beyond the rudimentary catechism that was given to us when we were young. It demands that we live out the call to holiness that comes with being a Child of God. That’s what’s so wrong about the fundamentalist evangelical idea of “once saved, always saved,” that you only have to believe and accept Christ as your Savior once in your life to be automatically “saved” regardless of what you do the rest of your life. That is certainly not true. St. Paul tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” And if our light is to endure to the end, we need an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, under-girding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life.
Holiness is that extra reservoir of oil. We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Through it, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. But that is only the start. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us forgiveness if we have strayed from the path of holiness. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Holy Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life. We must never feel complacent that we have sufficient ‘oil’ of holiness. We must be constantly working at ensuring that we have an extra supply.
That is why the wise bridesmaids could not share their extra oil with the foolish ones. This is because the oil which the wise bridesmaids possess is not something external — like food or clothes or money. The oil which is used in this parable is a symbol of inner spirituality, virtue, and the faith life of a person that has been nurtured carefully with prayer, the sacraments, spiritual practices, devotions and a commitment to living the Word of God. It is product of personal sacrifice, devotion and discipline. Holiness is simply not transferable.
We may be secretly sympathetic toward the plight of the five foolish bridesmaids. We too wish to step forward and hand them our oil and perhaps find ways to lighten their burdens. But the truth is, this is not possible. One of the important lessons that my last pilgrimage taught me and which coincides with the message of today’s parable is this: Holiness or even readiness cannot be shared or transferred to another. It is most personal for it is our lives that we are preparing. Some other pilgrims later shared with me how they would have been willing to exchange places with the couple who had lost their passports. God could not have chosen a more vulnerable pair. The thought that others were willing to take their place was inspiring. Unfortunately, this was not possible. No one could take their place when it came to lost passports. Likewise, no one would be able to make up for the insufficient oil that each of us needs to keep our lamps lit and burning.
As we continue to wait for the Divine Bridegroom, with many, if not all of us, feeling drowsy or perhaps even falling asleep, let us pay heed to the words of the gospel and the advice of that Great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine:
“Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love, watch with charity, watch with good works …; make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out …, renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience; then shall the Bridegroom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet room, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”
Rev. Michael Chua is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the parish priest of the Church of Jesus Caritas, Kepong and Administrator of the Chapel of Kristus Aman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL, as well as Ecclesiastical Assistant and Chaplain for the Catholic Lawyers Society.
If you’re a woman, I’m willing to bet that you have struggled with trying to be some definition of “perfect” at one point or another. In secular society, it’s easy to see how rampant female perfectionism is. So many of us strive to attain the perfect body, find the perfect job, or be the perfect wife/mother/sister/friend. This thinking can also exist within the Church. As Christian women, there are sometimes subtle expectations placed on us. There is quiet pressure to be perky and helpful at every moment, to never disagree or rock the boat, and to have a burning love for Jane Austen (I’m kidding on that last one…kind of).
Maybe not every lady in the pew feels this way, though. I could very well be seeing this through the lens of my own scarred experience. All I know is that for many years, I felt a bit out of place in the “Catholic Woman Crowd” because of my gregarious personality, offbeat sense of humor, and proclivity to smoke an occasional cigarette.
But I’m slowly learning that there is no “one-size-fits-all” image of Christian femininity. And we will all constantly struggle with sin, faults, and the feeling of never being perfect. In all actuality, it’s one of the most beautiful things about being a Christian. We are not reliant on our own actions to grow us in virtue. Sure, we have to put in the effort. We must take practical steps every day to eradicate our sin and vice. But in the end, we are free of the immense, unshoulderable burden of trying to save ourselves.
The Catechism offers us this reminder:
“All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.” – CCC 827
We see here that Christ has already won the battle of salvation. We just need to keep running to Him again and again when we inevitably succumb to our weaknesses. We can trust that the Farmer knows what He’s doing when He prunes and tills our hearts.
We can also look to the Blessed Virgin, the most beautiful example of pure, holy womanhood in all of history. Mary exuded the most authentic femininity that we as women should try to emulate. Of course, to the perfectionist, Mary might be intimidating. I had a bitter relationship with her for most of my life because I knew I could never measure up to her. She was competition. But over time, I learned to see her as my Mother in heaven who loved me very much and wanted me to attain holiness even more than I did.
In our pursuit of holiness as Catholic women, let’s stop trying to be perfect. Let’s stop trying to fit ourselves into stereotypical molds of what we think Christian womanhood is, because really, they don’t exist. What has been more beneficial to me in my personal and spiritual growth has been to ask myself the question, “Who is the woman that God made me to be?” Most of the time, the answer is not some cookie-cutter trophy woman I wish I was. It’s following the “greatest path of love”, as Bishop Robert Barron coined, using the traits, quirks, strengths, and imperfections that God gave to me to do so.
That’s all He asks of us, really. And that’s good enough.
The other day, after I got out of the shower, I wrapped myself up in my bathrobe, as I often do, and I felt God. I felt God in my bathrobe. In my bathrobe. For whatever reason, that day, God decided to show Himself to me through the cozy embrace of my bathrobe—it felt like the warm and comfortable embrace of a lover. And it got me thinking about two things: 1) God present in the everyday things we often take for granted or overlook, and 2) God as lover.
Seeing God in the everyday items isn’t really that much of a stretch. It’s easy to see Him in the sunshine and the rain, in nature, in the food we eat, in the faces of the people around us. But I’m talking about taking it a step further. Not just seeing God in these things and all things but realizing that He is in them, holding their existence together. I’m talking about feeling God in my bathrobe, recognizing that He holds its existence in place with His very Being. The last Ignatian Spiritual Exercise is the Contemplatio, in which you meditate on God’s existence in absolutely everything and everything’s complete dependence upon God for existence. Whether we see Him in things or not, whether we feel Him or not, whether we believe or not, all the things of this world, and we ourselves, are completely dependent upon God for existence; if He were to withdraw Himself, things would just cease to exist, they just couldn’t be.
In this way, not only could I feel God in the embrace of my bathrobe, but I could rightly conclude that God Himself was embracing me through the physicality of that bathrobe. It’s an interesting thought, understanding that God is giving Himself for me to sit on in the form of this chair, that He covers me through the clothes I am wearing, that my skin that itches, itches precisely because He is making its existence possible.
Of course, God’s presence in my bathrobe or my chair or whatnot is different from His presence in the Eucharist. He’s not present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in any of these created things like He is in the Eucharist. That’s why the Eucharist is necessary and so incredibly good—because He’s already present in everything but deemed it good to be completely present to us in His full humanity and divinity, and so He gifted us with the Eucharist. What an amazing God that holds our entire existence together with His very being and then gives of Himself totally in another profoundly glorious way. He is such a Lover.
It’s easy, for me at least, to relate to God as Father, God as Brother, and God as Friend. But it’s not so easy for me to relate to Him as Lover. It’s easy to see God’s Providence as He cares for me throughout the circumstances of life, it’s easy to see God’s companionship on the road of life. But it’s more difficult to see Him as totally giving Himself and asking for the same in return, to see Him loving as one who wishes to be fully, completely, irrevocably, profoundly, and eternally united to His beloved. And yet that’s what the Eucharist demonstrates and what Him upholding the existence of the entirety of creation with His being implies.
We hear a lot about God as a jealous lover or a relentless lover, or about all of His qualities as lover (check out Song of Songs!), but what do those things really mean? What does it look like? Well, it looks a lot like the saints and it reeks of holiness. That’s all holiness and sainthood is—being fully, completely, irrevocably, profoundly, and eternally united to the Beloved. It looks a lot like prayer and sacraments, like seeing God in the creation around you, being brought closer to Him through everything we see and hear (maybe even through some secular songs), being thankful for every moment of this life. It looks a lot like feeling God embracing me through my bathrobe.
A while ago, I and a couple others were talking animatedly about the upcoming release of some highly-anticipated superhero movies. I mentioned Captain America (one of my personal favorites, however trite the movies he appears in are becoming).
“Oh, Captain America,” one of the girls said, waving a hand dismissively. “He’s too perfect. I like Spider-Man. He has actual human faults.”
I was a bit miffed. Besides the extremely sensible reason that Captain America should be good because he represents our country (my point of view, anyway), I didn’t concur with my friend’s judgment. I didn’t regard Captain America to be “too perfect”. He did some things which I didn’t agree with and made some decisions that didn’t seem to be ideal. But I think I understood what my friend saw in Captain America because it was something that annoyed me in other characters. To her, Captain America was a goody-goody and compared to the flamboyant Spider-Man, he certainly can be seen that way. But could it be that anyone could be “too perfect”?
“Too perfect”. “Disgustingly virtuous”. “Annoyingly cheerful”. How often have we heard or coined phrases like these? How can it be that the qualities which should be most attractive to people are so off-putting to so many?
First of all, we should draw a distinction between the sincere and the superficial. I have encountered my fair share of intolerably sanctimonious characters—especially of the angelic, dutiful-child type often found in nineteenth-century children’s moral stories. Many of these types of characters were created for the sole purpose of teaching a moral and thus are decidedly one-sided and artificial. They have no further interest once they have taught their lesson to the reader. Another flaw in angelic-type characters is often their own unrealistic behaviors and impacts on others. For example, Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while not as unbearable as some other characters, smacks slightly of this—she is a perfect child, sympathetic and kind to all, and everyone seems to come to her with their problems and their praises. And of course, when we get into those characters such as Tom Sawyer’s half-brother Sid who are well-behaved only because of the superiority it gives them over others, the question is not about surface virtue but about underlying pride.
But normally, are we right to reject characters merely because of their piousness? To shed light on the issue, think for a minute about the saints, whom many people can’t stand. The saints were those people who seemed to have everything figured out, who were always obedient, cheerful, and prayerful. In short, they succeeded where many of us have failed. Thus, many of our problems with “perfect” characters and saints come from an acknowledged or unacknowledged jealousy. Don’t we wish we were the person whom everyone admires and holds up as an example? Often the root of our dislike comes from a particular trait, which we then try to belittle. Those people who seem to be always calm and collected, for example, I tend to decry as being “emotionless”. Those who are always obedient and respectful to those in authority over them, I tend to view as “flatterers”.
You see, we often try to pull down those whom we can look up to. We don’t want anyone to be better than ourselves. Or at least, we want assurance that we are doing “pretty well” compared to everyone else. If we fail, we would like everyone else to fail, like the dog in the fable: the dog who tries to prevent the other barn animals from using hay, just because he is unlucky enough not to be able to enjoy hay himself.
When we are confronted with stories of virtuous people, then, we should ask ourselves exactly why they seem to grate on our nerves. Is it because of some lack of skill of the author or storyteller? Is it because of some false reason to hold this person up as an example? Or is it because this person reveals a facet of our own inadequacy to ourselves in a way we would rather not be reminded?
Because the truth is that we do need heroes. We need people to look up to and admire and imitate. We need to learn to accept the good in others without feeling jealous or—from the other end of the spectrum—overly frustrated about ourselves. And the truth is that, when we take the time to notice, many of the characters we may find annoying are actually delightfully human. Captain America, for instance, has felt pain. He has felt the suffering of losing nearly everything from his life. He gets hungry, thirsty, and tired. He goes through temptations and lapses in his own judgment. He has sympathy for his fellow humans. All these qualities make him relatable as a person; he is definitely not alien.
The same goes for the saints. While the holiest of them did not succumb to temptation as often as most other people, they had human qualities and personality flaws. They suffered. They endured temptation. The Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin, suffered in ways we can only imagine but suffered like we do nonetheless. So did her Son, who became man for us. Even He hungered and thirsted in the desert and on the cross. We can look up to others for their holiness or their good qualities while not feeling completely separate from them.
It’s especially important to appreciate our heroes and good role models in this day, when the typical celebrity is into drugs, drinking, and other pursuits which could scarcely be called worthy of emulation. Mainstream characters of the Captain America sort should be well-appreciated–may there be more popular characters like them! For holier role models (and, even better, real ones), we look to the saints, both those canonized and those in our daily lives. For there is no need to be disgusted with virtue when that virtue is true.
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