The Gospel on the rich young man is rich with meaning. It is noteworthy to point out that Jesus still loved the youth despite knowing that he wouldn’t give up his possessions to follow Him (c.f. Mk 10:21).
This young man had observed the laws from his youth (Mk 10:20). Although he did not choose to take on the path to perfection (give away all his possessions and follow Jesus), he did not suffer a lessening of Jesus’s love.
It is amazing how intelligent and philosophical Jesus is as he brilliantly draws from Eccl 5:10 to illuminate the path to our perfection; “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain: this also is vanity.”
As St. Augustine comments: “Although he did not pass the bounds of humanity, nor follow the perfection of Christ, still he was not guilty of any sin, since he kept the law according to the capability of a man, and in this mode of keeping it, Christ still loved him.”
This passage corresponds to plenty of us today, for most of us are the type who would do our best to keep away from grave sin and obey basic Gospel precepts, but we would REJECT the idea of following the Spirit’s Counsel towards Perfection.
There is a stark difference therefore, between the Perfect and Permissible Will that God has planned out for each of us.
Let us remember; when we listen to God, it becomes possible, but as long as we keep our human notions, it becomes impossible (c.f. Mk 10:27).
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.
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.
Lent is a battle. It’s our “campaign of Christian service,” as the Ash Wednesday collect says.
At the beginning, we can be so gung-ho about Lent. We’ve gathered our weapons and put on the armor of God. (If we have loins to gird, we might even do that too.)
We’ve made plans and we know the enemy doesn’t stand a chance. Give up ALL the things! Become Super Awesome Prayer Warrior! Give The GDP Of Small Nation As Alms Every Week! We even wear our Lenten war paint. (#ashtag!)
This Sunday will be the third Sunday of Lent. I think of it as the hump day of Lent. If you’re anything like me, you are getting weary. The fighting is exhausting, you seem to be losing ground every day and this Lent isn’t turning out nearly as well as you’d hoped.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we’ve actually fighting the wrong battle.
The devil isn’t stupid (more’s the pity really). He knows that if we fight under the banner of Christ, he will lose. Spectacularly. (Seriously, he should really read Revelation 20. It does not end well.)
Quite often in the daily unfolding of our Christian life it happens that we fight the wrong battle, if one may put it that way, because we orient our efforts in the wrong direction. We fight on a terrain where the devil subtly drags us and can vanquish us, instead of fighting on the real battlefield, where, on the contrary, by the grace of God, we are always certain of victory.
The false battlefield is the battle for PERFECTION. That’s not the holy, humble, joyful perfection of the saints which trusts for all things from God, it’s the PERFECTION OF GETTING ALL THINGS RIGHT.
We believe, for example, that to win the spiritual battle we must vanquish all our faults, never succumb to temptation, have no more weaknesses or shortcomings.
Guess what? We are always going to lose that battle.
But on such a terrain we are sure to be vanquished! Because who among us can pretend never to fall? And it is certainly not this God demands of us, for He knows of what we are made. He remembers we are dust (Psalm 103).
All the while, the real spiritual battle is going on somewhere else.
On the contrary, the real spiritual battle, rather than the pursuit of invincibility or some other absolute infallibility beyond our capacity, consists principally in learning, without becoming too discouraged, to accept falling occasionally and not to lose our peace of heart if we should happen to do so lamentably, not to become excessively sad regarding our defeats and to know how to rebound from our falls to an even higher level.
In that sense, this spiritual battle of Lent is the anti-battle. As Christians, we can’t fight for true peace. We can only receive it with humble and open hands. This is the peace Christ Jesus gives. (John 14:27)
To receive this peace, we have to let go. We have to stop fighting for perfection and let Christ the King do the fighting for us.
We have to put down our weapons, and whisper, “Lord, your will be done. I don’t why I’m so discouraged right now. I don’t know why I can’t be the Spiritual Superhero I want to be. But I’m not asking to like it and I’m not asking to understanding it. All I ask is that you stay with me. Fight my battles because I can’t. Stay with me, my Jesus.”
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12)
Lent, it seems, isn’t the fight to fast the hardest, pray the longest or give the most. It is the spiritual struggle to believe the good news of the gospel:
God gives you His peace.
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