Tag Archives: sin

Imitating the Gaze of Jesus

I used to be (and unfortunately, still am at times) a rather obnoxious Catholic. Fueled by my enthusiasm for Truth — and wanting affirmation of my knowledge — I would loudly proclaim Church teachings urgently, so that other people would no longer live in error. Particularly in a culture of moral relativism and a “do what makes you happy” environment, wanting to immediately step onto a doctrine-blasting soapbox seemed like a good thing to me. Yet, the more I examined my life, heart, and ever-abundant pride, the more I realized that I was going about evangelization in the wrong manner. As I began to read Scriptures more and more, I began to really notice how Jesus interacts with other people.

“Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned,* like sheep without a shepherd.” ~Matt 9:35-36

Jesus’ heart was moved with pity. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus encounters a rich young man, we learn that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mk 10:21). Time and time again, we see that Jesus is moved with love, and pity for the people he meets-and he lets this compassion flow into the interactions he has. He looks at these men and women intently and listens to them. 

As I reflect on the actions of Jesus, I feel challenged. Even when people were living in sin, he didn’t immediately jump onto a moral high horse. First, he looked upon them with love. In our current culture, Jesus’ approach may not seem to initially be challenging — after all, we are living in an age that is all about acceptance and affirmation. “Just love people for who they are and accept them” is a common refrain.  How dare we criticize sinful actions! After all, aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus, who looked on others with love?

Yet, while Jesus looked on people with love, compassion, and pity, he never affirmed the sinful choices and lifestyles that pushed people away from God. The story of the woman who was caught in adultery (recorded in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel) is fairly well-known and loved, so let’s look at that for a moment. When Jesus encounters this woman, does he say “Woman, I just want to love and accept you; you need to do what makes you feel happy“? No, he does not. Instead, Jesus says: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11). He looks upon the woman, loves her, listens to her, and invites her to become transformed and change her life. 

This is what really challenges me as I reflect on the words and actions of Jesus.  It would be fairly easy for me to, upon meeting another person, jump into an attitude of “I will preach doctrine at you because you’re living in sin and I know better.” I’ve done this far too many times as I’ve sought to fuel my pride and be known as the person who was instrumental in another individual’s conversion. It would also be convenient to fall onto the other end of the spectrum and embrace the all-too-common attitude of moral relativism that’s sweeping our culture.

Instead of these extreme approaches, I’m trying to imitate what Jesus does — and this is hard for me. I’m holding my tongue more and first listening to the stories of the people I meet. I’m seeking to encounter others with an open heart. I’m trying to walk into conversations without the expectation that I’ll convince another person of a certain teaching or doctrine. I’m trying to slow myself down and actually form relationships and build bridges of communication with other people. I’m striving to be more open to the Holy Spirit, and while I don’t back down from my convictions, I’m seeking to gaze at other men and women with God’s love and compassion.

I often fail at this. Sometimes, I should be quicker to speak up about my beliefs, but I’m silent. Other times, I should probably remain silent instead of speaking up in a rather harsh manner! I’m an imperfect evangelizer, but I’ll keep praying and try to let God use me in whatever small ways he can.

Photo Credit: “People” by MabelAmber via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain. 

Falling Away and Coming Home

There has been no shortage of critiques levied at the Catholic Church in recent decades. Plenty to attack, after all.

I grew up with neighbors who discovered the local Calvary Chapel and became “born again.” They had always sneered at my Catholic faith, but this “rebirth” brought with it an eagerness to challenge this ignorant little kid about why we were cannibals and engaged in “idol-worship” — i.e. Mary, the Saints — you know the drill.

Later, as the Church was rocked by scandal, Catholic-bashing reached new heights in the media; I mean, what else could they do with such low-hanging fruit?

I kept wondering, won’t the Church have to dial back its rules just to survive all this? Won’t it need to ease up a bit if it’s going to emerge from these trials intact? Maybe relax the rules a little regarding pre-marital and extra-marital sex, divorce and annulments? Abortion, even? To convey how far at sea I was, I really believed it would . . . and part of me thought it should.

How absolutely adrift I was.

Like many of those raised Catholic, I had indeed drifted. But unlike many, my falling away had nothing to do with the sex abuse scandals that would soon impact the Church. Instead, I rationalized my passivity and absence by pointing at the failings of priests and what I interpreted as the Church’s preoccupation with wealth. My distaste fixated on priests who seemed to have missed the lessons on humility — who appeared to make the mass about themselves, who aggrandized themselves by selling cassettes of their every homily and smiled like unctuous salesmen — in short, who seemed more show than substance.

Suffice it to say, if you want a reason to stop attending Catholic mass, you tend to find it. I had watched several older siblings pull this off already, citing “phony” priests, “Puritanism,” and the ever-popular critique, “hypocrisy.” Oh yeah, I found plenty of that, too. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I could find hypocrisy everywhere — in every human institution or organization, and because I am human, in myself too — though that was the last realization in the chain. It always seems to be.

When we’re young, we want so much for the world to be the idyllic place we thought it was, and we hold fiercely to that ideal. As a result, we also hold our elders — parents, teachers, older siblings, adults around us or in the larger world — to an impossibly high standard of righteousness. And if they happen to be representatives of a religion, an even higher standard of perfection. As we move into our teenage years, we begin to sense the inevitable disillusionment, and we hone our critical blade to a razor’s edge. But why?

It starts with the fact that teenagers feel everything more acutely, including hurt. We see weakness, sin or foible, and it hurts us beyond repair. It shatters our illusions — our world — the one we previously thought was perfect. Disillusionment causes hurt, and as teenagers, our natural defense mechanism to ward off that hurt is to allow religious folks no room for flaws and failings — and we shield ourselves with scorn. It’s a loss like any death, and even at that age we experience the entire cycle — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but acceptance usually just becomes cynicism. And later, apathy.

The critical step for me was not merely a religious maturation, but an evolving understanding of myself — my motivations and attitudes — and an understanding of our universal human nature. More simply, I got more honest with myself about why I was doing what I was doing, and what I wasn’t doing. Eventually, this led to exploring a number of other faith congregations because I wasn’t yet ready to absolve Catholicism. It wasn’t until I felt something lacking in every other faith, which I would come to realize as the sacraments, that I knew I had to find my way back.

In time, I understood what I was doing and why — that I had been applying an impossible standard of righteousness to a human institution. Which isn’t to say I was letting off the hook sexual abusers or those who had allowed them to thrive. That was a different matter to me, outside of my experience, although it may have added to my detachment. But through what I can only assume was Grace, I grew to separate the human failings from the actual tenets and doctrines of the Faith.

As a result, I stopped blaming the Catholic Faith for the behaviors and attitudes of its representatives. Mostly, I realized that failings like hypocrisy are part of the universal human experience, failings we can’t avoid no matter how hard we try. I realized how easy it is to find flaws in representatives of any institution, organization, political or religious group — and therefore how easy it is to attribute those faults to the whole.

Partly what helped me was my experience as a public high school English teacher: I could hold up many teachers as arguments against public education, completely ignoring the system and its attributes distinct from its human elements. Same goes for law enforcement, the medical establishment, environmental groups, and even civil rights causes. Anywhere you have humans involved, you have flawed institutions. That’s just part of this messy existence we have — at least within any social group. Perhaps this is what drives certain individuals completely off the grid and away from all society. And even then, do they escape their human failings? I doubt it.

When we get past the charges of hypocrisy, most critiques express that the Catholic Church demands too much, and that these demands put it out of touch with people today: premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, practicing the sacraments regularly, and so on. The tenets are simply too hard to follow, we complain.

And to some extent, I empathized with these frustrations. Like many people, I looked at the Church’s doctrines and thought they were too rigid, too unrealistic and impractical in today’s world, harboring the belief that some day there would become an “American Catholic Church” — one that is more forgiving or tolerant — of sexual laxity, of sacramental laziness and so on. I began to see priests who seemed more liberal in their interpretation of doctrine, who seemed less offended by divorce and pre-marital sex. I thought it almost inevitable that they would rise up; I pictured scores of priests standing up to the Vatican and saying, “We go this way instead!” Clearly, I had a ways yet to go toward wisdom and maturity.

But then something happened. Over the years, as society continued toward greater laxity and moral relativism — more accepting of gay marriage, LBGTQ openness in general across the board, more accepting of divorce and abortion — the Church, under the leadership of the Pope, stood tall and unyielding in its stance against these trends. And I thought — wow — this just might be the only moral constant in the world. I had to respect that . . . and I also had to wonder why.

But to pursue that question, I flipped it on its head, asking, why not? Is there a chance that what we might be confused about what we actually want? — which led to other questions: What would it mean if this actually happened? Would we really wish our faith to be any less than what the Church has proscribed? Would we really want a Church that changes with society’s whims and vacillating moral standards? Would we want the Pope to come out and say, “Young people will not remain celibate, and so we are revising our moral teaching to say that it’s o.k. to live together, to have sex with multiple partners before marrying”? Would we then want to go about the practice of our faith the next day with this new understanding of what morality means? Really? I sort of doubt it.

No, in this way we are like children: we want clear boundaries and standards to strive toward, even if we know they are nearly impossible to meet. We want to know someone or something cares about our striving to become the very best and purest versions of ourselves — even if we aren’t strong enough to fully achieve that version. We want to know someone believes we have the potential, at least.

We don’t really want a Pope, a Church and a God who say to us, “It’s o.k. that you are weak and needy – I understand that you are less than capable of spiritual greatness; don’t worry — you have no hope of being moral, so don’t beat yourself up over it. We’ll be waiting here for you no matter how mediocre and flaccid your efforts are to be decent.” And perhaps that is the essence of Free Will as taught by the Catholic Church — that our God and our Church believe in our potential for spiritual perfection and respect our ability to strive toward it.

In short, I stopped criticizing the Faith when I realized the Church was setting a standard we should aspire to. And following quickly on the heels of this understanding was the realization that this is precisely what a church should do; it’s just that most do not.

As teachers and parents, my wife and I have unfortunately seen that few parents lay down expectations for civil behavior and then hold their children accountable for those standards. Likewise, few religions parent their faithful with expectations and accountability. Instead, they temper their message and go with the flow, gauging the mood of their congregation and keeping an eye toward membership. They seem to focus entirely on the compassion and love, without the expectation to become a better, more Christ-like version of ourselves.

So then, is the Catholic Church expecting us to meet these exceedingly high standards? Well, it’s a bit like parenting, isn’t it? The standards are set, knowing there will be failings, but also that forgiveness will be granted with compassion and love so that we might rise and try again . . . and again.

There’s an honesty in that, and that’s what brought me home.

Belonging to Christ — Salt of the Earth

Mark 9:41-50

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.

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Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Discord

James 4:1-10, Psalm 55, Mark 9:30-37

The central theme of James 4:1-10 and Mark 9:30-37 is discord. In the Gospel, we read that the Apostles were arguing about “who was the greatest”. The reason for this dispute probably arose because Jesus only brought Peter, James and John up onto the mountain where he was transfigured.

The others might have wondered if Jesus showed favoritism by passing a secret to only these three. Moreover, only Peter was promised the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven according to Matthew’s Gospel.

These snippets of the Gospel show us just how human the Apostles really were. Their behavior isn’t so different from ours if you think about the times when we too, fall so easily to the sin of envy.

A friend told me yesterday, ”We listen to the voices of angels and devils every day. Which of the two we obey though, is up to us.” So how do we discern which is the voice of God?

Indeed most of the time, God’s voice is drowned out by the world. It is not that God cannot speak loudly and clearly, but he usually prefers to speak quietly and gently because he wants to INVITE us to listen, not command us. When it comes to God, it is always ‘requests’. A loud, terrifying voice would be a mandate, not an invitation, causing a person to respond out of Servile Fear.

God does not want this. He wants us to know His soft voice and obey Him out of our own free will. This is why Jesus did not come down from the cross when challenged to do so. If Jesus had come down, the Jewish people would have been compelled to believe in Him. It would not be true Faith.

Noise is a great obstacle to hearing Jesus, who is meek and humble of heart. Finding time every day for silent prayer and listening is critical. Let us remember that when we pray, we are conversing with a LIVING GOD, not a dead god.

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Originally posted at Instagram.

The Treasure of Sin?

Some of us (me definitely included) fall into despair sometimes when we believe that we are too damned.

"The confession" by Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750
The Confession, Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750

We detest sin — as we all should! — but we detest sin not because we desire the good, but we detest it out of frustration, out of a belief that God might not forgive us again.

Peter Kreeft in his book Three Philosophies of Life talks about the Treasure of Sin and he has basically given me hope again!

Wait. What?! Sin? A treasure? Yes, read on.

“But we are all philosophers, unless we are animals. Men live not just in the present but also in the future. We live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead. Our lives are like an arc stretching out to us from the future into the present. Our hopes and ideals move our present lives. Animals’ lives are like an arc coming to them out of their past; they are determined by their past. They are pushed; we are pulled. They are forced; we are free. They are only instinct, heredity, and environment; we are more; we are persons.

The determinists, from Marx and Freud to Skinner, who deny this fact, insult us infinitely more than any preacher who shouts sin and damnation at us. It is a great compliment to call a man a sinner. Only a free man can be a sinner. The determinists mean to steal from us the great treasure of sin. They deny us our freedom, and therefore our hope, our ability to live not just from our determined past but also from our undetermined future.”

— Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, p. 29

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Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Contra-ception: Against Life

By guest writer Nellie Edwards.

As most know by now, Ireland just declared open season on unborn lads and lassies, not to mention their mothers, who will suffer the aftermath of great emotional upheaval!

So tragic that there weren’t enough faith-full Catholics to defeat the foes of Life!

Relative to this, a few thoughts on Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), now in its 50th year. Everything that Pope Paul VI warned would happen to society has indeed happened, because of its acceptance of contraception! (contra literally means “against”, ception=conception/life, so literally it means AGAINST LIFE.)

This, the Church teaches, is a grave sin against God, whose most fundamental attribute is Life-giver.

Paul VI warned that by tying the hands of God’s divine prerogative to create life, serious consequences such as promiscuity, infidelity, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and other perversions of God’s plan would soon ensue and we see that clearly today. Anything goes!

The Catholic Church alone has, from the beginning, held out to the world, the “hard saying” that we must practice sacrificial love, not selfish pleasure / using others for sexual gratification. God spoke though Paul VI no less than any of the prophets. Too bad so few listened. Too bad the Protestant churches, as well as too many Catholics did not see that contra-ception was the forbidden fruit.

___

Nellie Edwards is a Catholic artist. Her most famous piece is of Our Lady of Guadalupe, kneeling in adoration for her unborn Son.

Image via MEV Pro-Life.

Catholicism is Impossible

“Baby Jesus” by Jennifer Hickey

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Merry Christmas! God Bless us All!

The Security Peg: Virtues vs Sins

No man can enter into the house of a strong man and rob him of his goods, unless he first bind the strong man, and then shall he plunder his house.
– Mark 3:27 (cf. Matthew 12:29)

A few Fridays ago, my friend invited me to exit the house via the garage since she was driving out. This created a problem when I returned home from work, because nobody had unfastened the security peg of the front door. Since my friend was away for the weekend, I had to seek lodging elsewhere.

The security peg was just a tiny bit of metal, but it kept me out of the house. It made me think about ways to keep Satan out of the house of one’s soul. He may steal the key from you in a moment of temptation, but he still won’t be able to enter if you have a strong security peg and window grilles in place.

What pegs would work for you? It depends on your weakness, since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Fortunately, we have been granted the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to live holy and virtuous lives.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (AD 348 – 410), a Christian Roman governor, composed an epic poem entitled Psychomachia, or Battle/Contest of the Soul. Practicing these virtues is the remedy against the Seven Deadly Sins: humility triumphs over pride, kindness over envy, abstinence/temperance over gluttony, chastity over lust, patience over anger, liberality/charity over greed, and diligence over sloth.

Be sure to securely peg the door of your soul with the virtue it needs most, lest our tireless adversary break in and defile the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).

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Image: PD-US

Degrees of Sin — Separation from God

Sin is not wanting too much, but settling for too little. It’s settling for self-gratification rather than self-fulfillment.
— Scott Hahn, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity

It should have been better that all the stars should have fallen from Heaven than that one soul should have ever committed a single venial sin.
— Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman

Recently, some friends and I were discussing an interview with Milo Yiannopoulos, in which he said:

“Sins of the flesh, let us remember, are at the bottom of the scale. The Church says self-righteousness is at the top. Therefore, I’m in a lot better shape than some of my feminist and establishment Republican enemies.”

That part made me wonder about his grasp of Holy Scripture and the Catechism, not to mention Our Lady of Fatima’s sobering warning:

More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.

A friend of mine chimed in: “Sins of the flesh rank lowest in Dante’s Inferno and also Bishop Barron agrees in his CD Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Lively Virtues.”

Sandro Botticelli, Chart of Hell

I replied: “Indeed, lust of all the sins is most akin to love, Dante notes. But when you really love someone, offending them in any way is just downright bad. And no matter what degree of Hell someone is in, it’s all really bad ‘cos it’s eternal separation from Love. So on one hand it may be technically right to say one sin is not as bad as another… On the other hand, they’re all terrible and we ought to scram from every one!

Sometimes when we are in a state of sin, it is tempting to compare ourselves to other sinners, thinking, “At least we’re not as bad as they are!” But isn’t that really the pinnacle of self-righteousness? Isn’t it akin to the attitude of the Pharisee who thought himself better than the publican? (Luke 18:11)

It’s like a sick person comparing himself with others in hospital: “At least I’m not as poorly as that man!” or worse, “What’s the point in getting well, we’re all going to fall sick and die in the end anyway.” He’s still stuck in hospital, and comparing himself to another patient just creates a false sense of consolation. Instead, it would be better to focus on his recovery, comparing his current condition with the healthful one he hopes to be in.

When in sin, therefore, let us take the example of Christ and the saints as our standard, and lean ever more on God for the strength to strive for holiness: confessing our sins, performing penance, and amending our lives.

For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God. Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption, that is in Christ Jesus…
Romans 3:23-24

To confess your sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.
— Frederick Buechner

God does not judge Christians because they sinned, but because they do not repent.
— St. Niphon of Constantia

To say that God turns away from the sinful is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
— St. Anthony the Great, Cap. 150

Be ashamed when you sin, not when you repent.
There are two things: sin and repentance.
Sin is the wound, repentance is the medicine.
Sin is followed by shame; repentance is followed by boldness.
Satan has overturned this order and given boldness to sin and shame to repentance.
— St. John Chrysostom

Image: PD-US

The Seven Deadly Sins in “The Jungle Book”

The Jungle Book (2016) is a masterful adaptation of Kipling’s book, paying due homage to the classic Disney film with its meshing of the familiar soundtrack with exquisitely-rendered new visuals.

It is also a tale of growing up in a dangerous world, of fulfilling one’s telos or true end, and of choosing to practice virtue instead of being consumed by vices which enslave us and lead us to harm others.

[Caution: Spoilers ahead]

Shere Khan is gripped by a burning anger, unable to forgive Mowgli’s father for scarring his face with a firebrand in self-defense. The tiger’s hatred of men is boundless, extending to the innocent Mowgli who was a mere toddler when Shere Khan killed his father. Khan’s insatiable wrath isolates him, making him feared by the other creatures of the jungle, while he spends each day in a terrible rage, enslaved by his fixation on ending Mowgli’s life.

It should in fact be Mowgli who hates Shere Khan for killing his father and hunting him relentlessly, but Mowgli does not seek revenge on Khan even after learning the truth from the serpent Kaa. Even when Mowgli hears of the wolf Akela’s death, he only wants to face Khan and stop him from further devastating the wolf pack for letting the boy walk free. Mowgli even places himself in mortal danger by hurling his torch into the water so as not to frighten the other animals. By this act of making himself vulnerable, Mowgli wins back the trust of the others, although he has accidentally set their forest on fire, and they all band together to fight against Khan. In contrast to Khan, Mowgli only resorts to killing his opponent in self-defense – and by indirect means, allowing Khan’s own rage to fuel his fall into the fire. Furthermore, Mowgli does not allow his losses and scars to bind him in brooding rage over the past, although Khan has twice robbed him of father-figures and his home. He goes on to lead a happy life in the jungle, in the company of his assorted friends.

Similarly, Satan is a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) with an undying enmity against the human race (Genesis 3:15), and we are to be ever vigilant against his attacks on our souls; there are times in the spiritual life when we must flee in order to preserve our virtue (as St Thérèse did once)1, and there are times when we must take courage and face the adversary, overcoming him with the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. Satan knows no peace – Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell2 – but is possessed by a terrible rage against mankind. Yet, when we stand together as the Body of Christ, instead of being divided by fear, we will not succumb to his deadly rule, but will win through to everlasting life in the heavenly communion of saints.

As Satan lured Eve by inciting her lust for the forbidden fruit, of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:5), Kaa lures Mowgli with the knowledge of his past, seducing him with lies that he is safe with her. Of course, the python only sees him as a tasty morsel to be gobbled up. (In the book, Kaa is male and a mentor of Mowgli’s.) Kaa is so fixated on her prey that she is unable to react in time when Baloo the bear chances upon them and saves Mowgli from certain death.

Baloo is a sloth bear who lazes around, trying to use monkeys to procure honey for him. He initially lies to Mowgli too, taking advantage of him and allowing him to be stung horribly all over while obtaining honeycombs. However, unlike the other predators in the jungle, Baloo gives Mowgli his freedom to leave whenever he likes, and Mowgli chooses to stay with the bear, forging a firm friendship as they forage for food. Yet, Baloo still uses Mowgli to pander to his gluttony, claiming that he will starve in hibernation if they do not store enough honey. Bagheera the panther, Mowgli’s mentor, turns up and points out that Baloo does not hibernate. Happily, Baloo is ultimately virtuous and self-sacrificing, overcoming his fear of heights to save Mowgli from his next mishap.

King Louie the monstrous orangutan is possessed by greed and envy, longing for “man’s red flower” so that he can rule over the entire jungle, although he already has plenty more than enough, with the simians of the forest waiting on him hand and foot. He wants to be like man, “on top of the food chain”. His boundless lust for power is his downfall, for in trying to capture Mowgli, Louie destroys his own palace and is buried in the ruins of his home.

In the end, each villain meets their downfall through self-absorption and overweening pride, hankering after something not rightfully theirs; each hero triumphs through humility, overcoming their shortcomings and embracing their true strengths. Bagheera tells Mowgli to fight Khan as a man, not a wolf, and Mowgli, though physically much weaker than any of the animals, triumphs by exercising his intellect, exploiting his fearsome opponent’s weakness and using Khan’s wrath against himself. Similarly, when we are beset by fears and discouragement, we can turn it against Satan, offering up our suffering in union with Christ so that the Kingdom of God may triumph in the hearts of men. As delineated in Plato’s Republic, the body is in harmony when the intellect governs the emotions and the appetites; there is justice in the body politic when each part of society works together for the common good. Then we shall rid our homes of the scourge of evil, and live in peace with all of God’s creation.

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Image: The Disney Wiki

1  Story of a Soul Ch. 9: “I thought that if I began to justify myself I should certainly lose my peace of mind, and as I had too little virtue to let myself be unjustly accused without answering, my last chance of safety lay in flight.”

2 John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV, l. 75.

The Conscience of the Modern Man

By guest writer Kachi Ngai.

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey, its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church

We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.

Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.

I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.

Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.

Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:

“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)

A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.

Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.

The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).

By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.

The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).

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References:

Armstrong, David (2015). “Newman’s Conversion of Conscience and the Resolution of the Crisis of Modernity.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.

Henley, William (1875). Invictus. England.

Newman, John Henry (1885). “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

Pell, George (2005). “The Inconvenient Conscience.”

The Value of Almost Losing My Vision

I just went through a difficult time.

As I sat there closing one eye, then opening it while closing the other, going back and forth looking through each one, I thought that maybe the reason why there seemed to be a dark blotch covering half the view of my left eye was because I was tired. I went on with my day thinking it would go away after a good night’s sleep. I was wrong and found out that I was experiencing retinal detachment.

I had a great doctor, self-described “eye butcher”, who took care of me. At first I was told by others that I might need to stay on my back or stomach for 2-3 weeks. However, after one 24-hour period of staying on my back for 45 minutes of every hour (I was not allowed to even lie down at all the night before), I was able to go back to semi-normality.

This meant no restrictions in my positioning, but I was not able to pick up more than 5 lbs, including my two daughters and infant son, and was told to take it easy. I took two weeks off work and was unable to perform the tasks I was used to as a husband and father. Because of this I took kind of a tough hit. Maybe I felt like I lost my identity, maybe the seclusion and bed confinement were giving me cabin fever. I definitely felt a dark cloud descend, but I got through it and the cloud has since lifted.

Many people have it much worse than this and go through some extremely harsh trials. This causes them to question God’s goodness, power, and love. It seems like a fair question. Why would an all loving all-powerful, all-loving God allow us to hurt?

The answer to the question comes to us in the story told by the Gospels. Who knows suffering more than the Son of God, Who out of great love, came down to earth to be rejected, scorned, tortured, and killed by the very ones He came to save? And even in the midst of our greatest suffering, remembering this fact reminds us that we are immensely loved.

Furthermore, Jesus’ suffering on the cross takes away our sins. We choose sin out of free will, which is given to us by God. It is in this freedom to choose that we are able to reject God. However, without free will, we are merely robots programmed to obey, but with it, we are sons and daughters choosing to lovingly obey our Father.

Everything God created is good. It is human free will that has brought sin and the consequential suffering into the world. He allows this suffering to help us remember not to sin again and for a greater reason.

Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross to take away all sin, however, when we choose to sin, it still hurts us. It hurts our relationship with God, either venially or mortally, and every time we sin, we make it easier to choose to sin. This is done through our choice of pleasure over God.

Therefore, to undo the habit of choosing pleasure over God, we need to continually choose God over pleasure. This can come to us by choice (penance, fasting, and almsgiving), or those pains out of our control (sickness, vision loss, death of loved ones). Either way, any acceptance of suffering can make up for our sins and the we can offer it up for others.

Furthermore, it is during these times of suffering that we can unite our pain to that of Jesus’ on the cross. This is how Jesus transforms and gives value to our suffering. He takes our suffering, unites it to His own, and uses it to save us and others. In this way our suffering merits grace.

This means that a headache could help someone get to heaven. Or my eye surgery and subsequent healing process made up for many of my sins.

How good is that?! God took a consequence of Original Sin and made it into a treasure. We have a treasure in suffering in that we can help others with our pain. And really anything that causes discomfort can be offered up. This includes rejection, stubbed toes, not getting our way, burning dinner, not eating ice cream after dinner, a stomach flu, a minor cold, and much more.

Jesus came to set to the world on fire with His suffering. We can do the same with offering up our own. Our world currently commands us to avoid suffering at all costs, but imagine what it would be like if everyone embraced it like Christ embraced His cross.