Tag Archives: The Pursuit of Holiness

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!

Balance of Extremes

Classical morality has often been described as the finding of a Golden Mean or Happy Medium between two extremes. We find this concept in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and again in St. Thomas Aquinas, that virtue is the mean between two extremes of vice. So courage is the mean between foolhardiness and cowardice. Temperance is the mean between luxury and abstemiousness. Fully integrated sexuality is the mean between profligacy and what we might call “prudishness” for lack of a better word.

I like the theory of the golden mean as a working model for morality. It appeals to my conservative nature. I have a natural bias towards the safe, balanced and sensible. It is appealing on the moral level, and perhaps even more so on the political level, given our current polarized ideological milieu. Who doesn’t want to see a little more moderation and compromise in our political sphere?

On the other hand, I can’t help but notice that the law of moderation, if taken to an extreme, can suffer from its own critique. It is a safe route, leading to a tendency towards fence sitting, mediocrity, and complacency. The decent sort of man can easily become obsessed with his own decency, and keep the middle way as an end, rather than a means.

I have found it more useful in my own life to consider the balance of extremes to be the true Catholic way, rather than a balance between extremes.

I first ran into this concept in C. S. Lewis’s great essay “On Chivalry” (reproduced in part here.) He was the first one who spoke to me of the balance of extremes in the person of the knight, who chose to embrace both extremes of his society rather than walk the safe way between them. Chesterton also spoke of it, this time referencing the Catholic Church, in “Orthodoxy,” which I beg permission to quote at length below:

“As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind–the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing.  For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west.  No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the sceptical attack.  I give four or five of them; there are fifty more.”

The “Odd Shape” of Christianity emerges from the very fact that its enemies can attack it simultaneously from every side, each accusing it of an opposite vice, and each with equal justice.

Christ Himself predicted as much, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.’
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Luke 7:31-35.

I have come to think that maybe errors and heresies and sins are not often, or at least not always, so much wrong in what they assert as in what they deny.

(I should point out here that I am putting this forth as a model, open to discussion, correction and rebuke, not as a dogma.)

I don’t think it is possible to have too much of a virtue, or to believe a truth too fiercely, or to love someone too strongly. You cannot outdo Jesus, at any rate. What is possible is to lack the opposite virtue, to ignore the opposite truth, or to despise another person. Politically, it is not that the left or the right is wrong about what they positively assert, but they are very wrong in what they deny. So when the left proclaims the value of the individual, concern for the poor and needy, and proper care for women in difficult pregnancies, they promote legitimate values that Catholics of all stripes should be 100% behind. When the right proclaims industry, personal responsibility, and defense of the unborn, they also proclaim legitimate values. As Bishop Barron said, subsidiarity is a value, and so is solidarity, and they either oppose or balance each other, depending on your attitude towards them.

Parenting is another great example. To take one such, some parents value teaching children empathy, sensitivity and a sense of emotional connection with other people. Others emphasize incisiveness, critical thinking and independence. Neither of these sets of values is bad. I don’t think it is possible to care too much about others, or to think too clearly. When there is an imbalance, my first instinct is not to look for the exaggeration but to look for the deficit.

I see this in physical pursuits, as well. I don’t think I have ever seen an athlete who was too strong or too flexible. I have seen many athletes who were not flexible enough to prevent their strength from becoming pathological, or not strong enough to keep their flexibility from becoming instability.

I think that as a model of holiness, this balance of extremes rather than between extremes is more helpful, since it includes all that is good in both sides of the debate. This is the nature of the Church in the world; and the nature of Saints, who always shattered the expectations of the world; and of Jesus who was meek and humble of heart, but fierce and unpredictable in debate, gentle with the humble and dangerous to the proud.

Heroic Sanctity: Not For Everyone?

420-mother-teresa-prays-at-missionary.imgcache.rev1302031271348I have been thinking about saints a lot recently. Not any particular saint, but just saints in general. You see, a few years ago I started jokingly (but also half seriously) saying that my New Year’s resolution was to become a saint. Not surprisingly, I have learned more about failing in that endeavor than I have about succeeding.

This was brought home to me recently during a rosary or morning prayer or something where I was saying the Our Father, and the line, “Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” jumped out at me.

How many millions of times have I said that prayer, and that line has never hit me as it has over the last few weeks. Kathleen and I were talking it over when I shared it with her and we agreed that it was actually a terrifying prayer, when you really think about it. I mean really, we are praying that we be given the grace to obey God the way the saints and angels in Heaven obey Him. Kathleen described it as “Instant and complete obedience to absolutely every single little command.”

Let that sink in for a second.

This means that when Evie cries in the night and I scowl to myself before getting up, I am not doing God’s will “as it is in Heaven.” Anything less than instantly leaping out of bed with a hearty “Thank-you, Lord, for this opportunity to serve you in the least of your brethren” is a deficiency of obedience. The delaying I indulged in over giving up video games is a prime example of delayed, and therefore imperfect obedience.

Think I’m being rather hard on myself? What of Jesus’ command, “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” He might as well say, “Be ye a blazing ball of light as the sun is a blazing ball of light,” and yet He does say it.

So I was thinking about the saints, and how they answered that call. They were not people who did not sin, but people who desired nothing in the world more than they desired to please Jesus. They were absolutely obsessed, that was their sole goal in life. As Kathleen pointed out, it’s easy to say “I want to become a saint.” Living it out is another matter entirely. It truly is “A condition of complete simplicity / Costing not less than everything.”

The saints became saints because they were heroically holy. Our attitude tends to be, “Wow, that is amazing! Good for them! Unfortunately, I am not called to that height. I am just an ordinary Catholic. I am not trying for absolute perfection, I’m just hoping to squeeze by when I die. I know I’ll be spending a long time in purgatory, but I’m okay with that.”

It reminds me of Cardinal Kasper’s recent interview quote: “To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.”

Umm…. Excuse me? Whatever happened to obedience unto death? “”Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also;” John 12:24-26.

What happened to, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew 10:37-38.

What about, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” Matthew 5:30.

In thinking about the saints I am beginning to realize that heroic sanctity is not an extraordinary call. It is just the standard for getting into heaven. There is no “squeaking by.” There is no, “just making it.” Even if I am not trying for absolute perfection, absolute perfection is still the bare minimum for entry into Heaven. Therefore, if I am not trying for absolute perfection, I am not trying to get into heaven at all.

Why? Because Heaven is, “We shall be like God, for we shall see Him as He is,” 1 John 3:2.

Of course instantly I cry out with the apostles, “Lord, then who can be saved?” And I am comforted by Jesus’ reply, “For man this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” I am comforted, but there is a hint of false comfort in my comfort. When Jesus said, “With God all things are possible,” my first instinct is to say, “Okay, whoosh! I won’t be absolutely perfect, but God in His Mercy will let me in anyway.”

But no, that is not actually what Jesus is promising. Rather He is assuring me that I won’t be absolutely perfect, but that God in His Mercy will perfect me.

That is what Mercy is. That is what Mercy does. That is why we as Catholics recognize the necessity of purgatory. It is the process of being perfected. Those opportunities for growth in virtue that we let slip by are not optional. God does not assign extra-credit because there is no extra-credit. Every single assignment is part of the curriculum, designed to educate and shape us in a specific way that we must be educated and shaped in order to “Be like Him by seeing Him as He Is.” Any opportunity passed up is not just a missed opportunity, but a stunted growth, which must be redeemed and set right.

One more point about that was suggested to me by the experience of Mother Teresa who went through several decades of intense, almost completely unrelenting, spiritual darkness. It was a purifying and sanctifying darkness, and yet I had often wondered about it. Surely, if anyone had been purified it was Mother Teresa. She made a vow to refuse Jesus absolutely nothing, and she actually kept it. What more did she have to be purified of?

Then I realized that I was thinking of purification as a negative process, that is, as a stripping away of faults and blemishes to reveal the creature God intended underneath. By definition this would have to be a finite process because you can only remove until there is nothing left to remove, and there is no such thing as an infinite number of faults. Negative purification has to end sometime.

But what it isn’t a negative process, or at least not completely, perhaps not even most fundamentally. What if purgation is not about the removal of vice and blemish, but the increasement of virtue and perfections? That is a positive process, and by definition it can be never-ending. God’s goodness and perfection are infinite, so there is no end to the amount of good that He can share with a receptive soul.

Is that why the greatest saints have suffered the most? Not because they had so many faults that needed to be purged away (though that may have been initially the case) but because they had so much room to grow in perfection, and this growth takes the form of pain in this fallen world? Is that part of what Jesus meant when He said, “he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” and “If anyone serves me, He must follow me?”

If so, then once again, it doesn’t seem to be an optional extra-credit sort of thing, and I have a lot of work to do.

Or rather, Jesus does.



The Dawn of Sainthood

I thought this morning that holiness comes like a sunrise.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the waters, filling the earth with goodness and light.  A sinner becomes a saint as an acorn becomes a tree or a boy becomes a man: slowly.  Despair would have us feel the defeats more acutely than the victories.  Nor do we win the battle overnight.  As the sky is not black one moment and white the next, so sanctification does not come all at once.  Rather, we live in the oranges, purples, greys, and pinks before the full light of day.

Holiness dawns as Christ woos us into His love.  As Anne of Green Gables reflects, “Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways” (Anne of Avonlea).  Holiness resembles romance in this way: one must wait and be willing to say yes.  It trembles, wavers, and quakes until it finds sure footing and takes root.

One tells a love story from the vantage point of its conclusion: the radiance of glory.  The bumps and dips along the way become part of the story, and we can see in retrospect the arch of our growth in holiness.  But resisting temptation and fleeing the devil never seem so glorious at the time.  It feels rather droll to deny oneself.  Who dares to pray for patience?  Gerard Manley Hopkins bemoans this painful virtue: “Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray, / But bid for, patience is! Patience who asks / Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks; / To do without, take tosses, and obey.”  If we truly prayed, “deliver us from evil,” we would never sin again.  We only lack desire.  God never causes us to sin but rather gives us strength sufficient to resist temptation.  We want to keep the vestiges of the old man; we nurse our pet sins, give them safe harbor, dress them up, and pamper them as Julia in Brideshead Revisited: “Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out.  Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful.”  We would rather dwell in darkness than walk out into His marvelous light.  We think we are happier this way because we cannot bear to look into the sun of His holiness.

If God called us into His presence today, we would surely burn up.  He must prepare us to enjoy Him; we have to acquire a taste for heaven.  For this reason holiness dawns gradually, remaking us and giving us the endurance to behold His glory.  An immediate transformation would prove too painful.  Instead, God chips away at our faults to yield the sculpture He envisions.  He prunes us so we may blossom.  Then finally we shall be like Him because we shall behold Him as He is.  Made fully holy, we will possess the ability to look the sun full in the face.

In this journey into the light, we should hold fast Bishop Chaput’s words, “There are no unhappy saints.”[1]  Leon Bloy offers the corollary of this truth, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”  Indeed, His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  If we truly believed this, we could be happy and holy tomorrow.  He would give us happiness if we would let Him.  He gives us perfect strength to stand to resist temptation.  We know it is through no fault of His that we sin but rather through our free will.  Perfect love casts out fear: fear of self-denial, fear of serving others, fear of decreasing so that Christ may increase.  He wants to give us happiness, if only we would say yes to His will.

[1]  Charles J. Chaput, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” First Things, January 2015, 26

Spiritual Deep Cleaning

I am not a natural deep cleaner. Extensive projects that involve organizing minutiae, inordinate scrubbing, and rubber gloves are just not my thing.  Now I’m the first person to be stressed when my house looks a mess. In fits of cleaning, I tear through the house like a hurricane tidying stray toys, wiping down counters, and shepherding dirty laundry into the hamper.  I will pull out the vacuum minutes before guests arrive or re-arrange the shoes by the back door for the hundredth time. Yet, when it comes to making sure things are really and truly spotless, inside and out, I often shirk. I can honestly count the number of times I’ve cleaned the outside of my windows on one hand. I recently cleaned the inside of my fridge in a moment of Lenten intensity, and, let me tell you, it had gotten pretty bad. It’s easy to ignore the dirt and mess that few see and focus on creating a tidy appearance to passersby.

Often I find myself falling into the same trap spiritually: ignoring the real deep problems in my soul and concentrating on keeping myself looking spiritually clean. Jesus pointed out this problem in the Pharisees; in fact, He called them “whited spelchures” for following the exterior law while neglecting to have charity in their hearts (cf. Matthew 23:27). That is a very serious accusation: to be rotten at the core while appearing morally upright.  I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of spiritual sloth, but all of us can suffer from it, even those who are honestly seeking holiness.

It took me almost all forty days to realize that I had taken the easy spiritual road this Lent. Instead of really examining what in my life was keeping me from getting closer to Christ, I made a few resolutions and sacrifices that would be easy to identify. I did not earnestly search my soul for the areas of selfishness and sin that were hindering my spiritual life. Then, I wondered why I didn’t seem to be making any spiritual progress.

The thing about Lent is that when we remove things from our life, we are meant to replace them with Christ. We sacrifice things that in our suffering we are brought closer to the suffering Christ, but also that we may find that the things of this world for which we hold affection are poor substitutes for spiritual things.

I forgot that this Lent. I gave up sweets and mostly replaced it with…whining about needing more sweets. I found several weeks in that, had I really done some serious examination, there was something else with a hold on me.  I had been using social media as more than an occasional outlet for connecting with world. Whenever I found myself with a free or quiet minute, I was checking, scrolling, and reading every post I came across. With access to a smart phone, I was trying to escape the things I didn’t want to face in my life. When I found myself impatient with my kids for interrupting an article I was reading or wasting valuable time with my husband on the computer, I knew that a fun tool had become a problem.

Thankfully, Lent is not the only time we can make changes in our spiritual life and it is never too late to turn to Christ.  I took a long look at my behavior and headed to confession as soon as I could. The sacrament of confession is the perfect opportunity to start on that spiritual deep cleaning we often ignore.

There’s a reason the Church requires yearly confession and encourages it much more often: it forces us to examine our consciences thoroughly, to admit out loud the things that keep us from God, and to turn toward Christ for spiritual rebuilding.  A good confession can put us back on track and remind us not to settle for the appearance of holiness.  When we peer deep into our souls and search out the things that are keeping us from pursuing Christ, we can begin the difficult but worthwhile task of working with the Holy Spirit to put our souls in order.

The condition of your soul is project that will take more than a weekend and more than a liturgical season, it is a lifetime pursuit. The Saints have told us that the road to perfection isn’t easy and that it looks different for every soul.  Some are purified by great trials and others, like St. Therese, take a little way of daily sacrifice.  Whatever our spiritual journey, we are all called to examine our souls, to root out sin, and seek after Christ with all we have.  When we pursue true holiness, it will require everything of us , but our Savior deserves nothing less.