Know Thyself before Thee Pray

A few days ago I wrote about the connection between our origins as created beings and our present relationship with God. My use of Scripture and historical Christian writings was minimal; I wanted to attempt to demonstrate that, regardless of personal beliefs, denominational beliefs, or traditions, it’s built within us to find God in contemplative prayer deep inside ourselves and each other. I want to continue that line of thought here: if we are made ex nihilo by God and utterly dependent on God for our entire existence (mind, soul, body, etc.), then how does prayer increase awareness of God? And why am I using stale philosophical arguments to bring about an understanding of something as intimate as a close, deep relationship, deeper and more intimate than mother and child (Isaiah 49:15)?

There is an ancient maxim from the ancient Greek philosophers, so old that it’s uncertain who coined it. This maxim finds new meaning in Christian spirituality, especially for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and many other spiritual masters.

Know thyself

Keep Calm and Know Thyself

Ageless wisdom.

Obviously, to know only yourself isn’t enough to maintain a relationship. A marriage would be an exceedingly lonely relationship if both spouses only knew themselves, without an attempt at knowing each other. One needs both knowledge of God and knowledge of self to have the fullness of relationship with God (and, ultimately, salvation, if that’s what we’re talking about).

As an aside, the knowledge of God I’m speaking of isn’t merely philosophical or academic knowledge of God; it must be an intimate knowledge of Him, a knowledge that must include His mercy and love. Knowledge of self mustn’t also be exclusively scientific, psychological, or philosophical; it must include a frank idea of our own weaknesses, dependencies, and triviality. Ideally, the knowledge of both ourselves and of God would be much deeper and more intimate than merely these ideas.

Know thyself—perhaps one of the most poignant commands of Ignatian or Cistercian spirituality as I have ever heard. The human soul, having been created of nothing by a generous Creator in the image and likeness of the Creator, must share much in common with the Creator who imagined the soul from the beginning—that is, a natural connection between being (or to-be) and living (or living well, living happily). The effects of the first sin of Adam and Eve left us with only the image of God; its likeness being somewhat covered up and hidden by our shame and pride. Immediately one can see the difficulty in reuniting image and likeness. Surely for God, this connection is obvious, because He is perfect in all things natural to existence, but we can see how we are not like God in this matter. To experience unhappiness even once is to find in our soul a divide between existing and actually living. God maintains this simplicity inside Himself—He is both to-be and living. For the human soul, who seeks union with God, we must also seek this kind of simplicity:

The fact that Scripture speaks of our present unlikeness to God does not mean that Holy Writ maintains the likeness has been destroyed, but that something different has been drawn over it, concealing it. Obviously, the soul has not cast off her original form, but has put on a new one foreign to her. . . . And so the simplicity of the soul remains truly unimpaired in its essence, but that is no longer able to be seen now that it is covered over by the duplicity of man’s deceit, simulation, and hypocrisy. . . . And thus accidental evils superadded to the good that is in our nature, do not suppress that good, but are impressed upon it, defile it without destroying it, and lead to its upheavel, not its total removal. This is the reason why the soul is unlike to God, and why it is even unlike itself. This is the reason why it ‘is compared to senseless beasts and is become like to them.’

—St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, Sermon 82

St. Bernard shows us that not only is the soul unlike itself in its duplicity, but that the soul loses its dignity as being created higher than the angels by becoming even lower than the “beasts of the field” who lack even rationality. St. Augustine also argues that a human who objects to use of rationality in his spirituality makes himself lower than the beasts of the field and abandons his dignity as a being created higher than the angels (the source eludes me, I’ll find it later).

So, I return to my main question: how does knowledge of self help us in our relationship with God? Thomas Merton makes three very good points.

1. The human person must recognize the truth about himself and face the fact of his own duplicity. “That means: simplicity in the sense of sincerity, a frank awareness of one’s own shortcomings.”
2. “He will also have to overcome the temptation to excuse himself and argue that he is not, in fact, what he is (whether he argues with other men, with himself, or with God, it does not matter). Hence: simplicity in the sense of meekness—self-effacement, humility.”
3. “He must strive to rid himself of everything that is useless, unnecessary to his one big end: the recovery of the divine image, and union with God.”—Thomas Merton on St. Bernard

Merton exposes a ton of the theology of being in these points of advice. He is well aware that it is the primary human weakness and temptation to puff himself up and make himself into a big deal. Christ is the ultimate example of flipping that onto its head, and we remember (especially today of all days) that to be Christian isn’t to be great or to be self-sufficient or to be in control of one’s life and surroundings. To be Christian is to abandon oneself to God; that a king, even the King of the Universe, should allow himself to be stripped of everything, and by human hands thrust upon an instrument of torture and death and be brutally nailed to it.

The first Adam, in grasping to make himself equal to God, immediately saw his nakedness and clothed himself in an attempt to hide his duplicity and shame. The second Adam allowed himself to be stripped of clothes, and with all self-effacement and sincerity showed us how we are to understand who we are in relation to God. If we are truly honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God, then we are finally open to becoming to likeness of God as we were intended to be.

Know thyself until thee knowest this.

Know thyself until thee knowest this.

But, as mentioned earlier, an understanding of self is insufficient. One must have a deep understanding of God and the activity of His mercies in the human soul. Without sufficient knowledge of God, such profound knowledge of self would lead to depression, despair, and loneliness.

Our Metaphysical Origins and Contemplation

Christians often throw around this idea of a “relationship with God”, but to the philosophical mind, such a concept should be preposterous. How can a temporal have anything to do with an eternal? How does the limited relate to the limitless? In this blog post, I’m going to explore some of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophies of creation (what are commonly called the cosmological argument for God and the argument from motion) and their implications for humanity. Ultimately, I’m going to show how it is the human calling to pray, by nature of our existence and creation out of nothing.

The universe

The universe is a big place, if God thinks about it.

Let’s reflect on creation. Bang! The universe awakens to God’s words and bursts into life. Time itself is summoned from nothing, and so is space, matter, energy. Essentially, Thomas Aquinas argues that there must have been a cause—after all, a fundamental facet of philosophy is the intelligibility of the universe, that is, that it can be understood, observed, and made rational. So, for every action, there must be a re-action, and vice-versa (contingency). Philosophically, the Big Bang couldn’t cause itself (if it could, wouldn’t we be able to cause—or uncause ourselves?). A force must have acted upon the nothing that existed before us in order to generate something.

Everything exists because God called it into being from nothing and continues to hold it [in] existence. The formula for all created beings, from the speck of dust to the highest angel, is nothingness made to be something from the omnipotence of God. Omit God from the consideration of anything or everything, and you omit the reason why anything exists and make everything forever unexplainable; and this is not a sound first step toward understanding.

—Frank J. Sheed, Theology and Sanity

Sheed jumps ahead of my analysis to posit that God, this Being of pure existence (for we only exist as a mere cause from Him, but He must be causeless), continues to hold us into existence. How do we know that? This is a particularly interesting question that I think can be addressed both by a brief glimpse on the nature of time (which tells us a surprising amount about the nature of God) and the nature of causes. Firstly, if we accept that pure existence (God) created us and created time itself, then God must be outside of time. Time, too, is a created thing, a limitation upon us as limiting as space, energy, matter. We already know of the relationship of time with matter—time is warped and changed based on the density of matter and energy. And we know that time moved differently as the universe expanded (and continues to expand). So God, being eternal and outside of the confines of time, had (has? will have? Language is limiting me here) a thought—and that thought was/is/will be to create a universe. Already, with the struggles of language in describing the act of creation, you can start to see that talking about the universe before creation or during creation is impossible. You cannot talk about when God created the universe any more than you can talk about where God is (another issue I’ll explain in a few paragraphs). God, an eternal being of existence, only needs one thought, and the thought, not being bound by time (and thus, by the consequence of change) is a persistent and enduring thought. The universe, then, was not just created; it is created, and will continue to be created, not just because God is eternal, but because he thought it once means that he thinks it for eternity. You see, it is metaphysically impossible for God to change. It goes against the principles of eternity. (And this is why we can say that God is perfect—He exists, and his existence is dependent on nothing [while our existence remains dependent upon him]; “What we see at once is that since God is existence, that existence must be utterly without limit, for there is no principle of limitation in a being thus self-existent. Limitation is a deficiency of existence, something lacking to fullness of existence.”—Frank Sheed, ibid.).
Secondly, the nature of causes: we see that because the universe still exists, that God must still exist. Within the realm of created matter, we’re used to seeing things create (a better word would be beget) other things. In order to make a table, we need to cut down a tree. The tree dies, but the table then subsists, regardless of what happened to the tree in the past. In order for a baby to be made, we need a man and a woman, and then the woman has to eat a consistent amount of food and nutrients.


A baby can metaphysically exist apart from his father and mother.

Created matter begets more created matter, and thus a baby, once born, can subsist within its own existence outside of the mother. The mother and father may pass away, but the child retains its own life and matter. But what happens when you are created from nothing? If you are within the universe, and the universe is not begotten (that is, not created from pre-existing matter), but genuinely created ex nihilo, your existence is sustained by your cause, unlike that of the table or baby. To take this point home, St. Augustine says in De Natura Boni, “All the things that God has made are mutable because [they are] made of nothing.”

When Moses asks, “Who shall I tell them is sending me?” God answers, “I am that I am.” He is the act of existence, self-sufficient in his existence, such to the point that no other definition (or name) can apply. Interestingly, unlike most creation mythologies, God isn’t one god among many—he doesn’t behave and interact with the world as a created god. Take, for instance, Zeus, who seems to cause a disaster every time he visits and interacts with the people of Greece. Brahma, the creator of the universe, though also known as “self-born”, was still born from the god Vishnu. Or according to Japanese mythology, the universe began to create itself—and from its settling, the gods emerged. In order to create and develop the universe, these gods of each of these mythologies have to take from existing material. But the God of the Jews developed the universe out of nothingness, and He doesn’t owe his existence to anything, but exists in his own reality, while our reality depends on his eternality. And when God steps into his own creation, he does so in an entirely non-invasive, non-violent way. He asks permission of Mary, of a human, his own created thing, before she becomes the Mother of God. And when God occupies the burning bush through which he communicates to Moses, the bush is not consumed or destroyed—instead it blossoms.

God is not a supreme being alongside other beings but rather ipsum esse, the sheer act of to-be itself, in which and through which all finite things are constituted. This means that as I find my center in God, I simultaneously find your center, the center of everyone else, and indeed the center of brother sun and sister moon. When St. Francis used that evocative phrase, he was not indulging in sentimental poetry but rather articulating an exact metaphysical position: because of the creator God, all things in the cosmos are ontological siblings to one another, connected by a bond deeper and more abiding than anything that divides them.

Exploring Catholic Theology, Robert Barron

Because of our ontological “brotherhood” with our fellow creatures—both humans and the whole rest of the created order—we should share a common sympathy with the rest of the universe. Hence Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si, a treatise on the care for creation and our fellow creatures. Hence St. Ambrose says, “If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt.” We are naturally and deeply in relationship with each other. But even moreso, we are in relationship with God. Better said, we are relationship with God.

Hence, creation is “a kind of relationship to the Creator with newness of being.” God is responsible, in short, for the entirety of a creature’s being, yet his influence is not external to the creature. And this is why he speaks of it as a “kind” of relation. Thomas was well acquainted with the Aristotelian notion of relationship as an accidental qualification of two or more substances, but he knew that creation, which is responsible for the whole of a creature’s being, cannot be imagined as “between” the creature and God. As he does when speaking of the Eucharist, Thomas here uses Aristotelian language but in a decidedly non-Aristotelian way, signaling that something else, metaphysically speaking, is the case. God is therefore properly discovered as the deepest ground of the creature’s ontological identity. Thomas Merton was entirely in a Thomist frame of mind when he said that contemplative prayer is finding that place in you where you are here and now being created by God.”

Exploring Catholic Theology

Our existence is a relationship with God. Thomas Aquinas says, a creature does not have a relationship with God; rather, a creature is a relationship with God. Whether we participate highly or hardly in that relationship at all is a different matter. How do we participate?

Return to the image of the burning bush speaking to Moses. This bush grows and blossoms under the burning indwelling presence of God. Mary herself, by her freewill choice saying yes to God’s asking to dwell within her, blossoms as a rose. God doesn’t consume or destroy when he steps into his creation—his presence allows that created thing to become more fully itself according to his creative intention.

If God truly creates from nothing, then there is no aspect of creation that is not, from moment to moment, coming forth from God and, quite literally, nothing standing between creatures and their Creator. To transpose this to a moral and spiritual register, there is no place that one can run from the presence of God, no ontological ground on which one can finally stand in resistance to God’s creativity. “Where shall I go from your Spirit?… If I ascend to the heaven, you are there!” Irenaeus expresses this through the trope of the right hand of God, which holds up the sinner even when that creature, in rebellion, “takes the wings of the morning and dwells in the uttermost parts of the sea.”
All of this is recapitulated in the new Adam. Whereas the first Adam disobeyed and hence withdrew into a kind of metaphysical shadowland, the second Adam [Christ] obeyed the Father and lived out of the deepest truth of things. And this did not merely indicate the way things are; it effected a change in a world marked by division. Irenaeus uses the following words to indicate what the union between divinity and humanity in Christ produced in the wider creation: “unite,” “join together,” “fuse,” “make one.” The obedient relationality on display in Jesus knits a broken creation back together precisely in the measure that it incarnates the relationality that God is.

Exploring Catholic Theology

Psalm139To participate in this relationship means to return back to God. God made us for himself—our hearts are restless until they rest in Him (St. Augustine). And we find our rest when we pray, when we center ourselves on our Creator moment by moment. To listen for God’s voice is to begin to return home to Him.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes, I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who bestrayest Me.”

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
“And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing,
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said),
“And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
but just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shades of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

—excerpts from Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”

“The Church Is Still Admitting Sinners”

Yesterday, for Reformation Day, I wrote a post in homage to the good memory of Protestantism. Yet I failed to address that the Protestant Reformation is all but over. Even noteworthy Presbyterian Peter J. Leithart agrees (much to the anxiety of R.C. Sproul and Southern Baptists. It probably comes as no surprise that I enjoy reading Leithart on First Things). Anyone who can read the sign of the times will notice that the prevalent philosophies of Western culture have no room for the Protestant Reformation. There is only room for the church that acquiesces to the philosophical culture of the time—most notably, to the Western priority of personal preference as the supreme inalienable right and the publicly unanswered question of relativism and the nasty combo these two ideas have in their marriage. Ultimately, the church will either be popular, or it will be persecuted. Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Wycliffe, Melanchthon, and Cranmer would all be remorseful to see the state of Protestant ideology engaging in American culture today. American culture itself, almost entirely devoid of anything remotely Catholic, gives proper Protestant Reformation little to find itself defined in (since Protestantism finds its definition in what it is against). There aren’t enough Catholics in America to upset Reformation Protestants, so Protestantism proper is without definition; in being so, it winds up with a legion of definitions (As Sproul has said, “everyone is a theologian”). There is little today left that resembles the original Reformers’ ideologies.

All Saints Day (unlike yesterday, a holiday according to the strictest sense of the word) represents the antithesis to the joyous divorce proper to Reformation. In Heaven, where division is metaphysically impossible and personal interest is entirely disinterested, the saints unanimously model what our hearts long for most of all: separation from sin and union with that very Love that dreamt us into existence and still dreams of our coming home. Today, the Catholic Church and only a handful of traditional churches remember those who were once admitted as sinners, but departed as Saints. Think Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, Angela of Foligno, Mary of Egypt, Mary Magdalen, and Paul. And the definition of their sainthood hardly considers their theological contributions or their contribution to the Church militant. We long first for our own relationship with God—which the saints addressed first. St. Ignatius of Loyola first reformed his heart before he developed a system for spiritual warfare—a system that firstly begins with the individual relationship with God. St. Augustine repented from his rowdy and playboyish lifestyle—and, finding his restless heart resting in God, drew up the Church’s vision for social justice and the New Jerusalem. It took St. Angela until she was 40 before she realized how empty was the quest for wealth and social prominence, and giving herself entirely to Christ, she would become the “Teacher of Theologians” and a Doctor of the Church. Saints are not Reformers—not even St. Francis of Assisi, St. Charles Borromeo, or St. Catherine of Siena. They first sought personal holiness, and then out of the overflowing of their love for God, they (almost incidentally) brought healing and understanding to the Church. It was only after selfish ambition and personal gain were lost that they found God’s love and plan for the Church. Their disinterest gave room for God’s interest.

But the massive ship of the Church militant isn’t manned by saints. They’re in our Church triumphant. We’re steered by the bishops of the church and the contemporary Catholic voices of theology and preaching—living bishops who probably aren’t saintly in their personal lives as, say, St. John Vianney or St. Robert Bellarmine. But the Curia and the various synods and councils aren’t without the wisdom of the saints. The democracy of the bishops is in no small way driven by what G.K. Chesterton calls the “democracy of the dead,”—the teaching of the saints on matters of morals, ethics, and theology. The ship takes no big turns away from what our holy saints have taught. Why reinvent the wheel?

I was wooed into the Church when I heard that the Church was still admitting sinners. Only four years ago, at the rock-bottom spiritual and emotional point in my life, and a myriad of Protestant teachings pulling me in mutually-exclusive directions toward God (I’m looking at you, ongoing Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate), I had to return to the only thing that I knew: that I was the worst of sinners, and that Jesus was the best of saviors. I couldn’t believe that anything in Scripure could be self-evident—and I think the existence of the Protestant “theological anarchy” (according to Henri de Lubac) proves that.

All I wanted was Jesus, and all I found in Protestant America was worldly entertainment and intellectual runarounds—a justifiable clause for every belief-action that presupposed “at least I’m not a Catholic,” without ever knowing what a Catholic actually is.

In ontological actuality, a Catholic is a developing saint.

St. Augustine purportedly said, “There is no saint without a past; there is no sinner without a future.”

I was drawn into the Catholic Church through hope. The worst of sinners, I wanted to have the hope that I could be close to God and abandon everything that pulled me away from God. To be close to God is to carry one’s cross—a bloody, skin-torn, humiliating affair. I didn’t want to have Jesus and to also have popular entertainment, intellectual indulgences, societal acceptance, even the love of friends. All of these things are merely temporary (Matthew 5:47 and 6:31). What I have always longed for, during my whole life and most evidently in my pseudo-Assemblies-of-God-but-still-nondenominationalism, was to abandon my life in its entirety—and then to find it only in God. (Where is the Sola Domine?)

On All Saints Day, we Catholics are shown the hope of our faith and the longing of our hearts as it has been revealed to our ancestor brothers and sisters: the Resurrection of Christ is presented to us in contemporary terms we can more tangibly feel. And we see that the Catholic Church is not steered by the sway of culture, but by the holiness of the saints, who, being finally close to God, pray for us out of the outpouring of their hearts. Modernity meets the Resurrection today. In no uncertain terms we see that not everyone is a theologian and no one gets into Heaven on their own terms (Matthew 10:39 and 16:25—27 and 7:13–14 and 7:21–23 and John 14:23–14 in light of that last verse).

Our ship has set sail for the faraway land, to pull those overboard out of the roaring ocean and to rescue castaways from their lonely islands. There is no self-interest in getting there—God will have us arrive when we are ready—and until we arrive, we must pull more men out of the raging foam. We sail toward the Star of the Sea, guided by the uncountable lights above.

“But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?”
“Use? Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honor and adventure. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours.”—C.S. Lewis, The Dawn Treader

Every Day Is Reformation Day

It’s naturally difficult for Catholics who are former Protestants to talk about the Protestant system without doing ideological violence to it. To shift from one ideological system to another necessitates that the former was incomplete, insufficient, or outright dangerous (and this goes both ways—for also the Catholic who becomes Protestant). One can only talk about the fullness of one’s new ideology by comparing it to the system he knew in the past, and that perspective is violent, dangerous, and, well, revolutionary. The Catholic convert has revolted against the revolters. For the Catholic convert in America, every day is Reformation Day.

I’ve never actually told the story of how I was called into the Catholic Church. I find it difficult to discuss the Protestant system (as if there is merely one) without unintentional disrespect, because it’s all I know in comparison with the Catholic system. If I had converted from agnosticism or from Orthodox Judaism or from Buddhism, such a perspective would frame my story, and I would necessarily do violence by speaking of those systems in the past-tense. To make matters worse, we Christians love our conversion stories because they emphasize the hope that is in Christ. We speak in past-tense because it makes Jesus look good, and it brings hope (and hopefully, more conversion) to the world: I once was lost, but now am found, etc.

But truth be told, my whole life has been a conversion story. Today, I am still striving to be Catholic. I am still striving to be holy, and to be true and authentic to my God and my fellow man (Philippians 3:12), and my Catholicism isn’t solely a matter of intellectual assent, but a matter of the will and body. Even many Protestants would agree that we are not saved on an intellectual basis (though some details of what you believe, a result of what you know [a strictly intellectual matter], appear to be important for some Protestants).

I don’t want to disparage the Protestant system, least of all on this day. In light of Reformation Day, I want to speak of the Christ I see in Protestant systems, and how individual reform can convert us ultimately to Christ—the most important conversion one can have, especially Catholics.

Wesleyanism was my introduction to Christianity, and I can hardly think of a better entry-point, or a system for which I have more gratitude. I came in through the United Methodist Church as a teenager and already had a love for history and thought that contemporary Christian issues should be handled within the context of how the historical church would have handled such issues. As a 15-year-old, I studied the life of Wesley and the history of the United Methodist Church, doing my final report for my Sophomore world history class on the history of Methodism. At the time, I was largely unaware of the liturgy around me, but I loved the way we spoke of the Holy Spirit. I read the whole Bible within a few months and fell in love with it—a deep, almost romantic love that still excites my heart today.

Within a few years I’d come to be friends with a pastor’s kid (who lived up to the stereotype) who was Lutheran. Not merely Lutheran, but of the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod. We were inseparable buddies, and he introduced me to everything that would shape my world for the next five years, from sports to music to popular entertainment and video games and literature, but perhaps most importantly, he introduced me to scriptural exegesis and conservative, traditional theology. And, most significantly, the practice of antinomianism. Jesus literally says that this is his body and blood, not that it’s like his body and blood—and we know from his parables that he knows how to speak in metaphor, but here it’s clearly not a metaphor, nor has the church ever understood it to be metaphorical, they taught me. I read Luther’s Small Catechism in no time and took notes in the margins, and, following the deep theological advice of teenagers, I deadened my conscience because my conscience didn’t matter to my salvation.

And then I went to college. I was introduced to nondenominational evangelicalism and thought it was just the best—that God should save everyone from each Christian denomination because each denomination reaches different people in their own way (a simple cop-out for the conflict of relativism and religion). Little did I know that this was a slope towards Universalism, but it revealed a desire that’s in everyone’s heart (and the fundamental conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism)—that God, in his loving generosity, has a plan and an intention to save every human being. However, it wasn’t long before the sacraments of Lutheranism and the holiness of Wesleyanism fell to the back, while a new order of relativistic interpret-the-Bible-for-yourselfism took its place. Having just turned 20, I had already mastered scriptural exegesis, had an appreciation for history, and knew that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t steer me wrong. What I didn’t know was that the Holy Spirit can’t supplant the human will.

Year after year for the next five years, the deadness of my conscience would drive me further away from Scripture, from God, and even from my friends. At last, after much conflict, confusion, and distress, when I had hit rock-bottom and abandoned hope in God, a friend saw my turmoil and said to me, “Don’t worry. The Catholic Church is still admitting sinners.”

Within six months, I read the Vatican II documents, the Catechism, and re-read in a new light Galatians, James, and Matthew (my guiding lights of Scripture). In the Catholic Church, I found the personal holiness that Wesley spoke of, the sacraments that Luther couldn’t give up, an answer for relativism that doesn’t undermine principles of eternity and infinity, and the promise that God’s plan for salvation is not foiled by man’s lack of knowledge or limited by our understanding. The Holy Spirit works with our will, but doesn’t replace it (see Romans 7:15–8:18). And that’s the beautiful thing. Nearly four years since that call, I, like St. Paul, still wrestle with the almost Platonic dichotomy between mind and flesh. But I know that grace comes from God, and the Holy Spirit is engaged in recreating me, preparing me for infinity, while this world tries to catch me and hold me in the temporal and the corporal. I know that many Protestants are earnestly seeking this personal conversion, too. Because, in the end, what are Protestant systems except a seeking after the infinite? Seek first the Kingdom of God.

This blog post isn’t merely a pat on the shoulder for Methodists, Lutherans, etc. In the end, regardless of what you believe (or what you think you believe), seeking the Kingdom of God isn’t an intellectual pursuit. In the same Gospel, Christ doesn’t speak of the Kingdom being a belief system or creed. His parables speak of serving the poor, the widows, and the orphans (it would be interesting to read Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew in the Brazos series on this). Seeking the Kingdom isn’t agreement to a creed, catechism, or confession. It’s an activity. The activity of doing what Christ speaks of in his parables in the same Gospel. We Christians should be others-focused before we can be theological. We need to be engaged in behaving like Christ before we can be ecumenical. And we all know, by nature of our birth, we won’t naturally be like Christ unless we commit violence to our sinful nature—and seek to cause reform within ourselves. Protestants speak of this personal conversion all the time—and know how drastic it can be. Francis Chan’s Crazy Love is an insane example of this, which many Catholics could benefit from reading. But ultimately, it’s not what we read that saves us, that unites us, or that makes us like Christ. It’s conversion to the will of Christ.

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”
-Dorothy Day

Pornography, Death, and St. John Vianney

I came here to read St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney and to read Bishop Robert Barron and to drink coffee. After I get my coffee, I bring my backpack to the chair that’s awkwardly behind one already occupied by a woman in her late 30s, her face decorated with some layers of makeup. She gets up as I try to maneuver my way to the chair, so we have that awkward moment of “No you go ahead” and “Excuse me, pardon me”, as there’s only enough room for one of us to pass.

“You look pretty young,” she says, after I get into my chair and she gets around her table.

Thanks? I think to myself.

She asks, “How old are you?”

I’m kind of taken aback by the question, but I guess this is technically a way to begin a conversation, so I indulge her. “Twenty-nine,” I say, with a welcoming smile.

“That’s not too young,” she says, making it sound like a compliment. “Are you a student?” she asks me.

“No, I graduated five years ago,” I say, plugging in my laptop, getting myself ready to be a hipster writer in a local coffee shop.

“What did you study?”


“Me too!” She gets excited. I smile. She reaches out her hand, and I shake it. She offers me her name.

“I’m Brandon.”

“So do you use your degree in a career?” she asked.

“Yes, I do marketing.”

“Congratulations!” she says. Truly, it is hard to find use of an English degree. She continues, “I used to model for Playboy back in 1999. Now I’m a lawyer, but I really appreciate marketing, because I do my own marketing. Do you want to see my business card? It’s a way of marketing.”

“It is,” I agree, without breaking my smile. Flipping through her purse and through a variety of business cards, she pulls out a black one from her collection. Outer Space Law, it reads, which matches the title on the cover of the book laying on her table. It has the playboy bunny icon in the center, and is a very simple card.

“I have a friend who just graduated with a degree in English, who is just starting out in law,” I say. “He’s got quite a way to go, though, just starting out.” Trying to avoid the elephant in the room (or in this case, the rabbit).

She begins packing her things. “Yeah, I really enjoy it.” She pauses as she packs up her stuff. “Wait, I didn’t mean to take my business card back. You can keep it,” she says, handing it back to me.

“Thanks!” I say, not unenthusiastically.

“Well, it was nice meeting you! See you later!” she says as she walks out, waving.

“Yep!” I say, taking out my well-worn copy of The Curé d’Ars. “Take care!”

And now I process thoughts. what. just. happened.

She made it a point to let me know one of the first things about her was her pornographic modeling done nearly sixteen years ago. I think about how difficult it must be for her to get freedom and independence from the need of masculine affection that she must have been addicted to all these years. Does she still need male affirmation to find meaning in herself? Even now, the thing she notices first is youth, and she compliments it and affirms it in a stranger before saying anything else. Would that the users of pornography could meet the souls and the hearts involved in its production, and how joyful they could be if given an identity that outlives their youth. I’m going to try not to read into her too much—I have probably gone too far already—but I am reminded of the First Things article that was retweeted earlier this morning. Originally written by Carl Trueman last year, he immediately says about pornography in his first sentence, “Pornography degrades women (those cocksure feminists who claim otherwise have fallen for the biggest male confidence trick of all time).” In no uncertain terms he very plainly deconstructs our cultural infatuation with pornography, concluding with, “whatever the aesthetics, sexual activity as a means for preserving the myth of eternal youth is always going to involve the law of diminishing returns and thus ironically prove a powerful witness to its own falsehood. It really does not matter how many orgasms you have, or how intense they are, you are still going to die.”

These words could not come from a man unfamiliar with the words of the Qoheleth (teacher). This was my late grandfather’s favorite book, and I used to think it somewhat melancholy—especially coming from a Baptist—but more and more I’m learning why Ecclesiastes is perhaps one of the more pertinent biblical texts our culture could learn to read.

I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity.

I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 8-11)

Carl Trueman is onto something. Our culture’s obsession with pornography is an obsession with youth—youth that is valued and proclaimed in popular entertainment (music videos, Hollywood, television) and even, to some noteworthy extent, in politics. We are afraid of death, and aging is a reminder that each of us is going to die. On the other hand, sexual behavior is an expression of youthfulness. In its proper state, sexuality should be for the creation of life, not the avoidance of death. A proper perspective of our impending death (proper with the hope that is fitting of a Christian) dispels the false promise of eternal youth in this life.

But how do we adopt a daily perspective of our own death? We must stop living with the fantasy that we will (or we ought to) be young forever. Embrace aging. Embrace our own death.

In the Catholic tradition, we have a rich treasury of writings from which to draw inspiration. Mortification is the act of fasting with the sense of our own death in mind—the sense that we will not be young for very long, and that we need to live with our own death always before us. St. Robert Bellarmine and St. John of the Cross speak very well of this, and St. John Vianney lived this daily.

St. John Vianney led a great example for us to follow in this regard. By way of fasting, he held no presumption that he should live, or that he deserved to live, in a prolonged youth. Fasting, you see, breaks the holds of this flesh on our minds—the desires of the flesh to stay young, to do the things young people do, to eat the things younger people eat and to play the games they play. But by way of letting go of pleasures, we let go of the lie that we will be 18 forever. Vianney was never concerned with his own youth, with lost years or wasted potential—in fact, he entered the seminary rather late, and was ordained a priest later than his confreres, and he had good reason to be concerned with youthfulness. But he lived in the present moment at every moment, concerned only with what matters are at hand. I think this, among other things, is what made him a good confessor.

And when we have a mind and an act proper to our own age and proper to our Christian beliefs (that of an ageless eternal life, not an eternal youth), we can actually live out the role of mentoring and teaching that we are blessed in increase in each passing year. The lure of illicit sexual behavior seems an awfully shallow draw when one is faced with his own death, and faced with finding real meaning and purpose for his own life (who, when facing imminent death, thinks of their sexual exploits or their hours of sleeping in, or the amount of television shows they’ve watched, and counts that as a good life? Rather, when faced with imminent death, the person considers whether they’ve had a positive effect on humanity—whether they’ve been selfless and changed others’ lives and been good and kind to others). The pursuit of pleasure and youth blind us to our real humanity—wherein lies our real purpose. Mortification, on the other hand—the practice of the awareness of our own death—frees us to live purposefully. It is the practice of our Lord’s commandment to take up your cross and carry it daily.

For those of you who are Christian: if you were to die tomorrow, would you look back to today and say that you honored God with the blessing of your age?

For those of you who aren’t Christian: if you were to die tomorrow, would you look back to today and say that you accomplished something meaningful with your life through the privilege of your age?

The Beatitudes and the Cross

Whenever someone preaches the Beatitudes, the message is always about “living out” the Beatitudes. How the Beatitudes are the new Decalogue, the new law of the land, the new order of relationship with God. This is how God would take the Ten Commandments, written on stone, and write them onto the human’s stony hearts. (Hebrews 8:10, Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26, and 2 Corinthians 3:3)

But how do you actually live the Beatitudes? Living the Ten Commandments is fairly straightforward. Living the Beatitudes is… confusing.

Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn.

Does this mean I need to mourn all the time? I need to be sheepish and shy?

I’ll admit, I recently taught the Beatitudes to my LifeTeen high school youth group, and we had difficulty connecting the abstract Beatitudes with concrete lifestyle choices and attitudes of the heart. How does one reasonably live any of the Beatitudes?

In order to prepare to teach the Beatitudes, I hopped around a few commentaries (Mostly the Word Biblical Commentary and Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word by Fr. Leiva-Merikakis, which were great for this study. I also looked at the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture volume by Curtis Mitch, founder of FOCUS Ministries, so naturally this commentary helps bring the teachability of the Gospel of St. Matthew to the front).

The Greek word for “Blessed” in this context is μακάριοι, which carries with it a sense of happiness and joy that are implied with the blessedness. In the Latin Vulgate, we get the word Beatus, which means to make joyful and make glad, but in a spiritual and contented way. This is the same root word we see when Elizabeth tells Mary, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

So, here only a few verses in Luke after the Annunciation—where Mary gave her “yes” to Jesus and pretty much gave up her life for the Lord—we see her cousin saying, “Happy, joyful, blessed, glad are you who believed in God!” This is not “Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus!” Benedictus is a different type of blessedness–literally, “well-spoken of” are you among women, and “well-spoken of” is the fruit of your womb. However, the “wellness” of bene implies a divineness. Benedictus is the holy water, the baptism, the sacraments and sacramentals of the Church, because they are not just well-spoken of, but divinely-spoken of. But I didn’t open this door to speak of Mariology (much as I would like to). We’re still talking about the Beatitudes. Beo is the root of Beatus which Jesus uses in the Latin Vulgate (or μακάριοι) and in this term, Jesus doesn’t say that the meek will be divinely blessed, but that they will be internally happy, content, and filled with a peace and Godliness.

Mary believed that what the angel said to her would be true. And it made her blessed, it made her happy.

So what does that mean for those Jesus speaks of in the Beatitudes? “Happy are the poor in spirit”, “Happy are those who mourn.” These are outright contradictions. The poor in spirit isn’t merely referring to the depressed or the sad. He is literally talking about those in poverty, and the kind of spirit they have because of their life–the spirit of those who are the lowest class of human being, the dejected and treated as subhuman, or mere animals. What does Jesus mean, they are blessed? How can they be happy?

Happy are the meek? What does that mean? How shall the meek inherit the land?

I think in order to understand the Beatitudes, we have to begin by contrasting them against the Ten Commandments.

In contrast to the Ten Commandments, which seem like a bunch of “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that,” the Beatitudes are promises of happiness. “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Blessed are the pure in heart” are positive attributes, contrasted against “You shall not kill” and “You shall not commit adultery.” So the Ten Commandments present the bare-minimum of the law (“Don’t kill”) while the Beatitudes present the highest ideal (“Be a peacemaker” i.e. one who prevents the conflict that ultimately leads to loss of life). Jesus later speaks on the middle-ground (see Matthew 5:21-5:26 for how anger, which would have been prevented by the peacemaker, leads to the conflict that brings death). This same train of thought can be drawn between “Blessed are the pure of heart” and “Thou shall not commit adultery” and the explanatory passages of Matthew 5:27-28.

So the Beatitudes are ultimately the same message as the Ten Commandments. And Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law (the commandments), but to fulfill them. It seems to me that the Beatitudes are the ultimate fulfillment of the law.


You see, Jesus himself lived out all of these beatitudes, just as he lived out all of the Ten Commandments. When he said “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land,” who do we think of as being worthy of inheriting land? Kings, and princes, and rulers. Jesus lived this out–Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum–and showed us that meekness is the way to the kingdom, and that the last shall be the first in the Kingdom of God. See Mark 10:41-45 for more.

As king, Jesus shows us his throne. Jesus is the king who rules from the cross. Instead of being lifted up in a chair and paraded on the backs of servants, as kings would do in the ancient world, he is paraded with a cross on his back through the city that jeered and spat on him, and at the end of the parade, he is lifted high up on the cross.

Through the beatitudes, Jesus wants to take our understanding of the world and change the way we see reality. Kings should be servants. Bless those who persecute you. Our instinct is to hate people who hate us—but Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Our instinct is to talk about other people, in order to make ourselves feel better. But Jesus asks us to be merciful, and we will be given mercy. Our instinct is to hold onto things and to go after life experiences—to travel the world, to experience the best sex always, to have a fast car and to drive it really fast. But these experiences are fleeting. Meanwhile, the joy, the happiness, the blessedness Jesus speaks of is eternal.

The beatitudes turn the world upside down so we can see reality as it is—that reality is pointed toward heaven.

G.K. Chesterton once said that the way St. Francis viewed the world was as if it was upside-down. That is to say, the whole world is hanging and depending upon God. Chesterton describes what a big city would look like if it were hanging upside down on the earth. Chesterton says, “Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty  that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.

It is commonly in a somewhat cynical sense that men have said, ‘Blessed is he that expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.’ It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that Saint Francis said, ‘Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.’”

The beatitudes strip us of our worldly, animalistic desires, and they make us cling to Jesus. If we listen to them, they build into us the divinity that Christ promises to share with us—his Holy Spirit. You see, when we are rid of our worldly desires, our worldly expectations and the need for self-fulfillment, the things that we cling to that cause us to turn inward into ourselves, then we are free to receive love that lasts eternally—and to love others unreservedly. I want to live in that city that sees God holding me in place, keeping me from falling into the cosmos. To live the way Jesus lived, to live in the Beatitudes, is to trust in God—as Mary did when she said “Yes” to God and believed that what the angel said was true. Mary’s reality was turned upside-down. She was not concerned with not coveting her neighbor’s possessions–instead, she wanted to give her neighbors everything of herself. She still wants to give her Church everything of herself.

It is then, when we can love everyone in the world and give everyone everything we have, that we will be truly happy. Indeed, we will be blessed. Let us begin seeing the world upside-down, as if we are crucified as St. Peter.

Celibate Vocations in the Catholic Church

It’s been about six months since I began seriously considering whether I could be a priest.

Which is insane. Unreal. This is coming from a guy who’s grown up wanting to be a dad of five-to-eleven kids (a baseball team!) and who’s always wanted to share romantic moments with a girlfriend/wife, who’s wanted that gorgeous woman to be openly sensitive with, and she would be treated as royalty.

And then six months ago, my conscience wouldn’t let me date a woman unless I seriously addressed these uncomfortable pangs of what could be God telling me he has something different planned for my life.

But different doesn’t mean bad. You’d think that hearing that God is calling you to live single for the rest of your life would be a burden, a crushing disappointment. The kind of calling from God that would make you run to the ends of the earth, rather than travel to Ninevah. But after a little investigation and a lot of prayer, I’ve found that this calling–the calling to a celibate life in service of God–is weirdly comforting.

And there’s a part of me that can’t believe I just published that publicly on my blog.

Recently I gave the teaching at my church’s high school youth group (LifeTeen) on the topic of celibate vocations in the Catholic Church. I’ve re-written some of it to make it fit better on the blog format.

Starting at the beginning: how to talk about celibacy

When talking about celibacy, firstly it must be known that this is always a conversation about love.

After all—what is in common with all vocations, all ways of life that God calls you to? Love. No matter who you are or what God calls you to, you know for a fact that you are called to love, and nothing less. Whether you are a missionary, a parent of three, twenty-something and still single, or a ten-year-old child, you are called to love. It’s simply how God ordered the universe and binds the universe together. Love is the highest of Christian virtues, the strongest of emotions, and the force which moves the world. Love is what forgives us our sins and draws us into heaven; love is what sustains our souls for eternal joy. God is love, right? And it’s because God loves the universe that, frankly, it still exists. He holds your atoms in existence because he loves them–and he loves that they form you. And God wants us to be in him more and more. You don’t need to have a spouse to receive or give God’s love. Especially if you respect Jesus–who never married, he never engaged in conjugal relations, and he was perfectly fulfilled in service to God.

Unfortunately, celibacy is often viewed as a kind of loneliness, or permanent separation. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable because we can’t imagine how we would receive any love in a life without a significant other, without a spouse in marriage to hold our trust and hear our hearts and share our life with. And, to make matters worse, we’ve been inculturated to believe that sexual relations brings us to the fulfillment of our humanity; that if we die without ever having engaged in sex, we were never truly human. And our emotions and passions certainly don’t help us think straight, either.

While celibacy means no sexual intimacy, it does not mean loneliness, and it does not mean lack of emotional intimacy. Sexual intimacy means promising yourself to love deeply only one person. Freedom from that allows a person to serve the needs of hundreds of people; to sympathize with them, to share with them in their joys and sorrows, to suffer alongside those who suffer. For priests and especially for Franciscans, it also means hanging out with other people who are lonely—the people our society forgets about, such as the homeless, the mentally ill, the elderly, and maybe just people who are down on their luck and ended up alone. The world is full of lonely people–people who, for one reason or another, don’t have a spouse either, and have also bought the tripe our culture says about them concerning those who aren’t married. That is why we have priests, nuns, and friars—because this world badly needs love, and celibacy has a unique capacity to reach out and love the unloved.

God’s plan for you–not as invasive and controlling as it sounds

You’ve probably heard that God has a plan for you.

This plan could be called your vocation, but at the same time it’s much greater than who you’ll marry or what parish you’ll preside in or what religious order you’ll join.

God’s plan for you is the plan for how he’s going to draw you up into heaven; how love will invade your soul and sanctify you, until you become like Jesus and Mary and your soul will find perfect peace and love and adventure in God’s limitless creativity. Your vocation takes your sanctification into consideration, as well as the sanctification of those whom you’ll be in contact with–your friends, your family, and those God will put under your care. God’s plan is about your holiness and, yes, your happiness, too. Believe it or not, priests are happy, and so are monks and nuns.

God, who designed your personality, your physical features, your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, he knows and wants to give you what will make you most happy. He knows exactly what it’ll take for you to receive his pure love, unfiltered, and so to be sanctified for you to not only reach heaven, but in love carry your friends and family into heaven with you. If you’re in the wrong vocation, it’ll be harder for you to receive that love, and harder for you to give love to others in return, because it won’t come as naturally as it would have come had you paid attention to God’s call and gone into the vocation that was made for your personality/spirituality/gifts/temperaments.

Spiritual children

While marriage is what the majority of people are called to, there remains for the few, the joy, the mysterious desire, of the life of the religious.

While the physical expression of love within the context of marriage is in the generation of new life (BABIES!), the expression of love within the context of religious life is the regeneration of life in new believers, as well as the continual regeneration of the spirit of Catholics worldwide. Married couples give birth to babies, by their love, and then have tons of (“d’awwww,” “peek-aboo,” “coochie-coochie-cooo”) love to give to these babies. But priests and religious live out Christ’s calling when he says, “If you are not born again, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”

Priests and religious then, have their own spiritual children. As I mentioned earlier, the highest calling, the highest vocation, the highest reality, for human beings is love. Love is what brings us to heaven. The love of priests and religious toward us can deliver us into the arms of Jesus in a special way that parents cannot; after all, we need priests to hear our confessions, to offer sacrifices for us, to celebrate the Mass, to marry us together, to baptize our friends and our children.

We also need religious orders in the Church to help point us to an even deeper sense of holiness and reverence than we normally experience in parish life. We need the dedicated and devout prayers of the religious to carry our Church through the tumultuous waters of this age–an age that, if things keep going the way they’re headed, seems as if it might overcome and extinguish the consecrated life.

Community life, community love

At the end of the day, when all the day’s work is done, the priest has the loving support of his parish as well as his priest-brothers, whom he confides in as his best buds. In religious orders, however, the brotherly relationships are much more apparent. In some religious communities, they eat all of their meals together, as a rule. They see each other all the time, as in many communities the friars and nuns won’t normally leave the abbey.

Over the years of formation, they form strong bonds of friendship and comradery and trust. It’s the farthest thing from loneliness as can be.

But perhaps most important of all, and I don’t think I could possibly overstate this, is the intimate and familial relationship that is formed between a friar or priest and God himself. You see, a vocation isn’t discovered or stumbled upon by force of will or intellect. It’s a gift from God, and he reveals it through close and intimate and trusting prayer. It’s not just knowing God on a first-name basis, but knowing God on a “you’re-all-I-have-left in-this-world” basis. It’s a matter of putting all your chips on the table and placing your bet where God is whispering.

From an outside viewpoint, it’s just nuts. The idea that you’d willingly give up your one and only life–your one and only shot at having the best human experience you can have with your life (and all the sex, beaches, mountains, friendships, thrills, and lifestyles one can experience)–and trading all of that in and saying, “Not for me. I want God, and God only. I want him in my dreams, I want him when I wake. I want him when I’d rather be on a beach, and I want him when my mind and body demand sex, food, and money. I want him more than human relationships, and I believe him when he says he’ll be with me always… even until the end of the age.”

And with that leap of faith, many priests and friars have found that God is there. He won’t impose his will on you, and he won’t make himself so obvious that you’d be stupid not to turn to him. But if you trust him–if you give yourself away to him–you’ll have the deepest, richest love you could ever find. Who could ever love you deeper than Love itself?

The priest is never alone, nor the nun, in her cell with her rosary, nor the Trappist kneading curd. Those who have found–through truly massive amounts of prayer and devotion–that they are called to the celibate life, have found that it wasn’t something new they were looking for, but something they already had all along. A desire to spend the rest of one’s life in poverty, prayer, chastity, and love.

But how will you know if you don’t pray?

Suggested reading:

To Save a Thousand Souls by Fr. Brett Brannon. I’ve read this twice and intend to read it again. It’s a must-read and really the best place to begin.

The Liturgy of the Hours. Granted, you don’t read them, you pray them. As Yoda said, “Pray them you must.”*

The Celibacy Myth by Fr. Charles Gallagher and Fr. Thomas Vandenberg. This is an out-of-print book from the 1980s so you’ll have to dig through the ends of the internet or the bowels of your Catholic university library to find a copy. A must-read for understanding celibacy.

“The Priest I Seek” and “Mary and the Office of the Priest” by Hans Urs von Balthasar from the book, Priestly Spirituality, published by Ignatius Press. The rest of the essays in this book are just meh.

The Priest Is Not His Own by the venerable Fulton Sheen. Especially to get at the heart-intention of the priesthood, supported by pastoral Catholic teaching.

Biographies are also a great way to get a grasp on the holiness of the priesthood. Fr. Francis Trochu’s The Curé d’Ars and Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s biography of The Life of Fr. Eugene Hamilton will really show you what the heart of a priest is supposed to look like.

That should cover the priesthood. I’ve read a few other things, but none I could recommend. For the consecrated religious life (monks and nuns!), I’ve only just begun reading, so the list is much shorter:

The Contemplative Life by Fr. Thomas Philippe, OP. A must-read, especially if you’re (like me) thinking about the Dominican order.

“Thomas Aquinas and Vocational Discernment”, by Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP. It’s an essay that you can read here:

And keep up your own spiritual readings. As I read St. Francis de Sales’ Lenten sermons during the span of Lent, so I plan to read his Marian sermons during the span of May. Find your own favorite saint or favorite spiritual writings and keep up reading through them. Your vocational discernment is not just about the priesthood and religious life. It’s about your holiness and happiness–so continue reading the things that stir your heart and mind.

And one more thing! Check out Listen to their podcasts!

And talk to your vocation director!

*Also: “Pray, or pray not. There is no try.”

May the fourth be with you!

James KA Smith and Liturgical Animals

On Friday I was able to attend a special Eucharist service at Christ Church Anglican here in Phoenix. There was a guest homilist, James KA Smith, who is well known for his writings on Christian worship, secularism, and other topics, and the service itself seemed to be conceived of as a kind of “liturgy workshop” for visitors from non-liturgical backgrounds.

Dr. Smith’s sermon was very good, I thought, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to explain what exactly was going on at the service.

The reason I call it a “workshop” is that the presider took a minute or two before each part of the liturgy to explain its name, origin, and purpose within the service. Of course, the result of explaining what ritual action you are going to take before you take it is that what you are doing (almost) ceases to be a ritual action at all. I suppose it’s more precise to say that, the more discursive padding you provide, the lesser the power of the ritual to do its work in surely and silently forming you.*

* I’m speaking here about the natural power of ritual action and how it corresponds to our embodied experience, not necessarily about the supernatural effects of the Mass. I’m not sure yet about how to understand the way these things are connected — because they clearly are, yet a worship service without the special grace that comes through the Real Presence still has real formative power.

For evangelical churchgoers, this Pausing For Explanation will be such a familiar, rote part of experiencing church that it might take on a kind of ritual feel all its own. Scene: a pastor extemporaneously explains communion before the bread is passed around, or pauses to remind his congregation that infant dedication does not affect the baby’s salvation. A worship pastor discourses on the appropriate emotional response to the song he is about to play, as he provides mood music on the piano. But I’ve experienced this at Mass from time to time, too. It’s usually an older priest, and I want to say this was part of the generational problem of the 60s and 70s — priests genuinely came to think that the way to bring the liturgy to the people was to pause in the middle of performing it and explain the “real” meaning of every phrase and gesture. It was the heydey of what some ritual theorists refer to as “sincerity.”

But actually, because this is all about breaking down and analyzing the intrinsic but nondiscursive intentionality of the act, and bracketing it with more comfortable explanation, it transforms an experience of ritual action into merely learning about ritual action.

I can see why introducing things this way, on such an occasion, was seen as a helpful and welcoming thing to do for the visiting Christians from various backgrounds. I think I would have found it enlightening and inspiring when I was at the stage where I had read about and liked the idea of ritual, but had never experienced it as a fully intentional act. But as it was, I kept thinking — this is like explaining a joke before you tell it, or stopping in the middle of playing pretend to establish, “remember, right now I’m just PRETENDING to be a pirate.” The most disappointing words you can hear at a moment of your vicarious imaginative experience of piracy on the high seas are: “I don’t want to play anymore.” In my house as a kid, that would get you kicked in the shins. What do you mean, you don’t want to play?! We weren’t playing. You just ruined it!

Now, I rush to say, I didn’t exactly want to kick the good rector in the shins, but it did notably disrupt the momentum of what we were doing (as I’m sure he was also aware), and it also reminded me of what “we,” liturgical Christians, are up against when it comes to sharing traditional forms of worship with our evangelical brethren. Overall, the experience really highlighted for me how deeply entrenched this culture of discomfort-with-ritual is in huge swathes of Protestant or evangelical Christianity. I’ve read some books on ritual in the framework of modernity that have helped me see the wider intellectual and social trends behind anti-ritualism, but I couldn’t help but wonder about why this discomfort manifests itself so potently in this specific subculture.

Incense. An essential.

In the evangelical communities where I grew up, we did everything we could to stave off the suspicion of ritual — chiefly by pausing to explain and explain away the “inessentials” of what we were doing. These “inessentials,” I now see, were in large part the forms and patterns and actions that are actually the backbone of what it means to do or mean anything. I personally responded very well to ritual in all areas of my life, and actually look back at my childhood and laugh when I realize all the ways I was acting out (so to speak) my liturgical deprivation. I won’t go into the ways I filled the void, but suffice it to say that it involved pretended reenactments of “pagan” rituals and a continual longing to be Jewish, since they at least got all the fun stuff, before the Gospel made it obsolete.

Learning that the Christian dispensation did not make ritual obsolete, but actually built on it, drawing Christian worship toward some even more transcendent and immanent reality, was and is a continual joy. I learned what ritual actually was through ennacting it together with a community that was carrying on the practice of the Church throughout generations. I put my back up against it and slowly soaked in what was happening and what I was.

When I miss being evangelical, what I miss is the world, the kind of living, that I experienced through what we did. I sometimes miss the praise and worship “mode” of singing (though not often, to be honest) — or, more frequently, I miss the very earnest, very self-effacing position of prayer that I’ve dubbed the Evangelical Slump. (You know what I mean: elbows on knees, forehead propped on fists.) I miss carrying a huge Bible to church, or summer camp, or the cadence of extemporaneous prayer (which, I realize after seven years away from it, requires continual practice and formation to keep up). It might sound shallow to focus on these “externals,” which I was always taught were essentially meaningless. But they weren’t meaningless. They taught and formed me – not just my intellect, not just my beliefs, but my very self, the desires of my heart.

It’s these experiences that make our human lives what they are, and form us as members of the Body.

The Evangelical Slump.

So I come around at last to Dr. Smith’s homily, which meditated on this point: that ritual practice is an apprenticeship of repetition that forms our habits and our hearts, in allowing us to continually enact who we are called to be. As he repeats often in his books, Dr. Smith describes human beings as “liturgical animals.” Liturgical action, or ritual, is not something “man-made” that threatens our authentic experience of relationship with God — it is actually God-made, in that he is the one who created us to respond and live through the experience of ritual, as part of our human nature. As Christian worshippers (described in Colossians 3), we “put on love” through our enacting of liturgical worship, becoming more and more aware of what our hearts should love (and aware of what they love instead), both learning and becoming in this “school of love.” (I underlined this quote in my notes — the “school of love” is the way that Benedict describes the monastic life in his preface to the Rule.) Dr. Smith delivers some great lines that pack a punch and sent a ripple through the congregation. I jotted down:

On the Eucharist: “The way to our hearts is through our bodies – we absorb God’s story at a gut level.”
“We become what we worship because we worship what we love.”
Punning on SAD: “Lent is a season of affective order.”

He quoted Augustine (“he who sings prays twice”) and the congregation almost groaned, they were so moved with recognition — another note in my file for the essay I will someday write about how singing is the evangelical sacrament.

I appreciate Dr. Smith’s obvious familiarity with the medieval philosophical tradition on habits (internal dispositions of character) and his indebtedness to Augustine and Thomas in certain aspects, and wish I could comment more on his incorporation of quotes from Luther and Calvin. As both of these confessional traditions preserved liturgical worship, but in a markedly different form than before, I have much to learn about the way that liturgy has been conceived of and practiced in these “lower” traditions. My jump from evangelicalism to Catholicism leads me to assume that any liturgical tradition is as “high” as my own, since it is high compared to where I started — but the more I experience worship in liturgical Protestant communities, the more holes I find in this assumption.

It was a very auspicious time to hear Dr. Smith’s thoughts on the essential role of liturgical ritual action, as I’m heading in to Lent, and I have not always been a very successful observer of liturgical seasons. It’s a challenge in our life, which teems with so many rival liturgies, many of which exist to tear us away from forming solid habits and sane dispositions in the first place. I think modern Westerners suffer from a real lack of ritual formation in all areas of our life, which can make it difficult to actually benefit from ritual practices unless we approach them in the right way. It certainly has been difficult for me in the past — fasting is a particular hurdle. But Dr. Smith urged that we remember Lent as a time to submit to the story we are told in worship, letting it govern our imaginations and affections at a visceral level, the “tangible teaching of our hearts.”

I’ll be praying that he and all of you have a blessed Lenten season.

Easter Fire in the Holy Sepulchre.

Three poems on the Death of Mary

Not quite liturgically apropos — but close enough, I think, since the Immaculate Conception is on Monday:

Three poems from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Marienleben (Life of Mary cycle). Translated by Knut W. Barde:

The Death of Mary I

The same tall Angel who once brought the news
Of the birth to her,
Stood there, waiting for her to notice him,
And spoke: Now is the time for you to appear.
And she was frightened as then and proved herself
Again as the maid servant, deeply affirming his command.
But he was radiant and coming infinitely closer,
vanished, yet shone from her face, and called
The widely dispersed proselytizers
To gather at the house on the hill,
The house of the last supper. They arrived more heavily
And entered with fear: There she lay, stretched out
In the narrow bedstead, mysteriously bathed in
Ruin and in being chosen,
Wholly unharmed, like one who had not been used,
And listened to angelic song.
Then, when she saw them all waiting behind their candles,
she tore herself away from the surfeit of
Of the voices and with an overflowing heart yet gave away
the two dresses that she possessed,
And lifted her face to this one and that one…
(Oh origin of nameless brooks of tears).

But she settled into her weakness
And pulled the heavens down to Jerusalem
So closely, that her soul,
As it left her, only had to stretch a little:
Already he, who knew everything about her,
Lifted her into her divine nature.

The Death of Mary II

Who had realized that until her arrival
the crowded heavens had been incomplete?
The risen one had taken his seat,
but next to him, for twenty-four years,
there was an empty space. And they began already
to get used to the pure gap,
which seemed to have healed, because with his beautiful
spreading radiance the son was filling it.

Thus, when she entered the heavens,
she did not go towards him, despite her strong longing;
there was no room, only He was there and shone
with a radiance that hurt her.
But just now as her moving figure joined
with the new blessed ones
and stood discreetly, as light with light, next to them,
there erupted from her being such an assault of
glowing light, that the blinded angel who was illuminated by her
cried out: Who is this one?
A wonderment arose. Then they all saw
how God-Father above shielded our Lord,
so that in the mild gloaming
the empty spot could now be seen
like a small pain, a sense of loneliness,
as something he was still bearing, a remnant from
his time on earth, a dried up injury-.
They watched her; she looked ahead with fear,
bent far forward, as if she felt: I am
His most enduring pain-; and suddenly broke forth.
But the angels took her in their fold
and steadied her and sang with blessed voices
and carried her up the final steps.

The Death of Mary III

However, sooner than the apostle Thomas, who
Came after it was too late, the quick angel, who had
long been prepared for this, stepped in
and ordered at the burial place:

Push the stone aside. If you want to know
Where she is, who moves your heart:
Look: just as a lavender-pillow
She had been laid in there for a while,

That in the future the earth would smell of her
In its folds like a fine cloth.
Everything dead (do you feel), everything sick
Is stunned by her fragrance.

Look at the linen: where is it white,
Where becomes blinding and does not shrink?
This light out of this pure corpse
Was more clarifying to him than sunshine

Aren’t you amazed, how gently she escaped him?
It is almost as if she were still here, nothing has moved.
But the Heavens are shaking above:
Man, kneel down and see me go and sing.