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.

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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: http://vocations.opwest.org/home/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Thomas-Aquinas-and-Vocational-Discernment.pdf

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 http://www.vocationboom.com. 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!

Converting Yourself to Christianity

A few days ago I wrote on the Verbum blog about St. Francis de Sales and his teachings drawing me closer to Christ throughout 2013. While ongoing sanctification is a major underpinning to what I wrote and how I analyzed myself, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain or defend ongoing sanctification. The same is true for this blog post. Whether you’re Catholic and you adhere to the doctrine of ongoing sanctification or you’re a Protestant interested in a practical biblical theology for the practice of holiness, I want to offer my thoughts on today’s Gospel reading. Check it out before reading further—Mark 4:1-20—it’s a long passage, but this analysis assumes you’ve read it through.

In the middle of this passage, before Jesus offers an explanation for those whom the parable has mystified, Jesus has this to say:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”

What?

This passage is a little mystifying. Jesus speaks in parables and concludes by saying that he does it on purpose to obfuscate the understanding of those outside of the Kingdom of God. But there’s a lot more here than just mystery and revelation. Jesus explains the parables to his twelve apostles, enlightening them of the meaning of the parable while leaving the crowds in the dark. Does God create intentional outcasts of his kingdom?

I don’t believe this is the case. Interestingly, the parable is self-referential. This is where the analysis of the passage gets weird—I’m getting the feeling of déja vù as I write this, and am tempted to drop an Inception joke. You see, not only is the understanding of the parable itself withheld from the masses of Jesus followers, but the parable itself is an explanation of why the followers don’t understand it in the first place.

Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all of the parables?

We often think of the parable of the sower as being a parable of conversion. Jesus explains that the seed that is sown is, essentially, the Gospel, or the Word. The various states of soil represent the circumstances surrounding the people who receive the Gospel message, and for whatever reason, be it thorns, rocks, or weeds, the Gospel message doesn’t last long in that person’s heart. It is a parable of conversion; but much more than that, it is a parable of understanding. You see, when Jesus asks the question, “How will you understand all of the parables?” the scope of this parable’s importance becomes paramount.

Now, suppose we make a parable out of this parable. (Have patience with me—I was an English major.) Imagine this parable is the full Gospel—it is the Word of God, the Good News, and the light to the nations. How can you fully understand it? Do you understand God, his methods, ways, purposes, and plans? This parable is a very apt microcosm for the entire Gospel of Mark, and even for the whole New Testament. Numerous commentators before me (Protestant and Catholic) are in agreement that understanding of God comes first from God—for how can we understand any aspect of him unless he allows us to? Therefore, and these same commentators agree, the understanding of this parable is given to us by God—just as we here see Jesus imparting understanding of the parable to his Twelve. But do the Twelve fully understand it? I suspect not. I suspect that our knowledge-based understanding of God and our practice-based holiness go hand-in-hand.

Remember what I said earlier about the parable being a parable of conversion? The seed is sown into different types of soil, where it either takes root or doesn’t. Now, apply this to the principle of ongoing sanctification. We are constantly re-converting ourselves to God—repenting, returning, and redirecting our actions, words, and thoughts to God. The seed—God’s Word, or, more appropriately here, the Gospel and God’s Truth—is being sown into us each day. If you’re Catholic, then this applies even more literally—we have daily readings from the Gospels every day of the year! Whether you’re aware of it or not, God’s truth—his love—is constantly bombarding your heart, looking to take root.

Now that you understand the parable, this brings the most pertinent question before us:

What type of soil are you giving to God’s word? This Great Sower is endlessly reaching out to you. Is your mind open to him? Are you willing to let his love take root? Are you even aware of the state of your soil?

I’ve been thinking lately about the state of the soil where God’s Gospel message is planted upon me, and it shames me to admit that this soil is pretty dry. Filled with entertainment, food, friends, internet, beer, general laziness, and the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, I’m not reacting with conversion or repentance when God’s Word is sown upon me. And trust me, it’s sown through my Christian friends, through the Catholic Church’s daily readings, through prayer, the Mass, and through theology books, but the evidence of a shallow root is quite clear. I’m not able to focus or give my attention for lengthy periods of time. I’m unable to adhere to any kind of discipline or routine. I’ve become weak, lazy, and selfish.

But I know the causes of poor soil. In my case, it’s not for lack of engagement with my Church, community, prayer, or Scripture reading. These things are various forms of the seed, and tossing more seed upon the soil isn’t going to improve the soil. Rather, I need to prepare my mind and body for the reception of God’s Word. My attention span and ability to study have been shot by quick and easy entertainment, fast food, and my ability to control many aspects of my life—who I spend time with, where I go, what I do. I need to prepare myself to convert back to him.

I need to get rid of the distractions. Eliminate the laziness. It is in circumstances like these that various Catholic and secular disciplines can really make the difference. I’m talking about routine exercise, avoidance of YouTube and Facebook, regular reading (and I mean real reading—books, poems, novels, essays, theology, anything longer than a blog post), and controlled diets (not a “diet” as in, eating less food, but controlling how much goes in to you, when it goes in, and what is the contents of your sustenance). What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of games do you play and how do they affect your attitude and heart? How do the people you spend time with affect the ways you think and process reality and affect your behavior and attempt at holiness?

It is for this reason why we Catholics fast from meat on Fridays. Why we sacrifice something significant from our lives during Lent. Why penance is not in any measure a form of atonement, but preventative care. Penance prepares us to receive Christ again in the future, when he calls us again, and we decide whether we’re converting back to him.

Are you prepared to convert to Christ’s call? God is sowing his Word to you even now.

What kind of soil have you prepared for him?