Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Loving Tongue

Loving our neighbor is an important part of following Christ. He made that pretty clear. He described it as the second-most important commandment, right after the greatest, which is to love God. St. John writes: "If any one says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4:20).
     In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus explained not only who our neighbor is, but also what love of neighbor looks like. He also taught the importance of the corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, etc.) when He spoke of the King separating the sheep from the goats (Mt 25:31-46). I think our society gets this. Even if many individuals don't actually practice it as often as they should, we as a society recognize and value serving the poor, helping those in need, etc.
     In our day, an aspect of loving our neighbor that is frequently overlooked, on the other hand, is how we speak of one another. People realize that it can be a bad idea to say negative things straight to someone's face, but they seem to have few qualms about saying almost anything behind someone's back.
     In Taming the Tongue, Mark Kinzer provides a very sobering examination of how seriously God takes this subject. For example, he writes: "I know of few verses in all of Scripture more spine-chilling than [Mt 12:36-37]: 'On the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.' "
     Why does He care so much about what we say?
     It is due to the power of the word.    
     Obviously, insulting someone directly is unkind. But bad-mouthing someone behind their back is also hurtful. For one thing, our words could find their way back to the one about whom we speak. Our listener might report our words, or the subject of our conversation might overhear us, or someone else might overhear and report our words.
     But even if that person never learns of what we said, our words have still hurt them, for we have hurt their reputation. Almost everything we say about someone has the potential to build up or tear down that person. This is why it's so important not only to avoid slandering someone (speaking a negative truth), but also to guard against uttering careless words about them.
     St. Philip Neri, who is known for his dedicated service as a confessor, once helped a habitual gossip realize the seriousness of her vice. For her penance, he had her take a feather pillow to the top of a tower on a windy day, cut it open, and shake the feathers out. Then she was to go down and recover every feather she'd released. She naturally retorted that that would be impossible. He responded that it would be easier than to retrieve every harmful word she'd spoken or repair its damage.
     Hence, what we say or refrain from saying is a key aspect of loving our neighbor.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Art of Pondering

A couple years ago, my friend Jean told me about a book she was reading: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. According to the description, the author, Nicholas Carr, shows how "the technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways." And the effects are not all positive: "We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection." 
     Of course, the Internet is not the only challenge to deep thinking; a daily to-do list provides sufficient distraction. Back in the '50s, long before the Internet, Fr. Philip Dion wrote of the ease with which people can avoid ever thinking below the surface level.
     There's a problem with that, and it's not just intellectual. 
     As Fr. Dion puts it: "We judge of things chiefly by their effects on our material welfare and our physical well-being. In other words, it is possible to live practically without thinking; it is possible to live a most superficial kind of animal existence without ever really tapping the resources of our spiritual mind, without ever becoming familiar with the whole thrilling world of spirit within us."
     The world of the spirit—though more important—can easily take a backseat in our lives because it's invisible. Ironically, the things that last can't be seen, and we're distracted by the countless things we can see. But none of them last: "All shall pass," St. Teresa of Avila reminds us; "all shall pass." 
     Only people pass into eternity, but their appearance then would amaze us now. C.S. Lewis wrote that if we could see each others' souls, some would fill us with horror, while the beauty and holiness of others would incline us to fall down in worship.
     Because there are so many other things competing for our attention, we can easily forget the things we say we know or believe. We may know that someday we will die, but we don't often think about it or act on the fact that it could happen any day. We may believe that we will have to render an account of our lives to our Creator on that day, but we don't prepare for it. We say we understand that our actions and attitudes are not always pleasing to Him, but we don't try to change them. Instead, we act as if we're guaranteed another fifty or sixty years and can work on that later.
     What we assent to intellectually, what we know in our minds, has not made its way down to our hearts. This is why we can say we love God but neglect to spend time with Himeven on the only day He commanded it. Or if we go to church, this why we can sit there like we're waiting for the bus instead of feeling the joy of our salvation. Or why, if we're Catholics, we can say we believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, yet file up to receive Him with as much excitement as if we're in line at the grocery store.
     But how can we realizethat is, make real to ourselves—what we know and believe?
     It is in taking the time to think deeply about these things—and not alone, but asking for the help of the Holy Spiritthat they sink into our hearts. It is in pondering these truths in prayer that they take root in our lives and grow and bear fruit.
     If someone asks you, "Why do you pray?" Archbishop Fulton Sheen said to ask them, "Why do you breathe?"

     Use it or lose it, the gym advertisers warn. The same could be said for the powers of our mind and, even more frighteningly, of our spirit too.

Not sure how to do it? Check out one of my earlier postsHow to Meditate.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Who Needs Mercy?

You used to hear a lot about "guilt complexes" and "hang-ups" in the twentieth century. It was as though guilt feelings were never to be trusted and always to be avoided. The only thing to be ashamed of, was the feeling of shame. If you felt guilty, it wasn't because you had actually done anything wrong, but because you had "hang-ups" you needed to get beyond. If truth is relative, then there's not much that's really wrong—except, say, murder, judging other people, or failing to recycle.
     I think it's worked pretty well. I don't hear much about guilt anymore. If everything is permissible, what is there to feel guilty about?
     Even for those of us who think that there are plenty of impermissible things, today's feast—Divine Mercy Sunday—doesn't strike us as that exciting. Perhaps there's been such an emphasis in the last decades on God's love and mercy that we take them for granted.
     Many people today laugh at the idea of hell; if it exists at all, the only people there are Hitler and his ilk. 
     If that's true, why did Jesus speak more often of hell than heaven? If there's no hell, then why do some people who have been resuscitated, who have experienced "life after death," say that they went there?
     "Fire-and-brimstone" sermons are scorned as not only unnecessary, not only ridiculously archaic, but downright mean. How can it be mean, though, to remind us of a real danger we'd rather forget?
     Nowadays, most people don't think they deserve to go to hell. "I'm not that bad. I've never killed anyone. I'm basically a good person," they say. I don't think we're really being honest with ourselves, though, if that's what we think. When I look back on my life and think of the worst things I've done, think of the times I've turned my back on the God who has done so much for me, done things I knew would offend Him, I recognize that I deserve to go to hell.
     If that's hard for you to see for yourself, can you really say that you deserve to go to Heaven? That you are so wonderful, that your life is so exemplary and meritorious that you've earned it? I hope not, because that would indicate some seriously delusional thinking. No one can earn heaven.
     I think the real problem is a lack of really thinking about it. We're so caught up in our day-to-day concerns that we don't think about these deeper matters.
     But if we are not big sinners, that doesn't mean we have nothing to worry about. Today's feast derives in part from the approved private revelations to St. Faustina. She said that Jesus wished for not only a Feast commemorating His Divine Mercy; He also wanted it to be preceded by a novena, each day dedicated to a different intention. The last day was devoted for the most difficult: the lukewarm and indifferent. "These souls cause Me more suffering than any others; it was from such souls that My soul felt the most revulsion in the Garden of Olives." This echoes what He said in the Gospels about the lukewarm: that He would spit them out of His mouth.
     One way I can arouse gratitude in my heart for His infinite mercy is to contemplate my need for it. Relating the sorrowful mysteries of His Passion to my own sins is helpful in this. 
     Haven't I, for instance, like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, only added to, rather than relieved, His sorrows? They fell asleep when He needed them, then fled when He was taken. Haven't I neglected spending time with Him in prayer, or spaced out if I did go; haven't I run from the cross, abandoned Him in countless ways?
     If every lash of my tongue in my life left a mark, would not my unkind words leave Him as welt-covered and bloody as did the scourging at the pillar? If my every negative, critical, selfish, judgmental, proud thought were visible, would they not amount to a crown of thorns covering His sacred head? If every sin of omission—every failure to do my part, to carry my cross—resulted in His not only being burdened with my sins, but in falling under their weight, would He not have fallen more than three times?
     Then the crucifixion: who wants to admit that their sins helped fix Him to the cross? But I recognize those nails as mine.
     How can such reflections not lead to sorrow? That's the point. But not to remain there. Yes, we should recognize that "It was our sins that He carried, our punishment that He bore," but precisely in order that we can rejoice that "By His stripes, we are healed..... On him lies a punishment that brings us peace."     
     Guilt feelings should not be denied nor should we swim in them. Rather, they are meant be used to help us grow in gratitude and holiness.

     I asked the Lord, "How much do you love me?"
     He said, "This much," and He spread out His arms...
and died for me.

     Thank you, Jesus, for your Infinite Mercy.

Monday, April 1, 2013

God Is Dead?

I remember some years ago seeing a book about the death of God, and (I think) the problem posed by his gigantic body decaying on earth. Too ridiculous, I thought.

Nietzsche famously wrote “God is dead,” a nonsensical notion that gained some popularity some decades ago. If God is God—almighty, eternal, the source of all being—how could He die? If He could, He wouldn't be God.

And yet, many people take for granted the really astonishing thing that Christians profess: namely, that God WAS dead.

That is really amazing, if you think about it.

No, God, as a Divine Being, could not die. Not, until, that is, He had taken up life as a man. Even then, no one could kill Him—remember those who tried to throw Him off a cliff?—unless He let them.

But the real death of God did not cause an ecological disaster. It did cause an more than an earthquake—more like a cosmos-quake.

It meant that death was changed. Death was no longer a dead-end. Once the All-Powerful dropped into the abyss of death but didn't remain there, it became a passageway to eternal life.

The sin of Adam and Eve and had locked the gates of heaven from the outside, but they and their descendants were incapable of opening them again. Only God could do it. So he came out and broke the lock of sin, and used a cross to do it.

God did die—and it's a wondrous thing.

And now He is risen—Alleluia!