Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Life without Any Sacrifice

There is no such thing.

We’d like to think there is. Many live their lives simply trying to please themselves, and think they are thus avoiding sacrifice. Many avoid God, religion, or following all the dictates of their professed religion, because they don’t like the idea of sacrifice. In their minds, either God is mean and wrong to ask for sacrifice, or He is too nice to do so.
      But there’s no escaping it, even if we are blind to its presence, or even if we reject God. Some may think they serve no one and certainly no god, but that’s impossible. Whether we admit it or not, the temple in our heart can’t be empty. If we refuse to allow God in there, some other idol(s) will slip in, in His place. And that idol will always demand sacrifice.
     This sounds crazy, I know, but think about it. Let’s say I decide I will be happiest if I have a lot of money. I’m so dedicated to riches that I decide to let nothing stop me. So I put making money above following the law (provided I won't get caught). I put making money above exercise and rest, since I’ve got to put in a lot of hours to advance at work. I put it above being fair to my co-workers, because getting that promotion is integral to achieving my goal. So I’ll backstab or even lie about my co-workers. I may not admit it, but money is my idol, and the sacrifices I make to it are my conscience, my health, and good relationships with my colleagues.
Or let’s say what I care most about is pleasure. I don’t want to slave away at my job; I only work so I can pay for my pleasures. So I do just enough to keep my job; I don’t care about the company I work for, its well-being, or about pleasing my boss. I like people who are fun and with whom I have a good time. If they stop being fun or have problems, I avoid them if possible. I engage in activities that are pleasurable, even if they’re bad for me or risky. I may not admit that I’m worshipping pleasure or sacrificing my integrity, my long-term welfare, real friendship, my health, and possibly my life to it, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am.
Of course in both those cases, all I’ve listed are the temporal sacrifices, which any open-minded person can perceive. But believers also notice the spiritual price to be paid: worshipping money, pleasure, or anything instead of God ultimately means the sacrifice of my character, of my virtues, of my eternal soul.

Most people aren’t as extreme as these examples though. They want money and pleasure and friends, so they give something to each. But they still fudge giving much of anything to God. 
But many do allow God in the temple of their hearts. Nevertheless, all of us—being sinners—have at least at times let down our guard and also allowed some minor gods to creep in there too. We don’t admit that they’re idols, so we think God won’t mind sharing some space with them. We think we can please Him and them too, and get the benefits of pouring a few surreptitious libations in their direction.

      Much as we would like to, we can’t keep our pretty cake intact and eat it too. Everything comes with a price. Often the price is worth it. Working hard at one’s job is worth the cost involved to provide for one’s family. But not if means having only the crumbs of time left for one’s family.
Growing in virtue and going to heaven have a price too—I have to follow God’s commands, even though it means denying myself or doing something difficult—but that price is well worth it. Any sacrifice I need to make—my pride, my grudges, indulging in excessive pleasure, my pet sins, getting my way—any and every one of these sacrifices is well worth heaven and union with God, who alone can satisfy my soul.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Neighbor's Prayer

A poem I wrote years ago for my next-door neighbor when his brother died: 

Echoes of pain pass through the walls,
echoes of aching.
Aches for lost laughter
lost presence, lost ... all;
echoes of loss.

Perhaps the pain is really mine:
I hear true echoes
bouncing back from the walls.

I don't know your pain,
but I know my pain...

Or perhaps I do, perhaps
a death is a death is death.
Though each must differ,
the blow is the same.

I don't know you;
I don't know him.
I can't know your heart,
but I do know pain.
And I know sorrow.

Are you crying? I wonder.
Or sitting stunned?
I try not to think, but the ache keeps knocking;
the sadness seeps through.

I can only keep praying.
What else can one do?
Only He and His Time
can touch, transform...
but they are so slow.

If I could grant you comfort
I would give you comfort.
But it's meaningless now
only you can find it.

If you can hear a hope,
hear a tiny hope:
Consolation waits for you.
Though its being you can't believe,
it waits for you,
waits patiently.

Only this do I dream:
That the waves of woe 
that wash these walls
pull back with them support
and all that prayer can give.

May you hear eachoes too,
echoes of concern:
I'm sorry, I'm sorry,
I'm so very sorry.
May God be with you; my He be with you and hold you:
hold you, oh, hold you, 
keep, keep holding.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Heart of Holiness

Trust has come up a good bit on this blog of late, and its necessity in a vibrant spiritual life.
     Today it leads us to the core of the matter.
     "The Universal Prayer" attributed to Pope Clement XI asks for all the graces and assistance necessary to grow in holiness. The heart of the prayer is striking—but not easy to pray.

     I want whatever you want
     because you want it,
     the way you want it,
     as long as you want it. 

Such a prayer requires a huge amount of trust—a limitless trust, really. One can't pray this without turning everything over to God, and accepting His will unconditionally.
    This is not to say that we are to roll over and passively accept anything and everything that happens to us. That would be Quietism: the heresy that equates accepting God's will with total passivity. Often when a problem enters our lives, what He wants is for us to do our darndest to solve it. Embracing His will frequently means accepting the challenge of struggling to overcome a difficulty. 
     There are negative situations over which we have no control. Then embracing His will means to accept that situation as best as possible,
carry that cross, offer it up. This approach is similar to that of the "Serenity Prayer": 

     God, grant me the serenity 
     to accept the things I cannot change,
     the courage to change the things I can,
     and the wisdom to know the difference.

     We don't have to like everything that happens to us; we’re certainly not supposed to want suffering. God doesn't want suffering. What He wants is our good, and for us to be free. There is a difference between His perfect will and His permissive will.[1]
     That’s why praying Pope Clement’s prayer requires trust.
     God knows we question this. Jesus says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a serpent, or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12). The only problem is that sometimes it sure looks like a serpent or a scorpion. That’s why He also says: “I know my plans for you, and they are plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
If we come to believe that God is holding back countless sufferings from us, filtering them through His loving hand, and only allowing those that will somehow bring us a greater good, then we can rest in His will. If we can trust that what He wants for us is good, then we can want that good too, even if it comes in a nasty shape. We trust that He’s a good judge of value; He knows which goods are greater.
We can want what He wants when we know that what He wants is our good.
When we're experiencing great suffering, however, it is nearly impossible to believe this. With His grace and help, we can strive to take the longer view, the eternal viewalthough we’ll never be able to reach the pinnacle of His viewpoint. If nothing else, we can cling to Him in the midst of the horrible mystery, knowing that God the Son suffered too, and God the Father gave up His Son for love of us.

Theologians and saints have said that the essence of holiness is conforming one's will to the will of God.
     Only a great love can do so. But love is of the heart, so it's no surprise that love for God is at the heart of holiness.
     If Pope Clement’s prayer seems too impossible to pray sincerely, ask for the love and the trust to pray it. Then pray, "Lord, I want to want whatever you want...". If you can't even pray that, ask for the desire to pray it.
     A life lived with that attitude is one of peace and even joy. Because our fulfillment is union with God.

[1]For a more extensive handling of this topic, see my earlier posts: “Qualifying Gift” and “Trusting in God”. 

To see "The Universal Prayer" in full (though a different translation), click here

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Rendezvous with a god?

Special family day today, so I can't write a new post today, so I'm re-posting a popular one from the early days of this blog:
One day in fourth grade, I lifted my desk lid to gather my books, only to discover—of all things!—a love-note. It was the most thrilling moment of my young life.
A few seconds later, however, I was filled with doubt. Could this be some sort of cruel prank? I had been picked on since second grade by my former best friend and her followers.
But then I heard that my friend and neighbor, a new girl, had also received a love note, in a different hand. What was going on?
After we each had received several notes, we came to the conclusion that they were for real. I began to keep mine in a box marked “Precious”. 
Then one day our secret admirers invited us to a rendezvous. (The plot thickens!) We were to meet them at an overgrown spot on our block. The boys would be on the other side of the fence, behind the bushes. We were not to try to find out who they were; it was just a chance to talk.
My friend and I duly came, and after a little while, we began to wonder again if this was a prank, because nothing seemed to happen. We felt like fools, standing there talking to some bushes. We began to suspect that no one was really there. At last, when we threatened to leave, we heard some rustling, assuring us that indeed there was someone (or two) unseen listening to us. I can't remember now if they ever did say anything, but if so, I'm sure it was in a whisper.
This memory came back to me a year ago when I was asked to give a talk on prayer. If prayer is conversation with God, many times it is like my fourth-grade experience. He claims to loves us and invites us to meet Him, but then He hides Himself from us and often doesn’t say anything. We can feel as silly talking to Him, who makes no sign of His presence, as I felt that day on the sidewalk.
If we’re not careful, we can fall into the fallacy that led to poor Pscyhe's troubles in the ancient Greek myth. She was married to one who said he was a god, but who would never let her see his face. She lived in his palace, surrounded by luxury, but he would come to her only in the dead of night, and forbade her ever to light a lamp. Her jealous sisters said this must be because he was not really a god but a hideous monster. She didn’t want to believe them, but when taunted that she was afraid they were right, she caved in and agreed to find out. The next night, after her husband was asleep, she lit a candle. What she saw entranced her: the gloriously handsome god of love.
Perhaps some light on this mystery can be found in the many fairy tales in which a king hides his identity to see who his real friends are. I tell my children that Jesus is a King who hides Himself in the Eucharist and waits in the tabernacle to see who loves Him enough and believes His word enough to come and visit Him.
The one who invites us to meet Him is indeed the God of Love. Fortunately, He doesn’t always leave us in the dark. After we’ve proved our faithfulness by standing on the sidewalk apparently talking to some bushes, if we persevere, He will rustle a branch or whisper the sweet somethings we need to hear.