The Saint of Joy’s “Mépris du Monde”

Still Life with Skull, Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1671 (Source)

The rather romantic image of St. Philip Neri as always laughing, joking, and cheerful is a far cry from reality, as anyone who has immersed himself in the saint’s biographies and hagiographies will know. St. Philip, well-versed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, displayed a profound and salutary disillusionment with the charms of the world. Well did he know the verse that reads, “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

St. Philip expressed this mépris du monde in a little-known song based on famous verses in Ecclesiastes. It is one of the few writings allegedly from his hand to have been preserved. While the attribution remains uncertain, the opinions expressed below conform to the Maxims of the Saint, especially his frequent attempts to provoke thoughts of death. He was known to approach worldly young men and ask what they desired. At each answer, he would like Socrates say, “And then? And then?” leading eventually on to death. At which point, many souls realized the vanity of their desires and subsequently converted. St. Philip also used to say, “The things of this world do not remain constantly with us, for if we do not leave them before we actually die, in death at least we all infallibly depart as empty-handed as we came.” And he exhorts all Christian souls, “We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time.”

The song can be found in an appendix to Fr. Faber’s English translation of The School of Saint Philip Neri by Giuseppe Crispino, whence I have transcribed it. The original Italian text may be seen there as well. I offer it here to my readers who many not have access to this rather obscure book for their edification and private devotions to the Saint.

The sentiments of the Saint in this song are, I believe, particularly well-suited to a time of global pandemic, when pious souls ought more than ever to contemplate their own mortality.

Vanitas, Adriaen van Utrecht (Source)

Deceit of the World

Vanitas Vanitatum et Omnia Vanitas
Attributed to Saint Philip Neri

Vanity of vanity,
Everything is vanity;
All the world is vanity,
Everything is vanity.

If it grants your heart’s desire,
All to which you now aspire;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If you live a thousand years,
Healthy, happy, free from fears;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If you have a thousand men,
Serving day and night, what then?
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If you have a warrior host,
More than Xerxes ere could boast;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If you speak in every tongue,
Hear your learning’s praises sung:
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If you have unbounded ease,
Mansions, gardens, what you please;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

Gratify your every whim,
Fill your life’s cup to the brim:
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

Turn your heart to God above,
Give to Him alone its love;
Help unfailing He will be,
All the rest is vanity.

If no pleasure is denied,
If each wish is gratified,
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If your well-filled coffers hold
Riches, treasures, silver, gold;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If you live upon this earth,
Always gay and full of mirth;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If you always have your will,
Far from pain and every ill;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

If your heart is ever glad,
Ever cheerful, never sad;
When death comes, how will it be?
Everything is vanity.

All your wishes check, control,
Go to God who loves your soul.
Now and for eternity;
All the rest is vanity.

Jean de Bernières on Humility and Communion

This week’s contribution to the Lenten Spirituality Series comes from Jean de Bernières-Louvigny (1602-1659), a pious lay mystic who lived and died in Caen. From his hermitage in this rainy Norman town, Jean de Bernières gave himself over to profound experiences of contemplative prayer. His spirituality, as expressed in the two volumes of his Le chrestien intérieur (Paris: 1661), was deeply indebted to the apophatic tradition of mystical theology. Although a solitaire, Jean de Bernières was engaged in ecclesiastical and charitable networks that included some of the greatest spiritual figures of his day. He was a member of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement in Caen and corresponded with such notable individuals as St. François de Montmorency-Laval, Bishop of Québec, and Mother Mectilde de Bar, Foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. He met the latter at Caen; she became, as it were, a dear friend. Translated into German in the eighteenth century, Jean de Bernières had an important influence on the trajectory of Pietism in that country. He has, as far as I can tell, never been fully translated into English. What I produce below is my own translation, in the hope it may offer some aid to pious souls in this time of temptation. The excerpt comes from the Second Volume, Book V, Chapter II of Le chrestien intérieur, pp. 6-11. I would add, for those who take an interest in such matters, that one of the extra difficulties in translating Jean de Bernières is that he uses Norman French vocabulary that no longer appears in standard French. I hope I have managed to capture his sense here.

May the Blessed Hermit Jean de Bernières pray for us in this time of penance. (Source)

To commune worthily, one must place oneself in a state conformed to that of Jesus, in the Blessed Sacrament.

Jesus Christ wishes to give Himself to us in this august mystery, in a state of death with respect to the life of the senses, but as a source of life with respect to the interior life, the divine life, the life of grace, the life of contemplation and continuous application to the grandeurs of God His Father; a life poor and annihilated [aneantie] in exteriors, but entirely brilliant with majesty, and infinitely rich under the veil of the species that hide it from the eyes of the world. It is with these dispositions that that He comes to present Himself to us, wishing as well that we too should present ourselves to Him with dispositions conformed to His.

The Humanity that He gives to you in Communion has been elevated to the divine life by the hypostatic union; we too must be such by grace, that our understanding would be elevated to a high knowledge, and our will to a sublime sentiment of love of God, and that our soul would live the life of grace. O sublimity of the life of grace, you are so admirable, you are so high, you are so ineffable! You raise man from earth to heaven, and you make him live in God, and even of God, because you dispose him to live on the earth from the same substance by which the Blessed live in heaven. O great life of grace, you are poor to the exterior, but very rich in the interior: you seem low, but you are most high: you have ravished me with you beauty, I can no longer live a moment without thee, who make [me] live from a divine life, who places the soul in the heart of God, and who disposes her to see God placed in her heart.

Since the beauty of this life manifests itself to the soul, she leaves everything to embrace it, and everything else seems to her naught but death and corruption; we abandon the world, honors, and riches; we condemn ourselves to penances, to mortifications, to poverty, so as to live this divine life; and we feel a holy hunger for this adorable food that nurtures the soul. O that I might know it, my God, and that I might follow it, this divine life, so little known to the world, practiced by so few in the world, that also does not find itself altered by the waters of Thy eternal fountains! O Jesus, draw me after Thee in the actions of the life of grace, which is in its full exercise in misery and scorn. Draw me, Lord, I run after Thee in the odor of Thy perfumes. What pleasure, my soul, to behold you walking as a giant in the ways of grace, nourished and fortified in your course with the bread of grace: Ambulavit in fortitudine cibi illius usque ad montem Dei.

To live in one’s own death, as Jesus seems to us in the Blessed Sacrament, to lose one’s glory in contempt, to be ravished when one is annihilated [aneanti] and sacrificed; this is proper to the life of grace. Making everything dead to the exterior, it brings life to the interior, and gives principally the spirit of prayer, putting it almost continuously in exercise in the soul, applying itself to this infinite and incomprehensible Being that it adores, unable to comprehend It, and annihilating itself [s’aneantit] before Him, unable even to admire His divine grandeurs, as annihilated [aneanties] in the Eucharist. O my soul, how great is your vileness, how extreme your poverty! What is man, that You should have remembrance of him, Lord, and that You should visit him, and that You should take Thy delight from coming to dwell personally with him? His soul is drawn from nothing, and his body is nothing but a little mud, and Thou deignest to set Thine eyes upon him! How is it that this creature, so dirty, so minuscule, so coarse, could receive the infinite majesty of God? Humble thyself to the bottom of thy nothingness, and confess thy baseness, my soul. Lower thine eyes, and swear that thou art unworthy to turn them only towards that formidable grandeur; but be still more moved with admiration, of recognition and love of such excessive goodness, which deigns well to annihilate itself [s’aneantir] in that incomprehensible mystery, to bring itself to you even unto your nothingness.

We must truly love the state of interior captivity, where the soul, bound and tied up, stays in the obscurity of its prison. This state will honor the captivity of Jesus enclosed under the little host. This divine Lord place himself in a little prison for our love. The King of Glory is restricted under these small species, and thereby a captive and prisoner of man, He renders Himself, it seems, his slave, giving Himself entirely to him; He suffers, so to speak, and dies for him, and communicates to him all the merits of His Precious Blood. O divine Captive, captivate my heart so strongly, that it may never more return to natural liberty; but that all destroyed and annihilated [aneanti], it may not live another life than the superhuman, nor may it enjoy any other liberty than that of Thy children.

Each time that one takes Communion, Jesus Christ giving Himself entirely to all, there are all new obligations that we contract to live entirely for Him, and to render all our actions divine. It is necessary therefore for a good soul not to say: I have not such time to prepare myself for Communion; because she must not aim at another thing by all the actions of her life, but to receive the Bread of Life, in order to live the life of Jesus, and to persevere perpetually in similar dispositions to those that appear to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

M. Olier on Patience for Christ

In week two of the Lenten Spirituality Series, we have another treasure from seventeenth-century France. One of the great exponents of the French School of Spirituality, M. Jean-Jacques Olier, writes movingly about our suffering in this life as a means of bringing us closer to Christ. His words on the virtue of Patience, though directly primarily to clerics, have a wider application to all Christians in their Royal Priesthood. The text is excerpted from M. Olier’s “Introduction to the Christian Life and Virtues,” translated by Lowell M. Glendon, S.S. in Bérulle and the French School: Selected Writings (Paulist Press, 1989), 244-47. M. Olier’s description of patience crescendos into a typically French, Eucharistic note.

Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians and a spiritual master of the Grand Siècle. (Source)

We are obliged to be patient. First, in our condition as creatures; for God, sovereign master of life and death, on whom our existence depends absolutely, has the right to dispose of us as he chooses…

Second, as sinners. For in this condition, we must bear with the effects of his justice and wrath toward us. All the punishments that he carries out in this world are nothing compared to what we deserve and what he would make use suffer if he did not choose to be merciful toward us and to treat us with gentleness and clemency in this life. The punishments that God meted out to sinners, as we see in the holy scripture, even the torments of the damned and the penalties the demons suffer and will suffer eternally for one sin, should cause us not only to be at peace, but to rejoice in our sufferings…

Third, as Christians. For as such we should bear with many difficulties and sufferings. This is why we are intitiated into the church. For our Lord only admitted us into it to continue his life, which is a life of opposition, contradiction, and condemnation toward the flesh.

He must then humiliate it and subdue it in us, using the ways he knows and judges to be most useful, so as to win a complete victory, He first achieved victory in his own flesh, and he wishes to continue it in ours in order to show forth in us a sample of the universal triumph that he had achieved over it in his own person.

The church and Christians are only a handful of flesh compared to the whole world. Nevertheless, he still desires to be victorious in them to proclaim his triumph and to give definite signs of his victory. Thus, from this perspective, the Christian should be very faithful to the Spirit and completely abandoned to him in order to overcome the flesh and to destroy it completely.

There will be no lack of opportunities in this life, for he must suffer; first, the attacks of the world through scorn, calumny and persecution; second, the violent onslaughts of the flesh in its uprisings and its revolts; third, the battles with the devil in the temptations he sends us; finally, the ordeals from God through dryness, desolation, abandonment and other interior difficulties, which he afflicts on him in order to initiate him into the perfect crucifixion of the flesh.

Fourth, as clerics. For clerics should participate in the fulfillment of Christianity. This cannot exist without patience.

Patience is a sign that the soul is intimately united to God and that it is rooted in perfection. For it must be very much in God and fully possessed by him in order to bear difficulties and torments with peace, tranquility and even joy and beatitude in one’s heart.

It must be quite profoundly immersed in him and remain quite powerfully and strongly united to him, so that the flesh has no power at all to attract it to itself and share with him the feelings and aversions that it has towards suffering and endurance.

In this state the soul experiences the perfection attainable in this life, since it conforms to our Lord’s perfect submission to God during his sufferings. For although his flesh experienced aversion and revulsion for the cross, he paid no attention to it with his will. Rather, he always adhered perfectly to the wishes of his Father.

Therefore clerics, being perfect Christians chosen from the midst of the church to assist before the tabernacle of God, should pay particular attention to this virtue. This is their very nature. It is the sign by which they can be identified. This is what predisposes them for the honorable rank that they possess. This is how they are recognized as domestics and servants of God.

Finally, priests and pastors should have a very high degree of patience because, in Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ, they are both priests and victims for the sins of the world. Jesus Christ the priest wished to be the victim of his sacrifice. He became the host-victim for all people. Since priests are like sacraments and representations of him who lives in them to continue his priesthood and whom he clothes with his external conduct and his interior dispositions, as well as with his power and his person, he wishes furthermore that they be interiorly rooted in the spirit and dispositions of a host-victim in order to suffer, endure, do penance, in short, to immolate themselves for the glory of God and the salvation of the people.

In imitation of our Lord, priests should not only be victims for sin through persecution, penance, internal and external sufferings, but also they should be like the victims of a holocaust. This is their true vocation. For they should not merely suffer, as he did, all sorts of difficulties both for their own sins and the sins of the people entrusted to them, but even more the should be entirely consumed with him through love.

The spirit of love strengthens and empowers us to endure affliction and suffering, no matter how great they are. Since he is infinite, he gives us as much as we need to endure those that can occur in our vocation.

All the torments of the world are nothing to a generous soul filled with the power of a God, who is able to shoulder countless sufferings more violent than all those that the world and the devil might afflict us with. It is with this Spirit that Saint Paul said: I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:14). Everything he saw seemed little to do or suffer because of the God who dwelled in him.

It is through this same eternal, immense, and all-powerful Spirit that he called his sufferings light and momentary, because Jesus Christ who suffered and bore them in himself and allowed him to see and experience something of his eternity through his presence, caused him to look upon the entire duration of this life as but a moment. This is how our Lord, who allows us to experience interiorly that his power and his strength could support a thousand worlds, leads us to call his burden light.

Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

The adoration of the Shepherds. (Source)

I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.

By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.

To receive communion sacrilegiously is to disfigure the face of Christ. Yet how common is this sin in Christmastime, when we should celebrate the appearance of that holy face! (Source)

Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.

I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.

Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.

Pietro Perugino’s Virgin and St. Jerome and St. Augustine (1500). May these two anti-Pelagian Doctors pray for us in the holy season of the Nativity. (Source)

It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.

Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.

St. Francis de Sales Doesn’t Dance

Here is an extremely amusing (and, in its own way, edifying) little chapter from Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve only just encountered it by chance. It’s passages like this that rather make one understand why Evelyn Underhill summed up his teaching in the one line, “Yes, indeed, my dear Duchess, as Your Grace so truly observes, God is love.”

One can almost hear the Gentleman Saint sipping his tea at the end of each numbered item in the list below.

CHAPTER XXXIII. Of Balls, and other Lawful but Dangerous Amusements.

DANCES and balls are things in themselves indifferent, but the circumstances ordinarily surrounding them have so generally an evil tendency, that they become full of temptation and danger. The time of night at which they take place is in itself conducive to harm, both as the season when people’s nerves are most excited and open to evil impressions; and because, after being up the greater part of the night, they spend the mornings afterwards in sleep, and lose the best part of the day for God’s Service. It is a senseless thing to turn day into night, light into darkness, and to exchange good works for mere trifling follies. Moreover, those who frequent balls almost inevitably foster their Vanity, and vanity is very conducive to unholy desires and dangerous attachments.

I am inclined to say about balls what doctors say of certain articles of food, such as mushrooms and the like—the best are not good for much; but if eat them you must, at least mind that they are properly cooked. So, if circumstances over which you have no control take you into such places, be watchful how you prepare to enter them. Let the dish be seasoned with moderation, dignity and good intentions. The doctors say (still referring to the mushrooms), eat sparingly of them, and that but seldom, for, however well dressed, an excess is harmful.

So dance but little, and that rarely, my daughter, lest you run the risk of growing over fond of the amusement.

Pliny says that mushrooms, from their porous, spongy nature, easily imbibe meretricious matter, so that if they are near a serpent, they are infected by its poison. So balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom. While people’s bodily pores are opened by the exercise of dancing, the heart’s pores will be also opened by excitement, and if any serpent be at hand to whisper foolish words of levity or impurity, to insinuate unworthy thoughts and desires, the ears which listen are more than prepared to receive the contagion.

Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.

To return to the medical simile;—it is said that after eating mushrooms you should drink some good wine. So after frequenting balls you should frame pious thoughts which may counteract the dangerous impressions made by such empty pleasures on your heart.

Bethink you, then—

1. That while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.

2. Remember how, at the selfsame time, many religious and other devout persons were kneeling before God, praying or praising Him. Was not their time better spent than yours?

3. Again, while you were dancing, many a soul has passed away amid sharp sufferings; thousands and tens of thousands were lying all the while on beds of anguish, some perhaps untended, unconsoled, in fevers, and all manner of painful diseases. Will you not rouse yourself to a sense of pity for them? At all events, remember that a day will come when you in your turn will lie on your bed of sickness, while others dance and make merry.

4. Bethink you that our Dear Lord, Our Lady, all the Angels and Saints, saw all that was passing. Did they not look on with sorrowful pity, while your heart, capable of better things, was engrossed with such mere follies?

5. And while you were dancing time passed by, and death drew nearer. Trifle as you may, the awful dance of death must come, the real pastime of men, since therein they must, whether they will or no, pass from time to an eternity of good or evil. If you think of the matter quietly, and as in God’s Sight, He will suggest many a like thought, which will steady and strengthen your heart.

St. Francis de Sales, giving you the side-eye.

Elsewhere: Newman Against the Nazis

Werner und Sophie Scholl

White Rose members Hans and Sophie Scholl. (Source)

A big thanks to Fr. David Abernethy of the Pittsburgh Oratory for bringing to my attention an article in the Catholic Herald about the influence of Cardinal Newman’s thought on die Weiße Rose. Apparently the Doctor of Conscience was an important impetus for their resistance to Nazi oppression. From the article:

The man who brought Newman’s writings to the attention of the Munich students was the philosopher and cultural historian Theodor Haecker. Haecker had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent in 1921, and for the rest of his life Newman was his guiding star. He translated seven of Newman’s works, and on several occasions read excerpts from them at the illegal secret meetings Hans Scholl convened for his friends. Strange though it may seem, the insights of the Oxford academic were ideally suited to help these students make sense of the catastrophe they were living through.

Haecker’s influence is evident already in the first three White Rose leaflets, but his becomes the dominant voice in the fourth: this leaflet, written the day after Haecker had read the students some powerful Newman sermons, finishes with the words: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! Please read and distribute!”

Read the whole thing. And pray that Bl. John Henry Newman might, by his intercession, assist us in the struggle against every tyranny.

Fr. Bowden’s Meditations for Lent

870px-Kramskoi_Christ_dans_le_désert

Christ in the Desert, Ivan Kramskoi, 1872. (Source)

Some of my readers will no doubt recognize the name of Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. He achieved some small notoriety as the priest who nearly converted Oscar Wilde in the 1870’s. He was also a well-respected spiritual teacher, though sadly neglected today. I would like to make some of his wisdom available, especially as it bears on the season we enter on this Ash Wednesday.

Here’s Fr. Bowden’s advice for Lent:

Consider the bearing that Lent has upon Death. Lent is given us as a time of preparation, and the way it is spent has great influence on the times that follow it: a carefully spent Lent will bring about a careful month after it, and the influence of that may go on through the year. So, we may look upon each Lent as a bringing us nearer to a good state for death, by making a fresh mark on our life:—for as we live so we must die. Therefore enter fully into this spirit: withdraw as far as you possibly can from all outer things, in thought, during this season: let the things of Time go to a distance, and be as nothing to you. Be alone with God, and try simply to learn more and more where you are, and what you are worth, in His eyes only; and thus prepare yourself for joining Him in Eternity.

Give yourself thoroughly to the Spirit of the Passion. Do not look, in anything you do, for success, pleasantness, or comfort: expect crosses, failures, disappointments, and take all these readily:go to meet them, receive all with perfect resignation from God’s handstake their impress on your soul. Aim, in preparation for death, at caring for nothing so much that you will not be ready in a moment to give it up.

Remember that, perfect and infinite as are the merits of Christ’s Passion and Death, there is one thing still wanting to them:that is, our part in them: our taking and accepting His sufferings as ours, and bearing them with Him. Without this, His Passion remains worthless. To what purpose is the Head crowned with thorns, if the Members remain dead, paralyzed, mortified and motionless? And so it is if we, who are Christ’s Members, will not enter with Him into His Passion, and will to suffer with Him. Let us, therefore, now, go in with Him into the life of suffering, giving ourselves to Him completely. It is difficult and painful to human nature to face the thought of a penitential life, but it must be done if we would be His true followers. And at this season it should be done specially by some outward thing:no lessening of food or sleep for those who need strength to work; but, still, in some wayif it is only by restraint of attitude, by some posture at times different from the ordinaryno matter what, but by some meanswe should daily remind ourselves that it is Lent.

Of course, it is hard to realize the good of the Cross: it often seems to our eyes so purposelessso gratuitousas well as so hard. It is in Faith alone that we can bear it; human nature must feel and suffer by it,. Let us try, during Holy Week, for a “broken heart”: that is, not feeling, but the certain conviction of our own nothingness and the nothingness of everything but God’s will. It is not merely the having, or the not having, to suffer this or the other thing: it is in all that we must be crushed: it is that there is absolutely nothing of importance except to do the Will of God: and this is the Cross.

The Sacrifice [acceptance of crosses or voluntary renunciation] always seems greater than we expected: when the Cross presses inward it must take hold of us. But we must treat it by looking beyond, remembering that, after all, it is all, in reality, but nothing; living in daily Faith in God, and Hope; and reminding ourselves that all will pass. Feeling, at the moment, we cannot help. (Spiritual Teaching of Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory, 1921, pp. 17-20)

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Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. (Source)

I would add two brief thoughts that come from a later portion of the book. They seem admirably suited to our meditation on this penitential day, the start of a journey of penance that will not end until we face the cross.

The best way of realizing our Free Will is St. Philip’s way: “Lord, keep Thy hand on my head, or I shall betray Thee.” This consciousness of how easily we may at any moment commit any sin, however great, is simply the truth. It is the experience of everyone who knows anything of human nature, and especially of every priest. He knows it first for himself, and then for others. This it is that fills our prisons with criminals: the sinfulness of human naturegreed and avarice, lust and passion. To know our own weakness is our only safeguard. (p. 98)

Recollect that it was Christ on the Cross that redeemed the world: not His miraclesnot His life of preachingbut His naked body offered on the Cross to God. And so it must be with us if we would follow Him: the will simply to suffer must be oursto this our whole lives must be bent. It is not by great and heroic deeds that we are to succeed in Eternity: it is by the daily round of silent, humble suffering of whatever God sends. We are to become what He was: holocausts: to be stripped of Self on all sides:of our will, of our powers, of our very individuality if He chooses, so as simply to be in His hands to do what He likes with. Remember that here we see everything exactly as it is not: to us, success seems to lie in what showsin active deeds, in energy, in strength and power. But this is not so before God; and when we die we shall see it all in its right light. Let us live, therefore, for the things which are great in Eternity, though not in Time, and be patient. (pp. 79-80)

May we all learn from Fr. Bowden’s sound practical wisdom and make a well and holy Lent.

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The Temptation in the Wilderness, John St. John Long, 1824. (Source)

A Letter on Loneliness

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Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Veronese. Pinacoteca di Brera (Source)

My Dear Brother Josiah,

I received your last correspondence with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Joy, for all the good news you shared of our friends and familiars; sorrow, for those matters closer to your own heart that weigh so heavily upon your soul. Normally, I would not venture to offer unsolicited advice. However, as you have come to me seeking counsel, I will try to speak from what little light I have been granted. I will offer you, I hope, nothing but the constant teaching of the saints, nor anything I would not myself seek to follow. So much of what I must share is rooted in my own experience, the fruit of suffering not in all respects unlike your own.

You tell me that you worry about God’s blessing. You write that, in view of your griefs, you no longer trust that the Lord will bless you. This is a failure of Christian hope, but an understandable one. Faced with one reversal after another, it is easy to despair. I will point you first to the book of Job, a well from whose water I know you have already imbibed in more bitter times. What else could I tell you? The key practical thing is to recollect often those graces you have received. Savor them. Go over each, holding them close to your heart in memory. Make space in your week – better yet, your day – to ponder the grand and little mercies of God. I commend to you one of the very greatest pieces of wisdom I have received, that “a grace remembered is a grace renewed.” Continual recollection means that we are never really bereft of those graces once delivered unto us.

Look over your current state of life. The world, at least, sees your success. Many would desire your place. Thank God for what He has seen fit to give you so far.

But I know how incomparably small all of those worldly triumphs seem next to the losses you’ve suffered. I see what you mean when you say that you don’t trust God to bless you anymore. You aren’t speaking of those tangible blessings the world prizes in its vanity. You speak instead of the love of those taken from you. That golden blessing is worth all the others combined.

And so, we come to what seems to me to be the basic problem; not despair, but loneliness. The chill that stains even the brightest happiness and reveals the joys of this world to be fool’s gold. Have you considered loneliness in itself? Perhaps you have. It is a dark and loathsome thing. Perhaps you have found it buried down in your soul. A void. A hole that, like a carious tooth, aches and aches until it cries out for your full attention. A little black space at the bottom of things. You carry it around with you and never set it down. Grief carved it out, shaped it to its own image, and colors it even today.

I don’t know if you will always bear that burden. Some of us must. But I would encourage you to embrace it. That emptiness is, in the words of R.S. Thomas, “a vacuum he may not abhor.” Come close to the void. Peer at it. Ecce lignum crucis! It is the cross you have been given. Fasten your heart to its center with the very nails of Our Lord’s passion. Accept His invitation, and you will be able to endure those long and painful hours when hope fails. One day, when you are least expecting it, something may very well happen. You may be at prayer in your room. You may be savoring the Eucharist at Mass. You may be finishing the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. But suddenly, unbidden, the Holy Ghost will visit you. The darkness will turn to dazzling light. By some strange alchemy known only in heaven, the emptiness will all at once turn into a full fountain of molten gold. The cavern will become a cup that runneth over. The silence will become song beyond sound or human voice. And your heart will be seized by the beautiful and terrifying realization that the Living God sees you. If only for a moment, you will know what it is to be “alone with the Alone.” Then will your heart become one with His. Then will you know a communion that obliterates all loneliness and a joy that erases all grief.

This moment cannot be rushed. God will not come but in His own way and in His own time. All the same, one can prepare.

First and foremost, take your loneliness and grief to the sacraments. When you are at the offertory or some other convenient point at the Mass, give your heart to the Eucharistic Christ. Ask to be alone with Him in the Tabernacle. Cleave to it as to the one rock of safety in a stormy sea. Consider, too, how Our Lord suffers loneliness in the Tabernacle. Think how He is neglected in His tabernacles through all the world. Think how He desires your consolation – yours! Truly, He wishes to make that emptiness in your soul His true and everlasting Tabernacle. Will you deny your Lord? For in the Tabernacle, He is at once most suffering and most glorious. So, too, where you are most suffering, He will render you most glorious.

Second, make a point of consciously drawing near to Christ crucified in your daily prayer. One thing I’ve done in the past – though, I confess, I have lately been lax about it – is to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet and dedicate each decade to one of the Holy Wounds. Start by contemplating Our Lord’s feet, His physical presence on Earth during His lifetime and evermore in the Eucharist. Consider His comings and goings, and how He willingly ceases all of that to offer Himself to the Father on the cross. Then consider His left hand, the Kingly hand that holds the orb of the world. Ponder the ways of His Providence. Take heart in His mercy towards the penitent and His just judgment of the wicked. Praise Him for His true and final victory over the forces of evil, for scattering the proud in their conceit. Then, move to His right hand, the Priestly hand of blessing. Think of how He has transformed all things by the peace wrought with His right hand, under the sign of His blessing. Look forward to the world as it shall be on the day of His Wisdom’s Triumph. It is a world we can already enter at the Mass. Bring your gaze up to the Holy Face, wounded by the crown of thorns. Offer him your anxieties, your fears for the future, and all those worries that come from not knowing what you must do or why some calamity has transpired. Consider the crown of thorns as the mortification of your very reason. As Our Lord unquestioningly accepted the will of His Father, may you do the same. But remember to gaze into the Holy Face as into the very countenance of the Living God. Ponder Jesus Christ in His humanity. God is a person; nor is he just any person, but a person who suffered all that we suffer, and more. Finally, move to the wound in the Holy Side and the Sacred Heart. Give yourself up to as pure an expression of love for your Savior as you can muster. Consider the flood of water and blood that fell from those triumphant gates, so rudely torn open. Think, if you can, of the power so much as one drop of either precious liquid would have to redeem not just one soul, but millions and millions of universes teeming with the souls of the very worst sinners. Ponder what it means that you may receive the Precious Blood at even a low Mass. Fix your gaze beyond the Holy Side, passing into the darkness of Our Lord’s chest. Dwell upon the Sacred Hear in its quiet and eternal radiance. Know that Our Lord’s chest cavity is so very much like the void to which I have already alluded, and so like the Tabernacle. For in both, we find the Heart of God! Imagine yourself receiving the Sacred Heart in the Eucharist. Meditate upon the immense fire of Love pulsing there until the last shudder of death – and, as you come to the Trisagion, recall how that love blazed forth again on Easter Morn, never to be extinguished.

Third, keep in mind the words of St. Philip Neri. Amare Nesciri – “Love to be unknown.” One thinks of St. Benedict. In his rule, St. Benedict enjoins his children to overcome the temptations of lust with a similarly simple phrase, “Love chastity” (RB IV). St. Philip’s words carry many meanings. They are a wonderful program of humility, of perfection, of freedom, but also of loneliness and grief. Love to be unknown. Find God in the moment when no one else notices you. Don’t do what you do to be recognized, as the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 6:3, 16, Luke 18:9-14). Be content that God sees and knows you. It will take time to grow into this practice, but you will come to recognize its benefit. You may someday find someone to share or alleviate the yoke of your sorrows – maybe even someone to love. But until then, embrace Solitude as St. Benedict would have us embrace Chastity; that is, as a beloved spouse. Focus on that task, the one you have been given for now, and the rest will come to you as God sees fit in His own time. I would wager that it will make you happier and help you love others more perfectly.

Fourth, do not depart from under Mary’s mantle. If you wish to see the very picture of loss, I will show you the woman who, though the only one free of sin among the whole human race, suffered the loss of her parents, her husband, and her son. Turn your eyes to Mary. The sorrows of her Immaculate Heart demand your attention. We have no greater advocate and comfort in our own suffering than Mary, in union with her eternal spouse, the Paraclete.

Finally – hardest of all – you must forgive. Jesus’s death was not just a perfect sacrifice because He was an innocent and willing victim. He forgave His murderers. If we are to have a share in that death, we must learn the extremely difficult discipline of forgiveness. It is the only way we can be truly free.

I would be remiss in giving you these counsels if I did not add with all due caution that, insofar as any of it applies to me, I often fail. But I feel no shame in saying so, since Our Lord is magnified in weakness. Don’t rely only on my words, narrow and feeble as they are. If anything I have said is contradicted by the example of the saints and the teaching of God’s holy Church, refer to their superior model. After all, I’m not a priest. I’m not even all that well versed in theology. Seek out a spiritual father who can help your soul more intimately than a friend can.

For all that, be assured of my prayers and affection. I hope you find the hope that can only come from the Lord, my dear brother. May He bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; may He turn His countenance upon you, and give you peace.

In Christ,

RTY

God is Real, Not Nice

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Colorized detail of Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law, by Gustave Dore. (Source)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the spiritual father of Modern Orthodox Judaism, launched his movement in the nineteenth century with an assault on the Frankfurt Reformers entitled “Religion Allied to Progress.” Hirsch decries the new forms of liberal, secular religion he saw animating the well-to-do populations of Jews in Germany.

“But behold! The prophet of the new message came into their midst with the cry of ‘religion allied to progress’; he filled the blank, pacified their conscience and wiped out their shame. With this magic word he turned irreligion into Godliness, apostasy into priesthood, sin into merit, frivolity into virtue, weakness into strength, thoughtlessness into profundity. By this one magic phrase he distilled the ancient world-ranging spirit of the Torah into a single aromatic drop of perfume so fragrant that in the most elegant party dress they could carry it round with them in their waistcoat pockets without being ashamed. By means of it, he carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms. By means of this one magic phrase he so skilfully loosened the rigid bonds of the old law with its 613 locks and chains that the Divine Word which until then had inflexibly prohibited many a desire and demanded many a sacrifice, henceforth became the heavenly manna which merely reflected everybody’s own desires, echoed their own thoughts, sanctified their own aspirations and said to each one: ‘Be what you are, enjoy what you fancy, aspire to what you will, whatever you may be you are always religious, whatever you may do–all is religion; continue to progress, for the more you progress the further you move from the ancient way, and the more you cast off old Jewish customs the more religious and acceptable to God will you be….'”

These prophetic words came to mind as I was reading Dr. Ulrich Lehner’s excellent new offering, God Is Not Nice (2017). Published by Ave Maria Press, the book is a cannon-blast through America’s spiritual miasma. His target? The false image of God as a nice guy. I’m afraid that, as the book shows, He isn’t very “nice” at all. He’s so much better than that.

Each chapter considers one of God’s attributes as revealed in the Scriptures, the Magisterium, and Church History. How wonderful to come across a work of theology that isbrace yourselfactually about God! Gone are the boring and programmatic encumberments that so often clog up the pages of the theological press. Lehner is centrally concerned with God’s character, and only secondarily with what that must mean to us, His creations.

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Lehner drinks deeply of the Scriptures. He often returns to Old Testament narratives of encounter with a God who surpasses every expectation. (Source)

It is also one of the most erudite pieces of popular religious writing I have ever read. Sprinkled in among the obligatory references to the Inklings are much heavier hitters. One finds ideas drawn from Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, John Crowe Ransom, Rodney Stark, Robert Spaemann, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and many more. Lehner’s prodigious knowledge of philosophy was especially apparent, as he deftly maneuvered between classical Thomism and recent German thoughtnot exactly the fare one expects from a major Church Historian. God Is Not Nice also has the distinction of being the only book of popular devotion I’ve encountered that speaks favorably of Erich Fromm (and cribs some of his ideas). It is to Lehner’s credit as a teacher that the reader never feels as if he’s suddenly entered rare air. He presents some difficult concepts with a simplicity that never sacrifices substance. An eighth grader could read and, more importantly, understand the text. So could an Evangelical. The book never ceases to be Catholic, but one is hard-pressed to find many insights that are so uniquely Papist as to dissuade Protestant readers. Its broad appeal comes not from a watering down of the Faith’s distinctives, but a consistent penetration of those things which lie at the very heart of the Christian life.

The book is also imbued with a deep humanity. First, Lehner’s understated humor crops up now and again, such as the time he casually compares the Prosperity Gospel preachers to Nazis (62). Or when, at the start of a chapter on intimacy with God, he writes, “Nakedness in public is a clear no-no” (80). It is difficult to imagine Lehner writing that line with a straight face, and impossible to read it with one.

The humanity of the text lies in its content as well as its style. Although Lehner hardly ever proposes specific ideas for spiritual renewal, the call to conversion is constant, simple, and universal enough that it all feels eminently practical. It works in large part because Lehner never invests his project with the unwieldy freight of, say, the hopes and failures of socially conservative American Christianity. This book is not The Benedict Option. Sure enough, Lehner is critical; for example, I was surprised to see such a forthright condemnation of the Enlightenment from an author who has made it is his life’s study. But Lehner never carries his criticism into the unpleasant realm of polemic, as Dreher so often does in his own book. What matters to Lehner is the individual human soul, not the social conditions under which the Church must forge her way through history. He is realistic about the quotidian quality of our spiritual lives. Everything must come back to the individual’s relationship with God, a relationship largely shaped by the perfectly ordinary moments of our day. The book never leaves this vision.

That isn’t to say that Lehner advocates a purely individualistic spirituality, like some eighteenth-century revivalist, red in the face, handkerchief flailing. I was struck many times by the familial note in Lehner’s work. Instead of shying away from appearing in his own workthe hallmark of a bloodless academicLehner grounds his spiritual call to arms in his own life. Lots of the book’s wisdom is drawn from its author’s experience of parenting. We read, in a chapter on God and suffering:

In fact, many of our children learn from the first hour of Sunday school that God wants everybody to be happy. Some parents might object that a different image of God would terrify children. I don’t think so – and I am speaking with the experience of parenting five kids. (100)

Or elsewhere, in a discussion of the Redemption:

A nice god might pardon us without care for our repentance, but so would a terrible parent who is not interested in us becoming mature and responsible persons. (118)

Or this charming anecdote, while pondering human freedom and what we really mean when we say that the Lord is “a God of Surprises”:

Of course, God is omniscient regarding all our actions and thoughts, but he leaves us our freedom and seems to choose to be surprised. I cannot help but compare this to my own parenting. When my younger children prepare a surprise present for my birthday, I usually find traces in the kitchen and the living room: crayons, pieces of paper, glue sticks, and first drafts with ‘Happy Birthday’ on them. Nevertheless, I choose to be surprised when they hand me their work of art. I think that with an omniscient God, it must be somehow like this. (126)

It thus didn’t come as too great a surprise when, at the end of his text, Lehner turned to a brief yet powerful meditation on St. Joseph. In some sense, St. Joseph is the paragon of all that Lehner advocates. He dwelt with God day to day in an intimacy unclouded by the various pretty illusions to which we all fall prey. Instead, St. Joseph drew the strength he needed from a true knowledge of God’s character. That knowledge created a great love and humble awe in him. For us, as for the Frankfurt Jews of Hirsh’s day, God is little more than a plaything or bric-a-brac, “relegated to a mantelpiece long ago and…only taken down on Sundays.” (106).

It was not so with St. Joseph. He knew the awful and living God as a human being, as one beloved. But for St. Joseph, that God wasn’t “nice.” After reading Lehner’s book, we too may be lucky enough to know that God’s not nice. He’s real.

The Five Idols of Christmas

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A beautiful Christmas scene. (Source)

Five Golden Rings

Christmas is a time of great joy. At the heart of it all is the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Yet often, we let lesser things get in the way of the worship we owe to Him in this privileged season of grace. I don’t believe it would be too much to call these distractions “idols.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Idolatry etymologically denotes Divine worship given to an image, but its signification has been extended to all Divine worship given to anyone or anything but the true God.” Many of us unknowingly allow a number of idols into our lives during the holiday season. All of them are good things in themselves, but taken out of proportion, they distort our sense of the feast’s true message as well as our connection with the Living God. I’d like to examine five of these idols, “five golden rings” that often form the chain of our seasonal bondage.

Material Goods

Of all the idols, this one is perhaps the most readily apparent. It seems like each year, we hear new complaints of the commercialization of Christmasonly to watch the process get worse with every passing holiday. Advent washes upon us as a season of cluttered ads rather than prayerful penance. Sacred carols have been reduced to shopping mall muzak. Charlie Brown’s 1965 complaint rings just as true today as it did in the years of the Johnson Administration. For many, Christmas seems to be a time to show off their wealth to the neighbors, to cook and consume lavish amounts of food, or to receive a whole panoply of toys and giftsand little else.

After all, isn’t this what most children look forward to each Christmas? Santa isn’t popular because he’s a jolly old man who likes milk, cookies, and Coca-Cola. He brings gifts! Of course kids love Christmas. The unfortunate thing is that this mentality is extremely hard to break, even for those well advanced in age. Nor does the culture help. After all, Christmas is a nearly half-trillion dollar industry. There’s no reason to think that commercialism in all its forms will go away any time soon.

Happiness

Beneath the idol of material goodswhether that means gifts, food, or all the decorations that beautify our houseshides another idol. Perhaps you’ve seen it elsewhere, at other times and places.

I was blessed enough to go to Disney World a few times as a child. When I later went back as a teenager, though, I noticed something. A kind of frantic, urgent energy pervaded the place. Everyone smiles a bit too widely. Everyone rushes from one amusement to another. And here and there, a tantrum erupts like a tiny pool of scalding water. Why? Because everyone who comes to Disney comes to have a good timeor else. If you don’t enjoy yourself, then something is wrong with you. You must have fun.

The regime of forced fun becomes universal at Christmas time. How many of us come away from the holidays in a state of utter exhaustion? How often have we stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, we’re trying too hard? The Christmas narrative is blissful. But we have substituted the quietly abiding “comfort and joy” of Christ for the plastic and fleeting pleasures of our own culture.

Our fruitless pursuit of happiness is one of the reasons that holiday depression is so rampant. The endless pageants and parades and parties, not to mention all of the work that goes into them, can be such a drain that it leaves us with little energy left for the spiritual life of the holiday. And that’s just when our plans succeed! We’re even more distraught and distracted when things don’t work out as we hoped. How greatly we differ from Mary and Joseph, who dealt with the disappointment of being turned away at the inn with a calm trust in Providence.

Traditions

One thing that bolsters the idol of forced happiness is the idol of tradition. Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Christmas is about the way traditions bring us together. But too often, those traditions can become unbalanced and rigid. Surely we all have one or two thoughts like this upon occasion. If the tree is not up and decorated by a certain day, all is lost! If we don’t make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, all is lost! If we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf this year, all is lost! And so on. Instead of a time of refreshment, Christmas becomes a daunting list of tasks and chores. Our freedom and ease vanish.

As Catholics, we need to remember that the only really necessary thing is Mass. That is the still point at the base of our lives and holiday. Taking a step back and detaching from our seasonal traditions can be a salutary reminder that we are not in control. God is. And if our traditions don’t serve His glory, then we should rework them and reclaim our freedom. Chances are, we’ll be saner (and happier) if we do so.

Family

Perhaps the easiest idol to miss is the one that often generates all the others: family. Surely, we may think, there can be nothing wrong with putting our families at the center of the holiday? Isn’t being with family one of the greatest and purest joys known to man? And isn’t the meaning of Christmas bound up with God entering into a human family?

These are all natural notions. But the truth is, we often have a disordered affection for our families. This disorder is frequently expressed in counter-intuitive manifestations. The holiday is poisoned by all the evident ways our own families don’t live up to our (possibly quite unrealistic) standards. So many of us use Christmas to penalize those in our families who are different from us, and who thus shatter our little ideal of what family should be. We make Christmas the occasion of settling scores or sniping about our petty differences. Or, on the other hand, we altogether ignore issues that might be very important. A kind of artificial peace may prevail, even though deep cracks open below the surface. But this is not the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.

Families are always sites of intense friction and drama, as even the most cursory review of Western literature shows (not to mention our satires). Making family the center of Christmas merely injects that propensity for drama into a holy day where it doesn’t belong. Moreover, our ideological insistence on making Christmas all about family has been particularly hard on single people. Those with no family are left out in the proverbial, and sometimes literal, cold. One poisonous fruit of humanizing the divine holiday in this way is the terrible loneliness we have needlessly exacerbated for thousands.

Family is a high good, but not the highest good. When we forget that, we do an injustice to God. And we cannot love our families (or our lonely neighbors) properly if we don’t love God first.

Spiritual Consolations

I suspect that most of us idolize family at some level. It’s become such a dominant cultural value that even non-Christians who celebrate Christmas are susceptible to its malignant influence. But one idol may only occur to those who see Christmas as a time of potential spiritual gain.

Every Christian runs the risk of valuing God only insofar as he grants us His gifts. Sometimes, this takes fairly low forms. The Prosperity Gospel, for instance, is essentially a quasi-Christian materialism that equates the love of God with his financial blessings. They turn God into a sugar daddy. More subtly, some of us act like God’s fair-weather friends. We’re perfectly happy offering Him our heart as long as we feel we’re receiving some kind of spiritual consolation. It’s almost as if we think that God owes us something if we keep praying through the season, and we’re unnerved when nothing comes. No one likes aridity in prayer. That feeling can be even harder, and an even greater temptation, when it comes to us at Christmas time.

As Catholics, we shouldn’t worry if Christmas isn’t a time of tremendous spiritual growth. Just because at Christmas you’re not experiencing profound graces or consolations, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing anything wrong. Even a well-kept Advent may not produce discernible feelings of anticipation or contrition. Too much of a focus on the interior life can distract us from the objective glory of the feast.

God has come down to earth in the Incarnation. He has seen fit to take up human nature for our salvation, transfiguring all by the light of His face. And we who were born so many centuries after Him can nevertheless meet that same Incarnate God at the altar. But none of this depends on us. It doesn’t matter what we feel; the marvelous truth of it all is that God has done this work in an entirely gratuitous way.

That is why Christmas Mass is so important. It grounds our devotions in Christ. And as He did at His first coming, He still sweeps away all of our idols from His new home on the altar.

The Eucharistic Alternative

Christmas doesn’t have to be like this. All of the “idols” I have listed above are good in themselves. It is only our inordinate attachment to them that has twisted them into ugly perversions and distractions from the Incarnate God.

True, our culture has pressed many of these idols onto us, or at least exacerbated them. But we are complicit. We go along with the whole rigmarole. We have made these five golden rings into five golden calves. It follows that in our own small ways as Catholics, we can and should resist.

Instead of focusing on material gain, let us contemplate the poverty of the babe at Bethlehem; instead of mindlessly pursuing happiness at all costs, let us seek a healthy and realistic equilibrium; instead of rigidly clinging to our traditions, let us run in the freedom and flexibility of the Gospel; instead of taking a disordered view of our families, let us love them as creatures of the Most High; and instead of pining for a flood of sensible graces, let us be content to dwell adoringly at the side of the Infant God asleep.

It may all be more easily said than done. But the spiritual life is always a challenge for those who truly seek God. And what aid does Our Lord offer us in the Sacraments! If we avail ourselves of confession and the Eucharist, we will have made a very powerful start. Only then, to paraphrase Dickens, may we honor Christmas in our hearts, and keep it all the year.