Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lent 2013, X

X. In order for lesser goods to remain good they must remain lesser. To make them idols only destroys them. Understanding this, however, is not simply a matter of intellectual knowledge, because intellectual knowledge will not make that half-gallon of ice cream or random bikini girl less attractive. In fact, in their own essence, they cannot be made less attractive. Each created thing in its own way is good, and I cannot lessen that good. Wishing I could is rather a churlish thing to do, demonizing them in order to make myself feel less pathetic. You can see this sometimes in some Christians’ overly legalistic approach to modesty. Some men try to impugn some crass or evil tinge to the bodies of women, when really the issue is not the body that God created but the concupiscence we do not control. Our problem is that we do not focus on the good that is, but rather on the evil that we are tempted to and then we blame the thing that tempts us. Essential to the concept of fasting is that I am not denying but rather affirming the good of the thing that I am fasting from. So if I give up pizza for a time, it is not because pizza is bad. Perhaps my use of it tends toward the bad, so by turning myself for a time in the other direction I am actually doing more to respect the great gift that is pizza than I ever could by incessantly gobbling it down. When I return to pizza I will be able to appreciate it more.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lent 2013, VII

VII. Life is a gift. Our existence is a gift. Food is a gift. Sunshine, air, water, rain, clouds, animals, plants, sex, bodies and minds are all gifts. We are gift. I am, myself, not only a gift from God to myself, but the man God created me to be is a gift from Him to me, which I am free to accept or reject. My acceptance of that gift is my gift to Him. But I am also meant to be a gift to everyone around me (as we all are). The coconut that sits on my desk right now (that’s right, I’m going to eat a fresh Thai coconut later today. Possibly on a sunkissed, windswept sandy beach overlooking the ocean. It’s okay to be a little jealous. But I digress.) That coconut is a gift of God, His way of sending life and energy into my body, through all of my cells, which I can use for whatever I choose, good or bad. And it is going to be delicious. He didn’t have to make it taste so good. But the fundamental nature of a gift is that it has to be given. It cannot be coerced or it changes what it is. It is no longer a gift. It is existentially corrupted. It cannot be taken, only received. And this is the existential warp in our nature, that Adam and Eve tried to take by force what God had not given them freely. They grasped. We now grasp. We fear not having enough or not having our rights or the pleasure we somehow feel we deserve. It is a lack of trust in the moment by moment providence of God. This ruins our relationship with Him, for how can there be relationship where there is no trust. It ruins our relationships with each other, for if I cannot trust the God who created me I certainly will not trust my fellow human. And it even ruins our enjoyment of the things we so desperately grasp at.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lent 2013, VIII

VIII. My Grandpa got his teeth pulled when I was a kid. I remember him freaking his grandkids out by removing his dentures and sucking his lips in over his shrunken gums, and eventually he just got tired of using his dentures at all. One of the last times I saw him was less than a year ago, while he was still battling cancer. I think it was a few months before he took a sudden turn for the worse, so despite the pain and the tumors and all the weight he had lost he was still living life much as he ever had, shooting pistol at the range every week, drinking a six pack a day of his favorite beers, eating his favorite foods, as well as he could without teeth. On this particular day I was sitting with him at the kitchen table, talking about everything from politics, to the military, to medicine, to religion, to family, just wandering from one topic to the next with the quiet enjoyment that was so typical of him. During one pause in the conversation he watched me cutting what was, for me, a typical slice of cheese. I would call it a “man-sized” slice of cheese. I made my cracker sandwich and started chowing down, while he cut his own slice. As he did he said, “You know, I never figured this out until I lost my teeth, but I like to shave the cheese really thin and just set it on my tongue and let it melt. I think it really brings out the flavor, a lot more than a bigger piece. But I never figured that out until I lost my teeth.” I tried it and what do you know? He was right. A little bit of patience brings out the flavor of the cheese, almost as if I had never really tasted it before. Biting off huge chunks and choking them down crippled my ability to enjoy that cheese to the full.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lent 2013, IX

IX. Is the enjoyment of a little bit of cheese such a big thing? No. But it is an illustration of the greater problems that come from grasping after good things. The more I clutch at them, the less I am able to enjoy them. Self-control and right order are necessary, not only so that these temporal goods don’t become idols, but even so that I can enjoy them at all. An alcoholic is, of all people in the world, the least able to appreciate a Guinness draft. A sex addict is the person who enjoys sex the least, but craves it the most. Someone who cannot say no to chocolate, cannot enjoy chocolate. A professional athlete is the person who is least likely to play simply for the love of the game. What is at stake here, on this lowest, most natural level? It seems as if it were freedom, really. The goal of disciplining my desires is so that they do not become needs. Need is the enemy of desire. I am not yet talking about Lenten discipline, but this is a broad understanding of the discipline requisite to daily life. This is ordinary human discipline, which means it will not get us to heaven, but it will prevent hell on earth, and it is the basis of something much, much greater.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Count the Stars

Today I would like to share an insight into today's first reading that speaks to me in a special way. It is not my personal insight. I first heard it from Jeff Cavins in his Great Adventure video series.

The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

I had always imagined this part of the story very simply. Abram looks up at the stars, counts a handful of them, and then gives up and trusts that God knows how many descendants he will have, and leaves it at that. If you have ever had the opportunity to look up at the night sky in the middle of a desert without ambient lights, far away from any pollution, you will know how overwhelming it would be to have to count those stars.

But the reading continues. God talks to Abram some more and tells Him to set up a sacrifice. Abram sets it up, and then waits with the halves of the carcasses until the sun goes down!

There is a whole wealth of meaning in the way the sacrifice is set up and in Abram's waiting there with it and God passing between the animal halves, and I encourage you to read more about it. But right now I am just focusing on the fact that the sun went down. It's amazing how I never noticed that until Jeff Cavins pointed it out. What if it was not night time when God told him to count the stars.

Right now I am thinking a great deal about God's promises. Every day in the Morning Prayer from the Divine Office I recite the canticle of Zecharia in which he says, "This is the oath He swore to our Father Abraham, that He would set us free from the hands of our enemies; Free to worship Him without fear, holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our lives."

This promise of God means a great deal to me, because over the course of my life I have always been aware, and increasingly as I have gotten older, of how ensnared by various sins I really am. The sins that seemed so big and serious when I was a teenager, that gave me so much pain and grief, now seem to me just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the individual acts are whole vast tectonic plates of attitudes, attitudes of entitlement, selfishness and pride. Even as God frees me continually more and more from many of the acts, I am becoming more aware of these foundations. I am powerless to remove them. I cannot even touch them

In the face of this, God's promise, indeed His Oath, to set me free from the hands of my enemies seems a long time coming to fruition. It's almost as if He were asking me to count the stars on a clear blue blazing summer day.

And yet the stars are there. Blessed be He.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Lent 2013, VI

VI. Okay, so I ended up dipping back into the supernatural realm, even though I was trying to stay merely natural for a while. It’s not surprising, now that I think about it. That’s what lent is all about. In the last paragraph I was talking about two different things, really. There is a difference between giving up a disordered desire to make room for an ordered natural desire, and giving up an ordered natural desire to make room for a supernatural desire. All life is about the first, Lent is about the second. But since I still don’t have a perfect handle on the first I’m going to put some more thought into ordinary life before I move on to Lent. Ordinary life (which is the most extraordinary thing imaginable) is a gift. It is a beautiful and wonderful thing which, sadly, we humans have managed to turn into a nightmare at times. So it is a natural good which has been corrupted and needs to be restored, but in order to restore it, we have to know how it was corrupted in the first place. In other words, “What did Adam and Eve throw out of whack?”

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lent 2013, V

V. It’s tempting to me to take the plant growing to the sun analogy and apply it directly to the relationship of the soul to God, jumping straight into John of the Cross mysticism, infused contemplative prayer and so forth. I admit that’s what I had in mind when I was formulating that analogy, but on thinking it over some more, I think that would probably be a mistake. I would miss something. So let’s keep this analogy in the realm of the purely natural for a bit before carrying on to the supernatural. After all, grace builds on nature. In fact, one might say that the point of grace is precisely to heal nature, return it to its proper use. Even on this natural level our fallen nature ruins us, by ruining our use and enjoyment of all the natural goods. We take food, make it an idol, and become gluttons. We make work or leisure an idol and we have workaholism or indolence. We make sex into an idol and come up with a whole host of perversions. So idolatry, properly speaking, is the root of all sin, the creature choosing another creature instead of God. Fasting, on the other hand, is the removal of that idol for a time. The frustrated hunger for the artificial joy must then cast around to find something else to fill it, which is where the duality of Lenten observance comes in. We don’t just give something up, we also undertake some good work. Simply frustrating the disordered hunger is not enough, we must give it something else to latch onto, or it will be back to its old ways by Pentecost. Lent is a time of emptying, not so that we may be empty, but so that we have room to be filled with what we were really made for.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lent 2013, IV

IV. I think I like the living plant analogy better than the wooden board analogy. A living plant can’t really see itself to know whether it is growing straight or not. All it knows is that it is trying to grow towards the strongest light it can find. It was meant to grow towards the sun, but if something confuses it that natural tendency twists it to grow in a warped, stunted shape. The lesser light distracts it from the true light. Unlike a dead plank, which must be straightened by force from the outside, (we used to do this as kids to make longbows, you soak the wood, force it into a frame holding it in the desired shape, and let it dry that way over days or weeks) a living plant can only be corrected by gentler means. You can try to force it, but as soon as you remove the constraint it will keep growing in a disordered way, because the wrong light is still strongest. Turn off the fluorescent lights and put it in a place where it can freely see the true light, and it will correct itself. Its own natural love of the light is what caused it to warp in the first place, and it is the only thing that can correct it. It cannot be corrected from the outside, it must, in a sense, cooperate from within in its own healing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lent 2013, III

III. When bending a warped board back to its proper shape, the direction we bend it is determined by the direction in which it was warped in the first place. You have to find the crookedness and go in the opposite direction. There is another analogy though, that we can use to shed a new light on the question. What if, instead of a dead wooden plank, we are trying to straighten a living plant? Most plants have a tendency called heliotropism, which means they grow in the direction of the sun. You can sometimes see dramatic examples of this in young trees growing in the shade of buildings or other trees. Since sunlight can only reach them from one direction, instead of growing straight and tall, they grow lopsided and twisted. As anyone who has ever tried to search for the perfect Christmas tree in an overcrowded Christmas tree farm can attest, trees will grow primarily in the direction they are given freedom to grow. Another example of heliotropism is the homemade greenhouse that I did as a school project when I was a kid. Since the plants were indoors  we used fluorescent lights over the boxes, but at certain times of the day the sunlight could hit them through the window as well. The poor confused plant, unable to distinguish between the real sun and the fake sun, would grow in an undulating fashion. Instead of having a straight stem it constantly waved back and forth trying to follow both lights at once. Fortunately for the plant we didn’t leave them confused for long. Come May, after the ground wasn’t frosted every morning, we transplanted them out to the garden. There, with no confusing fluorescent lights, it was free to grow straight to the sun.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lent 2013, II

II. Is fasting contrary to nature? We do not call abstinence from drinking poison “fasting” because it is not the least bit unnatural. We call abstinence from food “fasting” because it is not natural. But is it contra (against) natural? Since fasting is enjoined by the Church it has to be a good. If it is good it cannot be contrary to nature; unless, that is, there is something wrong with our nature. If that were the case, then directly going against our nature might be not unnatural, but supremely natural. Just like bending a board cannot possibly straighten it… unless it was already warped in the first place. Then bending it back the other way, and holding it that way for a little while (let’s say, 40 days?) might well correct its crookedness. It might bring it back to the straight and true.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lent 2013, I

This lent I am extremely busy. So instead of continuing to blog as I usually try to do I plan on sharing a series of 30 short reflections that I wrote for my private use during lent last year. As you read them, try to remember that I am not certain of anything that I write in this group of posts. It is all just me thinking out loud.

Lent is a time for penance. Most Catholics I know would think so. I certainly think so. But this lent I am trying to go a little deeper and look into the reason for penance. What is its purpose? What good does voluntary suffering do for us or anyone else? I know that it is not a way of saying that all the things we fast from are bad things. I would go so far as to say you can't fast from something bad, since you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. I don't go around consuming arsenic on a regular basis, but no one would say I am fasting from it. I am simply existing in natural relationship to it. It is not meant for consumption, I am not consuming it. Nature is preserved. But what about pizza? Pizza is meant to be consumed. If I consume it, I am in harmony with nature. If I see a pizza and don't eat any of it, though? Isn't that a violation of nature? This is an interesting line of reasoning. I think I'll follow it further in following posts, and see where it goes.