Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chemistry, Wisdom, and Pope Francis

Yesterday was the mid-term for my first ever college chemistry course. After the mid-term, during the lecture which was on conversions of mass to moles (which I learned how to do in high school) I was amusing myself by following various forms of nuclear decay down the wikipedia rabbit hole. Before I knew it I was up to my neck in electron neutrinos, positrons, muons, tauons, and leptons and anti-leptons of all varieties. Sheesh! I remember when the only subatomic particles were protons, neutrons and electrons, and the only ones you really worried about were electrons, because they are the only ones that interact with other atoms. As far as chemistry was concerned, the rest may as well not exist.

That, of course, was high school chemistry 14 or 15 years ago.

Ah, but they do exist. And apparently they do matter (if you'll excuse the pun). These particles do interact with other particles through fundamental forces such as gravity and electromagnetism, and exert a small but measurable influence on the universe. Or perhaps even a huge influence. Who really knows?

It seems that every time scientists think they've gotten to the bottom of this whole reality thing, another layer of complexity reveals itself. In light of that minor indulgence in a little casual reading, I was particularly struck by this passage from the book of Wisdom which was the scripture for the Office of Readings this morning.

Now God grant I speak suitably
and value these endowments at their worth:
For he is the guide of Wisdom
and the director of the wise.
For both we and our words are in his hand,
as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.
For he gave me sound knowledge of existing things,
that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements,
The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times,
the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons.
Cycles of years, positions of the stars,
natures of animals, tempers of beasts,
Powers of the winds and thoughts of men,
uses of plants and virtues of roots-
Such things as are hidden I learned and such as are plain;
for Wisdom, the artificer of all, taught me. 

 This just blows my mind, and reminds me of the kerfuffle in the news over Pope Francis' statements that evolution and the big bang theories are not incompatible with belief in a creator. Apparently this has some atheists and fundamentalists who understand neither evolution nor Catholic theology up in arms. The literal seven-day creation interpretation is really more of a protestant thing than a Catholic thing, and always has been. In fact, literalism itself is not Catholic. There is something striking that this passage from the book of Wisdom is to be found in the Catholic Bible, but not in the Protestant Bible.

Did the writer of wisdom know everything, or even a percent, of what we know about astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, biology, etc? No. Not even a percent of a percent. And we make a grave mistake if we think we have done more than merely scratch the surface.

The writer of Wisdom, however, did know the one thing that is proper to the true scientist. He knew enough to stand in humble awe before the majesty and complexity of creation. He kneel enough to kneel and listen and not to assume that he knew all things by his own cleverness. He knew that the Mystery continues forever. 

He knew more than we do.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola and Divine Punishment

Ebola has been much in the news, lately, so much so that even someone as relatively uncurrent as I choose to be cannot help but hear about it. Currently two nurses in Dallas, Texas who were treating a Liberian Ebola victim are diagnosed with the disease, and some nervousness ensued in Ohio after it was found that one of the nurses flew to Ohio while on quarantine and with a mild fever. She was diagnosed after returning to Dallas.

Of course she immediately became everyone's new favorite person to hate, but as it later turns out, she checked with the CDC's epidemiology office that was handling her case before flying out to Ohio and was given the green light because her overall risk category was "uncertain."

A number of American Ebola patients have recovered using an experimental new drug which I have not taken the time to consult the literature about (because at the moment I am not worried about it). Seattle's Harborview hospital, practically in my back yard, has agreed to take on ebola patients, should it become necessary. The hospital my wife works at has also begun conducting ebola training, since there is a remote possibility they could be tapped to take on overflow patients.

All in all, if you are looking for something to worry about, ebola is as good as anything.  It is scary, foreign and outside your control so if you are looking for a reason to panic, you could do worse. In fact, the fact that it is completely outside your control is a major selling point. You don't actually have to do anything about it, other than what you already wanted to do anyway.
media covers it extensively (I am not going to bother posting links because if you are reading this I am going to assume you have google capability) and both political spectrums have picked their approaches to it with incredible alacrity. In fact, his rather long, but entertaining blog examines it as a case study in politicization. 

Homelessness, or poverty, or labor trafficking, or what-they-teach-in-school-these-days, are not nearly so convenient as they seem to require some measure of engagement with the real world, and might lead to, (Oh Horrors!) responsibilities!

That being said, there is one aspect of the ebola panic that strikes me as useful and enlightening. On a hunch I googled "Ebola" and "divine punishment" and sure enough I found a few articles from Africa, a Slate Article decrying the "God's punishment" narrative, and even a couple of extreme righter's claiming that it is either God's handiwork, or an opportunity to purify America, as long as Obama doesn't use it to declare martial law.

Okay, so there are crazies in the world.

The question I want to raise is, does God, in fact, use diseases to punish people and nations for their sins?

I immediately associate the question with my Grandpa. About three years ago, as he was dying of lung, breast and metastatic skin cancer, in fact one of the very last times I saw him, I asked him how he was holding up. He gave me an answer I will never forget. He said, "Ryan, I'll tell you, most of the time I hold up just fine, but sometimes I just get angry. I told my doctor yesterday that I was angry and I just keep asking, 'Why is this happening to me?'

"But I know why this is happening to me. It's because I smoked for 30 years, and because I went out in the Pacific sun for years without a hat on, and because I worked on RADAR towers with no shielding for so many years. That's why all this is happening to me."
November 2011, Shortly after my graduation from the Q course, I got the opportunity to have one last visit with a truly great man.

There was some anger there as he said it, but on a deeper level there was courage. He was being a man, and I think, showing me how to be a man, by taking responsibility for his actions. He was dying of cancer as a result of his own choices, no more and no less.

Were they morally terrible choices? Absolutely not. When he started smoking in the 50's no one knew that it caused lung cancer. When he worked on RADAR towers in the Air Force no one knew about the harmful effects of the electromagnetic radiation. No one knew about the effects of UV rays on the germ cells in the skin. He was not bad because he made these choices. He was sick, and eventually he died.

The point that was suggested to my by the association of that memory, specifically with the news about the nurse flying to Ohio while infected with the disease, was that human actions have consequences. Ebola, AIDS, wars, pollution, poverty, etc. all of these things are, without exception, either caused, or propagated, or both, by the choices of humans. Sometimes those choices affect primarily the chooser. More often, they effect everyone else as well.

This is what we must learn from ebola (and from every other social ill). We live in a web of
causation, where our actions and inactions have real consequences that will really effect real people. Ignorance excuses the guilt, i.e. the nurse who flew to Ohio contacted the CDC and they gave her the go ahead and told her she was still clear to fly. Turns out they were wrong. She was not a malicious person, neither was the poor (probably by now unemployed) clerk who took her call and answered her question based on the risk assessment matrix on the computer screen in front of him. That matrix itself, drawn together from the best guesses of a whole bunch of really smart people, was also wrong. Turns out a whole bunch of people were wrong, no one was a "horseman of the apocalypse" trying to spread the plague. Now they know more than they did.

Ignorance excuses guilt. It does not negate the consequences. Just because I don't know I have the flu (I think it is just a cold) doesn't mean that when I give it to someone else it might turn out to be a very serious deal for them.

A hunter falls asleep in a tree stand and wakes up when he accidentally pulls the trigger. The fact that he did not deliberately aim at his partner's foot or have any intention of doing any harm will not alter the course of the bullet or its effect on the bones and tissue of the foot that it strikes.

We don't know what the consequences of that flight from Dallas to Ohio and back will be. My honest (and not particularly educated) guess is that likely nothing will come of it. If that is the case, I will praise the Mercy of God for once again minimizing the potential harm that we human beings like to do to ourselves. I would say that that is the norm of Divine Action, that He intervenes more often to prevent or mitigate the negative effects of our stupidity and malice than to enhance them.

It is in this sense that I say, yes, if ebola does spread it spreads, not as punishment for, but as a result of sins; sins and ignorance, ignorance as a result of sin. Where is ebola spreading? In Africa, among the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, and the ignorant. Why are they poor, downtrodden, weak and ignorant? Because other people (black and white, this has nothing to do with race) keep them so, in order to remain rich and powerful, and to increase their wealth and power. Why do AIDS, syphillis, gonorrhea, HPV, and all the other STD's keep spreading? Is it a punishment for sin? Or is it a result of human behavior that is naturally conducive to their spread? Why does 10% of the U.S. Population have diabetes? Is it because God is smiting us with "the sugars" for our sins of unbelief and immorality? No, it is because we eat like pigs and we don't exercise.

My response to ebola, as to nearly every other crisis we choose to get excited over, and a good number than most people never hear about, is to pray. To pray and always to try to reform my life, to continue the work of conversion. If victims of this or any other disease come our way, I believe our hospitals should open their doors (maintaining all reasonable precautions) and welcome them. If in the future I am called upon to treat them (as I have treated patients with AIDS, HEP-C, TB and other terrible and contagious disease), I hope I will do so conscientiously and with mercy.

My emphasis on personal morality will not protect me or my family from the results of other people's choices. It may actually place me at a higher statistical risk of dying in horribly unpleasant ways, but when has that ever been different? Has life ever been safe? Has anyone ever gotten out of this world alive? We have a greater chance of getting wiped out in a car accident because someone chose to drink too much and then drive than we ever will of getting ebola. No amount of worry is going to keep me from becoming the victim of other people's choices. Rant and rave about how unfair that is, but that does not change the truth. "Being good" has never been a guarantee of safety. Indeed, it often seems to function rather more like a red cape in front of a bull. The most innocent human being ever to live died of asphyxiation and blood loss, hanging from his arms by nails, and cursed or abandoned by almost everyone.

I do not choose to be on the side of Mercy to protect myself, but because that is what Jesus did, and I want to be like Him when I grow up.

Monday, October 13, 2014


Crushed my soul today
With three-fifteen times forty.
Useless without love.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Last week I wrote about the need to have a morning prayer time, and the obstacles that always coincidentally show up just when you want to set aside some prayer time. Ironically, the very next morning I had an unusually stubborn obstacle to overcome.

I got up at 4:30 and was driving to church for a holy hour. My truck was almost out of gas, so I stopped at the gas station to fill it up. I swiped my card, and the machine asked me for my billing zip code, and I blithely typed it in. I am not sure what I typed in, but it started with "28," which is a North Carolina zip code.

I haven't lived in NC for three years.

Of course it rejected my card and locked up the machine for a minute. I used my other card, but still couldn't remember my billing zip code. Time after time I tried, but I could not remember that stupid 5 digit number. Old zip codes from previous apartments? Got it. Old buddy's house from two years ago? Got it. House I live in now?


After five or ten minutes I was getting later and later for the holy hour. I hate being late for holy hour! I was getting more and more grumpy, I was tired, and I thought about just giving up and going back home for a nap before school. After all, I didn't have enough gas to get to church and back home and then to school. It was clearly the fact that I was tired that was causing me to forget my zip-code.

But then I decided not. After all, who needs sleep? So I went into the gas station and paid for gas at the counter. I am not sure why it took me ten minutes to think about that. At any rate, I finally did think about that, I paid for the gas, and got to church, and indeed had a great holy hour, from my point of view.

So, as I said, there are always obstacles. The thing is not to get grumpy or uptight about it, but just accept it with a laugh and trust. In all likelihood it was my grumpiness that kept me from thinking about paying inside, and made me later for holy hour. But live and learn. That also is material to be accepted and surrendered.

Everything is.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mary, Martha, and the Primacy of Contemplation

As much as I hate to admit it, there is a certain hierarchy in the spiritual life, as in the physical world. It is, perhaps, the most uncomfortable thing about the faith, that some things are true, others are not, and there is no getting around them when they are. The second most uncomfortable thing is the knowledge that I am fallible, and therefore I never truly know when I am right, and when I am wrong. So, in yesterday's discussion of Martha and Mary, I came to the conclusion that the "one thing needful" was love and the trust that must follow it. This takes different shapes, depending on the situation, but love is always the central thing.

However, this does not fully explain the fact that Jesus did say that Mary chose the "better part." In fact, throughout the history of the Church Mary and Martha have been considered archetypes of the two broad vocational categories, if you will, the contemplative and the active lives. Mary, of course, is the proto-contemplative and Martha is the proto-active. A good deal was made out of this distinction by the Church over the ages, in holding up the celibate, contemplative life as the beau-ideal of the Christian life.

Ah, but isn't that rather an old fashioned way of thinking about it? Don't we now know that everyone Apostolic Letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte", the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, by Pope Paul VI, and Chapter V of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.) Wasn't Vatican II all about increasing the role and responsibility of the laity in the Church?
Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa 1979
is called to be a saint, and lay-people are called to the same level (although not "style" for lack of a better word) of holiness as everyone else? (For reference to recent emphasis on the "Universal call to Holiness), see Article 30 of St. John Paul II's

Heck, go back to the beginning and didn't St. Paul say, "For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose" 1 Corinthians 12:14-18.

Yes, but this does not change the fact that St. Paul was also the author of 1 Corinthians 7:32-34. And Jesus definitely did say that Mary chose the better part. Is the active life really second best?

I think the key is to be found in the two great commandments. We all know them: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and all your soul," and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." These are clearly hierarchically arranged. Love of God comes first, love of neighbor comes second. However, they are not arranged according to worth but according to primacy. First things first, if you will. Love of God comes first, love of everyone else comes second. 

For some reason, and I suspect it is diabolical in origin, almost everyone Christian I know will read that and hear, "Love of God is more important, love of neighbor is less important." The implication is that there is a competition for limited resources (love) and God has first claim so when there is not enough love to go around, well, sorry family, but God gets His first. This understanding is widespread, pervasive, but is a straight up lie. Hence my suspicion that it is diabolical in origin.  

In reality, there is not and can never be any sort of competition between creature and Creator, except in the imagination of the creature. "In Him we live, and move, and have our being!" There is no possible way in which we could ever have something that God needs, and there is no possible way God could ever not provide for His creatures what they truly need, and in any event, Love is the one thing that only multiplies the more you give it away.  The Creator vs. creature dynamic is not a valid construct. 

Competition, when it occurs, occurs in the imagination of the creature. The creature imagines that something is good for it, which God has warned is not, in fact, good for it. Promiscuous sexual activity or gossip, to pick two fairly common examples, one respectable, one slightly less so. These give pleasure, they make the creature feel good for the moment, so the creature thinks they are good. God says they are not, the creature does them anyway and reaps the consequences later on down the line. This is what we call "sin" and "punishment."

This brings me to what Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC, calls "The Primacy of Contemplation." This is a concept that reconciles the two halves of the false dichotomy, admittedly by the rather mundane process of non-reinvention of the wheel. Simply put, pray first (commune with God), then go and do what He tells you (love your neighbor.) In the order of the Church as the Body of Christ we have contemplatives who listen to and commune with God, and we have actives who put that relationship into practice. This is an important area of study, but not really my topic at the moment. Right now I am concerned with the contemplative and active element in my own life.  

The Primacy of Contemplation means that my work must flow from my prayer. My relationship with people must flow from my relationship with God. This is not because God is more important than people (He is, but He doesn't insist on His importance) but because people are so important that anything but the best is not good enough for them. Therefore our service must be the highest, noblest and most loving service, which means is must be united with Christ's service (from Bethlehem to the Cross). To do this we must be united with Christ. As Vatican II proclaimed in Perfectae Caritatis, "Apostolic activity must spring from intimate union with Him."

This means that prayer, spiritual reading and the sacraments, while not the focus of our lives (for laity in general) need to be the foundation of our lives. As busy as we may become (and I have become very busy at various times in my life) we must never be too busy for dedicated time for prayer. The world attacks prayer time. It always will by design. When you make the decision to set aside time (five or ten minutes or an hour, it doesn't much matter) every day for prayer, the devil will attack that time. He will make you unusually tired in the morning, try to get you to stay up late so you will say, "Just this once I really need those extra ten minutes of sleep, so I am going to hit the snooze button. I'll make up for it tomorrow." He will wake the kids up early and send them to interrupt. He will offer distractions, diversions and downright despair of ever praying worthily. (I don't know whether all of those interferences are directly as a result of the devil or just coincidence, but I have noticed that they tend to occur with surprising regularity. I know as a matter of history that when my alarm goes off I can count on having at least one good reason not to pray every single morning.) 

The great thing is simply to keep trying, and not to be discouraged by failure. When prayer time is interrupted by tiredness, offer that as a sacrifice. When it is interrupted by other people, offer that to God. When you are secretly very glad that so-and-so came along and interrupted and got you off the prayer hook for today, and ashamed of that feeling, offer the feeling, and the shame and the interruption to God. Try again tomorrow, or later in the afternoon. 

Set an alarm on your phone for 3 PM, and when it goes off simply say the Divine Mercy prayer or a short form of it, such as, "For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world." Pause, center your awareness on God (who has not ceased to be aware of you for all eternity) and look at Him with love. 

Talk to Him like Tevye. 

Talk to Him, listen to Him, then do what He tells you, and you will become an active contemplative, probably without even knowing it. 

You will also become a saint. Sweet deal!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Martha and Mary: Failure and the Five Love Languages

Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.” Luke 10:38-42

The Gospel of the day: As a good friend of mine said in Bible Study last night, "I sometimes feel like this is one of those passages that has been beaten to death!" I also think, for priests and deacons, it may be the passage most likely to offend the middle-aged ladies of the parish who are probably more likely to relate to Martha than to Mary. After all, it's all well and good for Mary to choose the better part. But, as another friend commented, "Oh! That's how it is? My sister chose the better part, eh? Do you want to eat tonight, Jesus? I hear there's a kid down the street with some loaves and fishes..." Can you imagine her face after He said that to her?

(Meaning no disrespect to Martha at all. She reminds me too much of the women of my family whom I love dearly.)

One thing that a priest once pointed out in a homily, and which has stuck with me ever since, is that Jesus never rebuked Martha for serving Him, or for cooking, or for cleaning, or for any of the work she was doing. He rebuked her for being "worried and anxious." That is why I like this picture of the incident so much, because it captures something of the tenderness and playfulness of Jesus' response. He knows that she loves Him, and that she wants everything to be perfect for Him. The question is, does she know Him?

Gary Chapman in his book "The Five Love Languages" posits that human beings express and understand love in five main ways: Physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and gift giving. Everyone has one or maybe two main languages that they naturally gravitate towards, with the others being secondary or lesser importance. For instance, when I listed them above, I listed them more-or less in order of importance to me, with physical touch and quality time a tie for most importance, and gift-giving utterly meaningless to me.

Now it is easy to go from there and posit that Jesus (in His humanity, obviously, not His Divinity) acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, and physical touch. Jesus was a whole and complete human being and He knew how to love as the situation needed.
Jesus knew how to love as the situation required.
was a "quality time" type and Martha was an "acts of service" type. He might have been saying something like, "Martha, a really big meal is all well and good but what I really want is just to spend some time with you." The problem with that is that it sets up a sort of false dichotomy between the two and it also misses the holistic nature of Jesus. The gospel has many examples of Jesus Himself loving with

No, it was the worry that was the problem. He says the same thing to me all the time when I complain about when am I going to have time for prayer, for spiritual reading, etc. I just have so much to do! "Peace!" He says to me. "You are worried about many things. One thing only is needful. Trust me."

Worry comes when we set goals for ourselves and measure our success or failure based on whether we achieve our goals. But, as I said last week, failure is almost the point of trying in the spiritual life. Jesus wants our goal to be loving Him, not achieving anything. Indeed, achievement of any kind, a goal of any kind, material or spiritual, or "for the Kingdom" or what have you, no matter how perfect is absolutely worthless without that one thing needful. As Saint Paul put it:

Earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3

Love, then is the one thing needful, and trust as a consequence of that love; implicit trust, which
refuses to become distressed when our prayers are not answered, our evangelization efforts are met with indifference, and our attempts at love go unnoticed. This trust even extends to our efforts at trust, refusing to become distressed at our inability to remain trustful. In other words, even when we fall off the trust bandwagon and start worrying up a storm, we don't get worried about our worrying. We just pick ourselves back up, calm the body, then the mind, then the heart as best we can (it's a useful technique, remind me to tell you about it sometime) and leave the rest in the hands of God. This is the way to true mastery in the spiritual life, through loving, trusting acceptance of failure. Through it all we sit humbly on the ground like a little kid at story time, and look up at Jesus and wait for Him to explain the punchline. That is all that is required of us.
Isn't He great like that? :-D

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Why was I reluctant?
I can only say it seemed so unnecessary.
I had been there for the whole ordeal.
We had already fulfilled the demands of hate,
Filled full, over flowed, spilled
The full measure of hate; killed Him.
Beat, flailed, threshed like grain of wheat,
Fresh flayed like meat, thorn-torn crownéd brow.
How brave He stood! How so silent?
Burdened, urged and cursed,
Tripped and whipped like a donkey,
Pushed, bullied and dragged;
Robe gripped and stripped, wounds ripped anew open;
Hung now-fresh bleeding flesh from stake
Nailed, travailed...
and now to be impaled?
Stuck like a pig with my lance?
Not a chance He is alive.
No breath detected,
No life suspected,
Elected to make sure, but
Need I? He is dead. Let Him be.
Behold the corpse!
Poor parched, dried out, bled out
Pale blue livid skin under red and black
Of wound and scab and muck.
I know the look of death!
Why have I not struck?
I had never paused before, human flesh is cheap
Insubordination steep. Why weep now?

Strange reluctance, ineluctable task
Final degradation, penetrating stab of hate.
“Give it to cold, old half-blind Longinus. Let him take care of it.”
So it must be, let pity die.

Hate welled up, swelled up, fell,
Black as coal, a hole of cold nothing in my soul,
Killed my pity.
I looked,
I hated,
I thrust.
Felt thunk of iron on blood soaked trunk
Of tree behind,
Even blind I,
Know to twist with wrist and rip
It is finished.

And in the act, the very act of pulling free:
Rushing counter-thrust of grace!
Riposte’ of Mercy burst unburdened out,
Frothed forth! Rushed eagerly, joyfully gushed,
Flushed my bat-blind eyes, and thrust me to my knees.
Defeated utterly!
Mercy filled my eyes (that looked on slaughter,
And red-rimmed laughed) with blood and water,
Filled them with tears, and washed those tears away.
Washed away the dry, grimy film
Through which I viewed the world,
All my life.
Of sinners worst, most accursed, who durst
Kill and mutilate mercy itself, I was the first!
First immersed in Mercy
Bursting forth to quench my thirst.
Not according to desert, but to my need
In heaping measure what I, unknowing, took,
He blithely gave for me who made Him bleed.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Failing at Life

It is the little failures that get to you, not the spectacular ones. With a spectacular fail you can take comfort in the fact of having been, at least briefly, spectacular. You may not have achieved what you set out to achieve, but at least you tried where most others would not have.

No, what gets to you is the little failures, repeated every day, day after day after day. Sometimes it is someone else’s fault, like not getting to work on time because the idiot in front of you couldn’t drive. Sometimes it is your own fault, like when I pound the steering wheel and call the idiot in front of me an idiot for not knowing how to drive. I forget the people I have cut off, the unsignalled lefts I have taken, the green lights I have held up because I was busy changing the song on my iPhone. Little failures, like not getting all of the errands finished, or going to store for ingredients and coming home having forgotten one small but essential thing that you absolutely must have; or big failures, like forgetting about the Eucharistic fast and not being able to receive Communion because you just had to have that last cookie before you walked out the door.

There is nothing great about these. They don’t even merit an “epic fail, bro!” None is life-shattering but each one chips away a little bit at your self-confidence. If I can’t even get the kids into the car and to school on time, what makes me think I could succeed at volunteering for a charity? Or writing a novel? Or getting in shape? Or learning to play the piano? Are you serious? I can barely get my carcass out of bed some mornings.

And it doesn’t seem fair, because you know, and I know, that we really are trying. Not like Bubba from highschool who still lives in his mom’s basement at 32 years old, works the same job at the car wash, and in all that time has not attempted anything more challenging than Final Fantasy XXIV: The Return of Zombie Aerith. Bubba is doing fine. Bubba has no problems. One might think that he may actually have figured this life thing out. Just don’t try anything you aren’t already good at and you will never fail.

But in our better moments we don’t want to be like Bubba. We have made enough progress to know that we at least want to do something worthwhile with our lives. We love some good, or are committed to a family or some worthy project, and we are sacrificing to achieve it. Would a little success be too much to ask for, Lord? Some support, maybe?

But I will tell you a secret, although you may not believe me.

The most valuable coin in the spiritual life is failure.

I know you think I am crazy, but it is true (both that failure is valuable and that I am crazy). God draws us up off the couch by proposing some good to us. Perhaps you fall in love with a woman. Perhaps you have a child. Perhaps you have a mystical vision of the poem that will express the inexpressible. You want to be a good and holy husband. You want to be a wise, loving (and absolutely perfect) parent. You want to be a divine poet. The painful truth is that success was never the point.

When God proposes the dream to us, we must not imagine that He is saying, “If you are a good boy and you work really hard, you can do anything you set your mind to. You just have to believe in yourself.” Really He is just saying, “Here is a faint shadow of just the tiniest corner of a fraction of my Being. Will you pursue me in that vision?” So we pursue. The vision and desire for success in pursuing that vision are necessary first steps. Even self-confidence can be a step.

But in reality, whatever we may imagine, we do not pursue in order to succeed, we pursue in
order to fail. The harder we pursue, the more quickly and surely we will fail, and to a certain extent the sooner and harder the better. That was the point all along. I said above that these failures are not life shattering, but they chip away at our self-confidence.

That is exactly the point.

God wants to destroy our self-confidence, because as long as we trust in ourselves we can never be saved. Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, in, “The Spiritual Combat,” opens Chapter II, the initial chapter on the Way of Perfection with this stern warning:

“Distrust of self is so absolutely requisite in the spiritual combat that without this virtue we cannot expect to defeat our weakest passion, much less gain a complete victory. This important truth should be deeply imbedded in our hearts; for although in ourselves we are nothing, we are too apt to overestimate our own abilities and to conclude falsely that we are of some importance. This vice springs from the corruption of our nature. But the more natural a thing is, the more difficult it is to be discovered.”

 This is an echo of the Apostle Paul

“It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Romans 7:13-15, 24-25.

These are not the words of a man who is succeeding at everything he tries. He is failing, and acutely aware of his failure. This is the same man who writes:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the
revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10.

Or to quote C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity): “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.” The better you try to be and the harder you try to be that way, the sooner you will have opportunity to learn how far short you fall.

That is the reason God asks us to try. Not because He wants us to "be good or else," but because He wants us to want to be good, to try to be good, and to fail so that we realize that we cannot be good. Then, and not before, we will be humbled enough to ask Him to help us, to do it for us. 
We will see that our perfection is His work, not ours, we are only called to be willing participants. 

This is not to say that our goal is to be neurotic, or to lack all ability to try. That is why destroying self-trust is the second step, and not the last. Distrust in ourselves opens the door to trust in God. Unless we take that next step and trust in Him, destroying self trust would be worse than useless.

There is more to this, much, much more, but this blog is already too long so maybe another time.