Category Archives: Theology

Indulgences

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-by A. David Anders, PhD, David was raised in the Presbyterian Church of America. He and his wife completed their undergraduate degrees at Wheaton College in 1992. He subsequently earned an M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1995, and a Ph.D. from The University of Iowa in 2002, in Reformation history and historical theology. He wrote his dissertation on John Calvin. His dissertation is titled “Prophets from the ranks of shepherds: John Calvin and the challenge of popular religion (1532–1555).” He has taught history and religion in Iowa and Alabama. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. He currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and five home-schooled children (ages 1-14). Dr. Anders is a principal author of “Called to Communion” a blog of 23 formerly Protestant authors and academics who have converted to Catholicism and seek to foster the dialogue of unity.  “We believe that genuine unity comes through truth and never by forsaking or compromising the truth.”

“Probably no part of the Catholic tradition has been more maligned than indulgences. The controversies of the sixteenth century have forever marred this tradition in the popular imagination. Most people cannot get over the hackneyed cliché that Catholics think they can buy their way into Heaven. But this is a gross distortion of Catholic teaching. The tradition of indulgences is venerable, ancient, biblical, and logical. To understand why is to go deeply into the most beautiful, gracious, and sublime teachings of our faith.

The roots of indulgences can be found in the biblical teaching on penance. Jesus instructed the disciples to exclude the impenitent from the fellowship of the Church, but to forgive those who seek forgiveness. (Matthew 18:15ff) St. Paul likewise told the Corinthians to expel the immoral brother, but to readmit him after due penance. (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11) Many other passages of Scripture command the Church to correct, admonish, and punish the immoral, the disobedient, and the factious. (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Tit. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:20; Galatians 6:1-2)

The ancient Church kept up this practice. Penance and absolution were a public affair, sometimes lasting for years. Disputes raged, however, over how long penance should last and under what circumstances it should be reduced. Would a quick “I’m sorry” do for a murderer, apostate, or adulterer? “Hard liners” (like Tertullian and Novatian) argued that some sins were so severe they should never be forgiven. (They appealed to Hebrews 6:4-8 in defense of their views.) Others, like Pope Calixtus (d. 222) were more lenient, and extended absolution to everyone.

Under St. Cyprian (210-258), the North African Church offered another perspective. Christians had long valued the intercession of the saints and martyrs. Through Christ, their merits and prayers were of extraordinary value. (James 5:16; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 7:14-15) What if those saints, martyrs, and confessors (those in prison for their faith or on their way to martyrdom), offered their sufferings on behalf of the penitent?

It’s very important to grasp what was being suggested. No one thought that Christ’s sufferings were insufficient. No one thought that the penitent or the martyrs could buy their way into heaven. They were concerned simply with the temporal punishments due to sin, not the eternal consequences of unremitted guilt. It was a matter of the disciplinary action of the Church, excluding and admitting from communion, and the conditions for that readmission. The question was whether the merits of the saints could be applied towards remitting only the temporal punishments.

This is where things get complicated for non-Catholic Christians. They are not accustomed to distinguishing between the guilt of sin and its temporal consequences. Nor are they used to thinking in terms of vicarious merit. And yet, both ideas are deeply biblical. 2 Samuel 12 and 2 Samuel 24 both teach that God demands satisfaction for sin even when the guilt has been previously remitted. Likewise, we find vicarious merit and suffering throughout Scripture. (Genesis 18:32; Colossians 1:24).

In Cyprian’s day, some of the confessors began handing out indulgences in their own names, or on their own authority. Sometimes, they gave them out as “blank checks” on which penitents could write their own names. St. Cyprian’s response was truly astonishing. He did not deny that these libellus (as they were called) had value. Rather, he demanded that the granting of indulgences should be subject to the authority of the bishop.

In Cyprian’s day, the Church recognized that sin has a temporal consequence, to which the Church’s authority and intercessions apply. The Church fathers also believed deeply in the communion of saints, and that the weaker members can share in the merits and gifts of the stronger. They applied this biblical logic to the problem of penances. It was a small step to apply it as well to the sufferings of those in purgatory.

The details of purgatory are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the Church, following the Jewish practice, has always offered prayers for the dead. (2 Maccabees 12: 38-46) From this, and from what we know about penance, purity, and some suggestive scriptures (Matthew 5:25-26; 1 Cor. 3:11-15), the fathers inferred the doctrine of purgatory. The important thing to remember is that purgatory is a temporal punishment. As such, it is subject to the merits and intercessory prayers of the Church. These can be directed through the practice of indulgences.

Indulgences are not a “get out of hell free card.” They are not a license to sin. Rather, they are how the Church can direct the prayers and merits of the faithful to the spiritual benefit of poor souls. They are grounded in the biblical teaching on Church discipline and the communion of saints. They emerged in the earliest years of the Church with the approbation of her holiest doctors and saints. Rightly understood, they are a beautiful testament to the solidarity of all Christians, to our union in Christ.”

Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.

False. Repentance and sacramental confession—not indulgences—are the way to avoid going to hell when one has committed mortal sin. As we will see, indulgences remit only temporal penalties of sins that have already been forgiven, so they cannot stop an unrepentant, unforgiven person from going to hell. Once a person is in hell, no number of indulgences will get him out. The way to avoid hell is by appealing to and accepting God’s mercy while still alive. After death, one’s eternal fate is set (cf. Heb. 9:27).

Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.

Again, false. The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that an indulgence “is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power” (1910 ed., s.v. “Indulgences”).

Myth 3: A person can buy forgiveness with indulgences.

The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina, norm 1). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with temporal consequences that may be left after sins have been forgiven.

Myth 4: Indulgences were invented to make money for the Church.

Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of encouraging spiritual growth and lessening the temporal consequences that may remain when sins are forgiven. The roots of the practice go back centuries before money-related problems appeared.

Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten one’s time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.

The Catholic Church does not teach anything about how long or short purgatory is. Indeed, from a temporal perspective, purgatory may be accomplished instantaneously, “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:51–52). In such a case, indulgences could affect its intensity but not its temporal duration.

The origin of this myth is the fact that, in the past, a certain number of “days” were attached to many indulgences. These were not days off in purgatory. Instead, they expressed the value of an indulgence by analogizing it to the number of days’ penance one would have done on Earth under the penitential practices of the early Church. Moderns had lost touch with the ancient system, which made the reckoning of such “days” confusing. The practice was abolished in 1967 in Pope Paul VI’s constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina.

Myth 6: A person formerly could buy indulgences.

One never could buy indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences involved alms-indulgences, in which the giving of alms to a charitable fund was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. The practice was the same in principle as modern nonprofit organizations’ granting premium gifts in thank-yous for donations. That is not the same as selling. The purpose of granting indulgences was to encourage people to do good things and to grow spiritually. Only one kind of indulgence involved alms, and giving alms in itself is a good thing. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its article on indulgences: “Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.” The Council of Trent instituted major reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and because of prior abuses, “in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions” (Catholic Encyclopedia, loc. cit.). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.

Love,
Matthew

Degrees of Intimacy with God

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-by Br Timothy Danaher, OP

“Does God love some people more than others? On the surface it sort of seems like He does. Life is full of inequality, and it leaves us with a gut feeling that life is just unfair.

So is it God’s fault? Scholastic theology has a very interesting answer: God loves each of us with the same intensity of love, but he loves us each to a different degree.

That means that God’s love is the same for all people – it’s the same love which shone from the eyes of John Paul II and which little Johnny Fischer discovered at his First Communion in grade school. But it also means that God calls some people to a greater mission or greater degrees of intimacy, compared to, well… the rest of us.

St. Therese of Lisieux has a famous analogy to explain this: In heaven we will all be like cups – all of us different sizes, but full to the brim with God. This image, though, still allows us to compare our different sizes. So Therese offers another analogy: In this life we are all different flowers in God’s garden. We cannot compare ourselves for each of us is a different kind, making the garden glorious by such great variety. This passage earned Therese her nickname, the Little Flower, writing that she is happy to be the smallest of all God’s flowers.

I love Therese and her analogies, but sometimes it’s hard to think of myself as a cup or a flower. So I’ve tried to think up other analogies in which I can still stay human.

The first is Thanksgiving dinner and how it relates to heaven. As in the Gospel, a great feast is ready and all are invited, with more than enough food to go around. But none of us goes to a feast and spends the evening watching how much more everyone else is getting – we pay attention to the food! We are lost in the sight and smells of all the succulence before us, and we’re happy together, and we give thanks for the meal because each person (regardless the size of their appetite) gets their fill. Then, just like heaven, we “enter into our rest” as we find a couch to sleep on for the rest of the day – “Let the faithful exult in their glory, let them sing for joy on their couches” (Ps 149:5).

Another analogy is a football game. It’s a Saturday night face-off between two rivals. You’re cheering for the home team, the underdog, and the score is close, the atmosphere electric. To use sports rhetoric, both teams are “playing out of their minds” – which translates, they’re playing better than usual. Then in the final seconds, your team seals the deal with a final score. Everyone erupts, the joy is inarticulate – people are just screaming. That’s not exactly a moment where you turn and shout to your neighbor, “Gee, I wish I could enjoy this as much as you are!” Everyone is too busy celebrating – it’s contagious. But in fact, even though everyone is taken up in the joy of the moment, some fans are enjoying it more than others. Mr. Patrick Mansfield has followed the team avidly all year, but his wife Laura whom he brought along – even though she’s cheering too, and she really means it – isn’t “into” football as much as he is.

God’s love is something like that. We all share the same great feast, so no matter the different sizes of our appetites, we all end up happy and full, with no need to compare who got more. But it’s also like football, because even though we all watch the same touchdown and erupt together wild with joy, some fans are happier than others.

“Ok,” you might say, “Cool analogies about heaven, but what about this life?” And that’s a fair point. In life we’re surrounded by different people; we constantly compare ourselves with them. Now, not all comparisons are bad – they can even motivate us, or make us truly admire someone else. Michael Phelps is a faster swimmer than I am, and I’m ok with that. It makes me marvel at him. It also motivates me to exercise a bit more.

But even if we can see the positive side of it, the comparison game still seems to dominate us: we grow envious of other peoples’ accomplishments, their job, their beauty, clothing, intelligence, personality, social status, lucky breaks, just about anything thinkable! Even good things, like their patience or their kindness.

In this life, I only know of one “out” to the problem: Jesus. He is the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46). And that’s pearl, singular, for there is only one of Him. Should we even compare ourselves to the saints, we receive no different version of Him, no “less Jesus.” Because there is only the same Jesus, Who says to each of us, “There is only One of Me, and only one of you. You, come follow me.”

In this life we don’t know why some people are given better natural talents, are born into a better life situation, etc. These things will always be unequal. The only thing that can heal us, free us from a life of endless competition and constant comparison, is the love we find in Christ. We taste here something more valuable than everything else in life, so that we can let go of everything else in life – while two are left speaking, each to each.”

Love,
Matthew

What is Love? It is more than a feeling.

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In my brief and very limited study of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, I learned that Hebrew, being such an ancient language is like a dixie cup of water in terms of the volume of words in its vocabulary.  English is like a large drinking glass.  Greek is like a pitcher.  In English, we only have ONE word for love, a distinct and serious limitation of the language, for all the senses that word must capture, inarticulately, ultimately and at best.  As you will read below, Greek has four.

-by Dr. Peter Kreeft, Dr. Kreeft was raised a Calvinist, Kreeft regarded the Catholic Church “with the utmost suspicion.” A key turning point was when he was asked by a Calvinist professor to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church that it traced itself to the early Church. He said that on his own, he “discovered in the early Church such Catholic elements as the centrality of the Eucharist, the Real Presence, prayers to saints, devotion to Mary, an insistence on visible unity, and apostolic succession.” The Church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome were clearly Catholic and not Protestant, he stated.

The “central and deciding” factor for his conversion was “the Church’s claim to be the one Church historically founded by Christ.” For he applies C. S. Lewis’s trilemma—either Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord to the Church: “either that this is the most arrogant, blasphemous and wicked claim imaginable, if it is not true, or else that He is just what He claims to be.”

On the Bible issue, he refers to the church preaching that forms the basis for writing the Bible and the approval needed from the church to ascertain the contents of the Bible. To this he applied the axiom: “a cause can never be less than its effect. You can’t give what you don’t have. If the Church has no divine inspiration and no infallibility, no divine authority, then neither can the New Testament.”

His conversion took place as he asked God for help, praying that “God would decide for me, for I am good at thinking but bad at acting, like Hamlet.” It was then that he says he “seemed to sense” the call of saints and his favorite heroes, to which he assented.

from http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9375

…in “C. S. Lewis’s unpretentious little masterpiece The Four Loves. In it, Lewis clearly distinguishes supernatural love, agape (ah-gah-pay), the kind of love Christ is and lived and taught, from the natural loves: storge (natural affection or liking), eros (natural sexual desire), and philia (natural human friendship). All natural loves are good; but supernatural love, the love that God is, agape, is the greatest thing in the world. And part of the Gospel, the “good news,” is that it is available to us; that Christ is the plug that connects us to the infinite supply of divine love-electricity.

The old word for agape in English was ‘charity.’ Unfortunately, that word now means to most people simply handouts to beggars, or to the United Fund. But the word ‘love’ won’t do as an accurate translation of agape. For ‘love’ means to most people either sexual love (eros) or a feeling of affection (storge), or a vague love-in general. (Interestingly, we no longer usually classify friendship as one of the loves. That is probably why we seldom write great tributes to it, as the ancients did.)

To solve this translation problem, it may be necessary to insist on using the Greek word agape instead of any of the misleading English translations, even at the risk of sounding snobbish or scholarly, so that we do not confuse this most important thing in the world with something else in our minds, and consequently risk missing it in our lives. There is enormous misunderstanding and confusion about it today. In fact, there are at least six common misunderstandings.

(1) THE FIRST AND MOST usual misunderstanding of agape is to confuse it with a feeling. Our feelings are precious, but agape is infinitely more precious, because our feelings are not infinite but agape is. Feelings come from us, but agape comes from God as its ultimate source. Feelings also come to us, passively. They are “passions.” Agape comes from God and is accepted actively by our free choice. St. Thomas Aquinas defines it as “willing the good of the other” — the simplest definition of love I’ve ever seen. Agape is an act of the will, not the feelings. That is why we are responsible for it, and commanded to do it, to choose it. We are not responsible for our feelings. Only an idiot would command us (That’s why sexual feelings and desires, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are not sins in and of themselves. Feelings can be “disordered,” but sins can come from acting on them.) We are responsible for our agape or lack of it, for agape comes from our free will, our deliberate choice, while feelings come from wind, weather, hormones, advertisements, and digestion. “Luv” comes from spring breezes; real love (agape) comes from the center of the soul, which Scripture calls the ‘heart’ (another word we have sentimentalized and reduced to feeling). Liking is a feeling. But love (agape) is more than strong liking. God does not merely like us; He saves us, He dies for us. Agape is a deed. Love is “the works of love.”

Jesus had different feelings toward different people. But he loved them all equally and absolutely.

But how can we love someone if we don’t like him? Easy — we do it to ourselves all the time. We don’t always have tender, sweet, comfortable feelings about ourselves; sometimes we feel foolish, stupid, asinine, or wicked. But we always love ourselves: we always seek our own good. Indeed, the only reason why we feel dislike toward ourselves and berate ourselves is precisely because we do love ourselves! We care about our good, so we are impatient with our bad.

We fall in love but we do not fall in agape. We rise in agape.

Since God is agape and agape is not feeling, God is not feeling. That does not make Him (or agape) cold. Coldness is a feeling just as much as heat (passion) is. That also does not make Him abstract: a principle or an ideal rather than a Three-Person. Agape is not a feeling, not because it is less than a feeling but because it is so much more. God is agape itself, the essence of love, while feeling is only the little dribbles of love, little echoes of love, received into the medium of our emotions, our passions, our passivity. Love “overcomes” us or “comes over us,” but nothing can overcome or come over God. God cannot fall in love for the same reason water cannot get wet: it is wet. It is wetness itself. Love Itself cannot receive love as a passivity. It can only spread it as an activity. God is love-in-action, not love-in-dreams. (Remember that great line of Dostoyevski’s: “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams” — Dorothy Day’s favorite line. (Ed.  What may it ask of us?)) Feelings are like dreams: easy, passive, spontaneous. Agape is hard and precious like a diamond.

(2) THIS BRINGS US TO A second and related misunderstanding. Agape’s object is always the concrete individual, not some abstraction called humanity. Love of humanity is easy because humanity does not surprise you with inconvenient demands. You never find humanity on your doorstep, stinking and begging. Humanity never has the 20 wrong political opinions. Humanity is an idea, not a person. When five men and six women are in a room, there are only 11 people there, not 12. Humanity never occupies a room, only a mind.

Jesus commands us to love not humanity but our neighbor, all our neighbors: the real individuals we meet, just as He did. He died for me and for you, not for “humanity.” The Cross has our names written on it, not the name humanity. When the nails pierced His hands, the blood spelled out “John” and “Peter” and “Mary,” not “humanity.” When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, He said He “calls His own sheep by name” (John 10:3). The Gospel comes to you not in a newspaper with a Xeroxed label that reads, “Dear Occupant,” but in a handwritten envelope personally addressed to you, as a love letter from God. It is written to you alone. One of the saints says that Jesus would have done everything He did and suffered everything He suffered even if you were the only person who had sinned. He would have done all that just for you. More than that, He did. This is no “if” ; this is fact. His loving eyes saw you from the Cross. Each of His five wounds were lips.

(3) A THIRD MISUNDERstanding about love is to confuse it with kindness, which is only one of its usual attributes. Kindness is the sympathy with and the desire to relieve another’s suffering. But love (agape) is the willing of another’s good. A father can spank his child out of love. And God is a father.

It is painfully obvious that God is not mere kindness, for He does not remove all suffering, though He has the power to do so. Indeed, this very fact — that the God who is omnipotent and can at any instant miraculously erase all suffering from this world deliberately chooses not to do so is the commonest argument unbelievers use against Him. The number one argument for atheism stems from the confusion between love and kindness.

The more we love someone, the more our love goes beyond kindness. We are merely kind to pets, and therefore we consent that our pets be put to death “to put them out of their misery” when they are suffering. There is increasing pressure in America to legalize euthanasia. So far only Nazi Germany has ever legalized euthanasia. This evil too stems from the confusion between love and kindness. We are kind to strangers but demanding of those we love. If a stranger informed you that he was a drug addict, you would probably try to reason with him in a kind and gentle way; but if your son or daughter said that to you, you would probably do a lot of shouting and screaming.

Grandfathers are kind; fathers are loving. Grandfathers say, “Run along and have a good time.” Fathers say, “But don’t do this or that.” Grandfathers are compassionate, fathers are passionate. God is never once called our grandfather, much as we would prefer that to the inconveniently close, demanding, intimate father who loves us. The most frequently heard saying in our lives is precisely the philosophy of a grandfather: “Have a nice day.” Many priests even sanctify this philosophy by ending the Mass with it, though the Mass is supposed to be the worship of the Father, not the Grandfather.

(4) A FOURTH MISUNDERstanding about love is the confusion between “God is love” and “love is God.” The worship of love instead of the worship of God involves two deadly mistakes. First it uses the word God only as another word for love. God is thought of as a force or energy rather than as a person. Second, it divinizes the love we already know, instead of showing us a love we don’t know. To understand this point, consider that “A is B” does not mean the same as “A equals B.” “That house is wood” does not mean “wood is that house.” “An angel is spirit” does not mean the same as “spirit is an angel.” When we say “A is B” we begin with a subject, A, that we assume our hearer already knows, and then we add a new predicate to it. “Mother is sick” means “You know mother well, let me tell you something you don’t know about her: she’s sick.” So “God is love” means “Let me tell you something new about the God you know: He is essential love, made of love, through and through.” But “Love is God” means “Let me tell you something about the love you already know, your own human love: that is God. That is the ultimate reality. That is as far as anything can ever go. Seek no further for God.” In other words, “God is love” is the most profound thing we have ever heard. But “love is God” is deadly nonsense.

(5) A FIFTH MISUNDERstanding about love is the idea that you can be in love with love. No, you cannot, any more than you can have faith in faith, or hope in hope, or see sight. Love is an act, a force, or an energy, but persons are more than – that. What we love with agape can only be a person, the most real thing there is, because a person is the image of God, who is ultimate reality, and God’s name is “I Am” — the name for a person. If anyone says they are in love with love, that love is not agape but a feeling.

(6) A SIXTH MISUNDERstanding about love is the idea that “God is love” is unrelated to dogmatic theology, especially to the doctrine of the Trinity. Everyone can agree that “God is love” it seems, but the Trinity is a tangled dogma for an esoteric elite, isn’t it? No. If God is not a Trinity, God is not love. For love requires three things: a lover, a beloved, and a relationship between them. If God were only one person, He could be a lover, but not love itself. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is the love proceeding from both, from all eternity. If that were not so, then God would need us, would be incomplete without us, without someone to love. Then His creating us would not be wholly unselfish, but selfish, from His own need.

Love is a flower, and hope is its stem. Salvation is the whole plant. God’s grace, God’s own life, comes into us by faith, like water through a tree’s roots. It rises in us by hope, like sap through the trunk. And it flowers from our branches, like fruit for our neighbor’s use. Faith is like an anchor. That’s why it must be conservative, even a stick-in-the-mud, like an anchor. Faith must be faithful. Hope is like a compass or a navigator. It gives us direction, and it takes its bearings from the stars. That’s why it must be progressive and forward-looking. Love is like the sail, spread to the wind. It is the actual energy of our journey. That’s why it must be liberal, open to the Spirit’s wind, generous.

Agape is totally defenseless against an objection like Freud’s: “But not all men are worthy of love.” No, they are not. Love goes beyond worth, beyond justice, beyond reason. Reasons are always given from above downward, and there is nothing above love, for God is love. When he was six, my son asked me, “Daddy, why do you love me?” I began to give the wrong answers, the answers I thought he was looking for: “You’re a great kid. You’re good and smart and strong.” Then, seeing his disappointment, I decided to be honest:

“Aw, I just love you because you’re mine.” I got a smile of relief and a hug: “Thanks, Daddy.” A student once asked me in class, “Why does God love us so much?” I replied that that was the greatest of all mysteries, and she should come back to me in a year to see whether I had solved it. One year later to the day, there she was. She was serious. She really wanted an answer. I had to explain that this one thing, at least, just could not be explained.

Finally, there is the equally mind-boggling mystery of the paradox of agape: somehow in agape you give yourself away, not just your time or work or possessions or even your body. You put yourself in your own hands and hand it over to another. And when you do this unthinkable thing, another unthinkable thing happens: you find yourself in losing yourself. You begin to be when you give yourself away. You find that a new and more real self has somehow been given to you. When you are a donor you mysteriously find yourself a recipient of the very gift you gave away. “There is more: nothing else is really yours. Your health, your works, your intelligence, your possessions —these are not what they seem. They are all hostage to fortune, on loan, insubstantial. You discover that when you learn who God is. Face to face with God in prayer, (not just a proper concept of God), you find that you are nothing.  All the saints say this: you are nothing. The closer you get to God, the more you see this; the more you shrink in size. If you scorn God, you think you’re a big shot, a cannonball; if you know God, you know you’re not even buckshot. Those who scorn God think they’re Number One. Those who have the popular idea of God think they’re good people.” Those who have a merely mental orthodoxy know they’re real but finite creatures, made in God’s image but flawed by sin. Those who really begin to pray find that compared with God, they are motes of dust in the sun. Finally, the saints say they are nothing. Or else, in Saint Paul’s words, “the chief of sinners.” Sinners think they’re saints, and saints think they’re sinners.

Who’s right? How shall we evaluate this unless God is the Father of lies (the ultimate blasphemy)! The saints are right. Unless the closer you get to God the more wrong you are about yourself, the five groups in the preceding paragraph (from scorners to saints) form a hierarchy of insight. Nothing is ours by nature. Our very existence is sheer gift. Think for a moment about the fact that you were created, made out of nothing. If a sculptor gives a block of marble the gift of a fine shape, the shape is a gift, but the marble’s existence is not. That is the marble’s own. But nothing is our own because we were made out of nothing. Our very existence is a gift from God to no one, for we were not there before he created us. There is no receiver of the gift distinct from the gift itself. We are God’s gifts. So the saints are right. If I am nothing, nothing that is mine is anything. Nothing is mine by nature. But one thing is mine by my free choice: the self I giveaway in love. That is the thing even God cannot do for me. It is my choice. Everything I say is mine, is not. But everything I say is yours is mine.

When asked which of his many library books he thought he would have in heaven, C.S. Lewis replied, “Only the ones I gave away on earth and never got back.” The same is true of our very self. It is like a ball in a game of catch: throw it and it will come back to you; hold onto it and that ends the game.”

Love,
Matthew

Redemptive Suffering

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“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” -Col 1:24

Recently, in the news, there have been several stories of terminally ill people, even young, otherwise healthy people, very openly planning on taking their own lives, and being assisted to do so.   Terminally ill can live beyond the first or most grim predictions of life expectancy.

This euthanasia (“good death”) is anathema to faithful Catholic thinking.  Catholics should recoil in horror from this suggestion as they do from the subject of abortion.  The Church does not deny modern death can and often is a prolonged and may be a suffering existence.  However, there is no “enough is enough” in faithful Catholic thinking.  Life is God’s gift.  Any attempts, however “reasoned”, well-intentioned, or motivated to short circuit God’s gift are repugnant to the Catholic moral mind, regardless of what is involved.

The Church always urges the best medical care available.  It only requires reasonable measures to prolong life.  Extraordinary measures are not required.  The debate may now ensue as to that definition.  Discuss.

Catholics believe in free will with regards to committing sin.  Beyond the effects of original sin, which is removed in baptism, post baptismal sin 1)  deprives the soul of grace, due to the guilt of having committed sin.  In addition, 2)  there is a penalty due.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation removes the guilt (1) freely, without cost, or other requirement, through the freely given gift of God’s grace and love, and allows that grace to be restored, and thus the soul may aspire again to Heaven, but (2) remains.  You can begin to see why Catholics hold the importance of infant baptism, required for salvation.

Catholics are often misunderstood as trying to “earn” their way into Heaven; untrue and misunderstood.  Catholics do through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, other good works of charity, and through redemptive suffering remit (2) the penalty due to sin.

We have no way of knowing what the penalty for offending God would be, however, and please bear with me as I try to make this point:  think of throwing a tomato at a homeless person.  Horrible.  But, not likely to arouse the wrath of the police, not likely.  Now imagine throwing a tomato at the President of the United States.  That might invite the attention of the Secret Service.  The point being the same offense against a more dignified personage implies a heavier penalty/consequence.  So, since God is infinitely dignified, etc, etc, even the smallest of offenses against Him implies an infinite penalty, so the thinking goes.  We don’t, cannot keep score.  We trust in and believe in the mercy of God, but are also aware of His justice.  There is no love without justice.

Redemptive suffering is the belief that human suffering, such as in end-of-life, but not purely limited only to that, any suffering accepted during life, when accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, can remit the just punishment (2) for one’s sins or for the sins of another, or for the other physical or spiritual needs of oneself or another. Like an indulgence, (yes, they still exist, are valid, but are no longer sold and no longer measured in time) redemptive suffering does not gain the individual forgiveness for their sin; forgiveness results from God’s grace, freely given through Christ, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and CANNOT be earned. After one’s sins are forgiven, the individual’s suffering can reduce the penalty due for sin.  Redemptive suffering is only ever understood as that suffering in life unsought and which cannot be avoided.

Sometimes we see those who suffer beyond what a reasonable person would perceive as just from a loving God.  Their suffering is not wasted nor is it in vain.  It has deep meaning.  The merits of this suffering are retained, through the Communion of Saints, in the Treasury of Merit (Mt 6:20), to remit the penalty of sin due from others who have not fully paid their debt to God.  God is merciful and just.  Those unbaptized suffer to no end.  Theirs is pointless, dumb suffering.

There is a very good article on the detailed thinking of the Church’s mind on redemptive suffering here.

Love,
Matthew

Oct 13 2014 – Synod on the Family, The Law of Gradualness

http://opeast.org/2014/10/14/st-john-paul-ii-and-the-law-of-gradualness/

http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/gradualness-a-solution-for-the-synod

-by Fr Dominic D.F. Legge, OP, J.D., Ph.L., M.Div./S.T.B., S.T.L., S.T.D.

“What John Paul called “the law of gradualness” does not refer to a “gradual” turning away from sin, but to the perennial Christian doctrine that we are not yet perfect in the first moment of our conversion. When we receive a grace of conversion, we break definitively from evil and then gradually advance in holiness. We may even fall back into grave sin, but, helped by grace, we repent and start anew. Here, the sacrament of Penance has an important role to play: it calls us to renounce our sins definitively with a firm purpose of amendment. In effect, he who will not yet repent, will not yet accept God’s mercy, and so is not forgiven. (CCC no. 1451; DH 1676.)”

“According to an official Vatican press briefing on Tuesday, Oct. 7, the discussion at the Synod over proposals for communion for divorced and remarried persons has shifted to “gradualness.” It seems that some are now arguing from the principle of gradualness that those who are not yet able to live according to the Church’s teachings could still receive Holy Communion as a step on the way towards a more perfect conversion.

For moral theologians, this is a case of déjà vu: the 1980 Synod on the Family already had this debate, and it was resolved by Pope John Paul II in his post-synodal exhortation, Familiaris Consortio.

In 1980, some voices had claimed that, in difficult cases, one could commit to “gradually” relinquishing a gravely sinful practice (like contracepting) and return immediately to the sacraments, even while intending to continue committing individual sinful acts in some (diminishing) measure. John Paul II clearly rejected this argument. Married couples, he wrote, “cannot . . . look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. ‘And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” (Familiaris Consortio no. 34.)

What John Paul called “the law of gradualness” does not refer to a “gradual” turning away from sin, but to the perennial Christian doctrine that we are not yet perfect in the first moment of our conversion. When we receive a grace of conversion, we break definitively from evil and then gradually advance in holiness. We may even fall back into grave sin, but, helped by grace, we repent and start anew. Here, the sacrament of Penance has an important role to play: it calls us to renounce our sins definitively with a firm purpose of amendment. In effect, he who will not yet repent, will not yet accept God’s mercy, and so is not forgiven. (CCC no. 1451; DH 1676.)

As St. John Paul says, the “law of gradualness” presupposes this turning-away from evil, so that one can begin to walk “step-by-step” on the upward – that is, gradually ascending – path of good. “What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward.” (Familiaris Consortio no. 9.) The ascent is gradual, but the renunciation of sin cannot be.

The Eucharist is living bread for those on the way. One need not yet be perfect to receive it – indeed, among Christians, who is? (Answer: Our Lady.) But one does need to break from evil in order to have communion with Christ: “If we say we have communion with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.” (1 Jn 1:6.) We can expect the Synod to affirm nothing less.”

Love,
Matthew

Judging the Angels

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-Stefan Lochner, Last Judgement, c. 1435. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.

-by Br Alan Piper, OP

“Today in the reading at Mass, in the course of chastising the Corinthians for bringing their petty disputes before the judgment of nonbelievers, St. Paul suddenly averts to the end of time and asks, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3).

“No, St. Paul, I did not know that,” is a response, I imagine, many Christians today would give. As for the Corinthians, the prerogative seems to have slipped their minds. But Paul had not forgotten. He saw mundane matters in light of the angels—in this case, in light of the angels dwelling in darkness. St. John Chrysostom teaches that the angels Paul is referring to are the angels that are also called demons, the fallen angels, about whom St. Peter said, “God . . . cast them into hell and committed them to pits of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment” (2 Pet 2:4).

When thinking about the greatness of the angels, I often recall St. Ignatius of Loyola’s notion of the two standards, from The Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius instructs his audience:

Consider how Christ calls and desires all persons to come under his standard, and how Lucifer in opposition calls them under his . . . . [I]magine a great plain in the region of Jerusalem, where the supreme commander of the good people is Christ our Lord; then another plain in the region of Babylon, where the leader of the enemy is Lucifer. . . . He is seated on a throne of fire and smoke, in aspect horrible and terrifying. . . . Consider how he summons uncountable devils, disperses some to one city and others to another, and thus reaches the whole world.

The passage resembles an ancient anecdote about a monk named Moses [Ed:  St Moses the Black, of very recent note!] who struggled with temptations to fornication. Moses ran for help to an elder monk named Abba Isidore, who took him up to the roof of his house, hoping that the younger monk might gain some perspective on his problem. Looking east, Moses spied a vast multitude of holy angels “resounding with glory,” and to the west he saw an uproarious horde of demons without number.

According to Chrysostom, it’s precisely these demons without number, Loyola’s “uncountable devils,” that Christians can expect to judge. But do we think of ourselves as set to pass sentence on these terrible spirits? Do we see ourselves, as St. Paul did, reigning with Christ, mastering these mighty and hateful hordes?

Going to heaven is a greater thing than a mere interview with special people or a reunion with a dead dog. It’s greater than the things we usually think are great—greater than anything we have ever known or could even imagine. To think that Christians will judge the angels is to be reminded that God has prepared things that are quite beyond our native capacity and come only with added endowments.

And yet we can participate in heaven before heaven — in fact, we have to if we ever want to get there. But how do we do so? A learned nun once told me that we judge the angels even now by our acts of charity. No wonder they make it their aim to destroy the charity in our hearts.”

Love,
Matthew

The Life of Grace

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-by Amette Ley, Issue #30.1, The Sower Review

‘The relationship between the Christian message and human experience… springs from the very end of catechesis, which seeks to put the human person in communion with Jesus Christ. In His earthly life He lived His humanity fully: Therefore, “Christ enables us to live in Him all that He Himself lived, and He lives it in us”. Catechesis operates through this identity of human experience between Jesus the Master and His disciple and teaches us to think like Him, to act like Him, to love like Him. To live in communion with Christ is to experience the new life of grace.’ (General Directory for Catechesis 116) … Bringing people to understand this(the Catholic understanding of the life of grace) is, of course, at the very core of what catechesis must achieve.

Avoiding the Extremes  

(Ed note:  the Church predictably, historically, regularly, habitually avoids the extremes of any issue.  It has done so throughout its two millenia.  This is one of the ways we know and can come to understand the truth of a matter and the True Faith & teaching of the Church.  If it is an extreme position, in any/either direction, the Church will avoid these in her teaching, and seek a middle ground where it has found and believes always exists the Truth of a matter; not because it is a middle ground, but because the middle ground is where the Truth has historically been found by her.)

In her teaching on grace, the Church avoids two extreme positions. On the one hand, she avoids over-emphasising the weakness of human nature. She accepts that human nature is, of course, limited, corrupted and flawed. But she does believe that what is broken may be mended. God can repair the damage. In avoiding this extreme, the Catholic Church is avoiding the position of some Protestant communities.

On the other hand, the Church also avoids the opposite extreme, that places too much emphasis on the goodness of human nature, that underestimates the harm done to humanity by the Fall. That would lead to the view that salvation is possible though one’s own efforts.

All catechesis on the life of grace has to avoid these two positions. It has to accept that human nature is flawed and wounded by sin, but not fatally so. By doing so it accepts that we can and must participate in our own salvation by our own efforts, but that we cannot achieve it without being joined in communion to the incarnate Word of God, who then enables our weakened nature to begin living His new life.

Pope John Paul II summed up the Catholic understanding in his letter written on the threshold of the new millennium. He said that our catechesis must always reflect that ‘essential principle of the Christian view of life: the primacy of grace…God of course asks us really to cooperate with His grace, and therefore invites us to invest all our resources of intelligence and energy in serving the cause of the Kingdom. But it is fatal to forget that ‘without Christ we can do nothing’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte 38)

What is the life of grace?

We must avoid the extremes. What, then, must we teach? We teach that the life of grace is communion with God. It is a life in union with Him made possible by the Incarnation. Jesus Christ, who is God the Son, united himself with our humanity so that we could have this union with God. St Paul described it as becoming adopted children of God and true heirs of all the love he wishes to give us (Rom 8:15-17). In Roman times, an adopted son gained all the rights and privileges of a natural son, losing all that belonged to his former life. He became a true member of the family into which he was adopted, and was a real co-heir with other sons of his father’s estates, and any debts form his former life were cancelled. The life of grace, then, is life as true members of God’s Trinitarian family.

We begin by teaching that point. Then we can move on to consider something further. We needed to be redeemed from the weakness and corruption caused by the Fall and the presence of sin in the world. For this, the Son of God’s uniting humanity to Himself at the Incarnation was necessary. But more was needed. The Son of God, in His human body, then subjected Himself to death for our sake, and in doing so He actually destroyed death, which could take no hold on Him as He is Life itself. We recall this just after the Consecration at Mass when we say, ‘Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life.’ Through his death, Jesus destroyed death for us, and through his resurrection he made sharing in his life possible. In the sacrament of Baptism, we are joined to him. We are made part of his body the Church and so death is destroyed in us also. Our life is a new one.

It is this twofold aspect of salvation which can be lost in explanation at times. God the Son not only redeems us from death, but also enables us to live as adopted sons and daughters of God. And He does all this through His union with us in the flesh.

Purpose, Balance, & Means

What we have, I think, are three teaching points which we will want to cover in our presentation on the life of grace.

Purpose

Firstly, then, we need to be clear about the nature and purpose of the life of grace, which is communion with Christ, and through Christ with the Father and the Holy Spirit. We have seen that by grace, the free gift of God, we are given a share in his own life, the Trinitarian and familial communion of Father, Son and Spirit. We share in this life in the way proper to our created nature – an adopted way rather than a natural way. The grace given to us for this is supernatural. In other words, we are being given more than is due to our nature – even without considering the sinfulness of it. There would have been no way for us to gain this life without the Incarnation – and given our sinfulness, no way for death to have been destroyed without Life Himself subjecting Himself to it, which broke it to pieces and allowed us to share His own life.

But what can be sometimes overlooked is that, although we need this life of grace here and now to enable us to live in the world with integrity and honor, we need it much more to live in the presence of God at the end of this life. Without growth in grace here and now, we shall find it impossible to tolerate being in the presence of Love and Goodness Himself in the hereafter, let alone find pleasure and fulfillment. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb 10:31). Jesus warns us of the dangers of failure to grow in grace in the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30). To live in communion with Christ is to experience the life of grace He gives us – and conversely, to break communion with Christ is to lose it.

Balance

Secondly, we ensure that in our catechesis a balance is kept so that we maintain a Catholic understanding of grace. Humanity is unable to redeem itself, but our human nature is not damaged beyond the point of no return. We are truly enabled to respond to God’s love in communion with Christ; what we do, and say and even think is of true significance when it is done in Christ, contributing to his redemptive work in the world.

Means

Thirdly, the sacraments of the Church are our normal means of keeping open the channels of grace in us – the life of grace is nourished and strengthened in us by this means and we are actually enabled to cooperate with Christ in his work of salvation…The whole understanding of how the gift of grace is transmitted to us through Christ’s and the Spirit’s work in the normal sacramental actions of the Church, and its reality in enabling us to cooperate with God, had not been handed on to her. She needed to hear that the Blessed Trinity has given us a share in their life of grace precisely though the sacrament of the Son and the sacramentality of His Church’s actions; this is the means God chooses to be one with us.

‘The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of His own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.’ (CCC 1999)”

I believe in grace.  I do.  God help me, I do.  I have FELT it!  I, the least of His.  Praise Him!

How consoling!  How nourishing!  How fulfilling!  How strengthening!  Place ALL your trust in Him!  Do it!  And LIVE!!!!

Love,
Matthew

The Devil’s Martyrs (another great name for a band? no? :)

“Those who follow the devil have to bear his cross, and there are many who become martyrs for the devil, too.”

-(pg. 267), http://www.ignatius.com/Products/CASI-P/catherine-of-siena.aspx

-by Br Michael Mary Weibley, OP

“Sin is something altogether mysterious and awful: a turning away from God and a turning to the changeable good. As broken human persons, we create for ourselves a myriad of excuses for the sins we commit. It seems that our changeable and too easily distracted mind can hardly conceive of the idea of the Supreme Good (God) and still less hold It as the object of its preference over and above all else. In every sin, therefore, there is some element of error, a mistaken judgment.

The very possibility of sin even remains a mystery. We can point to our free will in the face of good and evil, but if God is the Supreme Good, why are we so little attracted? And for those of us who have been graced with even a little bit of the knowledge of the goodness of God, should not that little bit be enough to captivate our hearts and convince us of the absurdity of sin? We outrage the Supreme Good, we offend God, we sin against God – these are terrifying and awful thoughts; but why and how such actions are really possible is beyond our power of explanation.

This painful problem deepens into a darker mystery when viewed in light of the Incarnation and Redemption. How is it that the Word-of-God-made-man should have died upon the cross to destroy sin, and yet that sin should be so little destroyed – that sin should be still so much alive within us: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19)? This is a profound mystery. Yet as incomprehensible as it is, the fact remains that sin is really an outrage against God and we must strive to convince our minds of the awful reality of that outrage.

For those, however, who cannot see their moral failings within the context of God – those who only see shortcomings within their own little bubble of reality – the concept of an offense before God makes no sense whatsoever. Recognition of sin presupposes a recognition of God. The sad case of those who pursue the nothingness of sin, as if it were their highest good in our broken world, walk their own via crucis. None here on earth can escape suffering and sin – our own or the effects of others – but the pursuit of nothingness brings its own bitterness for the soul, exasperating the problem of sin all the more.

This is all too common in the world today. In everything from rapacious greed, to the exploitation, abuse, and injury of others, the devil has his followers. And even if we are striving to follow God but fall out of weakness, when we sin we are taking steps on the road to being one of the devil’s martyrs, because the very definition of sin is to turn from God: “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:20).

These reflections lead us to the inevitable conclusion that we must hold fast to the simple truth that contrition – true sorrow for sin – is supernatural. Through the revelation of God, we attain to the idea of the Supreme Good. Faith teaches us that it profits us nothing to gain the whole world if we lose the Supreme Good. What can heal this sickness is recourse to the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, as the source and motivation of contrition. We cannot have contrition if we separate from the Passion the idea of sin which is its cause, and if, in the Person of the suffering Christ, we do not see the God whom sin offends and the Supreme Good from which sin turns us away.

Contrition, therefore, involves a proper knowledge of the goodness of God. The good news is that Goodness itself is always calling us. The very first line of the Catechism assures us of this: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in Himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man.” Even when we fall and it seems like the devil is taking us down his dark road, the God of the universe beckons us to Himself. True contrition acknowledges the mistaken judgment made in sin, and with a firmness of will, we can turn back to God who is always drawing us. In the end it matters not so much that we sin; that is a rather typical outcome of our fallen human nature. What matters more is what we do with this new understanding of our sin: Will we depart from evil?”

Love,
Matthew

Sin, Temptation & Grace

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Introduction

“One of the most painful ordeals that God-fearing and virtuous souls are made to undergo is that of being tried by temptations. Temptations meet them at every turn and assail them from within and from without.

There is scarcely a day on which they do not experience the full truth of the words penned by St. Paul: “I do not the good that I will [i. e., that I desire to do]; but the evil which I hate, that I do. . . . To will [to do good] is present with me; but to accomplish that which is good I find not. For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. . . . I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man; but I see another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members.” [Rom 7:15, 18-19, 22-23]

From this passage we can see that temptations assail the saint as well as the sinner. No man is exempt from their molestation. They follow us all through life like our very shadow, and they will not cease to trouble us until we have closed our eyes to this world in the hour of death.

Now, the mere fact of being tempted is in itself a heavy cross to those who are resolved to love God to the utmost capacity of their soul and are determined to keep themselves free from the stain of sin.  Sometimes they are assailed only at intervals for a short time; then again for long periods and almost continuously; sometimes only with moderate violence; at other times so vehemently and insistently that they seem to be driven to the verge of defeat and surrender. And this cross, heavy as it is in itself, is made still more so by the fact that often, when the conflict is over, they find it impossible to decide whether they have come out of it victorious and are still in the state of grace, or have gone down in defeat, rendered themselves guilty of sin and thus lost the love and friendship of God.

Not only this: two other factors often contribute to increase their disquietude and unhappiness. First, it may happen that because of a lack of proper instruction, they consider it actually sinful to be tempted; [Ed:  it’s NOT!] and second, they may consider the feelings and sensations that certain temptations, especially those of an impure nature, produce in the body as evidence and proof of willful and deliberate consent to these temptations.

From this it can easily be seen that temptations may become the source of an agonizing martyrdom to those who are poorly instructed in the subject.

And what is often the final outcome of this mistaken idea of the nature of temptations? Nothing less than this: it may lead to failure in the spiritual life. Mistaking their temptations for actual sins, and finding that in spite of their strongest resolutions they cannot keep from being tempted, many lose courage and say, “What is the use of trying any longer? I cannot keep from committing sin, do what I will; I might as well give up.” Thus, lack of proper knowledge induces a fatal discouragement and makes them relax their efforts to avoid sin. In the end, they yield easily to temptations and possibly contract the habit of sin, which may prove fatal to their eternal salvation.

Ignorance of the true nature of temptation paralyzes many a soul and exposes it to the imminent danger of eternal punishment, even though it had been destined to do great things for God and reach a high degree of eternal glory in Heaven. These considerations have prompted the writing of this treatise. It is intended to serve as a guide especially for souls who are tried by the fiery ordeal of temptations, and to point out how these can be turned into the means of greater love of God, increase of grace and merit here and endless glory hereafter.”

-Remler, CM, Rev. Francis J. (1874-1962), (2013-12-10). How to Resist Temptation (Kindle Locations 22-50). Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

I believe in grace.

Love,
Matthew

Death: God’s Greatest Gift

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-by Br Bonaventure Chapman, OP (Prior to joining the Order, Br Bonaventure received an M.Th. in Applied Theology from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, where he studied for the Anglican priesthood.)

“There is no point in being a Christian unless we regard death as God’s greatest gift to us.”

— Fr. Edward T. Oakes, SJ (1948 – 2013)

What did he say? Death is a gift, even God’s greatest? Death is no stranger to superlatives, but they usually come in the negative form: death is the most terrible reality; death is the final enemy; death is the worst defeat. Because of this, death avoidance becomes a wellspring of activity in modern society: nursing homes and hospitals keep it at a safe distance from the home, and euphemisms are commonly deployed in its description. Is not the euthanasia movement an extreme form of this avoidance in its attempt to master death through free choice? If death must happen, I will decide exactly when and how it happens! Of course the avoidance of death is not limited to the modern condition. In his famous study, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes of its universal quality:

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”

Surely Fr. Oakes must be morbidly misinformed or manifestly mistaken, mustn’t he?

Well no, actually, although a distinction is desirable. It is not any old death that is the greatest gift, but a Christian death, a death given by God, which is the greatest gift. Why? Because in a Christian death one does not die alone; one dies with Christ. The Catechism puts it succinctly: “To rise with Christ, we must die with Christ” (1005). To be united with Christ fully, one must be united with Him in His death, and therefore in our own deaths. Death has a new dimension, a new character, thanks to Christ’s death. The Catechism goes on to quote St. Paul in this new definition of death:

“Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).“The saying is sure: if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him” (2 Tm 2:11). What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already “died with Christ” sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ’s grace, physical death completes this “dying with Christ” and so completes our incorporation into Him in his redeeming act. (1010)”

This Summer I have had the privilege of spending a month with the Dominican Sisters at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, NY. The sisters here, part of a congregation founded by Rose Hawthorne (Mother Mary Alphonsa), the daughter of American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, work day and night to assist cancer patients in just such a “dying with Christ.” Unlike many hospices that offer a kind of palliative care that involves the refusal of suffering and the denial of death, the sisters here offer truly passionate care: the suffering-with of compassion and the acceptance of death with Christ through his passion.

Death is not covered up or ignored at Hawthorne; patients are here to die well, to die with and in Christ. It is an incredible grace and truly a gift to die with the sisters; I can attest to this because of my experiences with both patients and their families. As one family member said: “This place is the closest thing to heaven on earth.” Those gifted enough to come to Rosary Hill are taught to die well, to die with Christ, to die with love and grace. Truly what a gift!

Unfortunately, not everyone can die in the care of the Hawthorne Dominicans (Young ladies, you can change this: vocations). And yet we all face death, the final enemy and proper punishment for our sins. Thankfully, like the patients at Rosary Hill, the Church has not left us alone in this serious task of dying well; she gives us daily numerous ways of preparing well. One way is to ask for a holy death every time we see a crucifix in our house (You don’t have one? Why not?) or Church. There are also excellent works dedicated to living well by thinking about dying well, both traditional (Dominican and Jesuit) as well as contemporary (written by a friend of mine). And of course we pray for such a holy death, through the intercession of Mary, at least fifty times a day in the rosary (You don’t pray the rosary every day? Really?). The Church encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of death (CCC 1114). After all, if this life is to be a sequela Christi, a following of Christ, one must follow Him to death and through death. Christ’s call to each disciple “to deny himself and take up his cross daily” (Lk 9:23) finds new meaning and resonance in this daily reflection and preparation for death.

To die with Christ is truly a gift, a gift that may be the greatest because it is the way to unite ourselves with Christ. Christ offers us the gift of His death and we offer ourselves united to Him through our own deaths as our final thanksgiving for all He has done. While not all of us will have the gift of dying with the Hawthorne Dominicans, we can all experience a hint of their charism with the help of the Church. And of course our death is not the final word, for the gift of death contains also the gift of the Resurrection.”

Good St Joseph!!  Patron of a Good Death, pray for us!!  Take us by the hand at that final moment and guide us to thy Divine Foster-Son!!  That we may rejoice with the Blessed forever!!!

Love,
Matthew