Category Archives: Theology of the Body

yoga is not a religion? or, is compatible with any? (5 of 5)

coexist1

I find many people take the politically neutral, albeit incorrect and unthinking position, regardless of what the position is, as long as they don’t have to think or exert any effort forward :  warm fuzzies.   Not really thinking is always easier.   Preferring “peace in our time” is nothing new; never solves anything.  Our enemy is the prince of lies.  Jer 6:14, 8:11.  “What is Truth?”, Pilate retorted.  Jn 18:38.

FrEzra1

-by Rev Ezra Sullivan, OP

“So far in this series, we have discussed the nature of Yoga in general (1 of 5), and we have learned that it is rooted in hindu beliefs about gods and goddesses who want to influence us (2 of 5). Through further research we saw that a philosophic yoga suggests that the goal of the practice is union in a “higher reality” where distinctions among all things disappear, and even the individual is lost in nothingness (3 of 5). There are, of course, many, many different traditions and styles of yoga, but nearly all blur the distinction between physical exercise and spiritual excellence, making the postures or asanas the first step toward self-transcendence (4 of 5).

In this post, I will address the claim that yoga is not a religion and that it is compatible with any religion. After considering claims to the contrary, we will find that we can meaningfully assert that yoga is religious – especially because of important parallels it has with Catholicism. St. Paul advises us: “test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Th 5:19, 21-22). Let us turn our minds to the truth, ask the Lord to bend our hearts according to His will, and explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.

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“It’s not a religion, dude. It’s a way of life.”

We hear this claim about yoga all the time.[1] It is meant to distance yoga from the negative connotations bound up with religion. If you get too caught up in religion, people commonly think, you will become narrow, doctrinaire, and maybe even violent.[2] This is why many people like to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” Within this context yoga is seen as an attractive alternative to formal religion while offering some kind of spiritual benefit. There are, however, compelling reasons to hold that yoga is religious though it may not be a religion.

Before explaining why yoga may be considered religious, it would be helpful to discuss why it is often thought not to be a religion. A basic definition of religion is this: religion consists in a belief about (a) a higher power or powers upon which we are dependent, and (b) that it is possible to enter into a sort of relationship with the power or powers. The relationship involves (c) an association of people, with (d) ritual acts that are specific to the group and (e) a way of regulating one’s life in order to maintain good relations with the higher power or powers.[3] A child of ten could see that some of these elements do not apply to yoga. Most importantly, yoga does not embrace any belief that the individual is dependent upon some higher power. From the perspective of yoga, as we have seen in previous posts, gods and goddesses and a separate divinity are only illusions. There is no krishna or shiva; there isn’t even Jesus. Those persons may or may not be historical figures, but at most, they are only manifestations of a supreme reality that is above and beyond them. yoga does not inculcate love of Jesus or obedience to God. yoga does not lead practitioners to act morally upright so that they might get along with krishna, shiva, or Jesus. Instead, yoga aims at what one scholar calls “self-deification”: the postures and breath control are a means toward enlightenment, “the expansion of the self to the point that one’s body or self becomes coextensive with the entire universe.”[4]

So yoga is non-religious, right? It is compatible with every religion or no religion at all, isn’t it? Sure, the historical root of yoga is hinduism, and yoga remains a powerful symbol for the culture of India, but in itself yoga is free from dogmatism, moralism, superstition, and all that religious jazz, wouldn’t you say?

Not so fast.

To compare the concepts of yoga and religion at a fundamental level, it will be useful to compare the meaning of the two words. The word “yoga” comes from the sanskrit yuj, which means, “to yoke together,” “union,” “to join, to bind.”[5] What is the essence of religion? St. Thomas Aquinas explains the concept of religion by discussing the origin of the word: “religion may be derived from religare [to bind together], wherefore Augustine says: ‘May religion bind us to the one Almighty God.’”[6] This analysis by one of the Catholic Church’s greatest theologians leads to an astonishing result. The essence of yoga and the essence of religion are exactly the same. yoga and religion both aim at joining the individual to divinity.

One can hardly deny that yoga has significant religious elements. A number of yoga communities, whether in studios and ashrams, are dedicated to connecting with a higher power. They do so through prescribed rituals led by a person who has a closer connection with the divine, that is, a guru or yoga instructor. yoga rituals include not only the physical postures and breathing techniques. They also include words and gestures that echo words and gestures found in religion. In the beginning and the end of Holy Mass, a priest says, “The Lord be with you.” The congregation responds, “And also with you.” Then the priest blesses the congregation with the sign of the Cross. Paralleling this structure, at the end of a typical yoga session class (and sometimes at the beginning), the yoga instructor says, “namaste.” And the students, “hands together at the heart charka, close the eyes, and bow the head,” responding, “namaste.”[7] The sanskrit word literally, “I bow to you.” In the context of Yoga, it signifies “I bow to the divine in you” or, more accurately, “the divine in me greets the divine in you.”[8] The purpose, we are told, is “to increase the flow of divine love.”[9] A significant difference between the Catholic ritual and the yoga ritual is the understanding of the meaning of a blessing. For Catholics, a blessing comes from Christ who works through the priest. For yoginis, a yoga blessing is not imparted by the teacher; rather, it is initiated by the teacher and shared among all participants. The other is only a mirror of one’s own divinity that deserves honor.

Another religious element integral to yoga is the importance of sound and song. In the Christian religion, singing is an act of worship, as indicated in the adage attributed to St. Augustine, “To sing is to pray twice.”[10] Pope Benedict XVI revealed the cosmological profundity of singing with his observation: “the culture of singing is also the culture of being … it is about vigilantly recognizing with the ‘ears of the heart’ the inner laws of the music of creation, the archetypes of music that the Creator built into his world and into men.”[11] yoga parallels these religious impulses by suggesting that the divine can be reached through sound and song, but it also diverges from them for it lacks a divine person to sing about, one who could listen to the song of worshippers. Here we recall that mantra yoga is often combined with hatha and other types of yoga.[12] yoga practitioners chant “OM,” which is to help awaken them to higher reality. OM is not a word so much as a prayer, a mantra that, when intoned correctly, sounds throughout the body to the depth of the soul. In this way, the mantras of yoga honor the divine and make it more fully realized in the life of the yogini. When a person chants “OM,” she attunes herself to the cosmic vibration and she can enter the state of trance, in which her individuality is transcended and merged with the Infinite divine self.[13]

yogic ritual and chant point to the deepest intention of yoga: to honor and to find union with the divine. Thus far, yoga may be considered a sort of religion. What makes yoga distinct from other religions is how divinity is understood. Within most religions, the divine is a power or person or persons distinct from the self. Within yoga, however, the divine is not a being or a person outside of the self. The divine is identical with the self. Rebirth through brahman is not through a personal God; rather, it a rebirth of one’s mind so that you realize that you are divine, and the divine is everything. Through the yoga disciplines, the person is supposed to discover an ontological identity with everything. With this achieved, she loses her individuality and is dissolved into the divinity that she always was. Thus, yoga is far from being a stranger to the religious realm, for it inculcates a tendency toward self-worship.

Admittedly, there is an important way in which yoga is not a religion. Worship, as noted above, indicates a relationship between persons and/or powers. As long as a yogini is imperfect and has not mastered Yoga, she may still experience herself as a being distinct from others. In this case, she is capable of worshipping herself. But this does not hold in perfect yoga mastery. To help the practitioner obtain perfection, yoga instructor calmly suggests, “Some might get in touch with ganesh or krishna or shiva; others might call upon Jesus. Wherever your spirit leads is where you should go.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what you are praying or to whom you are praying, so long as you are doing yoga. The practice of yoga is primary and all relationships disappear. Even the self disappears. All that is left is the supreme reality, in which all is one. Thus, the perfect practice of yoga does not bring about the fullness of worship, for it is the absence of all relationships. This is why one of the classic studies of yoga insisted: “The method [of yoga] comprises a number of different techniques (physiological, mental, mystical), but they all have one characteristic in common–they are antisocial, or, indeed, antihuman.”[14]

In light of our study, we can make some observations. The fool says that there is no God, but the devil wants to be equal to God.[15] pantheistic yoga unites both of these trends, saying both (a) that there is no distinct personhood in God and (b) that the self is equal to the non-personal “divine” that encompasses the universe. If Yoga is a religion, its rituals incline practitioners to worship the self, which is both divine and created, both nothing and everything. This is the epitome of Satanic pride. But when Yoga moves beyond worship, it ends in the annihilation of the self. This is the epitome of nihilistic despair.

Many yoga practitioners evidently do not believe this. A number simply reject pantheism. Others reject theism. Still others do not think about God at all or do not realize the deepest meaning of yoga. From these various perspectives, people argue that yoga is not about honoring the divine anywhere. Its real purpose, they say, is self-improvement through the self-discipline of physical exercise. I will consider this claim in my next post.”

Love,
Matthew

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[1] For a more scholarly version of the assertion, see Theos Bernard, quoted in Paul G. Hackett, “Theos Beranard and the Early Days of Tantric Yoga in America,” Yoga in Practice, ed. David Gordon White (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 355.
[2] Bl. John Henry Newman elaborates on this modern mindset: “Is not religion associated in your minds with gloom, melancholy, and weariness? … It is so; you cannot deny it. The very terms ‘religion,’ ‘devotion,’ ‘piety,’ ‘conscientiousness,’ ‘mortification,’ and the like, you find to be inexpressibly dull and cheerless.” John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons vol. VII, no. 2: 17.
[3] See Morris Jastrow, The Study of Religion (New York, 1901), 170.
[4] David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea,” Introduction to Yoga in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 12, 8.
[5] I noted this in my second post. The quotation is from Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 4.
[6] Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 81, a. 1.
[7] http://www.yogajournal.com/article/beginners/the-meaning-of-quot-namaste-quot/
[8] See http://www.abc-of-yoga.com/yoga-dictionary.asp
[9] http://www.yogajournal.com/article/beginners/the-meaning-of-quot-namaste-quot/
[10] The actual quote from St. Augustine is the following: “For he that sings praises, not only praises, but praises with gladness: he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection also of one loving” (Commentary on Psalm 73, 1).
[11] Benedict XVI, Address in Paris at the Collège des Bernardins, 12 September 2008. http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/206663?eng=y
[12] See post number four.
[13] See Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 126.
[14] Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 95.
[15] Ps 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”; Is 14:12-15, “I will ascend into heaven … I will be like the Most High.” For an analysis of Satan’s pride, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 63, a. 3.

types of yoga (4 of 5)

yogaxl

FrEzra1

-by Rev Ezra Sullivan, OP

“In the first post we discussed “what is yoga?” In part two we learned about the polytheistic, hindu roots of yoga. And, in the third installment we saw that philosophic yoga teaches that the goal of yoga is union with a supreme reality, that is, it leads the practitioner to become dissolved into a “higher reality.” Once a person perfects her yoga practice, her individual self disappears, along with all distinctions among things.

In today’s post, I would like to show three things:

  1. There are many traditions of yoga.
  2. Practically all types of yoga practiced by Westerners are in the tradition of hatha yoga.
  3. hatha yoga is the first step to the other traditions of yoga.

In other words, the yoga that the West knows best is only the first step on a spiritually dangerous and morally unacceptable path.

St. Paul advises us: “Do not quench the Spirit … but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Th 5:19, 21-22). Let us turn our minds to the truth, ask the Lord to bend our hearts according to His will, and explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.

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To the newly-initiated, the varieties of yoga may be overwhelming. At first a person might think that yoga is yoga wherever you go. But she soon discovers that the yoga offered at the local gym may not be the same as the yoga offered in a boutique studio. She might even meet connoisseurs who claim to practice “real” or “traditional” yoga. Perhaps she comes across aficionados and their flow-charts to help a person make their way through this jungle. Perhaps she reads an internet article with the leading question, “Which type of yoga is tight for you?” The implication is that everyone can find at least one of the dozens of options that fits her lifestyle. But there is another possibility, namely, that no type of yoga is right for anyone.

Since the goal of this post is not to sell yoga but to explain it, it may be useful to distinguish between traditions of yoga and styles of yoga.[1] A yoga tradition is like a branch on a tree; a style is like a leaf on the branch. The major classic traditions of yoga are these:

  • raja yoga, the yoga of mind control: the “original” yoga, focused on disciplining the mind in pursuit of union with the absolute.
  • karma yoga, the yoga of action: liberation from the law of karma and reincarnation through good works performed with complete detachment.
  • bahkti yoga, the yoga of devotion: offers nine means of maintaining a connection with the divine; often practitioners worship a guru as an embodiment of the divine.
  • jnana yoga, the yoga of hidden knowledge: a discipleship period with a guru prepares a person to engage hindu-yoga literature directly.
  • tantra yoga, the yoga of dynamism: instead of classic Yoga’s insistence on self-denial, the dominant form suggests salvation through the practice of sexual yoga.
  • kundalini yoga, the yoga of awareness: aims to unlock the “goddess energy” of the root chakra, seen as a serpent coiled around the base of the spine. It is called the “master”, the “mother”, and the “bestower” of yoga.
  • mantra yoga, the yoga of sound: uses sounds and songs, especially “OM”, in order to help the mind find union with universal divine. It is typically combined with other kinds of yoga.
  • hatha yoga, the yoga of opposing forces: focuses on physical postures and breathing techniques.

It is important to note that these varieties generally are not opposed to each other. In fact, many people employ more than one form of yoga at the same time. Nevertheless, one tradition of yoga has gained dominance in the West and, subsequently, wherever the West has had cultural influence. It is the tradition of hatha yoga.

There is a smorgasbord of styles that shape the basic techniques of hatha yoga. In this realm one finds ancient-sounding names, such as vinyasa and kriya yoga. Then there are styles named after famous founders including bikram or iyengar. “gentle” yoga caters to the elderly and injured, “hot”, “rocket”, and “power” yogas appeal to business types, and laughter yoga is touted as a cure for sad sacks.

What is the essence of hatha yoga? What do all the various styles have in common? The etymology of the word gives us a clue. In sanskrit, ha — tha means “sun – moon”, such that hatha yoga denotes the union of two opposite forces, something accomplished only by personal effort. The union of opposing forces occurs on different levels: on one level, physical postures unite with conscious breath; on another level, one’s body unites with one’s mind; on an even deeper level, the mind unites with the absolute. These levels of union are intelligible in light of the fact that hatha yoga aims at “self-realization” by building on the taja structure, often uniting it with mantra and other types of yoga.[2]

Experts tells us that hatha yoga is the “foundation” for the other traditions of yoga, the first step along the path of the truest yoga.[3] What is the first step of hatha yoga? The asanas, the physical postures.[4] How do physical postures do this? By means of bodily postures and breathing techniques, the body is tensed and relaxed, the mind is emptied, and then follows meditations with pantheistic or polytheistic content: “melt into the ground,” “become one with the universe,” “awaken the goddess within,” etc. A disciple of the yoga master patanjali explains the meaning of the asanas:

Posture becomes perfect when the effort to attain it disappears, so that there are no more movements in the body. In the same way, its perfection is achieved when the mind is transformed into infinity.[5]

In other words, through yoga postures a person begins by being hyper-conscious about her body as she tries to perfect her positioning. But if she perfects her posture, she gains control over her limbs, her breathing, her organs, her entire body as a complete whole. Then she is able to suppress all natural efforts of the body and to lose all conscious awareness of the body. This exercise is meant to facilitate, even make real, a union, a bond, a yoking with the infinite consciousness. The deeper union is supposed to take place during the feeling of expansion that occurs in deep relaxation. Because yoga postures calm the emotions, they help to empty the mind. The practitioner is easily led to assume that her physical experience also involves a spiritual experience.

A summary evaluation of the effects of hatha yoga is as follows. yoga postures often have physically beneficial effects, but we should not be fooled: feelings of quiet and relaxation, pleasant sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and warmth, and even deeper insights into reality are not the same as deep union with God, nor are they signs of spiritual progress.

If a person calls upon gods during the practice of yoga, as in performing postures in the presence of hindu statues or in chanting mantras to a god or goddess, then she has practiced idolatry and her spiritual condition is worse than when she began. If a person accepts a philosophy that denies the distinctions between body and mind, gain and loss, good and evil, God and the self, then she has embraced falsehood and her spiritual condition is worse than when she began. If she believes that yoga is not dangerous or thinks that it is simply exercise, then her misunderstanding indicates that there is room for improvement. Probably her heart longs for deep spirituality.

The saints teach us the path to true holiness. From them we learn that the evidence of a deep spiritual life necessarily includes the love of God and neighbor, a regular prayer life, fidelity to the commandments, a real and abiding faith in the saving power of Christ, and obedience to the voice of God speaking through the Church. Without these, union with God is little more than a passing breath of hot air.

Love,
Matthew

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[1] For a helpful and accurate summary of the interconnecting branches of Yoga, see: http://theyogaposter.com/.

[2] See David Gordon White, “Yoga, Brief History of an Idea,” Introduction to Yoga in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 16. “Without a doubt, hatha yoga both synthesizes and internalizes many of the elements of the earlier yoga systems.”

[3] The classic text Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Svatmarama begins with this dedication: “Reverence to Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, who taught Prvati hatha wisdom as the first step to the pinnacle of raja yoga.” Following this tradition, see B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 23.

[4] Swami Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, verse 17: “Asanas are spoken of first, being the first stage of hatha yoga.”

[5] Quoted in Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 53.

yoga: isn’t it ALL the same thing? (3 of 5)

yoga

 

FrEzra1

-by Rev Ezra Sullivan, OP

“In the first post we discussed “What is yoga?” In the second post, we learned about the hindu roots of yoga. We found that there are certain hindu gods that have been understood to play a role in teaching and promoting yoga. We looked at shiva, vishnu, and shakti, and ganesh. The post concluded by noting four different positions on how to understand the gods of yoga:

  1. The gods don’t exist; they are mere fables.
  2. The gods do exist; they are good and can be helpful to us.
  3. The gods do exist; they are evil and can harm us.
  4. The gods do exist, but only as personifications or manifestations of the divine, Supreme Reality.

Here we will discuss claim number 4, since this is the understanding adopted by the general yoga tradition that continues even in our day. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but test them to see if they are from God (cf. 1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.

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The ancient philosopher Aristotle famously said that the human is a being who desires to know. Wonder is not merely a Western attitude, he asserted: it is a human impulse. It is natural to us. In this light, it is perfectly reasonable to ask about the nature of yoga. The thing is, when I talk with practitioners about it and try to figure out its deeper meaning, I often receive messages like this one:

The most important thing is to practice yoga. We can discuss the theory for hours and hours. But it’s best to practice and then decide. Change your clothes, open your mind, and fix your attention while performing the postures and pranayama.

The more I investigate yoga, the more I realize that this advice is not simply saying, “Try it and see if you like it.” It reveals the essence of the yoga. It is saying that experience is more important than understanding, practice is more important than prudence. In other words, the mind of yoga is: “never mind.” Let’s see what this means and why it matters.

One of the central problems of an essential philosophy common in India concerns the relation between illusion, temporality, and human suffering.[1] The goal of all Indian philosophies and techniques, especially yoga, is liberation from these. Liberation entails, not merely relief from physical suffering such as a sore back, but emancipation from the suffering that comes from existing in this world. You can transcend the suffering that comes from karma, the law of universal causality, which condemns man to transmigrate through the cosmos. Through yoga, it is said, you can enter absolute reality, beyond the cosmic illusion, mirage, or unreality known as maya. No longer will you be imprisoned in becoming. You would be united with pure being, the absolute, known under different names: brahman (the unconditioned, immortal, transcendent); atman (ultimate self); nirvana.

Recall that yoga means “union” or “to bind together.” In a previous post, I asked, what does yoga bind us to? A preliminary answer was supplied: to the hindu gods, who teach yoga techniques. Another answer, however, is as follows. yoga is meant to bind a person to ultimate reality. The system of yoga teaches the individual how to be yoked or indissolubly united to that universal absolute (brahman) and to become undifferentiated from it.

Isn’t this a contradiction? Does yoga unite us to hindu gods or to the absolute?

Here we should distinguish between two forms of hinduism, namely:

i) A popular level of Hinduism and
ii) A higher level of philosophical and religious Hinduism.

According to the popular level, believed in by the masses for the most part, the world is populated by tens of thousands (or is it millions?) of gods and goddesses, myriads of genies, demons, and evil spirits. Those spiritual beings are propitiated and can be manipulated with sacrifices along with yoga practices and disciplines. In this respect, hinduism bears features that are common in most other pagan religions, including those of Greece and Rome. If it accepts Jesus, it is because it sees Him as one god among many.

According to the higher level, the spirit beings are illusions. Instead of renouncing the gods, this philosophy redefines them. They are considered different aspects of the one supreme absolute, which some hindus refer to as “god.” This brahman or god – it must be emphasized – is not God in the Judeo-Christian sense. It has no personality. It is not the One Creator, distinct from the universe, Who created humans in order to have a personal relationship with them. It is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Or rather, according to this point of view, it is Jesus and it isn’t – at the same time. It is as much Jesus as it is vishnu, because both are representations or instantiations of the supreme reality, the impersonal absolute existence, of which each human is a part, that permeates everything.

From the perspective of the higher, more subtle hindu thought, yoga’s role is to help the practitioner to be dissolved into this “higher reality.” B.K.S. Iyengar, the renowned yoga practitioner and theorist, explains it this way: “Dualities like gain and loss, victory and defeat, fame and shame, body and mind, mind and soul vanish through mastery of the asanas [yoga postures].”[2] This is the doctrine of monism. It claims that there are no distinctions among things, that all is one and every difference is a harmful illusion, holding a person back from perfection. Once a person masters yoga, “He is then free from birth and death, from pain and sorrow and becomes immortal. He has no self-identity as he lives experiencing the fullness of the Universal Soul.”[3] This is supreme ego-centrism under the guise of self-realization. “I am Brahman!” the yoga practitioner can exult; “I am GOD; I am ALL!” But they should equally declare, “I am NO ONE. I am ILLUSION.”

People often claim they’ve “found themselves” through yoga. What an irony. If they looked deeper, yoga would tell them that they’ve found nothing.

In my next post, I will explore how hatha yoga, the physical postures and breathing techniques, is meant to help a person achieve union with the absolute – and what that means for the soul.

Love,
Matthew

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[1] See Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), xvi-xx.
[2] B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966), 42.
[3] Iyengar, 48.

gods of yoga (2 of 5)

Silhouette of a woman doing yoga on the beach at sunset

FrEzra1

-by Rev Ezra Sullivan, OP

“In the previous post on yoga, we explored studies that showed a couple of important facts:

· Consistent practice of yoga is correlated with a diminishment of Christian belief.

· Practitioners typically begin yoga for physical reasons but stick with it for spiritual reasons.

We concluded with a basic definition of yoga: yoga is both a comprehensive system of human culture–physical, moral, and psychological–and it acts as a doorway on to the gently sloping paths that gradually lead up to yoga proper, that is, the spirituality of yoga rooted in hinduism.

In this post we will take a look at the hindu foundations of yoga in light of the gods found therein. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but test them to see if they are from God (cf 1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.

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Part II – The gods of yoga

I’m not much of an exercise person. The practice of pumping iron or toning my body with a machine has never excited me: it seemed meaningless at best and slightly narcissistic at worst. This is one of the reasons why yoga appealed to me. It seemed to be exercise with a real meaning. What I didn’t expect was what that meaning actually is.

The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which indicates “to yoke together,” “union,” “to join, to bind.”[1] Someone who practices yoga as a way of life is called a yogin or a yogi. Because yoga indicates binding, we must ask: what does yoga bind us to?

My jaw almost hit the floor when I found the answer.

To learn about yoga, at first I avoided classes and went to a local bookstore. I wasn’t ready to squeeze into yoga pants. The first paperback I purchased, chosen almost at random, was full of helpful photos of postures along with explanations and commentary. It explained what yoga “yokes” or “binds” us to: Hindu divinity or divinities. “Awaken the goddess within,” it suggested. Frightening for me as a Christian and as a male. It also invited me to consider ganesh, the “loveable” elephant-headed god, along with his friends who populate India’s pantheon. That sounds pagan, I thought. So I set the book aside and looked elsewhere. To my dismay, I discovered in a local Yoga studio something that confirmed the book’s approach: a little bronze statue of a Hindu god, presiding over the people within. It was too much even for this California boy.

GaneshCAM01396
-ganesh

Was my experience typical?

Clearly not every book on yoga promotes hindu gods, and not every yoga class has pagan statuary. But many do. The classical yoga tradition argues that all Yoga should associate with the gods of India. In order to understand why this is the case, we must uncover the hindu roots of yoga.

For Westerners who like everything, including religion, neat and tidy, boxed up and labeled, sitting on a shelf ready for inspection from a discerning customer, hinduism poses difficulties. “What we think of as one religion,” one writer notes, “is a multifarious collection of sects, traditions, beliefs, and practices that evolved from the Vedas, the world’s oldest sacred texts, and took shape across the vast Indian subcontinent over the course of many centuries.”[2] There is real difficulty in pinning down a precise doctrine of universal hindu belief because “hinduism has no central authority, no founding figure, no historical starting point, no single creed or canonical doctrine, and many holy books rather than one.” Because of this, hinduism has been called “the world’s largest disorganized religion.”[3] Nevertheless, hindus have generally recognized six principle schools that represent authentic developments of the Vedic scriptures. yoga is one of them.[4]

yoga, along with the religious beliefs and practices sheltered under the large umbrella called “hindu,” honors many gods. “hinduism is a perfect polytheism,” says a highly-respected scholar. In a real sense, this can also apply to yoga.[5] The gods are the ultimate gurus of yoga.

if
-shiva

shiva has prominence among the gods of yoga. He is the “patron” of all yoga practitioners: “He is the deity of yogins par excellence and is often depicted as a yogin.”[6] Around his neck is a serpent, symbolizing his power over death; on his forehead is a third eye, through which he gains mystical vision and knowledge. His drumbeat is said to create the OM which reverberates in the heart and throughout the universe. In some depictions shiva assumes the lotus posture in deep meditation. In other cases shiva juggles fire while he dances with one foot in the air, indicating release from “earthly bondage.”

Some traditions include shiva in a hindu triad or trinity of gods, with brahman as the “creator”, vishnu as the “sustainer” or “preserver.” shiva is said to be “the destroyer,” the one who annihilates the illusions of the ego and therefore gains liberation into ultimate reality:

While of course many hindu deities are associated with different paths of yoga and meditation, in shiva the art of meditation takes its most absolute form. In meditation, not only mind is stopped, everything is dropped.[7]

vishnu
-vishnu

vishnu is another important god for yoga; he is said to preserve and maintain the cosmic order dharma. Like shiva, he is depicted with blue skin and four arms and is accompanied by serpents. It is said that vishnu was incarnate nine times, the last two being the most significant: as krishna and buddha. Here I will focus on krishna.

Sri_Mariamman_Temple_Singapore_2_amk
-krishna

The bhagavad-gita, part of an ancient hindu religious epic, portrays krishna as the perfect yoga guru to his disciple, the human hero arjuna. Chapter 6 of the gita contains material that would be familiar to many modern yoga practitioners. krishna defines yoga negatively as “renunciation” of illusion and positively as “yoking oneself to the supreme consciousness” (6:2). For him, a yogin is one “established in self-realization” (6:8). Through elevating himself through his own mind (6:5), a yoga practitioner attains the abode of krishna, perfect happiness, “by cessation of material existence” (6:15). The means to acquire this is by practicing control of the body, mind, and activity with specific postures and meditation techniques (6:11-18).

shakti
-shakti

The yoga goddesses should not be neglected in our account. Here we can turn to the chief goddess, shakti or durga, known under different aspects. shakti is seen as the divine force that destroys evil and restores balance: she “represents the cosmic energy of destruction of the ego, which stands in the way of spiritual growth and ultimate liberation.”[8] In some instances, shakti assumes the role of parvati, the energy and consort of shiva; in other instances, the role of lakshmi, the energy and consort of vishnu. The most fearsome role shakti plays is as kali, the “dark mother” goddess, who, standing naked, wears a garland of skulls around her neck and a belt of heads around her waist, wielding a bloody sword and clutching a severed head. It is not uncommon for yoga teachers to recommend tapping into this feminine-divine source of empowerment. Here is one account:

“Ellen is a medical student, and thinks of herself as a rational person who doesn’t go in for mystical experiences. But one day as she closed her eyes and relaxed in savasana, Ellen felt a powerful maternal energy around her and “saw” the hindu goddess durga, whose picture graced the yoga studio’s back wall. For a moment, the many-armed goddess’s face lingered in front of her, looking alive and full of compassionate love. Then the image disappeared–though the sweet, strong energy stayed with Ellen for hours.[9]

Later Ellen asked Sally what the experience might mean. Sally replied: “Just sit in meditation and ask the durga energy to be with you. Then notice how you feel.” This is what Sally calls “deity yoga,” which she claims “isn’t specific to the Hindu tradition.” She says it could be practiced by anyone interested in yoga, even Christians.”

Is Sally right?

What are we to make of the pantheon of yoga gods?

It seems to me that there are four basic positions:

1. The gods and goddesses do not actually exist. They are only metaphors, imaginative fables meant to inspire the yoga practitioner. Some people may believe this, but I think it is insufficient and reductive; it does not adequately explain the cultural and experiential data available.

2. They do exist and are benevolent: they may be invoked in order to obtain energy, power, good fortune, etc. This is the position of a number of simple hindu believers.

3. They do exist but are evil, and should not be invoked. This is the position of traditional Christianity (and perhaps Islam and Judaism). “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5).

4. They do exist, but not in the way one might imagine. They are all manifestations of the one supreme being, the all-encompassing reality, which one could call “God.” This is the position of the more developed understanding of hinduism, an understanding that has been adopted by yoga.

In our next post we will explore the last position: that the gods exist, not in themselves, but as manifestations, personifications, or realizations of the divinity.”

Love,
Matthew

++++++++++++

[1] Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 4.

[2] Philip Goldberg, American Veda (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, 3rd Ed. (Chino Valley, AZ: Hohm Press, 2008), 72-78.

[5] Jean Varenne, Yoga and the Hindu Tradition, trans. Derek Coltman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 26.

[6] Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 84.

[7] http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/shiva.htm#.UvpGMLQkgf8 For a retelling of the Shiva legend, see Sadhguru, “Yoga Originated from Shiva,” The Times of India 19 March, 2009. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-03-19/vintage-wisdom/28031005_1_shiva-yoga-intimacy

[8] Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 87.

[9] Sally Kempton, “Oh My Goddess,” Yoga Journal Online. http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/1980 See also “Goddess, Where Art Thou?” http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2617

Catholic view of yoga (1 of 5)

Patti-Maguire-Armstrong-Yoga-480x242

FrEzra1

-by Rev Ezra Sullivan, OP

“Yoga is hands-down — toes-up — one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world, including the United States. It is also controversial, eliciting strong reactions from enthusiasts and denouncers alike. Among Christians, perhaps the most commonly-heard question is, “Can I practice yoga?” or, said with a different emphasis, “I can practice yoga, right?” With a nod to modern practicality, in order to do justice to the question as well as to the questioner, we ought to consider a number of different issues.

This series is meant to address these issues head on, beginning with the nature of yoga and ending with a discussion of how Christians can exercise their souls and pray with their bodies. St. John tells us that we should not believe every spirit, but to test them to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). It’s going to be an enlightening experience, so set your intention and come join us as we explore yoga from a Catholic perspective.

+++++++

I – What is Yoga?

There is something funny about yoga. It is one of those things that can prompt double-speak, as I have found over and over again. Here is a typical conversation:

“So, Father, what do you think about yoga?” Someone will ask.

“Well, I have some misgivings about it,” I’ll say.

“But what’s wrong with yoga,” they will press. “It’s just exercise.”

“Then why not try Pilates?” I reply.

“I wanted something more holistic, something that focuses on body and soul. I like yoga because it’s spiritual too.”

“Then it’s more than physical exercise.”

To get beyond this impasse in the Tibetan peaks and valleys of conversation, let’s begin by analyzing a portrait of the typical yoga practitioner.[1] A 2012 Yoga in America study shows that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga. This was an increase of 29% since 2008. In addition, 44.4 percent of Americans could identify as “aspirational yogis”–folks interested in trying yoga. Among these millions, the most common yoga enthusiast is a youngish, upper-middle class woman.[2] Yoga is a thriving industry: practitioners spend ten to twenty billion dollars a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media.

In and around the popularity of yoga stretches and twists, a vocal portion of the population nevertheless regards yoga as a way to become spiritually bent out of shape. Questions and misgivings arise, and people begin to wonder: what is this thing that some of my friends practice and so many celebrities preach – what is this thing called yoga?

At first glance, yoga is simply a great form of exercise. The top five reasons for starting yoga are: to improve flexibility, to aid general conditioning, to further stress relief, to improve overall health, and to promote physical fitness.[3] Doctors and practitioners both agree that, when practiced moderately, yoga can strengthen a person, help her lose weight, and give her more energy. It is also often associated with positive emotional well-being: because yoga calms the body, it often soothes the feelings. Adding on to the individual benefits, there are often attractive cultural aspects of yoga: it helps people meet beautiful people, so that they can become more beautiful themselves; it is often convenient; at a base level, it doesn’t hurt the wallet.

Yoga, however, is more than a physical exercise with social benefits.

One indication of yoga’s spiritual nature is the way it affects practitioners over time. The International Journal of Yoga published the results of a national survey in Australia.[4] Physical postures (asana) comprised about 60% of the yoga they practiced; 40% was relaxation (savasana), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and instruction. The survey showed very significant results: although most respondents commonly began yoga for reasons of physical health, they usually continued it for reasons of spirituality. In addition, the more people practiced yoga, the more likely they were to decrease their adherence to Christianity and the more likely they were to adhere to non-religious spirituality and Buddhism.

In other words, whatever their intentions may have been, many people experience yoga as a gateway to a spirituality disconnected from Christ.

Doing justice to the complete nature of yoga, therefore, requires a more well-rounded definition: “A comprehensive system of human culture, physical, moral, and [psychological], and acting as a doorway on to the gently sloping paths that gradually lead up to yoga proper,” that is, the spirituality of yoga founded in Hinduism.

Its aim is to control the body and the various forms of vital energy, with a view of overcoming physical impediments standing in the way of other, spiritual, forms of Yoga. Its object is to ensure a perfect balance between the organic functions. Its ultimate goal and true end is to prepare man for the acquisition of that repose of spirit necessary for the realization of the “Supreme”, or for “experiencing the Divine.”[5]

Yoga’s religious and spiritual end is often forgotten or denied in a Western context; most people see it simply as a physical form of exercise. Such a simplification is unwarranted and dangerous. As we will see, reducing yoga to a mere beautifying technique frequently creates ugly effects.”

Love,
Matthew

[1] For the following statistics, see http://blogs.yogajournal.com/yogabuzz/2012/12/new-study-find-more-than-20-million-yogis-in-u-s.html. And http://www.statisticbrain.com/yoga-statistics/

[2] The majority of today’s yoga practitioners (62.8 percent) fall within the age range of 18-44. Women compose 82.2 % of the cohort. 68% of all yoga practitioners make more than $75,000 a year.

[3] http://blogs.yogajournal.com/yogabuzz/2012/12/new-study-find-more-than-20-million-yogis-in-u-s.html.

[4] Penman, Cohen, Stivens, and Jackson, “Yoga in Australia: Results of a National Survey.” Int J Yoga. 2012 Jul-Dec; 5(2): 92—101. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3410203/ The typical Australian yoga practitioner of yoga is comparable to the American parallel: typically a 41 years old, tertiary educated, employed, health-conscious female (85% female).

[5] J.-M. Déchanet, Christian Yoga (New York: Harper, 1960), 31.

What Is the teaching of the Catholic Church on tattoos and body piercing?

clothed with strength and dignity

-www.cuf.org, Catholics United for Faith

Tattoos and acts of body piercing are not intrinsically evil. The Church offers principles by which Catholics can discern whether it is sinful to be tattooed or have one’s body pierced in particular situations.

WHAT SACRED SCRIPTURE HAS TO SAY

Some Protestant authors have argued that the Bible forbids tattoos and body piercing. They typically cite the following verse: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28).

References to this verse are not present in important magisterial documents and in the principal writings of the Fathers of the Church. It is the consensus of Catholic biblical commentators that this prohibition is not part of the unchanging moral law, but part of the ritual law specific to the Old Testament. Many commentators believe that this prohibition was intended to separate Israel from its Canaanite neighbors; some believe that the cuttings in the flesh and tattoo marks to which the verse refers were part of idolatrous Canaanite worship. The context of the verse favors this interpretation. The preceding verse reads, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (Lev. 19:27)—this prohibition is certainly not applied to members of the Church.

The Church does not teach that Sacred Scripture forbids tattooing and body piercing, but the Church does offer principles by which to discern whether, in particular situations, it is sinful to be tattooed or have one’s body pierced.

RESPECT FOR HEALTH & BODILY INTEGRITY

The Fifth Commandment—”You shall not kill”—does not simply require respect for human life; it also compels Christians to respect the dignity of persons and to safeguard peace (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2258-2330). Respect for the dignity of persons includes, among other things, respect for the souls of others, for their health, and for their bodily integrity.

“Life and physical health,” the Church teaches, “are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good” (Catechism, no. 2288). Prudence dictates that persons considering tattoos or body piercing research any health risks that may be involved. If a particular act of tattooing or body piercing entails a likely risk to health, it would be more or less sinful depending upon the gravity of the risk. If a particular act involves mutilation—if the act renders a bodily organ unable to perform its function—the act is immoral (Catechism, no. 2297).

CHARITY AND RESPECT FOR THE SOULS OF OTHERS

Catholics must also consider the common good when they decide whether to be tattooed or have their bodies pierced. In certain instances—for example, in indigenous cultures in which tattooing is a rite of passage to adulthood—the common good practically demands that a person be tattooed.1

In the United States and other Western countries, however, considerations of the common good generally lead one away from being tattooed or having one’s body parts2 pierced (as they are commonly regarded as socially unacceptable.)

The question of whether an act of tattooing or body piercing hinders a Catholic’s evangelizing mission leads to the broader question of whether such an act harms the souls of others. Tattoos whose words and images celebrate the demonic, are unchaste, or otherwise offend against charity are immoral.

Even if a tattoo’s words and images are not uncharitable in themselves, the act of obtaining a tattoo can be rendered immoral if done so with an evil intention—for example, in order to spite one’s parents or society (cf. Catechism, no. 1752).

Persons considering body piercing should also be aware of the implicit messages that the particular act of piercing conveys in a particular time and place. Some acts of body piercing can imply approval for the immoral homosexual lifestyle. Other acts of body piercing can imply active participation in, or a desire to participate in, other unchaste acts. In such cases, the acts of body piercing are immoral because they appear to manifest an approval of sin and thus scandalize others (cf. Catechism, no. 1868, 2284).

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

Persons considering getting tattoos or having their bodies pierced may want to reflect on the following questions:

    • Does this particular act of tattooing or body piercing involve a risk to my health?
    • Would this act mutilate me—that is, would it inhibit the proper functioning of my skin or another organ of my body?
    • Is the explicit message of my tattoo compatible with love of God and neighbor?
    • Is the implicit message of my tattoo compatible with love of God and neighbor? Does it convey an implicitly unchaste message?
    • Why do I want to get a tattoo or have my body pierced?
    • If I am under the authority of my parents, would this act be an act of disobedience that would violate the Fourth Commandment?
    • Would this particular act needlessly offend my family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and thus hinder my ability to lead others to Christ and His Church?
    • Can the expense involved be justified in light of the needs of my family, the Church, and the poor?

In most cultural contexts in the United States, a woman’s decision to have her ears pierced is compatible with respect for health and bodily integrity, charity, and respect for the souls of others. Other acts of piercing and tattooing are more open to question.

The criteria above can help one come to a prayerful and prudent decision in one’s particular circumstances.

Love,
Matthew

1 In People on the Move (December 2003, pp. 281-88),a publication of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Fr. Mathias Bhuriya has written about the role of tattooing in the Adi-Vasi Bhalai nomadic Indian culture.

2 i.e., Obviously, not referring here to women’s pierced ears.

Body Graffitti/Vandalism vs Christian Modesty

modesty

For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery (of sin) (Gal 5:1)

On Mother’s Day, honoring those women who gave us our bodies, the vehicles of our lives and our respective resurrections unto eternity, it seems appropriate to reflect on the miraculous gift of the body. Modesty makes beauty. Modest is hottest. Otherwise, what is there to look forward to, where is wonder, where is mystery, if all is thrust in your face, pushed up your nose immediately, or in a repulsive way?  Meaning to shock others can never be understood as an intentional polite first impression, nor for subsequent encounters. Dissing others, I thought, was to be avoided?  In the Christian mind, it is never about ourselves, whatever the matter.  It is always about others.  Immodesty is a form of rudeness, provocation.  It cannot be understood otherwise.  Immodesty is neither flattering to men nor to women, nor to God, nor if honestly answered, such rudeness is truly never desired by any of them.

from http://patrickmadrid.com/wpcontent/uploads/2011/10/bodyart.pdf

– by the Rev. Mr. Robert S. Lukosh, Deacon, Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon.

“Every day across the United States — indeed, throughout the world — men and women, boys and girls, get themselves tattooed and pierced. And not just their ears. They are participating in the modern fad of “body art,” which has its origins in antiquity, but which in recent decades as developed into some extreme forms1 that are often quite disturbing.

The intentional marking or mutilation of the human body under the guise of “body art” goes beyond simple tattoos or ear-piercing as adornment for women. For many, it is a personal expression of solidarity with a social cause, a trend that attracts predominately young people, driving them to ever wilder and more shocking expressions of what some term “personal mutilation” that includes: total-body tattoos, pierced eyelids, lips, noses, tongues, foreheads, and even disfigurement of the genitalia, in a never-ending quest for the most “outrageous” form of self-expression through what is commonly known as “body art.”

These forms of personal exhibition have spread rapidly throughout contemporary Western society, resulting in a secondary wave of participants… are disfiguring their own bodies irrevocably, claiming as their justification “personal freedom” and a right to unlimited self-expression.

In earlier generations, garish tattoos and unusual piercings were found almost exclusively only among members of social groups and subcultures that lurked at the fringes of mainstream society.  Look around today and you will see a massive number of people — especially young people — who have become enamored of extreme tattoos and unusual piercings. This modern fad of body art permeates American society, affecting virtually every industry, age group, race, sex, and religion. Since many of these people occupy leadership and mentoring roles in the lives of children and young adults, such overt displays have an additional rebound effect by providing tacit justification sufficient to overcome the doubts of those who are unsure if they want to dabble in the body art fad themselves, resulting in yet a third generation of pierced and tattooed bodies.

Although this increasing tendency to radically disfigure oneself seems, from a personal and subjective perspective, to be a willful distortion of what John Paul II calls in Veritatis Splendor2 the “truth about man as a creature and the image of God,” it is insufficient and unwise to let popular opinion alone determine the moral value of the modern phenomenon of “body art.”

To properly understand the moral character of extreme “body art” and recognize the implications it holds for Catholic family life and for society as a whole, it’s first necessary to explore the nature of the act in the eyes of its supporters. Then one can better evaluate it, based on Scripture and Tradition and the teachings of the Catholic Church.3

Assisted by Divine Revelation, the guidance of the Church established by Christ, and our own gift of reason, we are called by God to be public witnesses to the supreme truth about man and his vocation to holiness, which is rooted in the dignity of the human person. This witness, through the power of the Holy Spirit, has the ability to enlighten others so that they may formulate “judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the Creator” (CCC 1783), regarding complicated moral issues, such as body art. By consciously choosing, and encouraging others to choose, to exercise this genuine freedom as “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man,”4 men and women will find their true identity in Christ, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Jump off a bridge?

“But, people have always done it.” Among the first justifications cited by supporters of the body art movement is the appeal to historical evidence. The “people-have-always-done-it” argument does, of course, contain an element of truth. One need not search far amid the records of ancient civilizations to find ample evidence of a nearly universal acceptance of body adornment by paint, jewelry, and body modifications including piercing, stretching of the lips, neck, and ears, and, of course, tattoos.

These body art practices in ancient cultures often provides archaeologists and anthropologists with important clues distinguishing various social strata within a society. This is applicable today in the study of primitive societies still extant today in remote regions of the globe. In Art in Primitive Societies,5 Richard L. Anderson explains that, from cave dwellers to ancient Egyptians, the early Han people of China to Native Americans, a wide body of evidence exists showing that primitive humans consistently adorned themselves as part of their life in community.

“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body & spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”-2 Cor. 7:1

Anderson writes that although scholars disagree as to the particular range of motives and meanings surrounding such primal body art (differing in their specifics from culture to culture), certain commonalities and trends can be discerned in the body art customs of primitive cultures.  Self-mutilation in antiquity was usually, though not always, practiced as an act of devotion to or repudiation of a god or elemental power (e.g., the sun). Another striking pattern revealed by anthropological research is that body art usually tends to be observed in primitive, not advanced, societies (whether in antiquity or today).

Anderson points out that even in modern times, those cultures actively participating on a wide scale in radical body art (e.g., self-mutilation) tend to be developmentally stagnant and isolated from the industrialized world.6 Anderson says that those peoples who have intentionally bridged the gap between ancient and modern customs and rituals often experience a certain “acculturation” on the economic, social, cultural, and artistic levels, largely emptying body art of its former religious, educational and aesthetic content.7

Thus, in appealing to the historical evidence, modern supporters of radical body art (e.g., piercing and tattoos) must either admit the religious and antiquated nature of their practice, or they must confirm it as an essentially arbitrary appropriation of external expression that is largely foreign to modern society.

“The Church Has No Business Telling Me What I Can Do With My Own Body!”

A second common argument employed by proponents of the body art movement is that the Church should mind its own business and stop telling people what they can do with their own bodies and in the privacy of their own bedrooms, etc. This attitude, in addition to exhibiting a profound ignorance of the role of the Church in our life, is a kind of self-righteous, defiant demand for an “autonomy,” which is misunderstood to be mere freedom from coercion, rather than authentic freedom to choose objective truth and do what is good.8  see Freedom for Excellence.

Particularly in America, this argument, at least at first glance, seems justifiable given the intense popular aversion to authority and the general hostility that reigns toward the notion of there being an “absolute, objective truth” by which everyone is obligated to live. Ironically, it’s precisely because of this insistence on supremacy of personal authority and moral relativism that the Church must tirelessly remind all people to realize the efficacy of CHRIST as “the voice of the truth about good and evil,” as He is “the only one who can answer in the fullness of truth, in all situations, in the most varied of circumstances.”9  In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the Church “cannot cease from reproving . . . those harmful teachings and ways of acting which are in conflict with reason and with common human experience, and which cast man down from the noble state to which he is born (in Christ).”10

When the Council Fathers recoil against all forms of mutilation per se, whether self-afflicted or imposed on others, it’s because such acts “violate the integrity of the human person” and “poison human society” through intentional violation of the moral law as given by the Creator and accessible through reason and Revelation.11 This supreme respect for bodily integrity must, in the case of personal adornment, be balanced against the honor given various forms of art as “distinctively human form of expression” which, “when inspired by truth and love of beings . . . bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created.” 12 One of the direct by-products of many — if not most — forms of modern body art is vanity: an inordinate self-love related to the sin of pride. This is one reason why the Church warns us against the incipient moral danger associated with extreme forms of body art.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” -1 Corinthians 6:9-20

And there is another issue to consider. While a good intention cannot make an evil act good, bad intention can render a good or neutral act evil. When confronted with this self-evident principle, some people attempt to justify personal mutilation with various relativistic theories that distort morality, such as “proportionalism,” “physicalism,” and the so-called “fundamental option” theory.

According to the first theory, overall good and bad effects of mutilation on the individual and society must be weighed or proportioned to determine if the act is itself good or evil, regardless of the intrinsic evil the act represents. This denies the possibility of objective evil and, as Pope John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor, it supports an “end justifies the means” mentality contrary to reason and Revelation. The second theory denies the very nature of the human person by suggesting that bodily mutilation isn’t integrally determinative of personal morality, in a manner reminiscent of ancient gnosticism (i.e. basic dualism, “matter is evil”, not the creation God called “good”, makes God a liar) This approach regards the body as a mere object, devoid of any intrinsic meaning of its own (cannot be overstatedthe body, in Catholic theology, and all created matter is good, because God created it, and called it “good”, it therefore is intrinsically good, full of intrinsic meaning, the Catholic Church wants you to have AWESOME sex!) and dissociates “the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise” contrary to the fundamental unity of the human person.13 (The heresy here is that there is no moral implication to the use, misuse, or abuse to the body = heresy.  How the intrinsically good body is used through free will ALWAYS has tremendous moral implications!  And, ALWAYS will!!)

The final distortion, the “fundamental option” theory, holds that so long as a person’s “inner core” is oriented toward the good and true, specific and particular acts, such as body art involving personal mutilation, would be incapable of materially changing that “fundamental option.” In other words, if you’re basically a “good person” who usually chooses to do what is right, if you happen to do something sinful, it’s not in itself an enough to cause you to be seriously estranged from God. Why? Because you’re “basically a good person.”

The error here, as Pope John Paul II clearly explains in Veritatis Splendor, is in thinking that no particular immoral act can affect your core being, i.e., your “substantial integrity [and] personal unity,” as the Pope described it. Thus, while the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has continually and consistently taught that all people are bound through genuine freedom to follow the judgment of conscience in determining their actions,14 this directive must be viewed in light of accurate understanding of both freedom and conscience. The freedom referred to here is the authentic freedom of an individual exercising personal free will and political autonomy that is oriented toward the good of all, as “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man.”15

Body art as a form of adornment that is ordered to the ultimate good of the person and to humanity, if it observes modesty and avoids vanity, and if it respects the fundamental integrity of the human person — including the integrity of the body — that kind of body art can be morally permissible. But this is quite distinct from personal mutilation that many of today’s extreme tattoos and piercings entail.

For Christians, the guideline we should follow is aptly expressed in Sacred Scripture: “Your adornment should not be an external one . . . but rather the hidden character of the heart . . . which is precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4). To apply this principle is to build up the Body of Christ, so that all people may “grow up in every way into Him who is the head, Christ” (Eph. 4:15). And in applying it, we can discern between harmful (and even sinful) forms of body art versus acceptable and morally neutral forms. Never forget what St. Paul had to say about the sacredness of your body: “Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body”-1 Corinthians 6:9-20.

“May the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit & soul & body be kept sound & blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
-I Thess: 5:23

Love,
Matthew

1 As opposed to what has long been considered to be socially acceptable, non-extreme, forms of adornment such as women’s pierced ears, military tattoos, etc.
2 Available electronically in English and other languages at the Vatican
Web site: www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor_en.html.
3 I.e., the authoritative guidelines for the morality of human actions,
intended for reflection, instruction, correction and “training in righteousness”
(c.f. 2 Timothy 3:16).
4 Veritatis Splendor, 34.
5 Art in Primitive Societies(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,
1979). 36-37.
6 Ibid., 165.
7 C.f., ibid., 180.
8 C.f., Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 32.
9 Ibid., 117.
10 Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post
Conciliar Documents; (Collegeville, IN: The Liturgical Press, 1992),
volume 1; Gaudiumet Spes, 21.
11 Ibid., 27.
12 CCC 250.
13 Veritatis Splendor, 49.
14 C.f. Patrick Madrid, “Follow Your Conscience,” Does the Bible Really
say That? Discovering Catholic Teaching in Scripture (Cincinnati :
Servant Books, 2006), pages 82-85.
15 Veritatis Splendor, 34.

What is Catholic teaching on transgenderism?

gender-hero

To the Catholic mind, the disorder of transgenderism is really a crisis of faith, doubting the wisdom and purpose of the Creator.  The Church views gender dysphoria as a mental illness. Intentional mutilation is always immoral.  Recent medical evidence suggests that in a majority of cases the procedure (gender reassignment surgery) increases the likelihood of depression and psychic disturbance.

A transgender individual is a person who experiences sustained Gender Identity Disorder (a.k.a. GID, Gender Dysphoria, BID, etc.). Their genetic gender is different from their perceived gender. Some describe themselves as a woman trapped in a man’s body, or vice versa. Others view themselves as having a male brain in a female body, or vice versa.

“Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of the Creator… For this reason man is not allowed to despise his bodily life, rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and honorable since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. Nevertheless, wounded by sin, man experiences rebellious stirrings in his body. But the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart.” -Gaudium et Spes, 14.1

CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
PART ONE
THE PROFESSION OF FAITH

SECTION TWO
THE PROFESSION OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH

CHAPTER ONE
I BELIEVE IN GOD THE FATHER

ARTICLE I
“I BELIEVE IN GOD THE FATHER ALMIGHTY, CREATOR OF HEAVEN AND EARTH”

Paragraph 6. Man

355 “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”-Gen 1:27.  Man occupies a unique place in creation: (I) he is “in the image of God”; (II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds; (III) he is created “male and female”; (IV) God established him in his friendship.

* III. “MALE AND FEMALE HE CREATED THEM”

Equality and difference willed by God

369 Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman. “Being man” or “being woman” is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator…. Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity “in the image of God”. In their “being-man” and “being-woman”, they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness.

PART THREE
LIFE IN CHRIST

SECTION TWO
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

CHAPTER TWO
“YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF”

ARTICLE 6
THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT

* I. “MALE AND FEMALE HE CREATED THEM . . .”

2331 “God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image . . .. God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion.”…

2332 Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.

2333 Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life…

“…individuals suffering from gender dysphoria syndrome must be treated with compassion. They need spiritual counseling which will help them realize the great love of God who loves them as individuals who have been created in His image and likeness. They need proper psychotherapy which will help them to face realistically their human situation and the world, and the consequences of their actions on themselves and their relationships with family and friends. Such counseling will also direct them to spiritual, intellectual and social pursuits to realize their self-worth and divert their preoccupation with sexual identity.” – Rev. William P. Saunders, CatholicHerald.com, Arlington, VA, 2001.

http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/report-pope-francis-meets-hugs-transgender-man

http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/30/living/pope-transgender-man/

http://ncronline.org/news/vatican-says-sex-change-operation-does-not-change-persons-gender

Love,
Matthew

Why is Catholic Marriage different?

WeddingKneelingBeforeEucharist

In my experience trying to understand Catholic teaching on marriage, the language is more like love poetry than a practical, utilitarian dissembling of rights and functions.  See Song of Songs.  WIFM = What’s In It For Me? is definitely NOT the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of marriage, quite the contrary, quite, even though, culturally, we may use the same word to describe a dramatically different understood reality.  If our current crisis causes this definition and clarity to come more fully into focus, grace doth abound.  Rom 5:20.

In this season of marriage ceremony, let us pray for those who take on this most solemn vocation.  I have recently begun attending a secular support group to offer support to divorced men and fathers as they bear the cross of divorce and separation from their children and the torture of the family court system, biased against men.  Please pray for all who suffer this most desperate of crosses, regardless of their sins.

-by A. David Anders, PhD

Catholic teaching on marriage elicits more practical opposition and misunderstanding than perhaps any other Catholic doctrine. When I ask people what is keeping them from full communion with the Catholic church, Catholic teaching and the canon law on marriage rank high on the list.

The reason for the opposition is easily understood.  Christ calls married couples to lifelong fidelity, no matter what. A valid sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved for any reason by any power on earth. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:6) This teaching seems so difficult that the apostles themselves could hardly believe it. “If this is the situation between a husband and wife,” they said, “it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)  Christ himself admitted that the teaching was impossible without grace: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” (Matthew 19:11)

Some Protestant denominations wish to make an exception to this law in cases of adultery or abandonment. They base this exception in the so-called “exception clause” of Matthew 19:9. But St. Paul explains Christ’s teaching very clearly in 1 Corinthians 7:10: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”  For this reason, the Church allows for the “separation of bed and board” in cases of abuse and neglect, but in no way countenances the remarriage of those separated while the true spouse is still living.

Why? Why does Christ call Christian couples to such a high standard of fidelity, even to the point of embracing the cross of suffering? The reason is that Christian marriage is no mere human contract. It is a mystical participation in the sacrificial, self-giving love of Christ for his Church. (Ephesians 5) It is a special vocation to holiness, an ecclesial state in the same way that priesthood or religious life is an ecclesial state. Christian marriage participates in the sacramental mission of the Church to bring Christ to the world. St. John Paul II wrote that “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers.” (Familiaris Consortio)

The really glorious news is that God never calls us to a task without giving us the means to accomplish it. For this reason, the sacrament of marriage is accompanied by astonishing graces that are unique to the married state. The Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes) put the matter quite beautifully:

“Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in sublime office of being a father or a mother. For this reason Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. By virtue of this sacrament, as spouses fulfil their conjugal and family obligation, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God.”

To be sure, not all married couples experience or enjoy the full benefit of these graces. The increase of sanctifying grace in the sacraments calls forth our willing cooperation. Pope Pius XI explains: “[since] men do not reap the full fruit of the Sacraments . . . unless they cooperate with grace, the grace of matrimony will remain for the most part an unused talent hidden in the field.” (Casti Connubii)

In order to reap the full benefits of sacramental marriage, one must live a sincere, faithful and generous Catholic life. St. John Paul II explains:  “There is no doubt that these conditions must include persistence and patience, humility and strength of mind, filial trust in God and in His grace, and frequent recourse to prayer and to the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation. Thus strengthened, Christian husbands and wives will be able to keep alive their awareness of the unique influence that the grace of the sacrament of marriage has on every aspect of married life.” (Familiaris Consortio).

Christian marriage is an awesome calling. Like all the sacraments, it is “a mystery,” but a mystery of astonishing fruitfulness. The law on Christian marriage is arduous because the end of Christian marriage is so sublime. Through it we are “caught up into divine love.”  The Council teaches: “Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love.” (Gaudium et Spes)”

“…Thy Kingdom come!  Thy will be done!  On earth, as it is in heaven.”

Love,
Matthew

Why does the Catholic Church teach homosexual acts are intrinsically evil?

keep-faith-in-jesus-christ

“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” -CCC 2357

2012-09_LT-CatholicsLoveGays1

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH WANTS YOU TO HAVE AWESOME SEX!!!!  It’s true.  It does.  But, let’s define some terms.  You could say the Catholic Church holds sexual union as sacred.  So sacred it places it within and confines it to a sacrament.  In Catholic theology, sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”

This is easier if you have had some philosophy, literally the “love of wisdom”.  Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.

Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument. In more casual speech, by extension, “philosophy” can refer to “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group”.

The Church, from the beginning, has understood the world has an implied rational order due to the nature of creation itself.  The Church “holds these truths to be self-evident”, so to speak, when reflected upon.  Truth cannot contradict truth.

But, humans being sinful beings, can and do and have always and will always pervert the rational truth distilled from philosophy and revelation to fit their own agendas, to fit their own definitions of their “truths”.

The Church does not believe there are many “truths”.  Rather, it holds there is only One Truth, Jesus Christ, and it strives, under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit, to come to an ever more full understanding of that Truth.

In Catholicism, a “mystery” is not something unknowable, it is something infinitely knowable.  We are only limited by our own humanity as to why God had pre-ordained such things, and things as such.

We may NOT make ourselves gods, and make our own “truths”.  We do, therefore, have free will, as God’s gift, and, frankly, also the inherent challenge and responsibility to use or to abuse the created world as we do, even contrary to the Creator’s will.  We have the freedom to cure terrible diseases, to feed the starving, to free slaves, but also to commit genocide, to enslave, to exploit, to oppress, to make war, to annihilate.  We also have the freedom to use our sexual gifts, our ability to participate in the creation of beautiful life, and the freedom to abuse them towards selfish and unproductive ends.

There is no genuine love of the Creator nor anything else without free will.  The realization of the gift of free will means, as with any freedom or authority we may possess, that there is also the intrinsic freedom to abuse our free will, to choose wrongly, to act against the intentions and the will of the Creator.  This is a heavy responsibility.  We must choose wisely.  Our choices have consequences here, in this life, and in eternity.

The Natural Law

Very simply put, the natural law is that moral behavior which can be determined through reason by its architecture, form, function, and effects.  The end NEVER justifies the means.  The Catholic Church understands human beings to consist of body and mind, the physical and the non-physical (soul), and that the two are inextricably linked. Humans are capable, but only proper moral formation inclines them to judge rightly, of discerning the difference between good and evil because they have a conscience, and the divinely mandated obligation to do so.

The Divine Law

Gen. 19:8-9,13, Jude 7, Ezek. 16:49-50, Lev. 18:22, 20:13, 1 Cor 6:9-10, Romans 1:27, provoking the wrath of the Almighty.  Prov 1:7.

Love must be fruitful

The Catholic definition of “love” is very specific.  It MUST, NO exceptions, comport to the the natural moral law.  It MUST, same deal, comport to the Divine law.  It MUST be open to life.  It MUST be open to fecundity, and fruitfulness.  It MUST occur within the Sacrament of Marital Union.

  1. Because homosexual acts violate the natural law as implied by the sexual “complementarity”, or sexual differences, between male and female, both in biology, and in the total complementarity of a person’s personal identity in  their masculinity or femininity,
  2. Because they violate the Divine law,
  3. Because, by definition, they cannot be naturally fecund, ever, and are inherently closed to natural procreation,
  4. Because of the above, homosexual acts cannot, ever, be blessed in the Sacrament of Marriage,
  5. Because of all these, homosexual acts can never be approved.

This position is objectively determined as a consequence of faith in Jesus Christ.  It has nothing to do with “liking” or “disliking” anyone.   It has nothing to do with subjective preferences, conditions, opinions, or agendas.  Nothing.  It has been the Church’s consistent teaching.  Those who object are just waking up to the Church’s teaching in greater clarity, which cannot be a bad thing.  “Truth is not determined by a majority.” – BXVI

All are called to chastity in their particular state of life.  Homosexual persons must be accepted with respect, compassion, dignity, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives.

Love,
Matthew