Lemmings

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I have been told recently that lemmings don’t actually jump off cliffs to their certain doom. But the common misconception that they do fits with the point I want to make today. Even if lemmings do not throw themselves en masse off a cliff there is one species that does tend to do so: human beings. Let me explain what I mean by starting with a quote from von Hildebrand.

The behavior of unconscious persons is dictated by their nature. They tacitly identify themselves with whatever response their nature suggests to them. They have not yet discovered the possibility of emancipating themselves, by virute of their free personal center, from their nature; they make no use as yet of this primordial capacity inherent in the personal mode of being. Hence their responses to values, even when they happen to be adequate, will always have something accidental about them. Their attitudes lack that character of explicitness and full consciousness which is a prerequisite of meeting in a really apposite way the demand emdbodied in the values. For what the values claim of us is not assent pure and simple, an assent which might as well be a fortuitous efflux of our natural dispostions; it is a fully conscious, rational, and explicit assent, given by the free center of our personality. By such an answer alone does a personal being adequately honor the values and their call, which is addressed to each of us in sovereign majesty, irrespective of his individual dispositions.

Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ignatius Press 2001, p. 62-3

The way he is using ‘unconscious person’ does not mean someone who is asleep or who has been knocked out. What he means is the same thing that I mean when I refer to human beings as lemmings. The actions of unconscious persons/lemmings are “dictated by their nature.” But here another clarification is needed, because when he says ‘nature’ I think we should understand him to mean our fallen nature. In other words, those who go through life as slaves to their various inclinations.

With this in mind we can understand what he means by saying, “Hence their responses to values, even when they happen to be adequate, will always have something accidental about them.” Values are those things which are good and, therefore, make a demand on us. The demand is of an action to be taken on our part in response to the good. For instance, if we see someone bleeding on the ground with a knife in his chest, then the good we are called to do is to try to save the person and call an ambulance. And it is not just a good deed we are called to do, but we should recognize the injured person as good. In fact, the good of the person is the main reason we should perform the good act of helping him.

But for the unconscious person/lemming, if his response happens to be adequate in a given situation, it is only accidental. Lemmings, like a school of fish, just follow along with the rest of the group: if the group makes a moral choice in a certain situation then so will they. But not because it is the right or moral thing to do, but because everyone else is doing it. And it is here that we can see how people behave like lemmings.

At one point in this country the prevailing current of thought would say that a particular belief or action is wrong; for instance, homosexual acts, pornography, abortion, contraception, and the list could go on and on. But now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction on these issues and they are viewed as good. (As if that which is truly good could be arbitrary.) Why did this happen? Quite simply because too many people in our society act like lemmings. They don’t question the behavior of the group and just go along with the crowd – right off the cliff.

In order to correct this problem we are told by von Hildebrand that our decisions and actions need to be made with a “fully conscious, rational, and explicit assent, given by the free center of our personality.” In other words we shouldn’t just go along with the crowd. It is ironic, therefore, that that is how much of society view Catholics: as people who have just bought into a bunch of rules and regulations against what is happening in secular society. But this couldn’t be further from the truth for the real Catholic. A true Catholic follows the teachings of the Church not because everyone else is doing it but because of what it is: it is the teaching of Jesus Christ. After all, if Christ is who He said He is – God – then what He revealed to us must be true and good. And if it is true and good then it deserves our freely given and fully conscious adherence.

But I need to return to the main point and it is this – we are not lemmings and therefore we should stop acting like them. Yes, like lemmings we are creatures made by God but we, unlike them, were made in the image and likeness of God. We have rational souls and therefore have the ability to know right from wrong. As a result we should choose and do the good but not just because it is what a Catholic is supposed to do. To act in that manner would just make us lemmings in religious clothing. Instead, we choose and do the good because we recognize within it that which is true. We are drawn to the good and desire it because in it we see God.

 

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Θεοτόκος

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We beseech thee, O Lord, pour into our hearts the abundance of thy heavenly grace: That like as the child-bearing of the Blessed Virgin Mary was unto us thy servants the beginning of salvation, so the devout observance of the dedication of her Basilica may avail for the increasing of our peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major

 

The Council of Ephesus was held in the year of our Lord, 431. The purpose of the Council was to examine the doctrine of Nestorius, who was the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius claimed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, could not be referred to as the Mother of God, but instead must be called the Mother of Christ. The Council condemned the teaching of Nestorius and formally proclaimed that Mary is indeed Θεοτόκος (Theotokos): the God-bearer. (It should be kept in mind that the Church did not simply come up with this idea in a.d. 431. Instead, this was always the understanding of the Church and in light of the heresy of Nestorius, had to be officially defined.)

Shortly after the Council of Ephesus, the Basilica of St. Mary Major was constructed in Rome in honor of the Mother of God. It is the oldest church named in honor of Mary in the West. But that church, and in fact all Catholic churches, are more than just buildings; instead, they are like a mother to us and also like a home.

Through the waters of the baptismal font we are born anew into the Body of Christ. In our baptisms we are made new creatures and incorporated into the one Body of Christ. And if we are part of Christ’s Body then in a very real way Mary is also our Mother. And as such she cares for us just as she cared for her Son. When we are reborn in Baptism she clothes us with the pure white garment worn by all the members of the house. Like all good mothers, she feeds us with the pure milk of Truth that comes to us from our Lord. And it is in the church that we receive the food of life everlasting – the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the church, like in our home, we are protected from that which could harm us. Not only does the church provide a physical structure to protect us from the elements but in it we also receive protection from the evil one. In it, the Faithful are joined together in Holy Matrimony, being the Sacrament that emulates the union of Christ with His Bride, the Church. And when we die we are brought one last time back to the church so that the prayers of the Church may be offered for us.

In all of this, Mary, the Mother of God and our own blessed Mother, watches over us and prays for us, just as she did for her Son. Let us give thanks to God for such an attentive Mother.

 

Prayer: Union with God

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Prayer is nothing else than union with God.

From A Catechism on Prayer, by St. John Mary Vianney

Before today, if someone had asked me “what is prayer” or “why is prayer important,” I would have had a difficult time answering the question. More than likely it would have taken a discussion of 5-10 minutes for me to explain what prayer is. And I suspect that many other people would have a difficult time explaining prayer because it is so mysterious. And yet in just a few words St. John Mary Vianney has given a perfect definition for what prayer is – union with God.

There are many different prayers the Church uses and many different types of prayer, but union with God is at the heart of them all. As an example let us consider the prayer that is most often used by people: petitionary prayer. People ask God for all sorts of things – everything from winning lottery numbers, to a favorite sports team winning the game, to curing a loved one of cancer. And then, when we don’t get what we want we so often say, “Why didn’t God give me what I asked for?!” Perhaps we do not receive what we desire because it was a foolish request, like winning the lottery. But ultimately there is a problem with petitionary prayer because people forget that God does not give us what we want; instead, He gives us what we need.

But this problem would never arise if people kept in mind that prayer is union with God. If in our prayer life we are seeking that union, then when we pray it will naturally be in tune with God’s will for us. There may still be times when we ask for something that is not beneficial for us and therefore God will not give it to us. But if we are always seeking union with God in our prayer, then we will more readily accept not receiving what we desired with the understanding that it was not what we needed. Our Lord teaches this to us with the following words:

For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

St. Matthew 7:8-11, RSV-CE

Too often, without knowing it, we ask for stones instead of bread! If only we would remember that the ultimate reason for prayer is union with God, then we would come to see that that which we receive, even if it is not what we asked for, is exactly what we needed all along.

 

The Christian Idea of Marriage

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The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism—for that is what the words ‘one flesh’ would be in modern English. And the Christians believe that when He said this He was not expressing a sentiment but stating a fact—just as one is stating a fact when one says that a lock and its key are one mechanism, or that a violin and a bow are one musical instrument. The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.

Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

This has got to be one of the best and most concise explanations for why sex before marriage is forbidden for Christians. But it still may be hard for people (even Christians) to understand because our society no longer views mankind as an integral (inseparable) union of body and soul.

Many people today act as if the soul does not exist at all, but then would contradict this by saying they believe there is a soul. The reason for the inconsistency seems to be the the false philosophy that is promoted by various forms of media and politicians: the whole separation of church and state mentality. The effect of this on our understanding of the human person is that we compartmentalize what we believe in the public sector and what we believe in the private sector, which is where religion has been relegated to. This false notion is then reinforced by so-called scientists who are really just material reductionists that deny anything spiritual because they cannot see it, touch it, or smell it.

Christians, on the other hand, are called to see the world and mankind as it really is. We were created by God as a hylomorphic union of body (matter) and soul (form): the one cannot exist without the other. (* see note) From this correct understanding of mankind we can see that what we do with the body does in fact have an effect the soul, because you cannot separate the two. And when you use your body in an improper way, as in sex before marriage and especially homosexual activity, then the negative consequences can be felt in your entire being.

Now some people may protest at this point and claim that they feel no negative effects from premarital sex or homosexual activity. I suspect that some of these people, if they were honest, would admit to a certain hollowness within themselves. For the others that do not admit to this, we can explain their lack of remorse on a society that for decades has been filling our minds with the mantra “Oh come on, it’s ok. Everyone is doing it.”

But Christians know that is not true. It is not ok. When the Church says that sex should be saved for marriage (just to clarify – one man and one woman) she is not trying to take away anyone’s fun. She is simply trying to help her children to be truly happy, which can only happen if they are living their lives in accordance with the Truth. And the truth in question here is that mankind is a union of body AND soul. Understanding this and helping others to understand is of great importance.

*Note: At least in this world they cannot exist separately. On the other hand, the Saints in heaven, the souls in Purgatory, and those in Hell exist in a spiritual state until Christ returns and everyone receives their bodies back. God created our souls as immortal and so they cannot cease to exist, but our bodies can and do die as a result of sin. This existence of the soul without the body should be viewed as a Divine concession that has been allowed until all things are restored when Christ returns.

The Definition of American Politics

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This post comes from something I just read. It seems to me that American politics can be defined with one word – vagueness; specifically, vagueness as defined in the philosophy of Phenomenology.

Sometimes the material we are talking about is beyond us; we really do not understand what we are saying. Much of what people say about politics, for example, is like this. Much of what they say is vague: slogans are repeated, favorite ideas are trotted out, statements made by others are stated verbally but without comprehension. Most public opinion polls measure vague thinking. The human power of speech, the noble power that give us our dignity as human beings, also makes it possible for us to seem to be thinking when we really are not. This is a specifically human way of failing to be what we should be, and it is very important in human affairs.

Introduction to Phenomenology, Robert Sokolowski, p. 105

Of course maybe the politicians really are thinking, but then if that is the case then they are in error about that which they believe to be true. Maybe it is really Americans in general that suffer from the malady of vagueness. Many Americans just jump on various bandwagons – like “marriage equality” – that they hear proclaimed by politicians and the media, assuming that what they are hearing is true and then not really thinking it through.

But I must admit, as Sokolowski points out a few pages later, that I too suffer from vagueness. In fact we all do at one point or another. We cannot begin to learn anything at all unless we start from vagueness and move toward understanding. And that is exactly what we need to do – move toward understanding. Do we really understand the various things that we profess to believe? Or do we just parrot back what we hear others say?

And the Word was made Flesh…

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Today we celebrate one of the most significant, if not the most significant, holy day of the year. Why do I say such a thing? What about Easter? What about Christmas? The fact is that without today, those two events would have never taken place.

We should never forget the full importance of today because this is the day that God became Man. In a way it is strange that we put so much emphasis of the Incarnation on Christmas, the day of our Lord’s birth. But in another way it makes sense. Think about it: whenever a friend tells us they are having a baby we say “Congratulations!” The real celebration, though, doesn’t take place until after the baby is born when we can see and hold the baby. But I think this type of behavior really needs to change for the following reason: our society no longer values the life of the unborn.

There really should be a new emphasis on the importance of today’s Solemnity by the Church, or at least by her members, in order to counteract the misunderstanding of our society. Society claims that the unborn are not truly people, and therefore do not have any right to life, until they are born. But on this, the day that our Lord became one of us, we know that is not true. Jesus did not become a Man only after He was born, or after Mary could feel Him moving in her womb, or when He reached any other stage of development. Instead, He was fully Man and fully God, and truly a Person, at the very moment of His conception.

So how can we mark this day’s importance, even though it is not a Holy Day of Obligation. Theologically, you can let this ‘sink in’ by reflecting today on the fact of our Lord’s Incarnation taking place today. Perhaps go to Mass or spend time praying at your local parish – in Adoration if possible. But I also have some ideas on the practical side to mark the importance of this day. When a friend tells us that they are expecting a new child, then don’t wait until the birth to buy the baby a gift. Instead, go get something special to mark the occasion right then. By so doing you would be making a significant point – that the unborn child is a full member of the family of mankind. You could even tell them that you are doing it in recognition of the fact that Jesus became Man at the moment of His conception. Next, maybe we should start giving gifts to family and friends on this day to mark the occasion like we do on Christmas. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant to still mark the supreme importance of this day. Or another idea would just be to have a party. Uh oh, I hear someone saying, “But it is Lent.” Yes, but it is a Solemnity, and even if this day fell on a Friday in Lent there would be no abstinence or penance required. We should mark the special significance of this day and proclaim to the whole world the coming of our Savior as Man.

The Path of Obedience

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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2015

On March 20, which was Friday of last week, I celebrated my fifth anniversary of ordination as a Catholic priest. And so I stand before you today, a priest, but not because I wanted to be, but because I was called by God to do so. You see, no one becomes a priest because they want to, but because they are called into it by God. Now, it is not that I don’t want to be a priest, I do, and I am very happy to be a Catholic priest serving here at Our Lady of the Atonement. (And may it please God to let me stay here for the rest of my life.) But this does not change the fact that I am here as a priest not because I decided to become one, but because God called me to do it – and I, in obedience, followed His calling. And it is this idea of obedience about which I want to speak with you today.

We tend to think of obedience as something negative – like it is an intrusion upon our freedom to do what we want to do. “Oh man, Mom told me to clean my room, so that means I can’t play video games.” This kind of thinking, though, betrays a wrong understanding of freedom. We tend to think in this country that we are free to do whatever we want, but that is not true, because to deliberately choose to do something that is wrong is to misuse our freedom. That is not the reason God gave us freedom. He gave us freedom in order to choose to do that which is good and morally right. In fact, it is necessary for us to be free in order to choose our ultimate good, which is God Himself. And it is in choosing God that obedience comes into play.

Before going on with our reflection on the positive nature of obedience, let us first reflect on its opposite: disobedience. It would be good for us to call to mind the first person that disobeyed God and that would be Lucifer. It was he who was the first to refuse to recognize God as his Creator. It was he who was first to refuse to return God’s love for him. It was he who was first to fail to be grateful to God for all the gifts he had been given. As a result, every act of disobedience thereafter is an emulation of Lucifer’s disobedience of God. And if his is the path that we choose by being disobedient to God in this life then God will let us have what we have chosen – eternal separation from Him as the only source of anything good.

In considering this hopefully obedience no longer sounds like such a bad thing. After all, the path of obedience is the path that Christ walked before us and it is the only path that leads us to Him. We are told today that Christ “learned obedience through what He suffered; and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” Christ was obedient to the will of His Father by accepting the Cross and dying for us. And we must follow His example if we want to obtain the salvation that He won for us. Emulating Christ’s obedience is the only way to be saved. And He tells us this plainly in the Gospel today, “If any one serves me, he must follow me.” There is no other path open to us if we want reach our ultimate Goal.

Now certainly, by being obedient, we will have to give up certain things that we desire because they are in fact bad for us. And that can be hard to do. But, shouldn’t we want to give up things that are bad for us? Is the momentary pleasure we receive from such things really worth the price of our eternal soul? If we think critically and honestly about that question then the only reasonable answer would be no. We know that God made us and that the happiness that He wants for us is more important than any other thing we could possibly want or desire. All too often, though, we settle for something much less.

But, if we want to reach that which we truly desire, then we must follow the path of obedience that Christ walked before us. Yes, we know that such a path will lead us to suffering on this earth, but it does not end there. Christ was abused, beaten, and killed but that is not the end of the story. It is through the suffering and death of Jesus that the Resurrection came about and that the gates of Heaven were opened to all who truly believe in Him.

And so, we have two paths that are set before us: the path of obedience and the path of disobedience. We know who established each of these paths and we know where each path leads. But there is one thing that no one knows except you and that is this: which path will you choose?

Time Flies…

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As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. Today marks for me five years as a Catholic priest and I cannot believe it has gone so quickly. At this time I should really be writing my sermon for Sunday but wanted to take a moment and post the following picture.

That is my son, Jack, vested and ready to serve for the first time – at my first Mass as a Catholic priest. Isn’t he cute?!

 

A Prayer against Discouragement

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I went to confession yesterday. The priest is a friend of mine but it is the first time I have been to confession with him so I found his penance interesting (and that is why I am posting it). As my penance he instructed me to compose a prayer against discouragement and to pray it. Below is the result of my effort, although I wish I could say it like Aquinas or Newman.

O God our times are in your hands. Ever mindful that we can do nothing without your help, we ask that you grant us the grace to not lose heart amidst the constant storms of this mortal life. You have given us your Son as our guide, and even though He stumbled and fell on the way to the Cross, He did not turn back and did not give up. It is your grace that we need to do the same. We ask this you this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Fear of Death can lead to Life

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I have had many failed attempts at making regular posts to my blog. There are many reasons for this, which amount to a pile of excuses. Recently I have been thinking that a regular post of my morning homily might be possible for the to keep up with. But I am going to try to keep it at 200 words or less so that I can actually get it done without spending a great deal of time on it. As a result, I may not explain things as well as I would like. So if you have questions about what I have written it would be an excellent opportunity to post a comment and I will answer.

Today’s Gospel reading for Mass can be found here. It is the story of the healing of the Official’s son.

The distance between Capernaum and Cana was approximately 20-25 miles. And it must be remembered that this distance had to be covered without benefit of modern conveniences such as buses, trains, planes, or cars. Therefore it would have taken a great deal of time for the Official in the Gospel to come to where Jesus was. We all know why he went to see Jesus – to ask for healing of his son. What we need to ask, though, is what motivated him to go to Jesus? His motivation, it seems to me, must have been the fear of losing his son.

Most parents would have a similar motivation for saving their children and other loved ones. That is why people spend billions and billions of dollars every year seeking cures to their various diseases. Therefore, if a doctor or miracle worker was able to guarantee healing for any disease then the line to see that person would never end.

And yet, healing for every spiritual infirmity is offered to us by Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of Penance. So why don’t the lines for Confession stretch out the door and down the street of every Catholic parish? It seems to me that one answer could be a lack of fear. That being, the fear of losing our soul for all eternity. Fear of losing his son drove the Official in today’s to Jesus. In a similar manner a fear of eternal death should drive us to Christ in the confessional. With a word He was able to heal the Official’s son and with a word – I absolve you – He is able to bring healing to whatever ails our souls. It is true that the fear of Hell is not the perfect contrition that God wants from us, but at least it is a start.