Yesterday was St. Jean Marie Vianney’s feast day. I had intended on posting this on his feast day but, as so often happens, other things got in the way. Below is part of a short biography – the rest of which can be found here.
St. Jean Marie Vianney (1786-1859) was born in a time of intense persecution of priests in revolutionary France. As a child, his parents helped to hide faithful priests and took their children to secret Masses in old barns and private homes. The young Jean Marie showed an extraordinary piety and love for the blessed Mother…Finally, at the age of 19, his father allowed him to study with a holy priest, Fr. Balley, who had survived the time of persecution. Yet, Jean Marie was already much older than his classmates and had great difficulty learning Latin. Later, after a brief and unsuccessful time in the seminary, he was allowed to complete his studies with his priest-mentor. Having failed twice in his examinations, he was finally allowed to take the examination in the supportive presence of Fr. Balley, and this time succeeded.
From the little that I know about St. Jean it appears that he knew early in his life what he was called to do – he knew he was to be a priest. Even though various circumstances kept him from pursuing the priesthood as early as he would have liked, he never gave up on God’s call for his life. And even through all the struggles he had in his studies and failing his examinations twice he still did not give up. When it appeared that everyone had given up on him, he did not give up on God’s call for his life.
But, in contrast to St. Jean Vianney’s life, let us consider the lives of those who do not hold fast to what God is calling them to do. I will explain what I mean by an example from my own experience. In a similar fashion to St. Jean, early in my own life I too felt called to some form of ministry within the Church. Although, I had no idea what that meant for my life because, at the time, I was Baptist and definitely did not feel called to be a Baptist ‘preacher’ (which is term we used instead of pastor). But because of this general sense of a vocation that I had, I assumed from an early age that I would one day go to seminary. And in preparation for seminary, once I entered my second year of college I started to study philosophy.
Now, when you are in college it is typical for people to ask you what you are studying. And whenever I was asked that question and responded, “Philosophy” I would commonly get responses like these: “What on earth are you going to do with that degree?” or “Can you make any money with a such a degree?” And even after I explained I was planning on going to seminary many people would still have a disapproving look on their face because of my choice of studies. Such are the dangers of pursuing what you feel called by God to do I suppose.
But eventually that whole mindset got to me – the pragmatic mindset that questions the value of the search for truth and the acquiring of knowledge simply because it has nothing practical to offer. This was part of the reason that I eventually stopped studying philosophy in college. (Although there were also other factors that led to my leaving the study of philosophy.)
Looking back at my life I can say that the point at which I stopped studying philosophy coincides with the point at which I started to lose the sense of a call from God; in other words, I lost my sense of purpose. This is evidenced by the fact that, after that point, I started little by little to lose any sense of direction in my life – I did not have any idea of what I was supposed to do or even of what I wanted to do. During this time I was just the same as the man who had been given one talent by his master but, instead of doing anything with it, he went and hid it in the ground. (Matthew 25:18) But of course we mustn’t hide our talent in the ground because we know what will happen to us if we do: we will be “cast…into the outer darkness (where) men will weep and gnash their teeth.” There is a question that may be asked, though: why is the punishment so harsh for not using the ‘talent’ that God gives you?
The answer to that question can be found in the following quote:
God creates in his eternity, where he already sees the intellectual creature as it ‘will be’ when it has arrived at deifying union with himself. Each moment of the intellectual creature’s actual journey to God is thus at once a new event and a deeper realization of what has always already been true.
The Radiance of Being p.174-5, by Stratford Caldecott
Christians know that God created mankind in His own image. We also know that God loves us. But we need to truly understand and believe these things, and the implications that come from them, if we are to understand the Parable of the Talents and the reason why we should not waste time as I did earlier in my life. We need to understand that God knows us and loves us as we ‘will be’ at the end of time – without all the sin and attachment to sin that we now suffer from. Yes, of course he loves us as we are right now, but how we are right now is not good enough! Jesus revealed to us the need to be perfect and that is what God expects from us. And in order to arrive at the destination of what we ‘will be’ at the end of time we must start our journey right now. Who we are here on this earth is intimately tied to who we ‘will be’ at the end of time. And our perfection then will reflect back to God something that no other creature will be able to duplicate. Out of His infinite love God desires for each of us to reach that perfection that already exists in His mind and that is why He is never satisfied with how far we progress here on this earth.
And it is that point that brings up a crucial difference between the life of St. Jean and my own life. St. Jean never ceased pursuing God’s plan for his life, although it may have been delayed by things out of his control. But I did leave God’s plan for my life behind, at least for a while. And I would imagine that there are many other people that have done the same thing in their own lives. And if that is the case for you as it was for me then bring to mind the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. In that parable there were many throughout the day that the owner of the vineyard noticed just standing around and doing nothing. And throughout the day the owner came back to these directionless and lazy people over and over again imploring them to go work: in other words, to put their talent to use. Some of them were like St. Jean – they immediately went out at the first part of the day when they were called. Others, like myself, were lazy and waited until much later. And why do we do that? Perhaps because we despair of ever being able to complete the task we have been assigned.
But just because we cannot reach that perfection that is expected of us here on this earth does not mean that we should just give up and wait around, doing nothing. The lessons we learn from the parables of the talents and the workers in the vineyard gives us proof. If we just sit on the sidelines of this life and don’t use that which God Himself has given to us then we are telling Him with our actions (or lack thereof) that we do not love Him. God created us to know and to love Him but we will never know or love Him unless we strive with our entire being to seek Him out. And our very being includes that special talent that God has given to each and every one of us. And from the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard we know that if we will heed the call of our Lord to go and work – to put to use that talent He has given us – then even if we do so at the end of the day we will receive our reward from Him.
In imitation of St. Jean Vianney, it would have been much better for me to immediately go into the vineyard and start doing the work God has called me to do. Nevertheless, I thank God that even though I gave up on Him during part of my life, He never gave up on me. There is so much time that I wasted, which I truly lament. And as a result of that wasted time there are things that I should have learned years ago that I am only just now discovering. But I let that loss spur me on to do right now what I can to fulfill that which God has called me to do. To do so is to begin to become what I ‘will be’ and in fact what I already am in the mind of God.
Caveat: in my writings about philosophy please understand that I do not consider myself an expert and could be mistaken about what I am writing. I am writing with the purpose of working these things out in my mind and using my blog as a means of recording my thoughts and tracking my progress in this very complicated subject. Of course, I always seek to adhere strictly to the teachings of the Catholic Church and so if any reader ever notices something that could be wrong then please let me know.
The intellect receives its measure from objects; that is, human knowledge is true not of itself, but it is true because and insofar as it conforms to reality.
St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I, II, 93, 1 ad 3
What on earth does this mean and why is it important you ask? This may sound convoluted but actually it is what I would call common sense. My understanding does not come from my own reading of St. Thomas but from those who are much more intelligent than I. In this case the quote, and my understanding of it, comes from Josef Pieper’s book Living the Truth, from Ignatius Press (1989) on page 124.
What St. Thomas is trying to tell us is that we know as being true only when our knowledge conforms to the reality that exists outside of our own minds. Here is an example of what I mean: if I see a red apple on my desk then I can truly know that it is a red apple through my senses. The apple really exists and I know this because I can touch it. And even it I did not touch it I could know that it is there through my sight. Also, my sight tells me it is red in color. Some might argue that the words red and apple are arbitrary and could be called by other names. This is true. For instance, it could be that in our language red is actually called blue and apples are actually called oranges but that doesn’t change the fact that in our language as it is red means something definite and apple means something definite. What I mean is that the things we call red apples are an objective reality that we have assigned the name red apple.
But this does not mean that it is our naming of the thing that makes it what it is. Instead, we all know what a red apple is because we have been taught what it is and we have experienced it through our senses or our intellect. If someone is speaks the English language and picks up a red apple and calls it anything other than a red apple then his knowledge of that object is wrong. But this is only true of those who have learned the Truth of the thing in question. If they have never seen a red apple (which is hard to imagine) then they would not know what to call it. But suppose someone had been taught the wrong word for it. Perhaps they were referring to an apple as a cat. Clearly this would be wrong but the person does not know any better. The solution would be to politiely correct the person and tell them that it is not a cat but an apple. You may even have to go so far as to prove it by showing them pictures of a cat and pictures of apples and then getting other people to corroborate what you are saying. In the end you would suppose that common sense would prevail – right?
But that is not the way our society acts any longer. Although most people would still be willig to accept what a cat is and what an apple is there are other parts of objective reality that they completely discard. For them human knowledge is true of itself, by which St. Thomas means (I think) that the truth is whatever we want it to be. A prime example of what I mean can readily be seen in people’s treatment of the unborn. What is the unborn baby, objectively speaking? It is nothing less than the offspring of two other human beings and, therefore, could be nothing other than a human being. Right? That seems to make sense to me. But in the minds of those who are pro-death it must be something else. How else could they acquiesce in terminating its life? There are only two possible answers to this last question. First, they might think that the unborn baby is something other than a human being: you know – the whole ‘it’s just a clump of cells’ mentality. But from what I’ve read most people, even those who are pro-death, do not believe that any more. (And even if they do believe the ‘clump of cells’ lie it doesn’t seem rational because if it is not a human at conception then at what point does it become one?)
So that leaves just the second possibility – the people in our country, at least those who are pro-death, are no longer rational. In other words, they have no common sense. If they don’t believe the ‘clump of cells’ lie but instead understand that it is a baby and they either approve or actually are involved with abortion then not only are they irrational in their thinking they are also antithetical to their own human nature. And there is another word we can use for that – it is called demonic.
The fact is that to be human means, in part, to be rational. As St. Thomas said, “human knowledge is true not of itself, but it is true because and insofar as it conforms to reality.” There is an objective reality outside ourselves which we did not create and which we do not get to redefine – it is what it is. And we can most certainly come to know that objective reality. Therefore, we cannot redefine the unborn as a non-person in order to dispose of it, and still think of ourselves as fully human. Instead, to be truly rational human beings we must accept the objective reality that that which proceeds from two humans must itself be human.
He who wishes to know and to do the good must turn his gaze upon the objective world of being. Not upon his own 'ideas', not upon his 'conscience', not upon 'values', not upon arbitrarily established 'ideals' and 'models'. He must turn away from his own act and fix his eyes upon reality.
From Living the Truth, by Josef Pieper
The quote above is from the second half of the book that is cited. The second half is titled Reality and the Good. Although I have only finished reading the first few pages, which the author titles “The Thesis”, it appears that this essay is in regards to how mankind can know right and wrong and therefore be able to do that which is good. This is evidenced by the three sentences that precede the above quote where Pieper writes, “All obligation is based upon being. Reality is the foundation of ethics. The good is that which is in accord with reality.”
When I first started this essay I had to read those three sentences several times. They seemed to me to be disjointed – that they did not fit together. It now seems to me that the reason it seemed disjointed was because of my lack of background in philosophy. After all, you cannot really understand what someone is trying to say to you unless you understand his frame of reference. But as I continued reading the thesis statement the point the author is making began to make sense to me.
In order to understand this we must first have a correct understanding of reality. First of all, mankind is not the author or definer of what is true or good, but he can come to know it. In other words, we do not create the reality in which we live, instead we exist within an objective reality. And we experience this objective reality through our sense perception. It is through our senses that we experience the things around us. 'Things' here is to be understood as the word res from philosophy. Pieper says, “Res is everything that is 'presented' to our sense perception or our intellectual cognition, all that has being independently of our thinking.” Another word from philosophy, realis, is taken from res and denotes reality. Of this Pieper says, “Reality (in the sense of realis) is the whole of being which is independent of thought.” And elsewhere says, “Reality is the basis of the good.” Also realis means “that to be good is to do justice to objective being…the good is that which is in accord with objective reality.” “All laws and moral principles may be reduced to reality.” 'Reality' here meaning objective being outside ourselves.
As a result of all of this the author makes the conclusion that this “makes impossible the attitude of always referring to oneself and to the judgment of one's conscience*, which is considered as providing the norm in each instance. We are forced now to look through and beyond our own moral judgment to the norm presented to us by the objective reality of being.” I most heartily agree with this conclusion. [*Just a side note: here the author is referring to people who use their consciences as an excuse to do whatever they want. He is not referring to the use of our conscience in the correct sense. The Church teaches that a “human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” (CCC §1800) But the Church also teaches us that we must have a well-formed conscience that “formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.” (CCC §1798) This is completely the opposite of using your conscience as a scapegoat to do whatever you want to do.]
But our modern society most certainly does not agree. The world is no longer viewed objectively by society but instead it is interpreted in a relativistic way. What I mean can be shown through an example: people who don't want to abide by traditional norms of moral behavior seem to have adopted the slogan, “What is right for you may not be right for me.” (You can replace right with moral or with good.)
Now to a certain extent this slogan is correct. For instance, if someone has cancer it would be right for them to have chemotherapy because that is one of the only methods we have to get rid of cancer. Whereas for someone else, who does not have cancer, it would not be right to have chemotherapy because to a person who is healthy chemotherapy is poisonous. Like I said, this would be a proper way to understand the above slogan.
But in saying this slogan our modern society means something completely different. For them the slogan turns everything upside down. To use the previous example about cancer – when modern society says “what is right for you may not be right for me” it isn't talking about whether or not a person should have chemotherapy. Instead, it is trying to change the rules to such an extent as to say that there is nothing wrong with cancer in the first place and that we don't need anything to fix it. Obviously, this is just crazy talk.
With this in mind we can begin to understand why our modern society is so disordered. It has left behind any idea of objective truth (like cancer is bad for you) in favor of just doing what feels right. And obviously, the chemotherapy this society needs (that being objective standards to determine morality) to fix its diseased nature would not feel right (because it would cause people to have to let go of the fantasy world they have created for themselves where right and wrong is determined by their own judgments). But nevertheless, objective truth is the only medicine that will cure us.
The two or three of you who regularly look at my blog may be wondering if I have fallen off the face of the earth since I have been posting so sparsely. I could make excuses and say it was because I was out of town on vacation, which I was. But the main reason is that I do not feel I have had much to say. There is a reason for this.
I have mentioned in previous posts that I have been reading more books of a philosophical nature. It started with von Hildebrand and from there to Josep Pieper. I have learned a great deal from these two wonderful authors but I have also learned something else – how much I do not know. Unlike most of my brothers in the priesthood I do not have any background in philosophy. The reason for this is that philosophical studies are not a part of the curriculum at the Episcopal seminary I attended (or any other Episcopal seminary as far as I know). Due to this lack of knowledge I have felt that I have nothing worth saying.
I addition to this general feeling of ignorance I have also been mentally kicking myself for all the time I wasted earlier in my life. I spent so much time just watching TV or playing video games and had no real desire to learn. All that time I wasted that I could have been laying the groundwork for what I now need to know. Instead, I indoctrinated myself (through the seemingly tame influence of television) in the wrong thinking of our modern society. And now, how much I have to unlearn and how much I have to learn!
Thanks be to God I have a friend at the parish (who is a systematic theologian) who has agreed to help me get ‘up to speed’ in my deficiencies. And I ask you, the reader, to pray that God may open my mind to understand.