July 15, 2007

Romano Guardini on the presence of God

From The Inner Life of Jesus: Pattern of All Holiness:
Heaven surrounded Jesus, the accessible presence of the Father.

And Jesus has brought this presence to us. We know that the Father loves us in Jesus. We have confidence in the grace of His love for us; we know that His eyes see us, His heart is turned toward us, and His hand leads us. We believe that Heaven is around us.

However, one thing is missing: we do not feel the presence of God. It is still closed off, from our side. It is closed off by what we ourselves are; by the heaviness of our imprisoned being; by the slothfulness and dullness of our hearts; by the evil that is in us. Heaven would be here entire if God opened up His presence to us, and at the same time opened up men's hearts so they could feel this presence.

Perhaps it can be said that Heaven is on its way to us as long as we do not keep it at a distance by our own actions. I believe it is no fantasy or delusion to think this way: that our whole Christian life consists in having Heaven continually striving to catch up with us, close in on us. Every Christian act, belief, love, sacrifice, struggle, every perseverance and courageous performance -- all these things make possible the approach of Him who desires only to come forward. But all coldness, indifference, slothfulness, weakness, pride, covetousness -- everything that sin is called -- forces Him back, bars the road to Him. And Heaven fights. Heaven wants to come to us. For Heaven is only God's love come home.

June 29, 2007

Garrigou-Lagrange on egotism

From The Three Ages of the Interior Life:
If a man is fundamentally egotistical, his intimate conversation with himself is inspired by sensuality or pride. He converses with himself about the object of his cupidity, of his envy; finding therein sadness and death, he tries to flee from himself, to live outside of himself, to divert himself in order to forget the emptiness and the nothingness of his life. In this intimate conversation of the egoist with himself there is a certain very inferior self-knowledge and a no less inferior self-love.

He is acquainted especially with the sensitive part of his soul, the part which is common to man and to the animal. Thus he has sensible joys, sensible sorrows, according as the weather is pleasant or unpleasant, as he wins money or loses it. He has desires and aversions of the same sensible order; and when he is opposed, he has moments of impatience and anger prompted by inordinate self-love.

But the egotist knows little about the spiritual part of his soul, that which is common to the angel and to man. Even if he believes in the spirituality of the soul and of the higher faculties, intellect and will, he does not live in this spiritual order. He does not, so to speak, know experimentally this higher part of himself and he does not love it sufficiently. If he knew it, he would find in it the image of God and he would begin to love himself, but for God. His thoughts almost always fall back on what is inferior in him, and though he often shows intelligence and cleverness which may even become craftiness and cunning, his intellect, instead of rising, always inclines toward what is inferior to it. It is made to contemplate God, the supreme truth, and it often dallies in error, sometimes obstinately defending the error by every means. It has been said that, if life is not on a level with thought, thought ends by descending to the level of life. All declines, and one's highest convictions gradually grow weaker.

The intimate conversation of the egoist with himself proceeds thus to death and is therefore not an interior life. His self-love leads him to wish to make himself the center of everything, to draw everything to himself, both persons and things. Since this is impossible, he frequently ends in disillusionment and disgust; he becomes unbearable to himself and to others, and ends by hating himself because he wished to love himself excessively. At times he ends by hating life because he desired too greatly what is inferior in it.

June 22, 2007

Forgiveness and modern narcissism

Recall the woman taken in adultery:
Then Jesus lifting up himself, said to her: Woman, where are they that accused thee? Hath no man condemned thee?
Who said: No man, Lord. And Jesus said: Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.
Again therefore, Jesus spoke to them, saying: I am the light of the world. He that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life (Jn. 8.10-12).
Only God, through Jesus Christ, has the power to forgive (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1441-1448). And Christ, in virtue of His Divine Goodness, has bestowed this power on men invested in His apostolic ministry.

Now the abstract idea that is important here is that forgiveness is a relational act: at its most abstract, a man says that he is forgiven by someone else. It is this idea that is anathema to modern consciousness.

When things go wrong in the modern world, what we typically hear (from talk shows, self-help books, and well-intentioned but no less deluded friends) is that our first act should be to forgive ourselves. But how can this be?

There are two points here. First, forgiving oneself is incoherent. One can no more forgive oneself than one can singlehandedly engineer one's escape from a barren desert island. Second, the conceit that despite this impossibility we should forgive ourselves, be kind to ourselves, and as part of the act of forgiving indulge ourselves, is a particularly virulent manifestation of the narcissism rooted in the therapeutic culture of modern society.

The modern secular world is flat and undifferentiated. People are lazy, running into distraction to avoid silence, consuming in hopes of filling emptiness, and, because the culture is an arid plain, they come to endless fascination with the petty internal workings of the self. When persons reject or better, are purely indifferent to the idea that there are external realities, the only entity they have information about is themselves. It is the Cartesian impulse taken to its logical and perverse extreme: I think, therefore only I am.

And so modern man becomes his own judge and his own jury. He rejects responsibility for his actions, since each action is poised against a horizon in which he knows (because he knows nothing else) that he deserves forgiveness. It is a foregone conclusion. What then, is the point of acting one way or another, since one knows, ultimately, that it will be OK, that absolution is only as far away as one's own near-instantaneous decision to issue self-referential pardon that is accepted with an equally speedy and unthinking fiat? As we forgive ourselves, we wander deeper and deeper into the dark tomb of individualism, away from the light, from all points of reference.

Another name for this pathology is self-love. Here consider the words of St. Augustine: "Two different kinds of love have given origin to two cities, a heavenly city and an earthly one. Self-love, even unto contempt of God, gave origin to the earthly one; love of God, even unto contempt of self, gave origin to the heavenly one (De civ. Dei, 14.28)." The Church teaches us to love God, and in loving Him, that we are forgiven. So the words of St. John the Baptist, "Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world (Jn. 1.29b)." And, of course, the "what" we are forgiven of is our sin.

Sin is at the root of any consciousness rooted in reality. It is a two-pronged fact: we sin in acts and thoughts and in omissions, and we are sinful, stained in the order of nature through the sin of Adam. It is only in Jesus Christ, the new Adam, come to die for the world in order to save it, that we can hope to be forgiven, and in being forgiven saved. In the concrete knowledge of our helplessness our eyes turn heavenward to the boundless love of Our Divine Savior, and in the measure that we can return that love to Him, directly and in His creatures most of all our fellow men, we can act with purpose.

In loving God and others, and so manifestly not ourselves, we find true love. It is the kind of love that is directed outwards, which we shall never know on this earth whether we will recoup, that is the antidote to modern narcissism. We don't forgive ourselves because we can't, and in thinking that we can we hurt others, turning inwards, spiraling endlessly away from all that is good. Let us go first to the Confession, and then to each other, wholly powerless, knowing we have nothing but Christ, and that in Him we have everything.

June 21, 2007

Religious Life sidebar

The monasteries, religious institutes, and societies of apostolic life noted in the "Religious Life" sidebar are all places with which I am familiar, either through personal experience or through extensive research. I think it is fair to say that any young man discerning a religious vocation would not be harmed by investigating any one of them further. The list is not exhaustive, but I think it comes close.

One thing to note is that religious life (i.e. non-diocesan life) in the United States is for the most part in shambles. Abstractly, this is because American pragmatism and individualism militate against the strong contemplative elements that are the foundation of communal religious existence. French idealism works the other way: the French have no problem spending hours in prayer, but are not particularly good at doing stuff. I shall try to expand on this thought later.

The last thing to note is that while most of the groups I have listed are in contemporary nomenclature "traditionalist", not all of them are. Sept-Fons, for example, is without a doubt the best Trappist monastery in the world, where by best I obviously mean the most authentically adapted to the spirit of the Cistercian reform, even though it is not traditionalist in the standard sense. The same goes, in measure, for the two Dominican provinces I have included.

June 10, 2007

Pro Orantibus

Excerpts from the Holy Father's remarks on contemplative life in advance of pro Orantibus day (November 21), delivered at the Vatican on November 19, 2006.
"This is a particularly appropriate occasion," said the Pope to the thousands of faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square, "to give thanks to the Lord for the gift of so many people who, in monasteries and hermitages, dedicate themselves entirely to God in prayer and silence.

"Some people ask themselves," he added, "what meaning and value can the presence of such people have in our time, in which the situations of want and poverty we have to face are so numerous and urgent. Why 'cloister' oneself forever within the walls of a monastery, thus depriving others ... of one's abilities and experiences? What effect can prayer have for resolving the many concrete problems that continue to afflict humanity?"

Also today, many are surprised by "the people who abandon often promising careers to embrace the austere rule of a cloistered monastery. What is it that pushes them to such a radical step if not having understood, as the Gospel teaches, that the Kingdom of heaven is 'a treasure' for which it is truly worthwhile to abandon everything?"

Such people, the Pope explained, "bear silent witness to the fact that in the midst of the uncertainties of daily life, ... the only support that never fails is God. ... And in the face of the widespread need, felt by many, to escape the daily routine of the great urban centers in search of spaces suitable for silence and contemplation, monasteries of contemplative life are like 'oases' in which man, a pilgrim upon earth, can better draw upon the sources of the Spirit and quench his thirst on his journey.

"These places, then, apparently useless, are in fact indispensable. Like the green 'lungs' of a city, they are good for everyone, even for people who perhaps do not know of their existence."

June 2, 2007

Cardinal Newman on what we need

From John Henry Cardinal Newman, "The Salvation of the Hearer, the Motive of the Preacher," in Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (Notre Dame, 2002):
We, my brethren, are not worthy to be named in connexion with Evangelists, Saints, and Martyrs; we come to you in a peaceable time and in a well-ordered state of society, and recommend by that secret awe and reverence, which, say what they will, Englishmen for the most part, or in good part, feel for that Religion of their fathers, which has left in the land so many memorials of its former sway. It requires no great zeal in us, no great charity, to come to you at no risk, and entreat you to turn from the path of death, and be saved. It requires nothing great, nothing heroic, nothing saint-like; it does but require the conviction, and that we have, that the Catholic Religion is given from God for the salvation of mankind, and that all other religions are but mockeries; it requires nothing more than faith, a single purpose, an honest heart, and a distant utterance. We come to you in the name of God; we ask no more of you than that you would listen to us; we ask no more than that you would judge for yourselves whether or not we speak God's words; it shall rest with you whether we be God's priests and prophets or no. This is not much to ask, but it is more than most men will grant; they do not dare listen to us, they are impatient through prejudice, or they dread conviction. Yes! many a one there is, who has even good reason to listen to us, nay, on whom we have a claim to be heard, who ought to have a certain trust in us, who yet shuts his ears, and turns away, and chooses to hazard eternity without weighing what we have to say. How frightful this is! but you are not, you cannot be such; we ask not your confidence, my brethren, for you have never known us: we are not asking you to take for granted what we say, for we are strangers to you; we do but simply bid you first to consider that you have souls to be saved, and next to judge for yourselves, whether, if God has revealed a religion of His own whereby to save those souls; that religion can be any other than the faith which we preach.

Notre-Dame de Fontgombault

The face of culture:

June 1, 2007

Monasticism, Christianity, and Culture

Monasticism is the foundation of culture, and culture is ultimately Christian culture. Although there are a plurality of cultures as there are a plurality of worlds, any one element of these pluralities has the sense of a culture or a world, which indicates that their status is at best provisional and epiphenomenal. Though there are many cultures and many worlds, there is but one reality, and so cultures and worlds are provisional to the extent that they are disconnected from the reality which is made known in Christian revelation, and solely preserved and legitimately interpreted in the Roman Catholic Church guided from the time of Christ's Ascension by the Holy Spirit.

When we speak of culture today, what we inevitably refer to is one or other arbitrary assemblage of norms, conventions, and superstitions maintained and centered around some relatively fixed group of human beings. This group produces the culture, and the culture is about them. When a sufficiently large number of the members of such a culture suddenly discover new desires or ideals or temptations, there issue corresponding changes in the culture. Familiar examples of cultures in this sense include feminism, the gay culture, the aptly named "Culture of Death", and environmentalism.

Now the problem is not that women or homosexuals do not deserve respect, or that women pregnant with unwanted children should not be cared for, or that we should be indifferent to the treatment of the environment. The exercise of charity in these domains as in all domains of human existence is the first virtue of Christian life. So St. Paul: "If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal (1 Cor. 13.1)." The issue is that each of these cultures establishes a law unto itself; their insularity results in a functional self-deification. In other words, they have no concern for reality, for something outside themselves, and so they are not real. We cannot be something simply because we proclaim to be it.

Monasticism, which in our own age is only sparsely practiced in a few Benedictine, Cistercian, and Carthusian monasteries (mostly in France), is the necessary and singular antidote to the devastation of subjectivist cultures and the mythical worlds they inhabit. Because the regular life led in complete fidelity to the spirit and letter of the Rule of St. Benedict produces, by the power of God's transformative grace, Christian communities striving for perfection. That is, communities whose life expresses the unity of culture and reality. Since ordinary Christians, and here I include a great number of secular priests and apostolic religious, are continually facing the distortion wrought by a plurality of cultures floating on what is essentially a background of existentialist indifference (what we loosely term modernity), faithful monasteries are among the only temporal entities that preserve an authentic model of Christian life.

The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has written that "The priest must be a believer, one who converses with God... when people sense that one is there who believes, who lives with God and from God, hope becomes a reality for them as well." This is even more the case for monks, whose entire lives are without remainder consecrated to the service and praise of God. In their labor and prayer, in their poverty, in the ascesis that sometimes grindingly forces them day by day and hour by hour to find Christ in their work and in each other, they model in an otherwise impossible way the true contours of Christian life, which is nothing more than the attempt of each man to conform himself to Our Divine Savior. And so we should look to the monasteries, and when we are not looking we should think about them, and not only that, but that we thank God for every authentic monastic vocation he raises up.