Health v. Sickness

This has not been a banner month for me physically. Although I have not suffered any serious illness, October has featured a stomach infection, root canal, quite painful tendonitis for which I’m currently undergoing physical therapy and a bad cold. I can’t think of one morning this month when I’ve woken up feeling good physically.

In moments when I grumble about the situation – and there have been more than a few of those – I bring to mind St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation, a meditation that is an early part of the Spiritual Exercises.

In one translation, the Principle and Foundation reads:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only that which is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

The first three paragraphs are easy enough. But, sigh, then comes the prescription to active indifference, and therin lies the rub, at least, in this case when it comes to not preferring health to sickness.

I can quite easily give verbal assent to wanting only that which is most conducive to the end for which I am created. But I confess I find it hard not to whine when I am feeling physically miserable. Moments like this are humbling, and all I can do is hold them up to God, praying for the grace to grow in active indifference.


Sharing Not Only the Gospel, But Ourselves

Today’s second Mass reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians describes Paul’s behavior toward the Thessalonians. It is behavior that stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus criticizes in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew.

The scribes and Pharisees “tip up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulder, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” They take places of honor everywhere they go, clearly viewing themselves as separate and above everyone around them. There is no sense of any relationship between them and the people to whom they preach.

In contrast, Paul describes his behavior as like that of a nursing mother caring for her children, citing his determination “to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” Instead of the burden placed on the scribes and Pharisees, Paul describes “working night and day in order not to burden any of you.”

We can contrast two ways of preaching the Gospel. One is to preach words, words that tell others what to do, without any thought of those to whom we speak or their needs. The other is to “share not only the Gospel, but ourselves,” seeing those to whom we preach – by our words and deeds – as our dearly beloved.

I think it is pretty clear which Jesus prefers.

All Creation is the Temple

I read the following passage yesterday from Richard Rohr:

When the crucifixion of Jesus is dramatized in the Gospels, we have this very interesting image of the tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom. Now the word for temple is fanum. Everything outside the temple was pro fanum. (Hence we get our word “profane.”) There was “the holy” and it was distinguished from “the unholy.” The tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom is saying that division of life is over. Everything is now potentially the fanum, the holy, the temple. There is nothing that is not spiritual. There is nothing to which God is not available and given, which is the core meaning of the Incarnation. Matter and Spirit are forever shown to be united in Jesus. He is himself the temple, and we are also the temple, and all creation is the temple. As Thomas Merton said, “the gate of heaven is everywhere”!

This is something we should remind ourselves of constantly: for Christians there is no separation between sacred and profane. We can’t divide our lives into sacred parts and ordinary parts. As St. Ignatius understood so well, there is no part of life that is not charged with God’s grace, no profane part separate from the sacred part.

God is alive and present everywhere in the world around us. All the world – all that exists – is suffused with the reality of God’s presence.

In Service of God’s Task, Not Ours

One of my Facebook friends posted yesterday a quote that makes a point it is easy for us to lose sight of…and that causes us much anguish when we do.

The quote, by Anthony Hanson (in The Church of the Servant), is this:

In the last analysis, the service the Christian does is not his, but Christ’s. Therefore he must not feel too keenly the burden of responsibility, because at the end of the day all he can say is, “We are unprofitable servants.” This knowledge, far from inhibiting action, actually releases the Christian from that appalling feeling of responsibility that has driven so many high-minded humanists to despair, even to suicide… Work done conscientiously by the Christian is his share in Christ’s service; but it is Christ’s service, and therefore the Christian need neither be proud because it has succeeded or overwhelmed because it has failed. The service of Christ is supremely expressed in the apparent failure of the Cross.

The crucial line for me is that when we remember it is Christ’s service we are about, not our own, then we know we ought not be proud when we succeed nor overwhelmed when we fail. Our task is to stay faithful to our discipleship – to do the task to which we have been appointed – to the best of our ability. What results from our effort is in God’s hands, not ours.

Renunciation and a Proper Relation to the Goods of the World

Among the words that frequently give rise to great misunderstanding is the word renunciation. In the book that adapts Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians (which I’m in the midst of editing right now), I talk about renunciation as a value promoted by all faith traditions.

Some people hear the word renunciation and think it means they have to live a life of complete asceticism, not enjoying any material comforts. Even the word itself sounds negative; we hear it and cringe, thinking it means we are being asked to completely give things up, or at least that we are not supposed to enjoy them.

Renunciation, however, is not fundamentally about what we have or don’t have. In Seasons of Celebration, Thomas Merton writes, “True sanctity does not consist in trying to live without creatures [material goods]. It consists in using the goods of life in order to do the will of God. It consists in using God’s creation in such a way that everything we touch and see and use and love gives new glory to God.”

In order to do this, we have to develop the ability to use the things of this world without being dominated by them. That is, to not be attached to them.

That means that renunciation is about our state of mind. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that “the emptiness which God requires [is] that of the renunciation of personal selfishness, not necessarily that of the renunciation of those created things which he has given us and among which he has placed us.”

Renunciation is not easy. And developing the emptiness of which Cardinal Ratzinger speaks requires that we recognize where we are acting out of personal selfishness and attachment. That is a good subject to reflect on during our daily examen.

Engaging in Difficult Dialogue

Yesterday I attended a lunchtime talk by my friend and colleague, Mark Osler, sponsored by Lex Vitae, a non-partisan pro-life student organization at the law school “ordered toward the goal of protecting human life from conception to natural death.” Mark spoke about engaging in dialogue on difficult topics, such as abortion and the death penalty.

Some of the suggestions he made for engaging in such dialogue are broadly applicable to dealing with people with whom we disagree. That is particularly true of his first suggestion, which was to always assume that the person on the other side of an argument is operating based on principles that are important to the person. The principles may not be the same as our own, but they are principles that matter to the person. Too often parties to a “discussion” assume the person on the other side is unprincipled, mean-spirited, bigoted, etc. That sort of attitude makes it more likely the “discussion” will end up being an attack on the other person, leading to nothing positive.

The only way to meaningfully engage with another with whom we disagree is to understand the principles from which they operate and to respect that those principles are important to them.

As Mark and I agreed afterward, there may be situations where the other person is, in fact, unprincipled (and during his talk he did express one caveat to this first suggestion). Nonetheless, we do far better if our opening assumption is more generous. Better to be wrong in assuming another was principled when they weren’t than to incorrectly write off another person.

Update: Mark reminded me, in his comment below, that he expressed this assumption that the other is acting based on principle is a rebuttable presumption, which is a helpful reminder.

My Discomfort with Soldier Imagery

As I’ve alluded to in my prior two posts, I spent the weekend in Chicago attending the Christian Legal Society conference. At the conference, in addition to leading two mini-retreat sessions for law students, I attended some thought-provoking workshops, worthwhile small group discussions and inspirational prayer services.

I keep coming back to something that struck me during morning prayer one morning and again in a small group discussion. A couple of people when praying referred to us as soldiers going into battle and similar military imagery arose in the small group context. This was not the first time I have heard such imagery – I’ve heard sung Onward Christian Soldiers and St Ignatius draws heavily on battle imagery in his Spiritual Exercises.

But I felt more discomfort about the imagery over the last couple of days. The second time it was used by someone during the prayer, what came to my mind was Jesus’ statement to his disciples in Matthew, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”

As Christians, we are sent out to proclaim the Gospel in situations that are challenging, where we will be met by people hostile to our message. The soldier and the sheep images, however convey two very different things about how we go out to do that.

The soldier imagery carries a notion of vanquishing those who stand against us; indeed, one of the persons who prayed with the soldier imagery prayed precisely for help in vanquishing those who stand against us. (And that is heightened by a sense many Christians have that the secular world is against them.) My fear is that I think it is harder to proclaim the Good News with love if we think we are out to vanquish those who stand against us.

I don’t dispute that there are forces of evil in the world. But Jesus did not send us out with a sword to slay the enemy. He sent us out to evangelize through our love. I think we’d do better at that if we carried in our hearts the image of the lamb rather than the image of the soldier.

Finding God in All Things

At the Christian Legal Society Annual meeting, there is a special set of workshops for law students on one day of the conference. During that day, I gave two sessions of a mini-retreat for the studnets. The idea was to give them an experience of the kind of Mid-Day Reflections I offer at the University of St. Thomas Law School and then give them some advice on how they might offer programs of that type at their own law schools and see how I might assist them in doing so.

The theme of the program was Finding God in All Things. The reality is that God is present in every moment and in every place. And in each moment of our existence, God keeps reaching out to communicate with us, to draw us into an awareness, a consciousness of God’s presence.

In my talk, I spoke about the reality of God’s presence in each of us and in the world. I then shared with them two type of prayer to help deepen their awareness of God’s presence in their lives: an Ignatian examen and what some of us sometimes refer to as praying with our graced history. After introducing the two prayers, I led the students on a guided reflection, after which they shared a little about their experience with the prayer and I addressed any questions they had. Finally we talked about ways they might offer similar programs at their law schools.

You can find the podcast to my talk here. The podcast runs for 40:52, the last 8-10 minutes of which is the guided reflection.

What If This is the Last Generation?

I’m in Chicago, where I have been attending the 50th Anniversary Conference of the Christian Legal Society, a wonderful gathering of Christian lawyers, law students and some law faculty and deans. Last night was the gala banquet, the keynote speaker at which was Ann Graham Lotz, daughter of Billy Graham.

Lotz believes that this is the last generation – that before the end of her generation, Jesus will come again and the world as we know it will end. She spent at least forty-five minutes explaining the scriptural basis for her view – talking about Jesus’ description to his disciples in Matthew 24 of those things that will signal the end of the world, Luke 21 and a number of other passages.

The truth is that I found some of her evidence for how she thinks various signs have been fulfilled to be a bit torturous. But that is not really my point.

As she was going through her evidence, my dominant reaction was so what? Why should it matter? Let’s assume she is right – which, as I said, I don’t think is the case, but hold that aside for a moment. The real question is: if I am living the best life of discipleship I can, why should I care if the world ends in this generation or in a future generation?

After forty-five minutes of giving her evidence for why she believes this is the last generation, she talked about the fact that people are indifferent to God and God’s word. And she said that if we are approaching the end of history, there is nothing more important than to walk with God.

Whether or not she intends this, that makes is sound like the motivation for walking with God is fear about what will happen to us when Jesus comes in judgment. But no matter what age we are in, there is nothing more important than to walk with God.

I hope that our motivation for discipleship is based on love not fear – our love of God and our reaction to our apprehension of God’s unconditional love for us. And if we need any impetus for now putting off developing our relationshp with God and living lives of intentional discipleship, contempating the limited span of our own lives ought to be enough for that, without hazarding guesses about the end of the whole world.

Of course, is it not just about us. Our discipleship includes concern, not only for our own salvation, but for that of our brothers and sisters. And I don’t disagree with Lotz that there is a lot of indifference to God and God’s Word in the world. But the way to help people overcome that indifference is not to try to convince them that the world is ending so they better watch out or they will be judged harshly, but to help them get in touch with God’s love for them.

And that love is the same in all generations.

I Shall Cultivate the Ground Around It

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus tells the parable it is easy for us to misunderstand – the parable of the person who had a fig tree in his orchard. Finding no fruit on the tree for the third year in a row, the owner instructs his gardener to cut the tree down. After all, “why exhaust the soil?” The gardener, however, asks the owner to refrain from destroying the tree, arguing that it is better to “cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it” for it “may bear fruit in the future.”

Those who favor a fire and brimstone Gospel message can easily come to the mistaken conclusion that it is God who demands that the tree be cut down. (Indeed, making that mistake was the reason I always had difficulty with this passage.) The reality, however, is that it is we who would be quick to cut the tree down, quick as we are to condemn others. We’re the ones like the owner – generally a lot better at demanding quick retribution than patience and forgiveness.

The God figure in Jesus’ parable, however, is not the owner, but the gardener. God has unending patience and constantly tries to “cultivate” and “fertilize” us – giving us numerous opportunities to “bear fruit.” God sees our potential even when no one else does and is willing to nurture us along, long after we, were we in God’s position, would give up.

God patiently withholds his judgment even when we ignore his calls, hoping that we will ultimately hear his call.

Understanding that reality ought to call forth two responses in us. The first is gratitude at God’s love and patience. The second is a desire to follow God’s model and offer each other the same patience and love we receive from God.