Counsels in Contrast to Commandments

Everyone is generally familiar with the Ten Commandments as classic guidelines of the moral life. However, it wasn’t until seminary that I encountered the concept of “evangelical counsels” (ie, counsels from the Gospels). This phrase refers to invitations that are made to us to work closer to Christ. They are not strictly required, but are avenues of new life.

I think this distinction is important because unfortunately many times we get focused on just trying to stay above the water (ie, obey the commandments). We want to balance a relationship with God with as much focus on worldly things as we can, which can be a painful battle that doesn’t bear a lot of fruit. Likewise, many people identify Christianity with merely trying to avoid certain sins. This misses the truth about what the faith really is, and what it offers us.

The counsels of the Gospel, in contrast, invite us to step away from the edge and venture more fully into the life of Christ. They invite us to go beyond what is strictly required, and experience a freedom and joy that only comes with setting aside our fear of the Cross. When someone lives out the counsels we see transformation in them and in the world. Our hesitation to follow these counsels is what often gives others the dull impression of Christian life.

One of my favorite Gospel examples of this is the encounter between Christ and the rich man (see Mark 10:17-22). He asks Jesus what he should do, and Jesus starts by listing the commandments. When the rich man says he has been fulfilling these, Jesus, “looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” The rich man goes away sad at this counsel. Notice that the Gospel points out the personal nature of this invitation from Jesus by mentioning the look and love that Christ had as He spoke these words. They did not come from a desire to take something away from the man, but from a deep knowledge of how to fulfill the desire of his heart. Unfortunately the rich man takes this as sad news. He is bound by his wealth, afraid to let it go even when it is an obstacle for him.

I might write another post described the response to such a call of entering consecrated life (as a religious brother/sister or monk/nun), but each of us experiences the call at times to live our Christian life more fully. Often this call asks us to set aside something that we have come to rely on in an unhealthy manner, and set forth with a new freedom. Are you experiencing a call like this in your life right now? We must ask ourselves if we will respond with sadness and fear, or confidence and faith.

Faith and the War Within

St James writes, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” (James 4:1). He describes something that we all experience – the fact that within ourselves we feel a battle between many different desires and emotions. This can make us feel like we are being pulled apart, and St James lists conquering this as one of the pre-requisites for true peace (both personally and in the world as a whole!). We each have to address this in some way. Should we work against any of these desires, and if so, how? I thought today I’d give some reflections on these questions from a Catholic perspective.

We see our creation as both body and soul as leading to these different sets of desires. We perceive things with our senses, and we are drawn toward the pleasurable and away from the painful. With our minds we also are drawn toward what we perceive to be true, and toward doing what we believe is good (although people use many different standards to make these judgments).

In the beginning of creation, we believe the grace of integrity was given to unite all of these desires toward a unified and true goal, but one of the fruits of sin was to introduce disorder into our heart. From here we are often drawn to seek superficial goods that are in conflict with our true and long-term goals, and we see selfishness work its destruction across the world every day.

The Christian vocation, in contrast, is to be transformed into a living image of God. Rather than a rampaging horde of barbarians (which is what our passions may seem like some times), the mission of the Church is to be more like a horde of images of Christ – people who will live with the love and wisdom of Christ, His patience, and His strength. In the “cloud of witnesses” of the saints we can see ways in which this has been successful, although we also know the great need to re-commit to this mission today.

Our first step in winning the war within as Catholics, then, is to make an act of faith in the power of God. Our biggest obstacle is our self-reliance, which hesitates to rely on the grace of God, and is reluctant to reach out for the help that we need. We want to be perfect in a day without involving others, and are discouraged when this transformation does not take place according to our time-table. It is a grace-fueled cooperation of our will with God’s, not just a passive process that happens automatically. But, moving beyond self-reliance, we are called to face this battle with trust in personal prayer, the Sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), friendship, and perhaps other aids (e.g. counseling, small groups, etc).

This is a path of freedom and healing. It brings us back towards that unity of the initial creation – and what will be restored in the life to come. Many may struggle with the decision to enter into this battle from the point of faith, and instead choose a path that relies on human power and wisdom alone (doubting a chance for anything else). But, the faith that we are invited to is not a “blind” faith with no evidence. I am encouraged on by seeing how this has happened in others, how it is happening now, and how it has happened in my own life. I believe that Christ is alive and that I have encountered Him. May He work in my life and yours, and may we in confidence follow where He leads!

What is Divine Mercy Sunday?

The second Sunday of Easter (i.e., one week after Easter Sunday) is celebrated in the Catholic Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. The day has had a long history as a special occasion since it is the “octave” (eighth day) of the great feast, including celebration for the newly baptized. Also, it corresponds to one of the Biblical apparitions. The Gospel read at Mass is always John 20:19-31, which recounts Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles after His resurrection. It includes Jesus’ initial words of “Peace be with you,” and when He breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to commission them for the forgiveness of sins. Another important part is the absence of Thomas and his statement that he will not believe the resurrection until he sees the wounds. Jesus appears the following Sunday to make this revelation, which corresponds to this second Sunday of Easter.

The specific Divine Mercy devotion comes from St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun that lived from 1905-1938. She received many messages in prayer of Jesus’ desire to spread the truth of His mercy throughout the world. She recorded these in her diary, but was always very cautious about discerning to make sure this was truly the will of God. Over time her writings were approved, and have borne great fruit! Considering the World War that occurred during her life and the second that came just as she was passing, there certainly was a great awareness of this need for mercy. She wrote many beautiful prayers and reflections which have helped many (including myself!) to gain a great awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy. She commissioned an artist to draw an image of Christ with rays of blood and water coming forth from His heart (as happened when He was pierced on the Cross) as a symbol of this mercy, with the phrase “Jesus, I trust in You” written at the bottom. In particular, her message was very dear to Pope John Paul II, who officially introduced the title into the liturgy.

To return to the Gospel of the day, we see the way that Jesus pours out His mercy on the Apostles (who were well aware of their lack of faithfulness during His suffering and death), and at the same time commissions them to go forth and spread this mercy. I think this is such an important truth—the awareness of God’s mercy in our own life is a powerful foundation for our mission in the world. I encourage you to learn more about her if this message is of interest to you. May we continue to open ourselves to the mercy of God, and to spread this to the ends of the earth!

Spiritual Thoughts on the Desert

The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert in preparation for entering the Promised Land, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In the early Church (as the threat of martyrdom waned) the desert became a place that was sought for spiritual renewal. As Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and become more publicly acceptable there was a much greater temptation to mediocrity/lukewarmness. The early flame of lives transformed by the Gospel seemed to be less bright. Christians such as St Anthony the Abbot sought out the desert as a place to reconnect with this early fire. I think we face the same challenge today, and thought I’d share some thoughts about entering our yearly desert of Lent:

  1. The desert was a place where some of the noise and clutter of daily life was set aside. Therefore, it could be a special place of encounter with God in prayer. Jesus often prayed to his Father in the wilderness. We need this nourishment of prayer, too. Why do we stay away from it, or see it as a burden? Imagine someone that is a coffee drinker—coffee to them is seen as a source of life that helps them to enter into the day rather than a burden or obligation that must be laboriously accomplished. It is true that prayer at times includes an aspect of “spiritual combat” (petition, etc), but if this is our only experience of prayer then perhaps we are being called to include more relational prayer in our spiritual life. Find or make space for prayer, and spend time in conversation with God. Receive from his grace, and renew your desire for the life of Christ.
  2. However, the desert is also a place of trial, and this may be why we stay away from it. By stripping away distractions it brings us face to face with some of our difficulties and the challenges of silence. We become more aware of our unhealthy attachments or addictions. As we encounter these difficult truths, though, we can allow God to work to truly heal us. We invite the grace of God into this practice of discipline and seek freedom for love and fidelity. Why are we afraid of silence, or spiritual discipline? What might this reveal to us about what is in need of healing?
  3. Finally, the desert is a place of preparation. Christianity is not a religion that seeks suffering as a final goal, or the annihilation of self. Instead, as our freedom grows the love of God and neighbor reach more profound depths. We enter deeper into communion with others while becoming more fully that person we were created to be. The desert wasn’t the final stop for the Israelites, Jesus, or the saints. Instead, it was a step to something greater to come

God bless!

What are the traditional practices of Lent?

The traditional practices of Lent are drawn from Matthew 6: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus warns about doing these for the wrong reason, but gives this instruction assuming that his disciples will be practicing these three exercises! I think they work together to complement each other and allow Lent to truly renew us.

Prayer simply refers to conversation with God. It has times when it is done in common (for us, especially Mass or the other sacrament), and also in the silence of our hearts. We should have a plan for both. Furthermore, I think adult prayer needs to include some time of reflection/meditation. Spiritual reading (Scripture, a saint, etc) or devotions (eg the Rosary or Stations of the Cross) can help with this. If you are feeling discouraged at prayer I encourage you to seek out someone’s advice. I think we can expect the depth of our conversion to God to match the depth of our prayer!

Fasting means deliberately setting something aside, especially food. The Church gives the simple direction of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, along with abstaining from meat on each Friday. We can fast in other ways by setting aside other things (I think “screen time” is a good candidate here) and seeking a more simple life. I think a good practice is to always fast for a purpose. For example, Pope Francis has asked that our sacrifice on the Friday of the first full week of Lent be offered for peace in the many ongoing conflicts throughout the world, particularly those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. When we feel the absence of the thing we are fasting from we can be reminded to pray for this intention.

Almsgiving refers directly to giving money to the poor, but in general can include any of the works of mercy. The “great commandment” includes both love of God and love of neighbor, and so naturally I think both need to be included in a well-planned Lent. It is easy to focus primarily on ourselves even in our spiritual life. One way to approach this is to look for opportunities in the week ahead on Sunday (or even in the day ahead during the morning), and set some small resolution.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of things that I think can help with Lenten goals in general. First, if we can set resolutions as part of a group of family/friends I think that helps us to persevere. Second, I think we should check-up with ourselves occasionally and reformat goals if need be so that a bad stretch doesn’t de-rail us completely. The goal is to invite God into our lives in a transformative way, and to work with His grace to bear good fruit. God bless!

What is practical atheism?

In earlier posts I have discussed atheism from a theoretical perspective. However, I think the bigger presence of atheism actually exists in what might be called “practical atheism.” In other words, it means that we may profess belief in God in our words, but not show evidence of it in what we do. I sometimes call this the “alien test.” If an alien were to observe our life, what would they list as our priorities? Would they see an impact of faith on a practical level?

Pope Francis addresses this in his Apostolic Exhortation Joy of the Gospel under the name “practical relativism.” He writes, “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (paragraph #80).  I think this disconnect is one of the biggest challenges for us personally as believers, and in fact one of the biggest challenges to passing on the faith. I am thankful to God for places where I can see that God’s grace has borne fruit in my life, but also am aware of many other times where I can fall into this attitude!

We admire the transformation that we see flowing from the lives of holy men and women. We want to be part of the good things that are happening in the Church. But, this asks of us a true step of faith to change priorities and habits. It requires discipline and encountering the Cross, but the alternative is slavery to the senses and a life that does not bear fruit. It is a joyful thing to encounter the truth of the Gospel, to let it transform our life, and to bear good fruit. Is there anywhere in our life that we see we might give a counter-witness against the Gospel? What change might we feel called to make?

God bless!

What is reconciliation?

Reconciliation is a name given to one of the seven Sacraments (also called Confession or Penance), but this post is actually about the concept that underlies the name. The concept of reconciliation is about putting things back in right relationship. The fruit of this is peace—St Augustine calls peace “the tranquility of order.” In other words, when our relationships are ordered correctly it brings a joy into our life. This is a key part of the “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27), and goes much deeper than mere comfort or pleasure. Likewise, it isn’t the illusion of peace that comes from ignoring problems. The joy of reconciliation comes from truly encountering and resolving the source of division. We can speak of this in three different levels: reconciliation with God, with others, and with self.

Reconciliation with God is both the first step in our relationship with God, as well as a continuous part of the process. Union with God is a true relationship, and therefore has a necessary connection with the truth. It involves seeking to encounter the real God with our real self. This is part of why the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation is such an integral part of our relationship with God in the Catholic faith. It is so easy to let our own preferences or rationalizations to dominate when left to ourselves (both in regards to the truth about God and our own self!). Setting aside other arguments for the Sacrament, one of the basic reasons it can bear such a powerful experience of peace is this objective character. Do we want a completely honest reconciliation with God? If so, then don’t stay away from this Sacrament.

Second, Jesus constantly connects reconciliation with God with the need for reconciliation with others (e.g. in the Our Father, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). Again, it is very important to bring in the aspect of truth. The first steps of resolving a conflict with another person are often establishing good will and exploring both sides of the issue. Truth requires humility in regards to our own part and patience on behalf of the other. What is really driving the source of the conflict, both from our perspective and theirs?

Finally, reconciliation with our own self is in fact an essential part of both of these processes. By this phrase I mean healing of spiritual, psychological, or emotional wounds that we may have personally. If we can’t confront the truth about ourselves then our reconciliation with God or others will be superficial. Counseling or spiritual direction can help this healing to happen more easily/profoundly, or in some cases even make it possible at all. Unfortunately many people still think of them as only reserved for extreme cases or “crazy people.” Instead, it is a good and healthy thing to talk to others! Self-knowledge helps to flow back into deeper union with God and others.

Where do you most need reconciliation? What will you do to find it?

God bless!