Saturday, March 24, 2012
Recently, I was reading about novelist Georges Simenon, whom it was claimed had slept with 10,000 women. As a child, he was a devout Catholic attending a Jesuit school and a choirboy whose intention was to enter the seminary and become a priest.  However, this would change during summer vacation, 1916: "Everything began at age 13 … This older lady – she was 16 at the time – was from a school nearby, and was staying in the same peasant’s house as me. One day we went out to play in the woods … ‘Lie down,’ she said … Then she got on top of me. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I couldn’t be a Christian after that … I had been a choirboy until then, but I never went back to church after that”. 
It often happens that the truth about God and the demands of the Christian life come into conflict with our passions. At that point we must "choose whom we will serve" (Joshua 24:15). Most choose the goods of this world because we are weak in faith and thus the goods of this world that are pleasing to the eye (Genesis 3:6) seem to be a greater good and are more desirable than the God we cannot see.
It is an incredible irony when God can't compete with His own creation.
1. "Georges Simenon and 'Maigret'" by Crispin Jackson
2. "After 500 Novels and 10,000 Women, Georges Simenon Has Earned His Retirement", by Rudi Chelminski
In the previous article, Refashioning the Golden Calf, we spoke of the human tendency to get so attached to the “things of the world” that we prefer them to God and His will. In order to break us of these “inordinate attachments to creatures”, the Church has always recommended asceticism or penance as an excellent and in fact necessary remedy. For those of us who have perhaps not made use of this remedy, the penitential season of Lent provides us with an excellent opportunity to begin to do so. What follows is a short guide on the practice of penance.
Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Paenitemini, begins with the first of the two main types of penance: “[The Church] insists first of all that the virtue of penitence be exercised in persevering faithfulness to the duties of one's state in life, in the acceptance of the difficulties arising from one's work and from human coexistence, in a patient bearing of the trials of earthly life and of the utter insecurity which pervades it” (Chapter III).
Of course, this is easier said than done. Depending on the particular trial or suffering and upon the mood or disposition of the individual, it can be extremely difficult and even seemingly impossible. The Christian, must in fact, “battle” and “fight” to respond with patience and joy rather than anger and frustration. As with any battle, there are a number of different “tactics” or “strategies” that will lead to greater or lesser degrees of success depending on the particular person and situation.
The most common, and the one that almost immediately comes to the minds of most Catholics, is the practice of “offering it up”, usually for a specific person or intention. By doing so, our crosses become easier to bear, knowing that a greater good is coming from our pain and that our suffering is of benefit not only to others, but also to ourselves. By repeating the words, “Lord, I offer this up”, this constant refrain can bring peace and consolation in the midst of suffering.
Another great help is the devotional reading of Sacred Scripture. There are many passages I find myself returning to again and again in times of trial, which always seem to strengthen my will and help me “take heart” (Matthew 14:27). Some I find particularly helpful are Sirach 2, Isaiah 55:8-11, Job 1:21, 2:10, 38-42:7, John 16:16-23, Philippians 4:4-7, 11-13, and Hebrews 12, among others. Besides Scripture, the lives and writings of the Saints are an enormous help and source of consolation, as are other spiritual writings.
We Christians have another powerful weapon in our arsenal – the mind. In times of trial, we can apply what the sources of faith have taught us to those situations. So when we find ourselves naturally asking, “Lord, why did you let this happen?”, our faith and our experiences provide the ready answers: “He is teaching me patience, trust, and surrender”; “Something similar happened a few years ago, and so much good came out of it, such as …”; “If God were here, He would say, ‘Don’t worry – I know what I’m doing’”; “Well, like the Lord said to Job …” or “as St. Paul said, …”; etc. We can also use the power of our imaginations. I have a friend who uses some clever meditations when subjected to the many little annoyances in life. When he worked at a call center and things would get busy, he used to think of Christ’s Passion and imagine every ring as though it was a lash on his own back, so that he truly felt a connection to Christ and that he was sharing in His Passion. It is also helpful to call to mind the wrong we have done and the pain we have caused others. This makes us want to accept the suffering we are receiving because we know it to be just and proper.
Finally, we should follow the advice of St. Paul, who said, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thessalonians 5:16-18). We must resist the temptation to mope and complain and instead turn to God in prayer, pouring out our souls to him in deep anguish and bitter weeping (1Samuel 1:10, 15). But when we do, “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). And we should be thankful for our trials, as Judith advised (Judith 8:25-27). My best friend’s father is in the habit of saying, “Thank you, Jesus”, anytime things do not go his way. My friend tells the funny story about how he was helping his father dislodge a hornet’s nest from the ceiling of his garage, and how when the nest came crashing down and a swarm of hornets attacked him, he flailed his arms at them in a mad panic and kept repeating, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” This, rather than cussing and swearing, should become our automatic reaction to such things as well.
Secondly, “apart from the renunciation imposed by the burdens of everyday life,” continues Paul VI, “the Church, however, invites all Christians without distinction to respond to the divine precept of penitence by some voluntary act.” Paul VI goes on to mention fasting as an example. The beauty of fasting is that it can be “tailor-made”. If we are not up to the more rigorous bread-and-water fast, we can do a “traditional” fast (one full meal and two small meals that together do not equal a full meal), or even a “partial fast” whereby we skip one of our meals or fast for part of the day.
Besides fasting, there is also “abstinence”, which includes the periodic renouncing of any good thing we enjoy, not just meat. This is a common during Lent, where Catholics – even many who do not attend church regularly – ask themselves the question, “What am I going to give up for Lent?” This can be anything we enjoy – meat, snacks, coffee, alcohol, television, music, sex, certain hobbies, etc. We should remember two things here: (1) we should abstain from that we tend to get “inordinately attached” to; (2) the greater the sacrifice, the greater the merit. A friend of mine had a very special intention earlier this year, and although he was a huge Green Bay Packers fan, he chose to sacrifice watching or listening to the Super Bowl for that intention! We are still waiting to see if that prayer will be answered as he wishes, but if it is granted, this will no doubt be the one thing that made the most difference.
However, penance does not consist merely in the negative – what one gives up, but also the positive – what one does in addition. Penance can mean praying more, or performing certain works of charity. Since every Christian should be involved in at least some work of charity, Lent would be a good time to commit to something, such as visiting or taking Communion to the elderly or the sick, or volunteering once a month in a soup kitchen or food bank, or preparing the parish’s next pancake breakfast. The sky is the limit when it comes to ways one can serve.
Finally, we must speak about the penances of the Saints and how that applies to us. We sometimes hear stories of Saints who slept naked on bare boards, took ice cold baths, prayed all night instead of sleep, wore hairshirts or cilices which irritated the skin, and used “the discipline” (self-flagellation). Contrary to popular belief, these are not “archaic” practices that the Church has “suppressed” (see Paenitentiam Agere, paragraph 32). The Little Flower’s theology of “doing little things with great love” has been twisted, isolated from our Tradition and interpreted in ways contrary to it, and used as a cop-out to avoid doing penance. On the contrary, these practices remain good and holy and win for those who practice them a great deal of merit. However, there are grave dangers to excessive penances, which is why the Saints told their spiritual directors everything they were doing by way of penance and always submitted to their directors when they would order them to stop doing certain penances. Only some will be called to practice “the discipline”, for instance (we now know that Pope John Paul II practiced it), and this must be carefully discerned.
This has been a short primer on penance. Hopefully, as you put these principles into practice this Lent, you will destroy the “golden calves” in your lives.
. . . . .
As was stated in the last article, “Balancing Eros and Agape”, we live in an age of a “new paganism”. Contrary to Christianity, paganism exalted eros – the desire for and the seeking of personal happiness, over agape – the selfless giving for the good of the other. Christ, as He did with so many other things, turned this upside down (or more accurately, right side up after Adam and Eve had turned things upside down). Christ preached that those who hunger in this life would be well fed in the next, while those who are rich now will see the comfort they sought in this life die with them (Luke 6:21, 24). In the eschaton, we will see the great reversal: “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish” (Luke 16:25).
Failing to understand this, St. Peter considered it a scandal that Our Lord would allow himself to suffer and die (Matthew 16:22). But the real scandal was Peter’s admonition (Matthew 16:23). Doing the Lord’s will in this “valley of tears” is hard and painful work (Genesis 3:17b-19a) which brings with it a great deal of “mourning and weeping” (Salve Regina). If we place too much of an emphasis on joy and get too attached to pleasure, we will never be able or willing to do the work the Lord would have us do. This is something the Saints understood very well, as can be seen in the penitential and ascetical lives they lived.
But there is another who wants us to fixate on the joy and seek to remain there instead of going back to our crosses: the Evil One (which is why in rebuking Peter, Jesus said, “get thee behind me, Satan”). Because all things in this world were created “good” (Genesis 1), we derive a certain joy in possessing them. However, these goods remain material or human signs that are meant to point us toward and ultimately lead us to the greater spiritual or divine reality. Hence, the joys which derive from the things of this world will never completely fulfill us or give us ultimate joy.
Now Satan, being the “most subtle” of all creatures (Genesis 3:1), tries to get fallen man to stop short at the sign so as to keep us from the reality. He tries to get us to make the good things of this world our “supreme joy” rather than God, which is the very definition of “idolatry” (CCC 2113). Thus we worship the “creature” rather than the “Creator” (Romans 1:20-25) by placing the “sign” above the “reality”.
It is this truth which is at the root of the theology of religious life. There are primarily three things in this world that are so good, we tend to become more attached to them than to God. These are (1) money, (2) sex, and (3) power. Through the evangelical counsels, one completely renounces those three things through vows of poverty (money), chastity (sex), and obedience (power), and thus renders powerless Satan’s three greatest weapons.
It is not a coincidence that the Golden Calf of Exodus 32, which is the epitome of idolatrous worship, symbolized these three great “gods”. A stud bull represents both power and sexual prowess, while the gold that it was made of represents wealth. In the ancient world, foreign gods were worshiped in order to obtain what the gods promised to bestow. The Israelites, therefore, chose money, sex, and power over Yahweh and His will.
But the main god, it would seem, was sexual pleasure. First, Moses commanded the people to prepare to ascend the mountain and meet the Lord by “abstaining from sexual relations for three days” (Exodus 19:15) in order to teach the Israelites that as good and holy as sex was, God was holier (here we see the Biblical roots of the Catholic theology and practice of priestly celibacy and the vow of perpetual continence). However, the Israelites failed to practice temporary abstinence (Exodus 19:12, 13b, 16, 19-22). Second, in the worship of the Golden Calf, the Israelites “rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6, 18) – or, in other words, had an orgy. Scandalously, this was done under the guise of Yahweh worship: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. … Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (Exodus 32:4-5).
Although those who do not embrace the evangelical counsels also do well because they are choosing that which is good, it is nonetheless a more difficult and dangerous path (1Corinthians 7:28b). For those who “remain in the world” and marry, pursue a career, and choose various pastimes, a life of “asceticism” is essential. Fasting, abstinence, and penance help us to “mortify our senses” (Catechism, #2015, 2549) and achieve a “detachment from creatures” (Catechism, #1472, 2544) so that we do not become more attached to created goods than to the ultimate good – the Uncreated God. As John XXIII stated in his encyclical on penance, Paenitentiam Agere, “Penance is that counterforce which keeps the forces of concupiscence in check and repels them” (paragraph 10).
This is why the early Christians as a rule fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, and why, until recently, the Church mandated fasting throughout the 40 days of Lent. It is why various forms of penance were employed, including the use of hairshirts, “the discipline” (self-flagellation), the “cilice” (a necklace or bracelet with jagged rocks or metals which dig into and irritate the skin – still popular with Opus Dei), and a various other methods of “chastising the body” (1Corinthians 9:27).
Finally, it is also why the practice of temporary continence among married couples was highly encouraged and even strongly recommended by the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which, just as Moses did, encouraged married couples to abstain from sex for three days before receiving Holy Communion (when Communion was received much less frequently) and for longer periods of time during Lent (Chapter “Holy Matrimony”, Section “The Use of Marriage”).
This rich and ancient theology of asceticism and continence has unfortunately been absent from our catechesis – even within orthodox circles. Once again, various members and movements in our Church have been influenced by this post-Christian, neo-pagan world which has refashioned the Golden Calf and resurrected the ancient gods of money, sex, and power.
In certain catecheses on sex and marriage, this influence can be detected. For instance, many such presentations speak of celibacy exclusively in terms of its eschatological significance. They speak of sexual union as a foretaste of the ecstasies of heaven and celibacy as “skipping” that sign in order to embrace that reality in the here and now (as though the only difference between a celibate and a married person is that the celibate “gets there a bit quicker” than the married do). It is all about what the celibate “gets”.
The Catholic Tradition, on the other hand, speaks about many other essential differences between celibacy and the married, including the celibate’s ability to serve and love with an undivided heart and be more available to the universal Church. Furthermore, the focus is not so “egocentric”. A young religious sister whose acquaintance I met (Sr. Miriam of the Nashville Dominicans) was formed well in this Tradition when she answered the question, “what is the greatest thing about being a religious?” by stating, “I have the opportunity to sacrifice”. In other words, she is ecstatic about what she is able to give (agape) rather than what she receives (eros).
We should remember the words of Paul VI in his encyclical on penance, Paenitemini, in order to assist us correct our defective catecheses on sex and marriage: “True penitence … cannot ever prescind from physical ascetism as well. … The necessity of the mortification of the flesh also stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam's sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. This exercise of bodily mortification – far removed from any form of stoicism – does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume. On the contrary mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. Through ‘corporal fasting’ man regains strength and the ‘wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence’” (Chapter II).
It never ceases to amaze me what people will complain about in this world. It seems almost as if our default setting is to whine about every little thing that bothers us. I don’t really like whining – in fact, I can barely stand it – so I apologize if what I am about to say comes across like whining at first: it’s not my intention at all.
In my very short life I have gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. I was bullied horribly my entire childhood; my family had a lot of really bad issues; I lost some people very close to me at a young age; and I had a terrible time making or keeping friends – in fact, there are times in my past where I must admit I had no friends my own age. I retreated into myself for half of my high school years, and was basically mute for parts of high school (hard as that would be for a lot of you to believe) – only speaking if I was spoken to, and only if directly.
I started to do things all by myself all the time: I used to hang out by the railroad tracks watching trains, or go and feed some wild ducks, or read really large non-fiction books, or study and draw maps, or learn old comedy routines from the past. The more people were mean to me, the more I spent time by myself; the more I spent time by myself, the weirder they thought I was, and the more they made fun of me.
The only place I liked that had people in it was church. In the town I am from there is a beautiful co-cathedral full of paintings – it’s just awesome. It was really the only place that I felt at home. In church I felt whole because I knew Jesus would be my friend and I knew he had both done everything for me and would do anything for me. Despite my troubles I wanted to be a good person for my friend Jesus.
Skip forward to my adulthood, and my main complaint is my health. I am about 6 feet tall and as of this morning I weigh 137 pounds – not on purpose. I am not yet 25 years old and I have endured so many maladies and illnesses that it baffles anyone who hears the story. Before I turn 25 I will have fought through a dozen cancer scares, chronic pancreatitis, liver failure, viral infections in most of my organs, scoliosis, epilepsy, asthma, anaphylactic shock from allergies, and a heart attack. I’ve endured 17 biopsies, 10 minor surgeries, one major surgery, bone marrow tests, colonoscopies, scope tests, and had to have broken bones re-set on numerous occasions. I have suffered, and I am sorry to complain.
About a year and a half ago, I was in the hospital crying my eyes out and truly sick of suffering. I had endured so much and felt that I had gotten so little out of life. It was also at this time that my girlfriend broke up with me after a little over a year of being together. I was so upset with where my life was that I told a friend that God was punishing me for what I had done. She asked me what I had done, and I had no response because I could not figure it out either. She told me I was a good person, and I responded, “Yeah, and what has being a good person ever gotten me – nothing”. Well, that’s what I thought, anyway.
After coming back to university after Christmas, 2010, I made the decision to change my life forever. Despite the fact that I thought God was punishing me, I’d still be going to church every Sunday. Other than Sunday, though, I wouldn’t pray or read Scripture. I thought I would give God the bare minimum of what I had to.
Seemingly randomly, though, I woke up one January morning and went to daily Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I don’t know what it was about that particular Mass but while I was in the church something washed over me, and I felt called to pray. It was that day that I decided to change my class schedule at university so that I could attend daily Mass everyday during the semester. I decided to give my troubles to God instead of blaming Him for them.
With this decision came a new life. My outlook on where my life was and where it was going were changed forever. I came to look on my trials not as punishments but as episodes in my life that had helped me stretch and see the world and Jesus in a different way. Suddenly I became aware that the things I had done as a child that everyone made fun of me for were now integral parts of my personality that people seemed to like for some reason. The true friends that I have made from Catholic events and CCO activities such as this one like my quirks, my hobbies, and my personality, and do not see my traits as weird things that make me unlovable but as unique things that make me stand out.
I had to thank God for putting me through all that suffering if it means that people will love the person I became as a result of it. And as for my health, I can look back on my many moments of weakness and see strength, stretching, and spiritual growth. Much as I have truly had a hard time, it made me a better person and a better Christian, because it taught me to walk with Jesus instead of by myself.
Lastly, I thank God for my illness some days because, well, it made my past girlfriend realize that she did not love me which made her break up with me – something I did not have the self-esteem to do even though I knew in my heart she was not the one for me and did not treat me right. Because of that, I was single and knew that I could only be with someone who loved me how I am and for who I am.
I am engaged, by the way – just so everyone knows. That day that I was talking about at the beginning was the 21st of October of 2010, and 11 months to the day later, I asked who I think is the most beautiful girl in the world to marry me, and, you know, it’s her problem that she said ‘Yes’. So, in 99 days, we’re going to get married, and ... well, that’s beautiful.
So if I have to endure a bunch of b.s. and being in the hospital for that, I will take it 10,000 times.
So there’s been a big change in me over the last year and a half. I’m not better, but my spirit soars. And though I suffer, and I am suffering, and I will continue to suffer, I have never been happier in my entire life. All I ever do is spend my days, sick or healthy, thanking God for creating me how I am and giving me the life and the perspective I have on it.
I’ve made my choice to give my troubles to God and out of sadness and pain came blessings and blessings and more blessings".