Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Like Fine Wine

In patristic tradition, the usage of the word meditation was confined to the ways in which the mind and heart were diligently handed over to the word of God. This was done to renew the mind and heart through that word. The fathers maintain that it is not proper for man to engage in meditating on anything other than the written word of God, that is, the Bible. For inward meditation can imprint its impression on the emotional and intellectual makeup of man. Man, therefore, should not be so stamped except by the holy word of God, which accords with God’s will and mind…

According to patristic tradition, the first degree of meditation begins with reading the words slowly, relishing them, and repeating them in an audible voice. Reading, to the fathers, always meant doing so in an audible voice and relished in our inner consciousness. In this manner, it can find rest in our innermost recesses. Reiteration here is like rumination. After a while the words actually become one’s own words. Man, then, becomes a faithful storehouse for the word of God. His heart becomes a divine treasure for it… This is what is originally means by ‘keeping the gospel’ or ‘keeping the word.’

Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life

Reflection – OK, just a couple more days with Matthew the Poor and meditation. Seriously, though, I am increasingly convinced that the lack of meditation on God’s word underlies a great deal of our spiritual malaise in the Church and (a fortiori) in society at large.

Some may object that meditation leaves them feeling a bit dry, that it can become too easily just another head trip, an intellectual exercise that goes nowhere in particular fast. While this is understandable, I think that reflects a certain lack of understanding of the process of meditation as traditionally understood in the Church.

We may think that the idea in general is to read a Scripture passage and then think about it and draw some helpful conclusion about it. That’s not quite it, and Matthew the Poor is helpful here. The above description makes it sound like ‘reading’ and then ‘thinking’ (which for us North Americans too quickly turns into ‘analysing’ or ‘dissecting’ which is useless for Scriptural prayer) are parallel, that we read so as to move on to the analysis.

No. No way. Never. Absolutely not. (Stop that right this instant!). First comes reading. Second comes reading. Third comes… reading. Fourth comes (wait for it!) reading. Meditation is first and foremost and above all a putting oneself in the presence of God in his inspired living word. Before our ‘rational’ brain kicks in, before we start pulling it to pieces and figuring out the difficult bits and all that useless stuff, we have to bask, to soak, to savor the word, to roll it around in our mouths like a fine wine, to revel in the very cadence of the syllables, to spell it out, practically, letter by letter.

Only after a good long time of that should our minds offer any kind of suggestion or reflection. And even then, the thought process should be dialogic, a prayer, a conversation with God: ‘Gee, Lord, I guess you really do like to heal blind people! Wonder where I’m blind? What don’t I see here and now in my life? Maybe I don’t see my own royal dignity, or your love, or the goodness of your creation or… OK, Son of David, have mercy on me, and heal my blindness.’ That kind of thing, not some dreadful dull sterile chain of thought which too often is quite literally a chain.

God’s word is a living word, you see, and when we bring ourselves into contact with it as I and Matthew are trying to describe we are not simply doing an intellectual exercise. We are in the presence of a Person, and that Person can act, then, our keeping of the Word opening the door for that action and that movement.

Anyhow, it’s all in John 14:21-26, which is the passage Abba Matthew cites. But I do know that we need to hold this word of God in our minds and hearts more fully and deeply and allow it to have its way with us. It is a transformative word, and unless we allow it to do its unique transforming work we are left with our own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, patterns of thought and behaviour. So, open up your bibles, folks, and read them. Plant that seed in the soil of your hearts, and trust that God knows how to make it blossom.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Let's Get Biblical (Biblical!)

Meditation is an old, traditional term closely linked to profound and heartfelt Bible reading. Such reading leaves an indelible impression upon one’s memory, emotions, and tongue.
According to patristic tradition, meditation is the key to all graces. It makes him who practices it biblical in every thought, word, and feeling. He also becomes advanced in every gift and full of divine understanding.

When he opens his mouth, the words of the Bible flow spontaneously from his lips without embellishments. Divine thoughts proceed from his mouth in amazing succession. They are like waves of light that submerge the hearer’s mind in the light of divine knowledge. They stir his heart and set aflame his emotions.

The word meditation in its Hebrew origin is hagig, and in its Greek is meleti. The verb is meletao, which indicates studying and delving deep into meanings, together with mental and inner exercise. Meditating on wisdom (meletao sofian), then, means studying it in depth and with diligence as well as putting it into practice.
Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life

Reflection – I want to spend a few days looking at some of Abba Matthew’s thoughts on meditation. For those who may have missed my previous reference to this writer, he is a contemporary Egyptian Coptic monk who is at the heart of a renewal of Egyptian monasticism, a new flowering of the desert for that persecuted church. His writings draw on the spiritual tradition of both Eastern and Western Christianity and flow from his own direct experience of God in prayer.

The reason I want to highlight this section is that I have been, well, meditating on meditation quite a bit lately. The subject seems to keep coming up with my directees and others. The key and crucial role of Scripture study is something Catholics still tend to underrate, I think, at least based on my unscientific sampling of the population.

The rosary and the liturgy – check! Mental prayer, the Jesus Prayer, devotional prayers – check! Intercessory prayer – check, check, check! Even silent contemplative prayer – check!
But I find that we tend, still, to neglect or at least underrate praying with Scripture. But this cannot be – it is far too important in a rightly ordered spiritual life. Matthew the Poor puts it so well: ‘it makes him who practices it biblical in every thought, word, and feeling.

The truth is, from earliest childhood – even earlier, from the very womb – we are being formed in patterns of ‘thought, word, and feeling’ that may not be quite, exactly, precisely biblical. All sorts of human words are presented to us as the truth which may not be entirely true. All sorts of thoughts can start rolling around in our heads from as soon as we have heads that may or not reflect the Thought of God which is Jesus Christ. And those words and those thoughts can create a whole host of feelings and passions that can lead us into sin and away from God and into perdition.

There is a great inner purification that needs to happen on the level of the mind, a purification of error and illusion. And it is the Word of God that achieves this in us, when we study it and act on it. But studying comes first: how can we act on it if we haven’t learned it?

So, meditation. The slow, careful, repetitive reading of the Scriptures. Just to take a little passage – one parable, or one bit of the Sermon on the Mount, or one healing miracle, say, and read it, read it, read it. Read it three or four times. Read it out loud, to make the words your own. Read it slowwwwwwwly. 

Memorize it, if you can, although this will just happen naturally if you do all of the above. And then, only after reading it like that, slowly, carefully, repeatedly—think about it. Whassitmean? What’s going on in your life that this passage speaks to? Do you believe this? Are their attitudes or opinions or ideas in your little brain (or my little brain!) that contradict this passage. If so, which will you choose, God’s word or yours? And then, is there some action you can take to practice faith in this passage?

That’s meditation, and that’s how our inner minds, our hearts get evangelized, penetrated, transformed by the Word of God. As long as this is not happening, the Gospel remains at the surface of our lives – nice ideas that our Lord Jesus tells us, but we have our own thoughts about things. It is meditation that interiorizes God’s thoughts and makes them our own thoughts, so that we become living Gospels for others.

And this is utterly crucial if we are to ourselves be evangelized in full and in depth, and if we in turn are to evangelize this crazy, mixed-up world of ours. Can’t give what we don’t have!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The End of Freedom

We have to recognize that metaphysics has been reduced to nothingness. Not only is the existence of God rejected, man himself, what is as a person at the core of his being, is no longer considered.
Marie-Dominique Philippe, Retracing Reality: A Philosophical Inquiry

Reflection – A couple days ago, when I wrote my post about my new book The I-Choice, I used language injudiciously, and caused an unfortunate misunderstanding with at least some of my readers. I would like to clarify this matter now.

Most of the problem was that I was writing in a hurry (as is usually the case in my busy life), and one particular sentence came out ambiguously, open to two interpretations (darn those pesky pronouns and their unclear antecedents!). I had been talking about the fact that, as far as I know, the book I’ve written is unique in the field, that Catholic books on the subject have been mostly cheer-leading or how-to manuals about social media, and that the non-Catholic books I have read are deficient in that they raise concerns about the negative impact of technology, but have no positive vision of what it means to be human.

Now I was referring to specific books by specific authors, but the sentence as I originally wrote it (I have since edited the post for clarity) could be read as my saying that all non-Catholics have no idea of what it means to be human. Which of course would be an extraordinarily silly thing to say, and so of course (!) I did not say that, nor do I think it, nor is it true.

But I certainly could have been read, reasonably, to have said that, and I apologize for the misunderstanding to any readers who were offended. Only two expressed offense, but where there are two who say something, there’s another twenty who don’t, generally.

Anyhow, though, it does bring up a deeper issue. Why is it that so many modern secular authors (the ones I have in mind, the ones I referred to in the previous post come from the fields of journalism, psychology, computer programming, sociology, law) in fact do indeed lack any positive concept of what a human being is, what a human being should be.

In fact, it is an intrinsic element of post-modernity to reject a priori any notion of a ‘human nature’, any sense that there is something human beings are which conditions what human beings are to become, and hence what human beings should or should not do.

For Sartre, any notion of human nature spells the end of human freedom. If we are some positive, definite ‘thing’, then we are not free. And this is largely the sense of post-modernity. The only thing that defines a human being is that there is no definition of a human being, and so human beings can do just about anything they want to do.

This all seems very free and liberating and expansive, but is it, really? Sartre ended up endorsing Stalinist Marxism. For him, the liberating boundlessness of human freedom was too much for the mass of men; existential vertigo or agoraphobia is the result of a boundless freedom. For Nietzsche, only the strong, the ubermensch could endure freedom, and to them belongs the world. The untermensch who are the mass of humanity are not worthy of freedom and are not to be given it.

If there is no human nature, how can there be inalienable human rights? If we are not ‘something’ how can something definite and unchanging be accorded to us? If there is no human nature, what difference does it make if some human beings choose to slaughter other human beings? What difference does it make if human beings who are particularly powerless are used as spare body parts or experimental tissue, or are exploited sexually or in any other way a strong human being can exploit a weak one? If there is nothing particular about human beings that endures through the strong and the weak, the good and the bad, that is simply human no matter what, then what difference does it make who does what to who?

Social order may dictate a certain orderliness in our affairs, but that’s not the same as saying it’s simply wrong to—oh I don’t know—kill and cut up human embryos for research purposes, or do any number of grisly and seamy things to one another that I better not mention on this blog lest it not get through your spam filters.

A fixed and definite human nature, the clear idea that it does mean something to be human, is the only safeguard of human freedom and human rights. Freedom has to have an end, not the 'end' that post-modernity deals it, where freedom self-destructs in meaningless and anarchy, but the end of our moral tradition, in which our human freedom moves towards a transcendent goal. Post-modernity, informed by Sartre and Nietzsche et al, is entirely wrong on this point; the Catholic moral tradition is entirely right.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A World Without Hope

Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world's suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim.

A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God.

In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally Other” that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice —true justice—would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone”. This, would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve “the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit.”
Spe Salvi 42
Reflection – Well, this is quite a mouthful and a head-ful for a lovely Saturday morning in spring. I probably should mention at the outset that I personally am not any more familiar with the Frankfurt school than the rest of youse guys out dere in the blogosphere, and so am just reading this along with you trusting that Pope Benedict knows what he’s talking about.

According to our friend Wikipedia, the Frankfurt school is a neo-Marxist fusion of Marx, Kant, Freud and a host of other theorists and architects of modernity and post-modernity. Anyhow, this is all a bit above and beyond me and you and what we’re about on this blog.

Here, it truly is the question of justice that concerns us, and where we are to look for justice, for re-dress. I have not blogged about the terrible events in Boston last week, or about the arrested terrorist plot here in Canada this week. As it happens, I was on my silent retreat while the Boston bombings were going on, and didn’t actually hear about it until they had arrested the surviving bomber.

Also, I generally try to steer away from the blogging imperative to saysomething about whatever is going on in the world. Beyond saying, “Lord have mercy!” and “Let us pray for the living and the dead, and for those who have done these acts!” I am never quite sure what else needs saying.

But there is a point in all this business of justice. I believe, and Joseph Ratzinger has said elsewhere, that political terrorism, even when religiously motivated, is a much of a despair of God as political totalitarianism or the soft fascism of our current social engineering regimes in North America.

God is not going to establish a just world according to our criteria, so we will take the reins of power into our hands and do it ourselves. Bomb away, or legislate away, or give the state authorities as much power as they need to get the job done, whatever that job might be this week.

We see, easily, how utterly futile and fearsome this path of worldly justice is. It either ends in tyranny or anarchy, in social control or social dissolution. And it seems to me (and this is all I will say on the matter) that these are the two poles we lurch between today in North America and Europe. And these great minds of the Frankfurt school, rejecting Christianity, nonetheless see this and grapple their way painfully towards the truth, though they don’t seem to quite get there.

We need a resurrection from the dead. We need a Last Judgment where God who transcends all and who is wholly good and loving makes all things right. We need a heavenly kingdom which supersedes and overcomes all earthly ones. Christianity has this; does anyone else?

Friday, April 26, 2013

The I-Choice

Well, folks here it is:

My new book, freshly printed, the ink still wet. You can buy it here.

Now my publishers are wonderful people and I love them, but it's a small, just-getting-started publishing house, and that means that, in the (almost) words of the old song, they ain't got no money for promotion, they can't give me anything but love (and a press run), baby, and all that jazz.

In other words, they have almost no promotional budget. Which puts me in the slightly embarrassing position of having to promote my own book on this blog and other social media. So I apologize for the lack of due delicacy here, mindful of the line from Fiddler on the Roof that 'A rabbi who praises himself has a congregation of one.'

Seriously folks, though - this is a really good book. Moreover, it is a unique book. I did a ton of research while writing this, and have read all manner of books about technology and its impact on us. There are many great books being written, many of which I cite in this book. But there's nothing quite like the book I have written.

What I found was that, in Catholic circles, most of the writing is basically cheer-leading - 'Get out there, team, into the social media stream, and win one for the Gipper!' We can do it! And of course that is all right and good - who am I to argue? Here I am, after all.

Meanwhile, non-Catholic books sound various alarms about IT - it's effect on relationships, attention spans, analytical skills, human self-concept, privacy, and so forth. And much of that I have drawn on in my book. But these good non-Catholic writers have a serious impediment. They don't actually know what a human being is, what humanity is for, what it's all about. This was the case in virtually all the books I consulted. One author summed it up when he said, "Just in case there is such a thing as humanity, it would be good if we preserved it before it's too late."

I bring to bear, in The I-Choice, a positive, fleshed-out (literally) vision of human life, human experience, grounded in our divine origin and destiny, and show how we need to really think about all the devices and gadgets and what they are doing to us precisely in this real, integrated experience of being human and staying human.

Nobody else as far as I know has written about this, or like this. So... this book deserves a wide readership, and given the small scale of my (excellent) publishers, I'm hoping you all will buy the book, and if you have a blog or social media platform, give me a bit of a plug. Thanks, and hope you enjoy the book.

Apocalypse Not

In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested.
Spe Salvi 42
Reflection – Well, it’s been quite a while since we visited this document. This is good solid intellectual meat here, and not something to pass over lightly. I will do the second half of par. 42 tomorrow, where Pope Benedict gets into even more dense matter… but it’s worth it to make the effort.

So our Christian doctrine, just to make it clear, is that there is a Last and General Judgment, distinct from the particular judgment of yours or my soul, at which the whole cosmic order will be set into perfect order. The particular judgment pertains to how you or I have lived and what our eternal destiny will be, a fearsome prospect or at least it should be so. God is merciful and loving, but He is an awesome and just judge, too. None of us should be so foolish as to blithely approach that judgment seat without a bit of trembling.

But the Last Judgment is about the world and God’s justice in regard to the world. It is a question of the whole of creation and God’s action towards creation being laid open and bare for all to see, so that the perfect goodness, love, and justice of God towards the works of his hands may be manifest, and all the saints may rejoice in seeing at last that God has established his kingdom and put an end, forever, to all injustice and evil.

Now, we believe this because it is clearly revealed by Jesus in the Scriptures. But this is a Christian doctrine that flows from a deep human experience as well. Namely, the experience that (excuse my language) the world kind of sucks, you know? I mean it has its OK moments, and some people seem to get off a bit lighter than others, suffering-wise, but generally there is something deeply wrong with the world. It just doesn’t add up—the ledgers of humanity, that is.

Justice is fleeting, fugitive, hard-won and quickly lost. Joy is precious to us because it only stays for a season. Truth is elusive; many don’t find it, many don’t want to. ‘Men cannot bear much reality,’ I believe it was T.S. Eliot who said that.

The world is in a state of grave and gross imperfection, and this bothers us deeply. This belies the truth of materialist evolutionary philosophy, by the way. Why on earth would imperfection bother us if we are merely evolved blobs of matter? It is perfectly natural for matter to be imperfect, in flux, and to be exactly all these things we experience that cause us so much distress. That it bothers us so much (and any familiarity with the grand history of human thinking, striving, expression shows that it does indeed do this) suggests that we are more than matter, more than simply evolved blobs of flesh.

So we have a Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment, saying that all that distresses us, all that is incomplete and imperfect and absurd will at last be done away with so that perfect justice and goodness may reign.

The rejection of Christianity, then, or of any theism, does not remove the problem, but instead places us in a deep travail. We must make the world perfectly just, must remove every last trace of evil, hatred, deceit, exploitation, exclusion, every failure of love, every petty or gross injustice. We must, because God won’t do it now, and in fact there is no God and so He won’t do it later, either.

Simply, whenever humanity has entered this travail of creating a perfect world (apocalypse now!), the result has been tyranny, misery, totalitarianism, and the death of tens of millions of people. The doctrine of the last judgment, and the implied acceptance of our current state of injustice, ironically is the safeguard of human justice and freedom in the here and now.