instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, February 17, 2013

P40X: The Sunday Check-up

So, how's Lent going?

Hold on, don't tell me. Tell God.

Each Sunday of Lent, take some time to review your Lenten commitments and how you've been keeping them. I don't say "how well you've been keeping them," this review isn't about assigning yourself a grade. It's about reflecting on your approach to Lenten discipline, your actions themselves, your attitude toward it all, and whatever fruits you've observed.

To put it another way, the Sunday check-up is a way of cultivating your Lenten discipline: pulling up weeds, pruning excessive growth, staking and tying weak vines, all that sort of thing.

Today you are five days older than you were on Tuesday when you finalized your Lenten intentions. It's possible that you are somewhat wiser as well. If the commitments you settled on at the start are obviously too burdensome or too ineffectual, go ahead and revise them.

Recopy your Lenten commitments, by hand, on a piece of paper. Write, "I commit to the following for the remainder of the 2013 Lenten season:," then write them down, revised as appropriate.

And if, like me, you weren't wise enough to include "daily prayer for a fruitful Lent" on your list five days ago, go ahead and add it now.

Then read the list, out loud, to God. Not as a vow, or even a promise, but as an intention. God will bless you in your intentions -- although it's certainly possible He will bless you by letting you know that He intends you to be purified in ways you haven't chosen.

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

An individual substance of a loving nature

Before the thought fades, let me pull on the string hanging off this, from my previous post:
Even within a community as regulated as a monastery, a Christian is free to choose what sort of person he will be -- by which I mean, how he will love God, in this life and for eternity.
I say that "what sort of a person he will be" means "how he will love God" because of a notion I came up with about what a person is.

There's an old Scholastic definition (which comes, I see, from Boethius) that a "person" is "an individual substance of a rational nature." That covers humans and angels, and with a little elbow grease can be wrenched around to cover the Divine Persons as well.

A while ago, it occurred to me that talk of a "rational nature" doesn't quite get at it. More precisely, it struck me that rationality is a means to the end of love.

As far as I'm concerned, a "person" is a being who by nature knows other persons as lovable and loves them.

That means, obviously, that if there were no other persons, a person couldn't actually be what a person by nature is. Good thing God is a Trinity. And truer words were never spoken than, "It is not good for man to be alone."

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P40X: Doctor's orders

Here's what the Rule of St. Benedict has to say about Lent:
Although the life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance, yet since few have the virtue for that, we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the negligences of other times. And this will be worthily done if we restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service, as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.Thus everyone of his own will may offer God "with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1 Thes. 1:6) something above the measure required of him. From his body, that is he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting; and with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter.

Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval. For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward. Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot's approval.
A few things that strike me about this:
  1. The moderation. Yes, it calls on the monks to "keep their lives most pure" and to "restrain...from all vices," but would you expect a rule of monastic life to call on the monks to keep their lives mostly pure? And when you get to specifics, it's an invitation to "increase somewhat the usual burden," to "offer God...something above the measure required of him," to "withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting." St. Benedict knows his monks won't become perfect the night before Ash Wednesday, and he doesn't require it of them by rule. But he knows they can do something. As can we all.
  2. The activity. Lent is not a time of passivity. It is a time to "give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence." Prayer with tears, reading, compunction of heart: these are actions, an increase in the usual monastic burden of service.
  3. The focus of activity. The actions prescribed are, moreover, actions with a penitential focus. It isn't just an increase in acts of virtue, but virtuous acts of penance. What is the first commandment Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark? "Repent."
  4. The balance. Prayer with tears and compunction of heart frees the monk to experience the joy of spiritual desire. A Lent done right makes Easter a day of overflowing joy, but it also makes Lent itself a time of joy.
  5. The freedom. Each monk is free to decide what he wants to offer. Even within a community as regulated as a monastery, a Christian is free to choose what sort of person he will be -- by which I mean, how he will love God, in this life and for eternity.
  6. The prudence. Acts of great penance may be undertaken for good reasons, bad reasons, or a mix of both. They are also, necessarily, undertaken within a community, and their effects on the community must be considered ahead of time. Most of us don't have an abbot to judge our Lenten plans, but I think we can still ask ourselves two questions along these Benedictine lines: "Am I doing this out of presumption and vainglory?" will help us to recognize when our motives are impure, and to try to do something about it. "Am I speaking of what I want to offer during Lent in a way that might reasonably lead others to impute it to presumption and vainglory?" will help us to be discrete, so our conversation is an aid to others, not a scandal.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

P40X: Fasting for God

The Lord says through the prophet: “When you fasted and mourned. Was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, was it not for yourselves that you ate and for yourselves that you drank?” He eats and drinks for himself who nourishes his body with the Creator's common gifts, without regard for the needy; and he fasts for himself if he does not bestow upon the poor what he takes for a time from his own use, but keeps it instead to fill his own stomach later.

-- Pope St. Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospel, no. 16
Via Est Quod Est.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Blessed are you when they tweet against you

When the Pope does something that cracks the top five on folks' newsreaders, it makes for an excellent day of fasting from social media.

I find it extraordinarily sad that so many people are such reflexive anti-Catholic bigots. I find it even sadder that Catholics haven't given them much of a reason not to be.

Yes, yes, hospitals, schools, science, universities, civilization. But why should non-Catholics (or even unenthusiastic Catholics) listen to me talk about the Church's service to the poor? What in their experience of me would cause them to give the benefit of any doubt to Catholicism?

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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Penitence 40 Extreme (P40X): Lenten Prep

Here's some advice, should you have made such poor choices in your life that you're ready to take advice from the likes of me, on how to

Spend half an hour or so between now and bedtime Tuesday preparing for Lent.

What sort of preparations might you want to make for Lent, besides eating up all the meat and butter in the house? You might prepare thoughtful, written answers to the following four questions --

-- Wait. "Written answers"? Since when is Lent a take-home essay?

Well, as you'll see the answers are simply statements of your [non-binding under sin] commitments with respect to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (plus a bonus virtue) during Lent. Writing them down will make them more real to you, giving you visual and kinetic memory of them in addition to the thought memory.

Anyway, the questions are these:
1. How will I pray during Lent? Nothing fancy here. Pray more.

2. How will I fast during Lent? This is the P40X version of the question, "What am I giving up for Lent?" I use the verb "fast" purposefully, and I mean it literally: I will eat less food, less often, during Lent than I would otherwise.

Do I fast and give up other, non-food pleasures? Sure. Do I give up other, non-food pleasures instead of fasting? No.

Why do I (with the full authority of some guy on the Internet) insist on fasting from food? Because it is the custom of the Church.The Roman Catholic Church has certainly relaxed her discipline on this matter in recent years, but if you look into history, or look to the East, you'll find that fasting from food is what Christians do.

Moreover, fasting from food is what Christians do because fasting from food works. The one who fasts is changed -- literally, empirically, in a physically measurable way. And it happens that our bodies and our spirits are united in such a way that our spirits get hungry for God when our bodies get hungry for food -- when, at least, the physical hunger is chosen in order to spur the spiritual hunger.

If my end is closer conformity to Jesus Christ as a son of the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit, and as a means to that end I fast, then for me to notice I am hungry -- and notice it I do -- is for me to call to mind the end I desire even more than a pound of cheese and crackers. I reach out to God with the strength of will I would otherwise reach out to Nutella.

And on top of all that, to think of God while hungry engenders gratitude and thanksgiving for all the times I am not hungry.

3. How will I give alms during Lent? Nothing fancy here. Possible answers are:
  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbor the harborless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead;
  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offenses willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.
4. What virtue will I develop during Lent? Beyond commitments that are only made through Holy Saturday, the six and a half weeks of Lent is plenty of time to develop a good habit that will continue with you, ideally for the rest of your life and on into eternity.

To answer this question is to say, "I commit to making a conscious effort to perform acts of this particular kind often enough and regularly enough that, with God's grace, my performing these acts may become habitual by Easter Sunday."

With that in mind, a virtue like fortitude might be too broad in scope (not least if you agree with St. Thomas on its principle act). But you might focus in on something like patience, which is a part of fortitude, and to really get a handle on it, specify along the lines of "patience when my child interrupts me."

How specific you need to be depends on you and how developed the virtue already is in you. Remember, the goal is to rise on Easter morning with a new (or greatly strengthened) good habit. For that to happen, you not only need lots of opportunities to perform acts of that particular virtue over the next month and a half, you need to actually perform the acts when the opportunities arise.

At the same time, if you're praying, fasting, and giving alms, you'll be able to actually perform additional acts of virtue that you might not expect of yourself right now, so your commitment should seem a little risky to you.
So, having given the above questions some thought and prayer, write down your answers on a piece of paper. Then, on Ash Wednesday, ask God for the grace to fulfill your intentions, ask Mary and your favorite saints (not forgetting your guardian angel) to pray for you.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Reading suggestion

Do you know a bishop -- or maybe a Cardinal Archbishop -- whose age is between 70 and 75?

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Paving Material

The Road To HellThe Streets of Hell
Good IntentionsYesNo
The Skulls of BishopsNoYes

Just wanted to clear that up.

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Sunday, February 03, 2013

Lesson for the catechist

It's been almost forty years since I last made a systematic study of the Lord's Prayer -- it was in fourth or fifth grade -- so I am not surprised when I learn something new about it.

This morning, I learned that "on earth as it is in heaven" can be understood to apply to all of the first three petitions:
  1. Hallowed be Thy Name, on earth as it is in heaven.
  2. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
  3. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Makes sense, once it's pointed out.

For that matter, given the pauses used when reciting this prayer, I suppose we're lucky to regard "Thy will be done" and "on earth as it is in heaven" being one continuous thought. (Similarly with "And forgive us our trespasses" and "as we forgive those who trespass against us." Am I the only one who sometimes feels we pause just a little longer than strictly necessary between those two phrases, as though to keep them from being too closely associated?)

(While I'm kvetching, do people really not know to put an "Amen" at the end, just because it's not done at Mass?)

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