The Spirit of Lust

image for vicesPart 2 in our Friday series on the vices.

The Greeks had a myth of the blind prophet Tiresias, who had been both man and woman, and so knew what sex was like from both perspectives. The point they were making is that we don’t know what sexuality is like for the opposite gender.

We should notice that when it comes to sex, it would almost make sense to use two different words for the two different roles. Man and woman do entirely different things with entirely different organs, stimulating entirely different chemical responses (issuing from organs that the other sex doesn’t even possess).

A friend who was recently married told me the best advice he got was just that sex is nothing like what you expect. The reason is that, in heterosexual relationships, the other person just plain isn’t like you, and so doesn’t respond the way you would expect. In most respects, we are both human – but when it comes to sex, we are like two different species.

Deep down in the spirit of lust is precisely the expectation that a person who is fundamentally different from us ought to respond the way we want them to respond. How self-absorbed! How irrational! How strange that we should be so foolish.

On one level, sex really is the same for man and woman. At the most basic biological level, sex is for the perpetuation of the species through procreation. That doesn’t mean every act should conceive a baby; it doesn’t mean there isn’t an awful lot more to human relationships, and especially marriage. It just means that we should realize: gosh, there really isn’t any sense to this particularly bizarre biological conjugation except that it gets our gametes together.

St. Thomas Aquinas notes an important, very practical consequence of this. On the biological level – and gee, what is more biological than sex! – sex is a complete waste of energy for the individual, but a necessity for the species. In other words, its entire purpose is social.

In fact, says St. Thomas, that explains why the sex drive is so darned strong: precisely because, unlike eating and sleeping, there isn’t any selfish reason for us to engage in this act.  Nature has to give us a big push in the back to make sure the species doesn’t die out. That push appears to have been strong enough. . . . Strong enough, ironically, that many people do it for nothing but pleasure – just like pigs.

That goes too, of course, for the bonding associated with sex. Human babies don’t thrive without a mama and a papa. Thus it’s built into both man and woman, on the most natural level, to stick together with the person we mate with. This caveman stuff, as if men just want to inseminate and run, is nonsense: a man’s DNA isn’t even passed on if he doesn’t make sure his baby survives to adulthood. In fact, bonding is so built into our sexuality that mating can also be used just to bond.

A consequence of that is that we should realize: every remotely sexual act – even a look that arouses desire – is naturally designed to make us bond with the other person. We weren’t made for casual sex. It doesn’t make biological sense for a species like us.

That’s a lot of biology. A couple words on spirituality. First, notice how irrational we are about this. Lust, all the great spiritual writers agree, is not the most important problem in the spiritual life. But it is a very good indicator of the Fall. We are not as strong as we think we are. Let lust – and for some people, its reverse image, which is the inability to summon desire when appropriate – just remind us of our desperate need for God’s grace. How foolish we are! We are not as strong as we think we are.

Second, a word on virginity. The propagation of the species is a very fine thing, with all the nobility of human parenthood. A very noble thing. And yet there are higher things.

The spirit of virginity is the spirit of living for more. Living to love God above all things – but living, too, for human relationships that transcend the propagation of the species.

That’s a spirit that married people need to live, too. Ironically, to give ourselves totally to our vocations, we must not let ourselves be swallowed up by our sexuality. We must all carry within us the spirit of virginity.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

Fr. Bellafiore, S.J., on Renewal

Fr. Michael Bellafiore is a fine younger Jesuit we knew in Washington; I see he is now at the University of Scranton.  He has recently published — in the Washington Post, of all places– an excellent piece on revitalizing the Church.

What I think is most important about this piece is its theological and evangelical depth.  Revitalization is not about neat programs, personal excitement, and merely human “commitment.”  It is about rediscovering the radicalism of the Gospel, the power of Jesus in the sacraments, and the intense sanctity to which we are called by our Baptism.
Thus I especially like his following points:
1. We must all take personal responsibility for evangelization.
2. Priests need to be in the confessional, a lot, making available the grace of Jesus.
3. Catechesis, the nourishment of our divine faith, is a big deal, and needs to be treated that way.
6. We need to be praying, in the streets, where it is most needed, without fear.
9. Radical forgiveness.
4, 5, and 7. Catholic teaching, including both sexual and social teaching, and the great gift of the truly evangelical Catholic University, is a wonderful gift, to be celebrated, not hidden under a bushel basket.
You can read his whole piece here.

The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Create in Me a Clean Heart

St Dominic with Bible EX 32:7-11, 13-14; PS 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1  TM 1:12-17; LK 15: 1-32

This Sunday gives us the beautiful Parable of  the Prodigal Son. The readings with which the  Liturgy surrounds it, however, point us to  something we might miss if we read it in  isolation: the divine initiative.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father is  (at least at first glance) entirely passive. He  lets the son take his inheritance, and then he    throws a feast when the son comes home. But  it is the son’s own realization that brings him  home. All the initiative seems to be on the  son’s side.

But Jesus introduces the Prodigal Son with parables where it is the opposite. In the Lost Sheep, it is the good shepherd who goes out in search, who finds, and then who carries the sheep on his shoulders – as if to emphasize how passive the lost sheep is.

Similarly, in the parable of the Lost Coin, Jesus even has her lighting a lamp and sweeping, as if to emphasize how hard she is working. The coin doesn’t come to her!

And Jesus tells these stories to explain to the Pharisees and scribes why he welcomes sinners and eats with them. Now, the tax collectors and sinners were themselves drawing near to Jesus, so in that sense they were like the Prodigal Son. But the Pharisees want a lot more initiative on the side of the sinner: sinners should repent before they come to Jesus! In welcoming them and eating with them – and, indeed, in becoming Incarnate in the first place – Jesus is more like the woman and the shepherd than like the father who waits at home for his son’s repentance.

The same two elements come together in the Psalm. The response is from the Prodigal Son: “I will rise and go to my father.” Here, the initiative is with me. But in Psalm 51, we beg God to do it all. We do not say, “God, I will clean myself up and then you will accept me.” To the contrary, our only sacrifice is a contrite heart: we have nothing to offer except a recognition of our weakness.

We beg him to open our lips so that we can proclaim his praise, to wipe out our offense, to wash us and cleanse us, and renew a steadfast spirit within us.

Above all, we beg him to “create” a clean heart for us. And there’s the key: the God to whom we cry is our Creator. The initiative is always his. He created our hearts, and he re-creates them. The mystery of grace is not the mystery of a passive God waiting for us to clean up our act, but of a God who makes us and remakes us.

A God whom Paul praises in First Timothy for having raised him up out of the swine slop. For Paul, it is not just that God waited around for him to clean up his own act. Rather, Paul boasts in his own weakness, because there God’s power is made perfect.

And yet the thing about Creation is that God actually creates something. This is the most profound truth of the Prodigal Son. When God’s spirit moves in our hearts, we really do rise and go to our Father. The Creator-Redeemer is so powerful that he can actually make us good. He can change us.

The heart of the first reading, where Moses pleads with God after the incident of the Golden Calf, is that Moses invokes God’s promise. It is God who has created this people. First there was his promise to Abraham – a promise he fulfilled, as Creator, by making a baby from parents as good as dead. First there was his calling of Moses, and his miracles to set them free from Egypt. Always it is God who is first. Moses does not say, “hang on, God, we’ll clean up our act.” He says, “Remember your promise.” He clings to God’s promise to raise up a people for himself. Jesus is that promise made flesh.

How then shall we live? The Desert Fathers say our prayer every moment should be, “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” Trust in him to change us. Lean on him. Count on the sacraments, and prayer, and Scripture to change you. With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

And give thanks.

And pray for others. We cannot convert them. But God can.

Looking for last week’s readings?  Reflection for Sunday, September 8.

Cassian on Scripture

“When some of the brothers, then, were marveling at the remarkable clarity of his knowledge and were asking him about certain interpretations of Scripture, he said to them: ‘A monk who desires to attain to a knowledge of Scripture should never toil over the works of the commentators. Instead he should direct the full effort of his mind and the attentiveness of his heart toward the cleansing of his fleshly vices. As soon as these have been driven out and the veil of the passions has been lifted, the eyes of his heart will naturally contemplate the mysteries of Scripture, since it was not in order to be unknown and obscure that they were delivered to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit: rather they were made obscure by our vices, when the veil of our sinfulness clouds over the eyes of our heart. Once these latter have been restored to their natural healthfulness, the very reading of Holy Scripture—even by itself—will be more than sufficient for the contemplation of true knowledge, and they will not stand in need of the teachings of the commentators, just as fleshly eyes do not need anyone’s instructions in order to see so long as they are untouched by inflammation or by the darkness of blindness. Such great differences and errors have arisen among them because many, paying no heed to the cleansing of their minds, have jumped into interpreting them and, devising opinions that are at odds with both the faith and themselves on account of the dullness and impurity of their hearts, have been unable to grasp the light of truth.”

-John Cassian, The Institutes, Book Five, chapter 34. (c. 420)

“Hail Mary”

Hail Mary ImageOn Mondays we’ll be going through the Hail Mary, phrase by phrase. This prayer is rich beyond telling, a fount of theology and spirituality.

The first words get us started. “Hail” is not a word that means much to us in English. That in itself is interesting. Sometimes in prayer we use fancy language: to remind ourselves that prayer is a dignified thing; to find ourselves in a tradition; to challenge ourselves; to make ourselves think more deeply.

And, too, sometimes we don’t have the perfect word in our stripped-down modern language. I often tell my students: the King James Bible, and the RSV, which is based on it, is not just in antiquated English (though it is that too). It is also a more literal translation than most modern ones. It finds a word to translate the original, instead of just dumbing things down.

“Hail” is a greeting. It’s a remarkable way to start a prayer. It puts us on friendly terms with Our Lady. Ironic that a prayer that begins in such personal terms should so often be rattled off in the most impersonal way.

More than our greeting, though, it recalls the greeting of the Angel Gabriel. For the first line of the prayer is just a quotation from Luke’s Gospel.

And the angel came in, and said unto her, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

The next line of the prayer, of course, is also from Luke’s Gospel.

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit:

And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

And then the second half of the prayer is the Church’s response. First, our two favorite titles: “Holy Mary” (or, “Mary, the holy one”) and “Mother of God,” and then our very simple request: “pray for us” (who are sinners, both now, and at the hour of our death).

In effect, the whole Hail Mary is just a very simple liturgy: two short Scripture readings, followed by the simplest prayer, couched in the language of the Church. We can pray the Hail Mary like a little liturgy.

The English greeting “hail” is related to the word health. It means, “be well,” “I hope you are well,” “blessings!” The Latin Ave, like the Greek kaire (the word used in Luke’s Gospel) are actually more rooted in the idea of rejoicing. Not “hail” on a bodily level, but on a spiritual level: “happiness, Mary! Be glad! Blessings!”

The “Hail” should remind us of that the Gospel is Good News. Where Mary is, there is reason to rejoice, because God is there. It is pleasant to reflect on this “Hail,” not only at the Annunciation, but at every point in life. We are trained to do this through the rosary.

At the Finding in the Temple, Jesus is lost, causing sorrow for his parents; he scolds them for not knowing where he is; they don’t understand – and we say, “Be joyful, Mary!” And she is. Our Lady of joy carries the word of God in her heart, and it always brings joy.

It brings joy even at the Cross. Modern spirituality likes to wail and be sorrowful at the Cross, and indeed we should. But we also carry a gladness within us. The tradition notes that in John’s Gospel, Mary stands at the Cross of Christ: Stabat Mater. She does not faint, she does not collapse. What can keep her standing through this sorrow? The joy of the presence of God, of his grace holding her up, his love poured out on the Cross. We can afford to enter into the sorrow of the Cross because we know that the joy of Jesus is even there. “Hail, Mary!”

But the tradition has added two words to the Scripture verses of the Hail Mary. The Angel names her “full of grace,” and Elizabeth calls Jesus only, “the fruit of your womb.” But we add their holy names: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. . . . The fruit of your womb, Jesus.”

Why? Because we love the names of Jesus and Mary. The name of the beloved calls the beloved to mind. The Christian savors those holy names. We are not in such a hurry that we would skip over the most beautiful name of Mary!

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

The Spirit of Gluttony

image for vicesOn Fridays we will be going through the primary vices that stand in the way of our development in the spiritual life.


Our first vice is gluttony. Viewed from a worldly perspective, gluttony doesn’t seem like that big of a problem. Sure, we should be healthy, and I suppose that means we shouldn’t sneak too much ice cream in the afternoon, or take fourth helpings every night. I don’t know about you, but what really causes me trouble, in terms of sheer empty calories, is bourbon. Ah, bourbon!

But on the other hand, and maybe ironically, the Catholic should have enough contempt for the body not to take this too seriously. There are worse things in the world than having a little bit of a beer belly. In fact, in our world today, it often seems that worship of the body has gone way too far. People organize their whole lives around staying svelte.

To truly love the body is not to worship it, but to live in it. A little bourbon, appropriately applied; a piece of birthday cake; a feast with friends: these, we rightly say, are worth more than a magazine-worthy body.

And indeed, there is a kind of gluttony even in taking food too seriously. Foodies – those who live for the coolest recipe, or the most super-organic food out there – often seem to be making their bellies their gods. We don’t want to do that.

So on the natural level, gluttony is a vice than can go both ways: we can love food too much, we can oppose it too much; we can be too worried about health, we can be not worried enough; we can be too picky, we can be too slovenly. The key is moderation – or, better, discretion. The key is to eat intelligently, to be led by our souls, not our bellies.

But gluttony is also significant on the spiritual level. It is significant, in fact, precisely because it is not that big of a deal on the natural level.

On the spiritual level, the question of gluttony is precisely why we make such a big deal of it. Why, when the tradition suggests we skip a meal here or there, or not have a fancy meal or too many desserts, does that make us panic? What are we living for?

Precisely because food isn’t that big of a deal – honestly, there are a lot of things we can go without, even if they are nice – it is a good place to practice self-control.

Think of it this way. An awful lot of our sins can be described as spiritual gluttony. Those nasty words I am so tempted to say are like a tasty treat. I need to say no. That lustful glance, that self-indulgent rest when I know I should be working or praying, the addictive acquisition of stuff I don’t need, and the delicious indulgence of my own will just for the sake of doing it my way: this is the real stuff of the spiritual life, but it is all an awful lot like grabbing a glass of bourbon (or a cookie, or a third helping of dinner, or an excuse on a fast day).

Fasting and gluttony are not the most important thing. They are the little thing, where we can practice living for something higher, instead of just indulging.

And so the Church encourages us to fast. Traditionally every day of Lent, except Sundays and solemnities, was a fast day: pretty tough. In the East they make it both longer and tougher. Canon Law still tells us to skip meat on Fridays (and for many of us, fish is even fancier than meat) unless we live a harder fast. Many in the tradition have found small ways to fast every Wednesday and Friday of the year, and the day before every feast day. And there are always ways to deny ourselves what we don’t really need.

On the other hand, we can also practice detachment from food by eating when we ought. To make a feast on a feast day: not just self-indulgence, but really celebrating with food.

And practicing hospitality. St. Benedict’s Rule says to treat the guest like Christ. He’s really just paraphrasing Cassian on gluttony, where he says that the desert fathers would eat nothing for days – then have six meals a day to welcome guests.

The point is to use food to practice setting love above all else.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

Sunday Readings: September 8, 2013

St Dominic with BibleWIS 9:13-18b; PHMN 9-10, 12-17; LK 14: 25-33

This week’s readings teach us about our need to cling to the divine wisdom.

The reading from the Book of Wisdom gives the main theme: Who could know the counsels of the Lord? The divine perspective is beyond us – unless he himself gives it to us.

Wisdom explains the problem: the corruptible body weighs us down.  Now, even the angels cannot see unaided into the depths of God.  But the problem is far worse for us.

First, because, as bodily creatures, we only see the surface of things, always shifting.  Whether it’s our neighbor’s heart or the true significance of a situation Providence has placed us in, our knowledge is only skin deep.  God’s vision is on a deeper level.

But this is all the worse because of sin.  We are victims not only to the shallowness of our vision “out there,” but even more to our own shallowness “in here.”  So often, my judgment is based less on real insight than on hunger, sleepiness, pleasure, or pain.

How can I see the real meaning of things unless God sends his spirit from on high to open my eyes?

St. Paul’s brief letter to Philemon shows us one of the most important ways this plays out.  Onesimus is Philemon’s slave, but Paul says that in Christ, they are brothers.  The dynamic is universal.  Trapped in the shallowness of my fleshly vision, I see others in terms of use rather than love.  Even my children can seem more like inconveniences than like brothers: they ought to serve me!  A fortiori the people I work with.

To see the real preciousness of other people requires a vision deeper than my own.  I need God to show me: to show me their goodness, our common eternal destiny in him, the goodness of communion – and, too, the wounds that they and I bear that make relationships so hard.  Only God’s wisdom can take me from seeing others in terms of how they can serve me, to seeing a brother or sister in the Lord.

And then Jesus takes us to the heart of the matter in the Gospel.  If you are going to build a tower, he says, you need to count the cost.  More to the point, he says we need to pick up our cross.  That is the cost of discipleship: the cross of Christ.  But it is also the great benefit of discipleship: we walk with Christ, with whom the yoke is easy.

Above all, devotion to the wisdom of God means looking to the Cross, to the way it calls me both to die to my fleshy selfishness, but also into the goodness of life in Christ.

How then do we live these readings?  Through devotion to the wisdom of God.

We live devotion to God’s wisdom every time we look at Jesus, on the Cross, in the arms of Mary, or wherever else.  To say the names of Jesus and Mary is to express our need for his wisdom, his perspective.

We live devotion to God’s wisdom through the sacraments.  The Eucharist isn’t just about fancy liturgy (though that’s nice too).  Above all, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament gives us the grace to worship as he worships, to enter into his perspective.  Jesus in the Confessional gives us the grace to see our sin as he sees it, and to reject it as he rejects it.  In Baptism Jesus draws us into his new way of being.  When we participate in these sacraments, even indirectly – for example, by visiting a tabernacle, saying a prayer of longing for the Eucharist, making a sincere examination of conscience or act of repentance – we proclaim our desire to see as he sees: send your wisdom from on high!  Every time we use holy water, we say, “Jesus, I want to live my baptism, to be plunged into your death and resurrection, to see as you see.”

And we live devotion to God’s wisdom through devotion to Scripture.  Lectio divina isn’t just about the immediate lesson we learn today.  It’s about immersing ourselves in God’s word, God’s way of seeing.  It’s about spending time with him and his wisdom.