Thinking about the Cross

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) was a French monk and then Archbishop of Canterbury, and a very important theologian. His arguments are famously slippery from a purely rational perspective. But he is really writing spiritual exercises, more like meditations than like philosophical arguments.

One of his most famous books, Cur Deus Homo, or “why God became man,” discusses the Cross. It can help us think about Holy Week.

On a rational level, Cur Deus Homo is famously slippery. The argument is, basically, that sin is an infinite offense, which requires an infinite repayment. Man needs to make the repayment, but only God can do it. Therefore God must become man and die.

Most people, even theologians, are turned off by many elements of this argument. God is not a miser, demanding repayment. Nor does he will death as a fitting repayment of sin. Nonetheless, we can learn much from this text by reading it spiritually.


Anselm’s first insight is the horror of sin. To understand this insight, though, we have to turn it around, from “offense against God” to overwhelming sadness for our stupidity.

He guides us through a meditation on the sin of Adam and Eve. They had everything. More than everything, they had God, who is so overwhelmingly, superabundantly good that he is worth losing everything for. If God is the Creator of all good things, then not only can he give us all those things, but, far deeper, he is better than all those things, infinitely better.

Anselm asks us to consider, then, just how dramatically irrational sin is. The point is not the rule we are breaking, nor the “anger” we arouse in God. The point is that sin, by definition, means choosing a radically inferior thing even when it means losing everything. We can’t hurt God. Sin does not hurt God. But it hurts us, because it is the choice not to have God. Dramatic stupidity, radical tragedy.


This is important, for example, if we follow St. Alphonsus Ligouri’s famous meditations on the Stations of the Cross (which many parishes use on Fridays during Lent). “My Jesus, I am sorry for having offended you,” he has us pray. Well now, that’s a little imprecise – blame it on the translation, or maybe the change in cultural context. Sin doesn’t “offend” Jesus. Jesus isn’t touchy or over-sensitive! To the contrary, Jesus was so willing to put up with our sin that he even died on the Cross.

But St. Alphonsus’s point is that sin is a rejection of Jesus. As if he, the God of all goodness, and the man of all sweetness, stands before us, offers us everything, and we say, “nah.” The problem with sin is not that Jesus takes offense. The problem is that, like Esau in the Book of Genesis, we are “trading our birthright for a pot of lentils.” Jesus is so very good, and we choose things that are so much less good.

This goes for our relationships, too. The deeper problem is not the rules we break. It’s that, for example, when we are snippy with someone, we are willing to lose the massive good of that relationship so that we can hold onto . . . what? Our high opinion of ourselves? Our “right” to get annoyed? This is a stupid trade. Sin is always about giving up what is really wonderful in exchange for something that just isn’t worth it.


This is the situation of fallen man: our scale of values is upside down. We have set our hearts on really worthless things when we could have God himself.

The death of Christ is, first, a witness to the re-scaling of values. It is not that God wants us to die – he raises Jesus from the dead! It is not that he wants us to suffer: he offers us heaven. But he does want us to reconsider.

The Cross is key because it shows what it means to re-scale our values. Now that we are so caught up in sin – however original sin technically works, it’s just a fact that we very frequently choose snippiness over charity, our own way over seeking God – we need to rethink.

Christ on the Cross has everything, because he has the Father, and because he loves his own “to the end.” Why are we unwilling to follow?

But even more powerfully, Christ who is God pours out from the Cross his grace, his sacraments, his Holy Spirit, so that we can be transformed into his likeness. He offers us help, so that we can choose the way of God and the way of love, and scoff at the cost.


What crosses are you called to carry? Why don’t you carry them?

St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the Preferential Option for the Poor

therese-childOur Lenten call to almsgiving is no side issue. All the saints love the poor. Today let’s look at Thérèse of Lisieux, someone we might not think of in this connection. But in her autobiography, we see that active love for the poor is a constant throughout her life, from her upbringing by her beatified parents to her life in Carmel.

I remember the Sunday walks when my dear Mother always accompanied us; and I can still feel the impression made on my childish heart at the sight of the fields bright with cornflowers, poppies, and marguerites. Even at that age I loved far-stretching views, sunlit spaces and stately trees; in a word, all nature charmed me and lifted up my soul to Heaven.

Often, during these walks, we met poor people. I was always chosen to give them an alms, which made me feel very happy . . . .


I do not think I have told you that in our daily walks at Lisieux, as in Alençon, I often used to give alms to the beggars. One day we came upon a poor old man who dragged himself painfully along on crutches. I went up to give him a penny. He looked sadly at me for a long time, and then, shaking his head with a sorrowful smile, he refused my alms. I cannot tell you what I felt; I had wished to help and comfort him, and instead of that, I had, perhaps, hurt him and caused him pain. He must have guessed my thought, for I saw him turn round and smile at me when we were some way off.

Just then Papa bought me a cake. I wished very much to run after the old man and give it to him, for I thought: “Well, he did not want money, but I am sure he would like to have a cake.” I do not know what held me back, and I felt so sad I could hardly keep from crying; then I remembered having heard that one obtains all the favours asked for on one’s First Communion Day. This thought consoled me immediately, and though I was only six years old at the time, I said to myself: “I will pray for my poor old man on the day of my First Communion.” Five years later I faithfully kept my resolution. I have always thought that my childish prayer for this suffering member of Christ has been blessed and rewarded.


Léonie had also a very warm place in my heart. . . . I remember perfectly the day of her First Communion, and I remember also her companion, the poor child whom my Mother dressed, according to the touching custom of the well-to-do families in Alençon. This child did not leave Léonie for an instant on that happy day, and in the evening at the grand dinner she sat in the place of honour.


During the illness of a poor woman, I interested myself in her two little girls, the elder of whom was not yet six. It was a real pleasure to see how simply they believed all that I told them.


thereseI ought to seek the companionship of those Sisters towards whom I feel a natural aversion, and try to be their good Samaritan. A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul. And yet it is not merely in the hope of giving consolation that I try to be kind. If it were, I know that I should soon be discouraged, for well-intentioned words are often totally misunderstood. Consequently, not to lose my time or labour, I try to act solely to please Our Lord, and follow this precept of the Gospel: “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends or thy brethren, lest perhaps they also invite thee again and a recompense be made to thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame, and thou shalt be blessed, because they have naught wherewith to make thee recompense, and thy Father Who seeth in secret will repay thee.”

What feast can I offer my Sisters but a spiritual one of sweet and joyful charity! I know none other, and I wish to imitate St. Paul, who rejoiced with those who rejoiced. It is true that he wept with those who wept, and at my feast, too, the tears must sometimes fall, still I shall always try to change them into smiles, for “God loveth a cheerful giver.”

Almsgiving and the “Preferential Option for the Poor”

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

These last few Thursdays during Lent, we have been considering the traditional pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. There is perhaps a hierarchy in how much we typically associate these things with Lent. Everyone knows Lent is about fasting – or at least giving something up. And maybe some people of an old-fashioned bent make Stations of the Cross part of Lent, so there’s some prayer. But almsgiving? Other than hearing it as part of that three-part list, we don’t hear much about it.

It is an essential part of our tradition, however. Next week, we’ll look a little at some examples of the “preferential option for the poor” in the tradition. I hate to tell you, my friends, but the “liberals” who talk about the poor are, at least on this issue, way more “traditional” than those “conservatives” who don’t.


Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Notice that these things relate to the three key people in our lives. Prayer is about our relationship with God. Fasting is about our relationship with ourselves. Almsgiving is about our relationship with our neighbor. It’s no surprise that these three would all fit together as key to growth in the Christian life. The neighbor, you may have noticed, is pretty central to Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, to the rest of the New Testament, and to the Catechism.

The deepest importance of our neighbor is devotion to the Church itself. St. Thomas says love of neighbor comes in insofar as when we love someone (e.g., Jesus) we also love the people they love (i.e., everyone he died for, which is everyone). It makes no sense to say we love God but we aren’t interested in the people he died for.

To say the same thing in a different way, Christianity is about communion. Philosophically, the heart of the matter is that God is the kind of good that is not diminished, but more deeply possessed, by being shared. If I give you a bite of my apple, I have less apple. But if we pray together, or I share the Gospel with you, I do not have less God. I know him and love him better by sharing him with you.

Or to put it a third way, Christ calls us into his body, the Church. Our approach to God is through Christ, and through his Church. To love our neighbor is to love the Church; to despise our neighbor is to despise the Church, and so despise our membership in Christ.

Love of God and love of neighbor, in short, are inseparable.


But why almsgiving in particular? Why the poor?

The answer is simple. Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:46) And “when you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Lk 14:12-13).

To love someone who can repay you is ambiguous. Do I love the person (and the Church, and Jesus, and God), or do I just hope I’ll get repaid? To love those who have nothing to repay is to underline, and practice, true love, just love.

It’s as simple as that. The modern Church calls this “the preferential option for the poor,” but it’s ubiquitous in the tradition. The poor, those who have nothing to repay us, have a special claim on our love, because that is where we practice truest love.

“Preferential option for the poor” doesn’t mean socialism. But it does mean that in every part of our life – including public policy and economics – we put love first, not self-interest.

I have been struck to realize that, but for me, my wife and children are widows and orphans, and so I can bring this option for the poor to my own family. But if it is so spiritualized as to lose track of real, crushing poverty, real need and a real inability to pay, we weaken our ability to live this love in our ordinary life.


This Lent, let us make some effort to try it out. To at least take the first steps toward planning something, sometime, when we practice loving those who have absolutely nothing to give us in return.

What can you do to practice disinterested love? How do you relate to the genuinely needy?

Lenten Practices: Fasting

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

Obviously fasting is key to Lent. Before Vatican II, every day of Lent (except Sundays and Solemnities – maybe this is why we have St. Patrick and St. Joseph in March!) was a fast day, and the fast was pretty rigorous: typically two to four ounces for breakfast, eight ounces for lunch, one real meal, and meat only at that meal.

Since Vatican II the Church has tended toward less universal solutions, recognizing the differences between cultures and the place for prudent decisions according to particular situations. For example, lobster on Fridays might match the old rules for abstinence, but not make much sense as penitence in our culture. Similarly, some people might do better giving up television rather than breakfast. And the Church has always recognized that fasting is not practical for every situation, for example when you are sick or have hard work to do.

But Vatican II did not abolish fasting; in fact, it called for more public, communal acts of penitence during Lent, and for a deeper appreciation of “the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 109-110). And though there is much room for prudence, there is also much to learn from the tradition’s insistence on fasting from food. Both Thomas Aquinas (a beefy guy doing very hard intellectual work) and, more recently, the great mid-century German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, insist that not only can we handle fasting, but it’s actually good for our minds and our work ethic.


That last point is perhaps the key. Fasting is not meant to be unhealthy, it is meant to be healthy. According to a doctor friend of mine, secular studies show that the single greatest thing you can do to increase your lifespan is to eat less. And of course our culture heartily agrees with the Church that eating too much is not good for you.

The Church has always condemned fasting that does damage to your body. The point is, reasonable fasting does not damage your body.

We can think about this in terms of various virtues, and our lack of them. The first one is the virtue of prudence. Prudence just means being smart, making wise decisions. Fasting is an exercise in prudence. According to the great fifth-century monastic founder John Cassian, part of what makes food such an interesting place for spiritual growth is precisely that there is no external measure, because every body is different.

No one can tell you how much fasting is healthy for you, how much or how little you can stay healthy on. Fasting is a practice of prudence, of just being awake enough to figure it out.


Fasting is a reminder, too, that we generally are not very prudent. Fasting reminds us that much of what we think we need is not needed. One of the functions of Lent is to remind us that we have a lot of growing to do. Our relationship with food is unhealthy – not because food is sinful, but because we are! – and our prudence is often falsified.

The deeper problem, of course, is the virtue of temperance. We always want more. Again, there’s nothing wrong with food. Food is not a sin. But there is something disordered when we want more food than is good for us, and insist on more than we really need. Fasting is a reminder of how little we really need.

Of course it’s not meant to say we should never enjoy ourselves. Lent is only forty days of the year, and the celebratory season of Easter is ten days longer. But again, this should make us all the more suspicious of ourselves. Really? Am I so addicted to food that I can’t live on the healthy minimum for just a month and a half (with interruptions!) of the year?


Finally, fasting is about relationships. It is, first, about solidarity. An awful lot of people don’t have the luxury to play fasting for a couple weeks out of the year. Much of the world, and much of history, is full of hungry people. Could you not watch one hour with them? Can we not, occasionally, and without actually hurting ourselves, enter into the experience of our brothers and sisters who are genuinely hungry? Fasting is connected to the more important practice of almsgiving.

And fasting is also about our relationship with God. God is our Creator, our Father, who commands us to ask for daily bread. He doesn’t want us to starve. But honestly, do I love the Giver more, or the Gift? Can I not spend a few days a year reminding myself that God is more precious to me than bacon and eggs? Fasting is connected, too, to the more important practice of prayer.


What is it like for you to be hungry? What do you learn about yourself?

Lenten Practices: Prayer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

Lent is supposed to be marked by extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Over the next few weeks we will consider each of these in turn.

First, some preliminary points. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the topics of the central section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-18), with the Our Father at the very center. The Sermon is really fabulous, with a few different points each laid out such that they can be pointed to as the very essence.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. It is not hard to say that the Beatitudes really are the entirety of Christian teaching, in a nutshell. But then the very center of the Sermon on the Mount is the Our Father, and as we have been arguing on Mondays, the Our Father as a whole, and in fact any one line of it, can also be taken as the very essence of Christianity. All these wonderfully dense, rich lines, ripe for memorization and meditation.

So too the sections on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting can be seen as the heart of the Gospel: to love our neighbor in his need (almsgiving), and God in his richness (prayer), more than we love material comfort (fasting). Or, again, the refrain of this section of the Sermon is “Your Father who sees in secret.” Each of these practices takes us to the heart of our spiritual relationship with God. Each of them cuts us to the heart. To understand what they have to do with the heart, the “secret place,” and with knowing God as Father is, in a sense, to know everything there is to know about Christianity.


A second point. Sometimes we phrase Lent as a preparation for Good Friday, as somehow getting us ready to appreciate what Jesus did for us. That’s okay. But we might actually put it the other way around.

Lent is a time when we dig more deeply into the very central practices of our faith, the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In a sense, Good Friday and Easter are unnecessary for explaining this. We are simply working harder to be Christians, digging deeper into our faith. Perhaps it is helpful in this context to remember that Lent is not just fasting: it’s about the whole package, Christianity in its essence. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving.

Easter aside, it makes good sense to have some “retreat” times, when we work harder at the essentials, so that they can flow into the rest of our life when we come home from retreat. And to really enter into prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we need more than a couple days. We get a deeper taste by having a long time. Jesus, in fact, made his own retreat of forty days.

We could see the relationship between Good Friday and Lent not in terms of Lent preparing us for Good Friday, but of Good Friday crowning our Lent. After our forty days of struggle, after our often failed efforts to be better Christians, we look to Christ, and say, thank God, on the Cross he lived perfect prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

He infuses our very meager efforts with the fullness of his Sacred Heart. The Cross reaches out into our Lent, so that we make our efforts, not alone, but in communion with him who really was a man of the Beatitudes, who really was Son of the Father, who really prayed, and fasted, and gave to the needy. We receive alms from him, in all our Lenten efforts.


How then should we think of prayer, as the first pillar of Lent? There is an interesting irony in prayer. Prayer is time of communion with God, of reaching out to him, letting him be our sufficiency, making him the good we seek. The irony is that this is what our whole life should be. It is not entirely wrong if someone says they see no reason for prayer, because their whole life is prayer.

But it is wrong to say that because, in fact, our whole life isn’t prayer – not yet, anyway. We need explicit times of prayer to train ourselves for a life of prayer. In one sense, the Eucharist is the perfect prayer, and everything else is insufficient in comparsion. But we learn to enter into the Eucharist by taking other times of prayer in our life, by practicing what it means to love God through explicit times of prayer. Indeed, even the Eucharist is that in relation to the rest of our life: a time of explicit prayer so we can train ourselves to live prayer in every moment of our life.

That, really, is the heart of Lent: a time of practice, so that when we return to ordinary life, we can live its richness more deeply.


How are you practicing for ordinary life this Lent? How do you practice for life in your times of prayer?