What It Is And Is Not

If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
--1 John 4:20-21

Hard cheese in a time of polarization and atomization, especially for those who've decided to render unto Caesar what is God's. Then again, as the late philosopher, Fr. James V. Schall, asserted, "We are living in a time where the logic of disorder is at work, rejecting systematically the logic of being a human being." Father Schall was also well-known for asserting that it is important for a philosopher "to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not." John, the "beloved apostle," declares what Christian love is and what it is not. If you don't like that, fine. Just don't call yourself a "Christian," because you're not.

As I write this, I'm gazing in a mirror, not as Narcissus would, but as St. Paul might have. 

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."
--G.K. Chesterton

The Black Dog Held At Bay

We Christians, like all other children of planet earth, are born into a reality that will necessarily incorporate grief and lamentation. We accept this actuality and reject any explanation that says our sorrowing is a waste or based on illusion. To unlock the meaning of our ordeals, we climb a hill where God-become-human dies in agony. After that culminating event, everything else in the world's history has a new illumination--a light born out of the darkness of Calvary. We see the awesome spectacle of a God in utmost need, struggling in our pain. St. Therese [of Lisieux] describes the face of Jesus as "luminous...in the midst of wounds and tears" (Letters, Lt 95, p.580).       

The primal sin was accepting the serpent's promise, "You will be like gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5). And from that human decision came suffering and death. Who would have conceived of a divine response to this original betrayal whereby God would embrace the very penalty imposed upon sin: suffering and death? The Psalms of the Hebrew Bible sing over and over of God's abundant kindness, of God's steadfast love. Yet we Christians sing of a mercy that not only pours out compassion but enters into the experience of our desolation. We have an infinite God who has willed to feel our limitations, even our small ones.

Jesus does not explain human existence from afar. He allowed Himself to be restrained by the boundaries of the humanity He shares with us. But in so doing, He transforms those very limitations and endows them with power.

He looks at us in whatever lameness is holding us back from moving forward with Him. His words sound in our ears. "Get up and walk" (Mt 9:5). With His power energizing us, we know the path before us this very day-yes, with all its difficulties--leads to eternal life.

---Sister Margaret Dorgan DCM, "The Message of Jesus About Human Pain"

If a non-believer prefers a more secular perspective, perhaps the following passage by Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, from the preface to Viktor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Meaning," will help him or her.

[T]o live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in the suffering and the dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.

Cold comfort to many of us. To the rest, a warm hearth on a bitterly cold night.

Too Many Different Needs To Satisfy

I Knew A Woman
---by Theodore Roethke

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;   
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:   
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,   
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;   
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;   
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;   
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;   
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;   
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,   
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:   
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.   
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:   
(I measure time by how a body sways).

Waiting For A Shouting Light

AVE MARIA, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

Winter's Night
--Thomas Merton

When, in the dark, the frost cracks on the window
The children awaken, and whisper.
One says the moonlight grated like a skate
Across the freezing river.
Another hears the starlight breaking like a knifeblade
Upon the silent, steelbright pond.
They say the trees are stiller than the frozen water
From waiting for a shouting light, a heavenly message.

Yet it is far from Christmas, when a star
Sang in the pane, as brittle as their innocence!
For now the light of early Lent
Glitters upon the icy step -
"We have wept letters to our patron saints,
(The children say) yet slept before they ended."

Oh, is there in this night no sound of strings, of singers!
None coming from the wedding, no, nor
Bridegroom's messenger?
(The sleepy virgins stir, and trim their lamps.)

The moonlight rings upon the ice as sudden as a
footstep;
Starlight clinks upon the dooryard stone, too like a
latch,
And the children are again, awake,
and all call out in whispers to their guardian angels.

Sit Tempus

The hymn "Ubi Caritas" dates from the late Eighth Century A.D., and is traditionally sung in the Western Church as one of the antiphons during the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday of Easter Week. Here is a nice version of the traditional hymn.

The lyrics are as follows:

Latin text
English translation
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.

Where charity and love are, there God is.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
Let us exult, and in Him be joyful.
Let us fear and let us love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love each other (and Him).
Where charity and love are, there God is.
Therefore, whensoever we are gathered as one:
Lest we in mind be divided, let us beware.
Let cease malicious quarrels, let strife give way.
And in the midst of us be Christ our God.
Where charity and love are, there God is.
Together also with the blessed may we see,
Gloriously, Thy countenance, O Christ our God:
A joy which is immense, and also approved:
Through infinite ages of ages. Amen.

A few contemporary composers have rearranged the hymn or based longer works on the theme of the hymn. Three of my favorite contemporary works on this theme are by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, a contemporary chorale and symphonic composer whose various compositions often "strike a chord" within me (pun intended). The following are versions of Gjeilo's "Ubi Caritas" and "Ubi Caritas II" (which he has stated are, to his mind, "bookends," meaning that they work as stand alone pieces or performed together in order), the first sung by the exquisite British a cappella group Voces8, and the second performed by the Central Washington University Chamber Choir, with the composer accompanying the choir with an improvised piano part. While choirs also perform the second piece without a piano accompaniment, I usually think that it's interesting to see the composer of a piece perform it. I hope that readers enjoy these versions as much as I do. The advertisements are annoying, but a small price of admission, I think.

As much as I love versions I and II, I most love Gjeilo's third variation on this theme, entitled "Sacred Heart (Ubi Caritas III)." The following version is sung by the Dutch professional chamber choir Cantatrix, with orchestral accompaniment. The pictures that are featured in the video are well-suited to the music. As we approach Christmas day, I hope those of you whose hearts are open to it are touched to some degree by the beauty of this music.

Sit tempus (Blessed be the moment).

The Cult Of The Shadow

God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. 

Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it! 

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…. 

The seeds that are planted in my liberty at every moment, by God's will, are the seeds of my own identity, my own reality, my own happiness, my own sanctity…. 

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. 

This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy. 


My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love - outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. 

We are not very good at recognising illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves - the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. 

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.

Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honour, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface…

[...]

We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real...and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.
--Thomas Merton, "New Seeds of Contemplation"

I think that so many of us spend our lives in the cult of the shadow, wearing our masks and wondering why, even if others buy the facade, we--in our heart-of-hearts--do not. Come home to reality, before it's too late.