We always read a story in the Catholic Children’s Picture Bible before bedtime prayers. Last night Evie announced that she was going to read the story to us. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUSwYZJD_BYNice to know she has been listening after all.
Adam and I were weeding our garden (and by “our” I mean the garden that Kathleen, Evie and I planted and tended this year. Adam just came over to help because he relished the opportunity to get dirt on his hands for a change.) As we were weeding we got to talk about weeds in the garden. It is strange how apt they are as an analogy for sin. Some points that we talked over were:
- A weed is only a weed by location and activity. A plant only becomes a weed when it violates some higher purpose set by the gardener. A wisteria vine that strangles a half dozen trees in the jungle is not a weed because it did not violate anyone’s purpose. (There is room for a fascinating rabbit hole meditation about this concept of weeds in the Garden of Eden, but I will let that one go). A wisteria vine that kills a half row of beets is a weed because it violates the purpose of the gardener for that ground, namely, to produce delicious beets. So most of the feelings, thoughts, inclinations that we think of as sinful are only so by location. It is not anger that is the sin, but anger in the wrong time, place or degree. It is not sexual desire that is sinful, but sexual desire that chokes out honesty or love of the person.
- Weed is our name for a plant in the wrong time and place that jeopardizes what we want a particular plot of ground to become. “Sin” is our name for a thought, inclination, word or action in the wrong time or place that jeopardizes what our souls are meant to become.
- It is much easier to kill weeds when they are small and their roots are not established. It is also much harder to spot weeds, or to tell them from vegetables when they are small. In the same way, sins are easiest to uproot when they are small, but also hardest to spot, and there is always the danger of pulling up flower or vegetable sprouts if you get overzealous.
- Jesus seemed to be making this point in His parable about the wheat and the tares. Oddly enough, however, any gardener knows that you do not just let weeds grow willy nilly all over your garden or wheat field until harvest time. You go through and weed them out. The reason we do this is because we look at a garden as a source of produce, and rather than risk the loss of the whole field, we will sacrifice a few plants here and there to keep the weeds at bay. Jesus, however, is not willing to sacrifice even a single one of the good plants in His quest to get out the weeds.
So the best way to keep your garden healthy and producing is to get it weed-free early and keep it that way. However, even after extensive work, some of the Oregon grape that we tore out last year still has roots deep under the soil, and every once in a while they put out leaves. We can’t get at the roots so we have to be on the alert for those leaves and rip them out as soon as we see them. No one knows how long Oregon grape roots can keep sprouting, so we can’t get complacent about it either. And that is the perfect metaphor for a sinful habit, or an addiction. You may think you have it under control, but the roots are still there, and the moment you turn your back it will start sending up leaves again.
- We kept our garden pretty clean this year. However, our neighbors on two sides do not maintain their yards. One yard is overrun with hay and weeds, the other is overrun with ivy and briars, so we constantly have to be on the alert for roots, shoots and seeds creeping through the fence into our garden. Not a big deal, just something we need to be aware of and vigilant about. Just like living in the world we constantly have sinful, unhealthy images and ideas and assumptions trickling into our minds. That certainly isn’t a call to burn down the neighbor’s yard, nor is it any reason necessarily to be resentful. Just something to be aware of and vigilant about.
- The angels will sort everything out in the end. The question I should be asking myself is, am I a Concord grape or an Oregon grape?
- After all, I don’t suppose the Oregon grape considers itself a weed.
Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down.
Let the earth open and salvation bud forth;
let justice also spring up!
I had an interesting insight this morning during morning prayer as I read this passage. One of the occupational hazards of being human, I suppose, is being distracted in prayer. One of the occupational hazards of being a military man is being distracted by a preoccupation with combat. So I had to pull myself back from mentally designing a rifle and pistol training event that I want to set up, to get back to the Divine Office. And when I came back in to read it, it was this passage from Isaiah.
When I read that, I had the image of myself standing outside of a very large burning building. I had a tin can full of water in my hand and I wanted to put the fire out but all I had was a tiny little tin cup of water. I was ready to throw that little bit of water on the fire solely as a gesture knowing that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. And then water came down from the sky, as a dew, or is a gentle drizzle, and slowly begin soaking the burning timbers until eventually, after a couple of hours the fire was extinguished.
It is an image, and like all images it is a way of suggesting the truth too complex to be apprehended logically, but graspable intuitively.
Sometimes it seems to me that the world is on fire. Recent events in Berlin, Turkey, and Syria have reminded me, as if I needed any reminding, but the world is a dangerous place, full of hatred and violence. My response to the reality of violence has always been on the one hand to seek peace in my own life, but on the other hand to pursue what I call the Way of Training. By this I mean disciplined, consistent, long-term pursuit of the skills and abilities necessary to confront violence directly. These include, of course, combat skills, but also medical skills. In the simplest terms, not much is changed since I was a little boy and all of my games revolved around stopping the bad guys and healing the good guys. Life is not that simple, but that’s not a bad place to start.
The problem is that it’s so overwhelming sometimes, and we risk being like the me in the image, roaming around burning building, or even a burning city with my little cup of water, unwilling to keep that water to myself and not do my bit, but also not knowing how to spend that water in a way that will actually do some good, and not just be a waste of gesture.
I suppose my tin cup of water is my history of, and familiarity with, the use of force. Perhaps in a broader sense that represents all of the decent, honest, hard-working warriors in the world: military folks and police officers mainly, but a few private citizens in their own right. We all want to stop the burning, and just make the world a safe place for the innocent people, but no matter how many times and how many places we put the bad guys down, more just pop up somewhere else.
It’s important to remember that the use of force, and in fact all human effort but most especially effort centered around military options in the force of arms, are not and never can be final solutions. They are stopgaps. Only and ever stopgaps.
I am not sure that I want to call The grace of God a “final solution,” since that phrase tends to reduce complexity of the fallen world to some sort of Advanced math problem. However, the image of dew, or gentle rain fall, is a hopeful one. The water forms in the air in a million tiny little droplets. Unlike water splashed on from the outside, the rain forms within the heart of the fire. At first it seems like it has no effect because the heat just vaporizers it as it falls. But even the vaporized water goes back up into the clouds, cools again, and falls again. Each time the waterfalls and his vaporized it absorbs a little bit of the heat from the fire, and it burns that much cooler. Eventually, slowly and after an agonizingly long time, The fire is reduced to smoldering ruins. Then eventually even the smoldering embers are reduced to ashes, and the ashes become fertile soil, and something new grows in their place.
How is that hopeful? Am I basically saying not this world is lost and there’s nothing we can do but wait for God to come in and magically make everything all right? No.
I think it is about having a realistic, by which I mean humble, understanding of my own place in this fight. Putting out the fire is not my job. My job is to salvage what I can. Perhaps that means just keeping the walls of one little house damp, so that it doesn’t go up in flames. Perhaps it means putting out one little fire in one little back alley so that somebody can escape to safety. It means that I must be active and resisting the fire but not settle myself but the expectation of putting out the whole burning city myself.
There is one other thing that may be drawn from this image, if I’m not stretching the analogy too far. I only have a little bit of water, and if I splash it on the first conflagration I come across, it will not put it out and I will be left dry. I don’t think that I need to use it sparingly, but I do need to have a good resupply plan. That is I need to maintain contact with the source of that water.
Nietzsche had a quote to the effect that, “He who fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster himself. If you stare too long into the abyss the abyss stares back into you.” It is too easy to get sucked into the pattern of the violence that you’re trying to resist, especially if you lose contact with the source of the water. This is why the heart of all apostolate, is contemplation. The temptation for well-meaning Catholics is often to focus on social justice and charitable action so feverishly that we lose, or let go of, the time for prayer. This may achieve some short-term gain but it never last long, because once you stop praying you are cut off from the source of all water. Being too busy for prayer is like a firefighter being too busy to hook the hose up to the fire hydrant.
Anyway, that’s what came to me during prayer this morning.
“The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.” Isaiah 11:8
Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said,
“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.” Luke 10:21
These readings (from Tuesday of the First Week of Advent) were the topic of our Bible Study on Monday night. I had brought Evie with me to MC, and she was having a great time, despite the lateness of the hour and not feeling too well. She is such a social butterfly. I don’t know where she gets that from.
But when we started talking about that verse from Luke, Evie began babbling up a storm. Suddenly she had an awful lot to contribute to the discussion. We joked that she was “rejoicing in the Spirit,” and wondered what kind of things she could see in the spiritual realm that we cannot see.
I wonder that continually, as a matter of fact. I remember the first time I took Evie to Holy Hour when she was a couple of months old. Holy Cross Parish in North Tacoma has Perpetual Adoration and we had to drop Kathleen off somewhere up there for some kind of meeting. Evie was asleep when I brought her into the chapel in her carseat, but she soon woke up. So I took her out of the carseat and set her on my lap, and the very first thing she did was look directly at the exposed Host in the monstrance and laugh and open her mouth in the biggest, widest, gummiest grin ever. It was the same smile that she uses when she recognizes people she knows, or flirts with the old folks at church.
Of course the scientist in me posits all the possible explanations it can think of, spiritual and non-spiritual, e.g. she enjoyed the shinyness of the monstrance, she was happy to be out of the carseat and just happened to look in that direction, she was glad to be picked up by Daddy, she is seeing some faint manifestation of the spiritual reality of the Real Presence.
I don’t know what the fact of the matter is. I do take Jesus’ words quite literally, that God reveals things to little ones that He does not reveal to the wise and learned. Perhaps our urge to clarify and quantify precisely what was revealed is part of the reason for that. It is a response that would occur only to a “wise” and “learned” person, but a child would simply accept and enjoy.
Also, a wise and learned person is always in danger of thinking that he has discovered the insights rather than received them undeservingly. This is a spiritually deadly error, and in such a case God may very well withhold insights simply to protect the person from that error of pride. Jesus certainly seems to take some caution against this error in His disciples, for in the very next paragraph He turns to His apostles and says, “I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
It is as if to say, “You all have received some astounding revelations. Don’t take them for granted, and remember that the reason you received them is not your greatness or learning, but the fact that you really are the little ones that I was speaking about previously.”
A child does not earn his insights. A child does not earn his keep. A child does not earn anything. Everything he is and has up to and including his very life is given him by pure gift from his parents (and ultimately from God). Because they have no illusions of self-sufficiency they are able to trust completely in their parents and in God. This is why the prayers of little children are very, very powerful. They ask in trust.
Whatever the case may be, as to how much Evie sees or doesn’t see, she shows me every day how my relationship with God ought to be.
I continue to ruminate on the proper relationship between Christians and wealth. By wealth I don’t mean simply money, cars, houses, material goods, etc. I also mean talent, intelligence, athletic ability, time, emotion, etc. All goods are wealth, although some are more easily seen that way than others.
The problem, as I have said before, is not that wealth is bad, but that it is good. If it were not, we would not be addicted to it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our addictions are a clue as to our greatest treasures, at least in moderately high-functioning people. There are some people who are addicted to trash, and in the end all addiction ends up being an addiction to trash (because it trashes the good it craves).
But on a deeper level, I think it likely that the addictions we choose, our drug of choice, is a window into our greatest gifts from God. What we most want to horde for ourselves is a clue as to how we were created to apprehend the goodness and beauty of God. An example would probably help here.
Let’s talk about a video game addict. When I was playing video games every spare moment of my life I was hanging onto a good. I wanted adventure, challenge, accomplishment. I don’t want those things any less now that I no longer play video games. I want them more, and it is because I want them more that I don’t play video games, but is also because I don’t play video games anymore that my desire for the real deal is stronger.
I collect knowledge like Audubon painted birds. I love learning new things and integrating them into my previous knowledge schemas. I love learning something that forces me to revise that schema. There is an almost sensuous delight, as real as a perfectly grilled bite of kalbi ribs, in seizing onto a new and fascinating fact. Last week I geeked out for an entire day because I learned that Phosphofructokinase-1 and Fructose 1,6 Bisphosphatase were actually the same enzyme. Sometimes I physically tremble with excitement at a new theory or discovery I have never known before.
I could very easily spend my life as a permanent scholar, just learning and learning and learning, simply for the delight of knowing. Knowledge of truth and the rapturous, almost worshipful gaze at the interconnectedness of all truth is a primary way that I apprehend the Goodness, Truth and Beauty that God is.
The problem with that scenario is that knowing facts and understanding things as an end in themselves is a trap, just as surely as booze, sex or video games. In fact, being a higher pleasure, it could be an even deeper trap. I can easily ignore my duties to my family, spend money we don’t have on books I don’t need, shake my head with condescending pity on people who don’t love knowledge, and generally be an insufferable know-it-all.
In case you are wondering, I have done all of those things.
How do we prevent the good that we love most in the whole world from becoming an idol?
Of course there is the pure ascetic approach: i.e. just give it up. I don’t know if that is necessarily the most enlightened response. It certainly isn’t for me.
Once again I marvel at the wisdom Of God’s plan in designing inequality into the very fabric of creation. All men are not created equal. Equal in worth? Yes. Equal in anything else? Certainly not. Nowhere in the history of the world will you find two people with exactly identical personalities, temperaments, talents, intellects, athletic abilities, etc.
This inherent inequality is not a bad thing! It is one of our greatest blessings because it forms the foundation of all community, by mirroring our relationship with God, which is one of infinite inequality. He is everything and needs nothing. We are nothing and need everything. The symmetry is perfect!
Similarly say you have two people, one a genius confined to a wheelchair, the other an uneducated farmer with a back of steel and arms of iron. The genius gets to play the role of God in giving generously of his knowledge and wisdom to the farmer, perhaps by teaching him, perhaps by inventing new methods of agriculture, perhaps by awakening in his heart a thirst for knowledge. However, in terms of physical needs, the genius stands in relation to the farmer as they both stand in relation to God, i.e. one of vulnerability and need. The farmer gets to take on the role of God in providing food for the genius.
All blessings God gives are like water. We are like the rivers through which those blessings are meant to flow. The worst thing we can do is try to keep those blessing for ourselves. If we do that, we will end up sterile and stagnant, foul and festering. But it is equally absurd to say, “If I let the water in I will be tempted to hold onto it, so I am going to damn up the river at the top of the valley and not let any water in.”
The proper route of blessings is through. Everything God gives us is for a purpose, it is to bring some person closer to Him. Give it to someone who needs it. This is the most effective way of detaching oneself from goods that could potentially be a pitfall.
Some people like to dam up the river at the lower end, not to keep the blessings in but to give them more power when they are released. Billionaire philanthropists are like this. So are surgeons who spend 20 years educating themselves to perform delicate brain surgeries.
But I can’t but think that the greatest saints were those who blew up the dam, and just let it all go. Mother Teresa, St. Francis, etc. Those who held nothing back, didn’t worry about where tomorrow’s blessings were going to come from. They just gave everything away every moment. That, to me, is far more exciting and romantic than a hydro-electric plant.
It just sounds fun!
This post is kind of long, but I summarize it at the bottom so if you are pressed for time, feel free to scroll to the end.
“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Again I say to you,
it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
This was part of the gospel for Tuesday, August 18th and the subject of our Bible study this week. It is a fascinating passage to me because of the numerous different interpretations it always inspires. There are those who emphasize the “it will be hard” by saying “Jesus said ‘hard’ not ‘impossible.'” This, of course, ignores His statement a verse later, but we’ll get to that.
I have heard a lot of sermons and read some books which maintain that there was a “needle eye” gate in the wall of Jerusalem, which was tall enough for a person but not a camel. After the main gates were closed for the night, people who wanted to get their camels in would have to unload all their baggage and have the camel crawl through on its knees. It is an interesting and very rich interpretation, but I don’t know if there is any evidence or record of such a gate.
My own tendency is to put this in a “doesn’t apply to me” category. Even when I was young I was quick to congratulate myself on this one by saying, “Well, good thing I am not rich!” Nowadays I realize that I am “not rich” only by American standards. By the standards of 99% of all human beings who have ever lived, I am ridiculously wealthy, as evidenced by the fact that I:
- Have never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from
- Have never starved except in training
- Have never gotten dysentery from drinking water except in third world countries
- Have never had to be cold because I couldn’t afford clothes
- Have never had to sleep in the rain because I couldn’t afford a place to live
- Have never had to deny myself anything that I really wanted because of lack of money
- I own more things than I can carry on my back at one time
Moreover, even if we are not rich, the response of the disciples to Our Lord should give us pause:
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said,
“Who then can be saved?”
“Who then can be saved?”
Were the disciples rich? Some of them certainly were by their contemporary standards. Matthew was a tax collector, some of whom at least were known to be extremely wealthy as a result of their skimming off the top *cough* Zaccheus *cough*. Some people contend that Peter and the other fishermen were wealthy entrepreneurs, although K. C. Hanson provides a very well supported argument that they were instead merely laborers in a tightly regulated and heavily taxed economic niche.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether they were rich or not. Their immediate response to Jesus’ statement is “Who then can be saved?” It is as if, from the way Jesus is talking, they realize He is including everyone. It is not just being physically wealthy, but even being attached to wealth, or covetous for it. Just desiring wealth bars you from entry into the Kingdom.
Jesus confirms their suspicion by his response:
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men this is impossible,
but for God all things are possible.”
It is only by God’s mercy that anyone can be released from attachment to the things of this world. That is what purgatory is all about, the final detachment. That is what asceticism in this life is all about, our voluntary detachment, or at least preparation for detachment.
Again, I strive to let myself off the hook by noting (with a certain satisfaction) that I am actually quite indifferent to wealth and comfort. My experiences in various other countries and in the military has shown me that I need very little to survive, thrive, and even be happy. Very little materially, that is. The lines from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” resonate with me:
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
There is always something. I need very little material wealth to be happy. Eat the same boring glop every day? No problem. Sleep in the rain? Been there, done that. Drink nothing but water, and have to purify that before I can drink it safely? Easy peasy! Wear the same clothes until they literally fall apart… Wait, you mean you don’t do that?
But… suffer fools gladly? You have got to be kidding me!
Not get 100% on every test of knowledge, strength and skill? Shameful!
Give up dissecting and critiquing everything everyone says to me? May as well just shoot me now.
There is always something. My wealth is my mental and physical prowess. I am smart and strong, and I like being smart and strong, and I spend most of my time trying to be smarter and stronger. This is what I am attached to, what I covet, and what I would find impossible to give up, if it were asked of me (apart from God’s mercy).
This is also what I certainly will have to give up when I am old. My brain will not function the way it does now, my body will not be as strong or resilient. Will-he nil-he, detachment from even these goods of mind and body is going to be required of me, and God in His mercy will strip me of everything, even that. He will bring me naked, shivering and trembling before Him, and woe to me if I am looking back longingly at what I have had to leave behind.
So two points with this post:
- Mental detachment from things is all well and good, but physical goods require physical detachment. You cannot say, “I could do without,” with any real meaning until you have really done without. Nor is it a one and done thing, but this detachment must be renewed. I know that I can cheerfully be hungry and give away large sums of money, because I have cheerfully been hungry and have cheerfully given away large sums of money. However, comfort is addictive, and so insidious is this creeping attachment that unless I periodically renew my detachment by cheerfully being hungry and giving away money (or other things I care about), that detachment will fade and vanish.
- It does very little good to give up things we don’t care about. Detachment must be practiced for the things we care most about, and the intangible wealth is often the hardest to detach from.
If I have time to write a blog tomorrow it will be about what detachment from intangible wealth means to me.