Is prayer a form of escape from the world? Is that the ultimate aim of Christian life – to leave this world behind and instead to dwell with God in heaven? Are we to live for the next life, and not for the present life?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because we are made for God and for eternal life, and we must renounce all finite distractions that would keep us from Him. Our destiny is the fullness of life in God Himself and nothing less. We are told again and again to deny ourselves, to renounce the world, and to live for God alone. We must not fall into thinking that prayer or spirituality or the Christian faith are concerned primarily with improving this world and this life. The Christian faith has a far larger vision.
‘If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.’ [Colossians 3:1-3]
But no, because Jesus came to save the world. He didn’t come to save us out of the world, He came to redeem the entirety of creation with us in it.
‘For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God.’ [Romans 8:20-21]
So then, how can we have both yes and no? We save the world with Jesus, but only in renouncing it with Him. ‘Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it shall preserve it.’ [Lk 17:33] In the same way, whoever seeks to save the world will lose the world, but whoever shall renounce the world will save it.
Jesus saves us and saves the world by the sacrifice He made upon the cross, present at every mass. In this sacrifice, He renounces absolutely everything, His life, His body, His soul, everything He loves and cares for (including you and me), offering it all to the Father. It is in this offering that we are saved. We are sinners, and do not have the purity of heart to truly offer ourselves to God, except by being united to Jesus’s own self offering.
This is the goal of Christian life and the heart of Christian prayer and spirituality. We renounce ourselves and the whole world, and offer it all up to God, united to Jesus’s offering upon the cross. Or to express it differently, we let go of our selves, of every finite thing, of every desire to control and possess and consume, and we entrust it all to God, to Him who is eternal love, uniting ourselves and all the cosmos to the holy sacrifice of the mass.
So then, what does this renunciation and salvation look like? For now, it looks like loving the world, but refusing to grasp at it, even in thought. It looks like placing ourselves and everything in our lives into Love’s everlasting hands. And in the end, it looks like the resurrection of the entire universe.
“Our fourth struggle is against the demon of anger. We must, with God’s help, eradicate his deadly poison from the depths of our souls. So long as he dwells in our hearts and blinds the eyes of the heart with his sombre disorders, we can neither discriminate what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life: and our intellect will remain impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light; for it is written, ‘For my eye is troubled because of anger’ (Ps. 6:7. LXX).”
St John Cassian
The evil of anger for St John Cassian is that it blinds our souls and cuts us off from true life. ‘Anger is a desire for revenge.’ [CCC no. 2302] That is, it is to desire destruction or harm upon someone or something in response to a perceived injury received. It therefore blinds our souls because we see the other as evil/as an enemy, when in truth and in God’s eyes they are fundamentally good and beloved. It cuts us off from true life because we set ourselves against God’s beloved, and therefore against God Himself. Experience confirms that anger destroys reason and opposes prayer, without fail. I am sure we have all experienced “seeing red” and doing something we shouldn’t have.
“Listen to what St Paul enjoins: ‘Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking and all malice’ (Eph. 4:31). In saying ‘all’ he leaves no excuse for regarding any anger as necessary or reasonable. If you want to correct your brother when he is doing wrong or to punish him, you must try to keep yourself calm; otherwise you yourself may catch the sickness you are seeking to cure and you may find that the words of the Gospel now apply to you: ‘Physician, heal yourself’ (Luke 4:23), or ‘Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the rafter in your own eye?’ (Matt. 7:3).”
St John Cassian
St John is unequivocal: the only place for anger is against our own sins. However, the idea of righteous anger goes back at least to St Thomas Aquinas, and so deserves respectful consideration. What does St Thomas say, and can we reconcile the two saints?
“It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice”
ST II-II, Q. 158, art.1, reply obj.3
The difference between St Thomas and St John is just that St Thomas is willing to call this anger and St John is not. This desire for justice, for restitution and correction of vice, is utterly different to the desire for vengeance upon an enemy, to the point where we need another word for it. Righteous anger is as different to anger as chaste sexual desires are to lust.
The point I would like to emphasise here is, that we ought to keep calm even when we must correct or confront a brother. We may feel outrage over the transgression, but we must be calm and contain ourselves, and insist upon viewing our brother as a brother, and if we must confront a brother we must do so in charity.
The purpose of anger
“Our incensive power can be used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. This is what the Prophet teaches us when he says: ‘Be angry, and do not sin’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX) – that is, be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts, and do not sin by carrying out their suggestions. What follows clearly confirms this interpretation: ‘As you lie in bed, repent of what you say in your heart’ (Ps. 4:4. LXX) – that is, when malicious thoughts enter your heart, expel them with anger, and then turn to compunction and repentance as if your soul were resting in a bed of stillness.”
St John Cassian
Our incensive power, our internal power of destruction, is of itself good, and is to be placed at God’s service. The issue is that we think our friends (our fellow creatures) are our enemies, and that our enemies (our vices and sins) are our friends. We must study the passions and learn to know and fight our true enemies.
We shouldn’t be kind or gentle on our vices or malicious thoughts. We should expel them with anger. We should dash their heads against the rock, that is, Christ. We must be patient with ourselves, but absolutely merciless with vice.
This brings us back to the question of righteous anger. This anger against our own sins is certainly righteous anger, and I would argue that righteous anger in the larger sense is actually the same thing, only within a community rather than an individual. That is why it belongs especially to those in positions of authority.
It is right for a community to have anger at its own injustices and sins, and so to root them out and purify itself. But it must never be a matter of seeking revenge against others. It must be an act of love for the community as a whole as well as for each of its members, desiring to free us all, and it must be as part of the community. But again, and I must emphasise this, it must be done out of love, and be consistent with love; if it is not, then you are in danger of judgment (Mt 5:22).
How to conquer anger
“The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust.”
St John Cassian
Anger will always pretend to be justified. Always. No one is ever angry without feeling they have a right to be.
But you do not have a right to be angry, ever. How do I know? Because Jesus Christ Himself, when mocked, slandered, tortured and executed unjustly, did not respond in anger.
If, therefore, you continually recall this with all your heart, the passion of bitterness, anger and wrath will not master you. For when the foundations constructed of the passion of pride are sapped through this recalling of Christ’s humiliation, the whole perverse edifice of anger, wrath and resentment automatically collapses. For can anyone keep perpetually in mind the humiliation that the Divinity of the only-begotten Son accepted for our sake, and all the sufferings that we have mentioned, and yet be so hard and stony-hearted as not to be shattered, humbled and filled with remorse? Will he not willingly become dust and ashes, trampled underfoot by all men?
In the wake of black lives matter protests, there’s been a lot of attention given to many statues. What do we do with our lovely statues of less than lovely people?
Firstly, we should acknowledge that statues aren’t merely a historical record, and taking them down is anything but erasing history. It’s insane that people (including the PM) even try to make this argument. Adolf Hitler had a significant effect on our history, but we don’t give him a statue. We use statues to celebrate and immortalise those we hold up as heroes. They’re usually raised up for us to literally look up to.
With that out of the way, what do we do? I think we should obviously remove statues of bad people. People who we don’t want to celebrate any more. People like Bristol’s Edward Colston, merchant, philanthropist, slave trader and Tory MP.
What about, say, Winston Churchill? Churchill was a hero for the British war effort, but also a terrible racist, and arguably responsible for the deaths of millions of Indians. He was incredibly racist, even by the standards of his day (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_views_of_Winston_Churchill). Should we continue to uphold him as a hero?
I think we need to acknowledge that Churchill played two different roles in two different stories. In one he was the hero, and in the other he was the villain. Does one story discount the other? Not entirely, but they can’t be neatly separated either. Was he a hero? I think it’s ok to say, “yes, but…”. Was he a villain? It’s ok to say “yes, despite…”.
In this, I think that Churchill epitomises the ambiguity of the British empire itself. An empire that did do much good, but also much evil. It’s ok to say it was both. I think the empire was more bad than good, but it’s ok to acknowledge and celebrate the good, so long as we also recognise the evil.
So should we take Churchill’s statues down? Would we be throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I don’t know. We’d take them down if he was a pedophile, so maybe we should take them down for him being a horrific racist; it’s maybe just a question of how much it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Can we celebrate him despite his racism and if we can, is that a bad sign about us?
I don’t know. Maybe Churchill doesn’t make the cut, and maybe he does. Maybe we have to learn to accept the contradictions of history and of life, and not be too quick to resolve them. If we have the patience to hold them in tension, we can learn and we can grow. The crucial thing is for us to learn, and learn from, both stories. History is complicated and the world isn’t neatly separated into good people and evil people. We need to grasp this if we are to make any progress.
Avarice is the inordinate love of riches, and is a vice that is especially prominent in the world today. We see it in the growing inequality between rich and poor, in gross displays of luxury, and in the many people who direct their lives to the pursuit of wealth. And yet this sin that drives our capitalist world is too rarely denounced.
The evil of avarice firstly has the effect of setting our hearts and minds on the corruptible things of earth, and so preventing us from rising up to contemplate incorruptible heavenly realities. As Jesus said,
‘Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through, and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’
I feel we’ve grown far too comfortable ignoring Jesus’s words, but He could not be clearer. We have to make a choice: do we want the riches of heaven or the riches of earth? Both is not an option.
Avarice then has the second effect of separating us from our fellow humans. We look at our property and say in our hearts, this is mine and not yours. We build up and fiercely guard a tiny kingdom of what is mine, and we allow no one else in. If you need something I might kindly give it to you, but I’ll make damn sure it’s known I am being gracious and have no debt to you. Here is me and mine, and outside this there is you and yours, and you can look after yours and I’ll look after mine.
This is why evangelical poverty is so important and so powerful. It tears down these walls we have placed around ourselves, and frees us to meet each other without the barrier of mine and thine, but just as people. Basically, it frees us to love one another.
St Basil says, commenting on Jesus’s parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-21),
‘But thou wilt say, Whom do I wrong by keeping what is my own? For it follows also, And there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. Tell me what is thine, from whence didst thou get it and bring it into life? As he who anticipates the public games, injures those who are coming by appropriating to himself what is appointed for the common use, so likewise the rich who regard as their own the common things which they have forestalled. For if every one receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.
‘But if thou confessest that those things have come to thee from God, is God then unjust in distributing to us unequally. Why dost thou abound while another begs? unless that thou shouldest gain the rewards of a good stewardship, and be honoured with the meed of patience. Art not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast received to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which rots in thy possession, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightest be a benefactor.’
(St. Basil, quoted in St Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea)
The rule is simple, but extremely demanding, and many of us should immediately recognise that we are avaricious. We hoard so much that we do not need, and happily leave others to go without. We store up wealth against possible future misfortune, while our neighbours experience such misfortune already.
This doctrine is called the ‘universal destination of goods’, and says that all of creation was made for the enjoyment of all humanity, and in justice ought to be ordered to the good of all. No one has the right to claim anything as ultimately and exclusively his or her own, and to do so is nothing less than theft. This is the teaching of the Church. As St Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.’
This doesn’t mean we all have to take vows of poverty (although that is the ideal). But we do need to inspect and challenge our relationship with wealth. If it is anything to you more than a tool to meet your needs and love your neighbour, then it is avarice.
How do we fight this vice? Very simply, we identify the vice and then practice its opposite, charity. When we are holding too tightly to what we have already, we must consciously decide not to keep track of what others might owe us, and then to forget it entirely, even if they won’t do the same. In fact, we should abandon the notion we could ever have a debtor, since we ask God every day to forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. When we have more than we need, we must seriously ask ourselves how best to use it for the good of our brothers and sisters, and resolve to do accordingly. Essentially, refuse to believe it is really yours at all, and you will do fine.
God bless you 🙏🏽
P.S. For an example of avarice, I recommend this classic from Tom and Jerry, the Movie:
Racism sucks. It’s absolutely unequivocally evil, and thinking about it makes me extremely angry. It also makes me painfully sad.
The tragic fact of the matter is that people are regularly killed for the colour of their skin. George Floyd is the latest name, but he is anything but alone in suffering this injustice. There is deep rooted cultural and systematic racism at work, and it needs to be tackled head on.
I wish that George Floyd’s death was shocking because it was unprecedented. I wish that this was an American problem and not a global problem. I wish that racism wasn’t real.
I am mixed race and have experienced racism, but, thank God, not to the level others I know have. A stranger at a train station shouted in my ear as he walked past “I think they should let all the jihadis in!” It’s fine that he thought I’m Muslim, but that he would call me a terrorist, that he would hate and fear me, fills me with rage years later. Don’t believe anyone who says Islamophobia isn’t racism. There have been other minor incidents too, but I’ll leave them.
When the police kill an innocent man, there must be a great cry of righteous indignation from all of society. If there is not, then your nation is already dead. When injustice doesn’t make you angry, you are no longer alive. Only Jesus can save you, resurrecting your anger. There is an anger which is holy, and this is it.
So we choose to join those crying out for justice. We choose to weep with those that weep. It’s our issue, because they’re our people, because all people are our people. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ We are one society, and your problems are mine, and my problems are yours.
So get angry and go, do what you can. Join a protest, raise your voice, educate yourself, see if there’s any hint of racism in yourself and root it out, donate to a charity that’s fighting the fight, call out prejudice, pray to God. Do what you can. Right now, this is what love looks like.
“The inordinate craving for, or indulgence of, the carnal pleasure which is experienced in the human organs of generation.” – the Catholic Encyclopedia
What is so terrible about lust? Lust reduces something which was made for connection and creating new life, into a sterile, lifeless pleasure, devoid of all meaning. We are left with an empty shell of sexuality. It is a pleasure separated from the real good it corresponds to, and so it is a mere illusion, and produces only the illusion of happiness, an experience only skin deep. Seeking after pleasure for its own sake hollows out a person, as they live for images and not for reality.
It also generally involves reducing another person to an object of our own pleasure, and not regarding them in their full humanity. It thus hollows out the lustful person, and their image of the other also, so that the humanity and reality of both is denied. I should note however, that there are degrees of lust, and they dehumanize to different levels.
Lust is extremely powerful, because it feeds off of our most powerful natural desire – to love and to be loved, and to have children conceived out of that love – and because it is so much cheaper to satisfy lust than the real desire. Chaste love is heroic, putting oneself on the line, taking risks and making sacrifices; lust is lazy, cowardly, and stingy, refusing risk, vulnerability, and gift, in order to ultimately remain alone.
How do we fight lust? Fighting gluttony is an important part, as mentioned in my previous post On Gluttony, and fasting in particular is recommended. St John Cassian adds:
‘Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labour. These are able to check the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from its shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin. In the first place, then, we must take the utmost care to guard the heart from base thoughts, for, according to the Lord, ‘out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity’ and so on (Matt. 15:19).’
St John Cassian, ‘On the Eight Vices’ (emphasis mine)
I would add, avoid the near occasion of sin, e.g. don’t go to a nude beach if you struggle with lust. I don’t think this was such an issue for the monks St John was writing for though.
‘If we are really eager, as the Apostle puts it, to ‘struggle lawfully’ and to ‘be crowned’ (2 Tim. 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of unchastity, we should not trust in our own strength and ascetic practice, but in the help of our Master, God. No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labour, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers. Indeed, he who has trampled down the pleasures and provocations of the flesh is in a certain sense outside the body. Thus, no one can soar to this high and heavenly prize of holiness on his own wings and learn to imitate the angels, unless the grace of God leads him upwards from this earthly mire.’
Only God can deliver us from this demon. Only grace can grant to our nature its wholeness, and restore us to reality. Only the supernatural desire can overcome our most powerful natural desire, and order it to our good rather than our destruction.
God bless you.
P.S. Writing about vices is easier than writing about virtues, because virtues are living and vices are dead. Slavery can be summarised neatly, but to know freedom it must be lived. Chastity is so much more than a lack of lust, but it cannot adequately be spoken of. The best I can do for now is provide the above image.
I’ve decided that, following on from my post, On Gluttony, I’ll try to write something for each of the seven deadly sins. But before I go on talking about sin, I thought it best to first say something about mercy.
In the event of committing a sin, I think the majority of us a) hide ourselves from God in shame, and then b) attempt to justify ourselves with excuses. Both of these are a denial of God’s mercy and a refusal to repent, and must be avoided like the plague. You can see both approaches in the account of Adam and Eve after the fall:
And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise at the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God, amidst the trees of paradise. And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: Where art thou? And he said: I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself. And he said to him: And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat? And Adam said: The woman, whom thou gavest me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
Genesis 3:8-12 (DR)
Note that Adam was not hiding his sin, but his nakedness. We become afraid for God to see us as we are and so we hide ourselves from Him, avoiding His presence in our conscience, in silence, and in prayer. We hide ‘amidst the trees of paradise’, distracting ourselves with the various pleasures of creation. Then when He finally finds us, we hide again, this time behind excuses and the sins of others. We are afraid to let God see us naked, because we think He won’t like what He sees.
How can this fear which keeps us separated from God be overcome? I will tell you: He Himself overcomes our shame by getting naked first. At Jesus’s birth and upon the cross, in His incarnation and His death, He gives Himself to the world completely naked, withholding nothing, revealing the deepest depths of Himself. We can reveal ourselves to God, we can trust Him with ourselves, because He has given Himself entirely to us in perfect love, He has placed Himself into our hands. He has said, ‘I am yours’, or rather, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.‘
So if and when we next sin we must not hide, but without hesitation turn directly to God, ask for His mercy (I recommend saying an Act of Contrition), and trust Him to provide it. There is no use in hiding from God, attempting to justify or save or punish yourself. You will never escape God’s judgment except by surrendering yourself to His mercy. As St Therese of Lisieux wrote:
‘For those who love Him, and after each fault come to ask pardon by throwing themselves into His arms, Jesus trembles with joy.’
She was beautiful, even most beautiful, as Richard of St. Victor asserts, and also St. George of Nicomedia, and St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who, as many believe, once had the happiness of enjoying the sight of her beauty, and said that if faith had not taught him that she was a creature, he should have adored her as God. And the Lord himself revealed to St. Bridget, that the beauty of his mother surpassed the beauty of all men and angels, allowing the saint to hear him say to Mary: “Thy beauty exceeds that of all the angels, and of all creatures.” She was most beautiful, I repeat, but without injury to those who looked upon her, for her beauty put to flight impure emotions, and suggested even pure thoughts, as St. Ambrose attests: So great grace had she, that she not only preserved her own virginity, but also conferred a remarkable gift of purity on those who beheld her.