Theology

Seeking deeper understanding of God and how God relates with everything

Thoughts on suffering

Life is suffering.

Gautama Buddha

I believe that the large majority of suffering comes from the refusal to suffer. We refuse to face and properly suffer our own suffering, and we refuse to face and compassionate the suffering of others as well. But in this refusal, we just compound the suffering.

Suffering can be greatly alleviated, both within ourselves and in others, just by giving it some attention and kindness, and allowing it to be what it is. The suffering is trying to communicate that something is wrong, and it needs to be heard and acknowledged. When we compassionately hear out suffering, it will become quieter, because it trusts that its problems have been heard and are being attended to. We also gain some of the understanding needed to attend to problems.

But if we reject suffering, then we are heaping the pain of rejection onto the existing suffering. Whether it’s to our own or to another’s suffering, we are effectively saying, “no one cares about you” to the part of the person that is suffering. No one wants to hear that. It then makes the suffering try to look after itself, either by crying out all the more for attention, or by hiding itself away, becoming unconscious, placing walls around itself, refusing vulnerability and life itself. But the suffering is part of us: if the suffering is hiding, we are hiding; if the suffering is rejected, we are rejected.

We refuse to suffer because we are afraid that suffering will destroy us. And actually, it will.

If you allow it, suffering will break your heart. But hearts are made to be broken. A heart that won’t break is as worthless as a heart that won’t beat. This is how hearts are purified and trained in the ways of a higher love and a deeper joy.

Suffering is a cry for wholeness. When you suffer it properly, with attention and compassion, you bring that cry into yourself, you take on its lack of wholeness. You become the suffering. But in embracing it with attention and compassion, you also grant it something of the wholeness it was lacking, because now it is united with yourself; now it is loved and acknowledged; now it is not alone. Compassion is itself a unifying force, and brings a bit more wholeness to everything it touches.

God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.

St Augustine

It is compassion that brought Jesus to the cross. In His compassion, He united Himself to all of humanity: all of the suffering inflicted on us, and all of the suffering we inflict on others. He took it all into Himself. In this way, He offered all of creation to the Father, forgave our sins, and created a new, united, humanity in His broken body. His radical, ultimate compassion has granted the promise of wholeness to the world.

But we too must embrace the cross, if we wish to be saved. We have to embrace the way of compassion, daring to suffer and have our hearts broken. We must dare to be united to the entire suffering world.

“If we wish to be saved” from what? Hell, of course. But what is hell? I think that hell is the refusal to suffer.

At the judgment, we will each have to suffer all that we are due. What suffering are we due? We are due all the suffering of our fellow humans who we have failed to compassionate. And we are due even more for the suffering we cause. I believe that as long as we refuse this suffering, resisting and fighting against it, we will be stuck with it in its compounded, hellish form, but if we take on the suffering with compassion, we will have our hearts thoroughly broken, pass through the suffering and be purified, before entering into heaven. For as long as we resist suffering, it is hell, but once we accept it with compassion, it becomes purgatory, which is the way to heaven.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(Matthew 5:2-10)

Lucifer’s justice compared to Mary’s

Why did Lucifer and his angels fall to pride, and the Blessed Virgin Mary not? Lucifer, prior to his fall, was the greatest and most beautiful of all God’s creatures. From her conception, Mary was the greatest and most beautiful of all God’s creatures. Lucifer was created without original sin, in fact he was created prior to sin even existing, and Mary was conceived without original sin also. So was Mary at risk of falling just as much as Lucifer was? I don’t think so.

The difference, I think, is that Lucifer was without sin because he was created in original justice, a justice that was his own justice. He was, simply from the way he was created, just, and ordered properly towards God. He had the justice natural to creatures.

But Mary’s Immaculate Conception did not give her a justice of her own: she was given the justice of the Christian, to share in Christ’s own justice, by the power of the Holy Spirit. She was not simply created fresh, without sin in the same way that Adam and Eve were, she was recreated in the divine recapitulation of Jesus, infused with the life of God. She is not just new, she is renewed. Her holiness belongs entirely and solely to God.

Lucifer’s justice was from God as its creator, to God as its end, but of Lucifer as its object.  Mary’s justice is from God, to God, and of God.

It is from God, but not as its creator, since the justice of Mary is the justice of Jesus, and the justice of Jesus is not created, but simply His being, His life of obedience and love to the Father from eternity to eternity. Jesus’s justice is His alignment with the Father, which is who He is.

It has God as its end, but not merely, as in Lucifer’s case, as the standard it is directed to, as an oven has cooking as its end. Mary’s justice has God as its end in a more perfect way, because Mary’s justice is her union with God, sharing His divine life, His very Godhead, and so its end is nothing less than for Mary to be made perfectly one with God.

It is of God, because it is Christ’s saving work upon the cross, and her being united to Christ crucified, Him living in her. It is not her work, but her union with Christ’s saving work. Lucifer had the justice of a servant: of doing what is required of him; Mary had the justice of a spouse: of loving and being loved, intimately and tenderly.

So we see just how great our salvation is, and how it leaves no room for pride.

God bless, and have a wonderful Christmas!

The conquest of death

On Easter Sunday, Jesus conquered death. We dare to taunt death, ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ [1 Cor 15:55]

Jesus didn’t just defeat death in His own case only, making Himself a special exception to the laws of life and death. He crushed death itself, abolishing its reign and dominion. He annihilated death at a metaphysical level.

The whole world was held in death’s grip, and no one could hope to escape it. It was known that eventually, each and every man, woman and child would come to be cut off from the land of the living and go down to join the dead. Everyone knew that this is simply our fate.

Everyone would eventually be cut off from the land of the living because we were all cut off already from God, the author of life. The body was subjected to corruption and death because the soul was subjected to sin. The death of the body was just a delayed reaction to the death of the soul.

But Jesus overcame both death and sin by uniting Himself to them. By becoming sin, identifying Himself perfectly with sinful humanity, and suffering death, He brought the fullness of love, and life, and righteousness down into the heart of sin and of death itself. He descended to the deepest existential depths of human misery and hopelessness, the darkness from which no one returns, and there He brought life to death and redemption to sin, utterly overcoming them from the inside.

As Christians we have already been baptised into Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have passed over from death to life already, and the grave will never hold us captive. Even after our bodily death, when we still await the resurrection of the body at the end of time, we will not be trapped in the grave, but alive in the spirit in Heaven.

‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’

Alleluia! God bless you!

Marian Consecration

Today I began 33 days of preparation to consecrate myself to Mary, following St Louis de Montfort’s instructions, and ending with consecration on the feast of the Presentation of Mary. I’ve done the consecration before on the same feast, and am renewing the consecration this time. Please pray for me, that I will give myself fully and hold nothing back.

Marian consecration is one of the most beautiful of all the devotions in the Church. It is perhaps the summit of all true spirituality.

We consecrate ourselves to Mary, because she is perfectly consecrated to God, and we wish to be united to Mary in her consecration. I once wrote the following:

‘God gave Himself to us by giving Himself to Mary. We are saved through God giving Himself to Mary in Jesus Christ, and through Mary’s “yes”, her giving herself up to God in Jesus Christ. God gave Himself through Mary, and we must receive God, be given up to God, through Mary’s “yes”.’ (https://asalittlechild.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/marys-teaching/)

I really want to double down on this point. We are saved through Mary’s fiat to God. When she said yes at the annunciation, she said yes on behalf of the whole universe, welcoming Jesus into creation. To be saved is to be united to Mary in saying yes, in surrendering and consecrating ourselves to God and welcoming Jesus to be conceived in us.

And this yes, this surrender and consecration and welcome, are simply who Mary is, through and through. From the first moment of her existence, her Immaculate Conception, she was claimed wholly for God. And at every moment following she gave herself wholly to God. We can see this in the annunciation, but also in every single Marian feast: God has claimed her entirely for His own, and she gives herself entirely to Him. The entirety of her being is caught up in loving God back. She is love returning love. To be saved is to be united to Mary.

Please pray for me to make this consecration well.

God bless you

Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth

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.

God bless you.

On Lust

“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.

On gluttony

What is gluttony? According to its Catholic Encyclopedia entry, gluttony is ‘the excessive indulgence in food and drink. The moral deformity discernible in this vice lies in its defiance of the order postulated by reason, which prescribes necessity as the measure of indulgence in eating and drinking.’ It is also one of the seven deadly sins/cardinal vices, and yet it seems to be widely forgotten today.

‘Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire.’ (St John Cassian) Food was made to nourish us as its primary purpose, and to deny it this is to twist it out of its own nature, and into something that is both harmful and wasteful.

What’s more, gluttony subverts the created order in which the mind rules over the body, managing its needs and desires, and lets the body and its desires instead rule the mind. It attaches us to bodily/earthly realities, and so prevents us from rising to spiritual/celestial realities.

Gluttony also feeds the next cardinal vice, lust. This vice we hear about all the time. St John Cassian said, ‘No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity.’ Indulgence spills out to indulgence. First the flesh demands its basic good and pleasure of food, and then it goes on to its higher good and pleasure of sex.

According to St Thomas, there are five ways to be gluttonous: too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily. While growing obesity levels are visible and concerning, gluttony is much more than getting fat, and likely affects most people in the western world. Being excessively fussy is itself a form of gluttony.

So how should we oppose this vice? St John Cassian: ‘A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.‘ I’m not sure how hungry/unsatisfied this requires, but at least try to leave some room (and not just for dessert!).

Speaking of dessert, I won’t say anything against that, nor against enjoying life generally. But we do need to learn moderation, and eat with the end of nourishment in mind. Food should absolutely be enjoyed as a gift from God, but we have to watch not to abuse it.

God bless 🙏