Taking the Other Seriously

Today’s reading comes from LV 19:1-2, 11-18

Too often do modern Christians, along with modern critics of Christianity, focus on one facet of the law of love for neighbor that they completely ignore the other.  Take for instance this verse from the passage:

You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove him,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

What we immediately hone in on is the second to last bit when YHWH directs the Israelites to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  But what about the first part of that commandment – the bolded part?  What about the part when YHWH is telling the people that there is a time when it is necessary to tell another person that s/he is sinning?  Or, and this is more interesting, that by not reproving our brothers and sisters in their sinning that we incur sin because love demands that we take them serious enough to help them become holy.

Let us then not forget this very first part of that commandment.  It is important for us to remember that if we love others as we do ourselves that we would correct them in their mistakes.  The mistake, of course, is to think that in reprimanding the one we love, we hate him or her.  But this is silly.  Just as we do not literally hate ourselves after we realized we had made a mistake, and yet we also reprove ourselves so that we can act differently in the future under the same circumstance; it is therefore also necessary that loving others like we love ourselves demands the same approach.

Charity precludes hostility, maliciousness, a spirit of revenge-seeking, and bearing grudges; but it also precludes indifferentism and relativism.  Love, St. Thomas tells us, means willing the good of the other as other, and this willing this good will require us to take them seriously enought to tell them what’s bad.

Happy Monday of the first week of Lent, friends.


The Wisdom of Humble Faith

Jesus’ condemnation of the self-righteousness of the people of his time in today’s Gospel reminds us of the wisdom of faith content by whatever provisions the Lord has chosen to give.  Unlike the Ninevites, who repented from their sins simply by the words of Jonah without witnessing any miracles, the contemporaries of Jesus refused to repent even though he was among them working miracles day in and day out.  While one group profited from the words of God delivered through a prophet, the other group turned from the Word of God and rejected his grace that would humble their hearts.  The faith of Nineveh accepted whatever little revelation God was willing present to it and received such revelation with great humility.  The faith of Jerusalem doubted all the revelation that God was granting them and rejected Jesus’ revelation with its pride.  Allow Alexander Pope’s Universal Prayer to guide our own faith life today so that, with the humility the Ninevites, we may receive whatever little the Lord chooses to reveal to us with humility in faith.

Father of all! in every age,
    In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
    Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!
Thou Great First Cause, least understood:
    Who all my sense confined
To know but this—that thou art good,
    And that myself am blind:
Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
    To see the good from ill;
And binding Nature fast in fate,
    Left free the human will.
What conscience dictates to be done,
    Or warns me not to do,
This, teach me more than Hell to shun,
    That, more than Heaven pursue.
What blessings thy free bounty gives,
    Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives,
    To enjoy is to obey.
Yet not to earth’s contracted span,
    Thy goodness let me bound,
Or think thee Lord alone of man,
    When thousand worlds are round:
Let not this weak, unknowing hand
    Presume thy bolts to throw,
And deal damnation round the land,
    On each I judge thy foe.
If I am right, thy grace impart,
    Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
    To find a better way.
Save me alike from foolish pride,
    Or impious discontent,
At aught thy wisdom has denied,
    Or aught thy goodness lent.
Teach me to feel another’s woe,
    To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
    That mercy show to me.
Mean though I am, not wholly so
    Since quickened by thy breath;
Oh lead me wheresoe’er I go,
    Through this day’s life or death.
This day, be bread and peace my lot:
    All else beneath the sun,
Thou know’st if best bestowed or not,
    And let thy will be done.
To thee, whose temple is all space,
    Whose altar, earth, sea, skies!
One chorus let all being raise!
    All Nature’s incense rise!

Repent and Return

We are reminded in today’s Gospel reading that the path towards God is often one that requires the carrying of crosses.  The world offers convenience and ease as temporary fulfillment for our permanent thirst.  These drinks require our returning to them over and over again because they do not fully satiate our thirst.  None of us are strangers to these drinks.  However, Christ’s words are clear: the way of the Lord is difficult and tough, but while the body aches the soul rejoices.  And just as St. Monica prayed and waited patiently for the young Augustine to turn from his wayward ways, God, our parent par excellence, remains in waiting for our return to Him.  Allow Ellen Gilbert’s words from Prodigal to be our own words to God and guide us back to Him this Lent:

Like a bird that trails a broken wing,
I have come home to Thee;
Home from a flight and freedom
That was never meant for me.

And I, who have known far spaces,
And the fierce heat of the sun,
Ask only the shelter of Thy wings,
Now that the day is done.

Like a bird that trails a broken wing,
I have come home, at last…
O hold me to Thy Heart once more,
And hide me from the past.

A Closer Look At Sin and Christian Charity

A couple of posts ago, I gave a (very very) brief (and amateur-ish) examination at the nature of sin.  I have since then been thinking and reading more about it, so here is another closer examination of sin and love:

Sins are of different degrees and types and this becomes crucial in theological reflection and for the examination of conscience in preparation for the Sacrament of Penance.  The Church proposes two general categories for sinful acts: venial and mortal/grave.  As Bernard Haring points out, “mortal sin is always grave, as death is grave.”[1]  The Catholic Church teaches us this by pointing out that mortal sin “destroy the charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law” where as “venial sin allows for charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.”[2]

Simply put, sins of profoundly grievous nature are mortal in that they entail the death of a relationship—the relationship between the sinner and God.  The distinction made between mortal sin and venial sin is necessary since it would be false to assert that a sin of a serious nature is of the same grade as that of something less serious just as it would be silly for us to say that an illness that causes death is just as seriousness as a sprained ankle.  At the same time, we must be mindful that venial sins can lead to mortal sins.  Consider Haring’s comment on the difference between mortal and venial and the latter’s possible leading to the former:

Mortal sin…is a refusal of God’s friendship, opposition to the Covenant, and total alienation of the person from God, from himself, and from the community.  It is a fundamental option against God and, explicitly or implicitly, a conscious idolatrous option for one’s own egotism or idols…Venial sin is like sickness.  Not all sickness is grave, but it would be an absurdity to assert that every ailment to the point of death is in the “nonserious” or “slight” category.  It would be equally absurd to claim that no venial sin can be grave.[3]

Insofar as mortal sin is concerned, there are three conditions that qualify at act as mortally wounding the relationship between us and God: the object and matter of the sin must be of a grave degree, there must have been full and conscious intent, and the action was willfully free.[4]  Essentially, mortal sins are those actions that are contrary to those laws laid out in the Ten Commandments and other moral laws built upon these commandments.  Venial sins, on the other hand, are those that are lesser in degree and committed in ignorance or under coercion.

If we are to understand that sin is the separation of ourselves from God, then it is reasonable to conclude that it is only in God that we obtain holiness.  This holiness must be searched in relation to Christ and in imitation of him.  As John Paul II tells us in Fides et Ratio, it was God himself who came and lived among us so as to bring us into communion with himself.[5]  This incarnation of God is so that we can come to know him and imitate his holiness.  The more we desire to be holy and lead a holy life, the more we strive to be like Christ himself.

When we sin and we recognize that we are sinning, we ought to understand that not only is sin the destruction of our relationship with others and God but that we have failed to imitate Christ.  This recognition of failure ought to humble us and extend an invitation for our return to Christ—the one who is the source of all graces.  Consequently, we as sinners ask for forgiveness and accepts God’s calling to return to Him.  By accepting this divine initiative, we find not only forgiveness, but also peace in that the disorder of the relationship has been restored to its original form.

Finally, the better we understand sin and its destructive powers over us, we are more likely to avoid it and respond to others with love.  The turning away from sin is not only seen as obedience to God’s will and an imitation of Christ himself, but is also viewed as an action of love.  Love, insofar as the Catholic vision is concerned, is most genuine when we recognize our own failures and sins so that we can proceed to learn to love as we would have ourselves loved.   In this sense, the love that is freed is the love which proceeds in faith.   When we allow love to flourish in faith we can then exclaim “I see!” like that blind man that Jesus healed.  This is faith giving sight to sin so that we are able to see the Truth and goodness of God through the love of neighbor.  Therefore, through the recognition of our own sinfulness, we are able to love more abundantly.

[2] Catechism #1855

[4] Catechism #1857

[5] Fides et Ratio #10

A Quick Look At Sin

In an age of relativism and moral subjectivism, sin is either misunderstood or rejected and denied of its destructive power.  The sinner does not recognize sin and its harmful nature because he mostly thinks of sin as an ancient tradition and practice.  Additionally, when what is considered to be personally preferable is considered to be morally allowable, there seems to be no such thing as sin.  At any rate, even if the modern man is to admit that there is such thing as sin, he seems to think that it only takes place when an action is performed with extremely grievous nature, e.g., murder, rape, and so forth.  As it seems, justifications for actions based on situational ethics, e.g. “it’s OK for me to have an abortion because I’m a single mother and can’t possibly give my child a good quality of life”, completely dominate reflective moral thinking and actions that are wrong are judged right because one can justify it personally.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers several understandings of sin including the “offense of reason, truth and right conscience.”[1]  Sin is the vindication of that which is perverse and evil over that which is good and pure.  In a theological framework, “sin is the violation of the order that God has established.”[2]  This violation of the order is usually actualized through wrong moral actions (although not always).  Sin is therefore the rebellious nature of one who refuses to do the will of God; and who consequently is alienated in a twofold division.  The sinner is first alienated from himself since he rejects the goodness in his nature which God has created for Himself.  Secondly, the sinner is alienated from others through his sin.  Note from the very first story of the Adam and Eve and their love.  Under the condition of original justice, Adam would have gladly suffered for Eve because of his profound love for her, the flesh of his flesh and the bones of his bones.  Having committed sin: “The man blames the woman for his own guilt: his is quite prepared even to put the responsibility for his iniquity on his beloved wife.”[3]

The kinds of alienation that sin causes destroy the fundamentally goodness of human nature.  Human beings are created in such a way that we are to be in communion with one another and with God.  This point is made by John Paul II when he wrote in Fides et Ratio that “…human beings are not made to live alone”, and that “…God out of the abundance of his love speaks to men and women as friends and lives among them, so that he may invite and take them into communion with himself.”[4]  But with sin these communions are either harmed or destroyed.

[1] Catechism #1849
[2] De Rosa, Christ and Original Sin
[3] De Rosa, Christ and Original Sin
[4] Fides et Ratio #10

This is my body!

Nina Rosenstand, in her book The Human Condition, contends that, among other characterizations, the human person can also be characterized as the story-telling animal.  Rosenstand elucidates her argument by citing historical evidence as well as a natural anthropological need in the human person to communicate by speech, written words, signs, drawings, and etc. but always in the form of stories.  God, the author of the world’s best seller, knows this all too well.  He is not known as the Word just because it sounds fancy and mysterious, but it is because the Word gives intelligibility to creation and gives meaning to their stories.

So our story begins in a beautiful garden created out of love just for us—it reminds me of the pack-and-play set up that I neatly set up out of love for my daughter.  Alas, temptation enters: “Take and eat!” the serpent said to the woman, “for you surely will not die.”  The woman and the man thus ate the fruit from the forbidden tree and their eyes were opened.  They looked at their bodies and thought “my body is naked and it is shameful so I must hide it!”  It is from this act of disobedience that the realization of shamefulness of the body came about.  Yet, even though our first parents were disobedient and cost us the price of the beatific vision, they were right about one thing: they recognized their sinfulness and were ashamed of it.  They recognized right from wrong and felt ashamed of their wrong-doing.  They recognized that their pride and foolishness had cost them God’s friendship and love.  They knew they had marred their relationship with God, but they did not know how to restore it; and indeed they could not have done it on their own, they needed the help of the Word.

And so we received help. The melancholic consequence of ‘the fall’ which reduced life to bleak nihilism would soon be eradicated by Mercy and Love.  The Logos became incarnate in the person of Christ Jesus and was hung on the cross for the sake of redemption.  With this kind of love, we would like to think that we learned from our parents’ mistake and turned ourselves from sinfulness and run to God, but it seems that this is not the case.  If anything, we have turned further and further from God with the very same pride and foolishness we inherited from our first parents.  Let me illustrate this with an example:

It seems that abortion is conceived by some as a prudent and wonderful decision.  The justification being this:  Why would I bring a child into life if she will have a terrible life?  Why would I want to bring a child into life if she will remind me of the time I was raped?  Why would I want to bring a child into life if there is a chance she will be mentally or physically handicapped? This way of thinking can be summed up in one phrase, “This is my body!” But again, when our first parents uttered “this is my body,” they also recognized that it was shameful because it has now known sin.

Yet for us, the recognition of “this is my body” does not take on an understanding of shamefulness because it knows sin; instead, it replaces shame with what it considers just pride and therefore usurps the Good Master’s rightful authority over our bodies.  We think ourselves beyond sin, justifying our sinful actions with qualities like reasonable, good, and desirable even though they are contrary to reason, immoral, and disordered.

So “Take and eat!” the serpent says to you and to me, “for surely you will not die!”  The serpent then tells us “The fruit that you are eating will allow you to feel good, do what makes you happy, and you will do all of this in the name of love,”  And so do we blame to serpent for blockading our road to God?  I suspect we can, but we have to also remember that we are very much responsible for the actual blockade itself since we seem to deny our own faults and failures.

We gladly eat from the tree, but we are also very glad to point to the serpent and accuse him for giving the fruits to us—like our first parents.  We need to, instead, acknowledge that we’ve eaten from the tree and point a finger at ourselves and admit: mea maxima culpa!  It is only when we can say this that we can come to the table where Christ tells us, ‘take and eat, for this is my body and blood that will be shed for your sins so you may have life.’  Sure the fruit from the tree may seem to taste better, but it neither nourishes the body nor the soul the way Christ’s body and blood does.  The fruit of the tree will demand nothing of us; if anything, it tells us to say ‘this is my body, and I can and will do anything with it I wish—even to destroying it.’  The flesh of Christ will demand many things of us, even our very own lives.  It forces us to recognize that ‘this is my body, and it will be given up for you!’  Yes, the flesh of Christ is harder to consume, but as Jesus reminds us, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  May we be the Easter people who receives from the Table of Plenty and not the Tree of Knowledge.

A Great Song for Lent

I, like everyone else, enjoy music very much.  I have certain songs that I listen to over and over again and the repetition doesn’t make my wife very happy.  But this post isn’t about the nature of music (if you want a little of that, I suggest Alan Bloom’s piece).  This post is about a song that I listen to once awhile during lent.  I will explain its message to me and hopefully it could be something you could use.

Christian songs are great tools for prayer and reflection, but I find that some secular songs can do the same thing.  One of these songs is called I’m the Only One by Melissa Etheridge.  For those who are unfamiliar with the song, here is the video.

My Reflection:

When I hear this song, I imagine that it is God who is singing this to his beloved child and the first thing that comes to mind is Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven.  In both instances, God is the ever-yearning lover that constantly reminds the human person that there is no happiness and fulfillment in life without Him.

God Is Ever Calling:

The Lyrics

Please baby can’t you see
My mind’s a burnin’ hell
I got razors a rippin’ and tearin’ and strippin’
My heart apart as well

The first four lines of the lyrics is an expression of angst and sorrow.  Now, as a theologian, I’m aware of the problems that can arise from attributing emotions to God, but let us forget that for a moment and turn to the story of the prodigal son.  We are told that young son, returning with sorrow after having spent all his inheritance, finds his father waiting anxiously for his return.  God, like the father of the prodigal son, is filled with angst and sorrow when we, his beloved children, stray far from him, and he yearns nothing more than for us to return to his love.

How Do We Abandon God?

Tonight you told me
That you ache for something new
And some other woman is lookin’ like something
That might be good for you

The next four lines of the lyrics read just like our daily lives.  We begin to replace God in our lives with other things to the point that we no longer have any time for God.  We justify these replacements by saying that they are important.  Indeed, a cheating husband always sees his mistress as something better and justifies his behavior by whatever reason he must to overcome the idea that it is wrong.  We don’t necessarily have to commit a terrible act such as marital infidelity to abandon God, but we could do things like lie, gossip, or even act selfishly.

Advice Given

Please baby can’t you see
I’m trying to explain
I’ve been here before and I’m locking the door
And I’m not going back again

The next four lines act like a warning to us.  To accept or reject a lover that is openly welcoming us is of course our decision, but our decisions have consequences.  When we choose to love someone who loves us, we therefore choose to douse ourselves with that love.  However, if we choose to reject the love that is offered to us, then naturally we do not receive such love.  And if God is Love and love unceasing, then to reject his love is our own decision, but then we are left to live without love…a very terrifying existence.

Her eyes and arms and skin won’t make
it go away
You’ll wake up tomorrow and wrestle the sorrow
That holds you down today

These next four lines are also words of caution: sin is only fake happiness.  The husband that cheats on his wife mistakes lust for love and temporary satisfaction for lasting joy.  We often mistake mundane pleasures as eternal happiness.  We often settle for things that give us immediate release and then having to search once again after the release for another sort of excitement.  We need to become better at discerning what is truly good for us, what is true happiness, as opposed to that which only satisfies our seeming needs but leaves us always yearning for something else after the excitement is over.

The Source of Joy

Go on and hold her till the screaming is gone
Go on believe her when she tells you
Nothing’s wrong
But I’m the only one
Who’ll walk across the fire for you
I’m the only one
Who’ll drown in my desire for you
It’s only fear that makes you run
The demons that you’re hiding from
When all your promises are gone
I’m the only one

The chorus reads like lines out of the Biblical text: there is someone who is willing to do the craziest of things out of love for us.   If there is someone who is willing to “walk across the fire” or “drown in my desire” for us, we can either conclude that the person genuinely does love us or that he is crazy, or that there is a little bit of crazy in love =)  But as Jesus tells us, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.  Yet, Jesus was not just all talk about love; he showed it.  He freely and willingly laid down his life for our own sake.  The chorus then tell us that the beloved runs from the lover out of fear.  So why do we run from God? Fear.  We run away from things because we are afraid.  It begins when we are very young, like our first encounter with the neighbor’s dog that sends us literally running, and it continues to grow with us and spreads to other areas of our lives.  We start running away from relationships, work, ourselves, and ultimately God.  But unlike the little boy that couldn’t help his reaction to the dog, we can help our reaction to things in our lives.  We can choose to not run away.  We can choose to deal with our problems head on.  What then is our fear?