He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Love it to Death: Living the Liturgy

As my understanding of the liturgy is deepening through my choice to participate in it fully and make it a part of my life, I am finding that more and more it shapes my entire life in unexpected ways more wonderful than I could have imagined.  I am learning how to let the liturgy teach me how to live in my daily life.  Living the liturgy is so much more than attending a ceremony weekly; the two are not even remotely comparable experiences.  Make no mistake; we are called beyond spectating at a liturgy to live in the liturgy and venture deep into the divine life of love.

In the liturgy, we are present to the time-pervading sacrifice on the cross, the God who loved us in life and loved us unto death ever before us.  In the liturgy, every movement of our body is oriented toward God, giving Him praise and glory by our every act.  In the liturgy, our mind professes the Creed and appreciates the beauty of the Church, keeping our beliefs and the images that remind us to seek Heaven ever in our mind's eyes.  In the liturgy, our hearts cry out, "Lord have mercy!" as we acknowledge our weakness before God and before our brothers and sisters, and in our humility we are lifted up by the Lord so as to draw closer to Him.  In the liturgy, our will is directed toward reaching mystical union with Christ by obeying His commands and transforming our lives by the light of His example, keeping the movements of the body, the focus of the mind, and the desires of our heart rightly ordered toward God.

We are thus integrated, drawing away from the disintegrated life of the world in which the heart, the mind, the body, and the will often disagree; the liturgy helps us to transcend the daily disintegration of our being as our bodies are called to transient pleasures, our minds called to abstract rational ideals, our hearts called to puff themselves up in pride, and our wills called to herd them all without imposing any order.  When we begin to rightly order all the aspects of our being and live the integrated life, the acts of our bodies, minds, hearts, and will are able to work together to lift our souls to the Lord so that they might be cleansed as He says the word.  This state of being which transcends mere being that is offered to us in the liturgy is a gift that we can carry into the rest of our lives.

The liturgy develops in us the habits which allow us to live increasingly in our daily lives just as we live in the liturgy.  In each moment of the day, beginning with our morning prayer, continuing in our work, and permeating our studies, our will orders our the acts of our body, the focus of our mind, and the desires of our heart toward reaching God in Heaven.  The movements of our body are oriented toward God as we use our strength to reach out and help those who are most weak and vulnerable.  The focus of our mind remains on the good of others who are so beloved of Christ, keeping our mind's eye on the things of Heaven by delighting in the beauty of His creation.  The desires of our hearts are to love the Lord our God, acknowledging our weakness when we reach out to His least brothers and sisters to show them the love He showed to us.  This is the integrated life, the life of integrity in which like Christ we make all the moments of our life and our death into a sacrifice of love.

The liturgy forms us in the integrated life not so that we can remain in the church building at all times to seek holiness through mystical communion with God, but rather so that we have the strength of love and joy to transform our lives into a living sacrifice to bring the integrated life into the rest of the world which is so disintegrated, so very broken and torn and disordered.  Just as the liturgy helps us to become integrated, so we are to go forth and by our lives transform the world into one which is integrated, so very whole and seamless and rightly ordered.  Just as the liturgy lets us experience the heavenly life of divine love, so too are we called to let others experience a foretaste of the heavenly life of divine love when they encounter us.  Just as the liturgy directs our entire being toward Christ as the model of the fullness of the human participation in the divine life of love, we are also called to direct others to Christ so that they might fulfill their purpose as an imago dei and unite with Him who is the Deus

In living the liturgy, we love to death our self-centered focus on seeking only our own holiness and begin to seek the holiness of all; by building up our brothers and sisters in love, we build up their capacity for partaking in divine love so that they might also live in that divine life of love given to us by the Bride of Christ in the intimacy of the liturgy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Love it to Death: The Bride of Christ

From the life of the early Christian church onward, the Church has been known as the Bride of Christ.  The Epistles speak of the Church being married to Christ, as a husband and wife are married; the marriage of husband and wife is also to be an icon of Christ and the Church, a living example of mutual loving sacrifice.  We Christians, as members of the Church, must participate in this divine life of loving sacrifice in order that the whole Christian community might become worthy of the promises of Christ.

This participation cannot be easy; like a marriage or any other lifelong relationship of filial love, keeping our commitment to our beloved is extremely difficult.  Who among us has not noticed the many weaknesses of those we love?  Who among us has not seen them fail and fall?  Who among us has not been hurt by those we love?  Who among us has not deeply wounded those we love?  Who among us has not been confronted by the harsh reality of our own weaknesses as we fail and fall over and over again?

The relationship that survives our weakness is the relationship of mutual service, the relationship in which we forgive and make amends by serving each other through many small sacrifices of love.  The close relationships are kept strong by a habit of sacrificing our transient desires for the real good of the other.  As we mutually will the good of the other person, our wills are formed in love so that our will is no longer directed toward the satisfaction of our own desires, but instead is oriented toward building up the relationship by building up the beloved.

The Church has as her beloved Christ Himself, and she is perpetually helping us to build up her relationship with Christ by loving service to Him.  She does so by consistently acting to make all the members of her body holy, capable of participating in the divine life of love.  She does this by teaching us to form our wills in the love of Christ, knowing that when we live in loving service to Christ, thus is His will is accomplished.  His will is to accomplish the greatest good for us, to show us the most glorious beauty and truth, to help us reach endless peace and joy.  When we live so as to accomplish the will of Christ, we are indeed willing the greatest good for ourselves by willing the good of Christ because to Him the good of all is His ultimate good.

For this reason, life in the Church requires us to build a habit of proclaiming with our every act, "Thy will be done!"  The Church fosters this habit by requiring us to sacrifice our time every week and on holy days of obligation for the sake of being with our beloved Christ.  She fosters this habit by requiring us to sacrifice our own transient desires in obedience to her canons.  She fosters this habit by requiring us to sacrifice our tastes through fasting so as to master our bodies just as Christ mastered the human body as he underwent the temptations in the desert.

The Church requires us to give up our desire to take the easy route to forgiveness by confessing our most shameful failings to another human being and facing the real human consequences of our weakness by means of a penance; the Church does not allow us to live without learning how difficult it is to rebuild relationships, thus teaching us to value the relationship with Christ more highly and treat it more carefully.

The Church requires us to give up our desire to pray to Him only as much as necessary by requiring us to pray in the liturgy with words from Scripture and the early Church rather than our own words, with the movements of the body that orient us toward Christ rather than serving our temporary comfort, with the intellect that recognizes and submits to the wisdom of God in the Creed rather than puffing itself up in pride with its own theology, with the heart that cries out, "I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof!" rather than the heart that proclaims, "I am most excellent and truly worthy of all you give to me!  I deserve your ultimate sacrifice of love!  I will take my inheritance now!" 

In embracing the Church with a willingness to meet all her requirements, we allow ourselves to learn through regular practice how to live a life of loving sacrifice in which our will and the will of Christ are united.  The Bride of Christ teaches us how to love Christ, always directing us away from our unhealthy attachments and forcing us to face our fears so that all the parts of us that would keep us from loving fully in mutual service are burned away, leaving behind our purest individuality that shines all the more brightly once no longer shrouded in the darkness of the ego.  The Church is a loving instructor of those who would follow her in following Christ into the fullness of time; just as any Bride wants all to know of her joy and wishes to introduce them to her bridegroom, so will the Church always point the way, the Via Dolorosa, to Christ so that we might encounter Him.

If we would exist in Christ's Church, we must love to death our inability to fully love by practicing over and over again the deeply difficult art of loving service to someone other than our self-centered ego.  In the life of the Church well-lived, the darkness of Self-worship is emptied of its place at the center of our lives and the light of Christ takes it place; our most ancient religion of Selfianity is transformed into a true Christianity in which we take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Christ.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fair Questions: Does the Catholic Church push people away?

The answer to this question is a fairly straightforward, "Yes."

The Catholic Church certainly has pushed me away.  It pushed me away in so many ways that in the end I realized that I needed to embrace it fully.  The more interesting question might be, "How and why does the Catholic Church push people away?"

The Catholic Church pushed me away by the same means that Buddhism pushed me away.  It called me to a radical life of self-denial, of liberating myself from my attachments to my daily pleasures.  I did not want to give up my pleasures; I believed that they were what helped me to cope with life and without them it would be unbearable.  My childish ego so tightly bound to pleasure-seeking was something I protected with all my will and with all my pride; I put up the strongest walls to ensure that I could gently coddle myself with my video games and my fantasy novels, working and serving others only as much as was convenient for me.

I know from experience that to the person who has never left the egocentric mentalities of their childhood behind, the Catholic Church is viscerally and powerfully repulsive.  Everything about her is an affront to the ego, a beautiful and terrible blade to cut the cords binding us to our egos, a fortress to separate us from the immediate fulfillment of our transient desires.  The greater our attachments to the ego, the more she repels us away from her because the Church and the ego cannot both exist fully in us; to live life in the Church is to be in a routine and unavoidable process of cutting the cords that bind us to our egotistical whims.

The Church invites us to destroy our attachments to our ego in the process of radical loving service to others; she calls us to the self-denial we so fear because we have a reductive definition of life, believing that to be fully alive is to merely experience the small heights of fleshly pleasure.  The Church invites us to be truly alive, to be masters of the ego rather than slaves to the ego, to reach heights of radical love far beyond what mere fleshly pleasures could ever offer us.

No part of our clinging to the ego is left untouched by her; every part of the Church is a lever which pries our fingers from our attachments to our self-indulgence.  The beauty of her architecture lifts our eyes to something greater and more beautiful than our own pleasures, the result of hours of hard labor we so often strive to avoid or put off.  The structures and modes of her prescribed prayers grate harshly on our desire to pray according to our own pleasures, free to pray as we like in the spirit of immediate gratification.  The formality of her liturgy cuts deeply against the grain of our desire for relationships to be informal and casual, to have relationships without all the discipline required by formal courtesy so that they might be more pleasurable and less difficult.

The requirements of her Sacrament of Confession and weekly penances call us to admit that we are at fault for our own weaknesses and can do better, that we are not currently perfect just as we are, asking us to reject the cultural messages that whisper seductively to us, "You need not change."

The traditions of her fasts and Holy Days of Obligation call us to offer our resources and time as a sacrifice of love for God and for our fellow human beings, to exist in solidarity with those who do not have the time and resources given to us, to reject the cultural messages that proclaim boldly, "You should keep your gifts for yourself!  Your time is for you!"

The weight of her moral requirements call us far beyond normal moral standards expected by our society today, asking us to not have sex unless it is in the context of a marriage for life and not artificially preventing new life from developing out of the marital relationship.  She calls her priests to celibacy and complete continence, conquering the libido so that they can more effectively serve the community.  She calls all of us to chastity, to be masters of our own sexual desires, to fully and completely reject the overwhelming mantra of the culture, "Sexual pleasure is the highest good!  Be its willing slave and buy our products!"

In all these and many other ways, the Church pushes us away; we have a choice between submission to the ego and the sacrifice of love by which we embrace the Church and let her transform us, gradually helping us to transcend our lives of slavery to pleasure by climbing the ladder she offers to us as a way to reach lives of perfect freedom in loving service to others.

By User:Julian Mendez - User:Julian Mendez, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2547972

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Fair Questions: Was the Buddha a socialist?

The fascination with Buddhism on the part of Westerners who have an intellectual inclination tends to lead to some of us imposing our Western philosophical and moral frameworks onto Buddhism.  This trend is not limited to philosophical and personal or social moral issues, but also extends into the political and ideological concerns to which every matter seems to be reduced in contemporary public discourse.  I recently came across a social media discussion between a friend and his interlocutor in which it was alleged that the Buddha was a communist or more generally a socialist.

As before, I will turn to the discourses of the Buddha as preserved and recorded by his disciples to determine the plausibility of the Buddha's political views being in the category of socialism, in which the means of production are collectively owned and wealth distributed as equally as possible.

While the Buddha did not seem overly interested in economics or the means of production, he did speak (through allegory) to the issues of justice and happiness in this life which might impinge upon how we make economic decisions as societies.  The following is advice given to a new king about how to rule his kingdom in accordance with the Dharma:

"Let no crime prevail in your kingdom, and to those who are in need, give wealth.  And whatever ascetics and brahmins in your kingdom have renounced the life of sensual infatuation and are devoted to forbearance and gentleness, each one taming himself, each one calming himself, and each one striving for the end of craving, from time to time you should approach them and ask: 'What, venerable sirs, is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to be followed?  What action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, and what to welfare and happiness?'  Having listened to them, you should avoid what is unwholesome and do what is wholesome.  That, my son, is the duty of the wheel-turning monarch."

There are two moral duties for the ruler according to the Buddha related to the happiness of those in their care.  First, the king must protect them from harm using the resources he has available.  Second, the king must provide for those in material need.  In addition, he has a duty to consult with those who are living in deep poverty and seeking the highest moral improvement with regard to how he should behave rather than trusting his own understanding of goodness.

This is not the only allegory of a kingdom which the Buddha used to illustrate how we should make our personal moral decisions.  Elsewhere in the Pali canon, he relates the following story about a king who wants to make a great sacrifice that is beneficial to his own happiness.

"The chaplain replied, 'Your Majesty's country is beset by thieves.  It is ravaged; villages and towns are being destroyed; the countryside is infested with brigands.  If Your Majesty were to tax this region, that would be the wrong thing to do.  Suppose Your Majesty were to think: "I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats, and banishment," the plague would not properly be ended.  Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty's realm.  However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague.  To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages.  Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom.  Your Majesty's revenues will be great; the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves; and the people, with joy in their hearts, playing with their children, will dwell in open houses."

The lesson here is that our own happiness is assured by giving to others and serving them well, but can we take these allegories and straightforwardly apply them to contemporary political economy?  I would be reluctant to do so because of my suspicion of interpreting ancient texts in light of modern ideas, but if we were to try to find an analog of the wheel-turning monarch in the modern state, what would that look like?

It wouldn't be socialism, because the king remains the king and still has concentrated wealth and ownership of the means of production is far from collective; the wheel-turning monarch has no moral imperative to eliminate income inequality.  And despite the simplistic claims of those who believe that Buddhism requires us to all join the Sangha and live in communal poverty, the Buddha himself taught elsewhere in the Pali canon that householders could also follow in his footsteps, which means that their vision of a primitive communist utopia is not normative for the Buddhist.

Based on the very scant coverage of political economy in the Buddha's discourses, it appears that he favored in his allegories what we might think of today as a Keynesian approach to improving the economic conditions of the society, specifically in the sense that the ruler(s) should invest in their people and resources as a means of achieving a stable society in keeping with the Dharma.

By Stephen Shephard - Own workCC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1130661

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Living on the Mountain: A Living Sacrifice

After a long walk around what some might think are mountains of snow, I made my way to church this morning.  The priest gave an excellent homily in which the theme of mountaintop experiences was brought out.

In Scripture, the mountain is a critical part of the spiritual landscape as well as the physical landscape.  Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai are probably memorable mountains associated with the Old Testament for many Christians, though there is some speculation that they may have been the same mountain called by different names.  Regardless, the avid reader of Sacred Scripture will notice that events that take place on the mountain always have significance of moral and spiritual weight.

This is something I'm sure my grandfather noticed in his studies of Sacred Scripture, given how dedicated he was to understanding the Word.  And because he lived among the mountains, he had journeyed to his fair share of mountaintops.  He liked to take a walk up the mountainside sometimes, enjoying the beauty of God's creation.  He even took me up the mountain for my first driving lesson in his truck, an experience that almost became very spiritual because I came very close to backing off of one side of the mountain.  I may have prompted him to pray especially hard on the mountaintop that day.  That is far from the only time that either he or I prayed on the mountain.

My grandfather not only lived a life of prayer, but also a life of sacrifice.  He sacrificed his health in many ways as a miner in the mountains, seeking to provide a life for his family.  He sacrificed his time in the garden with his children, teaching them the ways of growth and cultivation.  He sacrificed the livestock he purchased to feed his family, teaching them the reality of death and the necessary work of cleansing their bodies and our bodies for a meal, of the need to take care in how we prepare the table and ourselves before receiving our daily bread.  He was a living sacrifice of love for his family, offering everything he had for our benefit.

This is exactly how Jesus Christ lived, as a living sacrifice of love, and my grandfather strove mightily to follow Him.  Jesus seemed to have an affinity for the mountains just like my grandfather.  Many times Jesus would venture out to the heights to seek closeness with His heavenly Father.  In this weekend's readings at Mass during Lent, the Gospel passage detailing Jesus' meeting with Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor was related to us through the perspective of the three Apostles who were there.  They were astounded by the mountaintop experience, and rightfully so.

At Mount Tabor, Jesus was transfigured and glorified, the Son of God revealed in His divinity.  At the Mount of Olives, his soul shone through as He prayed to the Father during the calm before the storm of the scourging and crucifixion.  At Golgotha, the mount of execution known as the place of the skull, he suffered and died in His weakened body and flowing blood.

In the liturgy, we visit these mountains through the time-pervading sacrifice of love known as the Incarnation and His death on the cross. We see Christ in his glory in the liturgy, the Son of God truly present to us in his glorified form just as He was on Mount Tabor. We see Christ's soul as he offers himself freely for our salvation, just as He was on the Mount of Olives before His crucifixion.  We see Christ's blood in the chalice and we see Christ's body, the Bread from Heaven we must eat to have life within us.  In this way, we see and can partake of His eternal life in body, blood, soul, and divinity.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is an astounding mountaintop experience, a timeless participation in the sacrifice on the mount of execution by receiving His body and blood, in the purity of His soul as he lovingly accepted his life and death for our sake, and in the vision of His glory on Mount Tabor.  We who pray to God in the Divine Liturgy do so with Him on the mountains upon which He left His mark, hoping to one day join him in ascending beyond the mountains to the house of our heavenly Father.

May we all appreciate the blessing of prayer among the mountains, gradually deepening our understanding of life and death and God on the mountain, preparing ourselves well for our meal of broken bread with Him just as my grandfather did.