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

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Love it to Death: The Cosmology of Love

One of the most deeply significant things for those who believe in the truth value of a particular religion is its understanding of the universe, multiverse, or whatever it is we're currently spinning around in these days.  For the purposes of my writing, I usually refer to it as the cosmos.  This understanding of the cosmos, or cosmology, is significant because how we understand the cosmos affects how we live our lives.

Or at the very least, it should affect how we live our lives.  There are certainly individuals who have beliefs about the universe which should impinge on their decision-making, and yet continue to make decisions seemingly unaffected by their beliefs.  For most of us, the cosmology we hold true has at least some impact on our lives, albeit perhaps not a perfectly consistent impact.  We human beings have a tendency to not let our cosmology impact our behavior where it would be inconvenient for us in some way.

For example, we might believe that we will go to Tartarus after our death if we displease the gods, but still we do not bother making any effort to appease them because it would cut into our profits too much.  We might believe the Buddha when he claims that the entire universe is an endless cycle of death and rebirth for us, but not bother meditating every day because we are too busy at our job.  We might believe that a Jewish man named Yeshua was the Son of God, but not do anything to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves as He taught us.

But when we actually let the implications of our cosmology be felt in our lives, it can be a powerful force which shapes us for better or worse.  The ancient Greeks seemed to have had a cosmology of conflict, a view of the cosmos in which it was an eternal battleground, filled with the fighting between the Titans, gigantes, gods, demigods, and humans.  Their cosmology reflected their social reality in which life was a constant conflict between warring city-states and between the powerful and the vulnerable in those city-states.  In this case, the cosmology is informative, explaining to us through narrative what our lives will be like, specifically that we should expect endless conflict between those who are different.  If we absorb the lesson, then we might be more at peace with the endless conflicts in our lives.

The Buddha had important lessons to teach as well, though the cosmology of the Buddha was the cosmology of suffering.  In the Buddhist cosmology, whether we are in the most torturous naraka or the highest heavenly plane, suffering will continue via the cycle of death and rebirth.  For the Buddhist, the cosmos is a prison of ceaseless suffering from which we must escape by transcendence through the liberation of our minds.  This cosmology is informative, providing us with the cold hard reality of suffering which we will face in our lives.  It is also transformative if we believe it, providing a way to escape the endless internal conflicts we face by accepting the reality of our suffering.

Jesus the Christ, Son of God, came to reveal a cosmology both informative and transformative as well.  In the Christian cosmology, the entire cosmos was created out of love, given freely to us to enjoy by Love, and redeemed by a profound act of self-sacrificial love after it was damaged by our exercise of freedom divorced of love.  For the Christian, the cosmos is a divine song of love to be heard by all who have ears to hear it.  The cosmology of love informs us that we are made out of love, by Love, and for the sake of love.  If we believe it, this cosmology of love transforms us by turning us toward Love, by teaching us to embrace suffering for the sake of love, by strengthening us to endure endless conflict by reaching out in love to those most hurt by conflict.

When we believe the cosmology of Love and allow it to transform our lives in the light of love, we accept the gift of love that is a cosmology which is greater than any other, a cosmology which holds within it all that is good, true, and beautiful in every other cosmology.  When we live as if we believe the cosmology of Love, we begin to exist within the cosmos as Love intended, our entire being a gift of love to all just as Love, the ground of being, gave all to all out of love. 

When we take our place in the cosmos of Love, we love to death all that would separate us from the cosmos created by Love with space so vast that only our love united with Love could fill it, with light so bright that only our love united with Love could outshine it, and with masses so heavy that only our love united with Love could escape its immense gravity by the sheer force of love which cannot help but to be drawn inevitably to Love.

The Benefit of Doubt: The Limits of Science

Several weeks ago, I explained two differing positions among scientists and philosophers of science about what science is, and like most discussions about what science is, the answer came down to the answer to the demarcation problem.  How do we tell the difference between scientific and non-scientific thought?  Or in other terms, what are the limits of science, the boundaries at which science ends and something else begins?

As a disclaimer, I am not one of those people who seeks to undermine science; I am not a Young Earth Creationist, nor do I deny anthropogenic influences on climate change and the urgency of changing human behavior with regard to our planet.  To the contrary, I seek to preserve that which is best about science; I am strongly opposed to the movement to revise scientific theories to suit the members of a religious group or subject science to mere political concerns.  I am also strongly opposed to the current project to turn science into a religion, not because I am concerned that it might damage religion, but because it will most definitely cause grave injury to science.

Like many philosophers of science, I value a clear understanding of what makes science distinct from other methodologies and how science relates to them.  In order to under the limits of a methodology of belief system, we need to examine the assumptions underlying the methodology.  The assumptions of any methodology or belief system (science being both) allow us to derive its limitations from studying those assumptions.  If, for example, I want to understand what the limits of arithmetic are in Base 10, then I merely need to examine the assumptions (or axioms) underlying the operations in order to work out what it can and cannot do.

So what are some of the assumptions of the scientific method?
  1. The world is intelligible to the human mind via repeated observation.
  2. The world operates exclusively on general principles which can be tested ceteris paribus.
  3. The principles on which the world operates can be expressed mathematically.
  4. The principles on which the world operates are exclusively natural.
  5. The observations of our senses can be supplemented by instruments we construct.
  6. The instruments we construct are more reliable then our senses.
  7. The power of logical inference allows us to arrive at correct conclusions about the past based on present circumstances and about the far reaches of the universe based on local conditions.
These are, by the way, good and necessary assumptions for science to hold true in order for it to be successful in achieving its goals.  There is nothing wrong with having working assumptions; in fact, it is often impossible to get anything done without having working assumptions.  Try solving a mathematical problem without making any assumptions about the value of numbers, and this will become painfully obvious.

So given these useful assumptions, what can we now work out about the limits of science?

1.  Because the assumption of scientific methodology is that the world is intelligible to the human mind, the truth value of the claims it makes are conditional upon that assumption being correct.  If it is not the case that the world is intelligible to the human mind, then all of scientific belief is false, no matter how useful we might find it.  And there is simply no way for us to test this without begging the question at issue.  This limitation of science is primarily a consideration of philosophers and will not likely impact scientific work at any point.

2.  The world may or may not operate on general principles exclusively.  But because anomalies and data points far off the beaten track are treated as irrelevant to scientific theory formation in terms of the articulation of the theory, there is no way for science as a body of propositions to incorporate anything other than general principles into itself.  Unlike the 1st point, this has practical implications for science; anything which does not operate by general principles, which is truly exceptional, cannot be incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge.  And science has no way of knowing how many such truly exceptional events there are.

3.  I happen to agree that the principles on which the world operates can be expressed mathematically; I could always be wrong.  It could well be that the forms of mathematics which our tiny hominid brains have been using are not sufficient to complete the task of expressing those general principles.  And how would we ever identify that such is the case?  If it was the case, then wouldn't we simply assume that our failures to be able to express the general principles upon which the world operates are due to a lack of evidence, or a problem with our testing procedures, that we merely need to keep trying harder?

4.  Science could not function effectively as a methodology for studying natural phenomena if all scientists went around assuming that everything (or at least the more difficult to understand things) were the result of supernatural principles or some sort of divine exception to the natural order.  Scientists need to assume, while doing the work of science, that the principles on which the world operates are exclusively natural.  So what if it is the case that there are supernatural principles at work, and they impinge upon the natural order?  Science would never notice supernatural principles; if they exist, then scientists would simply assume that they do not and continue searching for a merely natural explanation for the evidence or ignore it as an outlier among their data points.

5.  I very much agree that the observation of our senses can be supplemented by instruments we construct; as always, I could be wrong about that, whether in general or in specific cases.  A telescope might or might not be providing me with something that supplements my senses.  And there's no way to know for sure, given that all I have to base my conclusions on are the information provided by my senses.  Which doesn't seem like a serious issue until we consider the next point...

6.  Why do we think that our instruments are more reliable than our own senses?  Well, there's a great deal of scientific evidence suggesting that our senses are far from perfectly reliable, and that we only perceive a small portion of what there is to perceive in many areas.  Granted, the evidence rests on assumption #1 and may not be true, but if it is, then we cannot fully trust our sensory inputs to provide us with accurate information.  It is entirely understandable to trust simpler mechanisms not prone to the same kinds of errors as our complex perceptual mechanisms which have many more points of failure.  But because we have to rely on our senses to determine that they are more reliable, and we are strongly subject to confirmation bias, it's entirely possible that we are prejudiced in our conclusions on that point and we could well be wrong.

7.  It might or might not be true that the general principles which we use to understand local phenomena in the universe apply in all parts of the universe, but this can at least be tested in principle as we explore more of the universe.  What is not testable in principle is the application of general principles we discover now to the events of the distant past.  Unless we develop a time machine which can take us into the past (and we can be sure isn't contaminating the evidence), there is no way to verify that our logical inferences about the distant past hold true.

In understanding these limits of science, we can better perform scientific inquiry because we are less likely to leap to conclusions about the results of any study or experiment and less likely to overstate the implications of the results beyond what the evidence actually supports.  In understanding the limits of science, we keep the doubt in science.  A benefit of doubt is that it keeps our minds open to new information, something which is critical for successful scientific inquiry.

A scientific community which does not doubt itself rigorously is a scientific community without the full benefits of doubt, and those of us who are interested in scientific research should be reluctant to give such a community the full benefit of the doubt.

Note: The above is a picture of the top of one of my science fair trophies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Other Side: The Case for Biblical Atheism

I've noticed for the past ten years an increasing tendency among young people, thoughtful ones in particular, toward what I have come to describe as Biblical atheism.  I realize that this is a very unusual turn of phrase, and that I owe some explanation to the reader for it.  To understand what I mean by that, let's consider what is meant by the phrase "Biblical Christianity" as a starting point.

There are many different churches which claim to hold to a Biblical Christianity; what is common to all those churches is that they take the justification for their beliefs about God and their religious practices from the Bible, generally the Western canon used by the Roman Catholic church during the Middle Ages minus a few books.  Despite the common starting point, the churches which hold to what they describe as Biblical Christianity quickly move off in very different directions.  The common point of divergence is on the subject of how to read the Bible correctly.  Sometimes churches will only differ on how a few verses are to be read; sometimes they propose completely different principles for reading the entire Bible and come to mutually exclusive positions which are very far apart.

For example, some churches (like the one in which my grandfather was a pastor) take the position that the Bible should be read primarily literally, but with a few exceptions.  Other churches take the position that the Bible should be read primarily allegorically, but with a few exceptions.  To see the advantages and disadvantages of these two positions, we can take a look at a passage in the Bible often brought up by young atheists.  For the Biblical literalist, Elisha's calling of the bears to maul the 42 youths is completely justified.  For those who wish to read the book as allegorical, the question of whether the act was justified or not is largely irrelevant; the point is something completely different from the described events which are at best loosely connected to them.

The advantage for the Biblical literalists is that the interpretation requires little to no intellectual gymnastics to explain; those intellectual gymnastics are of course precisely what makes the allegorical reading a hard sell to many people.  The purely allegorical reading often seems far too distant from the text to be a plausible reading of it.  The advantage for the the Biblical allegoricalists is that the interpretation allows them to completely sidestep the issue of Elisha being a big meanie who called bears out to maul a bunch of youngsters.  After all, that was not the point of the passage, in their view.

So how does all this help us understand Biblical atheism?  The Biblical atheist, like the Biblical Christian, takes their justification for their beliefs about God and Christian religious practices from the Bible, generally the Western canon used by the Roman Catholic church minus a few books.  To see a clear example, take a look at the video in which Penn Jillette explains why he thinks atheism follows from reading the Bible.

As you can see if you read my commentary on the video, I disagree with Penn Jillette that atheism follows from reading the Bible; I propose that just as the Bible is not compelling evidence of God's existence, neither is it compelling evidence of the lack thereof.  That said, I do think that Biblical atheism is completely understandable in light of the two modes of Biblical interpretation typically offered to young people as they begin to learn about the Bible from Christians.

The Biblical atheist is, I think, completely justified in finding the purely allegorical reading of difficult passages implausible.  It does seem like an attempt to dodge the question of God's justice in empowering His prophet to have bears maul forty-two youths.  That is a completely appropriate question to ask, and they deserve a better answer than, "Well that's not the point.  Look over here at this stuff it prefigures in the New Testament and the End Times."

At the same time, the literal reading will strike the average young person in the post-industrial West as horribly immoral on God's part.  A severe physical punishment for not recognizing God's messengers or God's message is not something that would have been imposed on them by their parents whom they consider to be loving, so how could a loving God do such a thing?  In light of the circumstances, it is completely understandable that they would find it hard to believe that a loving God exists.

The Biblical atheist and the Biblical Christian start from the same point, but reach very different conclusions based on applying the same interpretive approaches.  The Biblical Christian sees the advantages of their favored hermeneutic and find the resulting reading plausible; the Biblical atheist sees the disadvantages of both the literal and allegorical reading and finds both readings implausible.

In an interesting turn of events, it seems that while atheism does not rationally follow from reading the Bible, it may be that Biblical atheism does in practice often follow from exposure to Biblical Christianity.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Waking Up: Killing the Buddha

I've been reading Waking Up, the recently published book by Sam Harris in which he lays out the case for retaining spirituality while abandoning religion.  I have really enjoyed a great deal about the book, as expected.  I have also disagreed with him on some points, also as expected.

It struck me as I was reading the first couple of chapters that there are strong similarities between his journey and mine.  We both understand the world, at bottom, through a scientific lens.

I was raised by a step-father who taught physics, chemistry, and mathematics at a high school and college level.  I was raised by a mother who was a chemical engineer, going on to get her PhD in Chemical Engineering and getting a job as a professor in an excellent engineering program.  They encouraged us to participate in science fairs, and to look for evidence and use our reason to understand it.  They were anti-superstition, and never pretended that Santa Claus was actually providing our Christmas presents.

These are the priorities and attitudes I take from my parents.  So when Sam Harris writes about the connection between spirituality and the scientific evidence of how our minds work, claiming that spirituality must be understood in the context of neuroscience and psychology, then I find myself nodding right along with him.  For example:

"Although such experiences of 'self-transcendence' are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them.  From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are.  Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by 'spirituality' in the context of this book.

Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available.  The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one's own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields."

And yet we diverge from our shared path quickly on the question of what will replace organized religion for many people.  In the very next passage, Harris writes:

"I am often asked what will replace organized religion.  The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything.  Nothing need replace its ludicrous and debasing doctrines--such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good.  These are terrifying and debasing fictions.  But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence?  Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues.  To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is."

The optimism in this passage is admirable; he seems to think that it is possible to get away with replacing religion with something other than a new and different religion.  That's a very odd claim coming from someone who in The Moral Landscape set out to place the final piece in the puzzle of making the scientific worldview into a religion.  While it is not his intention to help give birth to a new religion, that is the most likely outcome of his project. 

In the past, when societies have attempted to eliminate religion, what have inevitably sprung up are new or revitalized religions, whether those religions were the new state-sponsored cults like those of the Roman Empire and Soviet Russia or religions of those oppressed by the state such as Christianity under the Roman Empire or the Druze under the Ottoman Empire.  Even under the circumstances of the French Revolution, perhaps best suited to bring about the end of religion by drawing on the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment, we saw no death of religion.

And even in those parts of Europe and the U.S. which are largely secular now or "spiritual but not religious", the new religion isn't a religion of self-transcendence, but rather of self-indulgence.  It is the worship of our own pleasure and our own talents, writ large in the space in which Europeans used to worship God.  Even where there is technically no religion dominating social groups, the values they draw upon are generally incoherent with the values Harris (rightly, I think) seeks to promote.  Even among committed secularists (and Harris himself notes this), there is a general suspicion of even these valuable treasures he proposes to give them from the experience and writing of great mystics and sages, divested of their religious cosmologies and funny hats.

One thing I admire about Harris is his willingness to build something positive on the ground science and reason have provided rather than merely attacking what was already built by our ancestors.  I just don't think that the evidence of human behavior and human history suggest that what he is building will turn out to be anything other than a new religion; in fact, the evidence seems to suggest that a new religion is precisely what will be the result of his efforts even if his project goes well.

This, of course, is not at all the result he desires.  Like me, he was drawn to Buddhism and found many valuable insights in the Buddhist traditions, including the love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence we both see as wonderful and worthwhile.  We both went deep into Buddhism and explored other religious traditions in search of these things.  Like him, I ended up rejecting Buddhism in the end despite the many good things I found in it.

Also like him, I think the meditation practices of Buddhism are valuable whether or not one is a Buddhist.  He goes a step farther than I would and suggests that we can divorce Buddhist meditation from the cosmology of Buddhism and use it as a part of our spirituality sans religion.  I find it hard to swallow his proposal that we can separate Buddhist meditation from Buddhism, that the methods of meditation developed within the Buddhist tradition make sense apart from the Buddhist cosmology, and for reasons he articulates in Waking Up:

"In this sense, learning to meditate is just like acquiring any other skill.  It takes many thousands of repetitions to throw a good jab or to coax music from the strings of a guitar.  With practice, mindfulness becomes a well-formed habit of attention, and the difference between it and ordinary thinking will become increasingly clear.  Eventually, it begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed.  No matter how bad the dream, the relief is instantaneous.  And yet it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time."

I know from experience that this is an entirely accurate description of the difficulty of meditation.   He is not overselling the amount of time and effort required for becoming proficient in it.  So how many people do you think have the kind of motivation required to spend that kind of time and effort on it?

How many people who are "spiritual but not religious" and can't be bothered to go to communal praise and worship once a week for, at best, modest benefit to their spiritual life in the sense of a temporary relief from their daily lives, are going to go to far more trouble to become proficient in meditation for, at best, a modest benefit to their spiritual life in the sense of a temporary relief from their daily lives?  Even assuming a slightly higher benefit and a significantly higher reliability to the method, I have serious doubts that serious meditation, even for beginners, is going to appeal to most of the folks he wants to reach.

Most people seem to require an extraordinary motivation of some kind in order to discipline themselves in the spiritual life long enough to really reap the benefits of the practice.  And for an atheist who believes the scientific cosmology and nothing else, what extraordinary motivation could be provided?  Some atheists who are suffering from clinical depression might have such an extraordinary motivation.  Some might be so profoundly inquisitive and empirical (which seems to be the case for Harris and I) that we would seek it out of those motivations.

But what about the people whose lives are just good enough to meet their expectations of happiness, lurching from pleasure to pleasure quickly enough to not look for anything deeper?  What about the people who have such low expectations of happiness that going deep into the spiritual life seems an exercise in futility?  The Buddha offers those people a cosmology of suffering, a visceral description of what awaits them if they do not transcend the cycle of death and rebirth.  He provides an extraordinary motivation for going beyond their current practices into practices which can lead to self-transcendence, a reason to commit to the discipline required for such practices.

Sam Harris and the broader mindfulness movement among non-religious folks cannot offer this extraordinary motivation because they have chosen to divorce Buddhist meditation from the Buddha's cosmology of suffering.  They wish to let the meditation live while killing the Buddha, albeit killing the Buddha in a very different sense than the Buddhist would mean it.   This approach of wresting the meditation out of Buddhism and setting it onto scientific ground leaves us with a cosmology without the Buddha, in which the Buddha who transcended the cosmos of suffering does not exist.  In the cosmology of the mindfulness practitioner who eschews religion, the Buddha is dead.

My suspicion, based on the evidence of human behavior throughout history, is that the project of building a healthy form of spirituality without religion will fail to kill the Buddha, and that it is far more likely that the Buddha will end up killing the project because he offers far more than can the purveyors of spirituality without religion.

It may simply be the case that "Less dogma is more." is not a successful approach that one can take to delivering deep spirituality to humanity today, just as it has not been for the entire course of the evolution of our species.

Killing the Buddha - Killing the Soul Killing the Self

Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

Fair Questions: Why on earth am I still Catholic?

Recently, I have been asked by a friend to explain why, after studying all the world's major religions and many of the minor ones, I would have chosen Christianity, specifically the ancient Christian tradition found in the Catholic Church.  That's a question that will take a long time to answer because the journey has been a long one.

I was also recently asked by another friend the following two questions:

"What keeps you with the Catholic Church? What is the biggest thing that Catholicism offers that convinces you that the Catholic Church is *the* Church?"

These questions can be answered more quickly, so it might be worth setting out in brief. I'll begin with the second part of the question and then move to answering the first part.  So what does the ancient Church offer us?

As an ascetic and a mystic, I have learned that to love truly requires us to kill the egotistical thinking, feeling, doing, and willing which so saturates our lives.  It has been my experience that the Catholic Church offers us the most powerful set of spiritual practices and anthropological truths which help us to kill those egotistical modes of being and open us up fully to living our lives in the light of divine love.

This is not to say that other traditions do not also have practices and anthropological truths that help us to do that; the Orthodox communions, the Evangelical churches, various Buddhist schools, Taoist sects, Hindu traditions, Islamic traditions, Rabbinical traditions, and so on certainly have some which are powerful in that way.  It is to say that my experience has been that the Catholic Church has a superlative set of these practices, that the value of each of those traditions is matched or improved upon by those in the Catholic Church.

This is of course going to sound like a bold claim to some, and they may want evidence.  That's completely understandable, and I plan to provide it.  That's just going to require a very long book, so you may have to wait until I'm retired and have the time to write it.  So let's move on to the first question.

What keeps me in the Catholic Church is that I have found nothing better.  That is not for lack of trying, by the way.  I have studied Buddhism through the Pali canon and sincerely tried to adopt its practices.  I have read the Koran and prayed with Muslims.  I have read the Tao Te Ching and sought to reach a state of wu wei.  And that's only the beginning of my religious exploration.  Lest non-religious folks feel left out, I have read compelling atheist thinkers like Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Sam Harris; I treat atheism as a serious intellectual option.

Closer to my current religion, the Eastern Orthodox communions are an appealing option.  Their practices are almost identical to Catholic practices, and from a doctrinal standpoint, I can honestly profess everything in the Creed used in their liturgies.  Not only that, but I also tend to gravitate more to Eastern theology and in some ways prefer their liturgies to the one I attend each Sunday.  This of course does not change my decision, because my preferences do not tell me what is objectively true; they simply tell me about my preferences.  In order to be chrismated in an Eastern Orthodox church, I would need a compelling truth-related or practice-related reason for making that move, and I have not found one yet.

Everything which is good, true, and beautiful that I have found in other religions or in the Eastern Orthodox communions (whether in part or in whole), I have also found in the Catholic Church.  This state of affairs might change; after all, I have only been doing my exploration for ten years in my spare time.  That said, for the time being, I'm still Catholic, and faithful to the Catholic Church as I can be.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Love it to Death: Praying from the Heart

For those of us who pray, the act of prayer is not understood as one type of thing, but rather a set of things which are all directed toward our ultimate end, which is God.  When I prayed as a child, there were rote prayers learned (e.g. the Our Father) and there were the yearnings I expressed to God out of my childish insecurities.  I prayed that I might get the toys that I wanted.  I prayed that other people might be nice to me.  I prayed that I might be good enough to make it to Heaven.

These days, I pray for none of those things.  Of course, that change did not happen overnight.  As a teenager, the toys I prayed for changed, but what did not change was that I was praying for things that I wanted and didn't really need.  I prayed for the gift of wisdom when I was confirmed in the Catholic Church; at the time I was praying for that gift I still did not understand that it was a gift to be used to help my brothers and sisters.  I prayed that I might be in Heaven with God after this life; I did not yet understand that being with God would require burning away all my ungodly ways in the fire and light of His glory.

I was praying from the heart with all sincerity, and this was good.  I learned later that while my prayers from the heart were good, my heart was far from being perfected by God's love.  Praying with my imperfect heart was prayer of imperfect love, no matter how strongly I felt that imperfect love, no matter how fluently and eloquently the words poured forth in charismatic or ecstatic prayer.  I began to understand that I needed to pray to God with something closer to perfect love, that I needed to grow in prayer beyond praying with sincerity out of the love which was so weak and frail.  God was accepting my prayers and loving me perfectly; it was I who was still offering Him an imperfect love in my prayers.

Just as I attempt logic puzzles too difficult for me to grow in mental acuity, take on acts of compassion that stretch my emotional fortitude so that I will develop emotionally, and lift weights that are a strain to me in order to grow in physical strength, so too I began to strive to pray the prayers of those who love God beyond the love I can currently give, the people whose hearts are full of a love which is purer and grander than my own.  Traditional prayers passed down to us by the Saints, mystics, and Doctors of the Church are a gift to our spiritual life so that we might, through diligent practice in prayer, begin to develop hearts of purer and grander love than we can currently express.

Just as we develop our physical, emotional, mental, and will powers through diligent practice and striving to accomplish what we cannot until we can accomplish more, so too we develop our ability to pray through diligent practice and striving to pray with perfect love until our prayer is a deeper and profound reaching out in love to the divine Love who gave us the gift of the seed of love in our hearts which we can grow into a great tree of love to bear the good fruit of love.

While some might think that to abandon charismatic and ecstatic prayer for traditional prayers is to cease praying from the heart, to embrace traditional prayers is to pray from the heart in a fuller and grander sense.  Charismatic and ecstatic prayer are good because they empty the heart of its deeply imperfect yearnings for good and direct those yearnings toward God; the traditional prayers of the great Saints, mystics, and Doctors of the Church are even better because these are the prayers of those whose hearts were far closer to being perfected in God's love.  The Saints are the Heart of the Church, shining forth as examples of how wonderfully we can be transformed by the light of God's love shining upon our little hearts.

When we pray with the Saints using the words of the Anima Christi or Charles de Foucald's Prayer of Abandonment, we are praying with the heart, our hearts which need to grow in love to lift such prayers up to the Lord.  It is precisely in diligently practicing lifting up these prayers of the Saints to the Lord which are too heavy for the weakness of our love that our hearts gradually grow the love in our hearts in the light of His love until we are finally able to lift them up to the Lord.  To pray the traditional prayers is to pray from our own hearts, with the hearts of the Saints, and to pray with the heart of the whole Church so that the prayers we offer may be the greatest prayers from the heart we can offer to the one we love above all.

When we pray from the heart with sincerity, we express the small love of which our hearts are capable in this moment and offer it to the Lord.  When we pray from the heart with the traditional prayers of the Saints and the whole Church, we express the grand love of the entire Body of Christ for all of us, reflecting the grander and greater light of the divine Love which shines upon us, offering to God the perfect love which He has poured out for us in union with His Holy Church.  When we pray in this way, from the Heart of the Body of Christ which has been made perfect in the fullness of time by God's grace, we love to death all the weakness of our love and grow our hearts so that they may be filled with His divine love which He wants to give to us.

It is right and just to pray from the heart; it is even more right and a greater justice to pray from the Heart of the Church, from that treasury of the Church which preserves for us the beauty and grandeur of the love of Christ reflected in His Bride as she looks upon Him in the Beatific Vision.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Love it to Death: The Gift of Despair

Last week, I attended Mass on a Saturday, which is not something I normally do.  I did so for a Theology on Tap event, an event at which I was asked to read the second reading.  But it was the first reading that struck me where I was.  We were asked to reflect on the readings and given ample time to do so, something I found very productive.

The first reading was from 1 Kings, Chapter 19.

"1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night."

The prophet Elijah as we meet him in this moment is at the end of his wits, the end of his strength, and the end of his love.  His fellow prophets of the Lord had been killed, many prophets of Baal had been killed, and Queen Jezebel was promising to finish the prophet-killing work by killing him as well.  He saw no way out; after doing all he could to carry on the work of the Lord, it appeared that it had been a futile effort, that he would die with the work unfinished despite his best efforts.

As we all do if we but live long enough, Elijah encountered the deepest despair and cried out that what he had undergone was enough, that he could stand no more.  He asked for death, understanding that like all of his ancestors, his weakness would lead to his death eventually, and believing that this was likely the time because he was feeling that weakness most keenly.

Elijah chose to give in to fatalistic resignation, lying down and giving up in his despair, choosing to let go of everything rather than cling to his mission.  It is precisely in that moment that God reached out to Elijah, giving him the food needed to sustain him for the next part of the journey and calling him back to spend quality time with Him in solitude on sacred ground.

For Elijah, the most important thing was succeeding in doing the work of the Lord, in turning the people Israel back to the Lord and away from Ba'al and Asherah.  The Lord gave Elijah the gift of despair so that the prophet might let go of his attachments to his own plans and his own notions of success, and in letting go, become open to drawing closer to God so that he might follow sincerely the plans of God.

In despair, Elijah learned to accept the direction provided by God without clinging to his own plans. In despair, the prophet learned to accept the gifts of the Lord and draw close to the living God who sustains him.  In despair, he learned that walking humbly with the Lord is more important than completing the mission.  In despair, he learned to accept the bread and water provided by God

Like Elijah, it is in despair that we learn to accept the Bread from Heaven and the Living Water provided by the hand of God as a greater gift than the bread and water we earn by the work of our hands.  It is in despair that we learn to accept the commandments of Christ after we have followed our own plans to the end of our wits, the end of our strength, and the end of our love.  It is in despair that we learn to accept the commandments and the Bread from Heaven, those great gifts from the Lord, as greater than the gifts we desire for ourselves.

In our despair, we learn to let go of the lesser gifts to which we cling so that we might open our hands in gratitude and accept the greater gifts which the Lord has in store for us.  In our despair, we learn that we simply need to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, that we do not need to run around acquiring successes, not even for His sake.  In our despair, we learn that even our despair is a gift which draws us back to the love of God unfettered by the chains we seek to wrap around it so that it conforms to our plans.

In accepting the gift of despair, we are freed from the unwise demands we place upon ourselves; we are then able to accept the easy burden and light yoke offered to us by Christ.  In accepting the gift of despair, we love to death our ways which lead to the end of our love, entering into God's ways which lead to the beginning of an even greater Love, so high above the love to which we aspire while walking in our ways.  In accepting the gift of despair, we make room in our lives to love Him by obeying His commands. 

In accepting the gift of despair, we learn that giving up all to which we cling and letting go completely is the way we gain all which we truly need, the Love who never wants to let us go and will never give up on us.