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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Weeping Mountain: Part II

This poem was written on the occasion of the anniversary of my grandfather's death.

The Weeping Mountain

The mountain stands silently through the night,
teardrops shimmering before daybreak's light.
The grass glimmers under the condensed drops,
dewfall landing gently around bright crops.

The mountain stands firm underneath my boots,
topsoil and rock supporting the strong roots.
The grass is springing back after my stride,
footfalls lifting me up the steep hillside.

The mountain holds up the heavy gravestone,
raindrops sprinkling me while I stand alone.
The grass is shining with tears from heaven,
rainfall making the hard ground uneven.

The mountain roars with the sound of a creek,
floodwaters rushing down the scraggly peak.
The grass is growing from the water's race,
waterfalls tumbling down the mountain's face.

Note:  I wrote this poem based on visits to my grandfather's grave in the early morning and late evening.  The lyrical structures are pretty standard: end rhyme, start rhyme, alliteration, etc.  Photo credit goes to me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Weeping Mountain

A poem written on the occasion of my grandfather's death.

空は泣きました。 山は泣きました。 

English Translation:

My grandfather died.
The sky wept.  The mountain wept.
Heaven rejoiced.

A poem written for the occasion of my grandfather's funeral.


English Translation:

You've gone to the other shore.
You've met the God of heaven.
You've met the love of heaven.
You've found the garden of heaven.
You've found the glory of heaven.
We'll see you on the other shore.

Note: These poems were written while I was taking my 4th semester of Japanese, which is why I composed them in Japanese with rough English translations rather than composing them in English.  The first poem was written the way it was because of the rain and flowing water that marked my journey to the mountains for the funeral.  The second was written the way it was because of one of the songs selected for his funeral evoked the image of the other shore, a common image in many religious traditions for passing on to the next life, including in Buddhism.  I am sharing these now because the anniversary of his death is coming up.  Photo credit goes to me.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Iceberg: Part II

I still remember the last fleeting instant of icy bliss before I lost my love
In the blanket of the freezing ocean brine so close to the beautiful broken lines.
Ice, cold and clean, was to be my final home, my endless fortress protecting my life
Inside the very crystalline solitude I had so often longed for while I yet believed breath
Is a trap, a tragic flaw of those who have forgotten their end.  In my eyes
I held for a little while the peace of stillness so deep that all
Inclinations cease, the calm killing the storms of my mind
Instantly, leaving the only the foretaste of the sweet release
I have desired through the years and sought in death.
Interred in my own frigid tears, I missed the chance
I knew would have brought me to the treasure
I hoped for in the throes of the silent trance
Illuminated only by the cold and clean
Ice, beautiful and broken lines
In the chill air.  Inuit hunters
In that moment of crisis
Instinctively dive for me
Into the watery grave.
I breath again, crying
Icicles for the sake of
Infinite loss.

"Iceberg" by Created by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky). - (Work by Uwe Kils) http://www.ecoscope.com/iceberg/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Note: This is the second part of a shape poem, intended to evoke the ragged edges of an iceberg as viewed in a profile shot, which contains multiple interlacing rhyme schemes in the various forms of beginning rhyme, internal rhyme, and end rhyme.  These rhyme schemes often also seem jagged and unstructured, an attempt to depict the shape of an iceberg with both shape and lyrical structure.  As with a real iceberg, the part of the iceberg underneath the water is wider and taller relative to the sea level, going deeper than what is on the surface.  The first part of the poem can be found here.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Love it to Death: The Miracle of Love

Many of us are looking for a miracle, or perhaps a miraculous occurrence by another name because we don't actually believe in anything supernatural.  We want to have food in the belly of every child in the world, or peace between all the nations of the earth, or justice for the oppressed and vulnerable.

And we want a miraculous event to bring this about, whether by way of a divine power, the inevitability of history, or by simply implementing our favored ideology worldwide.  It would be just as miraculous if these things happened by the inevitability of history or the implementation of our ideology as it would if it happened by divine fiat.

But perhaps these are not the miracles you are looking for.  Maybe you simply want a family member or a friend cured of cancer, or an orphaned child to be adopted, or your parent to live long enough to meet their grandchildren.  Maybe you want simply to be loved fully, not for any particular pragmatic reason by itself, but because your very existence is wondrous.

Maybe you wish that you lived in the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth, when he was healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and weeping the tears of love for his friend Lazarus before raising him from the dead.  Maybe you would prefer to be in the place of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant and told Jesus that he was not worthy to have Jesus enter under his roof.  Maybe you would prefer to be the one whose water was turned into wine at the request of Mary, the Mother of God.

These miracles performed by the God who is Love, who sent Love Himself to us to offer us a hand up after the Fall brought us down, are indeed the miracles of Love.  The healing of the lepers, the granting of sight to the blind, the making the lame walk, the feeding of the multitude with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, the casting out of demons, the escaping of the murderous mob were all the miracles of Love, a demonstration of God's love for us.

His Love was, is, and shall be grander, more bold, and more complete than anyone had expected.  His chosen people expected a Messiah who was truly great, and He chose to send His only begotten Son to them, coming in person to show His love and tenderness.  His chosen people were expecting the Kingdom of Israel reestablished on earth, and He chose to invite us all into the Kingdom of Heaven.

His miraculous entrance into the world was an even bigger set of miracles than anyone was expecting.  He did not merely lift us up to Heaven by the strength of His arm; in His compassion which is truly a suffering-with and a suffering-for He joined fully in our human suffering from birth until death, bringing the King of Heaven whose kingdom was indeed not of this world so that those of us who are of this world would have the chance to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The suffering of Love was a miracle grander and bolder than we imagined it could be, God entering fully into the human life so that human lives might be sanctified and enter into the divine life of Love.  The death of our Love was a miracle of mercy greater than we can fully comprehend as children of the Fall in a fallen world.  The wounds of Love brought to us a healing so profound that we do not understand it until it has been given to us.  The Miracle of Love is given freely to us, and it is more than we ever dared to hope for.

The miracle of Love is not that He transforms stones into bread, but that He transforms our hearts of stone into hearts full of divine love alone.  The boldest miracle of Love was not that He walked on water, but that He descended to Hades to free the righteous dead from the very chains of death so that they might have life eternal.  The grandest miracle of love was not that He fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, but that He gave us His very Body as Bread from Heaven, the new and greater manna which we are through His grace allowed to receive at the table of the communion of saints.

The Miracle of Love was that His Sacred Heart broke for us so that our broken hearts could be reformed and made whole, our hearts able to participate fully in the sacred mysteries because He participated fully in the mysteries of the world.  The Miracle of Love was that he walked on earth to establish a bridge by which those on earth might, by living the life of the cross, one day cross over on the via dolorosa to His Heavenly Kingdom.

The Miracle of Love is that He loved to death all that separates us from being able to choose to enter fully into the divine life of love, life in the fullness of time as adopted sons and daughters of the living God who lived and died for us so that we might live with Love.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

40 Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Ordinary Time

During the course of Ordinary time, the longest part of the Roman Catholic liturgical year, I committed myself to continuing the meditations I had begun during Lent and deepened during the Easter season.  Ordinary Time can often seem mundane to the practicing Catholic, and I know from experience that it can seem a dull time which spans about half of the year.

Lately, this part of the liturgical year has great significance for me; I have come to realize that the great battle for holiness is so often won or lost in the most ordinary of moments and in the most mundane activities of working and caring for family.  It is in those most ordinary times in our lives that we have the greatest opportunity to grow in love for others.  If we can inject holiness into our daily routines and ordinary acts, then it can take root in us much more deeply than if we only do so during the exciting high points that occur less frequently in our lives.

These daily routines often remind me of climbing a mountain because of the repetition and discipline required to be successful in either one.  I have learned that if we want to reach the heights of heaven from the lowly earth, it will require us to take up our cross daily and follow Him over some very rocky terrain.  I really enjoyed using my experience of the Appalachian and Rocky mountains to elucidate these concepts, and hopefully they will help others to begin the ordinary work of becoming extraordinary in our love just as God desires us to be.

Day 1 - As we behold the mountain while we approach it, we are drawn to it by its beauty, the sense of awe building within us as we gaze upon its majestic heights, and we are drawn to it yet more by the somehow entrancing broken lines scarring the mountain's face.  It is the pure and simple beauty of the mountain which motivates us to meet the challenge of facing our own death as we struggle mightily to ascend to the peak.

In the same way, when we behold the spiritual mountain of God, we are drawn to it first by its great beauty.  We feel a profound sense of awe as we contemplate the Father's love which dwells fully at the peak.  We are drawn to it yet more by the face of the scarred Icon, the Son whose Kingdom is not of this world, the Son who faced death so that we too could face it with His kingly majesty.  It is this pure and simple spiritual beauty of the outpouring love of God which motivates us to enter the spiritual struggle and ascend to meet Him at the peak.

Day 2 - On the mountain, as we leave the lush valley to begin our journey toward the rocky summit, it becomes apparent that not all paths are the same, that many paths will lead us to our death in a ravine while others might be so convoluted and lengthy that they will cause us to die from hunger and thirst before we reach the pure spring at the summit.

So too on the spiritual mountain, it becomes apparent as we begin to climb that not all paths are the same, that many paths will lead us to a death of the spirit long before we reach the spring of Living Water flowing from the heights.

Day 4 - On the mountain, as we survey the paths we might take to reach the summit, we can choose to strike out in whichever direction we feel looks rugged and untrammeled, beautiful to behold, or we can search out a well-worn path taken by those who have made the journey before us, trusting that those who have been to the summit have already found a reliable way to reach the pure spring at the peak.

So too on the spiritual mountain, as we look at the many spiritual paths we might take to reach the heights of purest love, we can choose to strike out on our own in whatever direction our whims lead us, or we can make the climb on the well-worn spiritual paths taken by those who have climbed the spiritual mountain before us, trusting that they have found a reliable way to reach the source of the  Living Water pouring down from the peak.

Day 5 - On the mountain, the climbing is easier at the base, and we beginners might be tempted to believe that we are doing particularly well when the first day's climb goes smoothly.  As time goes on and the climb becomes steeper, we learn that we are still too weak to make good progress in a day, even with the help of climbing equipment.  This humility is a hard lesson, but a helpful one.

In the same way, when we are beginners in the ascent of the spiritual mountain, we might believe at first that we are doing very well in our spiritual ascent to the heights of Love.  As time goes on, it becomes clear to us that we are far weaker than we believed, that we can barely make good progress even with the help of the most potent devotions.  Ah, how the hard lesson of humility spurs us on to greater efforts and assists us in our ascent to the Lord!

Day 6 - On the mountain, the humble climber seeking the summit for the first time knows to seek out a guide, someone who has been on the mountain before and knows the paths around the ravines and sheer rock faces which cannot be traversed, someone who has been to the summit before and is willing to help others reach it alive as well.

So too on the spiritual mountain, the humble seeker of the heavenly heights knows to seek out a guide who has been on the spiritual mountain before, someone who has found the difficult paths around the pitfalls and obstacles on the spiritual mountain, someone who has been to the heavenly heights and invites others to reach them as well, helping them to ascend where they might otherwise have fallen to their death.

Day 7 - On the mountain, even those who have an experienced guide will not have an easy ascent. The guide simply directs us to where the climb is possible; there is no perfectly smooth path to the summit, and every person will encounter parts of the path which take all of our strength and skill and will to traverse alive. There is always a risk of stumbling into a ravine from which we cannot ascend because we grow weary and want what looks like the easier path.

So too on the spiritual mountain, even those of us who find someone who has been on the spiritual mountain before, someone from whom we can learn which spiritual paths are possible routes to the summit of divine love, will encounter parts of our path which take all of our strength and skill and will to traverse without dying the spiritual death of separating ourselves from the Living Water because we are weary and want to travel what looks like the easier spiritual path.

Day 8 -  On the mountain, we do not have the luxury of always encountering comfortable handholds and footholds as we climb the steep slopes down which flows pure spring water from the summit.  We must use whatever handholds and footholds are available, strengthening ourselves in our climb by exercising our muscles and learning the better ways to use the mountain's terrain to lift ourselves up.  It is often the most difficult part of the climb which benefits us the most as we draw closer to the peak.

So too on the spiritual mountain, we do not have the luxury of always encountering that which is comfortable in our ascent of the mountain; we will encounter many difficult moments as we strive to find the summit of divine love.  Those difficult moments are often the handholds and footholds on the spiritual mountain, and when we choose to lovingly serve others in those moments, then we strengthen ourselves in our climb by exercising our hearts with love and learning how to love more deeply.  It is so often the difficult moments in the spiritual life which benefit us the most and we draw closer to the peak from which flows the Living Water.

Day 11 - On the mountain, the process of finding the usual pleasures of life becomes more difficult as we climb higher; the plants and animals we find delicious for food are not so abundant on the heights as they are in the garden.  The rich amenities of the city with its comfortable vehicles are replaced by aching feet placed on hard ground; its bottled liquors so easily swigged are replaced by spring water gathered carefully into a canteen and rationed so that it might sustain us for longer in order to finish our climb and reach the summit.

So too on the spiritual mountain, as we climb higher toward the summit of divine love, it becomes more difficult to find the old pleasures upon which we relied previously.  The pleasure of raucous noise is replaced by worshipful silence on the spiritual mountain; the pleasure of the physical closeness of other people is replaced by the serenity of spiritual intimacy with the divine; the pleasure of impressing other people with our appearance is replaced by a profound awe in the presence of that which transcends mere appearances, that rocky ground of existence upon which can stand firm.  When we have replaced our old pleasures with what we truly need, then we will be sustained as we strive to drink of the Living Water rushing down from the heights.

Day 12 - On the mountain, it is easy to fall down the mountainside in such a way that we are seriously injured, even if we have not yet climbed very far.  How much easier it is to fall and be gravely injured once we have climbed closer to the summit!

In the same way, it is easy to hurt ourselves by falling off of the spiritual mountainside through our sins.  When we miss the mark and fall off of the narrow path to the summit of the spiritual mountain, it is deeply painful.  And the higher we have climbed, the narrower and more difficult the path to perfection becomes, it is all the easier to slip and fall.  Ah, how deeply we feel the anguish upon a fall from the heights of the spiritual mountain!  The closer we have come to union with God, the more severe the pain in our hearts when we fall farther away from our beloved Father who dwells at the summit.

Day 13 - On the mountain, the very air becomes thinner, often painfully so, as we draw closer to the peak.  The weight of each breath seems to grow as we gradually ascend, perhaps beginning to feel over time as if the weight of the mountain has come to rest on our chest rather than under our feet, our lungs burning with the desire for more oxygen.  But over time, we grow accustomed to moving in the thin air, and our lungs and arteries grow stronger for it as we acclimatize to living on the heights.

So too on the spiritual mountain, every breath of transient pleasure we take becomes more difficult as we draw closer to the peak from which flows the Living Water.  The weight of the pleasures to which we cling the most strongly, those basic pleasures we never thought we would have to abandon, becomes unbearable for us as we ascend.  Oh how we long for our pleasures even while we recognize that we cannot carry them with us to the summit, and how it burns us to leave them behind!  But over time, we grow accustomed to living with little pleasure, and we grow stronger for it as we acclimatize to a life of service to all on the heights of love.

Day 15 - On the mountain, a blizzard can strike unexpectedly, blinding us and forcing us to take shelter until the storm has passed.  We can either find a cave in the rock or dig a cave in the snow to protect ourselves from the shearing force of the wind and the bitterness of the cold which leeches heat and life from our bodies.  We learn on the mountain that to stay warm we need fire and water, that the snow is dangerous to us until it has been purified by the fire so that we can drink of it.

In the same way, on the spiritual mountain a blizzard of temptations can strike unexpectedly, the many pleasures that can be had in life flying toward us on the deadly chilling winds, forcing us to take shelter from them in the cave of solitude and prayer, creating a space between us and our temptations so that we have room to grow in divine love.  We learn on the spiritual mountain that to stay warm we need the fire of our love for God and that we must purify the pleasures of life in that holy fire so that they do not leech the heat and life from our spirits, so that we might retain the strength to reach the summit and drink of the Living Water.

Day 16 - On the mountain, there are many times when it is necessary to camp and rest after a day's hiking or climbing up the mountain's face.  To be still and silent on the mountain, to fall asleep in its shadow and under the glorious stars of the night sky, is a joy after a long day's work as we ascend the mountain.

In the same way, we must stop and rest regularly as we make the grueling climb to the summit of the spiritual mountain where the Lord dwells.  To be still and silent before His presence, to fall asleep with the glorious light of His saints shining down upon us from heaven, is a source of great joy after each day's labor and the daily prayers which ascend to Him from our hearts.

Day 18 - On the mountain, it is the climber who remains calm who is able to recover when the grip of worn hands slips on the slick rocks of the mountain's face, preventing a painful and perhaps deadly fall.

So too on the spiritual mountain, remaining calm is vital.  The one who can quiet the mind when fear and anxiety begin to drive the intellect to race along unproductive paths is the one who can recover from the beginnings of a spiritual fall into the ravine of sin.

Day 19 - On the mountain, our choice of path can be a matter of life and death.  An avalanche can begin with a single step onto the top of a snowpack, freshly covered after a blinding blizzard and exposed to the light of the sun the next day, beautiful in appearance.  Death can come quickly for us when we place our trust in what turns out to be unable to support us, not solid enough to help us on our journey to the summit.  We learn on the mountain that entrancing beauty and the appearance of peace on the snowy slopes are not enough to lift ourselves up upon, but that in amounts too large they can pull us down and bury us, entombing us under the weight of their ephemeral crystalline beauty.

So too on the spiritual mountain, our choice of path can be a matter of spiritual life or death.  When we walk through life relying on our daily transient pleasures to support us, spiritual death can come quickly for us.  It can come when we take a single step, to begin a single habit of relying on a pleasure to get through life, which then causes the avalanche of pleasure-seeking to pull us down and bury us under the weight of the ephemeral beauty of our pleasures, forever keeping us from reaching the summit of divine love.  We learn on the spiritual mountain that the appearance of peace found in small pleasures is unable to support us as we search the heights of love for the eternal spring of Living Water.

Day 20 - The mountain can seem like a prison as we climb higher, the steep walls of rock we've climbed giving us no easy way to return to a comfortable altitude.  The farther we go in ascending towards to peak, the more difficult it is to turn back.  But this is no prison; our commitment to climb the mountain presses upon us with increasing urgency and spurs us on to victory.

In the same way, the spiritual mountain can seem like a prison as we begin to climb higher in the ways of virtue, and we may sometimes long to return to the comfortable vices we have left below and behind us.  The greater the virtues we gain, the more difficult it is to return to those comfortable vices, for we have learned that the greater joy is found in climbing to the spiritual summit.  The commitment we have to reaching the summit of Love Himself spurs us on to meet Him.

Day 21 - On the mountain, the best path is the solid path, the path we know will support our weight.  The solid path, however, is not generally the easy path.  The solid path is the path which is unyielding precisely because it is solid and can bear the full weight of our bodies; the solid path will not soften for us, will not bend as we press upon it.  In order to traverse the solid path which leads reliably to the summit, we must conform our movements to the solid path, following it carefully and methodically, because the solid path will by no means conform itself to our wishes.

So too on the spiritual mountain, the solid spiritual path is the best path, but it is never the easy path.  The solid spiritual path will support us unfailingly on our spiritual ascent precisely because it is unyielding, because it will not conform itself to our wishes.  Instead, we must conform all actions of our spiritual life to the shape of the path, following it carefully and methodically to the summit from which springs forth the Living Water we seek with joyful hearts.  It is the unyielding spiritual path which will shape our lives so that we can reach the heights of divine love!

Day 23 - On the mountain, amidst the chill of the air, the rocky crags, and the frigid vegetation, we are glad to have companions sharing our trek to the top of the mountain.  We are especially grateful for those companions we do have because not many will want to join us on the solid, rocky, difficult to traverse path which is necessary to take in order to reach the summit.

So too on the spiritual mountain, amidst the cold temptations that surround us, the rocky crags of obedience which we climb, and the frigid vegetation of pride which dots the landscape of our hearts, we are indeed glad for the faithful companions who share our journey.  The companions who join us are rare indeed, committed as they are to the hard path of poverty, chastity, and obedience by which we reach the summit after a great struggle, delighted to see the spring of Living Water as we ascend the peak.

Day 24 - On the mountain, it is necessary to keep the fire alive so that we can stay alive, so that we can keep our bodies warm and avoid the slow death that comes from prolonged exposure to the intensely cold air into which the heat from our bodies moves as we breathe it out of our lungs, the fire in our hearts being extinguished slowly with each beat.  If only our hearts could carry the fire safely, our journey to the summit would be much more enjoyable.

So too on the spiritual mountain, it is necessary to keep the spiritual fire alive so that the spirit will not die, so that we can avoid the slow death of the soul that comes from prolonged reliance on the cold pleasures of the flesh, pleasures as precious to us as the breaths we take.  If we but remove the cold pleasures which smother the spiritual fire of the heart with the blanket of the ego, then the fire will never be extinguished, and our hearts will be filled with the light of joy as we climb the steep slopes of love on our journey to the summit.

Day 26 - On the mountain, we keep the fire alive by carrying with us the long-burning fuel to feed the fire through the night, quick-burning fuel to ensure that the fire burns hot from the beginning, and something to create the spark from which the fire begins anew each day.  Though the spark is absolutely necessary, it is the fuel which decides how hot and high the fire will blaze as it burns through the darkest night in frigid mountain air.  The wise climber seeks the best fuel that can be found to ensure that the dark nights and cutting winds of cold air can be endured.

So too on the spiritual mountain, we keep the spiritual fire alive by means of long-burning fuel, quick-burning fuel, and a spark to light the spiritual fire each day.  The morning prayers of love for God and others are a necessary spark, and yet it is the daily joyful affection we show for our loved ones that sets the spiritual fire burning quickly and the loving acts of service for the stranger and the orphan that keep the spiritual fire blazing boldly through the dark night of the soul and the cold air of our temptations to partake of selfish fleshly pleasures.  The wise climber on the spiritual mountain seeks the prayers of the most radical love for God, the most expansive joyful affection for all in the divine household, and the most costly acts of compassion for those most in need of His mercy to fuel the spirit on the journey to the summit.

Day 27  - On the mountain, we stop and stand in awe of the waterfall rushing down the steep slopes, watching as the mist and fog collects below in the peaceful stillness being constantly broken by the thunderous sounds of the crushing wall of water as it strikes the rocks and wears them down over the ages into the smooth stones which can safely be held in the most tender palm of the smallest child.

In the same way, on the spiritual mountain we stand in awe of the waterfall of Living Water, the gift of Love rushing down the slopes to the pool available to all who venture near to the spiritual mountain, the thunderous sound of Love breaking the stillness as it strikes the hard rock of our hearts below over the course of our lives, wearing them down into hearts of purest love, hearts which can safely hold in them the tender child-like love which will bring us ever nearer the spring of Living Water at the peak.

Day 29 - On the mountain, we are tempted to stand directly under the waterfall, to explore what lies behind the wall of water slamming down upon the rocks, but the wise traveler knows that this will require preparation to undertake.  To enter into the grand waterfall which cascades forth from age unto age, we need to first strengthen ourselves by standing under the smaller waterfalls which will shape our habits so that we can withstand the power of the stream, shed ourselves of all the unnecessary and heavy burdens we carry so that we can enter the stream without being swept away, and take precious supplies with us so that we can continue to have strength for the journey once we reach the other side.

This gift of Love is a crushing wall under which we cannot stand upright until we have been shaped by the smaller waterfalls of suffering which wear away all of those parts of us which are not made of the gentleness of love, until we have been cleansed first in the waterfall of divine grace which is poured out upon us in Baptism, and until we are immersed in the waterfall of the passion of divine love seen with the eyes of faith in the Eucharist, that bread for the journey which strengthens us on the way to the summit.

Day 32 - On the mountain, we can see far more than we could see before we reached the peak. We can look back and see the desert in the distance, remembering the long journey across the barren desert that taught us that reaching our destination requires sacrifice which gradually separates us from our compulsive reliance on comfort.  We can look back and see the garden in the valley that lies below the foothills, remembering our simple and serene life in the garden that taught us to take the time to cultivate the best food for those we love, dedicating our lives to tending the land we have been given and growing in the soil watered by the river.

So too on the spiritual mountain, we can see far more of the spiritual life than we could see before we reached the peak.  We can look back and remember our journey through the spiritual desert which began the process of separating ourselves from our fleshly pleasures so that we could have room in our hearts for divine joy.  We can look back and remember our time in the spiritual garden during which we began the process of cultivating love in our hearts so that they would bear the fruit of divine love watered by the river which springs from the summit of the spiritual mountain.

Day 34  - On the mountain, the moon seems to loom larger in our vision at night when the sky is clear.  Her light shines upon us so brightly, a necessary reflection of the light of the sun upon us even when the sun is not visible to us because the earth has turned the other way, always drawing our gaze to the sunlight even in the cold dark night.

So too on the spiritual mountain, Mary the Mother of God seems to loom larger in our vision during the dark night of the soul, reflecting the light of the Son upon us even when we cannot see Him because we have turned to look the other way.  Oh, how delightful it is that her light consoles us through the cold dark spiritual night and allows us to see His light!

Day 36 - On the mountain, the sun is even brighter than in the desert, its rays reflected more powerfully by the snow and ice, saturating our vision with light.  In the cold mountain air, we treasure the warmth provided by the sun even more, knowing that its rays are sustaining us quietly while we climb higher toward the peak where its rays can reach us from every direction.

So too on the spiritual mountain, the Son is even brighter than in the spiritual desert, His light saturating our vision and filling our mind with the things of heaven.  We treasure the warmth in our hearts provided by the Son more than ever, knowing that it is His light showering upon us always from every direction, a divine light which sustains us while we climb to the peak on the heavenly heights to meet our Love.

Day 37 - At the peak of the mountain, there is nothing to hide us from the view of anyone who might be looking; we are exposed to the wind and sun and to the vision of all, whether they love us or wish to do us harm, and yet we are not afraid.  The joy of reaching the summit overtakes all our doubts and fears, and we delight in drinking from the mountain spring from which came the waterfalls on the mountainside and the river in the garden.

In the same way, at the peak of the spiritual mountain we do not attempt to hide from anyone who might seek us because we know that we are ever visible in the light of the Son; we are at peace while we welcome both friend and enemy into the embrace of Love.  The joy of reaching the spiritual summit fills our hearts so that there is no room for doubt or fear, and we drink reverently of the Living Water which springs forth from the mountaintop to fill the world with the chance for life eternal in the garden of Paradise with God's Love.

Day 39 - At the peak of the mountain, we can see more clearly how very small we are and how expansive all that exists is.  We are humbled by our insignificance and also emboldened by the magnificence of the extravagantly beautiful creation of which we partake; our hearts are emptied of ingratitude and filled with gratitude for the whole cosmos which is laid out before us, a gift we cannot give to anyone but those who journey with us to the summit from which the river springs.

In the same way, at the peak of the spiritual mountain we see clearly how very small we are and how expansive all the God has given us is. We are emptied of our self-centered pride which separates us from divine love and filled with joy as we understand that all we have experienced has been part of a wondrous gift, the gift of Love which we only wish we could return in equal measure, a gift of all which we can only match by giving our all to Love, the gift which we invite others to share by taking the journey with us to the summit from which the Living Water springs.

40 Days in the Desert - 40 Days in the Garden - 40 Days on the Mountain

Sunday, January 10, 2016


In honor of the winter chill, a poem from years ago when my heart was on fire.


I still remember the first time
I saw an iceberg.  I was sitting
In the front of a kayak full of furs,
Inuit hunters tilling the ice behind.
In the floe-covered water stood a wonder.
Ice, cold and clean, beautiful broken lines
In the still thin air that burned at my hide.
Inuit hunters felt the awe that pelted my mind,
Informed me that the true treasure lay in the deep.
In that moment the kayak overturned on a hidden floe,
Instantly throwing me into the waters that froze,
Interred me in what would become a grave so that cold
Inclinations might die with me as I beheld the depth and breadth
In my eyes.  Ice, cold and clean, slept beneath the surface, and
I knew that what lay underneath the still waters was more than
I could hold in my mind, knew that I would remain stilled by death.
I hoped for life, asked for still another opportunity to exist for a while
In the orbit of the cold and clean, beautiful broken lines that held my love.

Iceberg 10 2001 07 23.jpg
"Iceberg 10 2001 07 23" by Ansgar Walk - photo taken by Ansgar Walk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: Originally posted here in 2008, though it was written earlier.  This is a shape poem, intended to evoke the ragged edges of an iceberg as viewed in a profile shot, which contains multiple interlacing rhyme schemes in the various forms of beginning rhyme, internal rhyme, and end rhyme.  These rhyme schemes often also seem jagged and unstructured, an attempt to depict the shape of an iceberg with both shape and lyrical structure.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Fair Questions: Did the Church Ever Sell Indulgences?

This is a fair question to ask, given that it's a fairly common assertion that isn't always understood as well as it is eloquently made.  Frequently, the folks discussing it understand the Catholic teaching on indulgences about as well as they understand the Buddhist teaching on the transference of merit, which is to say that they really don't understand it or that they have basic misunderstandings about it.

Fr. Mike gives an excellent explanation of what indulgences are; it's probably the best I've heard from any priest.  That said, I have some concerns about what was not said in the video, and I think there are additional distinctions to make that are important.

The way that the question is framed makes his answer technically correct, which as we all know is the best kind of correct.  On the other hand, technically correct positions tend to leave out significant information.

It's true, as he says in the video, that the Church does not teach that indulgences are a means of buying grace, and thus does not sell them as an institution because it doesn't believe that they can be sold.  This, however, has not stopped unscrupulous clergy from acting as if grace could be bought by way of indulgences.  While it's true that the Church officially condemns simony in its various forms and has set severe canonical penalties for it, there are always those who are willing to violate the canons for personal gain.

And because many people see each individual member of the clergy as synonymous with the Church (which is not a theologically or institutionally correct view, but a nonetheless prevalent view), it certainly looks like to them that the Church is selling indulgences.  Certainly, I don't see it as any particular fault of theirs that they call it as they see it, except perhaps after it has been effectively explained to them.

I'm not sure that Fr. Mike was avoiding the topic of real instances of simony that caused changes to canon law in the Middle Ages, but it does seem fairly common for Catholic apologists to carefully avoid saying up front that Catholics sometimes did terribly sinful things and still do terribly sinful things.  I'm often irritated when Catholic apologists try to downplay the very real sins committed by Catholics in the apologetics process.

Trying to avoid the issue just gives credence to the bad argument that people doing bad things is evidence against the truth of the beliefs held by those people.  Talking around the issue of serious sins on the part of clergy is not the right way to do apologetics.  I think the right way to do it is to just say that yes, some Catholics did sin in the way they abused indulgences, that it was tragic and terrible, and that the Church still condemns it as a sin.

And what's more, we need to show that we are willing to take concrete steps to reduce the occurrence of the sin on an institutional level.  True repentance requires no less than a firm purpose to amend our lives and taking action to amend them, after all.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Fair Questions: Is it licit for a Catholic to engage in the practices of other religions?

Recently, a question was posed on a social media site which I thought warranted a proper answer.  This question was specifically about whether it is licit or illicit (in a Roman Catholic context) to engage in the practices of other religions so long as they do not conflict with Catholicism.  The example used by the questioner was Buddhism, a religion I have engaged with extensively by studying Buddhist history, reading the Pali canon, reading Zen masters, and practicing Buddhist meditation.

The question as posed is fundamentally a legal question that should be answered by a study of canon law.  I don't recall any prohibitions on engaging in non-Catholic religious practices that are not in contradiction to Catholicism, but it's been many years since I read the Code of Canon Law, so I may have forgotten something.

That said, I don't think that the legal question is the question is the best question to ask.  The Catholic faith is not about what's licit, but about what is the most good, the most true, and the most beautiful.  Laws may be necessary, but they are far from sufficient.  And so let's consider whether it is the most good thing to engage in the practices of other religions where they are not in contradiction with the Catholic faith.

Is it the most good thing to engage in the practices of other religions?

If those other religious practices are in contradiction with the Catholic faith, then a faithful Catholic has an obvious obligation to refrain from participating in those practices.  I'm sure that's why the questioner added that caveat up front, and so let's consider practices which are not in contradiction with the faith of the Church.

I have found considerable value in engaging in the practices of other religions, whether I was practicing Buddhist meditation or praying with Muslims.  It is very difficult to understand our brothers and sisters in the various religious traditions without experiencing their religious practices, and understanding other religions is indeed a good thing.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a great Doctor of the Church, was quite serious about understanding other religions and having fruitful dialogue with them, though perhaps not the dialogue of contemporary society in which a person would never be so outlandish as to insist that their beliefs were more true than others.  He was quite willing to be so outlandish.

And Thomas Aquinas was not making the error so common today of believing that other religions didn't make truth claims which were mutually exclusive with the truth claims of Christianity.  He did not suggest that Buddhism is totally, like, a philosophy rather than a religion, man.  Nor would anyone who understands Buddhism deeply and sees it as a beautiful whole religion rather than seeing it as a set of practices to be added to the cafeteria tray of spirituality writ large and vacuous.

Buddhism, despite what lots of Westerners might tell you, is a fully fledged religion which is not particularly compatible with the Catholic faith. It is not atheistic; it has an infancy narrative, an eschatology, and makes the claim that Buddha (and Buddhas in general) are divine beings reincarnated to this plane from a heavenly plane, specifically the Tusita heaven.  It is not possible to be authentically a Christian while authentically practicing Buddhism, though it may be possible to pick up one or two minor practices from Buddhism which are not at odds with Christianity and do no harm to Buddhism.

There are many good things about Buddhism. Its asceticism, devotional practices, profound understanding of the human condition, and contemplative practices are among them. And the Buddhist contemplative practices do have slightly different benefits than Christian contemplative practices, so a Catholic might get something useful out of it.

In my experience, there is very little to be gained from Buddhist contemplative practices that cannot also be gained in greater abundance from Christian contemplative practices, and in practice the Catholic is better off sticking with practicing the Rosary as a form of contemplative prayer.  It is, on the whole, better than Buddhist meditation in my view.  And I say that as someone who can only get rid of hiccups effectively by Zen meditation, so I'm firmly in favor of meditation.

I cannot argue that it could never be appropriate to engage in the religious practices of other religions when those practices are not in contradiction with the Catholic faith.  At the same time, I would suggest being very careful about engaging in those practices, both out of respect for the integrity of the other religions (avoiding being a cafeteria Buddhist or Muslim in the same way we ought to avoid being cafeteria Catholics) and out of a deep love for the Church, she whose love shows us the way to Christ's love.

If we love the Christ and His Church above all else (as we should), then it makes the most sense to deepen that relationship first.  If, as Catholics, we believe that the Church has the fullness of truth (as we should) and that the Church in her wisdom has prescribed for us the best forms of worship and prayer here on Earth (as we should), then it is difficult indeed to make the argument that the most good thing we could do is to engage in the practices of other religions.

And my experience is that the Church has the most good practices for living the spiritual life, so I recommend to any Catholic that they go deep into the practices of the Catholic Church if they are looking for the most good, most true, and most beautiful thing to do.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of a Buddhist mālā in my possession.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Thank God for Atheists (Again)

From about 2006 until 2011, I had a blog on Xanga that was a bit unusual.  My philosophical training was, to put it mildly, exceedingly rare among their user base.  I tended to be controversial at times because I took positions that were, to put it mildly, provocative to those who shared my religious views.  This was a good thing in my view; orthodoxy is a far better thing than a simplistic Christian faux orthodoxy people so often use to keep themselves in possession of reductive understandings of God and the moral life.

When I submitted this piece to a Christian subsite, I was expecting some pushback.  I was not expecting quite the tidal wave of rebukes I received, though I probably should have been.  Admittedly, it wasn't very nuanced, and it could have been written more effectively.  That said, I still think it's an argument worth considering.  The full text is as follows:

"I'm sure many people, both theists and atheists, will find the very notion of being grateful to God for those who profess disbelief in God's existence to be odd or even outrageous.

For those of you who are of the Christian persuasion, consider the following:
Ephesians 5:19-20 "Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (NIV)
1 Thessalonians 5:18 "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Jesus Christ."
1 Timothy 4:4 "For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving..."

The first two verses I listed are general admonitions to early Christian communities, and are not instructions that are purely dependent on cultural customs or technology contemporary to the author, nor was the author using a metaphor, so as far as I can determine they are quite applicable to us today.  The third verse I listed is, in its context, talking about the acceptance of marriage practices and the eating of certain foods.  But the principle I'd like to enumerate from it is that everything that God has created is good.  Everything.  And we're supposed to be thankful for everything.  It's an absolute, no exceptions allowed.

I don't see any particular reason to disbelieve that atheists exist (oh, the irony), so I can't help but include them in the class of all things, which means that as a Christian, I should be thankful for them as well.  And I am thankful for atheists.  I'm thankful for my co-workers who are atheists and do a great job of helping us reach our goals as a center.  I'm thankful for my friends who happen to be atheists; their support and companionship are valuable to me.  I'm thankful for atheists in general, because their challenges to our faith can keep us from stagnating and can often help us see how much more Christ-like we need to be through their observations on Christianity.  I'm thankful for the atheists who pull people out of burning buildings, who are willing to fight to defend freedom, and do the science and engineering to make things better.

If you're a Christian, are you thankful for atheists?  Why or why not?

If you're an atheist, do think that it would be consistent with Christian belief to be thankful for atheists?  How would you view Christians who were thankful for atheists?"

I'm not a fan of simplistic proof-texting from the Bible.  Nonetheless, many of the people I was trying to reach with this post were fans of it, which is why I used that approach.  Unsurprisingly, they tended to really, really not like it.

One of the better reasons for not liking it was that it never made an explicit distinction between being grateful for atheists and being grateful for atheism per se.  It's certainly the case that one can make an important distinction between the two, just as an atheist might make an important distinction between being grateful for his Christian neighbor who shows great love to us and Christianity as a set of beliefs which he finds untenable.

That said, I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to be grateful for atheism per se.  Atheism is often a rejection of a poor understanding of God, and to that extent we might be grateful that it shows us that God is even greater than we thought Him to be.

I sincerely strive to be an atheist with regard to any conception of God that isn't worthy of the truth of His inscrutability, while acknowledging that due to our cognitive limitations we can probably never quite understand Him correctly on an intellectual level.  Bishop Robert Barron explains this very well in the first part of his "Mystery of God" video series.

As it turns out, I'm still thankful for atheists.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Tears of the Moon

The following is a poem I wrote for the occasion of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

"The Tears of the Moon"

Though the sun has been
long before the moon
the moon had not seen
him before his croon
long after she was born.

The tears of the moon
shine upon the face
of the sun who soon
shone in all of space
brightly every morn.

The light of the sun
returns to him once
for each ray the moon
has felt warm her since
his journey had begun.

The tears of the moon
well up in her eyes
as blood from the sun
falls across the miles
on the way of passion.

The light of the sun
flashes as he dies
for all who will burn
to traverse empty skies
and bring only his light.

The tears of the moon
drip upon the face
of the sun who soon
gives life to our race
long after he was born.

Though the sun will shine
long after the moon
the moon will have life
from the ancient sun
within his timeless fire.

Notes: The word croon is here used in its older sense of lament or mourn.  For those who like to speculate on the meaning of the poem and get it horribly wrong, I will explain what story it is telling.  It is the story of the birth of Christ crying as a newborn, and the story of Mary crying at his death using the moon as a metaphor for her and the sun as a metaphor for Christ.

Credit for the icon on ceramic goes to some wonderful nuns in Lebanon. Photo credit goes to me.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Four Horsemen of Atheism

Today, The Four Horsemen is a phrase often used to refer to several well-known atheists in various fields such as biology, journalism, philosophy, and neuroscience.  There is a really enjoyable (at least for me) series of video recordings of discussions between Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett.  I would highly recommend that any devout religious person watch with an open mind and really take to heart the points they make about the poor arguments made in favor of religious devotion.

Though I am a devout religious person myself, I have been very happy to engage with the so-called "New Atheists" where I thought it was worthwhile.  I wrote a review of the Sam Harris' recent book entitled Waking Up, addressing each of its five chapters individually.

These are not the only atheists I've engaged with, of course.  Others include Jerry CoynePeter Singer and Friedrich Nietzsche, the last of whom I defended against the charge of anti-Semitism.  Jerry Coyne has pointed out that there is nothing new about atheism, a claim I have wholeheartedly endorsed in previous writings exploring why it is difficult for us to believe in God.

Though I often find value in engaging with those who are called "New Atheists" and their followers, I would like to give credit to four other individuals who, at least in my view, played a decisive role in the contemporary strength of atheism as a part of a more popular cultural movement,  In terms of the powerful consequences of their thought for the prevalence of atheism as it stands now, I'm inclined to see the following fellows as the Four Horsemen of the "new" atheism.


Death may indeed be a pale horse, but I submit that it's a fair descriptor for a pale German philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche, a man who declared that God was dead and that we were guilty of his murder.  He is also a man who charged religions with being against life itself.  And not just in the all too easy sense that religions sometimes practice animal or human sacrificial killing.  Or that religions generally propose a life after death, which can, if left unchecked by a belief in the sanctity of life, lead to a tragic diminishing of the value of this life.

No, Nietzsche was far more subtle than that.  He attacked the practice of selflessness itself: asceticism.  As we read in Beyond Good and Evil:

"There is a great ladder of religious cruelty, with many rounds; but three of these are the most important.  Once on a time men sacrificed human beings to their God, and perhaps just those they loved the best--to this category belong the firstling sacrifices of all primitive religions, and also the sacrifice of the Emperor Tiberius in the Mithra-Grotto on the Island of Capri, that most terrible of all Roman anachronisms.  Then during the moral epoch of mankind, they sacrificed to their God the strongest instincts they possessed, their 'nature'; this festal joy shines in the cruel glances of ascetics and 'anti-natural' fanatics.  Finally, what still remained to be sacrificed?  Was it not necessary in the end for men to sacrifice everything comforting, holy, healing, all hope, all faith in hidden harmonies, in future blessedness and justice?  Was it not necessary to sacrifice God himself, and out of cruelty to themselves to worship stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, nothingness?  To sacrifice God for nothingness--this paradoxical mystery of the ultimate cruelty has been reserved for the rising generation; we all know something thereof already."

Nietzsche rightly disdained the needless death of a man's loved ones by his own hands.  He also wrongly suggested that the sacrifice of God and the subsequent worship of brute facts followed straightforwardly from the previous forms of sacrifice.  But in the middle, it's a bit more muddled.

He proposes that the sacrifice of the instincts, that great well of transient desires, is indicative of an aversion to the immense wonder of this life; this he sees as a grave problem, if you will excuse the morbid turn of phrase, with religion.  He is quite right that to be opposed to natural life is a grave problem; he is quite wrong that the practice of self-denial in asceticism is performed out of an opposition to this natural life, at least in the vast majority of cases in Christianity and Buddhism, which he uses as examples.

As I've mentioned before, he just so happened to be wrong about the facts of those religions, much as I sympathize with his reasoning.  In another arena, however, he got other facts about the relationship between death and religion exactly right.

"Has it been observed to what extent outward idleness, or semi-idleness, is necessary to a real religious life (alike for its favourite microscopic labor of self-examination, and for its soft placidity called 'prayer,' the state of perpetual readiness for the 'coming of God'), I mean the idleness with a good conscience, the idleness of olden times and of blood, to which the aristocratic sentiment that work is dishonouring--that it vulgarises body and soul--is not quite unfamiliar?  And that consequently the modern, noisy, time-engrossing, conceited, foolishly proud laboriousness educates and prepares for 'unbelief' more than anything else?  Amongst these, for instance, who are at present living apart from religion in Germany, I find 'free-thinkers' of diversified species and origin, but above all a majority of those in whom laboriousness from generation to generation has dissolved the religious instincts; so that they no longer know what purpose religions serve, and only note their existence in the world with a kind of dull astonishment.  They feel themselves already fully occupied, these good people, be it by their business or by their pleasures, not to mentioned the 'Fatherland,' and the newspapers, and their 'family duties'; it seems that they have no time whatever left for religion; and above all, it is not obvious to them whether it is a question of a new business or a new pleasure--for it is impossible, they say to themselves, that people should go to church merely to spoil their tempers.  They are by no means enemies of religious customs; should certain circumstances, State affairs perhaps, require their participation in such customs, they do what is required, as so many things are done--with a patient and unassuming seriousness, and without  much curiosity or discomfort;--they live too much apart and outside to feel even the necessity for a for or against in such matters."

He was able to identify that it is not persecution which is the death of religion; nor is it science, nor lofty rationality.  The death of religion is popular indifference, indifference driven by absorption in the daily business of life and the gentle pleasures which steady labor can attain for us in orderly societies.

Asceticism prevents this death of religion by taking us out of our reliance on those gentle pleasures and requiring us to observe what he calls the idleness of prayer; without asceticism, religion dies the quiet death of being reduced to a meaningless collection of customs.

"Among those indifferent persons may be reckoned nowadays the majority of German Protestants of the middle classes, especially in the great laborious centres of trade and commerce; also the majority of laborious scholars, and the entire University personnel (with the exception of the theologians, whose existence and possibility there always give psychologists new and more subtle puzzles to solve).  On the part of pious, or merely church-going people, there is seldom any idea of how much good will, one might say arbitrary will, is now necessary for a German scholar to take the problem of religion seriously; his whole profession (and as I have said, his whole workmanlike laboriousness, to which he is compelled by his modern conscience) inclines him to a lofty and almost charitable serenity as regards religion, with which is occasionally mingled a slight disdain for the 'uncleanliness' of spirit which he takes for granted wherever anyone still professes to belong to the Church.  It is only with the help of history (not through his own personal experience, therefore) that the scholar succeeds in bringing himself to a respectful seriousness, and to a certain timid deference in presence of religions; but even when his sentiments have reached the stage of gratitude towards them, he has not personally advanced one step nearer to that which still maintains itself as Church or as piety; perhaps even the contrary.  The practical indifference to religious matters in the midst of which he has been born and brought up, usually sublimates itself in his case into circumspection and cleanliness, which shuns contact with religious men and things; and it may be just the depth of his tolerance and humanity which prompts him to avoid the delicate trouble which tolerance itself brings with it. -- Every age has its own divine type of naivete, for the discovery of which other ages may envy it: and how much naivete--adorable, childlike, and boundlessly foolish naivete is involved in this belief of the scholar in his superiority, in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the unsuspecting, simple certainty with which his instinct treats the religious man as a lower and less valuable type, beyond, before, and above which he himself has developed--he, the little arrogant dwarf and mob-man, the sedulously alert, head-and-hand drudge of 'ideas,' of 'modern ideas'!"

The sharply observant Nietzsche notes that the man indifferent to religion is himself reductively religious; he has reduced religion to irrelevant though harmless customs which are nonetheless worthy of observance for no good reason, a phenomenon to be tolerated with quiet condescension in those who take it seriously.  In his avoidance of the difficult matter of engaging directly with religion, he treats it also as beyond good and evil; he places it on a shelf to be preserved as a charm or trinket to become a museum piece, not understanding its danger to him or its power over him.

By way of turning religion into something to be tolerated, to be avoided if possible, or to be accepted as a cultural practice emptied of its meaning, the man of modern ideas has turned religion into what William James might call a "dead option."

His respect of religion is much the same as the respect a young man offers to the fallen soldiers of the previous age; it is the respect we have for the dead, the dead we never truly knew.


It is not enough for everyone to propose that religion is wrong, terrible and beautiful though it may be.  A yet more ingenious attack is to starve it of the terrible and beautiful parts which give it a sort of grand meaning, to gradually put to waste the richness of meaning upon which religions subsist.

For this, we need one of the psychologists, a group Nietzsche helpfully pointed out to us as investigators of the oddity of theology, that antiquated discipline of studying the ways of God to Man.  We need a man educated in neuropathology who can explain the genesis of our beliefs about God in such a way that we have no further need of recourse to explaining those beliefs by way of anything external to ourselves, a parsimonious explanation which any reasonable person can accept.

We need a man who has studied only the ways of Man to God, and Sigmund Freud took on the task of inverting the project of theodicy in The Future of an Illusion:

"What is the psychological significance of religious ideas and how can we classify them?  The question is at first not at all easy to answer.  Having rejected various formulas, I shall take my stand by this one: religion consists of certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external (or internal) reality, which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered and which claim that one should give them credence.  As they give information about what are to us the most interesting and important things in life, they are particularly highly valued.  He who knows nothing of them is considered ignorant indeed, and he who has assimilated them may consider himself enriched.
There are of course many such dogmas about the most diverse things of this world.  Every school hour is full of them.  Let us choose geography.  We hear there: Konstanz is on the Bodensee.  A student song adds: If you don't believe it go and see.  I happen to have been there, and can confirm the fact that this beautiful town lies on the shore of a broad stretch of water, which all those dwelling around call the Bodensee.  I am now completely convinced of the accuracy of this geographical statement.  And in this connection I am reminded of another and very remarkable experience.  I was already a man of mature years when I stood for the first time on the hill of the Athenian Acropolis, between the temple ruins, looking out on to the blue sea.  A feeling of astonishment mingled with my pleasure, which prompted me to say: then it is really true, what we used to be taught at school!  How shallow and weak at that age must have been my belief in the real truth of what I heard if I can be so astonished to-day!  But I will not emphasize the significance of this experience too much; yet another explanation of my astonishment is possible, which did not strike me at the time, and which is of a wholly subjective nature and connected with the peculiar character of the place."

The psychologist here recognizes the power of religion, but only in terms of its power to shape our mental lives.  He dares not assert that religion does anything else; religion is neutered from the start.  The religion about which he writes is religion which is a set of ideas which can be understood completely in the form of propositions, the possession or lack of which has temporal social consequences for us rather than eternal consequences.

He then establishes the same principle as the Apostle Thomas did in the Gospel of Doubt, that it is not only justified to believe once we see for ourselves, but that it is the best form of belief, other beliefs less viscerally evidenced being of lower value.

"All such dogmas as these, then, exact belief in their contents, but not without substantiating their title to this.  They claim to be the condensed result of a long process of thought, which is founded on observation and also, certainly, on reasoning; they show how, if one so intends, one can go through this process oneself, instead of accepting the result of it; and the source of the knowledge imparted by the dogma is always added, where it is not, as with geographical statements, self-evident.  For instance: the earth is shaped like a globe; the proofs adduced for this are Foucault's pendulum experiment, the phenomena of the horizon, and the possibility of circumnavigating the earth.  Since it is impracticable, as all concerned realize, to send every school child on a voyage round the world, one is content that the school teaching shall be taken on trust, but one knows that the way to personal conviction is still open."

The other way of arriving at belief, he assures us, is valid so long as we could see, in principle, whatever is it that we are proposing exists.  When Freud weighs the scales of evidence, he sees the side holding that which is in principle observable sitting lower than that which is not in principle observable.  This is intuitively attractive, of course.

We understandably prefer to believe in that which we can experience for ourselves; it feels more solid and certain, providing us with a sense of security in our belief, a sense of security which our belief in the roundness of our planet might never have.  We wish for that which is certain, that which cannot be overturned; we long for the reliable, stable truth.

"Let us apply the same tests to the dogmas of religion.  If we ask on what their claim to believe is to be based, we receive three answers, which accord remarkably ill with one another.  They deserve to be believed: firstly, because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs, which have been handed down to us from this very period of antiquity; and thirdly, because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all. ...
This third point cannot but rouse our strongest suspicions.  Such a prohibition can surely have only one motive: that society knows very well the uncertain basis for the claim it makes for its religious doctrines.  If it were otherwise, the relevant material would certainly be placed more readily at the disposal of anyone who wished to gain conviction for himself."

Freud seeks that same certainty he found upon viewing the Acropolis when he examines religion, and does not find it.  And what is worse, those who give him reasons for their belief provide him with shaky ones.  Their reasons do not evoke the stable sort of belief which provide a sense of security in certainty.  He is convinced, by what reason I have not found, that the important claims of religions cannot be substantiated by observation; thus religion lacks the certainty he seeks and he cannot believe it.

Now his suspicions are raised; like so many modern people, Freud assumes that if some religious people are opposed to questioning, then religion as a whole is opposed to questioning.  Rightly, he sees this as a serious problem.  Interestingly, he assumes that this opposition to questioning is motivated by a lack of the certainty he so desires on the part of the believer, projecting his own desires for certainty onto them as an insecurity.

Thomas Aquinas, who wrote a rather lengthy set of answers to those questions Freud believed to be verboten many centuries before when the Catholic Church had a great deal of power over the continent, might have understandably been quite confused about why Freud thought this to be so.  Why would he write such a volume and publish it if there was no one asking the questions or willing to answer them?

"And so we proceed to test the other two arguments with a feeling of mistrust not easily allayed.  We ought to believe because our forefathers believe.  But these ancestors of ours were far more ignorant than we; they believed in things we could not possibly accept to-day; so the possibility occurs that religious doctrines may also be in this category.  The proofs they have bequeathed to us are deposited in writings that themselves bear every trace of being untrustworthy.  They are full of contradictions, revisions, and interpolations; where they speak of actual authentic proofs they are themselves of doubtful authenticity.  It does not help much if divine revelation is asserted to be the origin of their text or only of their content."

The next part of his response to those believers he has interviewed would not be out of place on any online message board of the past twenty years, at least while setting aside its eloquence and focusing on its substance.  The psychologist quite rightly understands that if the holy texts of a religion are untrustworthy, and the holy texts contain all of the observational evidence for their religion's truth claims, then even if the observational evidence is trustworthy, it is nonetheless suspect because it is in an untrustworthy text.

Understandably, the texts of ancient religions are difficult to parse without knowing the original language, the literary style being employed, the author's intent, the commentaries and critiques of his contemporaries, and numerous other factors.  Even texts written only a few centuries before are often odd and indecipherable without fairly extensive research, and they generally don't reflect the latest scientific consensus on matters of physics, just as Freud's do not reflect the latest consensus on psychology.

Though it is in principle possible for many people to perform the research necessary to understand the texts and decide the question of their authenticity, why would we do so when it is far easier to dismiss them as dubious on the basis of our uncertainty?

"I am reminded of one of my children who was distinguished at an early age by a peculiarly marked sense of reality.  When the children were told a fairy tale, to which they listened with rapt attention, he would come forward and ask: Is that a true story?  Having been told that it was not, he would turn away with an air of disdain.  It is to be expected that men will soon behave in like manner towards the religious fairy tales...
But at present they still behave quite differently, and in past ages, in spite of their incontrovertible lack of authenticity, religious ideas have exercised the very strongest influence on mankind.  This is a fresh psychological problem.  We must ask where the inherent strength of these doctrines lies and to what circumstances they owe their efficacy, independent, as it is, of the acknowledgement of the reason."

Freud's prophetic prediction has come true; there are now increasingly large numbers of people who regard religions are fairy tales and turn away from them with an air of disdain.  But there are still those who are strongly influenced by them in every aspect of their lives, and he wants to find a satisfactory psychological explanation for it.

This is especially urgent in light of their not being subject to human reason as Freud understands it.  He believes that our beliefs ought to be grounded in, or at least re-shaped by, reason.  It is increasingly apparent from contemporary studies of human cognition that this is not how our brains normally work, that in general they begin by working backward to find a reason for the correctness of our existing beliefs.

I happen to agree with Freud that we should aspire to have well-reasoned conclusions for our beliefs.  Nonetheless, the evidence of human cognitive function gathered by extensive observation suggests to me that we should not be quick to cast aspersions on those who don't, because it is actually the normal way for our minds to work.  Those of us who relatively frequently work from premise to conclusion, rather than from conclusion to premise, are perhaps the more truly fresh psychological problem.

"I think we have sufficiently paved the way for the answer to both of these questions.  It will be found if we fix our attention on the psychical origin of religious ideas.  These, which profess to be dogmas are not the residue of experience or the final result of reflection; they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind; the secret of their strength is the strength of these wishes.  We know already that the terrifying effect of infantile helplessness aroused the need for protection--protection through love--which the father relieved, and that the discovery that this helplessness would continue through the whole of life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father--but this time a more powerful one.  Thus the benevolent rule of divine providence allays our anxiety in face of life's dangers, the establishment of a moral world ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which within human culture have so often remained unfulfilled, and the prolongation of earthly existence by a future life provides in addition the local and temporal setting for these wish-fulfillments.  Answers to the questions that tempt human curiosity, such as the origin of the universe and the relation between the body and the soul, are developed in accordance with the underlying assumptions of this system; it betokens a tremendous relief for the individual psyche  if it is released from the conflicts of childhood arising out of the father complex, which are never wholly overcome, and if these conflicts are afforded a universally accepted solution."

The answer is finally given to us, an answer in the same vein of what we hear today from fine skeptics like Michael Shermer: religious belief is motivated by a strong desire to fulfill wishes we harbor for our entire lives, and these wishes are rooted in our childhood traumas.  Freud quite correctly notices that having a loving Father in Heaven fills a psychological need; like Nietzsche, he was ignorant of other religions, and to such a degree that he was not able to notice that this conception of God as a loving Father was far from universal among religions, and that his explanation would only make any sense for a small subset of religion as a category.

Not to mention that most psychological security blankets composed of an imaginary loving father would probably not include the strong possibility of your loving father sending you to everlasting torment if it was merely a case of psychological wish-fulfillment.  There are evidential holes in his theories large enough to drive a chariot of fire through.  So why was this all so convincing for Freud?

He wanted to find a simple explanation for the phenomenon of religious belief which did not require a serious, multidisciplinary study of human cognition and human evolution.  And he fulfilled his own wish, creating a narrative which explained (in light of what little was known of the human mind during his time) in a way which neatly justified his existing beliefs about religion while failing to ask the questions or research the information which might reveal it to be false.


The simplicity of the psychologist's theory was insufficiently simple for some, and so we turn to the natural scientist, Ludwig Feuerbach.  His specialties were anthropology and philosophy, specialties which provided him with the background to evaluate theological claims within the philosophical methodologies and in light of the evidence of natural science available to him at the time.

In The Essence of Christianity, he sets out to conquer the land of Christian theology and philosophy, claiming it for the post-Christian age which could not tolerate the fixed dogmas set as a firm foundation for the theological and philosophical disciplines.  His Hegelian training had prepared him well to argue that Christianity would and should be subject to supersession just as Christianity proposed to supersede Judaism, and he set about the task with a strong will to finish it.

"Nature has no beginning and no end.  Everything in it acts upon everything else, everything in it is relative, everything is at once effect and cause, acting and reacting on all sides.  Nature does not culminate in a monarchic summit; it is a republic.  Those who are accustomed to a monarchy cannot conceive of human society without a prince, and likewise those who have grown up with the idea of a Father in Heaven find it hard to conceive of nature without a God.  But it is just as possible to conceive of nature without a God, without an extranatural or supernatural being, as of a state or nation without a royal idol situated outside and above it.  Indeed, just as the republic is the historical task, the practical goal of man, so his theoretical goal is to recognize the republican constitution of nature, not to situate the governing principle of nature outside it, but to find it grounded in nature.  Nothing is more absurd than to regard nature as a single effect and to give it a single cause in an extra-natural being who is the effect of no other being.  If I cannot refrain from spinning out fantasies, from looking further and further afield, if I am unable to stop with nature and content my intellectual need for causes with the universal action and interaction of nature, what is to prevent me from going beyond God?  What is to prevent me from looking for a ground and cause of God as well?  Do we not in God find the same situation as in the concatenation of natural causes and effects, the very situation that I wished to remedy by positing the existence of God?"

For Feuerbach, the first cause of the cosmological argument was an insatiable curiosity.  Like contemporary advocates of materialism, he sees no need to look beyond nature itself for the cause of nature.  He seems to depict it as a closed system in perpetual motion of some kind, much like the Jain cosmology.  An uncaused cause is a bit of facial hair on the face of philosophy, to be shaved away quickly with Occam's Razor.

No matter how little sense it makes to ask of the cause of what is, by definition, the uncaused cause...  It makes even less sense to Feuerback to imagine some sort of divine dictatorship, as Christopher Hitchens might have put it; Feuerbach and those who have inherited his philosophical arguments have a cosmology of much greater liberty and equality than those poor medieval saps and those withering ignorant ancients who thought of the cosmos as a great chain of being.

"Thus the difficulties arising from the question of the beginning of the world are only postponed or thrust aside or glossed over by the notion of a God, a being outside the world; they are not solved.  Is it not then more reasonable to assume that the world always was and always will be, and consequently that it has the ground of existence within itself.  ... In other words, where does God come from?  What obliges me to stop at God?  Nothing; I cannot help inquiring into His origin.  And that is no secret: the cause of what for the theists, theologians, and so-called speculative philosophers is the first and universal cause of all things--is the human intellect.  The intellect rises from the individual and particular to the universal, from the concrete to the abstract, from the determined to the undetermined.  It also rises from real, definite, particular causes, and goes on rising until it comes to the concept of cause as such, the cause that produces no real, definite, particular effects." ...
But for that very reason, because the First Cause is a mere intellectual concept or entity without objective existence, it also is not the cause of my life and existence.  This cause is of no use to me; the cause of my life is the sum of many different, definite causes; the cause, for example, of my breathing is subjectively my lungs, objectively the air; the cause of my vision is objectively the light, subjectively my eyes.  In short, the First Cause is an unprofitable abstraction.  From this first cause that causes nothing I therefore turn back to the more profitable theme of nature, the sum of real causes, and try once again to prove that we must confine ourselves to nature as the ultimate ground of our existence; that  all derivations from nature which transcend nature to arrive at a nonnatural being are mere fantasies and delusions.  The proofs are both direct and indirect; the direct proofs are drawn from nature and relate to it directly; the indirect ones show the contradictions involved in the contrary assumption and the absurd consequences that follow from it."

Here our natural scientist begins to tease out the answer, gradually building the worldview which will supersede the Christian worldview.  He proposes that the cause of our need for questioning the further causes of causes is the intellect; for Feuerbach, the intellect is indirectly the cause of all belief in God, the cause of all theistic speculations and delusions.  This first cause of all God-bothering is as obvious to him as the First Cause of all Being was to Aquinas.

Or is the first cause perhaps nature itself?  In an interesting move in light of his previous point, Feuerbach suggests that nature is one despite being composed of many definite causes; he abstracts the generalized sum of causes he calls "nature" from the set of particular, definite causes and phenomena he experiences in the world.  What's more, he seems to suggest that this "nature" abstracted from diverse phenomena is the First Cause, the uncaused cause of God.

"Our world--not only our political and social world, but our learned, intellectual world as well--is a world upside down.  The great achievement of our education, of our culture, our science, our erudition has been, above all, to stray as far as possible from nature, from the simple palpable truth.  It is a universal principle of this upside-down world that God manifests Himself in nature, whereas we should say the opposite, namely, that originally at least nature manifests itself to man as a God, which he becomes conscious of and objectifies under the name of God.  It is a universal doctrine in our upside-down world that nature sprang from God, whereas we should say the opposite, namely, that God was abstracted from nature and is merely a concept derived from it; for all the predicates, all the attributes or determinations, all the realities, as the philosophers say, that is, all the essences or perfections which are summed up in God, or whose totality is, or is called, God--in short all those divine predicates that are not borrowed from man, are derived from nature, so that they objectify, represent, illustrate nothing other than the essence of nature, or nature pure and simple.  The difference is only that God is an abstraction, that is, a mere notion, while nature is concrete, that is, real; but the essence, the substance, the content are the same; God is nature in the abstract, that is, removed from physical perception, transformed into an object or concept of the intellect; nature itself is sensuous, real nature as directly revealed and communicated to us by the senses."

This is a popular contemporary claim made by atheists; many atheists go farther than Freud, reducing, as Feuerbach did, the grand cosmology of Christianity to less than ever.  No longer consigned to the starvation diet of understandable psychological meaning, religion is now meaningless, its meaning emptied into the bowl of nature to be consumed at will by those who seek to make it more palatable by taking the last bit of the flavor of human meaning out of it.

Now we see the end: the inversion, as before, of the Christian worldview.  Feuerbach strides forward and sets Nature's flag upon the field, claiming that rather than nature being created out of nothing by God, God was created out of nature by Man.  This is the beginning of the increasingly popular view in contemporary societies that all religion is merely a man-made fabrication whose weave is held together by strands of blatant falsehood, useless old ideas, and harmless fairy tales.

And this makes perfect sense in light of the available options; over the past couple of centuries, the death of God in the minds of persons has often led either to the deification of Nature or the deification of the State, and more specifically, a state which is at least nominally in favor of equality and opposed to the hierarchy of monarchy, such as a republic which followed the death of the king.

The new Monarch, who is Nature Herself, has come, has seen, and has conquered.  Meet the new Monarch, same as the old Monarch.


This ancient deity called Nature presented as new again is not enough for those whose hearts burn in the fires of passion for a justice which has never been attained in any human society.  The State alone will serve as the new deity, a deity which will be ultimately sacrificed for the redemption of humanity as a collective whole.  The sacrifice of the State will, in the end, bring about the justice they seek.

Karl Marx envisioned this just society as the State which had thrown off the shackles of class altogether by means of socialism, bringing about the communist ideal of an end to capitalism, replacing it with a free association of producers.  For Marx, the shackles of religion must be thrown off as well, being the means by which the populace is kept placid and malleable, safely ensconced in the economic shackles made by their capitalist oppressors.

Here in the essay Contributions to the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right" he begins the work of tearing off the shackles of religion by noting that the criticism of religion is already done.  His purpose is not to criticize, but to abolish.

"For Germany, the criticism of religion has largely been completed; and the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism. ...
The basis of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion; religion does not make man.  Religion is indeed man's self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again.  But man is not an abstract being, squatting outside the world.  Man is the human world, the state, society.  This state, this society, produce religion which is an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world.  Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its general basis of consolation and justification.  It is the fantastic realization of the human being inasmuch as the human being possesses no true reality.  The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion."

Here we hear the echos of Feuerbach from his follower; Marx was indeed baptized in the feuerbach.  He recapitulates, briefly, Ludwig the Baptist's arguments.  But this is not his primary purpose; Feuerbach had parted the veil to reveal that religion was empty of meaning; Marx would do no less than tear the veil in two from top to bottom so that the demystification of the mysteries of religion would be complete.

"Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as  the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness.  The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions.  The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

Marx's demystification process begins by advising us that religion is a drug, a drug used (like many drugs) to self-medicate, to treat the symptoms of a deeper wound.  Though the withdrawal symptoms will be painful, Marx is confident that our true happiness lies not in the drug, but in alleviating the causes of our need for the drug.

Eloquent and compelling as always, he prophesies that when religion is abandoned, so too the causes which make it so appealing it to us will be abandoned, leaving us truly happy in our future home.  And what is this true happiness we find at the end of history's road?

"Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall bear the chain without caprice or consolation but so that he shall cast off the chain and pluck the living flower.  The criticism of religion disillusions man so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions and regained his reason; so that he will revolve about himself as his own true sun.  Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve about himself."

Here Marx agrees briefly with the religious man, who asserts that for man to abandon service to God leads inevitably to man putting himself in service first to the self.  But they quickly part ways; for the religious man sees God as a live option and Marx sees the religion of God as the shackles holding us back from living.

"It is the task of history, therefore, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.  The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form.  Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."

For Marx, all the signs and symbols of religion must by reduced to something less so that the shackles lose their weight and can be thrown off.  Or more to the point, it is inevitable that in the course of history that they be thrown off.  Only then can the only real heaven be revealed as the earth, the only real religion as law, and the only real theology as politics.  The only real God is thus revealed to be the State.

"The following exposition--which is a contribution to this undertaking--does not deal directly with the original but with a copy, the German philosophy of the state and of right, for the simple reason that it deals with Germany.  If one were to begin with the status quo itself in Germany, even in the most appropriate way, i.e. negatively, the result would still be an anachronism. ...
But war upon the state of affairs in Germany!  By all means!  This state of affairs is beneath the level of history, beneath all criticism; nevertheless it remains an object of criticism just as the criminal who is beneath humanity remains an object of the executioner.  In its struggle against this state of affairs criticism is not a passion of the head, but the head of passion.  It is not a lancet but a weapon.  Its object is an enemy which it aims not to refute but to destroy.  For the spirit of this state of affairs has already been refuted.  It is not, in itself, an object worthy of our thought; it is an existence as contemptible as it is despised.  Criticism itself has no need for any further elucidation of this object, for it has already understood it.  Criticism is no longer an end in itself, but simply a means; indignation is its essential mode of feeling, and denunciation its principal task."

History has already decided, according to the venerable bearded prophet.  This current world is going to pass away, and there is no real need to criticize for the purpose of fraternal correction.  The prophets of Israel called people back to God, but the prophet of communism calls us to the Revolution, to revolt against the enemy, an enemy who must be destroyed by any means necessary.

The prophet of communism cries, "Ich muss zerstören!"  Marx is the enemy of the state as it stands now, but he is the harbinger of the end of the State, the temporary reign of which will mark the final end of the State.  The Law which replaced religion will be no longer.  The Politics which replaced theology will be no longer.  The State will be no longer; all oppression will have ceased.

Marx must posit that the new God (the State) is again killed by those he came to deliver from oppression and by those who have attained a just society with his support.  The new God will triumph, and the Lamb, that pitiful sheep which is a society of people led easily by the shepherd of religion, would be led to the slaughter, bathed in the blood of revolution, martyred so that Man might finally have the idyllic earth in whose image he made heaven, the imago caeli.

Marx is the prophet of justice predicting and advocating a bloody revolution, followed by a socialist state, which would then be superseded by the classless society: a utopia.  His hoped-for utopia has so far turned out to be an illusion, and the justice of the real heaven here on earth yet eludes us.

The Final Judgment

In the Apocalypse from which the appellation is taken, The Four Horsemen are ultimately signs of hope for the triumph of God; they foreshadow the end of the enemies of the Church.  In the same way, the Four Horsemen of Atheism are ultimately signs of hope for the triumph of atheism; they foreshadow the end of the enemies of the Church of Reason.

First, religion is deemed tolerable.  Second, religion is deemed a psychological ailment in need of treatment, a delusion.   Third, religion is deemed to be mere words, empty signifiers which are reducible to nature.  Fourth, religion is to be offered as a sacrifice so that the State might have life abundantly and then die so that Heaven can be reached.

Nietzsche is the herald of the death of religion, Freud starves religion of meaning, leaving it emaciated, Feuerbach removes its meaning completely, leaving it eviscerated and conquered, and Marx prophesies the slaughter of false religion so that we might follow the true religion, which is merely Law, the Law which is fulfilled when the law is abolished by the Lawgiver who no longer has need of it because the illusory Kingdom of Heaven on the real earth is at hand.

The Final Judgment follows the appearance of the Four Horsemen; only those deemed worthy to enter into the new heaven on earth will reach Paradise: those who followed the teachings of the prophet, those who were baptized in the brook of fire, and those who accepted their redemption by the sacrifice of the true God, the State.

By Viktor M. Vasnetsov - http://lj.rossia.org/users/john_petrov/166993.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2649874