Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hopeless Wanderer, or Misguided Education?

As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, I came across a quote that a family member of mine had written.  At first glance, I was filled with a sadness for this person.  Not in a pitying way, but a sort of compassion for the way that many can “wander through” this life without ever discovering joy.  The quote goes as follows:

I walk alone, wandering aimlessly into the depths of the forest. The path less taken; taken by those desperate few. I shudder from the inescapable cold. How much longer can I bear this helpless fate?

Perhaps it is a decent piece of poetry which articulates the human person’s isolation from God, and the sobering reality that the world we live in is one that is filled with suffering.  But I am near certain that this is not the context that the author intended.  Somewhere in our upbringing, or in our educational conquest, we all encounter at some point the great questions in life: does God exist? who am I? what kind of person should I be?  These questions (among others), tend to shape the way that we encounter the world we live in and the way in which we live our lives.  So, how did we end up here at the “inescapable cold” and “this helpless fate?”

The goal of education is to help one to discover and understand the world around us.  In a word, education helps us to encounter reality.  The problem, or “risk,” of education (as the late Monsignor Giussani put it) is that the current system of education is often flawed because educators no longer teach from a perspective of tradition, but rather in an environment where it is up to the student to decide which path to follow.  At first glance this may not seem like such a terrible idea.  But the point that Giussani makes is that if education is left to the views of skepticism and pragmatism, the result is that of the blind leading the blind; if education does not seek a higher good, or universal truth, then our method of educating becomes skewed.  If there is no way of verifying what we learn (whether it be through tradition, scientific evidence, history, etc.) then the student becomes lost, and “helpless.”

I disagree with my family member that the “path less taken” is that which the individual wanders through life, searching for some sort of desperate escape from reality.  If you take a serious look around at the world in which we live in, this statement probably describes nearly 90% of the population.  This mentality of helplessness and wandering through life, strives to equate the skeptic with a sense of nobility or bravery. I disagree with this belief.  It doesn’t take much reflection or work to recognize the value of life and the value of your own personal life.  I think anyone would agree with that.  But why then is it so difficult to encounter reality? Why do we feel alone? What has our world come to?

I would like to challenge my readers to take some time and put away your smart phone, and go for a walk.  Encounter the world that we live in.  Feel the breeze, watch the trees sway in the wind, hear the birds singing songs.  It doesn’t take long to realize that we are not, in fact, alone. I strongly agree with Walker Percy, in his essay Loss of the Creature, where he describes the path less taken as the sovereign knower—the one who does not simply go through life in a banal way, standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us, but rather, one who is courageous enough to search for the truth, to go out of the way to discover meaning. 

Education certainly leaves us with a crisis (not in the sense that something has gone wrong, but etymologically speaking, that we must sift through what we know, and search for that which is true).  Verification is that which leads us to knowledge.  If we can begin to comprehend the world around us, then ultimately we will be on the right path.  If our education leaves us feeling cold and alone in the dark, then it has failed us.  But there is still hope!  There is tremendous hope.  We are not alone in this world.  The lie of modernity is that we are a world of isolated individuals with our own cares and worries, which are unrelated to others.  But this could not be any farther from the truth.  We are all in this together, and many of us share these same worries and fears. 

So I will leave you with these questions to ponder: what informs your truth? what informs your beliefs? is scientific fact the only thing that is true? or can we discover truth outside of science? I can’t scientifically prove that my mother loves me, but does that make it any less true?  The beliefs of the atheist and the Christian are nearly the same.  The difference is that the Christian places his/her belief in the verifiable fact that God became a human person, in history, was put to death, and was resurrected on the third day, so that we may be reconciled to God the Father, and have eternal life. Science can only go so far to “prove” this reality, but if we take a serious look at history, and God’s revelation to humanity, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is more to truth than science.  How else could twelve ordinary men have forever changed the world in which we live in? 

Friday, September 13, 2013

What is Freedom? And What Does it Mean to be Free?

     Over the course of the past few months I have been greatly interested in the question of freedom.  As I began pondering the question of human freedom, I was particularly struck by the way that people in our society view this identifying human reality.  As an American, I live in a country full of many freedoms.  After all, we are the “land of the free.” But how many Americans take this freedom seriously?  And furthermore, what is meant by freedom?  It seems to me that we just throw this word around loosely and don’t actually know what we’re saying when we say we live in a free country.  I guess at the heart of the matter, this question encompasses what we’re talking about: what does it mean to say that human beings are creatures of free will?
            If we take an honest look around at the world we live in, we can say that perhaps there are two brands of freedom.  On the one hand, there is a brand of freedom that lives by the so called “YOLO” mentality; a freedom that gives an individual the option to do whatever you want, simply because you want to do so.  On the other hand, there is a freedom that liberates the individual by way of attending to a higher ideal or moral, such as truth or justice. 
            I asked a friend of mine, who is not of a religious background at all, what freedom meant to him, and if he thought that he had free will.  He maintained that we are beings with the illusion of free will; we do the things we think we want to do, but ultimately things play out the way that they’re supposed to and our choices have little to do with the “bigger picture.”   I was not startled by his response, nor was I surprised, but I was definitely having a mixture of feelings about the phrase “illusion of free will.”  Our discussion led to different topics about human freedom, and decision making but in the end, neither of us was satisfied with the result.  So I took the time to consider his views, and decided to sit down and do a bit of thinking.
            If we are beings that have the illusion of free will, then we must step back and define what is meant by free will.  What separates us from animals and other beings is that we have the ability to reason, in Aristotelian terms: we have a rational soul.  For my friend, it was not good enough for him to decide between one thing or another because he said that all of his decisions are informed by whatever ideas happen to be influencing him at a given time.  For instance, he could not truly make a “free decision” because he has been corrupted by different systems of thought.  For him, Christians make decisions because their religion tells them to do so.  By the same token, others make decisions based on their upbringing, others because of political ideologies or philosophical schools of thought.  Ultimately all of our choices are enslaved to some system of thought, so free will has become an illusion. 
            I was troubled by this last line.  But I was not overcome.  If we truly are free beings, then we have the ability to freely make a decision. Our decisions must be informed by our experience, that’s the whole point!  If they are not, then our experiences have no meaning or value to us and we will blindly stumble through life without ever confronting reality.  Here we must take the initiative to evaluate and verify our experiences; we must put in the work ourselves, this is not something that we can simply learn from someone else.  Freedom is lived only out of the conviction of reality that surrounds us.
            If my free will is informed by my experience, wouldn’t that still qualify as an “illusion of freedom?”  No.  You see, freedom traditionally has an aim at a higher good.  For the Greeks, freedom was aimed toward “the Good.”  For the Christian freedom is found in Christ.  But it does not have to be that broad to grasp the concept.  Let me use the example of music.  As a musician I am fascinated by the many possibilities that exist to create something beautiful.  With that aside, music comes with a structure of rules.  One must follow a tempo, maintain a certain volume, and most importantly, play the correct notes of the given key.  One of my favorite musical endeavors is improvisation—this is where freedom reaches its musical height, and yet the possibilities are endless.  Yet, when I do not follow the rules, and I play a note that does not follow the given blues scale or chord progression, I will sound off (and it is very noticeable (especially to the trained ear)).  I am given a choice: I can follow the rules of improvisation and create wonderful music, or I can choose not to and sound terrible.
            This same analogy can be applied to the freedom of human beings, in our decision making and more pertinently, in our free will. We have the freedom to act in accordance to a higher moral, which liberates one beyond the pressures of society, and focuses more on our destination instead of the fleeting present moment.  I have done the work in my own life, and I am convicted that our freedom must be guided by, and aimed at, something greater than us.  I notice in my own life that when I lose this inner sense of morality, justice, truth, beauty, love, and so on, I begin to sound “off” as if I am not playing the appropriate notes of the key that I am living.  Free will, then, is not merely choosing something instead of another, rather it involves making some sort of informed decision.   

            Again, no one can do this work for you, it takes an effort of self evaluation to truly discover freedom.  But I assure you that it is definitely worth it.  If free will is an illusion, then life itself is at risk of losing all meaning.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Eudaemonia [you-day-mon-ay-ah], translated literally from Greek it roughly means something like “the possession of a god or deity,” but more accurately it is a term to describe what it means to truly find happiness. Eudaemonia is that which virtually every philosopher since Plato has been after; it is the ultimate quest of the human person, as one journeys through life seeking that which will fulfill all our needs and desires; in constitutional terms, it is “the pursuit of happiness.” Eudaemonia is not merely a good feeling or a passing moment of satisfaction, rather, it is true fulfillment.

As human beings we have a longing for the infinite (which is immensely ironic because everything on this earth is finite).  This longing exists because it is in our very nature.  Whether it be because of original sin and concupiscence, or simply because our souls are infinite: we have this thirst that cannot be quenched.  We long for eudaemonia. So, how do we discover eudaemonia? How can we live eudaemonia?

As human beings, we are walking mysteries. We have a soul that is infinite and we have a body that is finite, yet their codependent relationship is necessary for our existence.  That is, I would not exist (at least physically here on earth in space and time) without a body, nor would I exist at all without a soul. As humans, we are dependent upon both, there is no other way to exist.  Viewing reality from this perspective, one can see a bit clearer the human disposition: our tendency for something more; something that is constantly fleeting us, and yet all around us at the same time; our yearning for the infinite; our desire for fulfillment; our quest for eudaemonia.

No matter how many philosophers debate the subject, or how variously different all of their conclusions are, there seems to be (at least in the Greco-roman tradition, and carried out in European thought up until this present day) only two possible answers to this quest for ultimate happiness. On the one hand, there is the view of the atheists, who claim that happiness resides in self-fulfillment: do the best you can, for the sake of being the best, and you will find happiness. On the other hand, there is the Christian claim that in God alone resides our fulfillment.  The atheistic claim is anthrocentric, and even more specifically it is entirely selfish.  In this view, happiness is dependent upon one’s success, and if one happens to be unsuccessful, one is doomed never to find happiness.  The Christian claim is quite the opposite: it is theocentric, and calls one to live life in service of others; God does not call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful. 

In the Christian life, eudaemonia is not discovered through my own achievements.  Rather, eudaemonia exists in the encounter with a person: Jesus of Nazareth.  In the person of Jesus, we encounter all of the same longings and desires that we ourselves have, it’s in our human nature.  But, we also encounter something much greater than our humanity, we encounter God himself in the flesh.  The resurrection of Jesus was an event that changed the world as we know it forever, and when we encounter the risen lord, all of our preconceptions are thrown out the window.  The risen lord comes to meet us where we are at, and in our faithfulness our expectations are entirely surpassed. 

The Apostles didn’t have a clue what was going to happen to them in the days that followed the crucifixion.  It seemed that all of their hopes were empty, and that Jesus was not the messiah after all.  They went about their old ways and went fishing.  They didn’t recognize him in the road to Emmaus, not even when he came in for dinner, it wasn’t until the breaking of the bread.  And even then that was not enough for Thomas.  But he  meets our expectations and exceeds them: Thomas finds himself touching the wounds on Jesus’ glorified body; the Apostles evangelize and convert thousands of people at a time; and twelve uneducated men start a movement that would survive underground for three hundred years, and eventually become the largest religion, and longest standing human institution in history. God does not call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful. 

Eudaemonia is not achieved by success.  They say that millionaires are among the most depressed people in our population.  Eudaemonia is realized in our faithfulness.  If I am honest with myself, every time the going gets tough, and I remain faithful, not only am I pleased with the outcome, but my expectations are exceeded in ways that I could not previously imagine.  Things just seem to work out.  Sin is real, and it has consequences.  By the same token, faith is real, and it too has consequences.  The power of prayer is beyond our understanding.  But from my experience I can honestly say that I have never been disappointed when I put my trust entirely in God’s hands.  Eudaemonia is detachment from self, and detachment from possessions.  Nothing in this world will ultimately satisfy, nothing except for the love of God, which sustains us at every moment of every day, and will continue to for the rest of eternity. 

So take a moment to reflect: what brings you happiness?  How has serving others brought you a sense of fulfillment?  Are you searching for eudaemonia and coming up empty?   What are you looking for? 

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Mission of Charity

Ordinarily, I don't post blogs about other blogs, but I have decided to make an exception for a close friend of mine.  Her name is Tiffany, and she is about to begin a two and a half year journey in Honduras working at an orphanage that provides shelter, education, and the basic essentials of life, called Farm of the Child.  Here is a link to her blog, which provides a snapshot into her reality.  Currently she is raising funds to support her mission trip, so if you are able to donate in any capacity, please consider contributing here. Thanks again to all of my readers for your continued support and prayer as we journey through this life together. I will be writing a new article soon, I promise! Until then, God bless!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Belief in the Resurrection

On the first day of the week,

Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning,

while it was still dark, 

and saw the stone removed from the tomb.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter 

and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, 

“They have taken the Lord from the tomb, 

and we don’t know where they put him.”

So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.

They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter 

and arrived at the tomb first; 

he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.

When Simon Peter arrived after him, 

he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, 

and the cloth that had covered his head, 

not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.

Then the other disciple also went in, 

the one who had arrived at the tomb first, 

and he saw and believed.

For they did not yet understand the Scripture 

that he had to rise from the dead (Jn 20:1-9). 

            The encounter of the empty tomb was perhaps one of the first tests of faith that the disciples experienced after the death of Jesus.  But note that the discovery of the empty tomb does not let them down, rather, “he saw and believed”—even though, “they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.”  At first glance, this seems like such a great contradiction.  How can you believe in something without understanding it?  Is understanding the sole criterion of belief?  If we are uncertain of something, how can we come to believe in that something? These questions have been some of the most argued and thought out in the modern era (I even wrote my thesis on this subject (though I doubt that my contributions came anywhere near to amounting to anything)).  Philosophy itself has seemingly been stuck in the rut that Descartes introduced when attempting to prove the existence of God by way of certainty.  Ironically, his method only led to more doubt and uncertainty than ever before.  So what does this have to do with the resurrection? Let us do a bit of exploring.

            As the Gospel passage states: John enters the tomb, sees that Jesus is not there, believes, and does not yet understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead.  Makes perfect sense, right?  Well, not exactly. In the Gospel accounts of the resurrection there are three different kinds of resurrection encounters.  First there is the “incognito Jesus,” where they do not recognize him until after spending time with him (the road to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene mistaking him as the gardener).  Next is the “glorious Jesus,” where he appears in their midst even though the door is locked, bearing the marks of his crucifixion.  And finally, there is the “missing Jesus” encounter, namely, the account that is recorded in all four Gospels that on the first day of the week, the tomb of Jesus is found to be empty.

     In this latter encounter, the fact that Jesus is not there is the fire of their belief: it brings about the possibility that he truly is the messiah; that he alone is not bound by death; that he has been raised from the dead to new life.  This new possibility is far more than anything that the disciples had expected when they turned up outside of his tomb on the first morning of the week.  The fact that he is not there is more terrifying than the fact of his crucifixion.  It is at this first stage of encountering the empty tomb that they begin to put together the pieces.  So much so, that by the time they encounter him next (following the same narrative from John’s Gospel), as soon as Peter recognizes that it is Jesus on the shore, he immediately dives into the water and swims to him—his belief has come to fruition; he has begun to understand. 

     To make a statement of belief is to make a claim of truth.  Whether or not this claim is accurate depends on its truthfulness.  If something wasn’t true, you would not believe it to be so.  When we say to someone: “I believe in you, you can do this,” it is an affirmation that you believe it to be true that they can perform whatever task it is that they are facing.  We may not always understand why we believe it to be so that a person can accomplish whatever said task it is, but that does not change our disposition.  It is a feeling, or an intuition that we have.  At the same time, it is entirely much more than that, because our claim comes from our experience of that person, which has resulted in the conclusion “I believe.” This is not a mere hypothesis, it is more, it is a statement that your experiences are reasonable (that is, there are many reasons which have led to you making this claim, all which have been tried and tested, resulting in nothing else than this belief).  Therefore, belief is not dependent upon understanding.

     In his famous encyclical Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason), Blessed John Paul II stated that: “The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is the reef upon which the link between faith and philosophy can break up, but it is also the reef beyond which the two can set forth upon the boundless ocean of truth. Here we see not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet.”  The paschal mystery is therefore the key to our understanding.  Faith must be guided by reason, but reason must also be guided by faith.  They must harmoniously work together; they are not contradictions to one another.  It must be reasonable for us to proclaim that Jesus has truly risen from the dead.  If it is not, then our faith is empty.  In this Easter Season, let us therefore take the time to explore once again the reasonableness of our faith, so that we can transform our lives and the lives of others by proclaiming with our whole being: “Jesus the Christ has risen from the dead, alleluia!” 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Stabat mater dolorosa

Stabat Mater dolorosa /juxta Crucem lacrimosa/ dum pendebat Filius. Cuius animam gementem/ contristatam et dolentem/ pertransivit gladius. (At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to her Son to the last. Through her heart, His sorrow sharing, all His bitter anguish bearing, now at length the sword has passed.)

            This famous thirteenth century hymn grasps the heart of the divine drama which it describes.  Here, at the cross, is where the masterpiece of the cosmos reaches the height of divine tension.  That is, if we were to view salvation history as one “song” (with many movements), the cross is that which everything has been moving toward from the beginning, and that which everything flows forth from until the end of time.  Surely there were moments of crescendo and decrescendo, abrupt moments of staccato, and long dramatic vibratos.  However, all of them fail in comparison to the immensity of this moment of profound darkness on the hill of Golgotha, as this somber symphony decrescendos from pianissimo into grand silence (three days of it too).  Stabat mater dolorosa. Through all of this, one thing remains constant: Mary is faithful.  No matter how painful, difficult, strenuous, desolate, or any other word which utterly fails to describe what our Blessed Mother was feeling in those moments, she faithfully stood by her son.  The one who gave birth to the light of the world, now ironically watches as that flame is extinguished.  The crucifixion of our Lord was indeed a great scandal.  And if it was scandalous enough for his believers to leave him to die alone, surely it was even more of a scandal to Our Lady, who was full of grace. If anyone was let down in this moment, it was her.  Even though she was full of grace, she did not yet understand the divine plan, and now more than ever she felt what Simeon had foretold over thirty years prior: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce your own soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”  Surely now many thoughts were being revealed.

            In this year of faith, we are called to reflect in a particular way on the mysteries of what we believe, in a way that will hopefully bear fruit in strengthening our faith.  The more we reflect on faith, and the more our faith grows, the more we notice that faith continues to surprise us.  That is, faith is not always what we think it will look like.  I am challenged every day to live my faith in new ways, many of which I could never have foreseen.  Faith always challenges us to step outside of ourselves and follow that which is beyond.  It calls us to new places, and opens up for us new ways of understanding.  I am sure that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is experiencing faith in ways unimaginable to him when he announced this year of faith.  But that is how the Spirit works, it is unpredictable, it is ever new.  And yet, back at the cross, Mary remained faithful to the end.  Surely, this is not what she thought faith would look like.  Yet, this is where faith has taken her, and it is here where she will ultimately discover faith’s meaning.

O quam tristis et afflicta/ fuit illa benedicta,/ mater Unigeniti! Quae moerebat et dolebat,/ pia Mater, dum videbat/ nati poenas inclyti. (O how sad and sore distressed was that Mother, highly blest, of the sole-begotten One. Christ above in torment hangs, she beneath beholds the pangs of her dying glorious Son.)

            Try to imagine Mary’s disposition: the stark irony of the moment while she stood there watching her son crucified and tormented, and yet, at the same time knowing at a deeper level than anyone else, that her son truly is the son of God, and that this was truly God’s plan. Oh, what great contradiction she must have felt! It would have been enough to drive any normal person insane (I know when I try to imagine it in this way that I have to force myself to stop because the pain of contradiction just begins to become too much to bear). And yet she faithfully stood by, trusting in God’s plan, even though she did not quite yet understand.  But hasn’t that always been the test of faith?  Trusting God no matter how absurd the plan seems to be?  Think back to Abraham.  After many years of being unable to have a child with his wife Sarah, he finally had a son, Isaac and then was told to take him up the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice to God.  Of course we all know the story, and how at the last minute God tells Abraham not to sacrifice his son.  But, Abraham surely did not have the foresight to see God’s plan in its entirety as he nervously climbed the mountain with his son saying: “God will provide.” Now, atop this mountain, amidst the heights of Jerusalem, Mary stands there: hoping, praying, perhaps like Abraham “God will provide.”  But God did not provide (well, he does provide, but, he does not come down and save his son), instead Mary hears her son cry out in agony: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Quis est homo qui non fleret,/ matrem Christi si videret/ in tanto supplicio? Quis non posset contristari/ Christi Matrem contemplari/ dolentem cum Filio? (Is there one who would not weep, whelmed in miseries so deep, Christ's dear Mother to behold? Can the human heart refrain from partaking in her pain, in that Mother's pain untold?)

           After everything they had been through together, this is where it all ended. How can we not be moved by this?  Is this not the ultimate let down?  Surely the Blessed Mother deserved a better way to spend her final moments with her son than this?  But this is precisely the point; this is where faith leads us; this is the alpha and the omega; this is the axis mundi; this is the ontos and the telos; this is the door of faith; this moment contains all meaning, it is the final analysis.  Through the eyes of our Blessed Mother, at the cross, we can begin to understand: something has gone horribly wrong, and must be set back to right.  Faith does not always match up to what we think it will.  Yet, faith does not let us down.  As Jesus drew his last breath, and Mary received his body, she must have felt a desolation like no other.  And yet, she remained faithful.  She did not curse God for taking away her son.  She did not become bitter and resentful.  Rather, she patiently waited for God’s plan to unfold in its entirety.

            As we draw near to Holy Week, let us look to Mary for the strength of perseverance.  Let us learn from her patience in seeing God’s work through to the end—no matter how painful it may become.  Allow yourself to be taken to places you would not have fathomed.  Be open to God, and he will not let you down.  Things may not always look like the way we want them to, but God has our best interests in mind.  The full text of this hymn can be found here: I encourage you to look up the hymn and spend some time with it in reflective prayer. I pray that you find it as fruitful as I have.  May our Lenten sacrifices continue to purify us and prepare us for the joy of Easter. May they continue to transform us and bear fruit in our daily lives, that we may be ready to propose the love of God to every person that we meet. Pray for us O holy mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lent is Approaching; The Question of Suffering

     With the season of Lent on the horizon, we are reminded to reflect on the mystery of suffering.  Lent is an invitation, which particularly calls us to journey with Christ on the path of the Paschal Mystery. In a world filled with pleasure seeking and avoiding any type of suffering, this might seem to be quite countercultural, or to the “good feeling pop-psychologist” it may even be counterproductive, or even some form of masochistic downtrodden depression.  But, whatever the case, in all honesty it is a bit odd.  At least, that is unless you know what you’re getting into.  A few questions come to mind as Lent approaches: why was redemption necessary?  Why did Jesus suffer?  And what is the point of suffering?  
            Redemption.  This is where we must begin.  But what are we being redeemed from?  With the fall of man in the original sin of Adam and Eve, they effectively isolated themselves from complete relationship with God.  Sin is a rejection of this relationship with God because it presupposes that God’s relationship is not good enough.  Instead, Adam and Eve wanted to make themselves gods.  But even in this ultimate rejection of God and ultimately his love, God did not give up on human beings.  This is where the mystery of redemption comes into play.  Things were made wrong, and they need to be set right again.  In this allegory from Genesis, the fall of Adam and Eve could not have been a surprise for God.  If it were, God would not be all knowing; he would not be God.  This forces us to ask a further question, what then was the purpose of creation? 
            God did not create us to be sinful failures.  God created us for quite the opposite reason: he created us to share in his love.  This love of God, is not some happy feeling, it does not seek its own interests, it is entirely self-giving, it is kenotic.  Kenosis, is a Greek term that means complete and total self emptying, and paradoxically, it is in this emptying that one finds fulfillment.  Kenosis is the love of God between the Father and the Son, united in the bond of the Holy Spirit; the Father completely gives of himself to the Son, and the Son completely gives of himself to the Father.  This is the basis of Trinitarian theology, and I am by no means an expert, so I will not try to explain this mystery any further.  However, this is also where we find the answer to our questions.  In the Paschal Mystery, we find this kenotic love articulated at its highest degree in the course of human history.  This event happened in history, in time.  That is, this event of relationship between Father and Son, which encompasses all time, has penetrated into chronological time and opened up for us a way to enter into it. 
            The field of Theological Anthropology tells us that the purpose for creation is for participation in the Paschal Mystery.  Quite literally, we were made for the Paschal Mystery.  Whether or not you agree with this statement, let us explore some of the consequences that come with this statement, and perhaps there we may encounter some answers to our questions.  This statement begins to make sense when we view it in light of the question of suffering.  We suffer because we are separated from God, and yet, suffering leads us closer to God and eventually into the discovery of love.  Suffering is not a sign of despair, it is a sign of hope.  Without suffering we would have nothing to hope for.  Without hope, there would only be suffering. 
It is the victory of the cross, that we place our hope in.  This is the great mystery of all of history: that in complete freedom Jesus chose to suffer and give of himself completely, so much so that he died, and by doing so transcended death and opened up a new way, the way of resurrection.  The first Adam ate from the tree of life and rejected relationality.  The second Adam, Jesus, died on the tree of life and offered redemption to relationality.  This “new way” the way of resurrection is the way that we are to travel.  Quite particularly, the way of resurrection is the way of post-crucifixion.  Jesus appeared to the Twelve bearing the marks of his crucifixion.  His glorified body, bore the marks that made resurrected love possible.  St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:35-49) talks about this mystery of receiving the glorified body, in fact in the way he speaks about it, it is a requirement for heaven.  This presupposes that in some way we are all destined to suffer with Christ and bear the marks of the cross.  Perhaps this might explain why some saints have experienced stigmata here on earth; they entered so profoundly into the Paschal Mystery with Christ that they were able to experience beforehand what awaited them in death, before entering into heaven. 
Whatever the case, the point of Jesus’ suffering was nothing short of the redemption of the world.  In Lent, we are called to reflect on the suffering of Christ, with the hope of encountering a deeper understanding of the mystery of redemption.  Our suffering is never a burden to be carried on our own, it is always a suffering with.  We suffer with Christ because of sin: not only for our own sins, but for the effect of sin that we feel from other’s sins.  All sin has consequences, some more than others, but in some way sin is always a furthering of the broken relationship that we have with God.   If sin is the destruction of relationality, repentance and reconciliation is the embracing of relationality.  This relationship can only be repaired through choosing love.  The choice is ours.  God has already gone before us and prepared the way, we only have to choose it.  Pope Benedict XVI, in his book In the Beginning… stated: “We can be saved only when he from whom we have cut ourselves off takes the initiative with us and stretches out his hand to us.  Only being loved is being saved, and only God’s love can purify damaged human love and radically reestablish the network of relationships that have suffered from alienation” (Benedict XVI, pg 74). 
So, as Lent approaches let us prepare ourselves to reflect on the mystery of suffering.  The Church asks us to enter into this mystery by way of prayer, almsgiving, and mortification.  The way we carry these out are up to us, but in case you haven’t figured out in what way you are going to fulfill these requests here are some easy options.  Prayer: challenge yourself to go to mass every day; pray a rosary every day; pray the Liturgy of the Hours; make a holy hour, if not every day, perhaps you can challenge yourself to once a week.  Don’t set the bar too high, because you will only set yourself up for failure.  Start small, and don’t be afraid to exceed your expectations when you feel called to.  Almsgiving: this is not just putting money in the collection basket on Sunday, but you can put money in the poor box (this does not go to your parish funds like the collection basket does), or I would encourage you to look up a charity that stands for something you believe in and make a donation to them.  Mortification: this is more usually carried out in the way of “giving up something for Lent.”  But, it is not restricted to just giving something up, you can carry this out in many ways.  I don’t suggest wearing a hairshirt or whipping yourself, but a more prudent way could be to fast regularly throughout the season on different days of the week.
However you decide to participate this Lent, always remember why you are doing this.  There will be plenty of temptation to give up and stop doing what you’re doing, but I encourage you to stay the course.  In my life, in the years that I have faithfully entered into Lent and authentically carried out my challenges of prayer, almsgiving, and mortification, I have had the most fruitful Easters.  The joy of the resurrection is worth the cost of suffering that it takes to get there.  So let us not be afraid to walk with Christ in the coming weeks, in order to prepare ourselves to experience more profoundly this year the love and joy of God on Easter Sunday. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On the Road of Discernment

In my last blog I spoke about the encounter with truth as mystery—something that is journeyed, something that is familiar, yet, something that is totally new.  As one enters into the quest for the truth, they step outside of themselves and into the unknown.  This is the great paradox of the journey: in order to find the truth, which is something that is known in a familiar way, we must step out into the unknown, into the unfamiliar.  Perhaps we will never fully understand (but perhaps that is precisely the point). 
Recently I made a decision that has changed my life completely (well, not completely, I am still the same person, with the same beliefs, emotions and thirst for the truth—more accurately this decision has changed the course of my life).  For the past three and a half years I have been in formation to become a Roman Catholic priest.  It has been a wonderful journey, and I am very thankful for all of my experiences.  Most especially, all of the pastoral situations that have been placed before me and have allowed me to witness first-hand the work of God in the world. What a gift! I consider myself to be a reasonable person, and the decision to leave the seminary, at first glance, seemed very unreasonable.  As a seminarian and eventually a priest, everything is provided for you: education, food, housing, work—everything.  Furthermore, the path of your life is laid out for you: you have a schedule, you know what you will be doing at any given time, in fact, the rest of your life is planned out; you are told where to study, and for how long; you are told what parish you are to live at—literally everything is provided for you.  For me, it was a very reasonable thing to stay in formation.  But things became different, something changed. 
As I studied philosophy and became more and more interested in it, philosophy began to change my discernment.  Not in a negative way, philosophy did not lead me away from my beliefs and desire to be in a priest.  If anything, it only led me closer to my beliefs and deepened my desire to be a priest.  But, it also allowed me to ask the right questions about myself, reality, and the way I relate to the world: who am I?  What kind of person should I be?  What is the purpose of my life?  These questions eventually began to keep me up at night.  Something was missing.  Although I was totally content in following the path before me, and doing the best I could to make sure I was following it well, I had a growing awareness that perhaps this was not the direction my ship should be sailing.
I recall taking ENC 1101 as a junior in high school.  In my first major writing assignment I was asked to read The Loss of the Creature by Walker Percy, and write an essay on the sovereign knower.  This assignment changed my whole outlook on life and my encounter with reality.  I did not know it then, but this thirst for the truth that I encountered at age sixteen would be something that I would not be able to shake--no matter how hard I tried.  I knew nothing about philosophy at the time, but I knew something was different.  A light had been turned on, and for the first time I was authentically attempting to see.   Of course, since reading Percy, all of my travels have been greatly affected and I often find myself wondering if I am able to encounter different sites before me in a way that I can actually encounter them.  But, nonetheless, it has challenged me as a person to look past the ordinary, to step off the beaten path and take the one less traveled.  Obviously, entering seminary was definitely a way of stepping off of the beaten path.  After all, seminarians account for far less than one percent of the world’s population. 
Who am I?  What am I made for?  What is the purpose of my life?  What are my fears?  What is happiness?  What is love?  Do I love well?  These questions began to become somewhat of an annoyance to me.  To save you from all of the periphrasis, and not to get too personal, these questions led me to the door of mystery.  In fact, my hand was on the handle and I was ready to step into the unknown.  This awareness, an awareness that I no longer belonged in the seminary was completely terrifying, and at the same time it was overwhelmingly exciting.  That’s how I knew it was authentic; that’s how I knew it was the next step. 
As I mentioned earlier, my life had a paved road, with a clear direction of where I was heading.  Eventually, I stumbled upon a crossroad: one way kept going straight, paved, clear; the other broke off from the pavement and wound down into the woods.  I decided to follow the path into the woods.  The trail was clear and established for a while, it was not paved, but it was present.  Eventually, this trail became lost and I have found myself making a new trail.  It is not the same, yet, it is not completely different.  I have great hopes and I take comfort in knowing that no matter what I do, it will have meaning.  A meaning that I may not be able to understand right away, but when I look back at the road I’ve been on, I know that I can only become increasingly surprised at its profundity.  I know this because as I look back now, I can see how much meaning every moment of my life has had, even the banal ones. 
The encounter of truth as mystery, is an encounter that is fearful and exciting.  We are afraid because we are stepping into the unknown.  And yet, we are excited because we know at a deeper level, that if we are faithful, we will not be let down.  In a similar way, St. Matthew tells us that after the encounter with the angel in the empty tomb of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary left there “fearful yet overjoyed.”  They have encountered the Truth.  After all that had happened in the days leading up to Easter, they were patient, they were faithful.  Even when everything seemed lost: the Son of God was put to death in a very shameful way.  Had the past three years of their life been for nothing?  Was it all a dream?  No.  The tomb is empty. And this could only mean one thing: that Jesus had risen from the dead; he is the Messiah.  This kind of realization left them feeling fearful, yet, overjoyed.  The joy outweighs the fear, and sets us free to discover the person that we were made to be. 
So, although things have changed, I still remain faithful.  I don’t have all of the answers, and perhaps I never will.  But I take comfort in knowing that one day I will discover what it is I am supposed to do with my life, even if I stumble upon it in an accidental way.  The only reasonable thing to do is to remain faithful.  And I’ll admit it, I am fearful.  But I can never forget all of the wondrous events of my life which have led me here today, all of my family and friends, and of course the incomprehensible love of God—in all of this, I am overjoyed.    

Friday, January 4, 2013

Who Am I?

The results of the Cartesian project have highly problematized our encounter with truth.  This is due mainly to the fact that truth is no longer something that can be known through our experience of it, it has become that which we can prove objectively, with certainty.  Truth has become fragmented truth, and reality itself has become distorted.  However, it is important to keep in mind that we must not be dismissive of everything that modernity has given us.  Modern philosophy has given us many good things, and it is important not to completely render the whole modern conversation irrelevant.  It is also important to point out that, when we critique modernity, we critique and question ourselves, because we have grown up in a highly modernity-influenced world.  With that being said, where do we go from here?  If certainty is not the best way to encounter the truth, what is?  Can truth be encountered, and if so, how much of it can we come to know?  How can encountering truth as mystery, bring us to a better understanding of reality?  Let us keep these questions in mind as we begin to unfold and develop the idea of truth as mystery. 
Mystery presupposes that there is something unknown, that there is something that cannot be fully grasped or exhausted.  Mystery is not a problem to be solved, rather, it is a mystery to be lived.  It is the wondrous adventure of our lives as we journey back to God, the source of all reality, who has created us and set us into time and space in this world.  As we begin, it is important to keep this in mind.  But, let us not get ahead of ourselves, we must backtrack for a moment and return to this notion later.    
The situation we find ourselves in is quite peculiar.  When we begin to contemplate reality, we begin in media res, in the middle of our experience.  This means that we cannot divorce ourselves from, or step outside of, our experience.  All of our experiences have meaning for our lives, and all of our experiences have led us to this present moment.  That is to say, that every moment of my life has come to form and shape me into the person I am, in this moment.  I am a human being, and my way of being-in-the-world is in and of itself a mystery.  Human beings are the only natural beings that are conscious of their existence, and that are conscious of their own end, of death.  This is truly is a wondrous thing.  At the outset of entering into truth as mystery, we are led to wonder; the beginning of mystery is the beginning of wonder.  Wonder is the guide for our journey into the depths of truth, into the depths of the unknown: who am I?  This question resounds in the farthest corridor of our soul, and stretches forth into the very heart of the mystery of Being.
To enter into mystery is to take the mind of an explorer.  Or perhaps, we could use the example that Jerome Miller provides in his book, In the Throe of Wonder.  Miller gives this example of placing ourselves in the shoes of our childhood:
As children, we do not know what is hidden behind the doors we are on the verge of opening.  We stand there on the verge, on the threshold of a forbidding place we are sure it is dangerous to enter.  If another child is with us, we vacillate between terror and giggling, each of us depending on the other’s courage, and yet at the same time afraid of following the other’s lead.  It is hard for us to imagine now, that even the most remote peaks and distant poles have been reached, what it must have been like to be an original explorer.  Some child in us still starts at the sight of a pathless wood, or at the thought of venturing alone into the unknown waters beyond the lifeguard’s reach.  Explorers had to be foolhardy, or believe, like Socrates, that dying itself is the ultimate venture. [. . .] What fascinates the child, and terrifies her at the same time, is the unknown in its very character as unknown (Miller, pgs 34-5).
Let us then take on the mind of a child, or that of an explorer, as we venture into the depths of the mystery. 
            We have said that certainty has led us to limitations that cannot be described, simply because they cannot be exhausted.  For instance, I cannot come to know a tree in the park with the same certainty that I can know the truth of the mathematical statement 1+1=2.  But, I can come to know the tree to some degree.  In fact, in my encounter with the tree, I am led to a signifier that points beyond the tree itself and into the depths of the unknown.  It is the very aspect of life that is present in the tree that I cannot exhaust or even fully describe.  I cannot be certain about all of the elements of this liveliness, but I can be sure of one thing: the tree is in fact, alive.   This living element cannot be fully captured.  In fact, perhaps I am so intrigued by the living element of the tree because it in some way relates to the living element of myself.  Hence, I am fascinated and at the same time terrified because in this recognition, I realize that there is something beyond me, which I cannot fully describe, something so immense that I am left to contemplate the infinite mystery before me in a state of utter awe.  This signifying element points ultimately to God, the source of all Being.
            The wonder of mystery leads one to continue the journey into the heart of the truth.  Truth as mystery is not an unknowing, or lack of knowledge, rather, it is the case that the more we come to know, we realize how much more there is that we do not know, and in fact, how little we actually know.  But, as in aletheia, the mode of truth as an unveiling, when we enter into mystery, we can slowly peel away the outer layers and draw closer to the source of the truth.  Certainty can only lead us to the door of mystery, it cannot open it, precisely because that which is certain, is not mysterious.  The resulting unsatisfaction from the inability to grasp the truth in its totality, leads one to wonder.  If I am here, alive, how is it that I cannot truly come to express the reality of this liveliness?  Who am I?  The door is here, and what lies beyond is not certain.  It is in this place of encounter, where one is led to wonder, and perhaps merely out of curiosity, the hand grasps the handle. 
            It takes real humility to enter through the door of mystery.  Precisely because one has come to terms with the reality that one does not have it all figured out.  There is much more out there to discover.  It is like the great explorers of times past, when the New World was discovered.  It took real guts to go into the unknown, especially with thoughts of sailing off the edge of the earth.  It is risky business to step into mystery.  Under the guide of wonder, of the hope of a connectedness to Being, and to reality itself, we are led through the door.  We must look again at the signs that are present in our very being-in-the-world.  Life itself is a mystery.  I can honestly say that I am not here by chance, because if everything was just the result of chance, then nothing has meaning and everything, even reality itself, eventually becomes a meaningless quest.
            I will admit that the example of my own personal being-in-the-world is quite unique, and perhaps it is not a strong logical argument because of its uniqueness, but I am not making a logical argument, I am making an existential one.  About three months into my mother’s pregnancy with me, she began to have complications.  One day she experienced heavy bleeding and my father called the doctor.  After recalling what had happened to the doctor, the doctor determined that my mother had had a miscarriage.  The doctor encouraged to have my father bring my mother in to have a follow up procedure, to make sure that there was nothing left behind in her uterus.  Upon arriving at the doctor’s office, my mother persisted to have the doctor give her an ultrasound, to make sure she was no longer pregnant before she would have this procedure done.  An ultrasound was done, and it was determined that, in fact, she was still pregnant with me.  She did have a miscarriage, but she did not realize that she was pregnant with twins, and that I was still alive.  The doctor then advised her to have the procedure done anyway because the pregnancy could become life threatening to her, and the likeliness that she would carry me to term and give birth to a healthy me, were slim to none.  Thankfully, my mother was willing to take the risk and stay in bed, on her back, for six painful months.  She opened the door and stepped into the mysteries of faith, hope and love.  She successfully gave birth to a healthy me, on time, with no threat to her own health.  For as Christians, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
            My being-in-the-world is a mystery.  Oftentimes I wonder why it was I who survived and not my twin.  But it was not up to me to decide, and the reality is, that I am here.  All life is a profound mystery, and the signifiers of life point directly to God who created us out of love and out of nothing, ex nihilo.   In my lifetime, I would consider myself lucky to have amounted enough knowledge that can be likened to that of a small jetty or inlet, on the shores of the vast ocean of truth.  No matter how large or small this inlet is, it ultimately is minuscule when compared to the endless ocean of truth.   And yet it is at these shores, the shores of my contemplation of the mystery, where I begin to encounter and discover truth, and the ocean begins open up into the abyss of Being. So, as we sit here today contemplating the world around us, let us ask ourselves that first question: who am I?