The Experience of God

Near the end of his life, months before he died, in fact, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most prolific writers on matters of church, natural philosophy, and theology, stopped writing. When pressed by a friend, he simply said "I can write no more. All I have written is as straw." What could make a person think such a thing, when his writing on certain subjects had been so comprehensive, precise, and insightful?

To understand what St. Thomas might have been experiencing, consider the matter of sight. In fact, consider, the simple sight of the color red.

Suppose there was a man who was born completely blind. He had no optical experiences at all. However, he was a brilliant man and he developed a deep knowledge in a variety of subjects, including physics, optics, biology, neurology, neurophysiology, psychology, and all other sciences that pertain to the ability to see a color. Such a man could explain, perhaps even to the deepest levels of physical and biological reality, exactly how a person sees a color, and what it means to see a color.

However, such a man's knowledge of color would be insignificant compared to that of a three-year-old who can see and identify the color red. That's because color, for all of the science that can be brought to bear on understanding it, is fundamentally an experiential phenomenon. That's not to say that all the science isn't every bit as "true" as the experience; but the experience is the real thing, and everything one can say about it is just that--about it. It isn't the thing itself.

God is Love. Love is personal, relational, and experiential. Love is expressive as doing, and to know love, one has to experience the act. No matter how much one knows and understands about God, that knowledge and understanding can never in it itself constitute knowledge of God. Furthermore, since God is infinite, the spirit's experience of God is limitless, while the human mind's capacity for understanding God is limited. The distinction between understanding everything about color and experiencing color is a small one, when held against the difference between knowing about God and knowing God.

Perhaps St. Thomas was given the gift of experiencing just the slightest glimps of what it means to know God, without the mediation of prayer, before the end of his life. Such a glimps, however slight, would be enough to make him feel as if everything he's written was worthless.

Consider how great that must have been, if St. Thomas did, indeed, receive such a gift!

Even through the mediation of prayer, the saints throughout history have grown to such an ardent love of Jesus that they've readily--even considering themselves privileged!--suffered the most horrifying tortures, including, in some cases, the psychological torture of watching loved ones suffer, all for Him. If the meager experience of God that can be attained in this life is so powerful, then just consider how powerful and consuming our direct experience of God will be when we enter the Eternal Kingdom!

Husbands and Wives, submit to your spouse in everything

Husbands and wives, submit to your spouse in everything possible.

Marriage is the only sacrament based on an order God set in place before the fall. When Adam sinned, separating all of humanity from God, he also caused a separation between himself and his wife. When we are baptized, we enter into a sharing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and are thus reunited with God, although imperfectly while still in this life. One manifestation of that reunion should be a more perfect union between husbands and wives.

People are imperfect and all are sinners while still on this earth; therefore, husbands and wives must help each other, which may even include admonishing each other from time to time. This should be rare, done with great hesitation, and only to avoid sin.

A husband and wife should lose themselves in each other. In everything except sin, they should submit to each other perfectly.

Mary wants to help!

This weekend, I attended Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. While there, I explored some of the crypt Church (I could spend a week, easily!) It is amazing to see all the various miraculous appearences and answered prayers by the Blessed Virgin, all over the world--India, Croatia, the Philipines, and on and on. Sometimes, the person she appears to isn't even Catholic.

The Blessed Mother is so eager to bestow on us the blessings of her Son, not only spiritual blessings, but temporal ones, as well! She is a Mother who is overflowing with a desire to give her children everything she has to offer, if only they would ask!

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen!

Jesus' Third Temptation: Obvious, but then again maybe not

The third temptation of Jesus in the desert is, on one level, the easiest to understand and, on another level, the most difficult.

Satan offers all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, and all Jesus has to do is bow down and worship Satan. Of the three temptations in the desert, this is probably the only one where it's clear why the act being suggested would actually be wrong for Jesus. After all, there's nothing inherently sinful in turning rocks into bread, or even in flying from a parapet when you know you can fly. But worshiping there's a sin.

At the same time, I often think that the obvious nature of the sinfulness in what's proposed to Jesus sometimes hides the real temptation. What was being offered was all the kingdoms of the world. Even if Satan's initial purpose in tempting Jesus was to determine Who Jesus was, by the time he got around to the third temptation, Satan almost surely had come to know that Jesus is the Son of God. Satan had to know that Jesus, as the One through Whom all things were created, would have no reason to desire the wealth of worldly kingdoms. He already had true dominion over the entire universe.

What Satan was offering, when he said he would hand over all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, is to withdraw his attempts to turn the world from God. Satan was saying, "Look, all you have to do is bow down and worship me, and I'm outta here. I won't try to turn anybody else against the Father, I won't try to sow suffering and selfishness, I won't even try to nudge nature to cause tragic disasters. You'll have the world back to yourself, and all the evil that I would have otherwise inspired will be averted." That's the nature of the third temptation of Christ: The temptation to believe that you can accomplish good by doing what is objectively evil.

Today, this contunies to be one of the most significant temptations among those with good intentions. It's difficult to trust God's justice in all situations of life, especially when so many of those situations involve what are clear and obvious manifestations of injustice. We so often want to balance the scales ourselves. Sometimes, it's not even a matter of injustice. How often will we tell a lie to gain some advantage?

But what about other situations? Many people, when talking about lying, like to point to the example of hiding Jews from the Nazis. The obvious implication is "Well, of course it's OK to lie in that situation!" I'm not going to argue whether it is or isn't OK. However, I am going to point out that this is exactly the same situation Jesus was in during the third temptation. Jesus knew all the evil that Satan was going to inspire throughout history. Jesus knew about the holocaust; He knew about the political murders of over ten million people in the Soviet Union under Stalin; He knew about all the abortions that would be performed in China as a result of their one-child policy. And that's just the 20th century.

But Jesus also completely trusted the Father. Whatever would come of not doing something wrong, Jesus knew that the Father still held dominion--still had everything, for all of time, under His Own providence. Jesus knew that victory was with God alone, and that no true victory could come from violating God's law.

To take up again the case of lying about the Jews hidden in your attic or basement--and I'm not trying to make a case against hiding Jews, or even lying about it--but just think: If someone who believed that lying is always wrong were hiding Jews, what then? When the Nazi magistrate comes knocking and interrogates him, that person is being called to trust God. But he's not being called to trust that God will keep him or the Jews alive if he refuses to lie. He's being called to trust that God's plan for justice transcends saving his own neck. He's being called to trust that the witness he's bearing--the witness to justice by hiding the Jews and the witness to truth by refusing to lie and the witness to solidarity by putting himself between the Nazis and the Jews--is ultimately serving God's plan and is fully accounted for in God's Providence.

This is the third temptation of Christ in the desert: The temptation to withold His full trust in God's plan and in God's Providence. But this can help us beyond the temptation to commit both minor and major acts contrary to the will of God: If we had the trust in God that Jesus had in the Father, our hearts would be serene, even amid the most dire and tragic of circumstances.

First Holy Communion - Overjoyed and Disappointed

My granddaughter and grandson both received their First Holy Communions this weekend. I'm overjoyed at this! In truth, this is such a joyful occassion that I went back and forth with myself for a while about whether to even post something about my disappointments with how my granddaughter's First Communion Mass was executed. However, I decided that the joy of the occassion is what made the disappointment so accute. So, here goes:

Because one of my first communicant grandchildren lives in Indiana and the other lives in North Carolina, I was only able to attend one. I attended my granddaughter's FHC Mass at Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

It was a disappointing study in irony.

The church is one of those round churches that became so faddish in the 70's--the kind with a semi-circular plan that looks more suited to a concert hall than a church. The tabernacle, as is sadly common in modern church designs, is off to the side, completely outside of the sanctuary. This isn't part of my disappointment, but I wanted to give an idea of the layout of the church, to set the stage for the Mass.

You would expect the first communicants to process up during the entrance procession. This didn't quite happen. They had each child, one at a time, process forward, bow before the altar, and then walk off to join his or her family, who were sitting in the pews. This happened for all the first communicants. Then we all stood for the entrance procession. But here's the irony, an irony that could come up again: On the day when these children would be receiving the Lord in His full Presence for the first time, they were made to march up to the altar and bow rather than being allowed to genuflect to Jesus in the tabernacle. They got to show veneration to a symbol of Jesus, while completely ignoring the real Jesus that was right in front (well, a little to the side) of them!

This irony was repeated a number of times throughout the Mass. Various children were involved in the different parts of the Liturgy of the Word (readings, petitions, etc.), as you would expect. Each one approached the front of the semi-circular stair to the sanctuary, bowed to the altar, walked around the stairs to the left side, to right where the tabernacle is, then ignored the tabernacle while they walked up into the podium in the sanctuary.

During the Eucharistic Prayer, the first communicants were all assembled in the sanctuary, behind the altar with the priest and servers, where they stood for the entire Eucharistic Prayer. This is, perhaps, the most disappointing irony: That on the very day when these children would be first allowed to fully participate in the Eucharistic Feast by receiving the Real Presence of Our Lord, they were denied the privilege of kneeling before the altar at the very moment when that Presence was made a reality! That these children's entry into this Communion with Jesus is such an awesome occassion for joy only amplifies the disappointment I feel in how poorly their awareness of Who they were receiving was channeled during the Mass.