This post, and its sequel, are a way of me trying to make sense of all that is currently going on, especially in light of the Gospel.
We are living through strange times. The world seems gripped in a deathly panic, the living for the most part entombing themselves at home. Mortality seems to be on the minds of many, yet the Bride, whose mission it is to proclaim that Life is victorious, having trampled down death by death, remains silent. The faithful prepare for a most peculiar Pascha this year.
At home we have been making our way, for these past few months, through the Pentateuch. This past week we finished the book of Leviticus, and while I know that context is everything, many of the warnings given to the Israelites at the end of the book seem so apropos to the day and age we live in.
We are told nowadays (and by churchmen no less!) that God does not punish; He does not chastise; that Christianity has surpassed that outmoded view. And yet, reflecting on my own experience as a parent, if one truly loves one’s children, does he not find himself on certain occasions obliged to punish them? After all exhortations and entreaties have been tried, sometimes punishment is all that is left to keep the child from coming to harm and from harming others. If it is so for us and our children, is it not even more-so the case for our heavenly father and His wayward children? The Scriptures and the Fathers attest to it.
This post will not be about the Holy Rule. However, neither will it be about all the madness that’s been going on in recent weeks; there are enough professional worriers writing about it as it is, who can do a far more competent job than I ever could. No; the unbelieving and perverse generation I am thinking about is not this current generation, in a horizontal sense, but every generation, in the vertical.
As some of you may (or may not) be aware, my family hails from a traditionally Catholic country. Due to what I call an Old Testament sized miracle in the first half of the 20th century many foreigners seem to naively assume that said country is a bastion of holiness and catholicity. After all, Our Lady appeared there and worked this prodigious sign, so it has to be a holy nation, right? Yet as an acquaintance of mine recently commented “There is more Sinai about Fatima than there is Assisi.” Fatima was more a warning than a reward for the people’s faith.
Listening to family stories over the years I found countless examples of relatives who abandoned the Faith in one way or another, or who even led others away from it. I recall a tale of a father who was a sacristan for most of his life. After his son’s first communion he told his son he no longer had to come to church; that he had “seen too much in the sacristy that was unbiblical”; what mattered was to pray to Jesus no matter where one was. The father still continued to serve at Mass (until eventually falling away completely), but his son fell away from the Faith. Here one sees the influence of parents’ practice of the Faith on their children. Another story involved a relative who grew up being taught to respect priests as God’s representatives. When she moved abroad as a teenager she witnessed predatory priests in her school. She could not make sense how this class of men who she had been taught to respect could sink to such levels, and so eventually fell away from the Faith. There are other stories of pious relatives who mixed folk religion with Catholicism and seemed to find no contradiction with it. Stories such as these abound, and I’m quite sure not only in my own family.
As there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and life everlasting. Let monks, therefore, practice this latter zeal with most fervent love: that is, let them in honour anticipate one another; let them bear most patiently one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; let them endeavour to surpass one another in the practice of mutual obedience; let no one seek that which he accounts useful for himself, but rather what is profitable to another; let them practice fraternal charity with a chaste love; let them fear God; let them love their Abbot with a sincere and humble affection; let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ; and may He bring us all alike to life everlasting. Amen.
This past Lent, with the “crashing and burning” of my intentions during the very first week (and then just a few weeks later again), made me keenly we aware of my lack of “good zeal”, especially that which “separates from vices”. Saint Augustine’s prayer, in his great work “The Confessions”, is somewhat apropos:
Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.
I am sure that those who have been in bondage to some vice for years on end – be it anger, lust, greed, gluttony, etc. – will recognize themselves in the saintly bishop of Hippo’s prayer. How many times have we prayed to be delivered from our particular vice(s)… only not just yet. How many times have we prayed half-heartedly, desiring freedom, but loving the chain even more?
Augustine reveals how vice enslaved him:
My will was the enemy master of, and thence had made a chain for me and bound me. Because of a perverse will was lust made; and lust indulged in became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I term it a chain), did a hard bondage hold me enthralled.
For those of us still fighting against vices acquired so long ago, we can recognize the same path that brought us to our current struggle. Augustine mentions a “perverse will” leading to vice. What does he mean by perverse? Perverse, etymologically, means turned away; therefore, a “perverse will” is a “will turned away”. Turned away from what? Turned away from God, from what is good. We indulge vices not because we think they’re evil, but because we find pleasure in them. We fall into vices because we go after pleasure, which is a false good blinding us to the supreme Good. This lack of zeal which leads to pleasure seeking in vices ultimately leads to death, “for death is close to the entrance of delight.”
We may have stumbled into our particular vice(s) because we didn’t know any better; perhaps there was no one to point us in the right direction; maybe we indulged deliberately knowing it was wrong. Independent of the circumstances that led us to sell ourselves into bondage, what matters is where we are now. If we are living a Christian life, if we are trying to practice virtue and combat vice and asking God for the grace to persevere, then that is what matters. Years, if not decades, of letting vice thrive and enmeshing itself around one’s will are not undone over night (excluding some miraculous intervention). Do we fall? Yes, and we will fall again and again. What matters is that we get back up and make a new beginning until that day when we no longer fall again (which does not mean that we still won’t be tested).
Returning again to the matter of pusillanimous prayer and the subject of good zeal, it dawned on me how little I actually desired the virtue I was praying for. Acquiring virtue is hard, but to practice it faint heartedly makes it an even harder struggle. Perhaps, I thought to myself, more than asking for the grace to persevere in a particular virtue, I should be asking for the desire for that virtue? On the Fifth Sunday after Easter the Collect confirmed this intuition of mine, and I have prayed it as often as I can remember it:
O God, of Whom it cometh that the minds of thy faithful people be all of one will, grant unto the same thy people that they may love the thing which Thou commandest, and desire that which Thou dost promise, that so, amid the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found.
Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord[…]
In battling vices one may be tempted to give up, but let us recall the last good work of the Holy Rule – to never despair of the mercy of Christ. He is the Good Samaritan and He will not leave us by the wayside.
Our recent trip has prompted me to write about our experience of going home with three young children. I ask my readers to bear with me as this will be quite long and might sound a bit like a rant.
While we were still living in Portugal a friend, who is living in the USA, said that what he noticed most when coming home was the absence of children. At the time my wife and I were unable to grasp fully what he meant. That changed when we moved to the UK. One of the first things I noticed was the amount of children everywhere. This was not simply because the UK has more population than Portugal, but because it is quite normal to still see families with 3 to 4 children (especially with a small age gap between them). To put things into perspective, in 2017 Portugal was the 6th country in the world with the lowest birth rates.
As some of you might know, I have three small children with an average age difference of two years. In Portugal couples with three children have become uncommon; couples with three small children, even more. While we were aware of this fact, we were not expecting most of the reactions we got on this last trip (which was the first time the whole family went home). On a few occasions some elderly people came up to us, startled that they were all our children, saying things to the effect of “such a large family, just like back in the day!”. Others would just stare at us for a long time. On a visit to a church, we crossed paths with a canon who was so amazed that we had “so many children” that he gave us his blessing then and there…
Why does a (formerly) Catholic country have one of the lowest birth rates in the world? Though Catholicism is still the majority religion there, why are Catholics having so few children? Now, before someone gets hot under the collar (no pun intended), I want to say that I do not believe that having many children is necessarily a sign of holiness. A couple with no children may be holier than one with five. That is not the point of this post. What I want to get at is, what does the low birth rate say about the way the Portuguese live the faith, especially in regards to openness to life?
During the seven years after I returned to the Church, never did I ever hear a single sermon in church on the importance of couples being open to life. Never did I hear a sermon against abortion. When I tell other Catholics here in the UK that I’m Portuguese they almost always say, without fail, “oh, you have Fatima! The Portuguese are such a Catholic people.” I often wonder if their idea of the Portuguese is not something taken out of the 1950’s movie “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima”. Let us not forget that it was “Catholic” Portugal who voted in favour of liberalizing abortion in 2007. There was little noise (if any) from the hierarchy. I knew a few members of a certain religious order who actually voted in favour of the liberalization. When the law was finally passed, the Episcopal Conference came out with their typical hand wringing (as they did when same-sex unions were approved), but not much after that. There is something diabolical in the fact that in the maternity where my daughter was born there are images of Our Lady everywhere and yet abortions take place within those very walls; in fact, women with scheduled abortions have priority over other women…
At our marriage preparation there was some discussion about openness to life. One of the moderating couples had five children (it was the first time I’d ever seen such a large family in my city), yet they were the ones who implied that artificial birth control was a matter of personal conscience!
Why are the Portuguese having so few children? I think it is for quite a few reasons, being mostly materialistic. There was a generation or two that was brought up on the idea that having many children is a sign a poverty. I have heard this from people close to me, some who even came from large families themselves.
The reason most invoked, however, is financial economical – children are “expensive.” There is clothing to be bought, diapers, strollers, cots, food… then there’s putting them through university… I don’t say these are unfounded preoccupations. Life in Portugal is expensive, wages and salaries are low, and the way things are set up do not currently favour families. I know; I experienced this first-hand. I hear parents say they only want a child or two so they can give their children the best (which is a noble thing) but one has to inquire what is “the best” they’re talking about. It normally comes down to material things (clothes, schools, etc.). They think that lavishing their child with creature comforts will give them “the happiness they deserve”, all the while depriving the child of another sibling which would give them a richer happiness than that which money purchases.
Linked with this is what I term “readiness”. By “readiness” I mean that a certain number of prerequisites are need: one must first university, find a job, advance one’s career, save some money to buy a house, and then (if you should still be fertile at that age) you might, just might, be ready to have your first child.
Others simply do not want to give up their current life style. They want the latest mobile phone, their dream car, the X-bedroom house, the holidays abroad, and children will only get in the way of that. Children demand sacrifices, especially of “freedom”.
Another reason, which is, perhaps, not conscious, is the fact that sexual relations have been divorced from their proper marital context. Girls are put on the pill as soon as they come of age and culture at large tells them that procreation has nothing to do with sexual relations, being mostly an unfortunate by-product, and that one needn’t be married to engage in what is proper to the married state. Curiously the state does not authorize marriage at the age that children/teens are being told that it is OK to engage in these acts which are proper to marriage.
I would also add that seeing lots of children affects people psychologically, making them more prone to wanting more children themselves. In the case of a reduced birthrate society, “out of sight, out of mind”, as it were…
There are a few other reasons which I have heard, but I think the ones listed are the most prevalent.
What I’ve described above is true of believers and non-believers. In fine, Catholics are living as heathens. They have embraced the “pomps of the Devil”; they have put a caveat on one of the requirements for the validity of their marriage; they have broken their baptismal vows. And to make matters worse, in many cases the institutional Church has failed them. Priests and bishops, those in charge of shepherding souls, have failed time and again to bring their flock back to the green pasture of sound doctrine. They have failed to call sin by its name and, in some cases, even given it their approval and blessing. And those of us laymen who know better have failed them as well with our own silence out of human respect.
While the Lord does not ask us to be reckless, especially in regards to our children, where is our trust in His Providence when we, by our actions, say “no, life is hard. I will not bring more than one or two children into this world. I can deal with that. That many I can manage. More is out of my control.” We take a rationalistic, calculated approach to life. I can control the outcome of my decisions (or at least minimize the negative impacts). I am in charge of my destiny, of my life… That is, until my soul is demanded of me. While more children can be an extra burden on family finances, they provide the couple with an opportunity to reassess their priorities. The couple can take stock of how they are living, discovering what things are actually not “needs”, but only “wants” and so can be lived without. Old clothing suddenly finds a new life as it is passed from sibling to sibling (our youngest has worn clothes that the eldest wore at their age).
Have we not failed as Christians is supporting our fellow brothers-in-Christ, especially in their hour of need? We have been quite fortunate to have found a parish were at last we feel as though we are among family. There are many families there, and they do tend to support one another as needed. Someone is always passing along children’s clothes they no longer need to another family that does need it. Experiences in parenting are shared. Help is offered. There is a sense of community.
With regards to “the best” being synonymous with material well-being, is that not spiritual short sightedness? While we do have certain material needs, much of what we give to our children are not “needs” at all. Are designer strollers/clothes/shoes/… “needs”? Or are they only buzzing flies that distract us, maggots that feed off our sense of pride? Through Baptism we have been raised with Christ, so why are we not seeking the things that are above, where Christ is seated? Why do we continue to think that what moth and rust consume are “the best”, while we neglect the one thing necessary?
Why have we sold Holy Matrimony short? Why do we, in our marriage preparations, mostly offer young couples what the world already offers? I recall hearing in my own marriage preparation other couples saying that they wished to “enjoy marriage” before having children (the couples who said this had already been living several years more uxorio!). What does it mean to “enjoy marriage” yet leave out children from that enjoyment, as if they were detrimental? Why do we not tell young couples that Holy Matrimony is not about happiness, but rather holiness? Why do we keep from them the fact that Matrimony is an icon of Christ and the Church, and that just as His love for His Bride is fruitful so too must our marriage be fruitful?
I am sure the problems I have described are applicable to any number of traditionally Catholic countries. However, in this case I write about the reality that I know. I put this out there merely as food for thought.
My wife and I love church crawling. Church crawling is an opportunity for us to learn more about local history, especially as that history relates to how people lived the Faith. On the rare occasions that we travel we always try to pop into the local churches to get a glimpse. A good portion of our honeymoon in Toledo was spent on this activity, as well as the majority of the pictures taken that week. Generally, the older the church, the better for us. So when we found ourselves back home recently I knew we had to visit some familiar churches in my city which, though we had previously visited, now had a few more areas open to the general public. Here are a few pictures:
(Former) Monastery of the Holy Cross
The Sanctuary – the walls are covered in relics!
Tomb if the founder of the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross
If you’ve been following this blog long enough, you’ll probably know by now that my Advents normally have a theme to them, and this year is no different. I never choose a particular theme; they are, in a sense, inspired either by the current circumstances of my life or else a particular thought suggests itself (rather insistently) some days before the beginning of the season.
This year I would say Advent has a Johannine flavour to it, for two reasons. The first is that about a week or (perhaps a bit more) before the start of Advent the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John began to present itself to my thoughts more and more regularly. The second is the Sacred Heart, which for whatever reason caught my attention during the first few days of Advent (while not directly Johannine, one can make the connection, I think, between Our Lord’s Sacred Heart and the Beloved Disciple who leaned upon His breast). Concerning the Sacred Heart, I admit I have never followed the devotion, but the image of It is one impressed upon my mind from a very early age. Recently reading up on the devotion, I was delightfully surprised to discover that it is Adoration-related.
The shortening of days with the lengthening of nights, almost to the point of it seeming that daylight will be snuffed out, seems to fit well with the expectation of that Light which shines, darkness being unable to comprehend it. While He has already come, and still remains present in this world through and in His Church, we are still expecting His final coming. We are watching and waiting, with “fear and trembling”, for that day when He will “come to judge the living and the dead and the age by fire”. Read more
My family made their first visit to Silverstream this week on the occasion of our oblation, which took place after I Vespers of All Saints Day.
Br. Basil, an oblate of Silverstream who lives on the other side of Ireland, was kind enough to come collect us at Dublin airport. We happened to arrive at Silverstream shortly before D. Benedict, whom we had seen in the distance at arrivals at the airport, just come back from abroad. After visiting Our Lord and settling in, we made our way to Terce and Mass.
It is plain that there are four kinds of monks. The first are the Cenobites, that is, those who live in a monastery, serving under a Rule and an Abbot.
The second are the Anchorites, that is, the hermits; those, namely, who not in the first fervor of their conversion, but after long probation in the monastery, have long since learned by the help of many others to fight against the devil, and being well armed, are able to go forth from the ranks of their brethren to the singlehanded combat of the desert, safe now, even without the consolation of another, to fight with their own strength against the weaknesses of the flesh and their own evil thoughts, God alone aiding them.
The third kind of monks, a most detestable class, is that of the Sarabaites, who, not having been tried by rule or by experience, as gold is tried in the furnace, but, being softened like lead, by their works showing loyalty rather to the world, publicly by means of the tonsure profess their infidelity to God. These in twos or threes, or even alone without a master, shut up in the sheepfolds of their own choosing, not in those of the Lord, have as their law the gratification of their desires; since whatsoever they consider agreeable to their own will and fancy, this they call holy, and whatever is not to their choice they consider unlawful.
The fourth sort of monks, called Gyrovagues, spend all their lives wandering about through different provinces, dwelling three or four days now in one monastery then in another, always roaming about with no fixed abode, given up to their own pleasures and to the excesses of gluttony, and in all things more vicious even than the Sarabaites; of the most wretched manner of life of all these it is better to be silent than to speak.
Omitting all reference to these, therefore, let us proceed with the help of the Lord to formulate a rule for the Cenobites, who are the most steadfast kind of monks.
While a few types of monks our Holy Father mentions in this first chapter may no longer exist, one could say that there are still Christians that keep their spirit alive.
St. Benedict paints the Sarabaites, not as hypocrites, but idolaters. They profess to be Christian, but then worship their bellies, calling holy whatever suits them. Among Anglophone Catholics, these kinds of people are known as “Cafeteria Catholics”. These people profess to be Catholics, but then pick and chose what they believe. Their à la carte Catholicism is a balm of sorts for their deformed conscience, allowing them to indulge in their passions, especially when these lead them to commit mortal sin. Their belief is little more than a form of moralistic therapeutic deism. Many shades of Catholics fit into this category – from the nominal Catholic, to the card carrying who punches in at Mass on every Sunday. They know better than the Church. Pride does not allow them to submit in filial obedience to all the Church teaches. Perhaps we ourselves have been “Sarabaites” at some point in our lives.
As for the Gyrovague, one can still find his spirit alive in those who are unable to settle down anywhere spiritually. They are constantly hopping from one parish to another, never maintaining a spiritual director; I have even met people who “shopped” around the sui juris churches, looking for the perfect fit. They’re always on the lookout for the perfect devotion/prayer. “Catholic nirvana” is just over the fence for such as these. They will not commit because they are forever finding flaws, unable to see their own. They lack stability and so do not persevere. They are the “If only…” Catholics.
I would say that the cenobitic – monastic – life is, at its heart, a family life, and the Rule helps give it form. For a family to thrive, the members must know what the “house rules” are. They need to know what is expected of them, what their relation to one another is, how and when correction is to be applied, etc. If this is true in the natural sphere, even more so when the aim is sainthood. The Holy Rule provides the monks with stability. They know the boundaries; they know who they are and what their place is. This, paradoxically, gives them freedom.
I believe this is the same with natural families, constituted by husband, wife and children (and eventually extended family). Parents, perhaps more so than children, need to know their place. How many broken families have not resulted from parents not fulfilling their roles, not knowing who they are supposed to be? One parent thinks they are to be first and foremost their child’s friend; another thinks their child is not allowing them to be happy; another thinks children are merely an accessory to their life; husband and wife do not share an understanding of their life in common… So many scenarios where lack of a “rule”/plan leads to the downfall of a family.
When I began this blog, in passing I spoke of why the Benedictine way of life appealed to me. As I said then, and have repeated time and again throughout these posts, I discovered quite early on that the Christian life is one of discipleship; that it can only make sense as one of discipleship. While most Catholic families will tend to find their way within a parish setting, others may feel the need of something a bit more regulated, a bit more structured. I know that this is definitely my case. Parish life, with the vague counsels (if any) given by the priest during confession, did not provide me with the stability I desired. The Lord providentially directed me to the Benedictines, and the Rule as a way of life, even while in the world, made all the sense in the world for me. Corresponding with Father Prior over the years, plus reading his and other commentaries on the Holy Rule, confirmed that the Benedictine charism was how God was calling me to be faithful to Him, even while in the world. In these past few years, having begun to make Silverstream’s particular charism my own, embarking on the path to oblateship seemed like the only logical thing to do.
The ninth degree of humility is, that a monk restrain his tongue from speaking and, maintaining silence, speak not until questioned, for the Scripture teaches: “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin,” and: “The man full of tongue shall not endure on the earth.”
Today’s reading hearkens back to Chapter VI. As written previously, even good conversation can quickly degenerate. Chapter VII is, in a sense, a program for our own interior Passion, of uniting ourselves spiritually with Our Lord’s own kenosis, His own self-emptying. If this interpretation is correct, that St. Benedict is putting forth a program for our own Passion in this chapter, then one can surmise that our Holy Father is thinking in this step of Our Lord’s silence before the Sanhedrin, only speaking when spoken to, and even this when absolutely necessary.
Talking much can be a form of self-love, of calling attention to one’s self, of pride, and I think that is what our Holy Father St. Benedict is getting at in this degree of humility. How many times in conversations do we not try to parade ourselves, puffing ourselves up, trying to be more than we really are? We love to get the last word in in an argument or a debate (“that’ll teach you to mess with me!”); we love to speak about all the wonderful things we’ve accomplished (“I’m so productive”; “I’ve just made my company so much money”; “I can juggle a job and family life”; “just look at my bank account”); our amazing holidays (“bet you wish you could go there”); put our encyclopedic knowledge on display (“don’t you wish you were as smart and as well read as me?”); make a witty remark (“I’m so smart and funny”). And this need not be the case only in worldly things; one can even fall into this in spiritual conversations as well! I think it needless to say that this step can be applied to social media as well. We live in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… My voice will be heard, whether you want to hear it or not! I will give my unsolicited opinion on every matter that tickles my fancy, and will give you a list of reasons why I am right and you are wrong (and will lambaste you if necessary).
It’s all about me, myself, and I. I have succumbed to pride. I make an idol of myself and expect others to burn the incense of approval at my feet.
One who cannot stop talking is necessarily one who cannot not listen, either to others or to God. Is it forcing the parable to see this spirit of talkativeness in the Pharisee who enumerates before God his apparent qualities? He goes on and on about how holy he is, uninterested in what the Lord may have to say to him. He has gone up to the Temple to worship not God, but himself. The parable tells us that he “prayed thus with himself“.
Today’s feast of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary reminded me that we have as an example of this step the Blessed Mother. The Creature with the most reasons for boasting, for not keeping silent, is the one who, though present throughout the Gospels, is hardly ever heard. She, who was born without the stain of sin, who is “full of grace”, who during her earthly life may have had the greatest spiritual insights, the loftiest thoughts, remained silent, pondering things in her Immaculate Heart. She did not speak until God questioned her via St. Garbiel. When she answered, it was with few words and in a spirit of humility. Let us ask of Our Most Holy Mother and Queen to help obtain for us this gift of humility of the tongue.
Am I restraining my tongue in conversations? Am I dissipating myself, forgetting to keep the Lord before my eyes, with my vain conversations? Am I giving my opinion when it is not called for, either at work or in other circumstances? Am I leading others into pointless conversations as well? Do I know how to listen?
Today I offer a final collection of loose thoughts on my retreat at Silverstream.
Before going I inquired of friends and acquaintances if there were any intentions they would like me to bring before Our Lord while on retreat. I was quite surprised at the amount of prayer requests that I received. “If I, being a simple, sinful layman, am asked to pray for all this, then how much more are those in the religious life solicited!”, I thought to myself. These requests brought to my mind another aspect of the communion of the saints which I normally don’t associate too much with the concept – the communion of those here below, in the Church Militant – and the power of intercessory prayer. I often tend to forget that if any prayer I offer is efficacious, it is not on any of my own merits, but on account of my participation through Baptism in the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord.
As I came before the Eucharistic Face, bringing Him all these pleas, enjoining to them my own prayers, I was reminded of what I once heard from an anchorite: that a man at prayer is an awesome and terrible thing to contemplate. At that moment I was, in a sense, an icon of all those who had entrusted me to “deliver” their prayers. How could the crushing weight of such a responsibility not bear down upon me? How could I not be reminded of my unworthiness, of my failings, of my sins? How could I not think of my need for conversion of life? There, before His burning sacramental gaze, I felt small, humbled, speechless. Carried away by this feeling, the only appropriate response (when I was alone in the oratory) seemed to be to prostrate myself before the King of kings.