Hope is the Hardest

I often think (and write) about Hope.  “The Little Girl Hope” was inspired by a French poet and a little neighbor of mine. “Hope Without Faith” was an early attempt to figure it out.

St. Paul recognized its place as one of the three theological virtues: “So Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three.”  He then clarified that “the greatest of these is Love.

This is from the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, his justly famous ode to love.  “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love…”  You know the rest.

He is of course correct.  Faith that does not result in love is nothing, because an unloving faith is a false faith.  Faith is what produces love, and love is faith in action.  Faith is input, love is output.  Hope works the same way.  Hope is another output of faith.

The greatest of these is love.” But the hardest of these is hope. For me, anyway, these days.

Of course, there is no hope without faith. That is why we so eagerly grab for easy false faiths.  But hope built on false faiths is false hope. Continue reading

When We (George Weigel and I) Consider Thy Heavens

I am glad to see the valuable and insightful Mr. George Weigel calling attention (on the insightful, valuable First Things.com) to the powerful (if inadvertent) ministry of the NASA folks at APOD. If only all our taxpayer dollars were spent this wisely.

Weigel’s post is entitled “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” If that sounds familiar, it is from the often-quoted Psalm 19.

As my faithful readers know, I have been following APOD for years.

As I have said, every new image I see paints a wider, deeper, and more wonderful picture of the universe our Lord has created. And the incomprehensible distance grows between this universe and its beginning in an infinitesimally small seed in the palm of God’s hand barely 14 billion years ago.

Every APOD is a proclamation of the greater glory of God. “When I consider Thy Heavens, the work of Thy hands…” (Psalm 8:3)

Here are some of my favorites (most recent first): Continue reading

God’s Will? Really?

In a recent scriptural reading from First Peter, I was struck by this: “It is better to suffer for doing good, if this should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17) I wondered, as I often have: is it God’s will that some must suffer from the evil deeds of others?

I have always taken comfort from the inherent realism of Catholic doctrine. Evil exists because we have free will (or free choice), and we sometimes choose to do evil. It is really as simple as that. We cannot blame God for the evil that men choose to do, no matter how they hurt us in the process. This is the fundamentally difficult truth underlying the Holocaust.   Even though God could choose to intervene to prevent evil acts or their consequences, he does not do so because that would rob our freedom of all meaning. If we were free only to do good, then we would not be free, or human. Evil would not exist, and so neither would good.  I know that Christian theology declares that evil is only a negative, the absence of good; but without the possibility of evil, good also has no meaning in strictly human terms.  So for us, evil does indeed exist.

But does God will evil? Does he want person A to do evil deeds that hurt person B? I realize this is a central problem in the Bible. When Jesus prays in the Garden, he sets up an inherent dichotomy: “If it is possible, may this cup of suffering be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” This dual prayer reflects his dual nature, but in its ambiguity it raises the same question: Lord, do you really want me to suffer?

This could also be called the Judas problem. Does God really want Judas to betray His son?

In the Lord’s prayer, we ask (in a somewhat confusing subjunctive phrase) that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking that God help us to conform our will to his, so that we may want (and do) what he wants us to do. But what if He wants me to hurt another?  Is that possible?

This also drags me unwillingly into a confusion I have over the expression “God’s permissive will.” It was offered as a quick walk-back explanation for Pope Francis’ incomprehensible announcement that the existence of many religions in addition to the true Catholic Church must be God’s will. Early in 2019, in a joint statement with an Islamic leader, he stated “Plurality and diversity of religions…are an expression of the wise and divine will by which he created human beings.” Can heresy be God’s will, I ask? Religions espousing hate and encouraging murder are God’s will?

Relax, we are told, it only means God’s permissive will: not what He wants, but what He allows. Which presumably includes the Holocaust, communism, Rwandan genocide, and every other waking nightmare in human history? Thanks for the explanation, but…

It doesn’t help.  I’m still confused.

Can someone help me out with this?

I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me…

[My friend Dan Wing has asked my thoughts on this strange Easter. Here they are.]

Dan, I have often shared with you my love for our Cathedral and how I miss it during the long winter months I spend in Florida. The parish I attend there is a sad affair, a church that feels old and tired. Literally old, as the congregation is almost 100% retired and 65+. And figuratively tired, as there seems to be no awareness of any of the challenges the church is now facing.

In Montana, I feel old; but in Florida, the world feels old. I prefer the Montana feeling. And throughout the Florida winter, I dream of attending mass in the magnificent Cathedral of St. Helena when spring arrives.

At my conversion, you helped me find my place in God’s world.  At the time I especially felt the truth in Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” You and Cherie were two of the ones who most persistently said it unto me.

And I remember that joy I felt, and still feel, whenever I have the chance to enter our Cathedral.

Yet now I have been back in Montana for a month, and still have not been to a single mass here. I am of course grateful for the opportunity to be of help to my family in this time of crisis. And my heart leaps with joy whenever I see our beautiful Cathedral on the hill as I drive through town. But still…

I know you and so many others feel the same sense of loss that I do.   In my case I wonder if this sense of loss could be a part of the purgatory my sinful heart needs.

The emptiness that has often hit me this month has sometimes seemed like an extended Holy Saturday, a day with a conspicuous absence in its heart. Now, He is Risen!

But the challenge continues. How to keep the holiness of God in my heart without the help of the sacraments ad our priests?  Very hard, indeed. The Magnificat helps with regular devotions. And my daily diet of “Thank You, Lord” prayers finds no shortage of occasions.

But still I long for the day when I again hear “Let us come into the house of the Lord” for mass. And I think it may be a foretaste of the day I can walk joyfully into God’s full and complete presence. God willing.

Yours in Christ

Vatican Betrayal of China Continues

While keeping the past, present and future victims of the Wuhan Chinese Coronavirus Covid-19 are on your mind and in your prayers, give an extra prayer for the oppressed Catholics of the Middle Kingdom, crushed by the Chinese communist Party and cynically abandoned by the Vicar of Christ.

The heroic Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong has repeatedly rung the alarm bell about this crisis (see an article in Gatestone here), pounding on the Vatican doors to get the attention of the “people’s pope” (or am I thinking of Princess Diana?).  As usual, only silence in response.

Join me in praying for the success of Cardinal Zen. And when you pray for Pope Francis, join me in praying for his enlightenment and repentance, rather than his intentions. I shudder to think what those really are.

Better Prayer Through Calculus

When I was learning calculus, back in the dark ages, I remember having great difficulty grasping the very basic concept of “the slope of a point.” It sounded completely illogical, then and now. After all, didn’t Euclid define a point as having location, but not dimension (no length, width, or size). Without at least length, how can it have slope, which describes a direction (up, down, left, right, angled…)?

Well, calculus and its sloping points turn out to have lots of valuable uses. (I’d list them now if I could remember any.)

But I do recall the procedure for demonstrating and determining the slope of a point. It involves gradually vanishing “limits”.  A limit (if I remember correctly, or even approximately) is the slope or angle of the smallest possible section of a graphed curve in the area of the point in question. You start with one inch on either side of the point, and measure the slope of that two-inch line between them. Then you repeat the process with half that distance, then keep halving it. Eventually, the series of those slope-measurements closes in on the slope of the particular point. Voila! Cool, no?

(Well, anyway, that’s how I remember it.  If I have gotten it wrong, I hope some helpful mathematician or engineer or calculist will write a comment straightening me out.  I’d hate to misinform my faithful readers.)

I said above that this all has many valuable uses, which I knew once long ago. But I have recently found a new one, for my prayer life.

Prayer takes place in time. We sing of the “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” We recite prescribed prayers (Ave, Our Father, Memorare, the Rosary, etc.); these prayers are of definite length in words spoken and therefore in time.  Monks and nuns pray at specific times throughout the day.

But this implies that the rest of our time is spent in non-prayer. Many of us seek to increase our time spent in prayer. Extending prayer time of course reduces our non-prayer time. But is there another way to increase prayer by converting non-prayer time into prayer time (NPT into PT, as it were)? Continue reading

Moleman, Chesler, Zweig on Dying Cities

I see that my friend Mister Hans Moleman has written an interesting reference to Buchmendel, a great short story by Stefan Zweig.  He being one of the greatest writers of all time (Zweig, not Moleman), I was intrigued by his (Moleman’s, not Zweig”s)  linkage with some reflections on the decay of cities (specifically “Old Manhattan”) by Dr. Phyllis Chesler.

My favorite of Zweig’s writing is his novel Beware of Pity.  “Buchmendel” is a great story.  Phyllis Chesler is a brilliant commentator.

And Moleman is pretty good, too. If you like his kind of stuff.

Three Random Questions

[NOTE: If I were a better writer, I would have developed each of these thoughts into a full-length essay.  But this is the best I can do right now.]

 

How does an atheist explain Euclid? In a purely material world, what is a perfect circle or a straight line or a point? These do not exist in nature. If they are mere ideas, mental constructs, thoughts made up of flashing neurons, then why do they work so well to explain reality?  Why does geometry work? Why can a mere thought become a building or a bridge?

 

 

Would it be fair to describe Richard Dawkins and his progeny as “Hard Shell Atheists”?

I am of course thinking of the term “Hard Shell Baptists”, coined to describe (indeed, self-describe) the “Primitive” or “Old School” who self-separated from the more mainstream Southern Baptists.   Starting in 19th century rural America, they rejected any religious activity beyond the church walls and home prayer; even missionary societies and Sunday schools were unacceptable to them. “If it isn’t explicitly ordered in scripture, it is untrue and unchristian.”

Some of today’s atheists sound vaguely similar, at least in tone.  “If it isn’t written in science, it is untrue.” “If it hasn’t been answered by science, it soon will.” “If it can’t be answered by science, it can’t be asked.”  Dawkins’ thinking often seems to be carefully isolated within a hard protective shell.   Some writers have called this “scientism”, a faith in science as the one and only path to understanding: “sola scientia”, instead of “sola scriptura”.

Am I being unfair? Maybe. I will try to pray for the enlightenment of all atheists.

 

 

When does purgatory begin? Not until we die (assuming we die in a state of grace)?As I understand it, purgatory is the state of suffering in expiation for the sins we have repented.  If so, then purgatory begins with repentance, and does not end with priestly absolution. “Ego te absolvo” is not the finish line.  The memory of our sins is the lifelong experience of the repentant sinner whenever he contemplates his own past. Every memory can conjure up the pain and shame of his sinfulness at its worst. At least it is so for me.

Perhaps this unwillingness or inability to cast off the memory of my sins is in itself a sin, an unwillingness to accept God’s merciful love.  If so, I am just digging my hole deeper.

But if this pain of remembered sin is in fact the act of purgation, if this is the unstated part of penance, then perhaps I should not resist.

Dante’s Purgatorio (purgatory) is by far the most interesting part of his Divine Comedy.  For me the Inferno (hell) is too darkly comcal, and Paradiso (heaven) is frankly too sweet.  But in Purgatory, our humanness is realistically but hopefully portrayed.

I think I will read some Dante tonight; you should too.  There are many good translations, with helpful notes explaining the characters in Dante’s world.  I recommend Anthony Esolen’s version (and everything else he ever wrote).

 

Reasonable Steps to Jesus

(With a little help from some scientists.)

1.  Astronomers have determined that the universe began at a certain point in time (14.5 billion years ago, more or less).  It appears to have been created from nothing, paralleling Genesis. (See NASA and Goddard Institute for Space Studies founder Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers).

2.  The universe obeys certain strict physical and mathematical laws and structure, making it comprehensible to human minds.  This suggests an intelligence guiding its creation.

3. Paleontologists have determined that life began, indeed exploded on earth as soon as the planet’s surface had cooled sufficiently to sustain it, within the first billion years of earth’s existence. (See Stephen Jay Gould, A Wonderful Life).   This suggests a universe predisposed towards life.

4.  Human self-consciousness triggered an innate sense of right and wrong in the earliest humans. This moral sense or  “Natural Law”  suggests a lawgiver.  (See NIH and Human Genome Project Director Francis Collins, The Language of God).

5.  Before the earthly life of Jesus, no philosophy or religion had elevated love above all other virtues.  None had ever valued the poor over the rich, the weak over the strong, the childish over the wise, the humble over the proud, or mercy over strict justice.

This, along with the Gospel testimonies and the amazingly rapid growth of Christianity (spread worldwide in three centuries by missionaries rather than armies, as was Islam), suggests that Jesus was, if not divine, at the very least the most unique human or spiritual leader of all time.

The god that could create the world and make it humanly understandable would also be capable of revealing his nature to us, in both indirect and direct ways (miracles).

So there I found myself, in five simple steps, standing at the door of the Church.  The fact that it took me seven decades to take those steps speaks to my own stubborn slowness rather than the difficulty of the steps themselves.  Others, perhaps less clever than I, seem to reach the door, and pass through it, quickly and easily.  I am just grateful that I have been given the time I needed.

 

NOTES and Quotes:

Francis Collins wrote “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful.”

He also wrote that “God must be an incredible physicist…There is this phenomenal fine-tuning of the universe that makes complexity and, therefore life, possible.”

Robert Jastrow wrote “Far from disproving the existence of God, astronomers may be finding more circumstantial evidence that God exists.”

Circumstantial evidence is exactly what scientists provide us with every day.  Witness testimony is what we get from believers.  Together, the case is made strong.

 

 

 

Vatican Betrays Chinese Catholics. Again.

Sad but not entirely unexpected news:  The Pope has once again betrayed the suffering Catholics of Communist China.  Heroic Cardinal Zen has written an open letter to all his brothers in the Catholic hierarchy, denouncing the new Concordat that sold out the church’s true believers and subjected them to total control buy the Chinese Communist Party.

The letter has been published openly on the Catholic website OnePeterFive.com,  an invaluable resource for the church’s current crisis. (It was one of the first to publish Archbishop Vigano’s challenges to the Vatican’s longtime embrace of former Cardinal McCarrick.) Here is the publisher’s introduction of…

“…a letter that Cardinal Joseph Zen sent some time ago to all the cardinals, and that he has now decided to make public. Needless to say, the latest news coming from mainland China only confirms and augments the concerns expressed for some time by many people about the interim agreement signed by representatives of the Holy See and the government of Beijing.”

Cardinal Zen asks “can we passively witness this killing of the Church in China on the part of those who should be protecting and defending it from its enemies?”  A good question.  As directed to the present papal incumbent, the answer appears to be “Yes”.

I started by saying “the Pope has once again betrayed…”  I was thinking also of the earlier betrayal when one of his “social justice” people startled the world (and the Chinese Catholics who know better) with the declaration that “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” The remark came from Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, two years ago.  The pope never disagreed, just as he has never responded to Archbishop Vigano’s j’accuse  August 2018, or to Cardinal Zen’s letter, presented to the Pope in July.

Yet another gratuitous slap in the face for those Catholics suffering persecution in China, and an embarrassment to the rest of us.

Read the full letter here.

Then say a prayer for Cardinal Zen and his flock.  And pray that more bishops will find their voices.