My photo
Waiting in Joyful Hope

Distractions during prayer?

A friend writes:

I have a question that I hope you can answer for me or maybe give me some direction on. How do you keep focused when praying. I know this may sound odd, but I often experience my mind drifting from one thought to another while saying my nightly prayers. The harder I try to keep what I'm saying front and centre the more distracted I become.

Your question about distractions during prayer is very old. Many saints faced such issues, and a lot of wisdom has been passed down through the ages about this.

The first major piece of wisdom the saints have shared with us is that, in general, we should not pay too much attention to distractions - otherwise, the fact of distractions becomes the distraction itself! Distractions represent some of the basic flotsam and jetsam of our minds. Only those who have passed completely through the Dark Night of the Soul are truly free from them. So, in the meantime, we just need to deal with them while accepting that they will likely be present for most of our spiritual life.

Having a written text helps deal with distractions. Reading written texts are our way to speak to God, or writing down our thoughts in a spiritual journal, are great helps in this, because as the distraction comes it is easy to come back to the original thread once the distraction passes, rather than having to go searching for it again.

The strength of distractions are greatly depends on our current interior state. For example, when we are tired they tend to increase. They also tend to be stronger in the evening than in the morning - that is partly why monks do most of their meditation in the morning, as they don't have a day's worth of issues to process while trying to pray.

Finally, while distractions should generally be ignored, there are two exceptions to this rule:

  1. When a specific distraction repeats itself. This kind of distraction usually represents some sort of "worldly attachment" that, if broken, will set free our spiritual life even more. That being said, this kind should normally be brought to a spiritual director, as the root issue behind the distraction is not always obvious.
  2. When a specific distraction activates our conscience. This can be because the distraction tempts our mind to dwell on some sort of sin (dreams of revenge, for example, or impure thoughts, or temptations to self-pity, etc.). It can also be because God is actually speaking to us in a more direct way, such that we *can't* just push ignore the thought - the distraction is not simply a distraction, it is a direct communication from God.

In the case of sinful distractions, the best route is to begin to pray rote prayers (such as a decade of the rosary), so that the distraction can't get a "foothold" in our mind. In the case of the "communication from God" distractions, my advice is to journal about it. Keep a journal book handy, just in case such moments come, and write these things down. Then, when the moment passes, go back to the usual prayers, and bring the written notes to your spiritual director.

The nature of free will

I just got off the phone with Dr. Scott Hahn a few minutes ago. I had called him up to discuss some ideas in his book Reasons to Believe, which I had reviewed a few days ago on this website. We started discussing salvation history (particularly the priestly kingship of Adam), jumped over to the idea of natural evil as understood by David Bentley Hart (whose book The Doors of the Sea I also once reviewed), got into discussion of Maximus the Confessor how parallels between his ideas and those of Cardinal Ouellet, and then rounded it off with a good discussion of ecclesiology. Whew! It was...exhilarating!

One key part of our discussion had to do with the exact nature of the sin of Adam and Eve, and just how free they would have had to be truly capable of whatever sin it was that they committed. Dr. Hahn made a passing reference to the monothelite heresy, and just how deadly it was to a Christian understanding of salvation. I could not agree more.

Just what was the monothelite heresy? It taught that while Christ had two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, he only had one will. In some ways, the argument makes sense. After all, if Christ had two wills, a divine will and a human will, doesn't that mean that he could have, at some point, made contradictory decisions? For many, it seemed that the only way Christ would possess unity in his action is if he had only one will (obviously, the divine one).

And I teach my students, if monothelitism is correct, it implies that human free will is actually a kind of disease. Having free will would actually be a kind of defect present in human nature that can never be truly elevated within the context of our divine adoption in God. Indeed, it would imply that human beings aren't really capable of true moral goodness. After all, if Christ must exclude having a human will as part of his moral perfection, it implies that human free will never be capable of truly perfect love, *even if aided by grace*. In other words, according to monothelitism, all human love is somehow necessarily counterfeit.


What is worse, since Love is the very essence of the divine nature, it implies that we can't ever *really* possess the indwelling of the Trinity in our souls, and we'll never *really* be capable of participating in the divine nature when we are in Heaven. The best we'll ever get is a kind of natural goodness, a kind of eternal "consumer love", rather than a real participation in the total self-giving sacrificial love with which God loves us (and which was shown to us in Christ on the cross).

Double-yuck. Personally, I want the glory! And, happily for me (and all of us), God wants it for us. For the Church rejected monothelitism as a false vision of Christ's nature. Jesus had a divine will, but he also had a human will. In this way we catch a glimpse of what it means to truly be free. Real freedom is the capacity to act in the most loving way possible, all the time. The divine will only ever points to that, and by having a human will Jesus also shows us that we humans are not automatically cut off from being able to act in the most loving way possible as well. Oh, it sure isn't easy: that's why we say that saints lived lives of "heroic virtue".

Yes, my friends, Christianity is a religion for people who want to be heroes! But what is amazing is that this teaching of the Church actually means that, even in what appear to be just the simplest things, we can already live true heroism. Stuff as simple as telling the truth, staying faithful to your spouse, being moderate in your diet, not getting envious when good things happen to others, keeping your temper, and so on, are elevated to the status of true acts of worship of God.


And that means one last thing: that holiness of life is for EVERYBODY. Not just for the nuns in the convents and the priests in the pulpits. If any life situation can be lived heroically, then we have a great opportunity — but also a great challenge. For if we can, in theory, love perfectly, then why don't we?

Time to put our human will in Christ's divine will! Amen!

Book review: Opus Dei, by John L. Allen, Jr.

I have reviewed books by John Allen before on this blog, and I have come away with a deep appreciation for his work. It isn't just his style, which is very accessible and down to earth: his research and analysis is consistently thorough and balanced, and he does not draw conclusions without thinking things through. In short, he is the perfect candidate to undertake the investigation of controversial matters — and, since its very beginnings, Opus Dei has certainly fit that particular bill. In fact, the subtitle of Allen's Opus Dei is "An objective look behind the myths and reality of the most controversial force in the Catholic Church".

I must confess that I did not know a lot about Opus Dei before reading Allen's book. I had heard of it, of course, and I was aware of some of the controversy surrounding it. Opus Dei has been accused of many terrible things, some even by brother priests in this diocese, and in a very public way. On the other hand, one of my closest childhood friends had family members in Opus Dei (although she herself never joined), and they were among the more devout and sincere people I had ever met. I therefore found myself in the odd position of knowing and trusting people on both sides of the debate, and having precious few facts to be able to "choose" between them. What was the rule, and what was the exception, to Opus Dei? Were the accusations the rule and my friend's family the exception? Or vice-versa?

Allow me to switch gears a moment and discuss Allen's book itself. First of all, it is long. Sometimes it is also really dry, like when he discussed Opus Dei finances in great detail. But there is no question that it is thorough. After giving some necessary background to the group Allen does not shy away from addressing every major controversy about Opus Dei, probing in great detail all the issues that make Opus Dei such a tempting target for the ink-stained wretches of our world. I mean, how can you resist a book with chapter titles like "secrecy", "mortification", "women", "money", and "blind obedience"? All humour aside, though, there is no question that Allen has written what will be the definitive work on Opus Dei for years to come. This will be the standard by which other books on the subject will be judged — and I suspect most will be judged wanting.

In the end, I have come away with a much greater appreciation for Opus Dei and its place in the Catholic Church. As much as it is accused of being arch-conservative, there is actually a lot within the spirituality of Opus Dei that is very modern and open to the world. For example, did you know that Opus Dei was one of the first Catholic groups in the world to allow non-Catholics (heck, non-Christians!) to become affiliated with it in a formal way? The spirituality of Opus Dei can be summed up as "even the most ordinary stuff of life can be lifted up to God", and the stated purpose of the organization is to teach people how to do exactly that. I was particularly impressed by the figure of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, and I must confess that I probably agree with his outlook on many things (for example, he was opposed to the Church creating "Catholic" political parties, as am I).

Still, while I may appreciate the core spirituality of Opus Dei more, I also know it is, as an organization, not for me. That's ok too. After all, I appreciate the spirituality of St. John of the Cross a great deal, but I'm not a Carmelite and have never felt called to be one. I appreciate the Rule of St. Benedict and the example of St. Francis of Assisi, without having become a monk or a friar. And, of course, I do appreciate that Opus Dei is filled with imperfect people and sinners — but then again, the same can be said for the Catholic Church in general. The only real issue is: is this fundamentally a work of the Holy Spirit, or not? Allen does not answer this question in his book, of course, as that is not his place. But after having read his book, I feel I am closer to my own personal response, and if you want to see what your answer might be, this book is essential for you as well. My rating: B+. It gets a 'B' simply to indicate that, because of the narrow range of the subject, it probably isn't a 'must read' for your spiritual growth, while the '+' is to acknowledge the overall excellent quality of the research and writing. In short, for what it does, is does it extremely well.

Global Day of Prayer

A few years ago a South African businessman felt a call to bring together Christians from different denominations in a time of prayer of repentance, asking the Lord to renew his Church and heal its divisions. From this came the Global Day of Prayer, which will be taking place this year on Pentecost Sunday. This movement of prayer has spread rapidly across the world and across the churches. It has even grown from beyond a single day to a series of prayer events: a 10-day preparatory time, a 90-day period of follow-up prayer, and so on. There is plenty of downloadable material from the website should anyone wish to know more, or even organize an event of their own. Check it out!

Astral travel

A lay student of mine at the seminary contacted me asking about the attitude of the Church to "astral travel". He writes:

The question is regarding "les voyages astrals" (astral travel): how do we explain this and what is the moral evaluation of this...How can I explain this to someone in a concrete way?

First of all, we need to come to a common understanding of the meaning of the term "astral travel". Assuming this article from Wikipedia can be taken as a decent starting point, it refers to a way of interpreting out-of-body experiences. Strictly speaking, an out-of-body experience is a form of sensory (or para-sensory) experience which, in theory, cannot be explained with reference to the common 5 senses located in a particular place in a physical body. A classic example is that of a person who experiences a vision of things within a room as though he were floating up in a corner, i.e. from a physical perspective different from where his body is actually located.

As a category of out-of-body experiences, astral travel typically means the "projection" of the mind/soul/self outside the body as some form of ghost. While this usually means the "ghost-self" then roams the world, astral travel sometimes means that the "ghost-self" actually enters into another realm of existence (sometimes called the "astral plane"). Because an "astral plane" is actually parallel to our physical universe, the experiences found there may be very bizarre, even indescribable.

From the perspective of the Church, there are two questions that need to be asked about astral travel: (1) does this phenomenon actually exist? and (2) should we pursue attempts to experience this phenomena?

From the point of view of the existence of astral travel, this is really more of a scientific question than a doctrinal one. On that level, there is no question that people report having lived astral travel. However, because their experiences cannot be independently verified, it is impossible to determine if astral travel has really occurred, or if some other, more mundane explanation is in order (such as hallucinations). There is a part of our brain that is responsible for associating the sense of self with a particular sense of place, and if the functioning of that part of the brain is chemically modified (such as by hallucinogens) the individual will feel as though his mind was no longer strictly associated with his body. But so what? Just stop eating those special mushrooms, and all will come back to normal.

Stronger evidence could be found for actual astral travel if a person were to return from a "journey" with some sort of knowledge that is only explicable from an extrasensory perspective. Again, however, even if some sort of preternatural phenomena is at stake, there could be other explanations such as telepathy or clairvoyance. Indeed, certain Biblical descriptions of divine visions resemble descriptions of astral travel, but while the Bible does affirm these visions came from God it is very discreet regarding how these visions actually work. St. Paul, for example, cites the following case:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Corinthians 12: 2-4)

Did the man "astrally travel"? Did he merely have a vision? Was he actually temporarily physically assumed into Heaven? We have no way of knowing, and the Bible itself is deliberately vague. In short, then, while the Church is open to the theoretical possibility of the existence of astral travel as a preternatural phenomena, it is no more open to it than to the theoretical possibility that underneath the dust the Moon is actually made of green cheese.

The official agnosticism regarding the existence of astral travel, however, does not mean the Church doesn't have something to say about whether or not we should pursue such experiences. In this regard, I think it is fair to say that the universal tradition of the Church is that we should not.

First of all, for all the reasons cited, it is likely that astral travel does not exist and we are simply wasting our time.

More seriously, however, there is also the reality that the preternatural realm does exist, and that not all of its residents are good. Demons, for example, are preternatural beings, and at least some of them possess a special power to deceive through false visions. Deliberately opening oneself up to preternatural influence for the sake of special experiences and secret knowledge is actually part of the occult (which means "hidden" or "secret" in Latin). At best, a sin of pride is involved because there is an attempt to go beyond the natural modes of knowledge without deliberate reference to God or God's initiative. At worst, it is a form of passive Satanism, because typically any "hidden knowledge" which comes from God would come through the gifts of the Holy Spirit (such as the gift of knowledge) — meaning that attempts to bypass the Holy Spirit in the pursuit of occult knowledge are actually openings to the Evil One.

Finally, there is the basic counsel that not all knowledge is fruitful. As St. Paul wrote, "'Knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up." (1 Corinthians 8: 1b) In his great chapter on love, he also writes "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." (1 Corinthians 13: 2) My own personal hero, the great St. John of the Cross, regularly counsels people that while the spiritual path may involve visions, these are never to be sought and are typically to be ignored. The only real measure of a true spiritual life is not found in the preternatural, but in the supernatural i.e. in God, particularly in his grace. The measure of grace, however, is love — because God is love. Choosing to pursue fruitless & dangerous pseudo-experiences rather than living a life of communion with God and neighbour in love is really just a kind of idolatry, and an insult to God. Personally, I am looking forward to the Resurrection, where with a transfigured body I will be able to experience more fully and directly the beauty of created things. In the meantime, though, I just want to learn to stop being so darned selfish and to turn towards my neighbour with Christ-like charity. The rest is just so many distractions.

Our deepest spiritual aspirations

I was recently studying the ritual book for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), and I was struck by a powerful concept near the beginning, describing the process of initial evangelization. It stated that one of the happy results of a proper evangelization would be the discovery by the individual that a relationship with God in Christ can fulfill every spiritual aspiration of the human heart — or, as the text says, "indeed, infinitely surpass them". It got me thinking: what are "spiritual aspirations", anyway? What are mine?

The ancient philosophers identified a certain category of concepts as "transcendentals". The three classic transcendentals are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. They represent the highest forms of Being, and are in many ways reflections of each other — Goodness is True and Beautiful, Beauty points to Goodness and Truth, etc. But it strikes me that these three transcendentals are also ways of expressing these "deepest spiritual aspirations": in my own life, I find myself living a desire to know the Truth, to be in the presence of Beauty, and to be surrounded by Goodness. Ultimately, every thing I've ever desired — even those things I longed for which were not in perfect harmony with the Gospel — were in some way an expression of one or more of these transcendentals, or were a path to them.

Truth, Beauty, Goodness: these are the deepest spiritual aspirations of the human heart. But is this a Christian vision? After all, it was the Greek philosophers — a group of pagans — who came up with this list. But think about it: if the philosophers were really onto something, and if Christianity really is *true*, then it makes sense that some sort of harmony could be found between these transcendentals and Christian spirituality. And I think that harmony exists, found in the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.

Faith is the virtue connected to Truth. Faith is not merely a vague sense of belief, but rather a choice to trust. Trust, however, is always placed in something proposed as true. We look for truth, often testing it first, but the more we see that it actually is true the more we trust it, until the choice to trust becomes almost automatic. This is not because we've been brainwashed to trust, but because of a secure sense that this trust has been justified — it becomes a spontaneous act. Faith in God works like that. Our approach to God, if sincere, at some point involves a genuine seeking for truth about God. Sometimes we seek that truth hesitatingly, testing out what we think we are discovering to make sure it isn't fatally flawed as false. But sooner or later the choice to trust is made, and we find that our world has become a bit bigger, not smaller. The journey of discovery continues, only more boldly this time as we push the envelope of our trust. Faith is growing as our quest for the ultimate Truth continues, developing into a spontaneous habit of trust in God — the basis of a true relationship with Him.

Hope is the virtue connected to Beauty. This is because of the capacity of Beauty to lift us up out of whatever situation we are in with an experience of "ekstasy". I misspelled this word on purpose, by the way, to draw a link to the real meaning of ecstasy: ek-stasis, a combination of Greek concepts that literally means "to be beside yourself". Isn't that what Beauty does? In the presence of something truly beautiful, we might gasp, whistle, clap, or simply admire. Time itself sometimes seems to stop as we are drawn into contemplation, the rest of the world fading away. And that rest of the world often contains useless distractions or even sufferings — but it all blows away like mist when Beauty shows up and puts us back in touch with the true meaning of our humanity. Oh, those distractions and sufferings don't necessarily go away, but they are put in perspective —which is exactly what Hope is about. Hope is our capacity to keep our eyes fixed on the future, rather than living in a meaningless present or (worse) a past we cannot change, thanks to the Beauty we have lived and live even now. Hope is the echo that remains when the experience of "ekstasy" has passed — an ever-growing spontaneous capacity to seek and accept greater and greater meaning and purpose in our lives.

This brings us to the greatest virtue of all, Love. Love, obviously, is connected to Goodness. The philosophical category of the Good is very broad indeed, but for our purposes I think it is simplest just to focus on one small aspect, namely moral goodness. Simply put, there is a general human preference to be associated with good people rather than evil people, and even when we do freely associate with evil people it is because we see some "good" in them that we want to be a part of (or possibly exploit). Being around evil people raises tension, and being subject to evil acts and choices breeds hate. On the other hand, though, being around moral goodness is actually very satisfying, and even rewarding when we choose to become agents of goodness. Love, in the end, is to desire and work for the Good of others, but in doing so we discover that we are also achieving something Good for ourselves as well. Love becomes its own reward.

All of these things are profoundly connected, not just in a theoretical way to each other, but in a very real way to the person of Jesus Christ. Christian faith, for example, involves trust, but not just trust in some sort of "religious system": it is a living trust in a living person, Jesus Christ, who reigns among his brothers and sisters on earth even now.

Jesus is also the very principle of Beauty, because he is the Word of God eternally proceeding from the Father. Jesus, you could say, is the name given to the "ekstasy" of God as he lives in eternal joy. The fact that he has become truly human gives us Hope, because it shows, despite our weakness, that we are capable of living in that same joy, a joy that will be shared with all creation when Jesus comes again clothed in the beautiful glory of heaven.

Jesus, finally, is the ultimate principle of Love. He taught us the full meaning of love, in word and actions. More than that, though, Christian faith invites us to enter into a true relationship of love with God in Jesus. We don't love some sort of vague divine principle, but a divine Person, through whom the Father's own love has been made known.

I don't know if everyone reading this text is a believing Christian, but I do know that every human being with reason and conscience has some sort of personal philosophy of life that, at its root, is somehow spiritual. A quest for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness is ultimately about discovering a way of life rooted in Faith, Hope, and Love, the discovery of which then leads beyond to something even greater. And that something is actually a someone. Even as our deepest spiritual aspirations draw us into Faith, Hope, and Love, we can't stop there, because then even these virtues simply become another religious system — and we just become cogs in that system. No, the ultimate way to live Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the ultimate way to live Faith, Hope, and Love, is to live it as a person in a relationship with another Person — the one who is himself the very centre of these virtues themselves.

So what does all this mean, in the end? If you are feeling spiritually hungry, if you are feeling that question for meaning, if you want to live a truly moral life — however your spiritual side is expressing its deepest aspirations — Jesus Christ is the answer. He will not only fulfill your deepest spiritual aspirations, but he will do so (eventually) beyond your wildest dreams — because he is himself that fulfillment. Do you want a life that is ultimately open to infinite Truth, Beauty, and Goodness? Jesus is calling to you.

Reflections on frustration

I was chatting recently with a friend who was very frustrated with the inertia that he perceives in some quarters of the Church leadership concerning what he sees are key issues. I could see his point for each issue, but I think I took him aback when I replied that these things really don't bother me that much. "Why not?" he asked. "You do care, don't you?"

Well of course I care. I just don't let them bother me. Apart from praying for them, I have absolutely no control over whether or not the Pope, the Roman Curia, the Cardinals, my bishop, my brother priests, or anybody else, will be faithful to their vocations. Now perhaps I do have some minor influence at the lowest levels of the local scene, but I don't see how choosing to be even more annoying than I already am helps in that regard.

Beyond this, though, I see a sad trend among some Catholics whose love and defense of Faith seems to make them myopic when it comes to Hope. The result is that they try harder and harder to defend the faith to the point of getting frustrated and wondering if it's all worth if, wondering where it's all going — in other words, losing hope. And when Hope is lost, Charity is not far behind. It is possible to have faith and still be on the road to perdition.

Hope is about being able to recognize the current movement of the Holy Spirit in the world, and to then cooperate with it. Ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who is in charge, not us! We need to develop the habit of asking ourselves the question "How might the Holy Spirit use this situation to the advantage of the Divine Plan? And how am I being called to be part of that movement?"

If we are waiting for the orders to come from "on high" we are only bound to be disappointed *if* by "on high" we mean our ecclesiastical superiors. The only real power "on high" is the Holy Spirit, and we have direct contact with Him. The core function of the hierarchical side of the Church is to coordinate and unify the initiatives of the faithful, not replace that initiative. So as much as our leaders have their obligations, we have ours as well. As much as it can be legitimate to ask "Where are they?", we must first ask, "Where am I?"

Gnosticism and the ecstasy of knowing

In my times of reflection I've come to realise that the New Evangelization, for it to succeed, needs to take into account the question of Beauty. Beauty is one of those things that is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. How? By the reaction it produces in us — a kind of "pleasingness" which, in its highest forms, produces a sense of "ecstasy". Ecstasy, from the Greek ek-statis, literally means "to be taken out of yourself". Isn't that a familiar experience? To be "beside myself"? To have one's breath (a proverbial reference to our soul) "taken away"? Ecstasy means to be drawn out ourselves in a manner that elevates us in some way — it is the experience of "being a better person" after.

Now many things can produce feeling of ecstasy (or something resembling ecstasy). True ecstasy, of course, comes only from an encounter with the living God, because God is not merely beautiful, he is Beauty itself. But there are lesser sources of beauty that produce a sense of ecstasy as well. Sexual union, for example, when lived in a manner that is beautiful, can produce profound feelings of being taken "out of oneself". Beauty in art forms, such as music or the visual arts, is another possible source. And then there is a source that the early Christians had to grapple with, to such an extent that it almost derailed the preaching of the Christian gospel: the ecstasy of knowing.

It is said that when the ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes discovered the principles of density and bouyancy he leapt of his bath and ran naked in the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka!" The word means "I have found it!", but what had he found? In a word, knowledge. Archimedes was trying to solve a scientific problem, and when the elements of a solution came to him in a flash of understanding, he was so taken up with it he forgot himself completely and shouted his joy at the discovery. It was a moment of ecstasy, that came from the experience of insight.

The ancient Greeks were a people who placed great important in having correct knowledge. When Christianity started to come to the Greek world, it was therefore quickly seen as a potential new source of knowledge, and evaluated accordingly. We should not be surprised to learn, then, that many of the early Greco-Christians actually got a little confused about the essence of the new religion, and actually founded a parallel religious movement called gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge.

The gnostics believe that salvation came through knowledge, i.e. through the accumulation of insights. In this perspective Christianity was a source of new knowledge, with Jesus as a profoundly enlightened bringer of knowledge, and so to be a Christian was to gain the new knowledge needed to achieve salvation. The key problem with this idea, of course, is that Jesus ceases to really be the source of salvation: he is merely an instrument of salvation, not really any more important than any other particularly enlightened philosopher. His being as Son of God, co-eternal with the Father, is far less important than the message he brings, and his teachings become far more important than his actions. (Does this sound familiar?)

I've often wondered how these gnostic people got the idea that becoming smarter actually made you more "divine", but I think I get it now: the experience of learning something new brings with it an "ecstasy" related to that knowledge, and the experience of that "ecstasy" is a shadow of the true ecstasy that comes from encountering God. We should therefore not be surprised to see that people would start to confuse the "ecstasy of knowledge" with a religious experience.

All of this now leads to Dan Brown's book "The DaVinci Code". It has been shot down over and over again by historians, but (dammitall) there are people who cling to the idea that the book is true with a religious-like zeal. It seems puzzling — until you consider the idea of an "ecstasy of knowing". It ain't Shakespeare, but the DVC book does hold out a tantalizing promise: knowledge of "the truth". Written as a mystery, its narrative brings the reader to supposed "discovery" after "discovery", and the power of those "discoveries" carries with it a kind of "ecstasy of knowing" that stamps the reader's mind with a kind of pseudo-religious power. It is no wonder that so many will not let go of the book's half-truths when confronted with the facts: it is not a question of fact-claims battling fact-claims, it is a question of historical data battlying the "ecstasy of knowing" (as mediated by the book). No wonder reality often loses!

The success of the DVC points out much more than a flaw in our Catholic approach to catechism. Granted, the massive ignorance of the faithful does not help, but I have met very faithful, catechized Catholics twisted up in knots over this book. The problem is that the experience of Catholicism that we usually do impart is often done in an un-Beautiful way, with little possibility for people to be "taken out of themselves". Good catechesis is important, yes, but it needs to be a catechesis that not only educates the mind but seizes the imagination. It needs to be backed up with a vital and alive (and Beautiful) experience of liturgy and worship that lifts up our hearts. And it needs to encourage moral virtue, and the excellence of the morally virtuous life as a sign of true human beauty.

So what are you saying, Fr. Tom? Are you saying that the reason the DaVinci Code has been so successful is because of boring preaching, clown masses and an approach to the moral life devoid of the call to conversion?

Yep, that's exactly what I'm saying.

The solution? I'm working on it. But I do know this: the early Christians resisted the gnostic heresy, not merely with facts, but with the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the real source of human experience of salvation. People alive in the Holy Spirit (with the correct facts to back them up as well) just don't get taken in by the Dan Brown's of this world. They've tasted the real glory stored up for us in Heaven, and the rest they know to be merely shadows. It's all about being fully alive in the Spirit, and once we are truly on that path, the rest is seen for what it is.

Povery, chastity, and obedience

A recent time of prayer brought me to reflect on the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Which of these is the easiest to live? Which is the hardest? Is there one more for beginners, and another which can only truly be tackled by the spiritually advanced?

In my opinion, and you may disagree with me, the starting point for observing the evangelical counsels is chastity. It is, in a sense, the "easiest" to observe — not because the human elements it seeks to master aren't powerful, but because they are the most easily identifiable. As well, issues surrounding chastity usually begin to emerge in force later in life, typically adolescence, so it is far less necessary that in a particular situation unchastity be deeply rooted. As a wise spiritual director once told me, "Failure in chastity is usually a symptom of some other issue, rather the issue itself."

After chastity comes obedience. This is actually much harder to live, because it involves not simply kow-towing to a superior, but living in an objectively realistic assessment of our own situation as human beings. Obedience to self-knowledge regarding our weaknesses is far more important than obedience to superiors — and, because of our pride, is harder to live. A person can rebel against his boss, but he can also rebel against himself, when he pridefully refuses to ackowledge the things to which he is enslaved (drink, wrath, TV, greed, status, etc.) Living obedience means rejecting any form of deception — especially self-deception.

While chastity issues emerge in adolescence, obedience issues emerge much earlier, when a child is first learning to exert his own will, and this makes obedience a tougher counsel to live and to have brought under the reign of the Holy Spirit. Which, of course, brings us to poverty, the hardest of them all, because poverty is about surrendering our drive to possess — a drive we expressed the day we took our first breath or cried because we were hungry. It is the most primitive of drives, which I suppose is why those religious orders that have most radically embraced poverty as a spiritual path tend (it seems to me) to produce the most numerous (and shining) examples of sainthood.

While they do overlap, each counsel (it seems to me) maps well to a corresponding theological virtue. Living chastity is about perfecting the virtue of Charity, as a well-lived chastity does not cut us off from love but actually pre-supposes it in a healthy and balanced way. Living obedience is about perfecting the virtue of Hope, because obedience is about choosing to surrender *our* plans in confidence that the future belongs to God. And living poverty is about perfecting the virtue of Faith, that we might live in the trust that when we cry out for what we need, the Lord will always hear us.

What is life?

During my time in hospital ministry I came to realise that I needed to develop a "Theology of Life" to help people, including myself, come to grips with the many hard questions that we face in this kind of institution.

The first thing I've come to realise is that hospitals are supposed to be about Life. They are not about Death — that's called a funeral home. Yes, there may be dying people in a hospital, but that simply emphasizes the point even more, because it presents a conundrum: why is there Death in a house of Life? But the fact that the presence of Death in itself creates a conundrum, rather than simply being part of the norm, only highlights the point that hospitals are meant to be about Life.

A second point: we cannot give Life. If we could, we could cure Death, and we can't. Indeed, we can't really cure anything, strictly speaking. It is the body itself that has the final responsibility to keep itself alive, and all we can do is help it along by creating conditions that favour the body in its struggle for Life. So we offer medications to kill germs, we set broken bones in casts, we cut out tumours, and we place people on respirators — but we do so, finally, in cooperation with the body, which still has to be the one that maintains the overall balance.

Finally, I've come to see more clearly is that a person is either alive or dead, and there is a world of difference between the two. There is no such thing as someone who is "half-dead", and we should never speak this way. The body is an amazing thing, fundamentally oriented towards life, struggling for it in each moment. I know it is a circular definition, but one of the defining features of Life (it seems to me) is that it seeks to go on living. And this struggle is with us every day — the sick simply happen to be more acutely aware of the struggle, as it is tougher for them. Life, then, really is a miracle of sorts. We live an extremely hostile environment, when you think about it: germs fill every breath of air we breathe, and get inside our bodies when we eat, drink, kiss, make love, prick our finger, whatever. A significant part of what we eat is indigestible, and the air we breathe in, once used, becomes a poison we must breathe out. Accidents happen, and we get cuts and break bones actually fairly frequently. And yet, the body not only has a capacity to take in what it needs to live, and to eliminate the rest, it also has an amazing capacity to heal itself and to fight off invaders that seek to destroy it. In what is often a hostile world, the fact that Life is able to surge upward in us is truly amazing. And so the sick are never "half-dead". Even if we know it will lose the battle in the end, as long as the body continues the struggle it deserves to be honoured with the adjective "alive". To say otherwise dehumanizes the sick and the dying, as causes us to live in the illusion that we ourselves somehow are no engaged in the same struggle. We are, and the sick are actually our brother and sisters in Life, from whom we can learn a great deal.