Why prayer is hard

Delicate is not a word that people often associate with God. Strong, loving, nurturing perhaps, but not delicate. In addition to sounding precious and far more feminine than many people are comfortable with, it is also a word that suggests fragility and by implication weakness. Nonetheless, while it may be too much to say that God is Himself delicate—He is after all the Lion of Judah who roared all of creation into being—it is completely fair to say that the way that we relate to God in a fallen world is delicate.

Sometimes waiting on God will make you sweat. It is possible to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for hours and be completely unable to focus. That danger is even greater if you are trying to pray and reach out to God in your home, at work, or while driving a car. Distractions abound. And just at the moment when you finally sense God, just as quickly you may lose it, like a bubble that pops the second you touch it.

Knowing God takes work. This ought to be a fairly obvious thing to reason out. Knowing anyone or anything takes work. You can neither learn math by simply putting a textbook up close to your head nor build an intimate and close friendship without ever inviting someone into your life. Why would it not be the same with God? Yet we often assume that it should be. We expect knowing God to be easy and obvious. Many people who say they want to know God turn and walk away the first time they realize that it is going to be hard.

Distractions are not the only difficulty either. Even the most committed monks and ascetics find it challenging to stay in and with God throughout prayer. It can be overwhelming to be in His presence and aware of Him. Sometimes we reach for the distractions as a defense mechanism because the full weight of really knowing God is too much to carry.

Why all the difficulty? It is, at least in part, because when we pray we are essentially trying to hold lava in a paper cup. It is easy to forget the radical otherness of God, especially because as Christians we sometimes take  the Incarnation for granted. But really, if we understood the implications of the miracle of God taking on flesh, we would be in constant fear and awe. God is so much more powerfully real than we are that Moses could not be permitted to see anything but His hindquarters lest he die. Almost every encounter with an angel in the Scriptures begins with human beings falling down in fear because the glow of the angels is so overpowering simply because they have been in the presence of God. Yet today we expect there to be not the least bit of friction when, as sinners and weak creatures, we ask the God of the universe to speak directly into our hearts and minds.

Of course, God wants to be with us. The good news of Jesus is rooted in that truth. The Sacraments communicate the full reality of God to us by the most ordinary and unobtrusive means. The Eucharist particularly makes it possible for us to take the full reality of God in the person of Jesus into us, His Body given into our bodies, His soul and divinity touching us deeply, regardless of whether we feel it or not, or whether we are distracted, or whether we are in the mood for it. In that sense, knowing God is easy. All we need to do is show up.

But even if we are rooted in the grace of the Sacraments, there is still a longing in our hearts to know God further in prayer. We want to feel Him, to know He is present. It is a natural desire, but it is not something that can be forced. God is not a high we can induce or a tame pet we can invite onto our laps. He is sovereign and moves as He will. But His desire is to be with us. He delights in knowing us and He delights in us reaching out to know Him.

God does the heavy lifting when we pray. We stress over finding the time to pray, fighting back the distractions, and focusing our minds. We think that means we are working hard. But think about all that God must overcome in order to enter into a place of intimacy with us in prayer. His Holy Spirit has to traverse the great gap that exists between us and Him. He has to make it possible for the paper cups that are our hearts to be able to hold the lava. Everything we do seems like small potatoes in comparison with that.

We cannot be fully aware of the fact that God loves us all the time, at least not on this side of eternity. If we were so aware, we would never be able to do anything but be struck dumb in adoration. We would not be able to drive our cars or brush our teeth or pay our taxes. But the more room we make in our lives for quiet prayer, the more that the realization of God’s love begins to color and shade even those moments of profound boredom or sadness that mark our lives. The more we pray intentionally, the more the whole of our lives become offerings of prayer.

Creating the space for adoration is tough. There is no way of knowing before we begin how God will show up to us or if He will even show up at all (at least in a way that we recognize through our limited perception). Yet the need for such prayer is deep in our hearts. We need to learn the art of prayer, to adjust ourselves to receive that which God has for us. The most difficult things we do in life are often those which yield the greatest rewards. Prayer is the most difficult thing we will ever do, but it is only when we give ourselves to prayer that we really begin to live.

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A purgatory of love

There is an allegory often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis that in the life to come we will only be able to eat with spoons, forks, and knives that are more than a meter long. Those who are in hell will be tortured by this because they will never be able to feed themselves, while those who are in heaven will feed each other.

The fairly obvious point is that hell is made of selfishness while heaven is made of selflessness. Those in hell see only themselves, while those in heaven see only each other. The big problem with the illustration is that neither group seems all that interested in seeing God. Presumably, if anyone is getting fed at all in heaven, it is the Lord who will feed us.

That said, as I was pondering this image recently, it occurred to me that it works far better as an image of purgatory rather than heaven.

I went back and forth on my thoughts on purgatory before I was Catholic. I could accept the idea that there might be a state in which God removes from us the remaining stains of sin before we are able to come into His presence. This was, in fact, the understanding of purgatory that Lewis held, as he wrote about in his Letters to Malcolm. It did not distress me that such a state was not explicitly described in Holy Scripture (or at least not described in a part of Scripture that would be acceptable to Protestants). It seemed to me to fit well with the general thrust of how the Bible describes God’s interaction with us. God’s holiness is so bright and powerful that we sinners cannot walk into His presence lest we be destroyed. It is only when we are transformed and our sin is removed that we can stand before God.

But what still bothered me, at least for a time, was the gnawing suspicion that purgatory as the Catholic Church describes it adds to the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we can serve time in some sort of supernatural prison to shave off our guilt, did the sacrifice of Jesus really atone completely for us? If I can say prayers that somehow help a soul in purgatory along the path to heaven, am I not adding my own effort to that of Our Lord?

“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible,” said St. Augustine in the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, “and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” Love lives right at the center of the doctrine of purgatory, but it is not only the love that comes directly from God but the love that God diffuses in and through us. The extent to which we have given and received love determines the degree to which we suffer as we move towards our ultimate union with God.

Believing my prayers for a person in purgatory are effective is no more an addition to the work of Jesus than it is to believe my prayers for a friend in the hospital are effective. It is my own union with God, forged in His love, that makes such prayer effective. I operate not as an independent agent, dispensing my own graces, but as a part of the Body of Christ, humbly assumed as an instrument of His love. Could He do it without me? Sure. But He chooses to do it through me, by means of my prayers, and in so doing He purifies me as well by making me look outside of myself. As I become more loving in this life, I grow closer to a fully realized communion with God in the next.

Sometimes we envision the purifying fire of God as something external, burning away impurities in much the same way that a flame burns off rust or melts wax. But if all purgatory is good for is changing our external appearance, to hell with it. The purity we need is in our hearts, as Our Lord so aptly points out (Matthew 15:10-20). That is a transformation that cannot happen in an individualistic way. It cannot just be me and Jesus. It must be me in Jesus, loving those whom He loves, losing all sense of self-possession in favor of a new identity as one who loves in Christ.

I have dear friends who have died who were true and lively believers. They may already be in heaven. Or they may be in purgatory. I do not know. I rejoice for them either way since either ultimately leads into God’s embrace. Sometimes I pray for them and sometimes I ask them for their prayers for me. If they are already in heaven, I imagine my prayers for them do them no harm. If they are in purgatory, perhaps my prayers for them might do them some good. But even if they are in purgatory, I am sure that they benefit from the opportunity to offer prayers for me and others. Every calling out of the self, every calling to use the long forks and spoons to feed others, is a small act of purification, offered not in competition with the completed work of Jesus but in continuity with it as a genuine fruit of the Spirit.

That Jesus would live as one of us and die for us is the ultimate blessing. That we get to participate in the manifestation of that grace, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of others, is as deep a love as I can imagine.

Sex is great

Everyone is interested in sex. That, to me, seems reasonable. Sex is interesting. But is it great?

I do not mean by that the now common usage of the word great – something that we really like – but the older sense of the word great: something that is larger than life, something that far surpasses the ordinary, something that is truly amazing and breathtaking, worth treating with a certain reverence and awe.

Throughout most of human history, this is how sex was understood, around the world, in various cultures and religions. Ancient pagans invented fertility cults that included ritualized sexual acts. Their approach was not what we might call virtuous today, but it was nevertheless predicated on an understanding that sex is powerful and that it somehow connects us with the divine.

The Bible elevates sex as well by elevating the whole institution of marriage. We see in the Scriptures not only a regulating of sex within marriage but an understanding that in the sexual act is an image of the relationship between God and humanity. The metaphor most often used in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with us is that of marriage. An entire book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—is an exploration both of sexual love between a husband and a wife as well as the relationship between God and His covenant people. Ephesians 5 speaks plainly of the “mystery” of how Jesus relates to the Church as His “bride.” And of course, there’s this from the book of Revelation:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

The culmination of the whole of human history will be the union of Christ and His Church in marriage. This is not a sexless claim. Sex itself is the seal of the covenant. This is why, repeatedly in the Old Testament, the image of sexual infidelity is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the people to God. Sex is seen as the ultimate act of joining. “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” says Paul, “for, as it is written, ‘the two will become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16, quoting Genesis 2).

There are certainly examples of Christian leaders and teachers throughout history who have said unfortunate things about sex and the body, but they are outweighed by both the Biblical witness and the far clearer tradition of depicting sex as something sacred and worth preserving as such. One of my favorite icons is that of St. Anna and St. Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lady was conceived in the usual way, through the marriage bed of her parents. The icon–shown above–depicts the two saints embracing in front of a bed. Herein we find the fulfillment of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, that no original sin was passed on to Mary in her conception, no hint of sin tied to the sexual union between her parents. What could be more of an endorsement of the greatness of sex than that?

Yet today, as our culture increases its march into a belligerent secularity, sex is not seen as great. It is still interesting to people, to be sure, as any beer commercial proves. Our culture is obsessed with sex and with the strange and ill defined concept of “sexual freedom.” But sex is not great anymore. It does not inspire awe, let alone reverence. It is ordinary, recreational, blasé. We treat it as if it is as casual as a handshake, something we should engage in “safely,” by which we mean through contraception, protecting ourselves from one of the main purposes of sex while keeping at arm’s length its power to unite us as one with each other and with God.

That this is so can be seen most clearly in the western cultural assumption that sex is a precursor to marriage. For thousands of years, across cultures, sex was understood to be the seal of marriage, the great beacon at its center that made marriage different from every other relationship. Of course, there has always been sex outside of marriage, viewed with varying degrees of stigma and shame, but the sex of the marriage bed was the apex of the marital relationship, the place where it went from simply human to divine.

Now, however, there is such a strong expectation that sex will happen before marriage that the very notion of “waiting” is ridiculed as a retrograde barbarism, when it is even addressed at all. The average sitcom today during prime television viewing hours has unmarried characters engaging in casual sex without even a nod towards some kind of discernment on their part over whether or not this is a good idea. That would not have been true even as recently as thirty years ago.

Marriage itself is still treated with a certain degree of awe, but it is at another level than sex. It is not uncommon for someone considering marriage to say, “The sex is great, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” The very words of the second clause disprove the first, at least on a grammatical level. Sex that does not have a commitment of the binding together of two as one flesh is not great at all, even if it is pleasurable to the senses. In the modern west, sex is impotent.

The secular orthodoxy that says that sex must be fun and free of constraint is a major part of what keeps people today out of the Church. When people come to investigate the Christian faith, questions about sex are usually at the top of their list. The wise priest or pastor knows though that such questions cannot be quickly answered. The answers that the Christian tradition offers are not going to make sense to most people who have been brought up to think of sex more as a marker of identity and personal choice than as a sign of the love and faithfulness of God.

We have to learn what it means to be human beings again. Only then will we be able really to understand why sex is great. Like so much else of value that is being tossed into the fire in our age, the greatness of sex must be protected and preserved in the Church if nowhere else. We must become the custodians of the holiness of sex until the day finally comes when the world, exhausted by its ever-fruitless search for greater sexual freedom and expression, will once again wonder just what it was that made us think sex was so darned interesting in the first place.

We are not our brains

right_brainThe soul cannot be scientifically proven. That should not cause alarm for Christians. There are lots of things that cannot be scientifically proven, either because science has not gotten there yet or because science is not the right tool with which to explore that particular question. Science can tell me who my biological mother is but it cannot prove that she loves me. It can determine whether or not a person’s DNA was left at a crime scene, but it cannot determine whether or not he should be held accountable for committing a crime.

Nonetheless, for many people who have been heavily influenced by materialism–the philosophical conviction that matter and physical processes are all that there is–the lack of a testable hypothesis about the soul means that the soul must be an illusion. As neuroscience continues to advance, more and more research has shown that, physically speaking, we are our brains. All our memories are stored in the brain. All our feelings are generated by the brain. When we feel pain in our hands or feet, there is no actual pain there. Rather, our brain is interpreting reactions in our nerve endings as pain. Many scientists now believe that all that we call consciousness takes place in the brain and that it will not be long before we figure out just how the whole trick of it works.

The NPR program Intelligence Squared hosted a debate in 2014 on the question of whether or not there is life after death. Debaters on both sides were scientists, but those on the pro side argued largely from personal and anecdotal evidence of near death experiences. Those on the con side focused instead on the question of consciousness. They likened death to a candle being blown out. The matter and energy still exist, but the process is done. The flame was never really its own thing, but an illusion of perception. Likewise, what we think of as us is merely a set of complex chemical processes taking place in our brains. Everything about us from our sense of humor to our experiences of love is reducible to the firing of neurons. Once that firing stops, there is nothing left of us to live on. The soul was never more than chemistry and therefore has nowhere to go when the chemistry is done. This argument handily won the debate.

The problem with this logic, of course, is that it assumes its own philosophical premise. The soul has to be a physical reality in order to be scientifically disproven in this way. If the soul is something different, something other than the stuff that makes up this world, then the tools of physics and biology might be able to catch glimpses of it but they would never be able to reduce it to a formula. The proponents of near death experiences sometimes do try to subject those experiences to scientific rigor, as they should, but the kind of scientific questions that can be asked about such experiences will not yield the kind of answers that strict materialists are ever likely to accept.

The Bible speaks of the soul in multiple ways. Sometimes the soul is simply a synonym for life itself, as when Jesus says “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The soul is also sometimes spoken of as inclusive of our whole being, including our bodies, such as when Jesus says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Elsewhere, however, the soul is clearly a separate faculty altogether, as when He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26).

If all this seems confusing, it should. When we speak of the soul, we are delving into a mystery. It is hard to speak of spiritual reality when we spend all our time in a world that has been scrubbed clean of it. To a materialist, appealing to spiritual reality will always sound like special pleading because it requires us to look at the world through a different lens than that of a microscope. It requires the same knowing that allows me to accept that my mother’s love for me is not merely a chemical reaction in her brain or that the “me” I am in my mid thirties is the same “me” that I was when I was only four or five years old, despite the fact that everything about me has changed during the time in between including the entire set of atoms and molecules that make up my physical body.

Yet it would be incorrect to say that we have no evidence at all of the soul besides the purely subjective experiences of religious people. Throughout the Intelligence Squared  debate, I kept asking myself how I would have argued the question if I had been on the pro side. What I would have said would have been something like this: The first, last, and best piece of solid evidence for the existence of the human soul is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course, that probably would have made further conversation impossible, at least from the materialist point of view. It is unfair, they might say, to try to buttress one religious idea by means of another. We have to stick to facts after all, not faith. But the resurrection of Jesus is knowable, not through scientific testing, but certainly through the social sciences and the study of history. We can test the veracity of the resurrection the same way we test the veracity of the reign of Julius Caesar or the existence of Socrates or any of hundreds of other important historical events that happened in the ancient past. We look at the best evidence we have and draw likely conclusions based on that evidence, just like we do in a court of law. When we look at the evidence that way, the case for the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming. Do not take my word for it. There are plenty of good studies that have been done on the subject, the best in modern times probably being N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whatever the outcome, though, it has to be clear that the resurrection has a strong bearing on the questions of life after death and the true nature of the soul. If the resurrection is a fraud, then the materialist view may happily stand. But if it is true, then the reality of life beyond death for at least one of us has to be admitted and the rest of what Jesus claimed about Himself and about us, including what He had to say about the soul, becomes admissible as evidence. Near death experiences can be quite powerful and should not blithely be dismissed, but an actual death and return experience really ought to be decisive.

Naturally, I do not expect that argument to convince the staunch materialist. We simply live in different worlds. The world of the materialist is rational to a fault but dead even before it begins. It is a world where human beings lack not only a soul but also true freedom, the ability to love, the wonder of great art and music, the transcendence that comes from awe at creation, the intimacy of prayer. Not that a materialist cannot have some of these experiences, but they are reduced and diminished by not having access to their spiritual foundation.

We are not our brains. We are our souls. Neither the soul nor the body are in competition with each other. The theory of the soul does not require an incomprehensible brain for it to work. Each new discovery of neuroscience, far from being a challenge to the supernatural, is a wonderful and even awe inspiring glimpse into the way that God has put us together. The world is enchanted. The brain makes the body dance, but the soul makes the brain know that its natural end is the eternal dance of life with God.

Image by Allan Ajifo and made available through Wikimedia Commons.

Terrorism and the fear of God

FDC-embMy country continues to mourn after the horrible act of murder committed in Orlando this past weekend. Fifty people dead, many more wounded, and all because a man with a gun wanted us to be afraid. All the details have yet to come out, but the authorities were quick to label this atrocity an “act of terrorism.” By definition, terrorism is an act of forcing people to live in fear.

At times like this, many Christians wrestle with questions of God’s mercy and goodness, but what has struck me almost immediately is the contrast between the fear of God and the fear induced by terrorism. It has become something of an atheist trope in modern times to equate the God of the Bible with terrorist acts. Back in January, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo–having been the victim of terrorism itself just a year earlier–released a cover in which God is depicted as the true assassin who causes all the world’s violence and who yet still runs free. Others have pointed to the texts of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, to justify the charge that the God Christians and Jews worship is nothing more than a brutal thug whose worshippers only follow Him out of fear of what He will do to them if they do not.

The Bible seems to speak two ways about fear. On the one hand, fear is something harmful. “There is no fear in love,” says John, “For perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). On the other hand, the fear of God is held up as admirable, even virtuous. The psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 110:10). Jesus combines these two ideas when He tells us, “Fear not those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

If God is not a terrorist, than why would He want us to fear Him? Saint Thomas Aquinas addresses this at some length in his Summa Theologica. Reaching back to Saint Augustine, Thomas says that fear always begins with love because we only fear losing that which we love. If our lives meant nothing to us, we would have no fear of losing them. So the goodness or evilness of our fear is relative to the love which generates it.

What are we so afraid of? What is it that we do not want to lose?

When it comes to fearing God, Thomas identifies two different kinds of fear that we might have towards Him. The first is “servile fear.” This is our fear of punishment. It is the fear that a servant has for displeasing his master, lest he be struck. It is the fear that keeps us from mouthing off to our bosses, lest we be fired. This is often the first kind of fear that we have towards God. We worry that if we do the wrong thing, God will mess up our lives, perhaps even condemn us for eternity. This is the kind of fear that so many modern atheists decry as being equivalent to terrorism. We are good not for goodness sake but because we fear what God will do to us if we are bad.

Believe it or not, Thomas does not think that servile fear is all negative. In fact, servile fear can be a very good thing, at least in the beginning, if it motivates us to want to keep God’s commandments, which are ultimately for our own good. A child who touches a hot stove learns to fear it, which then keeps the child from burning himself a second time. If the servile fear of God keeps us from doing those things that are harmful to us and to others, than it has a worthwhile purpose.

But the servile fear of God can become distorted and even deadly if it is left alone. Thomas says that the second type of fear of God, “filial fear,” is the more excellent of the two. It is a fear that is based in love. When we care deeply about somebody, we fear that we will hurt them or let them down. We fear that our weaknesses will create anguish or displeasure for them. This is the filial fear of God, that we who are weak and easily corruptible may displease the God we love. This kind of fear is not centered on ourselves, on what we have to do to keep from being punished, but it is centered on God and on how perfectly good and perfectly loving He is. It is the fear that comes when we see God as He really is and we see ourselves as we really are, when the mask falls off of our eyes and we realize that God’s goodness and holiness so dramatically surpasses our own. We see how beautiful and wonderful God is and we long to please Him and be like Him, but we fear that we never will be able to do so. Ultimately, this fear is answered by God Himself who perfects us through grace, assuring us not only of the pardon of our sins but that we will be made like Him, infused with His love and His light. “The fear of God is the beginning of love: and the beginning of faith is to be fast joined to it” (Sirach 25:16).

Terrorism breeds a kind of fear that is useless. The motivations of terrorists vary dramatically. Some are simply mentally disturbed and wish to invoke fear for its own sake. Some have some greater purpose in mind, however warped that purpose may be, and they see the fear they engender as the first step along the path to convincing the rest of us to fall in line. But either way, the fear that comes from acts of terror is incapable of making anything better because it is incapable of producing love. It is a fear that can only work on that first level in which we worry about losing the things of this world: our wealth, our security, even our very lives. That may drive us into a state of panic, but it cannot do anything else. Terrorism is ultimately self defeating. It is an admission of failure.

So what should our response to terrorism be? I want to suggest, along with Saint Thomas, that it ought to be fear, but of a different sort than the kind that terrorists want us to have. At times like these, we absolutely need the fear of God to make us whole. Rather than giving in to a state of panic over what we have lost and what we might yet lose, we can look into the very heart of God and see a perfect love there that will shatter us with its beauty. We can look at the cross and see the immeasurable love of God that is poured out there, a love that is bottomless, a love that is so powerful that it can redeem every suffering, wipe away every tear, and forgive every wrong. That kind of love is so big that it ought to scare us, because we are fooling ourselves if we do not realize that even the very best of us do not love so perfectly. Yet it is that same love, of which none of us are worthy, that will ultimately perfect even weak and fearful people like you and me, making us into something far more glorious than we could possibly imagine. The terrorist can do a lot of damage. He can take many things from us. But he cannot take God’s love from us. Even when all the world is in flames and everything we have is loss, that is a love that cannot be taken away from us.