THE EVERLASTING GOD

(Prophet Isaiah by Antonio Balestra, Public Domain, U.S.A.)

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28)                            

We are caught up in the simple but precise argument that if there was nothing to begin with how could there be anything at all? And the core of our argument is that the existence of God is “an imperative of metaphysical reasoning,” or even of simple logic.

Wilhelmsen states that “the metaphysics of being is simultaneously the Philosophy of God.” Such a statement finds correlation in the Bible, where God is revealed to Moses as I AM (Exodus 3: 14 ). And Jesus says –  rather amazingly –  that he is “the life” (John 14:6 ). In other words, God is that very beginning, or that very unbeginning, the absence of which there would simply be nothing.

The “Supreme mystery,” then, is the mystery of a Being whose very essence is to exist. The philosopher says that God exists simply in virtue of Himself, so that God is the pure act of existing. “God affirms himself as the absolute act of being in its pure actuality” (Etienne Gilson).

Father Garrigou-Lagrange, a great scholar of St. Thomas Aquinas, explains that:

“God is the eternally subsisting being. God, then, is not only pure spirit, He is being itself subsisting immaterial at the summit of all things and transcending any limits imposed by either space or matter or a finite spiritual essence. Now, because God is the self-subsisting being, the infinite ocean of spiritual being, unlimited, unmaterialized, He is distinguished  from every material  or spiritual creature. The divine essence is existence itself, it alone of necessity exits. No creature is self-existent; none can say: I am being, truth, life, etc. Jesus alone among men said: “I am the truth and the life,” which was the equivalent to saying, “I am God” (Providence, 70-71).

Another scholar, quoting Jacques Maritain, says that “the act of existing is the key to St. Thomas’s philosophy, and it [being] is something super-intelligible which is revealed in the judgment I make that something exists. ‘This is why, at the root of metaphysical knowledge, St. Thomas places the intellectual intuition of that mysterious reality disguised under the most commonplace and commonly used word in the language, the word to be…that victorious thrust by which it [being] triumphs over nothingness.’” Our affirmation or intuition of being, then, leads us to “the affirmation of Being Itself, God” (Wilhelmsen).

The Incarnation is the revelation that Jesus is LIFE! One day Jesus revealed his glory to the apostle Thomas, saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father but through me” (John 14:6). As the Pulpit Commentary explains, “I am the Life [means that Jesus is] the life eternal, the Possessor, Author, Captain, Giver, and Prince of life.”

On another occasion Jesus encountered a grieving woman, Martha, whose brother Lazarus had died, and Jesus said to her (before raising Lazarus back to life): I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). This profound pronouncement of Jesus demonstrates that he “possesses the absolute sovereignty over life and death” that is “the sole prerogative” of God (ICSB).

CONCLUSION: God is life, or, as the Bible says, God has LIFE in himself (John 5:26). “God is the ultimate Possessor of life per se” (Pulpit Commentary). This is a great mystery, but it is a mystery confirmed by Scripture and human intelligence, and St. Paul warns that our minds are darkened if they don’t rise to a knowledge of God (Romans 1: 19-22; ICSB). So, we return to the ultimate philosophical question, Why is there something rather than nothing?, and we must conclude that nothing can produce nothing! And it is only because God IS (that is, because God is ETERNAL LIFE, the eternally subsisting Being) that we hold on to life day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Our present “to-be-ness” is completely dependent on Him who IS I AM. And in this light we can come to see in a more penetrating way that God has the power – as the eternal custodian of life –  to raise up our mortal bodies on the last day (John 6:40). 

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

References: The Paradoxical Structure of Existence by Frederic D. Wilhemsen; Providence by Father Garrigou-Lagrange; Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics under the title, “Principle of Causality” beginning at page 120; The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson; Existence and the Existent by Jacques Maritan; and Ignatius Catholic Study Bible.

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THE THEOLOGICAL SIDE OF POETRY

(G.K. Chesterton, Public Domain, U.S.A.)

Every now and then I get interested in poetry and spend some time reading a few poems. But to say I live immersed in the world of poetry would be flat out false! I’m no poet, and I owe it to you to say so.

But lately I’ve been listening to Christopher Lee’s enchanting recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s disturbing but strangely enjoyable poem, The Raven, which has a certain “hypnotic rhythm” to it. The poem speaks to the narrator’s irreparable loss of the radiant maiden, Lenore, who has died (all of which haunts the mind of the narrator). Will he ever see Lenore again? The raven is sent to speak but one word to this man: “Nevermore.” Thus, those famous words from the poem: “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore!’ ” Could the poem possibly have any theological relevance? Is not the narrator living in a type of hell? And, theologically speaking, what is hell? “Approach the Father, Nevermore.” It seems to me that almost all the poems I have read contain theological relevance in one form or another, so that poetry touches upon theology, directly or indirectly.

Even Humpty Dumpty reminds me of my mortality, to wit: that there will come a day when even the best doctors won’t be able to put me back together again! And the memory of impending death is of incredible spiritual importance.

And Emily Dickinson’s depressing poem, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” raises all those perplexing questions about the meaning of death and whether the soul is immortal. But for a Christian, if the evocative power of a poetic word is what makes poetry special, then a Word which actually became human very well might be the key to understanding everything. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

C.S. Lewis says that there is “no general agreement as to what ‘poetical truth’ means, or whether there is really any such thing,” but he adds, nevertheless, that “man is a poetical animal and touches nothing which he does not adorn.” Lewis argues that poetry has a particular power “of arousing and satisfying our imagination,” and that “there are two things the imagination loves to do. It loves to embrace its object completely, to take it in at a single glance, and see it as something harmonious, symmetrical, and self-explanatory.” Lewis’ point is that theology, while it is not poetry, can certainly fit poetry into the grand scheme of things because “the waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world….” He says: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see by it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Chesterton also speaks to the imaginative dimension of poetry. He says: “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and to make it finite. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane” (as edited). Mysticism, says Chesterton, “keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.” It is because poetry can express meaning with less restrictions than a purely rationalistic approach to life, and is therefore not enclosed in the “prison of one thought,” that it more closely approaches the frontier of “first principles,” the light of which “we look at everything” else.

Gerard Manley Hopkins says in one of his poems, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This famous verse from Hopkins seems to me to be almost the very aim and purpose of poetry: to dig deeper into the meaning of things by producing for us a poetical freshness and originality carved out of symbolically transformative words that express the very depths and transcendence of the human experience in amazing simplicity, concurrently charged with poetical rhythm, all of which sheds light on the meaning of life. As W.H. Gardner once observed of Hopkin’s poetry, there is in it the “sensation of inscape – a quasi-mystical illumination, a sudden perception of the deeper pattern, order, and unity which gives meaning to external forms….” Hopkins is one of the great religious poets, and one of the greatest poets of more recent times.

Paul Roche speaks to the epistemological and even metaphysical dimension of poetry (and the manner in which poetry draws from the primordial reality of things). Roche states that “the reason why pure poetry cannot be immediately understood is because it returns us to that level of immediate contact which is inaccessible to the conscious mind except in so far as it is sieved through the subconscious.” He says: “a double thing takes place in poetry: the idea is broken down again into the sensory data that gave rise to it and is re-incarnated into the symbols which are stored in the treasury of the subconscious. In other words, the idea is returned to the stratum of primary knowledge from which it came, and at the same time the incantatory pulse of the rhythm flows into the blood-beat of the universe, thus coaxing the spirit away from from the tight limitations of the cerebral and letting the psyche merge again with subliminal experience.” It is thus, says Roche, that this “poetic transmutation” becomes “analogously divine in the way that the divine essence permeates equally all….” Thus, “poetry reaches universality not by being universal in its language, but by being specific and particular, just as the senses are. It cuts into and from reality magical facets each one of which shines forth the whole.” What is more, says Roche, these “symbols, these carriers and unifiers of being, are not only images but also rhythms, because the universe is constituted in rhythm.” And this is why, at least for a moment, poetry can make “the universe as coherent and translucent as a drop of water.”

Bob Lerner (a distinguished, contemporary poet) says that “poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical – the human world of violence and difference – and to reach the transcendent or the divine.” If we were to point to a place where theology and poetry meet it is in the use of symbolic and imaginative language in order to arrive at a deeper, more unified, more comprehensive view of life. And, theologically speaking, only a symbolic or metaphorical language can express an ultimate, supernatural truth. “Divine truth and grace are conveyed to us in earthen vessels, the infinite of the finite; the ineffable and the transcendent is clothed in visible forms and signs” (Karl Adam, edited). As St. Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Of course, Christianity also relies on historical facts and conceptual arguments in support of its truth claims. Poetry, and the poetic dimension of life, are contained within Christianity, with the added caveat that Christianity’s symbols and metaphors point to true, supernatural realities that represent a complete picture of life, therefore making sense of everything else. Could it be that man is a poetical animal because he is first and foremost a religious being?

Thomas Mulcahy, M.A.

References: Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; “Is Theology Poetry?” by C.S. Lewis. Of Edgar Allan Poe, Chesterton states: “Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical.” And regarding the English poet, Cowper, Chesterton remarks: “…he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination…poetry partly kept him in health.”

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HAVE YOU SEEN THE TREE WITH THE LIGHTS IN IT?

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“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Have you seen the tree with the lights in it?

Father Irala laments that many of us fail to have “clear sensations” of the beauty of the external world. “Only rarely,” he says, “do we come out into the exterior world, beautiful and joyful as it was created by God.” We are preoccupied, worried, and caught up in our own subjective world. Some people even find it difficult to put down their cell phones as they walk along a beautiful nature trail.

The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, tells this tale: “Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbi Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things anymore.’”

Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek  states that “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” She says, “When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens , and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.” Father Dubay adds: “The personal inability to perceive truth and beauty is related…to a lack of wonder….It is troubling that in a universe replete with mind-boggling fascinations masses of people live dull and drab lives.” 

Dillard relates in her book that “the secret of seeing is…the pearl of great price.” For “the newly sighted,” she says, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning.” Dillard mentions a girl who, born blind, underwent surgery which restored her sight. “When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it.’” Dillard’s quest was to recover this pure sensation of sight so that she too could see the tree with the lights in it.

We can relearn to receive the true “sensations” of nature’s beauty. Here are instructions given by Father Irala to improve our receptive power in the areas of sight and sound.

Sight: “For your re-education you should apply your sense of sight for about ten or twenty seconds to a landscape, an object, a detail. Keep a tranquil or almost passive attention. Take your time. Consider the object before you and no other. Pay no attention to any other idea. Let the object enter within you as it is in itself, without any special effort. Look at it the way a young child does. [Remain] loose and relaxed.”

Hearing: “Apply your hearing to a near or distant noise. Let yourself be penetrated by the sounds, as above, naturally, without mental discussion of the fact or its cause. Be a mere receiver of sound and perceive it with pleasure and relaxation.”

Dillard learned how to see like the young girl who, through her doctor, received the gift of sight. Dillard relates the following: “One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power.”

The great Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, states: “The part played by the senses in the perception of beauty is even rendered enormous in us, and well nigh-indispensable…only sense knowledge possesses perfectly in man the intuitiveness required for the perception of the beautiful.” “At first,” says Father Irala, “it is not so easy to practice these fully conscious sensations with no attention at all paid to anything else. So, in your first attempts, you might find yourself thinking about the process itself, or the cause, effect, or some circumstances, instead of what you perceive. But in a few days, after a series of good tries, you will succeed in separating the pure sensation from accessory mental processes. And then you will find joy or rest in the sensation itself.”

Commenting on the healing power of nature, Saint Pope John Paul II made the following observation: “The aesthetic value of creation cannot be overlooked. Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity. The Bible speaks again and again of the goodness and beauty of creation, which is called to glorify God.”  (John Paul II, 1990 World Day of Peace Message, no. 14.)

Have you seen the tree with the lights in it? Learning to slow down and gather in the beauty of nature with child-like simplicity will be of immense value to all of us.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

Ref. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard; Achieving Peace of Heart by Father N. Irala; and The Evidential Power of Beauty by Father Thomas Dubay.

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“CONFESS YOUR SINS TO ONE ANOTHER”

THE COMFORTING POWER AND FRIENDSHIP OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

“And I will pray to the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever” (John 14:16)

In this note we will be discussing the tremendous comfort and strength the Holy Spirit can bring to someone suffering from loneliness, ostracization, and the crushing difficulties of life.

A great spiritual writer of the twentieth century wrote the following:

“God the Holy Spirit is the divine friend of the human souls to whom he is sent. Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to us in order, among other purposes, to banish from our life on earth that which constitutes one of the great pains of our present existence. There are few things so hard for a man to bear as loneliness and isolation. Man is not made to live alone. In a world which is ever hostile to Christ and will always hate his followers as it hated him, the Christian necessarily suffers from a certain measure of ostracism.

Moreover, the Christian has to bear the loneliness that, with the advance of years, is the common lot of mortals. Death and other causes tend to thin the ever narrowing circle of one’s friends and acquaintances. How frequently the pathos of this abandonment shows in the eyes of the aged whose contemporaries have vanished year by year.

Jesus has provided for the comfort of lonely hearts. When it comes to a human creature, neither to love nor to be loved by anyone, then existence has turned to dust and ashes. The disciples of Christ need never experience this dread starvation, this withering of their powers of affection, seeing that they may, by grace, possess within themselves in the closest intimacy a Person who, by the Word of Truth [Jesus], has been declared to be preeminently a consoler (John 14:16) – a Person who may be loved without limits and who repays every mark of affection by more than the hundredfold in warmth and tenderness. Consider for a moment the POWER of loving in the Holy Spirit who is love personified, who IS the personal love between the Father and the Son!

The Holy Spirit has not only an infinite capacity for friendship – He has, as well, an infinite power to make his friendship effective for the consolation and comfort of those he loves. In the great trails of life, notably in the bereavement caused by the death of those dearest to us, how impotent we find the well-meaning efforts of our friends to touch our grief with healing. When the soul is burdened by a great sorrow, nothing can bring alleviation and strength except that which can penetrate and change the spirit of man. This the Divine Friend – the Holy Spirit – alone is capable of doing.

How frequent an experience it is to find the faithful who, when faced with an overwhelming calamity, which should normally paralyze and crush them, manifest a courage, calm and resolution, traceable to no natural source. The origin of this mysterious peace and confidence is the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Their turning to God in their distress has provoked the inner and direct action of the Holy Spirit on the substance of the soul itself.

All that love demands is that it be given free scope to express itself. The affection of the Holy Spirit for the soul he inhabits and adorns is not only strong and ardent…it is faithful as well. Let us train ourselves to be open to this potent, strengthening influence of the Divine Friend within our souls by a constant, loving attention to His presence. The Holy Spirit is the consoler of hearts because Jesus expressly sent Him to us in order to find comfort in all the trials and adversities of life, and Jesus further promised that the Holy Spirit would abide with us forever in a never ending friendship of love (John 14:16).”

This long quote, significantly edited and adapted, is from The Holy Spirit by Father Edward Leen (Scepter Publishers), pages 160-163. Father Leen, who belonged to the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, wrote extensively on spiritual topics and his books are full of powerful spiritual insights.

Dear Friend, be ever more attentive to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the depths of your soul, and of His infinite capacity to help you through the daunting difficulties of this present life, through a most remarkable and intimate friendship that will never end.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

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THE HERO OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS THE HOLY SPIRIT WHO HAS BEEN GIVEN TO US!

“God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5)

In his great Epistle on justification, Saint Paul presents the Holy Spirit as the hero of the Christian life, whose full power has been unleashed by Jesus’ death and resurrection! The overarching theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapters 1-8) is POWER leading to LIFE. Thus Paul says at Romans 1:16:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

This POWER flows from Christ’s resurrection:

“[Jesus] who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4).

The general condition of humanity before the Gospel is powerlessness, both for Jew and Gentile. “We have already brought the charge against Jew and Greek alike that they are under the domination of sin” (Romans 3:9). Even compliance with the “works of the law” in the Old Testament economy is insufficient for justification: “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

Our reconciliation and justification comes from faith in Jesus Christ (chapters 4-5). “At the appointed time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us godless men” (Romans 5:6). This justification by faith flows not only from Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death, but also from the power flowing from his resurrection! “Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

Moreover, flowing from this gift of justifying faith is HOLY SPIRIT POWER! “We have gained access by faith to the grace in which we now stand, and we boast of our hope for the glory of God….And this hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Paul then asks: does this grace of justification give us immunity from sin?, to which he essentially answers: HELL NO! “Are we to say, ‘Let us continue in sin that grace may abound?’ Certainly not!” (Romans 6:1-2). Why is this? Because through faith we have been baptized into the sin-forgiving death of Jesus and the new life giving resurrection of Jesus. “Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life” (Romans 6:4). “Do not, therefore, let sin rule your mortal body” (Romans 6:12).

We then come to chapter seven of Romans where we encounter this mysterious, representative man who is struggling so mightily with the power of sin in his flesh. He cries out: “For I do not what I want, but the very thing I hate (7:15), and, “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (7: 21). Is Paul speaking of himself here, or of Israel, or of the “universal plight of all men” (ICSB)? Whichever the case may be, the powerlessness this man feels in the flesh (in his human weakness) has a solution: it is the HOLY SPIRIT who will give him – give us – victory over sin through our new life in the Spirit!

The flesh may be weak, but the Holy Spirit is POWER! And as Paul foreshadowed at Romans 5:5, the Holy Spirit has been given to us! We are not on our own in our fight against sin. We have a most powerful ally: the indwelling Holy Spirit. Here is the solution to the man’s problem in Romans 7: through faith in Jesus Christ, received in baptism, we have access to the Holy Spirit.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:24-25). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (8:1-2).

And if you think Paul is being subtle in pointing out the Holy Spirit as the solution to this man’s problem, think again! In chapter 8 of Romans, Paul makes reference to the Holy Spirit some 18 times! He uses the didactic method of repetition in order to drill into our minds that we have victory over sin in the power of the Holy Spirit! The following verses are representative:

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life  because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of  his Spirit who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8: 5-14).

Conclusion: Do you know why St. Paul never allows even a shade of unethical conduct in his Epistles? Because the Holy Spirit empowers you to lead a holy life. Paul is utterly taken up by the reality of the Christian life. He is ablaze to the core with the Holy Spirit. The hero of the Christian life is the Holy Spirit. His full power has been unleashed, as Paul points out, by Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is a radical quality of Christian morality. God has given you the Holy Spirit! This is a supernatural reality made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a reality perceived by faith, and received in baptism. Holiness is a POWER. The Gospel has come to you in POWER! You are justified, you are set right with God, because Jesus has given you access to the full power of the Holy Spirit, who gives you victory over sin, because of His indwelling, sanctifying presence in your soul. The power of the Holy Spirit is the principle of LIFE! The death and resurrection of Jesus is therefore the engine which carries us along to the state of justification. “Romans 8 unveils the solution to the problem laid out in Romans 7. It is a divine solution orchestrated by the Trinity. The Father sent the Son to redeem the world from sin (8:3) and sent the Spirit to raise the world from death to new life (8:9-13)” (ICSB). See the source for this conclusion under References below.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: As you can see, I am relying on the notes in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. But primarily I am relying on notes I typed up years ago from a class on the Epistles of Saint Paul. I don’t even remember the name of the professor, but the entire conclusion above, and the whole theme of power leading to life, and of the Holy Spirit being the hero of the Christian life, comes directly from his lectures, and the notes I took. He was a Jewish convert, teaching at the St. Mary’s Campus in Orchard Lake Village, MI. Finally, I have also relied extensively on Dr. Scott Hahn’s excellent audio series on Romans.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism:

‘But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’ [Romans 6: 8-11].

Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself:

‘[God] gave himself to us through his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature. . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized’ [Saint Athanasius].”   (nos. 1987-1988)

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THE MEANING OF JESUS’ ASCENSION INTO HEAVEN

 

                      “FOR OUR CITIZENSHIP IS IN HEAVEN”  (PHILIPPIANS 3:20)

In the Ascension Jesus is lifted up, is raised higher and higher, until we can see that He is above all else! If there are earthly powers, if there are heavenly powers, if there are demonic powers, Jesus is “Lord of the cosmos” and all creation is subject to him (see CCC 668), for “to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?” (Hebrews 1:13). Only Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). In the Ascension, then, we see in the clearest terms that Jesus is Lord, or rather the Lord-God.

Jesus’ Ascension establishes humanity’s true destiny in Heaven. I picture Jesus returning to the Father in Heaven, saying, “FatherMission Accomplished,” and then saying, “Father, let us breathe forth our Holy Spirit upon the world through my risen and Glorified body.” It was good, then, for Jesus to ascend back to the Father so that the Holy Spirit could be given to us to guide us, likewise, to our heavenly home.“If I go [back to Heaven],” says Jesus, “I will send him [the Holy Spirit] to you” (John 16:7).

One lesson we clearly glean from our Lord’s Ascension is that the entire trajectory of Jesus’ earthly life was Heaven. He, Jesus, is the first born of many brethren (Romans 8:29). Therefore, the absolute true meaning of life is Heaven. Saint Paul says it beautifully: “Our citizenship is in Heaven” (Philippians 3:20). To truly understand the meaning of life we must get this principle straight. Take a look at your Passport: I hope it says “Citizen of Heaven.” Heaven is your true home. We are pilgrims here on planet earth.

Another lesson we glean initially from our Lord’s Resurrection, and ultimately from his Ascension, is the incredibly profound meaning of the the ultimate destiny of the human body. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read the following very significant words: “The Father’s power ‘raised up’ Christ his Son and by doing so perfectly introduced his Son’s humanity, including his body, into the Trinity. Jesus is conclusively revealed as ‘Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his Resurrection from the dead’ ” (CCC 648, my emphasis). “Christ’s Ascension marks the definitive entrance of Jesus’ humanity into God’s heavenly domain, whence he will come again….” (CCC 665). Consequently, any claim that Christianity devalues the body or human nature is misguided. Pope Benedict XVI, in a homily in 2005, stated: “Christ’s Ascension means … that He belongs entirely to God. He, the Eternal Son, led our human existence into God’s presence, taking with Him flesh and blood in a transfigured form. The human being finds room in God; through Christ, the human being was introduced into the very life of God.” C.S. Lewis adds:

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Christ’s Ascension also signifies the beginning of the final hour of human history. By Christ’s Ascension into Heaven the final age – indeed the final “hour” – of the world has begun. The Catechism states: “Since the Ascension God’s plan has entered into its fulfillment. We are already at ‘the last hour’. ‘Already the final age of the world is with us, and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way; it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real but imperfect’ ” (CCC 670). All Christians are living in “end times,” which means that we should be diligently preparing for the return of the Lord who is already present to us through the Holy Eucharist. 

Finally, our Lord’s Ascension shows that He is the King and High Priest of all creation. There are powerful words in the Epistle to the Hebrews about Jesus’ ongoing priestly ministry in Heaven (words that should really give us great encouragement!). In the seventh chapter of Hebrews we read: “… because Jesus lives forever [in Heaven], he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:24-25; CCC 519). Is it not incredibly encouraging to know that Jesus is always living to make intercession for you! Does not that revelation of his incessant intercession for you fill your heart with confidence!

Moreover, the author of Hebrews identifies Jesus’ never-ending priesthood in Heaven as the true fulfillment of the Order of Melchizedek, the very first priesthood mentioned in the Old Testament (see Genesis 14). In fact, the Order of Melchizedek is mentioned multiple times in Hebrews! This is a very significant point for Catholics because the “thanksgiving offering” made by the priest Melchizedek in the Old Testament was that of bread and wine (Genesis 14:18), which constituted a “communion sacrifice” per Dr. Scott Hahn. Jesus is identified in Hebrews as “the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24). The true sacramental sign of this New Covenant is identified by Jesus as the Holy Eucharist (“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” – Luke 22:20). As such we are advised in Hebrews not to neglect ‘to meet together” for the New Testament liturgy (Hebrews 10:25), the Mass, of our High Priest, Jesus Christ (see CCC 692). Jesus ascended into Heaven is the true High Priest at every Mass.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

 

Sources: Significantly, Luke 22:20 is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus uses the term, “New Covenant.” For the material in this note on Hebrews and the High Priesthood of Jesus, as it pertains to the Order of Melchizedek and the Eucharist, I am relying predominantly on Dr. Scott Hahn and The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. See also Dr. Hahn’s audio commentary on Hebrews. The quote from Pope Benedict XVI found at

Ascension Thursday and meeting Christ face-to-face 

 

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MARY’S REMARKABLE INTERCESSION AT CANA

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.” (John 2:1)

In Luke’s Gospel we learn of the remarkable power associated with Mary’s voice, for as soon as Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s voice “the child leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). Amazing, but true!

The power of Mary’s voice is also highlighted by John at the marriage at Cana. The first thing John tells us in his account is that there was a “marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there” (John 2:1). One might have thought that John would have said, “There was a marriage at Cana, and Jesus was there,” but no, John first tells us that Mary was there. Mary’s important intercessory role is thus being emphasized by John.

But John makes an even more remarkable point in this story. He tells us that Jesus’ time to perform his first miracle had not yet arrived. Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2: 4). Would Mary dare tamper with the plans of Divine Providence, with the laid down tracts of predestination? Apparently so!

The power of Mary’s voice thus sounds again: “Do whatever he tells you,” she said to the servants (2:4), and so Jesus obeyed and right then and there changed the jars of water into wine! How significant was this miracle? John tells us: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11).

“Mary intervened at Cana for the needs of others, so she continues to make heavenly intercession for the needs of the saints on earth” (ICSB relying on CCC 969).

Oh Mary, Queen of Heaven, pray for us!

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

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WHY SPIRITUAL READING IS SUCH A GREAT HELP FOR GROWTH IN HOLINESS

(The First chapter of The Imitation of Christ published by Chapman and Hall in 1878.)

“Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book.” (St. John Bosco)

The incalculable importance of spiritual reading is the subject of this note. And our conclusion will simply be that spiritual reading is an incredibly important part of the spiritual life, something which we must make time for on a regular basis.

The correlation between spiritual reading and the prayer of meditation is well understood. Spiritual reading is the platform upon which we kindle the logs of meditation, until they flame-up into acts of affective praise, adoration and interior prayer, and when the flames die down, into resolutions for growth in holiness. Of course, on a given day, if we are dry, and we can only manage to muster a few loving aspirations to God, our spiritual reading will still be of great value as our minds are deeply nourished by Catholic truth, and we receive powerful advice from the great spiritual masters on how to overcome our faults and grow in holiness. Spiritual writers sometimes caution us to discern whether our time of meditation has regressed into mere spiritual reading, nevertheless, spiritual reading, in and of itself, is a highly valuable component of the spiritual life! As Father John Hardon observes:

“Spiritual reading is necessary as the normal way of nourishing the Christian faith, which means getting food for the mind so that the will and affections might love and serve God accordingly. I say the normal way, allowing for exceptions that simply prove the rule. We must take the ordinary means to preserve our physical life and the obligation is a grave one. Among these ordinary means none is more basic than food for the body. Without eating the body dies. And it is no comfort to say I am alive now and there is food outside of me. Either that food gets inside of me or I die. Being near me is not enough. I can be surrounded by food and starve. So too we must take the ordinary means to preserve our supernatural life and again the obligation is a grave one. Among these ordinary means none is more basic than food for the mind to nourish the faith. Without food for the mind the faith withers and dies, and there is no mental nourishment for the soul more available and accessible and providable than spiritual reading as just described. Not to nourish the mind, and in the mind the faith, with this food is to tempt Providence, which means to tempt God.”

And the great Father Faber adds this insight about the importance of spiritual reading:

“A person beginning the spiritual life with a taste for reading has a much greater chance of advancing and of persevering than one who is destitute of such a taste. Experience shows that it is really almost equal to a grace. The power of reading,… the taste for reading, [is] one of the most important of all the personal nonsupernatural qualifications for an inward life….He who begins a devout life without it [a taste for spiritual reading] may consider the ordinary difficulties of such a life multiplied in his case at least by ten.”

Still, the important correlation between spiritual reading and mental prayer is duly noted by the great spiritual writers:

“To our mind [spiritual reading] ranks equally with mental prayer and the other exercises of devotion in importance, and, in fact, it is so closely connected with these other exercises, especially the essential one of mental prayer, that without it – unless one finds a substitute,  – there is no possibility of advancing in the spiritual life; even perseverance therein is rendered very doubtful” (This Tremendous Lover, p. 101, by Father M. Eugene Boylan).

“The sixth means [to attain solid virtue] is spiritual reading. And we must be very careful in the choice of books. As a rule, we should prefer to all others those which touch the heart….Rodriguez is excellent for beginners. For those who are more advanced, The Imitation of Christ, the writings of Father Surin, Saint Francis de Sales, the Psalms and the New Testament, [and] the ‘Lives of the Saints.’ Our spiritual reading should be half prayer; that is to say, that in reading we should listen to the voice of God, and stop to meditate [engage in mental prayer] when we feel ourselves touched by what we read. We ought to read with a view to practice what we read” (Father Jean Grou, Manual for Interior Souls, p. 16).

“We must regard spiritual reading as being to meditation what oil is to the lamp” – F.W. Faber.

“Spiritual reading…is an intrinsic portion of a devout life, one of its actual and almost indispensable exercises. Prayer is the grand difficulty of most souls. Now, [spiritual] reading feeds and furnishes prayer. It supplies matter. It plants the wilderness. Rightly practiced spiritual reading obviates at least half the difficulties of meditation” – F.W. Faber.

Spiritual reading also tends to have the remarkable capacity to help us in our present needs. “We derive the greatest assistance from [spiritual] reading. Indeed, it is astonishing how pertinent all our reading seems to become when we are in difficulties. It is as if the Holy Ghost, rather than ourselves, had chosen what we should read; and it is he most assuredly who gives it now such a special unction and special message to our souls in their present straits” (Spiritual Conferences, p. 270).

In her excellent book, Am I Living a Spiritual Life?, acclaimed Catholic author, Dr. Susan Muto, urges us to find time each day for spiritual reading. She says: “The possibility of experiencing the touch of God in daily tasks increases in accordance with the time we spend in spiritual reading. The complaint of not having enough time to do spiritual reading might be traceable to an inability to put each aspect of life in its proper perspective. If my primary commitment is the love of God, then I’ll take time to imbibe his word. Professional life is important, but what about all the extras that get added to it? When I look over my day, I find there’s time to do spiritual reading, provided I use my time to the best advantage. We mustn’t forget that the Spirit is capable of illuminating some bland word or trite maxim so that our spirits are transformed in a brief moment of genuine attention [during spiritual reading]” (p.43-44, as edited).

Father Robert Eiten adds the following insights regarding the benefits of spiritual reading:

“Spiritual reading affects both our mind and our will. By spiritual reading our mind is uplifted, spiritually enlightened, given new ideas and new approaches to things; new motives are placed before it or the old ones are refreshed and renewed in our minds. We get new ways of looking at things and old truths are put under new labels. Our will is inspired and strengthened; enthusiasm is aroused in us; appeal is made to our hero instinct and our courage is renewed….Some might object that they have not [the] time for daily spiritual reading. If one is habitually neglecting such reading in general, sooner or later this neglect will show up in his conversation, correspondence, and dealing with others” (A Layman’s Way To Perfection, pp. 88-90).

CONCLUSION: For the reasons stated above it is quite important to set aside time each day for spiritual reading. It is not easy to persevere in the spiritual life, and the great spiritual writers have spoken as if spiritual reading is a necessary component of our perseverance. And frankly: – perseverance is everything!  Our spiritual reading is like a road map: it gives us the knowledge and insight we need to safely traverse the hazards of the spiritual journey and to stay on the path that leads to God and eternal life. And as this knowledge enters our minds and hearts it is to be expected that our spiritual reading will become as much prayer and petition as it is a private tutorial for growth in holiness. Without this spiritual road map – that is to say, without a commitment to spiritual reading – we are bound to get lost and confused in the noise of the world which drowns out spiritual life. It is thus important to keep a good Catholic book nearby for daily spiritual reading and nourishment.

I conclude with five recommendations for spiritual reading, but there is literally a full library of solid Catholic books to choose from:

  1. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
  2. Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
  3. The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
  4. The Creator and the Creature by Father F,W. Faber
  5. Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Father Michael E. Gaitley

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

 

References: The book by Susuan Muto, Am I Leading a Spiritual Life?, is co-authored by Father Adrian van Kaam. The quotes from Father Faber are from his book, Spiritual Conferences. In the conclusion, where I talk about the challenge of perseverance and the necessity of spiritual reading, I am drawing from Father Faber.

Image: The lead image is from Wikipedia (Public Domain, U.S.A.)

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FIVE COMPONENTS OF A WELL-MADE PRAYER

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

In this note we will review five essential qualities or components of a well-made prayer, relying on one of the Church’s greatest spiritual writers, Father Jean Nicolas Grou (1731-1803). Evelyn Underhill, one of the great writers on Christian mysticism, once remarked that Father Grou’s work, How to Pray, is “one of the best short expositions of the essence of prayer which has ever been written.”

According to Father Grou the five essential components of a well-made prayer are that it be made: attentively, reverently, lovingly, confidently and perseveringly. Here are condensed and edited comments from Father Grou pertaining to these five qualities of a well-made prayer.

PRAY ATTENTIVELY: “A prayer addressed to God, whether to pay him homage or to plead with him for our highest interests, must be attentive to the point of keeping all our powers concentrated on [God]. But let me ask you this: when you pray do you seriously wish to be attentive? Is it your first care to recollect yourself and think [about] what you are going to do? If you do not begin by this [recollection], you do not prepare yourself for so holy an action, and you are responsible for your distractions.”

PRAY REVERENTLY: “The very idea of prayer involves that of reverence and humility. He who prays is a creature; it is God to whom he prays. What is God compared with the creature? What is the creature compared with God? This thought alone ought to fill us with the deepest humility; how much greater will this humility be when we remember that we are sinners and that God is infinitely holy. If you do not feel this, if you do not approach God with a profound sense of your own nothingness, you should mistrust your prayer.”

PRAY LOVINGLY: “The third characteristic of prayer is that it is loving. God desires to be loved as much as he is respected, and the Holy Spirit, who is the eternal love of the Father and the Son, inspires no prayer that is not a prayer for love and a prayer which leads to love. It is love which must inspire the Christian to pray: love must be the final aim [of his prayer], and the increase of love must be its fruit.” This takes us back to what I have said before: it is the heart that prays and therefore loves or aspires to love.”

PRAY CONFIDENTLY: “Confidence is the fourth characteristic of the prayer that is taught to us of the Holy Spirit. When the [Holy Spirit] makes us pray, it is plain that he influences us to ask only such things as he has resolved to give us, and that the first thing he grants us is a firm confidence that we shall obtain our requests. This is the confidence the [Holy Spirit] answers and inspires. It is our part to respond to it and not let our confidence be weakened  by any fear or any kind of reasoning. We see in the Gospels that Jesus Christ’s miracles were all performed in response to faith. That faith [Jesus] sought was not just the faith in divine power, but rather the hope he would grant what was asked. If the Spirit of God were the only wind that blew on you, he would incline and urge your heart in the direction of confidence.”

PRAY PERSEVERINGLY: “Lastly, the prayer produced by the Spirit is persevering. Let us be humble and patient and never let us doubt that, if our requests tend to the glory of God and our own salvation, they will be granted in the end. If our requests are not granted, it is because they will attend neither to his glory nor our own benefit; and so we should not wish to obtain them. God has promised to open the door to him who knocks, but he has not said that he would not keep him waiting. He has fixed the right time to give us the boon, and likewise the right time for us to be inspired with the first thought of seeking it. Whenever we have reason to believe that this thought is from him, we must persevere in our prayer, being certain that he will reward our perseverance.”

Concluding Prayer of Father Grou: “Oh my Savior, teach me to pray then no more in my own way and according to human wisdom, but according to the method of the Holy Spirit. May the [Holy Spirit] quicken me and pray in me with those ‘groanings which cannot be uttered’ of which thine Apostle [Paul] speaks. Amen.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

Reference: My edition of How to Pray by Father Grou is published by The Upper Room. My edited quotes are from pages 32-41, Chapter Three. The book itself elaborates in much more detail on these five essential points and is highly recommended. Note as well that How to Pray is taken from a much larger work of Father Grou called The School of Jesus Christ, a very difficult book to find in English. The quote from Evelyn Underhill is in the forward of How to Pray. Spiritual writers balance “our nothingness,” our indigence, our great need for God against the complementary truth of our dignity as children of God.

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