Friday, January 31, 2014

Discernment in the Modern Age

A reflection by Sr. Anne Marie Walsh, SOLT:

DISCERNMENT IN THE MODERN AGE

One of the banes of modern life is the plethora of bad books, bad both in the sense of poorly written and bad in the sense of poisonous content.  It's an observation that can be applied to movies, music, TV, and other forms of human expression as well. This is not meant to be a moral judgment so much as a reflection on what constitutes healthy food for the soul.  We have great concern for the health of our bodies and our environment.  And we feed them and protect them accordingly.  At the same time, we seem to have much less conscious concern for what goes into our minds, our souls, our spirits.  We simply consume whatever is offered, no longer recognizing the difference between junk food and delicacy, nutrients and toxins.

Entertainment of a rather mindless variety seems to be the common fare these days.  It is big business to translate  the written form into visual form thus making things more sensual, gripping and exciting.  Books are made into movies, and articles are covered with images that engage the senses and the emotions in ways that are particularly potent.  We are attracted to manipulated, computer-generated scenes, enchanted by special effects, and seduced by music that diverts us away from a close examination of content.  We find ourselves being moved in certain directions without the benefit of an engaged intellect. In fact, our intelligence is often purposely bypassed.  

This can be very dangerous.  It's a lot like seeing a glass of cold, refreshing water, after coming in on a hot, dusty day.  The reaction is almost overwhelming, immediate, physiological and emotional.  We would, without thinking, take the water and drink it.   But if someone told us that despite it's inviting appearance, the water actually had e-coli in it, we would not approach it, much less drink it, no matter how thirsty we were, knowing it would be hazardous to our health.

This is very much like what happens when we indiscriminately read or watch whatever is the latest rage, whether it be fictional stories, movies, TV shows, that mock God, believers, our faith, or current book marketings of pornography (now particularly targeting women's readership).  So many times people say:  "it's not so bad.  It's just a little sex, or just a little violence, or just a little language." 

It doesn't matter whether the poison is hidden in small amounts.  A little poison will kill you just as dead over time.  When our emotions, our passions, our senses, apart from our intellects, make our decisions for us, we are capable of drinking to the dregs whatever contaminant is presented to us.  And today, very deadly poisons abound.  Our culture prizes acceptance, tolerance and open-mindedness. It has been noted though that the danger comes when people become so open-minded their brains fall out.  Curiosity can be a grave temptation.  Being "well-informed" another hook.  Pope Benedict mentioned that knowledge for it's own sake only leads to sadness, and sometimes to much worse things.

This is not a new problem.  The young St. Teresa of Avila had an attraction to the romance/adventure novels of her time, until she realized that the illusions, vanity and worldliness they sowed in her were a great obstacle to her life in general and to her relationship with God in particular.  They did not help her live in reality and especially in the reality of her dignity as a woman, a beloved daughter of God with a great destiny, a great part to play in the life of the Church and the world.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of the Jesuits, also had this problem before his conversion.  He is famous for realizing how the books he read affected the movements of his soul, for better or worse.  While recovering from a serious battle injury, he began to recognize that the worldly books he was fond of, and which also fed his vanity, gave him a feeling of excitement which quickly passed and left him feeling discontented and restless.  On the other hand, when he read books on the lives of the saints and their great deeds, he found himself inspired and filled with a desire to follow their example.  These feelings did not change. From this simple observation St. Ignatius developed his principles for discernment, which are now indispensable teachings for anyone serious about the spiritual life.

We of course need discernment in many areas of our lives.  And because we live in a complicated age, it is good to look for some general direction.  One place to find this is back at the very beginning.  God gave some very simple directions for life in the Garden, and repeated them again after the fall, through Moses.  He told Adam and Eve that they could eat from the Tree of Life and the other trees in the Garden, but not of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Later, He reiterated this directive again to the Israelites in Exodus.  "Choose life that you may live."  

In all honesty, when our question becomes: "Is what I am about to say or see or do, life-giving to me and those around me" we are able to frame issues in a new light.  This is not the only question we sometimes need to ask.  But it is a very good place to start and finish.   Is this life-giving or is this poison to me, to my relationships, to my own dignity or someone else's dignity?  It is a question that can be used with many of the choices we should make today with more deliberation than we do.  And it is a question that avoids the dissembling of moral relativism.  Something is either life-giving to all involved, or it is not.  If it brings death of any kind in it's wake, it is to be avoided.

God's commandments and the Church's counsels are not meant to cramp our style or dampen our fun.  They are simply meant to protect us.  God knows what is good, what is healthy for us.  And He also knows what will make us sick.  Technology and the creative powers of mankind in many different fields have the potential to serve life or to bring death, both physical and spiritual death, depending on how they are used.  If we truly want to live and live well, live the abundant life Jesus promises us, then we have to stop starving our own souls and eat more plentifully from the Tree of Life.

Sr. Anne Marie

Friday, January 03, 2014

An Exchange of Gifts

Boston priest Fr Jason Worthley put together this powerful video about the typhoon in the Philippines. The devastation is stunning and so is the outpouring of love for the people.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Coming Out of Hiding

A reflection from Sr. Anne Marie Walsh, SOLT

Coming Out of Hiding 
Making New Year’s resolutions can be a tricky business.  We may think our best interests will be served by addressing our diet and exercising  more regularly.  Our family and friends might prefer that our resolve center instead around curbing our negativity, our moodiness, our critical spirit, or our rash judgments.  We might decide we need to give extra time to charitable projects when our family or community would be happy to see us enjoy more time in their company.  We may even realize we need more prayer in our lives and determine to make space for it when God would prefer we look for Him outside the concept of an exercise to perform.

There is actually one answer to all the needs for change we contemplate at the beginning of a new year:  Jesus Christ and the Trinitarian life He came to bring us.  Many of us know about Jesus.  Fewer of us really feel comfortable saying we know Him.  And out of those of us who know Him, we don’t always relate to Him, or allow Him to relate to us in any kind of way that really affects our lives.  There is a kind of split in us between our faith and the rest of our lives.  

Vatican Council II sought particularly to address this difficulty of believers today, the problem of a duplicity that manifests itself in those of us who intellectually assent to the existence of God yet fail to live as though we really believe He exists.  Instead, we live, practically speaking, as atheists.  We do not live as though God is our Father, providing for us in all that is most necessary.  If we did, we would not be filled with anxieties and stress over how to take care of ourselves.  

We also profess a belief in Jesus as our Savior, and yet we are constantly trying to save ourselves.  Witness the incredible number of self-help books and social programs that promise fulfillment and ultimate happiness.  The promotional tag line is often the only really successful part of the whole offering which inevitably engenders its own problems.  In the meantime, participation in the life-giving, healing sacraments wanes, and attendance at Mass is no longer seen as essential.

We say we believe the Holy Spirit is our Advocate and Guide.  And yet we fight our own fights without seeking His help while the course we try to steer in our lives isn’t on His map.  It’s of our own making and doesn’t lead us to happy or peaceful outcomes.

All of this comes because we fail to realize that our Trinitarian God is a personal God.  He wants to be up "close and personal" with us.  And He wants us to be personal with Him.  The Father is a Person who wants us to relate to Him that way. Jesus is a Person and He wants us to relate to Him that way.   The Holy Spirit is a Person, Who also wants us to relate to Him that way.  

It is worth noting that no two relationships with God are alike.  Just as a group of siblings who have the same mother and father have unique relationships with them, so too is our relationship with God unique to each of us.  Trying to be someone else, even a saint, will drive us away from an authentic communion with God.  If He had wanted hundreds of St. Francis of Assisi’s or St. Therese of Lisieux’s, God would have created them.  But marvel of marvels, He’s created each of us to be our own exceptional expression of His love.

This means, in order to find ourselves, we have to stop hiding from God, and in a way, from ourselves too.  We often hide from Him without even being aware of it.  Sometimes we hide out in our illusions.  Sometimes we hide behind our wounds, our excuses, our busyness, our technology, science, our own pride or distrust of God.  We often hide behind our self-sufficiency until God either takes it away, or shows us the limits of our own power.  Sometimes we hide behind our sins either out of shame or because we don’t want to give them up.  

Hiding from the Lord is as old as Adam and Eve.  We become afraid of what He might say to us, what He might ask of us. We become infected with doubts about Him.  And so we hide.  But as soon as we hide, He comes looking for us.  We are like children in the game of Hide and Seek.  The adult always knows where the child is.  But the child still needs to be found.  And in the spiritual life, even though we choose many things to hide behind, deep down, we all want to be found.  We all want to know we are beloved and sought after because this tells us something essential about ourselves.  And this is precisely what God wants for us.  He wants us to come out of hiding so He can not only reveal Himself to us, but so that He can reveal us to ourselves as well.  It is only in friendship with Him, in a living relationship with Jesus Christ, as confident children of Our Father, and in trusting openness to the Holy Spirit that this happens.  These are exciting revelations because infinite Love is behind all of them.

Perhaps we can glean help for the New Year from some of the recent writings and homilies of  Pope Francis.  But we will have to come out of hiding.  The whole of us.  No holding anything back, because every area of our life must be touched by God’s transforming presence.   A good resolution then would be one that seeks to “encounter the Lord and most of all, allows us to be encountered by Him.”  Then we must keep our eyes open for the many different ways He encounters us, finds us, in our life experiences, in our prayer, in creation, in the words of another spoken to us, in the Scriptures and Sacraments and Mass and in thoughts that come to us within, from the light of our Baptism.

As Pope Francis so beautifully says:  “God does not hide Himself from those who seek Him with a sincere heart even though they do so tentatively, in a vague and haphazard manner.”  Why?  Because  “His delight is to be among the sons of men” as the Christmas season has just gloriously proven to us once again.

Sr. Anne Marie Walsh, SOLT