Crossing the Threshold of Hope

Crossing the Threshold of Hope

by Pope Saint John Paul II (1994)

John Paul II will be canonized on April 27, 2014 — just inside four weeks from now. Now might be a good time to pick this one up and read, or reread it.

This was intended originally to be an in-person broadcast interview, but because of the Pope’s busy travel schedule, it had to be cancelled. But the interviewer-to-be, Vittorio Messori, had sent John Paul the list of questions beforehand. The Pope thought they were good questions, worthy of thoughtful answers, so he developed answers to them in his spare moments, sending them back through his secretary, with a suggested title, which Messori kept.

Thus this book came to be. It is a bit of a one of a kind work. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (and later as Pope Benedict VXI) sat for similar book length interviews, but this one was done in isolation — a virtual interview of sorts, that reads more like a live chat might today. If the person live-chatting was the visible head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here are a couple segments from early in the book. First, from “Praying: How and Why” (all emphasis original):

One can and must pray in many different ways, as the Bible teaches through a multitude of examples. The Book of Psalms is irreplaceable. We must pray with “inexpressible groanings” in order to enter into rhythm with the Spirit’s own entreaties. To obtain forgiveness one must implore, becoming part of the loud cries of Christ the Redeemer (cf. Heb 5:7). Through all of this one must proclaim glory. Prayer is always an opus gloriae (a work, a labor, of glory). Man is the priest of all creation. Christ conferred upon him this dignity and vocation. Creation completes its opus gloriae both by being what it is and by its duty to become what should be.

In a certain sense science and technology also contribute to this goal. But at the same time, since they are human works, they can lead away from this goal. In our civilization in particular there is such a risk, making it difficult for our civilization to be one of life and love. Missing is precisely the opus gloriae, which is the fundamental destiny of every creature, and above all of man, who was created in order to become, in Christ, the priest, prophet, and king of all earthly creatures.

Much has been written about prayer, and further, prayer has been widely experienced in the history of humankind, especially in the history of Israel and Christianity. Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer. The history of mystical prayer in the East and West attests to this: Saint Francis, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and, in the East, for example, Saint Serafim of Sarov and many others.

-pp. 16-17

The second excerpt is from ‘What Does “To Save” Mean?’:

Christianity is a religion of salvation. The salvation in question is that of the Cross and the Resurrection. God, who desires that man “may live” (cf. Ez 18:23), draws near to him through the death of His Son in order to reveal that life to which he is called in God Himself. Everyone who looks for salvation, not only the Christian, must stop before the Cross of Christ.

Will he be willing to accept the truth of the Paschal Mystery, or not? Will he have faith? This is yet another issue. This Mystery of salvation is an event which has already taken place. God has embraced all men by the Cross and the Resurrection of His Son. God embraces all men with the life which was revealed in the Cross and in the Resurrection, and which is constantly being born anew from them. As indicated by the allegory of “the vine” and “the branches” in the Gospel of John (cf. Jn 15:1-8), the Paschal Mystery is by now grafted onto the history of humanity, onto the history of every individual.

-pp. 70-71

In some ways, the theme of hope found in these pages seems to have made its way into Benedict’s encyclical Saved in Hope.

 

 

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The Wisdom of the Desert

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

(translated) by Thomas Merton (1960)

The back cover says:

The Wisdom of the Desert was one of Thomas Merton’s favorites among his own books — surely because he had hoped to spend his last years as a hermit. The personal tone of the translations, the blend of reverence and humor so characteristic of him, show how deeply Merton identified with the legendary authors of these sayings and parables, the fourth-century Christian Fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East.”

The humor is evident, as you will see in later quotes, but let’s first view the Author’s Note:

This collection of sayings from the Verba Seniorum is by no means intended as a piece of research scholarship. It is, on the contrary. a free and informal redaction of stories chosen here and there in the various original Latin versions, without order and without any identification of the particular sources. The book is designed entirely for the reader’s interest and edification. In other words I have felt that as a monk of the twentieth century I ought to be quite free in availing myself of the privilege enjoyed by the monks of earlier days, and so I have made a little collection of my own, with no special system, order or purpose, merely in order to have the stories and to enjoy them with my friends. This is the way such books originally came into existence.

When the first version of this work was completed, I gave it to my friend Victor Hammer who printed an extraordinarily beautiful limited edition on his hand press in Lexington. Kentucky. After that, it was decided to expand the collection a little, and rewrite the introduction, so that New Directions could bring out a larger edition. So here it is. But I hope the book still preserves its original spontaneous, informal and personal aspect. Far from detracting from their wisdom, this informality will guarantee the stories the authenticity they have always had and keep them fresh and alive in all their concreteness and immediacy. May those who need and enjoy such apothegms be encouraged, by the taste of clear water, to follow the brook to its source.

– pg. ix

The first page of the book proper is a real grabber, these prefatory remarks extending on for nearly 25 pages:

In the fourth century A. D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one word as the quest for “salvation.” And what was salvation? Certainly it was not something they sought in mere exterior conformity to the customs and dictates of any social group. In those days men had become keenly conscious of the strictly individual character of “salvation.” Society – which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world” – was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life. We need not stop here to discuss the fairness of this view: what matters is to remember that it was a fact. These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the “world” was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.

It should seem to us much stranger than it does, this paradoxical flight from the world that attained its greatest dimensions (I almost said frenzy) when the “world” became officially Christian.

– pp. 3-4

And then come 150 translated sayings (averaging about three per page), matching in number the Psalms. Here are some samples:

* XXXVIII *

Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him. When this period of trial was over, the Master said to him: Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom. When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went. He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing. Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I  have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing. Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours. Abbot John used to tell the above story, saying: This is the door of God by which our fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.

* LXXXVI *

To one of the brethren appeared a devil, transformed into an angel of light, who said to him: I am the Angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to thee. But the brother said: Think again — you must have been sent to somebody else. I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel. Immediately the devil ceased to appear.

* CXLI *

Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose custom it was not to eat every day. But when he saw the brethren he invited them with joy to dine with him, saying: Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren.

* CXLIV *

 A certain brother asked Abbot Pambo: Why do the devils prevent me from doing good to my neighbour? And the elder said to him: Don’t talk like that. Is God a liar? Why don’t you just admit that you do not want to be merciful? Didn’t God say long ago: I have given you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and on all forces of the enemy? So why do you not stamp down the evil spirit?

 

 

Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment

Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment

by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (1977)

In this book, Fr. Dubay attempts to map out a way for people to discern truth from error, in groups and alone. As always, he uses the gospel and the Church as his guides, so he is reliable and worthy of the reader’s trust. This book is his least informal and most academic of the ones I have read by him. It is a deceptively strong work. Appearing to be dry, long, dense, and pedantic, it turns out to be none of those. I found it to be extremely lucid, practical, insightful, and vibrant. And worthy of at least one additional reading.

It would probably require more than one excerpt to demonstrate the appeal of this book, but let one lengthy citation suffice. The book has four large divisions, the first of which is “Concepts and Problems”. Chapter 3 is “How Does God Speak?” and here are two sections from that chapter:

Experience of God: A Privilege

When we reflect on the endless gap between infinite and finite, we glimpse at least vaguely how remarkable it is that man should encounter God, should experience something of how he experiences himself, should be able somehow to detect his mind in this encounter. Since discernment does at least in its loftier occurrences imply this experience of God, we ought not to assume that the classical feeling of peace is humanly produced. If perfect discernment demands perfect holiness, it demands what we have been talking about. A deep contact with God bestows a deep perception of his mind. How sublime this contact may be we may illustrate with a few snatches from a single page flowing from the pen of a mystic: “This loving inflow. . . this inflaming and urgent longing of love. . . something immensely rich and delightful . . . this divine fire . . . a living flame . . . this enkindling of love . . . a certain touch of divinity . . . so sublime an experience.”

In the sobering remarks I shall be making about the likelihood of illusion among many who feel they are listening to the Spirit, I should not want the impression to be given that genuine experience of God is extraordinary, a thing not to be talked about. Quite the contrary, experiencing the divine is so important that we seek to receive it, yes, but we also wish to deflect counterfeits from it. Since it is the same John of the Cross who will furnish us with strong warnings about deception, we may also allow him to assure us at this point that there do indeed exist remarkable experiences of God indwelling.

Noting that we are called to delight in God in a manner transcending all knowledge and capacity to explain, John issues the invitation: “Come, then, O beautiful soul! Since you know now that your desired Beloved lives hidden within your heart, strive to be really hidden with Him, and you will embrace Him within you and experience Him with loving affection.” In this union, says the saint, one experiences a great closeness to God and is instructed in his own wisdom and mysteries. The saint uses all sorts of expressions to articulate some little of what he means: “secret touches of love . . . cauterized by the fire of love . . . it burns up in this flame and fire of love . . .wholly renews it. . .changes its manner of being”. He speaks of a “touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity” that cannot be continual or prolonged, for if it were, the person would die. As it is, one “is left dying of love”. John feels that so lofty is this experience that only he who has had it can understand it well, and even the recipient cannot explain what he has felt, and so he calls it an “l-don’t-know-what”.

Authenticity of the Experience of God

We are going to consider in our next chapter illusions and errors as both possible and probable in alleged discerning of the Holy Spirit. We shall likewise devote still other chapters to the revealed signs of who is led by the Spirit and who is not. Nonetheless, we may make several needed observations at this point. And the first is to note how an experience of God may be distinguished from mere emotion. There are several differences. First of all, an emotion originates in some human or finite cause, whereas the experience of God does not. The latter is divinely given and lies beyond the control of the human person (though he can prevent it by neglect or sin). Secondly, the one is heavily of sense, while the other is spiritual, even though the latter can overflow into one’s feelings. Thirdly, an emotion never becomes continual, whereas the perception of God does become continual when one has grown fully in him. Fourthly, even the best of emotions do not necessarily produce a new knowledge of God or insight into his economy, while a genuine encounter with him does. Fifthly, emotions are usually neither indelible nor ineffable, while deep experiences of the divine are often both. Sixthly, emotions are not always peaceful, whereas meetings with God carry an inner calm with them. Lastly, emotions are not necessarily accompanied by moral goodness, while experiences of God do bring a growth in gospel living.

It will be interesting to note that what we are saying here will be said in biblical thought patterns when further on we study the signs of authentic discernment. Not everyone who thinks he is feeling the Spirit is feeling the Spirit.

The question may then be asked whether one can have a founded certitude that he has met God. Catholic teaching excludes an absolute certainty (unless one has a revelation) of one’s being in grace and of final salvation. Scripture tells us that we are to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and that we are to hold on to the grace we have received in reverence and awe (Heb 12:28). The person who considers himself safe should beware lest he fall (1 Cor 10:12). Yet at the same time theology does allow for a reasonable assurance that one possesses the indwelling presence. What I am calling a reasonable assurance others term a moral certainty or a practical certitude.

How then do we explain the mystic’s certainty that God dwells within him and that he has really encountered this God? One answer given is that a deep experience of God can be equivalent to a revelation and thus can yield an absolute certitude. Another response is that the experience does not yield absolute certitude but only the well-founded reasonable assurance, the moral certitude that excludes reasonable doubts.

– pp. 74-77

 

Treatise on the Love of God

Treatise on the Love of God

by St. Francis de Sales (1616; contemporary English edition, 2011)

Francis was the Bishop of Geneva and made it his life’s work to try to win back Catholics lost to the Protestant Reformation. He was hugely successful. St. Francis de Sales is known more for his earlier work, Introduction to the Devout Life, which he addressed to “Philothea”, as a stand-in for the soul (though it was written as a series of correspondence to an actual lady).  This work is addressed to “Theotimus”, due to some objections by men that they did not want to take advice addressed to a woman. De Sales decided to give equal time, though I suspect he would have preferred to keep the addressee feminine had there been no objections to the first book. It obviously bothered him at least a little, as he goes on about it in the preface. In the end, it turns out to be a minor thing. The end result is a great book. Or actually twelve books.

This is a modern abridged version that takes twelve books down to twelve chapters. Since this work, like The Cloud of Unknowing, is referenced by many other writers, it seemed like one with which I should familiarize myself.

I offer two excerpts from this one. First, from Chapter 6, “Contemplation and Meditation–Love in Prayer”:

This makes contemplation quite different than meditation, which nearly always takes a lot of effort on our part. Meditation is like eating. It is necessary to chew, turning spiritual meat this way and that between the teeth of consideration. Working on it, we grind it up to make it digestible. Contemplation is like drinking. There is no protracted labor by our teeth. We calmly swallow our drink with pleasure. There is even the possibility of sacred drunkenness. We can contemplate frequently and ardently enough to be completely out of ourselves and totally in God. This is quite different from inebriation of the flesh. It does not make us dull and stupid. Instead of lowering us to the level of animals, it lifts us to the level of angels. It allows us to live more in God than in ourselves.

To arrive at contemplation, we must hear the word of God, confer with others on spiritual matters, read, pray, sing, and conceive worthy thoughts.

– pg. 52

And from Chapter 11, “The Love of God Inspires Other Virtues”, in a section titled, “Fruit of the Spirit”:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galations 5:22-23). Notice, Theotimus, that when Paul lists the various qualities of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, he counts them as one single fruit. He does not begin with the plural, “fruits.” He uses the singular. This is why: “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:5). Love is the only fruit of the Holy Spirit. This one fruit has an infinite number of excellent properties. Paul mentions a few of them as examples. When we state that the fruit of the vine is grapes, wine, brandy, the drink “to gladden the human heart” (Psalm 104:15 NRSV), the beverage that settles the stomach [1 Timothy 5:23], we do not mean all these different things grow on the vine. There is only one fruit, yet it has many different qualities depending on how it is used.

Paul simply means that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love. This love can be joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and gentle, and it can improve self-control. Divine love prompts all these things and more.

Love is the life of the spirit.

– pg.  127

 

 

The Science of the Cross

The Science of the Cross

by Edith Stein (1983; original delayed publication in 1950; written 1942)

Edith Stein (a.k.a. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote this shortly before she was taken to her death by the Nazis. She was a brilliant philosopher before she converted from atheism to Catholicism almost overnight, when she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila while staying at a friend’s home one night. The keen intellect of this Carmelite nun is on display in this work, which is no easy read, but not impossible. She takes the reader through the writings of John of the Cross, quoting him liberally, but doing it in an organized sequence, elucidating much that would escape the casual uninitiated reader of St. John.

Here is a substantial excerpt from Chapter 6, “Purgation through Hope”:

The perfect purgation of the soul is received passively from God. All the soul has to do is prepare herself to receive it: whatever the senses present “must not be stored in the memory…but she must leave them immediately and forget them, and put as much effort into this as one would to remember other things. No image of remembrance should remain in the memory, as though these things  had never existed. The memory should be left completely free and unhindered, and one must not seek to engage it in any meditation on heavenly or terrestrial things. . . . One should leave . . . these things and remain forgetful of them, counting them but a hindrance on the way.”

A spiritual person, on the contrary, who “still wishes to make use of natural knowledge and discursive reflection of the memory in the journey to God” will experience three kinds of harm. She will suffer from manifold miseries concerning things of the world, “for instance, falsehoods, imperfections, appetites, inclinations to criticize, waste of time, etc. . . . ” If one allows the memory to occupy itself with what has been perceived through the senses, one falls “into imperfections step by step. For some emotion will cling to these sensory objects, now of sorrow and fear, soon of hate and vain hopes of vainglory, which will remain in the soul. . . . all things that hinder the perfect purity of the soul and perfect union with God. . . . These imperfections are better overcome all at once through complete denial of the memory.” It is best “to learn to silence and quiet the faculties of the soul so that God may speak to her.” Then “a river of peace will descend on her . . . and . . . in this peace, God will remove all the misgivings, suspicions, disturbances, and darknesses which awakened in her the fear that she is already lost or is near to being lost.”

Further harm comes from the intervention of the devil. He “can add to the soul’s knowledge new impressions, ideas, and reasonings, and by means of them move her to pride, avarice, anger, envy, and so on, and thus seduce her to unjust hatred and vain love . . . By far, most of the great delusions and evils that the devil causes in the soul spring from the knowledge and thought processes of the memory. When therefore, this faculty is shrouded in the complete darkness of forgetfulness and its activity is halted, the gates remain locked against the diabolical influence . . . and this leads to great blessings for the soul.”

The third kind of harm to the soul consists in this: the natural content of the memory can be “an impediment to moral good and deprive one of spiritual good.” The moral good “consists in bridling the passions and curbing the inordinate appetites, and then in the soul’s resulting tranquility and peace, as well as in the moral virtues engendered in her.”

All confusion and disturbance in the soul is caused by the contents of the memory. The soul that lives in restlessness, and that gets no support from moral good, is “incapable of receiving any spiritual good, for the spiritual good can abide only in an even-tempered and peaceful soul.” Should the soul value the contents of the memory and turn to them, “it is impossible for her to be free to receive the Incomprehensible, Who is God.” If she wishes to go to God, she must “replace the mutable and comprehensible by the Immutable and Incomprehensible.”

Then in place of the harm so far described, the soul will gain the opposite advantages: rest and peace of spirit, purity of conscience and of soul, and therewith the best preparation “for the reception of human and divine wisdom and virtues.” She is preserved from many suggestions, temptations, and disturbances caused by the evil enemy, for whom those thoughts provided a handhold. The soul becomes receptive for the motivation by and inspirations of the Holy Spirit.”

– pp. 82-84

(NOTE: The soul is referred to in the feminine pronouns, but only in the same way that ships are, not because the author is female–in fact, most of these references are from John of the Cross–but only because all creatures, and indeed creation itself, are seen as feminine in relation to the Creator.)

If you are interested in a well done movie on the the life of Edith Stein, The Seventh Chamber, starring Maia Morgenstern (who played the mother of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ), is a worthwhile film. It is in Italian with English subtitles.

My Other Self

My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith

by Clarence J. Enzler (1957)

This book was published prior to Vatican II, 15 years before Deacon Enzler would be ordained.  It is written in an encouraging and intimate style, as a series of instructions from Jesus. It is not unlike The Imitation of Christ.

The main thrust of the book is for us not to see ourselves as another Christ, but to see ourselves as becoming Christ’s other self. It is not a distinction without a difference, which the book does an effective job of showing. There is no danger here of walking away with any sort of messiah complex in the least. Becoming Christ’s other self is just another way of expressing the process of sanctification.

The following quotation is from the section “Motives for Trust” in Chapter Two, “Abandonment”:

Abandon your will to mine, and all that happens must speed you along the path to happiness, to holiness, to sainthood. Under my loving care, nothing can harm you. Whatever happens to you by my will is so good that the angels of heaven themselves could not conceive of anything better.

Cling to me with all your heart, with all your will, and I will make you a saint. Nothing shall separate you from my love: neither death nor life, angels nor devils, neither things present nor to come. No force or creature in heaven or hell can separate my love from you if you do my will.

Trust in me; I will always protect you. Seek my will in all things. Your greatest good is that my will shall be done.

If you generously renounce your own will to seek only my good pleasure, my divine Heart will illumine you with a vivid light to know my wishes. I will show you what you must do and work within you to help you accomplish it.

– pp. 19-20

Here is a bonus recommendation by this author: Everyone’s Way of the Cross

Heaven in Our Hands: Living the Beatitudes

Heaven in Our Hands: Living the Beatitudes: Receiving the Blessings You Long For

by Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R. (1994)

The primary value of this book is that it gives a modern take on what St. Augustine had (unknown to me) already offered as the pairings of each of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit with each of the eight Beatitudes. It is a very down to earth yet effective book.

Fr. Groeschel assigns each pairing to one of the ascending stages of the spiritual journey: Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive. These divisions go back to the early days of Christian thought: St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine, among others.

Here is a solid excerpt from early in the book, as the author is getting warmed up. It is from Chapter 2, “Written on Our Hearts”, in a sections called “The Law of the Spirit of Life”:

Why this concern about the gifts of the Holy Spirit? The fact is that we cannot successfully continue or even begin to live the life of the Beatitudes unless we are lifted up “on eagles’ wings” (Ex 19:4) through the improvement of these spiritual gifts. Many people–including clergy and religious–spend a considerable amount of energy on Christian activities such as prayer and good works, yet don’t appear to have a clue as to their ultimate goal, the final destination of their spiritual journey. Even the concept of a spiritual journey often escapes their notice.

Scripture tells us that the gospel abrogated the law given to Moses, and that we follow “the law of the Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2). But if you were to ask most people where this law of the Spirit of life is to be found or what it entails, they would be hard pressed to tell you.

Some would guess that the law of the Spirit of life means the Sermon on the Mount, or the whole gospel, or all the teachings included in the sacred tradition of the Church and the apostolic teaching. And in fact, all of these sources represent the external, visible, comprehensible, even printable law, if you will. This visible law guides us and is called the law of Christ. But the Fathers of the Church, in an all-but-forgotten teaching, maintain that the “law of the Spirit of life” is written on the heart (or inner being) of the devout follower of Christ.

St. Paul clearly describes the true location of this law: “you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3). In Galatians we are told to “walk by the Spirit,” and that if we are led by the Spirit, we are “not under the law” (Gal 5:16-18).

St. John Chrysostom in several sermons speaks of the new law as the Holy Spirit himself. St. Augustine wrote an entire treatise, “De Spiritu et Littera,” where we find the following summary on this important and little-known doctrine: “What else are the laws of God himself poured into our hearts than the presence itself of the Holy Spirit? By his presence love is poured out into our hearts which is the fullness of the law.”

The ultimate location of God’s law is in the heart (or in the center of being) of the individual believer. This teaching has not been popular because it can be misunderstood easily and lead to moral subjectivism. Yet the Holy Spirit can’t write one moral law onto my heart and another one onto yours. We obviously need the “external” moral teaching of Scripture and tradition to keep us from sinking into a quagmire of confusion. At the same time we must remember that this law is inscribed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

– pp. 44-45