Tag Archives: Gospel Living

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration

by Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI (2007)

This book could be Pope Benedict’s version of “What I did on my summer vacation.” True. When it comes to theology this pope was a trekkie in every sense of the word. And I love him for it. I love that he didn’t let his job as the keeper of the papacy hold him down. He just had the good taste to make sure he did this stuff on his own time.  Not that he let that give him an excuse for shoddy workmanship. This book was world class all the way.

My favorite parts are the entire chapter on The Lord’s Prayer and the chapter on the parables, with particular mention to his treatment of The Good Samaritan. Another tip of the hat goes to the part called “The Dispute Concerning the Sabbath” in the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount.

From the last chapter, Chapter Ten, “Jesus Declares His Identity”, we have an excerpt from a section called “The Son of Man”:

Let us turn now to the scriptural passages themselves. We saw that the first group of sayings about the Son of Man refers to his future coming. Most of these occur in Jesus’ discourse about the end of the world (cf. Mk 13:24-27) and in his trial before the Sanhedrin (cf. Mk 14:62). Discussion of them therefore belongs in the second volume of this book. There is just one important point that I would like to make here: They are sayings about Jesus’ future glory, about his coming to judge and to gather the righteous, the “elect.” We must not overlook, however, that they are spoken by a man who stands before his judges, accused and mocked: In these very words glory and the Passion are inextricably intertwined.

Admittedly, they do not expressly mention the Passion, but that is the reality in which Jesus finds himself and in which he is speaking. We encounter this connection in a uniquely concentrated form in the parable about the Last Judgment recounted in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46), in which the Son of Man, in the role of judge, identifies himself with those who hunger and thirst, with the strangers, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned–with all those who suffer in this world–and he describes behavior toward them as behavior toward himself. This is no mere fiction about the judge of the world, invented after the Resurrection. In becoming incarnate, he accomplished this identification with the utmost literalism. He is the man without property or home who has no place to lay his head (cf. Mt 8:19; Lk 9:58). He is the prisoner, the accused, and he dies naked on the Cross. The identification of the Son of Man who judges the world with those who suffer in every way presupposes the judge’s identity with the earthly Jesus and reveals the inner unity of Cross and glory, of earthly existence in lowliness and future authority to judge the world. The Son of Man is one person alone, and that person is Jesus. This identity shows us the way, shows us the criterion according to which our lives will one day be judged.

– pp. 327-328

Not everything in this volume is as readable as the passage above, but the entire thing is worth the challenge.

 

 

Prayer Primer

Prayer Primer: Igniting a Fire Within

by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (2002)

Much like Seeking Spiritual Direction, also by Fr. Dubay, this book’s best part is the question and answer portion toward the end. The answers are reassuring and not at all intimidating. Consider the exchange on distractions in Chapter 15, “Problems and Pitfalls”:

3. “I am often pestered with distractions at prayer. I really do not want them, but is there anything I can do to get rid of them? I try but don’t much succeed.”

The first thing you can do is be at peace. As long as distractions are not deliberate or intentional, they do much less harm than you think. If you sincerely want to pray, and you try reasonably well, you are praying.

– pg. 149

Other highlights are a chapter dedicated to the “Liturgy of the Hours”, and the final two chapters, “Assessing Progress” and “Growing in Depth”.

 

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

 

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

Fire Within

Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel on Prayer

by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (1989)

This is widely considered Fr. Dubay’s master work. It’s like a key that helps to unlock extra meaning from his other books. It is also the best preparation to reading St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for yourself. Without this preparation, I am certain I would have given up, or maybe not even tried in the first place.

The greatest thing about Fr. Dubay is, while it is initially far from obvious, he says what he means and he means what he says. Repeated readings make that impression stronger and stronger. He is thoroughly convincing because of this. I cannot think of another author for which I could say it quite that way. He is unique in that regard.

From Chapter One, “A Question of Relevance”:

Because we are all without exception called to the heights of holiness, this volume is emphatically intended, also without exception, for all men and women in every way of life. When later we examine the inner reasons why this must be so, it shall become clear why our two saints are accurate in their assessment and fully in accord both with Scripture and the mind of the Church.

– pg. 4

A book on advanced prayer is a book on advanced joy. It is a love story, a book about being loved, and loving, totally. It is a book on holiness, the heights of holiness to which the Gospel invites everyone.

Still, we must face the fact that there are people who think the message is too good to be true. Strange as it may seem, among these people are not a few contemporary priests and nuns. It is regrettable, but understandable, that there are those that reject it out of ignorance, men and women who may know of our two saints only from hearsay, not close contact. Not infrequently, among these are religious who were told in their early formative years that Ss. Teresa and John “are not for you” and who could not find these saints’ works in the convent library, for they were erroneously judged as dangerous. Others, very likely, have heard stray bits about the nada doctrine and supposed it was only one spirituality among others that one could take or leave with impunity. Invariably these are people who have so tenuous  a grasp of the New Testament that they would be astonished to learn that these two Carmelites say nothing significant that is not already in the Gospels and the canonical Letters of Paul and Peter, James and John. It is one of the tasks of this volume to show this last point to be true.

But how do we face the further fact of people who have read the sanjuanist and teresian works and who either misunderstand the message or forthrightly reject it? Few if any of these are serious scholars, but they do include some nuns, friars and priests. It may be useful to listen to their objections and respond briefly to them before proceeding further.

Perhaps the most frequent objection bears on the nada doctrine, the drastic detachment taught by both Teresa and John but especially emphasized by the latter. Death to one’s senses and desires is unhealthy if not impossible, it is said, and we understand better today that we can find God not in negation but in affirmation, joy and celebration. Mortification, penance and self-denial are considered to be of the old school, whereas an emphasis on delight and jubilation is more appealing nowadays.

The full response to this objection may be found positively explained in our chapter on freedom, for thorough understanding is the best answer to partial views. A few short comments will suffice for now. People who argue against detachment and self-denial are perhaps unaware that they are simultaneously rejecting the same teaching found in the New Testament. Jesus lays it down that to be his disciple, anyone and everyone must “renounce all that he possesses”, not just part or most of it. In Titus 2:12 we read that “what we have to do is give up everything that does not lead to God”. John and Teresa ask not a whit more . . . or less.

– pp. 5-6

God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help

God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help

by Father Jonathan Morris (2011)

Forget if you have an aversion to anyone known as a Fox News Analyst and whose book is recommended by the likes of Glenn Beck (fallen-away Catholic and convert to Mormonism), Bill O’Reilly (a loosely-defined pro-life Catholic), and Rick Warren (a mega-church Protestant pastor). This is a GOOD BOOK.

Fr. Morris embeds a lot of sound traditional Catholic theology and spirituality in what only appears to be a pop-psychology book.

Chapter 3, titled “Getting Unstuck”, which is basically about the insidious influence of the Devil and his lies, should remove all doubt.

His exposition on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love further grounds this work in solid Catholic-Christian theology.

Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom

Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom

by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (2003, originally 1981)

This may be the single hardest book to read I have ever encountered. It masterfully challenged assumptions I took for granted. It’s like a bucket of cold water thrown in your face.

What makes this book most difficult of all is that it holds up an ideal that seems to be unattainable. Yet it will change you for the better, if you let it. I know I changed a lot of my economic habits as a result of this book. I continue to realize ways in which I fall short, but I am better off for these realizations than if I never had them. I keep trying and trying to approach even the resemblance of attaining the ideal held out by this book. And I continue to be humbled as I uncover new ways (old really–just new to my consciousness) in which I fall way, way short.

I should add that Fr. Dubay gives one area where you should not skimp: spiritual reading material. Give yourself a generous allowance for that. Good advice I have found.