Water in the Desert 

Recently I have been reading some great articles written in response to the “Benedict option” one from Bishop Baron and another from R.R. Reno over at First Things.

In summary, the “Benedict Option” is the idea that Christian communities should withdrawal from mainstream culture and focus on strengthening both individual and faith community relationships with Jesus Christ. I am incredibly oversimplifying the matter for the purposes of this article because the links provided above do a nice job detailing more what it is and how it’s written in response to recent cultural trends if you’re curious.

On a personal and entertainingly ironic level, I have been reading “Evangelizing Catholics” for my young adult group where author Dr. Scott Hahn outlines a response of engaging with the culture through the New Evangelization by witnessing the gospel first in families (the “domestic Church”) and then throughout the world. 

Both call for a similar growth in faith and spirituality lived out through a relationship with Christ in prayer and sacraments, and also in the Christian community. Dr. Hahn particularly mentions the important (and countercultural)  witness of Christian hope and I couldn’t agree more heartily.

However, in reading Christian responses to cultural things I think there may be some confusion to the idea of what constitutes Christian hope. 

If you were to peruse articles discussing the grounds of Christian hope from outside of the faith, you might mistakenly glean that Christian hope is based on winning the cultural war, attracting more converts than other religions, or attaining influence in political and social spheres. You might think this because so many of these articles addressing Christian cultural relevance, evangelization, and public policy express a sense of foreboding and no-holds-barred panic as they sit over statistics and wring their hands about the future.

That’s more or less to be expected, people being people, but what gets under my skin are the dry rebuttals offered by the Christians who address this panic head on. Those authors who list isolated statistics in support of their point (like a decline in some measure of immoral behavior) or argue against demoralizing statistics that counter their point (polls that show millennial church membership is lower than ever).

This strikes me as a colossal waste of valuable time because I would argue, as I’m about to, that Christian hope has not ever nor should it ever be remotely based on anything temporal or related to temporal affairs.

This is because the Christian life is not based on the temporal sands of time with it’s ever changing socio-political structures, it is based on our firm belief of our eternal soul being saved by Jesus Christ who died for our sins and our anticipation of a life of union with the Trinitarian God (Father, Son & Holy Spirit) in Heaven.

St. Peter states this succinctly and eloquently in his first epistle:

Blessed be God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to living hope throught the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith… Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your soul. (1 Pet 3-9)

The ultimate goal of the Christian life is the salvation of your soul. This is something that cannot be taken away by losing the culture war, by a decline in religious affiliation (millennial or other demographic), by unfavorable public policy or by persecution of any kind.

Do these things deserve attention? Sure, but to focus on these second things at the expense of the first thing (eternal salvation) would be a tragedy.  Conversely, by focusing on salvation as your goal you gain not only the satisfaction of every desire (eternal union with God) but you might knock out a few of those worrisome second things by your witness to and pursuit of the perfect love you experience in God beginning in time and lasting down through eternity.

Now, there may be those who find themselves wondering how on earth this belief sustains me. In this culture of instant gratification, how can I stand to detach from things that are good in the here and now (whether that good be an indulgence like chocolate or a greater good like political support for a worthy cause) for the promise of eternal life that “may or may not” make me happy one day in a very distant future after I’m dead?

The answer to that question could probably be an article of its own, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll say it is because for me there is no uncertainty surrounding the idea of eternal life with God. I am fully convinced from a combination of Catholic Church teaching and my own life experience that God is the only person who can fully satisfy the desires of my heart. There is absolutely no temporal thing that could fill the void in my soul that was intentionally made to receive the love of God. I know this to be true quite profoundly because in a very foolish pride I once tried to go out on my own and fill that void with temporal things rather than have a relationship with God which, as I’m sure my wiser readers can imagine, aside from being a bad idea in general made said void so much worse.

Yes, much like St. Augustine my heart was very restless until it rested in God but learning how to rest in God was a journey in and of itself (a journey that was aided by/if not entirely the result of Marian consecration via book #9 of my “Top Ten Life Changing Reads“). It was from this weakness and from this seeking that I stumbled onto the merciful love of God and from being absolutely immersed in that love I knew with perfect clarity that the love I had spent so long searching for could be found only in God and nowhere else. Much like a thirsty person traveling through the desert, once I stumbled upon the water of life everything else hailed by the world as so material and so satisfying felt like a mirage because I had experienced the true oasis. After that, it was easier to say no to the world because I knew it’s (once very convincing) promise of satisfaction to be an empty promise, a promise that had instead been perfectly satisfied in God and I felt like I was home at last.

Needless to say, this flies in the face of the prevalent cultural and moral relativism which (falsely) states that there is no truth, no one thing is better or worse than the other, and that the only things we humans can do is pursue what makes us individually happy with occasional consensus over things that are seen as “bad” but which are predictably inconsistent and constantly changing. In this view, our mirage from the previous metaphor would be presented as equally satisfying as the oasis and what you wanted to choose was up to you and was really none of my business. If I like the water I drink the water, if you like the mirage you sit comfortably in the mirage. No one way is hailed as right, no one way is hailed as wrong.

It doesn’t sound problematic at first and perhaps even comes across as open minded. The issue only arises is if you truly believe in your heart that one way is better than the other. That one way leads to life in Christ and the other to spiritual death. That one way leads to joy the other only to a pain and emptiness. In other words, the water of life is the only thing that can truly satisfy whereas the mirage leads to death. The truth in this instance is not relative but inescapable, that each and every person needs water to live and every mirage inevitably comes to end leaving you with nothing but a barren desert. This holds true for the spiritual life as well.

My Christian hope is my hope of eternal salvation won for me by Christ Jesus, the fruits of which flower even now while I’m still an earthly pilgrim. However, to ignore the eternal salvation of my neighbor, to transform the monastic idea of St. Benedict into a “Benedict option” that says in effect “let the heathens perish in their desert” while Christians shift their focus to strengthing their own oasis feels not only uncharitable but a grossly irresponsible response to the truth and the love which God has so charitably shared with an insignificant sinner like me as well as my fellow Christians.

You are not obligated to agree with anything I ever write on this blog or be moved by any of the corny metaphors I employ to illustrate my point better. You have a free will that is a gift of God, inseparable from the human existence, and which I would in no way violate through coercion or fear tactics. However I cannot sit comfortably in my own little oasis, be content with just my own relationship with God, because love by its nature is meant to be shared and I have been blessed with such a profound experience of the ever faithful and merciful love of God that I will not cease to invite you to share in it and experience it for yourself for as long as I live because not only do I hope to live forever with God in heaven, I’d like to see you there too.

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The Problem of Guilt

This post is the promised and I’m sure impatiently awaited sequel to Spiders Don’t Eat Steak.

If you recall that particular post laid out a series of questions which I promised to address the following week:

If you’ve managed to agree with me thus far you might find yourself thinking okay so pornography might be rooted in pleasure which isn’t part of the natural order per say but which is part of the universal human experience and shouldn’t we have the right to seek pleasure at our pleasure?  Does it really do any harm to eat peanut butter m&ms and/or view pornography? Are you really so Catholic that you regard eating peanut m&ms as a sin on par with pornography, as in one that could send you to HELL? Wouldn’t you really be better off “freeing” yourself from your oppressive religion which seeks to do nothing but ruin your pleasure and leave you wracked with guilt?”

I think the best way to answer these questions is to address them one at a time because each of them highlight a peculiar problem millennials and moral relativists alike have with Christian morality, namely the “problem” of guilt.

What is the problem of guilt? It is the idea that the author of “the Stigma of Pornography” tried and failed to make as he argued that porn is natural and should not be considered a sin or disgrace. It is the notion that if we removed religion or the idea of sin then there would be no more guilt and we would have greater freedom to do as we pleased. In other words, you won’t have guilt if the law says there is nothing you are guilty of.

We can examine this idea in greater depth as I answer the questions posed above, below.

1) Shouldn’t we have the right to seek pleasure at our pleasure?

Seeking pleasure is a slippery slope because there are two different types of pleasures that tug at the human soul. The simplest way to differentiate between them is that there are pleasures that lead us closer to God (ancient pagan philosophies also deal with these as the “higher” pleasures) things like friendship, the pursuit of wisdom etc. Conversely, there are pleasures that lead us away from God usually marked by a degree of self-indulgence or excess. The second group is where the things that usually cause guilt can be found, sexual sins like pornography and masturbation, eating or drinking to the point of gluttony, or the sin of pride (when knowledge leads not to wisdom but to ego).

The idea that we have the right to seek our pleasure at our pleasure is difficult to argue against because regardless of where you stand in considering some of the pleasures I mentioned above as sinful, society always presents them as harmless. To go back to pornography as an example, viewing porn is always portrayed in society at large as an innocent/natural/harmless thing. No one dies in the process, no one even has to know you did it, it’s just an innocent personal pleasure. Anyone with a shred of intellect ought to be able to come to this conclusion by himself, the only thing standing in his way might be some outdated moral code. Therefore if it is considered a sin in your religion the only thing stopping you is not your own logic, feeling, or desire but only an antiquated desire not to sin. If you gave up the religion and gave up the moral code you wouldn’t violate any personal conscience of yourself or your peers and therefore it would be a sin no more.

This is the argument for moral relativism where you (not God) become the one who decides what is and isn’t a sin.

The only problem with this argument is not that it lacks logic, but that it is a destructive and dangerous temptation to abuse your free will and choice. The reason it is dangerous is because unlike animals bound to their nature who are not free to choose or be tempted and can therefore do no good or evil,  you do have free will. You will make choices in your life and those choices will have consequences. This is not an attempt to fear monger or make you view all your actions in fear and trembling under a microscope, it is a mere reality of being alive. That is why the Church attempts to foster morality and conscience in the first place. Free will is often directed by the conscience which brings us to the next question.

2)  a. Does it really do any harm to eat peanut butter m&ms and/or view pornography?

b. Are you really so Catholic that you regard eating peanut m&ms as a sin on par with pornography, as in one that could send you to HELL?

Guilt, increasingly unpopular in a largely relativistic society like ours dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and pleasure, is triggered by a violation of conscience. I’ve always believed conscience is something that everyone has to a degree, but which also has to be formed through nurturing instruction. To illustrate the point better, St. Francis felt called to live in total poverty and it was so engrained in his spirituality that to him living in a mansion would feel like a great sin, one that his conscience would convict him for. Living in a mansion is not a sin expressly prohibited in the Bible and there are those who would not consider it a sin at all, but the Bible does warn repeatedly against having a strong attachment to worldly riches. This is an example of an area where your conscience would literally be your guide.

While some may devalue the importance of developing a conscience, seeing it as a hindrance to their own “fun” and freedom I would point again to the overly simplistic view of nature found in modern times. If my nature is all good then maybe I could argue that I could be trusted to go my own way and set my own rules, but this is pride and pride is deadly to the soul because it blinds to faults. It is the nature of humanity to love what is good and despise what is bad, on a moral or purely agnostic and materialistic scale, and this pride where I insist on loving what is good in me while turning a blind eye to what is bad in me is a deceptive and ultimately very sad way to live because it will keep me from truly experiencing the unconditional love and eternal mercy of God, who is able to love me in the depths of my weakness in a way humans cannot, all because I would not humble myself for long enough to admit I need that.

As to whether it does harm to eat peanut butter m&m’s in healthy moderation it wouldn’t and my conscience does not convict me as being in danger of gluttony when I do. The guilt I feel when I eat a peanut butter m&ms comes not from my knowledge of good and evil but my knowledge of nutrition where I know that eating peanut butter M&Ms is bad for me but do it anyway and feel bad for choosing the lesser good. The rationalization of the bad choice was the reason I made the connection to viewing pornography because rationalization of bad behavior is universal. So no I don’t believe I would go to hell for eating a peanut butter M&M, sorry to break the dominant Christian stereotype, because it breaks no moral law or commandment in the instance I described, and also when it comes to getting into heaven I am going to rely not on my own merits but on the mercy of God (but that’s literally a separate article.)

4) Wouldn’t you really be better off “freeing” yourself from your oppressive religion which seeks to do nothing but ruin your pleasure and leave you wracked with guilt?

Many people view morality with an incomplete knowledge of its purpose. They denounce it as a set of hard rules that places unfair and/or unnecessary limits on a person (hence the “oppression”). I blame part of this incomplete picture on the fact that most people live only for the world without any thought to an afterlife and see heaven as something everyone sort of gets (if anything even happens at all after we die) and fail to see that the laws handed down through Christian moral code are not a mere checklist but the path to learning how to give and receive love through a new life in Christ (who is the fulfillment of the law).

I admit that as I’ve grown in my relationship with God things that did not use to bother me (like talking bad about someone when they get on my nerves) bother me now because the closer I’ve come to love itself the more I realize how often I sin against perfect love. Sort of like St. Francis in the poverty example, when it comes to God’s commandment to love my neighbor my conscience is really influenced by mercy and convicts me when I have not been merciful in a way that yours might not.

The world might tell me I’m fine, tell me I should not feel guilty over things so small. But “Catholic guilt” is different because it is not at all akin to the condemnation of the world where my self-worth and reputation are on the line. God already knows me perfectly and loves me not in spite of my sin and shortcomings but in them and through them. It is the experience of this perfect love which is true charity that deepens my knowledge of love and keeps me living by God’s commandments, not as something I have to do to “earn” or “deserve” God’s love but which my whole soul and intellect tell me I ought to do because the deepest desire of my being is both to be loved and to love others. I would argue the mysterious nature of love is that there is always a lover and a beloved, you can’t only be one of those things. Being loved makes me want to share this love and loving is satisfying in its own way that is hard to explain but which also takes strength, a strength that would be impossible to attain without being first loved by God.

More to the point pursuing your own pleasure, the temptation to be your own God with your own rules, will keep you from attaining that very desire, which I believe is in every human heart, to live a life of giving and receiving love. Many people purport that the idea of pleasure is harmless so long as no harm is done to others. But this ultimately ignores the harm you do to yourself when you seek to satiate your desire for eternal things with things that are temporal, when your reason becomes tainted by selfishness (the antithesis of love), and when you discover the paradox that while seeking to become your own master your desires have instead mastered you.

Many a person I have spoken to tells me they feel they are “not good enough” to be religious or that they don’t like feeling judged/guilty all the time, and often that it gets in the way of some component of their lifestyle that they are not ready to give up. But the solution to guilt is not to seek to eliminate your conscience or to be comforted by the approval of others which is the lie of relativism. You cannot repent if you believe you have done nothing worthy of repentance, and to truly repent is to experience the mercy of God, not to hate and judge yourself. However, I do sympathize with the attitude because the temptation when one feels guilty or judged is often to despair of ever being able to be the person you want to be, one that is worthy of love, and this I understand completely. Yet this is the temptation that should not be appeased but fought with everything you have. This is the ultimate lie that moral relativism seeks to bandage with another lie, but sadly two lies do not make a truth.

The truth I believe, the truth of the love behind Christian gospel and the ten commandments, is that God loves you as you are. And while there is temptation to justify yourself know that you don’t have to because God already knows you and I believe that His heart is so loving that if you sincerely asked Him to forgive you and to give you the love and the strength to be a little bit better than you were the day before He would do so without hesitation. It is this humility that is the path to love the kind of love that satisfies and the kind of love I would wish for every human being and every soul.

And that is why relativism and the cult of guilt-free living drive me crazy because they invite you to find happiness, love, and fulfillment on your own terms and outside of God and this simply can’t be done. It tempts you to pick up your pride in “liberation” and walk away from the humility that opens the door to a life of giving and receiving love, and I would implore you to avoid the tragedy of where that path leads because it is never too late to turn around and come back. Heaven is your true home and perfect love is your true inheritance not because you deserve it but because God is love and this is His faithful promise to His children. It is your eternal destiny that no sin and no one can take away from you unless you yourself reject it. So practice receiving and giving love here in time that you may receive and give love forever. This is my fervent prayer for you.