Tag Archives: Ascetical Theology

Catholics and iPhones

Leisure: The Basis of Culture is a book written by Josef Pieper, a 20th century expert on St. Thomas Aquinas. In this book, Pieper demonstrates that a Christian civilization can not be sustained by technology and production as seen in Protestantized countries like Germany. On the southern and more Catholic side of Europe, we see how Italy and Spain close down business for afternoon siestas. Although Italy and Spain are less and less Catholic every year, they retain some aspects of what was once a Christian culture, namely, leisure. For Pieper, leisure is not laziness but an ability to enjoy the good things of life via contemplation and community.  This includes God and family.

His book has wide appeal to liberals and conservatives. In our slavish age of ironic isolation amidst so much technology, everyone knows that being able to relax with friends or family and a bottle of wine is usually a great gift from God.

But capturing this moment is harder than it sounds in an age of smart phones and Facebook. Furthermore, how do we reconcile the lives of the saints who never seemed to rest?

The reconciliation is very simple: Delineate your time. The key to moving from being a Catholic-in-sanctifying-grace to being a holy-and-joyful-Catholic involves a resolution that is the easiest and the hardest: Turn off your cell phone and Facebook as much as you can. In other words, refrain from mixing activities. If you are going to take a two hour nap, then do it well. If you’re going to talk to your daughter over coffee, then do it with your phone off. If you’re going to make a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, then make a concrete time in your schedule for it. If you’re going to bike or run for an hour, then don’t delay on the news feed. The current martyrs of the East do not need my advice on sanctity. But in the West, if you want to move from sanctifying-grace to holiness, try this: Pray hard. Love hard. Work hard. Sleep hard. And don’t mix them.

When I’m in a face-to-face conversation (including high school students and priests) they usually text other people while I’m talking to them. I usually say, “I’ll wait til your done.” They say: “I don’t mind.” I kindly say: “I do.” They usually look offended or surprised.  I don’t care, because if we don’t learn how to enter into deliberate engagement, we’re going to lose real intimacy and end up like the artificial world prophesied in the quiet 1997 genome-apocalypse movie, Gattaca.  The only way I can own an iPhone and still be in conversations with real-live humans before me to is keep my phone all day on “Do-Not-Disturb” (moon mode to Apple geeks):

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I’m pretty good at that resolution, but I’ll get to what I’m not good at.

I have a challenge for you below. I guarantee you will be in a better relationship with all loved ones (including God) if you complete these two items for just a month:

1) Pray hard. Love hard. Work hard. Sleep hard, and delineate your time with precision. Opus Dei calls this a “plan for life” but you don’t have to be in Opus Dei to do this. Come up with a schedule that includes prayer and exercise before checking Facebook even once. Sound easy? It’s as hard as fasting from food—and almost as rewarding. The smart phone has become an idol in the lives of most modern day Christians, for we no longer have the freedom of will to reject that slavish perpetual-access of all of our friends to our brain. Perpetual access is actually different from intimate correspondence (like when the mailman came every day, but once!) Remember how you excited you were when you used to receive letters? Because I’m no good at it, my resolution for a year is to relegate all emails, texts and Facebook to a single hour of the day, in the afternoon.   I’ll read more books than blogs.  Some parents may scoff at this as impossible as they wait all day for children’s emergencies, but even this vigilance may be producing neurotic kids and psychotic parents.   Look, I was a paramedic before the age of cell-phones, and I can say:  Lack-of-cell-phones did not impede our aggressive medicine for sick or injured kids.  In fact, we treated kids better before the age of helicopter Moms and Disneyland Dad.

2) Turn your phone off or put it on Do-Not-Disturb mode if you are talking to another person in real life. This sends the message: “You are more important than my phone.” It will make you present to people in a palpable way. When I break it , I apologize profusely (partly because I’m sorry and partly because I know I’m not practicing what I’m preaching.) When I do keep this resolution, I may have numerous texts as I leave a family’s home. This is okay, for rarely is there an emergency;  God gets me news of the dying needing the sacraments in other ways.   As for the friends and family who did text me when I had a three hour dinner, well, they have all come to learn that I get back to texts within 24 hours. No one is devastated because—and this is hard for anyone to admit—an untimely response will not do psychological or spiritual damage in any friend’s life. If it does, then this is called co-dependency. Realizing you’re not needed on text as much as the person in front of you requires humility.

Yes, we can allow a little flexibility to the concrete resolutions I’m proposing since none of us are monks. But neither are any of my readers (to my knowledge) on the nuclear-response-team for the US government.  In other words, it will hurt no one to make concrete resolutions or a plan for life with your cell phone.

A Protestant friend once said something that I have thought about for years: “Dave, God can do more for you than you can for God.” In other words, a life of contemplation of God and intimacy with others will change the world more than me thinking that I am just another savior with an iPhone.

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  1. A couple my age served up a midnight whiskey on an unusually cool summer night in Colorado before I left for Louisiana. We date ourselves as you can see the Dad had a jean jacket for me to borrow.  The five kids were all in bed, of course, except this little guy who would not sleep.

    ***

    The very top picture I snapped across the bayou from my new home.  Notice the bullet holes, perhaps expressing disapproval of the prohibition of loitering if shot by the literate.

Transfiguration and the Song of Songs

Written by one of my spiritual directees who entered women’s religious life.

The Song of Songs illustrates the journey of the Bride, a journey toward love. A journey involves a process, a traveling toward something which one desires but has not yet attained. Highly susceptible to losing his way on a long journey, a pilgrim often encounters numerous and varied obstacles. The Bride in the Song of Songs is no exception. One’s first outlook on the Song of Songs may circulate around the book as brimming over with vibrant images and profound expressions between two lovers. Although this description definitely defines the Song of Songs, it does not include every aspect of this unique book of scripture. The Beloved’s incessant tones of love reach out to a struggling and wounded Bride who displays throughout the book her journey from exile to restoration, hurt to healing, infidelity to consummation. The Bride is far from perfect and her journey toward complete union with the Beloved is a journey that each Christian embarks upon. It is a passage from brokenness to healing, a healing brought about by Christ Himself. As Christ invited Peter, James, and John up the mountain to behold His transfigured glory, so he calls to the Bride in the Song of Songs to come and allow Him to transform her wounds. This invitation revealed in these passages of scripture urges each Christian to respond to the love that Christ desires to give. The Song of Songs and the mystery of the Transfiguration manifest the transforming power of Christ who alone can guide the Christian through the obstacles encountered on the journey of life.

The first poem in the Song of Songs depicts the suffering of the Bride. “I am black but lovely, daughters of Jerusalem…Take no notice of my swarthiness, it is the sun that has burned me. My mother’s sons turned their anger on me, they made me look after their vineyards. Had I only looked after my own!” The Bride laments her condition. Scarred at the hands of others she has neglected the garden of her heart. However, her sorrow clings to a belief that beauty still breathes under the smoke of suffering and sin. The gaze of the Bridegroom penetrates through her swarthiness to reveal her beauty. She knows that she has not completely lost her beauty but it is beyond her power to recover it. He alone can reveal the beauty that is marred by sin. “Since her darkened face does not repulse the one she loves and does not prevent her from being loved, how could she not be beautiful, beautiful because she is loved, simply beautiful because he looks at her?”1  It is his gaze that transforms her. Her darkened condition impels him to gaze upon her because he desires to draw forth the beauty within her. Christ desires to transfigure all those who are darkened by sin. The journey of love begins with a realization of sinfulness. All people, wounded by original sin, can relate to the condition of the Bride in this first poem of the Song of Songs. Although this passage points to the darkness of sin it also proclaims a message of hope as the Bride argues, “I am black but lovely!” She implants in the sinner the courage to admit his sinfulness but to not dwell in it but to cling to the hope that he is beautiful because of the One who loves him. In the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, Christ invited Peter, James, and John up the mountain. Unaware of the impending event, they followed His invitation and consequently beheld his glory. The fear of one’s sinful condition could paralyze one from going up the mountain, but the step of faith in following the Beloved results in receiving his transfiguring gaze. “All powerful and transfiguring look of the beloved! What is essential is to remain in this look. Therefore it is impossible to despise and depreciate oneself because one cannot see oneself anymore but through the loving and transfiguring look.”2 As one lifts his eyes from his darkened condition to gaze on the Beloved and be gazed upon by Him, the beauty of the Christian soul is revealed and is illumined by the light of that powerful gaze.

The Beloved invites all to come into his gaze! He sees the darkened condition of the Bride and “…he comes leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills.”  He makes the initiative toward the Bride. Despising any quiet gesture, he bounds toward her with the giddiness and excitement of a young lover. Nonetheless, his love is no shallow emotion but a transfiguring gift that he wishes to bestow upon her if she will respond to him. “See where he stands behind our wall. He looks in at the window, he peers through the lattice.”  He can hardly contain himself so eager is he to bestow love and healing. He repeatedly invites, “Come then, my love, my lovely one come.”  Perceiving the beauty of the Bride as he peers in her window, he desires to draw her forth so he can first show her that she is beautiful and then unite Himself with her. She must respond and come out of herself in order to receive His gift. “My dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock, in the coverts of the cliff, show me your face.”  In the mystery of the Transfiguration Christ reveals his glory, but to be transformed by it one must gaze upon it. If Peter, James, and John had not followed him up the mountain they would not have witnessed his Transfiguration. Likewise, the Bride is invited by the Bridegroom to come out of herself so that he can transfigure her. This is the same call each Christian receives from Christ. “A very ancient mystical tradition has always seen in the cracks of the rock the new retreat where the Bride must now dwell, passing from her poor refuge within herself, where she had been hiding, to this very deep cave in the body of Christ, our ‘rock’ (1 Cor 10:4), which is the wound in his Heart (Jn 19:34).”3 Sin builds a cave around the heart. Often one finds security in this cave, consequently avoiding the cave which is the Heart of Christ where true security is found. The cruelty of a sword impelled by sin reveals the ultimate refuge for the sinner himself, the pierced Heart of Christ. Christ’s invitation to dwell in His Sacred Heart entails a big release of all other securities. One cannot dwell in two caves at the same time.

Responding to this profound invitation, the Bride leaves her cave to receive the love of the Bridegroom. “Awake, north wind, come, wind of the south! Breathe over my garden to spread its sweet smell around. Let my Beloved come into his garden, let him taste its rarest fruits.” His invitation is irresistible. “The Bride can say at the same time ‘my garden’ and ‘his garden’, for it is the same. She belongs to herself because she belongs completely to him. The more she is his, the more she is herself. All her desire from then on is to yield to his presence in total self-surrender.” 4 He awakens the beauty within her and stirs up her desire for love, for union with Him who will fulfill her every longing and transfigure her wounds. His loving presence gives birth to a deep joy within her as she invites him to penetrate the neglected garden of her heart. Recognizing him as the source of her own beauty, she discovers herself more fully through her union with him. She has invited him into her garden to water it, renew it, and make it fruitful. United with Supreme Love, her happiness knows no bounds. It seems that what should follow is that they “lived happily ever after,” but the Bride is weak.

The ensuing passage of the Song of Songs reveals the reality of wounded human nature. The Bridegroom is once more outside, knocking to be let in. He has withstood the night and cold, waiting patiently for her to let him in, but she replies, “I have taken off my tunic, am I to put it on again? I have washed my feet, am I to dirty them again?”  What befell her initial response of acceptance and delight? Laziness has replaced her fervor. Allowing physical comforts to obstruct her Beloved, the Bride reveals the shallowness of human love and its inclination toward lesser goods. All Christians desire union with God but become easily distracted by obstacles on the journey that impede their prompt response in following the voice of the Beloved. How often does one proclaim His undivided love but the next moment refuse to rise from the couch to spend time with the Beloved! In the Transfiguration account, the Father proclaims, “This is my Beloved Son, listen to Him.”  Although sleepy, the disciples forced themselves to stay awake in order to witness the profound mystery of His transfigured appearance and the wisdom of His conversation with Moses and Elijah. The voice of the Beloved may be quiet within one’s soul, and it becomes harder to hear the more one is immersed in comforts and distractions. Christ does not force Himself into any soul but waits for the soul to make the decision to come out of itself in order to belong fully to the Beloved and listen to His voice. However, the Bride delayed to let Him in, and she lost Him! “I opened to my Beloved, but he had turned his back and gone!” Realizing her extreme folly and unfaithfulness, she runs out to find him. The reality of the treasure she had lost by her hesitation impacts her fully and her laziness transforms into intense activity as she runs without abandon through the streets seeking Him. The grace of repentance spurs her to search for Him, and her inquiry concerning Him actually serves as a means for evangelization. She asks the daughters of Jerusalem, “Have you seen Him who my heart loves?” She begins to describe Him as “fresh and ruddy,” accenting his brilliance in contrast to her darkness. “In fact, we have, in his face, the union of sah (white) of the light—as is said about the clothing of Jesus during the transfiguration…with red, crimson (adom) , which is the color of love.” 5 Certainly as she describes him, her desire for him only heightens, her repentance deepens and her search for him intensifies. Now the daughters of Jerusalem desire to know him too! Ironically, brokenness and sin can become the means to leading not only oneself but also others to the Lord. The Christian must not despair over his infidelity but use it as a catalyst for deeper union and participation in the mission of the Beloved. The Lord delights in the soul that seeks Him.

The Bride discovers that “the one she was looking for was nowhere else but in her own heart…the Bridegroom, during all the time that his friend was calling him and running after him in desolation, had not run away to the end of the world. He silently retreated to the heart of his love.”6 Burdened by the dispossession of the Beloved, one must simply peer within his heart to discover that He has been there all along. The fear of separation subsides in front of the realization that Christ’s fidelity does not mirror the measure of the soul’s fidelity. St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy contains this message of hope: “If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny Himself.”  It is not the frantic running through the streets of Jerusalem that reveals his presence but the quiet epiphany that the Bride experiences within herself. No infidelity outweighs the love of Christ. He remains, although perhaps hidden, until the soul discovers the silent presence of the Lord within and chooses to enter into that quiet place of reunion. The Transfiguration occurred on a mountain, apart from the busyness of the city. The apostles spent every day with Jesus, but it was only in the silence and solitude of Mount Tabor where he was transfigured before them. The Bride’s reclusion of self-absorption disappears as she absorbs herself in the recesses of His heart. “Today she wants to be totally his, as he is hers. ‘I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine’ can therefore appear as the exact and fervent response, in the terms of the renewed covenant, to the horrible formula of divorce that had once been uttered.”7 Repenting of her infidelity, she returns to his embrace, awakened by his merciful presence and unremitting love. Like the Apostles on Mount Tabor, she experiences the transfiguration of God. What follows from this awesome encounter?

The event of the Transfiguration is a mystery of faith. “By His transfiguration, Jesus strengthens His disciples’ faith, revealing a trace of the glory His body will have after the Resurrection. He wants them to realize that His passion will not be the end but rather the route He will take to reach His glorification.” 8  Having experienced His glory, they must follow Him down the mountain and participate in his ministry and experience his Passion. This depicts the reality of a transfigured life. If the Christian can say with the Bride, “My Beloved is Mine, and I am His,” can he also say with the Bridegroom, “I will climb the palm tree…I will seize the clusters of dates”?  The Bridegroom’s desire to climb the palm tree prefigures the Crucifixion where Christ mounted the cross9 for the salvation of the world. The Apostles followed in the footsteps of Christ. Transfiguration demands action. A soul truly united with Christ must live his transfigured existence by embracing the suffering that comes from union with the Beloved. Marriage involves an immense joy but also sacrifice. The union of the Bride with her Bridegroom calls for a continual affirmation of love that will withstand through all trials. The soul truly converted must ask himself, “Am I willing to not only bask in the light of His transfiguring glory but to embrace anything that will come as I follow Christ?” The converted soul has been called forth from the clefts of the rock to become one with Christ. Although still possessing one’s weak human nature, grace perfects this nature to enable one to live a supernatural life. The journey of the pilgrim Christian involves a daily assent to living a transfigured life. Fear of falling through weakness is replaced by a deep faith in the constancy and mercy of the one who transfigures and never grows weary of guiding the pilgrim along the journey to complete Beatitude.


  1. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 90.

  2. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 91.

  3. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 176.

  4. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 228.

  5. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 258.

  6. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 272.

  7. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 275.

  8.  The Navarre Bible, Saint Luke’s Gospel, Four Courts Press: Dublin, Ireland, 1988, 126.

  9. Arminjon, Blaise S. J. The Cantata of Love, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1988, 325.

St. John of the Cross and The Buddha

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The above picture is a remake of the spiritual life as drawn and described by the greatest ascetical theologian of the past millennium, St. John of the Cross. St. John of the Cross was a 16th century Carmelite whose feast day we celebrate today in the TLM (a couple weeks out in the new calendar.)

If you look at that picture (which is hard to see but phenomenal if you can expand it) you will see that the man or woman who sets out to seek God is called to a narrow path that not only despises any earthly attachments that prevent union with God, but also despises any self-centered heavenly attachments that keep one from God. If one succeeds, one arrives “upon this mountain where dwells only the glory and honor of God.” Not to sound emotional, but I get chills in what it says before that point: “eternal invitation.” In other words, St. John of the Cross believed that God would admit us to the heights of union not only in heaven but also on earth.

But this was only for those who went by the rare path, which (in the above picture) reads nada, nada, nada. As you know, that means nothing, nothing, nothing. That means no candy bars and it means means no spiritual pride for those who want to arrive at the flame of living love upon Mount Carmel. Nothing means nothing except God. God alone. Soli Deo.

To some Catholics in the past 50 years, nada sounded like Buddhism. Why? Two reasons. First, because the third Noble Truth of Buddhism is that suffering can be extinguished by extinguishing desires. At first blanche, they didn’t seem too far off: St. John of the Cross also proposed a way of total extinction of unruly desires. The second similarity is that Nirvana means nothingness.  Nirvana is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist who has taken the spiritual life seriously. So if Nirvana means (in a certain sense) nothing, then how is Nirvana really any different from the Catholic saint’s nada, nada, nada?

St. John Paul II did his first thesis on St. John of the Cross, and later as Pope he helped to shed light on potential syncretism by reminding the Catholic that Buddhism carried a “negative soteriology.” “Soteriology” is the study of salvation. By “negative,” St. John Paul II did not mean “grumpy” but that Nirvana as salvation ended in nothingness, where the goal of the threefold nada for St. John of the Cross was…

…God Himself. St. John of the Cross lived the primacy of the spirit over the body (Romans 8) but not within some form of ancient Manichaeism or modern masochism or enlightenment Cartesian Dualism. He lived the nada, nada, nada to arrive at todo, todo, todo…everything. Where Nirvana’s termination point is nothing, the termination point of the Carmelite is everything:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.—Col 3:21-23

In Buddhism, Nada is both the means and the end. In Catholicism, nada is only the means (and at that, quite a different path because of what it means to be baptized and follow Christ in love, not simply a selfish ascetical struggle.) Nada is simply the means for John of the Cross, not the Nirvana extinction point, for John wanted his readers to arrive “where God is pleased to dwell.” Where is that? Upon Mount Carmel where all selfishness and spiritual pride has been extinguished. There, an even more ancient John “heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.”—Apocalypse 21:3

Yes, Buddhism is extinction. Catholicism is where God is pleased to dwell with man forever.

I have read about 300 of the 400 pages of the collective works of St. John of the Cross, but the best summary I could give came from a simple youth group board I saw at Nativity parish in Colorado: The more you pour out, the more God pours in.

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Christianity vs. Islam

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Today’s feast honors St. Felix of Valois, a 13th century saint who gave himself to be the ransom (replacement) of Christians taken hostage by Muslims.  At Mass tonight, I preached my sermon on St. Felix and the theology of both Christianity and Islam.