Tag Archives: Ascetical Theology

St. John of the Cross and The Buddha


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.


Christianity vs. Islam


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.

Colbert vs. Mother Teresa

In this short video, Stephen Colbert (comedian-turned-theologian) says “Faith ultimately can’t be argued; faith has to be felt.”  Let’s cut through his poor philosophy and consider reality:

1) Feelings are often no different from biochemical pleasures.  God uses feelings in all stages of prayer, but it is not central to the substance of the soul where the Blessed Trinity resides.  If faith must be “felt” as Colbert said, then where does that leave Mother Teresa who couldn’t feel anything for 60 years of prayer?  But false-positives abound, too:  If I drink an enormous Chemex hipster coffee and feel like a saint who could take on the world, did I just “feel” an increase in my faith?  Of course not.  That is because there is some correlation between good spiritual “feelings” and the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norephinephrine. That’s why we called coffee in seminary “liquid consolation.”  But we were joking.  Sadly, Colbert was not.  Back to neurotransmitters:  These reuptake mechanisms are also found in more intense pleasures (like cocaine.) So, “feeling your faith” doesn’t increase faith anymore than cocaine.  Even atheistic scientists will agree with me here:  Spiritual “feelings” are frequently nothing more than the release of biochemicals in the brain. I make no moral judgment against either feelings or pleasure here.  God created both and can affect both in prayer, but it’s not the central tenet of faith.

2) One’s opinion of truth is only as good as the evidence that one has to support it. Few doubt this truth in science, but if religion refers to truth, then this is true in religion also.  Regarding feelings and logic together, Colbert does admit that “they do not defy each other but complement each other. ”  He then says, “Logic itself will not lead me to God.”  This is partly true,1 but there’s a glaring omission in the above video:  The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical binary event (true or not true) upon which hinges our entire creed.  “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”—1 Cor 15:17.  Colbert inadvertently disparages the starting point of Christianity, namely, that the Resurrection and Divinity of Jesus Christ can be given some real evidence. Or rather, we can not prove that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but we can disprove the contrary with pretty air-tight historical arguments found in books like Kreeft/Tacelli’s Handbook of Catholic Apologetics.

For all the Social Justice Catholics that promote Colbert, we have to admit it’s ironic that Colbert puts the emphasis on feelings—something the poor don’t have the luxury of always enjoying in their daily walk with Christ.  The Christians being crucified by ISIS may not “feel” their faith, but they have a hope in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ based in a historical event.  But I guess feelings are good for a multi-millionaire hanging with the Jesuits of Manhattan.

Yes, for Colbert, “faith ultimately can’t be argued; faith has to be felt.”  In this philosophy, random biochemicals in the brain must take precedent over truth. Besides this conclusion being false for both Jesus on the cross (not good feelings but lots of truth) and St. Thomas Aquinas (who says very little of feelings and lots of truth) there’s actually another odd problem with Colbert Catholicism:  It’s the most boring version of Catholicism we have heard since the 1970s.  Almost all of my Gen-X friends raised by progressive-Catholic baby-boomers have left the Catholic Church.  Inclusive-Catholicism turned out to be exclusive-Catholicism, precisely because it was founded on the feelings of a few ex-hippies instead of the Truth.

Most normal people long for one of two ways of life:

Feelings=Pleasure=Religion of hedonism (max out on pleasure.)


Logic=Truth=Religion of Catholicism (max out on truth and love, but it hurts just a little on the way to heaven.)

At the end of the day, here are our best two options: An-unbridled-pleasure-fiend or a total saint.  I don’t believe in a middle-ground—practical or theological—where you get neither.

This isn’t to say that Catholicism is cold-cut syllogisms without any affections of love of Jesus Christ.  Nor does it mean that all pleasure is bad.   God made feelings and God made pleasure.  But at the end of the day, we have to decide if we’re going to live for feelings or the truth.  2

So, what is faith, then?  “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.”—Heb 11:1.  Evidence means just that—evidence, as I wrote above in regards to the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ.  But if Colbert wants this at a more personal level, the word “faith” in Greek (πιστις) is actually also the same as trust.  It means a trust-of-life, not just a single statement of salvation.  It means daily decisions, not just a single act of consent of the intellect (Protestantism) or emotions (Colberism.)  You see, if faith is trust, then this includes loving and hard decisions in the body all day long, including chastity, for “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”—2 Cor 5:10.

Jesus rarely said “Believe in me.”  He frequently said “Follow me.”

Mother Teresa’s faith went deeper than both emotions and logic.  For 60 years she did not “feel her faith.”  Yet she got up at 3am or 4am to pray for two hours before her Eucharistic Lord and served Jesus in the poorest of the poor in the streets of Kolkata for decade after decade.  Mother Teresa was living trust in the body when the feelings weren’t there.  These were decisions she lived out in her body, and yet her emotions were so dark that she had to make constant acts of faith in God via her will—acts that were above and beyond the dark night of the soul that lasted a grueling 60 years.  This is a tough marriage to a Divine Spouse!  She often complained lovingly of her silent lover…

In fact, at the risk of scandalizing my readers, I’ll point out what she once wrote to a friend:  “Pray for me, pray that I may have the courage to keep on smiling at Jesus—I understand a little the tortures of hell—without God.”  I used the word “scandalized” because you should be surprised that Mother Teresa felt herself (not made herself, but felt herself) to be “without God.”  And yet, she made constant acts of faith—essentially hope against hope—of having no feelings of God, yet seeking Him anyway.

Since her death, many people who felt on the verge of suicide have since found strength in the ways of Mother Teresa.  People who had struggled their whole life with very personal sins and thought God abandoned them found hope in Mother Teresa.  Why?  Because, they reason,  if God loved Mother Teresa even when she couldn’t feel Him, then His love must still be there.  If God could love Mother Teresa as she was, maybe He loves me in my serious sin.  They are right.  And it is still His kindness that leads us to repentance.

In fact, in that same letter, Mother Teresa explained her suffering for the life of the world:  “I have no words to express what I want to say, and yet last First Friday—knowingly and willingly I offered to the Sacred Heart—to pass even eternity in this terrible suffering, if this would give Him now a little more pleasure—or the love of a single soul.”


  1. St. Thomas Aquinas found this debate so important that it’s his very first response in his 3000 page “summary” of the Catholic Faith: “It was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.”—ST I.1.1 respondeo

  2. Colbert, if you ever read this, I’ll happily discuss this on or off the air in your studio.  Our mutual friend, Fr. Z (not the blogger), can hook us up.  


byz comm

A friend recently e-mailed me and he said that reading my blog  is “like drinking sparkling water while pulling nose hairs.”

Well, this is going to be one of those sparkling water ones without the pulling of nose hairs.  Despite the seemingly-boring topic of this post, the Offertory of the Mass, I’m going to make a tall promise: What I show you on the Offertory of the Mass will transform your weekly worship into something new, interpersonal, meaningful and even thrilling if you enact it, as Mega-Churchy as that promise sounds.

The offertory is the part of the Mass after the homily when the priest prepares the altar for the sacrifice. In sung Masses, the offertory prayer is sung.  In the sung Latin Mass (TLM) the offertory prayer is sung by the choir and whispered by the priest.  In the vernacular Mass (Novus Ordo, say, in English) it’s sung by the priest.  

Then, the altar is prepared.

Normally, people see the offertory as essentially the “intermission ” of the Mass. That’s why you use this time to talk quietly about the homily, scratch your wife’s back, read the bulletin, check your texts, use the bathroom, correct your kids, wonder if you should give 1% or a 2% of your income in the offertory basket.  Ok, one nose-hair part.  

If we only knew what was really about to happen. The Mass is the re-presentation of the entire Last Supper and murder on Golgotha to the point that every Mass is as real as if you took a time machine back to Calvary at the consecration. This is true, whether there’s good or bad music/homilies. Yes, the consecration is indeed the most underrated part of the Mass.

But the second most underrated part of the Mass is the Offertory. Here’s why: The Mass is also an entire ecosystem of death and new life in the supernatural organism of the mystical body of Christ (the Church) for the life of the world—everyone from your family to a pagan you’ve never met.

There’s a modern day mystic (and possibly stigmatist) in Bolivia named Catalina Rivas. I believe her private revelations from Jesus and Mary have the approbation (or at least allowance) of the Bishops of South America. Mary, the Mother of God, walks Catalina through the Mass, and today I want to highlight what Mary shows Catalina about the Offertory. It’s worth reading the long quote, with Mary’s quotes in bold font:

A moment later the Offertory arrived, and the Holy Virgin said: “Pray like this: (and I repeated after Her) Lord, I offer all that I am, all that I have, all that I can do. I put everything into Your Hands. Build it up, Lord, with the little thing that I am. By the merits of Your Son, transform me, God Almighty. I petition You for my family, for my benefactors, for each member of our Apostolate, for all the people who fight against us, for those who commend themselves to my poor prayers. Teach me to lay down my heart as if on the ground before them so that their walk may be less severe. This is how the saints prayed; this is how I want all of you to do it.”

Thus, this is how Jesus asks us to pray, that we put our hearts as if on the ground so that they do not feel its severity, but rather that we alleviate the pain of their steps.

Suddenly some characters, whom I had not seen before, began to stand up. It was as if from the side of each person present in the Cathedral, another person emerged, and soon the Cathedral became full of young, beautiful people. They were dressed in very white robes, and they started to move into the central aisle and, then, went towards the Altar.

Our Mother said: “Observe. They are the Guardian Angels of each one of the persons who are here. This is the moment in which your guardian angel carries your offerings and petitions before the Altar of the Lord.”

At that moment, I was completely astonished, because these beings had such beautiful faces, so radiant as one is unable to imagine. Their countenance was very beautiful with almost feminine faces; however, the structure of their body, their hands, their height were masculine. Their naked feet did not touch the floor, but rather they went as if gliding. That procession was very beautiful.

Some of them were carrying something like a golden bowl with something that shone a great deal with a golden-white light. The Virgin Mary said: “They are the Guardian Angels of the people who are offering this Holy Mass for many intentions, those who are conscious of what this celebration means. They have something to offer the Lord.”

Offer yourselves at this moment; offer your sorrows, your pains, your hopes, your sadness, your joys, your petitions. Remember that the Mass has infinite value. Therefore, be generous in offering and in asking.”

Notice this shortened version of the prayer that Mary asks us to pray at the Offertory:

Lord, I offer all that I am, all that I have, all that I can do. I put everything into Your Hands. Build it up, Lord, with the little thing that I am. By the merits of Your Son, transform me, God Almighty.

This is why this is the most interpersonal time during the Mass.  As the priest is setting up the chalice, simply think or pray onto that altar every part of your life:  every hope, every dream, every disappointment, every friend, every family member, every enemy, every act of love, every betrayal, every son, every daughter, every neighbor, everyone in prison, every Christian in Syria, everyone in ISIS, everyone working on Sundays, everyone who cut you off in traffic, everyone you learned about on the news, every circumstance at work, every medical problem, every financial problem, every mission, every marriage, every upcoming dentist appointment, every fearful anticipation, every hopeful anticipation, every physical suffering, every psychological suffering, everything you have, everything you are, everything you’re called to be, everyone you want to follow Christ.  Think big.  Your guardian angel can handle it.  

As the priest is at the offertory, so also should you be.  After you have thought of all those things, memorize now so you can say Lord, I offer all that I am, all that I have, all that I can do. I put everything into Your Hands. Build it up, Lord, with the little thing that I am. By the merits of Your Son, transform me, God Almighty.

Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said those who have nothing to offer become “parasites on the body of Christ” when they receive Holy Communion.

But for those who take the Offertory seriously, here’s the final great news:  At the consecration, not only is the bread and wine transformed, but so also everything else you prayed onto the altar:  every suffering, every hope, every family member.  This is the mystery of the immolation not only of the physical body of Christ, but the transformation of the Church—the mystical body of Christ.

If you want to change the world via the Mass, you don’t need to be an extraordinary “minister” of Holy Communion.  You can live your baptismal, common priesthood for the glory of God and the salvation of countless souls if you pray the offertory ardently as you give your whole life to your guardian angel, who in turns presents it to the Blessed Trinity for the miraculous transformation of evil into good, and good into glorious.

Trust or Virtue?

Mother Teresa

Salvation is a free gift that we receive from God at our baptism (1 Pt 3:21.) However, for salvation to be realized, we must cooperate in a life of virtue (Mt 24:13). Maybe we ask the question:  Does virtue come from God or from me? Even the gift of virtue or discipline comes from God. While some Catholics try to earn their way to heaven without any trust in Jesus Christ, other Catholics commit the opposite heresy of “once saved always saved,” which usually leads to a life of laziness. This post is not a Scriptural apologetic for the Catholic view of salvation. It’s a short writing where I look at a few clues from the saints to understand the balance of trust and virtue.

A post on Scripturally-defending-the-Catholic-view-of-salvation would be very fun and easy for me. But this topic is harder: I have to admit that the spiritual life often gives me a headache because I either end up trying too hard or not enough. In other words, I usually fail in either trust or generosity. Most of us have all come to somehow believe those two are opposed, so I simply want to ask: Why would an infinitely powerful God require me to show up to the battle that He could win without me? Why do I have to enter into spiritual warfare to beat the devil when Jesus already defeated him at the cross?

I don’t have answers, but here’s a few clues:

Who defeated Goliath? God or King David? David himself said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”—1 Sam 17:45. God defeated Goliath. But David had to step out in courage. David had to choose five small rocks. He had to swing his hardest and aim his best. He even had to train for years (1 Sam 17:34). Maybe we could apply Wisdom literature to King David, that God “gave him the knowledge of the holy things, made him honourable in his labours, and accomplished his labors.”—Wisdom 10:10. Notice that it was God who actually accomplished King David’s labors!

When priests asked St. Joan of Arc why God needed soldiers, she answered with the simple brilliance that marked her short life: “The soldiers will fight and God will give the victory.”

Sometimes God acts powerfully when we’re not trying (St. Paul on the road to Damascus) but usually God works powerfully when we give our measly 100% (like Peter’s fishing ability.)  Not that God needs that, but He wants us to act as sons, not magicians.  That’s why Jesus meets Peter’s repeated failures on the boat with Divine Power: Peter is giving it everything he has, even though it’s objectively very little compared to God’s Almighty power.

In the French movie The Bear, the final scene is where a small orphaned bear is running for its life from a cougar. This reminds me of the spiritual life where we fight the devil so hard we often become bloodied and beat. But, the little Bear doesn’t give up. If you can ignore the strange noises the cub makes that surely must have been overdubbed by a little French woman, it’s a beautiful scene:

Notice that even when the cub is beat up by the cougar (the devil, in my analogy) he has to give his best fight, even when the cub feels defeated and near-dead. The little bear (you and me) is almost required to give his loudest yell (weak as it is) for the enormous grizzly behind him to show all of his might (God and His angels)

This is why Mother Teresa said: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”  Then God is ultra-faithful.  Not that His faithfulness is anything less, but if we approach Him, we are invincible in a Providence that even allows suffering. Jesus and Mary, the closest human souls ever created to God, suffered more than anyone else, but in a certain sense they were invincible under God’s sovereign Providence.  (Yes, Jesus as a Person is God, but He also has a created human body and even a created human soul that suffered a lot.)

The interior life of the saints takes us straightaway to the of the question Trust or Virtue?  The answer is simply that trust leads to virtue.   When the Missionaries of Charity were first having tremendous success in Kolkata, India, some of the sisters asked Mother Teresa to eradicate the Holy Hour (the hour of meditation) for they were all too busy.  Mother Teresa agreed they were all too busy for one Holy Hour a day…and switched it to two Holy Hours a day!

CS Lewis (a crypto-Catholic?) also avoids old pitfalls of the faith and good works debate by simply pointing out how both God and man come into play in man’s salvation in the most simple Bible quote: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”—Phil 2:12b-13.  Lewis points out that for the Apostle Paul, even that fear and good work is a gift from God! But you still must “work out your own salvation.” What a marvelous combination if you think about it.

We must avoid the two extremes of the opposing heresies of Pelagianism and Quietism.  I think my summary here is theologically accurate, but you can email me if it’s not:

Man’s nearly-ineffectual but total faithfulness has been willed by God (who needs no one) to be a key component in God’s always-effectual Providence in man’s life.