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January 11: Temperance V: The Gift of Shame

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The virtue of temperance does not require the stoic abstention from all physical pleasures. Temperance is the virtue by which we are strengthened in the ability to decide how much is good for us, and to follow through on that decision on the level of behaviour. What helps us in our decision?

St. Thomas teaches that the spontaneous reaction of shame that surfaces when we have over-indulged in the physical pleasures is both healthy and helpful to us. At first this might be hard to believe: shame is such a miserable, intensely uncomfortable feeling. We don’t like it, and often try to suppress it, or to defend against it by laughing it off and telling ourselves not to be so morbid. Yet, it is better for us to face our feeling of shame. It is a useful reaction whereby we recoil psychologically from the disgrace that comes from intemperance.

Excesses on the level of our physical appetites give us a feeling shame that is usually more intense than the shame we feel over our other moral failings and sins. St Thomas explains that this is because our bodily appetites are what we share with animals, and when we over-indulge them we feel deep down that we have lost something of our innate dignity as human beings.

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Shame, again, surfaces spontaneously. In the masterful book Love and Responsibility, written by Karol Wojtyla*1 in the 1960s, the phenomenon of shame is one of the topics he studies in depth. Here is a brief passage from his book:

Shame is a tendency, uniquely characteristic of the human person, to conceal sexual values sufficiently to prevent them from obscuring the value of the person as such. The purposes of this tendency is self-defence of the person, which does not wish to be an object to be used by another… but does wish to be an object of love (Chapter III).

Perhaps this requires some unpacking. First Wojtyla affirms that shame is part of our in-built moral equipment, as it were – uniquely characteristic of the human person. As such, it is a gift, and it has an importance and a purpose in our spiritual and human lives. Then, he speaks of ‘sexual values.’ Again, an important notion. We see here that he is not trying to say that our sexuality is bad. Then why does he talk about ‘concealing’ this value? Simply because this value has a tendency to loom larger than it should, so much so that it can ‘obscure the value of the person.’ There is a hierarchy of values here, he is saying: the person is of greater value than sexual values. Through shame we actually protect ourselves as persons, so that we do not become an object of “use”. According to Wojtyla, then, shame is not the result of prudish conditioning by repressive religious teachings, or over-strict authority figures. It is inherent in our nature, and surfaces spontaneously with a message for us. That message is that we are created to be loved and to give love in a manner that always affirms the unique beauty and dignity of the person – both our own person and that of the beloved.

This beautiful insight by Karol Wojtyla shows us something that helps us to moderate our physical appetites, by reminding us that we were created to love and be loved. This is the fulfilment we crave most deeply. But we must love and be loved rightly, with great respect for ourselves as persons and for the unique personhood of our loved one.

1 Karol Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, and was known as Pope John Paul II. His papacy lasted until his death, twenty-five years later.

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January 9: The Virtue of Temperance, III: Temperance and Moderation.

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Good food in moderation: Broadstairs Baptist Church Hall.

One of the words St Thomas Aquinas uses to speak about temperance is moderation. For St. Thomas, moderation is concerned with that place between the extremes of too much and too little. It is a ‘place’ that is not always easy to find because it requires us to make use of our reason – an extremely important notion for St. Thomas in his understanding of the human person. He emphasises repeatedly that the human being is a rational animal. In saying this he wants us to understand that as ‘animals’ we do some of the things animals do. But as rational beings, we have the capacity – indeed, it is an ontological imperative – to order our ‘animal’ life according to principles and values that mere animals cannot begin to understand.

Yet, our capacity to order our life according to the ‘good of reason’ is somewhat weak, because we are ‘fallen’ through original sin. The integrity of our being is affected, and there are times when our emotions and bodily instincts are apt to clamour for what is not truly good for us. We love pleasures of all sorts, and they are often what lead us astray. We are especially attracted to the pleasures involved with food and sex.

The pleasures of food and sex fulfil our bodily existence, and enable us to continue as a species. So far so good. The trouble is that they seem to suggest that we will be made happy by pursuing these pleasures to the exclusion of all else. But pleasures can deceive. If we follow the path of pleasure in an immoderate way, we will soon experience all the misery that comes from addictive behaviour – for the bodily appetites, if unchecked, simply cry out for more and more pleasure while these same pleasures simultaneously deliver less and less of the very pleasure they seem to promise. This kind of problem simply goes with the package of our fallen human nature. No one escapes it; we must all grapple with it. Temperance, understood as the capacity to moderate the requirements of our physical life in accord with the good of reason, is the virtue that is concerned with these matters.

SJC

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January 8, The Virtue of Temperance: II. What is Temperance?

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The word temperance, like the word fortitude, is perhaps another of those words that aren’t used much in ordinary conversation. But, the idea of temperance is suggested in some words that are used in every-day speech. Balance is one of those words, I think. We speak of wanting to lead ‘balanced’ lives, of wanting our judgments to be ‘balanced’, our big decisions in life to be the result of ‘balanced reflections.’ We speak of a person being unbalanced. We speak of balanced diets. We try to balance our professional lives with our personal lives. We know what people mean when we hear these phrases. Balance is something like the virtue of temperance. Something like it, but not identical to it.

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Temperance ‘…has a wider significance and higher rank,’ according to Pieper. ‘It is one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life’ (see The Four Cardinal Virtues, 4,1). This is high praise, indeed. We wouldn’t usually think of ‘balance’ in such lofty terms. Temperance, however, delivers a greater reward than does mere emotional balance. Emotional balance is concerned mostly with making our lives run smoothly in this world. Temperance, however has a broader reach, encompassing our mind, extending to the very soul of the human being, and reaching up to heaven. Temperance seeks to order our earthly existence in such a way as to fit us for eternal life with God. We shall look at this more closely in our next post.

SJC

The door of Mercy, the Gate of Life.

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January 7, The Virtue of Temperance: Introduction – Temperance renders the human being beautiful

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Good Afternoon friends! Sister Johanna has sent her latest series of posts on the virtues, this time Temperance. A good source of reflection for those of us who set unrealistic New year Resolutions; may your temperate resolutions nurture the beauty in you this year!

As always, Sister is well worth reading. God Bless, WT.

The virtue of temperance comes last in the line-up of the four cardinal virtues. We have already considered the other three virtues – prudence, justice and fortitude – in previous posts. These four virtues are called cardinal because they are of cardinal importance in our human life. They help us to live moral lives – they are also called the four moral virtues. They are concerned not only with our superficial behaviour, but with our deepest inner processes: our thoughts, feelings, our very reason. They help us to negotiate reality, to approach it with integrity, to see things as they are. The virtues confer power – that is what the Latin root means: virtus means power. We are dealing here not with political power though, but with a much more important kind of power: power over ourselves. The virtues help us to live in the truth of things, and to act in ways that are good, fair, true and loving. I will not recap here what we have already looked at in other posts. Those wishing to catch up with what was said on the virtues may find these posts through the search function of this website.

I have based this study on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thirteenth century texts on the human person still ring with truth and power today. Although his famous work, the Summa Theologica, does not make for easy reading, St. Thomas’s insights are well worth the effort it might take to become familiar with his ideas, especially those aquinas-carlo_crivelli_007presented in the second part of his Summa. I am also relying on the work of the great Catholic philosopher from the twentieth century, Josef Pieper, whose book, The Four Cardinal Virtues, is both an inspiring read and a luminous interpretation of St. Thomas.

I would like to begin the reflections on the virtue of temperance by a quotation from Pieper’s book, in which he says:

To the virtue of temperance as the preserving and defending realization of our inner order, the gift of beauty is particularly coordinated. Not only is temperance beautiful in itself, it also renders [the human being] beautiful. Beauty, however, must here be understood in its original meaning: as the glow of the true and the good irradiating from every ordered state of being….

I realise that in presenting that quotation in the beginning of this reflection, I may be throwing my readers in at the deep end. If you stay with me over the next few days, I hope gradually to make this statement intelligible.

SJC

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December 20. Zechariah, an unlikely Advent Star, VII.

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Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and were surprised that he stayed in the sanctuary so long. When he came out he could not speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. But he could only make signs to them and remained dumb (1:21-23).

I can imagine Zechariah staying in the sanctuary long after Gabriel had left him, and then slowly, reluctantly leaving. I imagine the reaction of the people to this long absence of his when he at last emerged. They were not prepared for this new Zechariah – for Zechariah the visionary. Undoubtedly, there were questions for Zechariah. He answers with signs, but maybe they don’t get it at first. Maybe they were impatient with him; possibly there was some teasing before the more perceptive ones among the people noticed Zechariah’s changed countenance and told the jokers to shush.

Zechariah was a man whose vision of reality had not prepared him for the vision he saw in the temple that day. Yet, he had stellar qualities that I would like to have. He was deep, stable, faithful, humble, loyal and prayerful. When the Archangel Gabriel announced a new reality to him that day in the sanctuary, and gave Zechariah the grace of silence within which to ponder this complete reordering of his existence, he acquiesced. And months later, when his eight day old son was circumcised, he was able to affirm his full concurrence with the angel’s message by writing the name that Gabriel had told him call his son: John – much to the amazement of all who where there. And so, he then regained the power of speech. He had used his silence well, and through it had grown and changed, and had come to a full acceptance of Gabriel’s message. (cf. 1: 59-66).

God works that way sometimes. He sometimes does something enormous in our lives and does not always seem to prepare us for it beforehand. He throws us in the deep waters. We may feel frantic. When he works in this way with us, we can only rely on him to give us gradually the understanding we need.

Every Advent is an opportunity to become like Zechariah, to encounter Gabriel in the Holy Scriptures, to hear him saying something that, even now, is hard, very hard, to grasp as fully as it deserves. We know that we each have a role to play in salvation history. We will not be bearing John, no. But as we each bear the unique gift that our personal faith brings to God’s people we can say, as Elizabeth did when she conceived, “The Lord has done this for me” (1:25). And we can pray during this season of Advent for the grace of silence to ponder the Word of the angel who stands in God’s presence.

SJC

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, photo by NAIB.

 

 

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December 19. Zechariah, an unlikely Advent Star, VI.

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Behold, since you did not believe my words, which will come true at the appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened (1:20).

Gabriel’s words are penetrating and packed with meaning. His sees more deeply into Zechariah than Zechariah sees into himself. And so, he first reveals Zechariah’s disbelief to him: “…you did not believe my words…” I suspect that Zechariah is pretty numb by now, and, as it were, unable to get his head around anything that is happening. But Zechariah might still be capable of inwardly assenting to the truth that Gabriel speaks about himself. I see him nodding: yes, he is disbelieving, at the moment. But because we are so often mysteries to ourselves, it can be a relief sometimes to learn a ‘home’ truth. We feel the light that that truth brings and are grateful. I imagine this being so for the upright man, Zechariah.

Then the Archangel Gabriel adds the magisterial phrase “…which will come true at the appointed time….” To my mind, these words are further words of reassurance for Zechariah – and for us. No matter how weak or disbelieving we might be in the face of the unexpected and unfathomable divine command, we cannot interfere with what God ordains. The upright Zechariah desires the fulfilment of God’s word. Gabriel’s prophecy is God’s word, and it will come true at the appointed time, no matter what else is happening in Zechariah or in the world at large. Just wait and see, Zechariah, Gabriel seems to say. God’s word is always an effective word. What God says will happen will indeed happen.

Finally, Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will have no power of speech until God’s word is fulfilled. Now, I believe that the Archangel Gabriel knows exactly what kind of man he is dealing with in Zechariah, and I do not interpret the angel’s words punitively here, either. In yesterday’s post, we were meditating on our need for time and prayer when we are confronted with something from God that we cannot grasp. I therefore see the Angel’s bestowal of silence upon Zechariah as a necessary condition for absorbing what he has experienced – which is so other, so unearthly, so wonderful. This silence can be understood as an expression of God’s mercy to Zechariah. I live monastic life, after all, and monks and nuns know that silence is a privilege not a penance. Silence allows us to live in an environment that is conducive to the deepening of our relationship to God. God knows that this good and upright man needs time now, and protection from the usual trivialising tendencies of speech in order to ponder his word and absorb what has just happened to him in the temple. What’s more, I imagine Zechariah welcoming this silence in the way a thirsting man welcomes a spring.

 

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December 18. Zechariah, an Unlikely Advent Star, V.

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The angel replied, “I am Gabriel who stand in God’s presence, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news (1:19).

When I read of the angel’s reply to Zechariah’s disbelief and perplexity, I do not hear a rebuke in his words, as some interpreters have done. I hear reassurance. First, the angel tells Zechariah his name. His name is Gabriel. In the bible, to know the name of another being is highly significant: the name gives the other a sort of power over the one whose name is disclosed. God refuses to tell Moses his name in order not to give Moses power over him. He refers to himself only as I AM. But here, Gabriel allows Zechariah to know not only who he is but also what he does: he “stands in the presence of God.” He, furthermore, is God’s messenger: “I have been sent to speak to you….”

I can imagine Gabriel emphasising the words “sent” and “you,” as if to respond to Zechariah’s doubts about the angel somehow getting him mixed up with another and younger man. Gabriel tells him that there is no muddle. He is obeying what Almighty God has commanded. He has the right address, and knows exactly who Zechariah is, and how old. Zechariah is emphatically the right man.

And what is the purpose of this angelic visitation? Its purpose is to bring Zechariah this good news. Perhaps Gabriel emphasises the word “good” here, to assure Zechariah that, despite his confusion and doubt, this is not a tragedy. This news is good! Gabriel’s words might be paraphrased as: ‘Zechariah, you are not Job! This is a New Beginning for all humanity, and you have been chosen to play a leading role. You will be the father of the one who will prepare the way of the Lord! The new stage in salvation history is now starting, and you and Elizabeth will be instrumental in an event of truly cosmic proportions.

My own feeling here is one of great affection for Zechariah. Surely, Gabriel cannot be displeased with this humble man. He just needs time to take in the message.

Sometimes I need time, too. Do I allow myself time when I need it? Or am I hard on myself when I cannot immediately understand what God seems to be asking of me? Or, worse, am I hard on God? Do I turn away from God in frustration when his message seems incomprehensible to me? Sometimes I need to wait and pray. Do I?

SJC

This Cornish Angel carries the name of a parishioner, inviting our prayers.

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December 16. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: IV.

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Your son will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him (1:14-17).

Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child. A child will be born to them, says the angel, but such a child as they could not possibly have imagined. The angel declares that their son will be “great in the sight of the Lord… in the spirit and power of Elijah. Their son will have a mission for all Israel: to bring them back to their God, to prepare for the Lord a people fit for him (cf. 1: 12-17).

This angelic utterance is really a rather long one, containing information that can only have been completely mind-boggling for Zechariah. Perhaps readers of this post have heard this story many times, and through familiarity have lost the sense of its being beyond fathoming – this prophecy from the mouth of a powerful and numinous being. Certainly for Zechariah, it is all too big to absorb. At first he is silent while the angel delivers his astonishing message.

When Zechariah does find power of speech, he comes out with the words that have earned him such criticism through the centuries: “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). I rather doubt I’d have performed any better than Zechariah, and would probably have done far worse, but note well: this was an angel, after all, and angels generally know what they are talking about. Zechariah, however, seems to think that the angel might not realise how old he and his wife are. Even with my bias in favour of Zechariah, I must confess that I can’t help smiling here. It is almost as though he is asking the angel to check his divine instructions and make sure he has not come to the wrong temple and spoken to the wrong man.

So, what do we see here? Zechariah blurts out a question that is pretty daft in the circumstances. But is he really so bad after all? His question shows at least that he is a stable character, not easily diverted from the path of righteousness. And it has already been established that Zechariah is a good and upright man in the sight of God. He is not someone to curry the favour of men (or angels), or to give his consent, even to an angel, without deep conviction of heart. He is a man of depth. He wants to understand what is happening, but he is out of his depth now. He is used to having his prayer unanswered, we know. But he is not used to that same prayer now being answered.

SJC

John baptising Jesus – Zakopane Basilica of the Holy Family, Poland.

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December 15. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: III.

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Then there appeared to Zechariah the angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. The sight disturbed Zechariah and he was overcome with fear. But the angel said to him, “Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard” (1:11-12).

The gospels are sometimes discreet about their characters’ emotional reactions. The Holy Spirit must fill in such details. I imagine Zechariah suddenly feeling, with scalp-tingling certainty, that he is not alone in the Lord’s sanctuary. He looks up from the incense and gasps, his heart hammers in his chest, he trembles, he feels frozen to the spot. I imagine him telling this story long afterwards, every detail held fast in his memory. A magnificently beautiful angelic being is standing there on the right side of the altar of incense, radiant, solemn, and looking straight at him – looking straight into his eyes, and seemingly into his very soul. Zechariah stares back, shaking and wide-eyed. The splendour of the angel overwhelms him. He is frightened, feels he should cover his eyes or lower them, but he cannot stop looking at the angel’s majestic beauty. The angel tries to reassure him, calling him by name, “Zechariah, do not be afraid.”

How does Zechariah respond? Does his fear evaporate? I rather doubt that the fear disappears completely, but perhaps some aspects of it diminish a bit as the angel continues his message. “…your prayer has been heard.”

What prayer? Can it be the one so dear to his heart, yet so long unanswered? The prayer that was by now past praying for? That Elizabeth should conceive? And bear a son? Indeed, yes! Zechariah’s prayer had been heard: Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. (1:13)

But, Zechariah – even though he is a holy man, and upright in the sight of God – might not have been prepared for the fact that when we ask God for something in prayer, God hears not only the request of which we are conscious, but also that request’s most profound ramifications, of which we are not fully conscious when we first made our prayer. Perhaps, then, we need to be ready when we ask God for something – ready for the fact that God does nothing by halves. Our prayer will be answered, yes, but it will be answered so deeply, so completely that it will require of us a new level of surrender to the divine will, and a greater degree of courage than we had needed hitherto. This much is certain: when God answers a prayer, some mind-stretching is required in order to take it in.

SJC

 

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December 14 : Zechariah, unlikely Advent Star II.

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Zechariah quickly becomes the focus of St. Luke’s narrative:

Now it happened that it was the turn of Zechariah’s section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the priestly custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there. At the hour of incense all the people were outside praying (1:8-10).

Here is Zechariah, an older man, exercising his priestly duties once again. I see him wearing the priestly robes, silently entering the sanctuary and carrying out the rituals prayerfully and in the prescribed manner. He does this, perhaps rather slowly due to his age, but also beautifully, with innate grace of movement and dignity of bearing. This has happened many times and Zechariah knows all the prayers and actions by heart. Everything flows smoothly. He reverently lights the coals; the incense fills the holy place with its fragrance. He loves this religious duty and never tires of it. He is alone with his God and prays fervently for his people.

There are never any surprises here for Zechariah. Ever. Perhaps this is another clue to Zechariah’s character. He knows what should happen next. Maybe he knows this a bit too well. Ordinarily, for frail human beings, our greatest strengths have a flip side, when our greatest weaknesses take over. We usually have a hard time being balanced. Zechariah is like all of us here. His great religious devotion, and his familiarity with what was prescribed by the Law in exercising his priestly office, might not have prepared him for what would happen this time. New ideas are never easy to absorb, especially new ideas about religion. And what would happen this time to Zechariah, as we know, was not merely a new idea, but an entirely new experience of the numinous, and a new revelation of God’s will.

ZMaybe this is a good place to stop and pray. Is this a time in my life when God is asking something new of me – for which I do not feel prepared? Advent is always such a time. The Incarnation is something so new that it cannot be imagined: God’s very Son is born. The Eternal Word of the Father becomes an infant. Have I lost my sense of how astonishing this is? Am I somewhat entrenched in a religious mind-set that I have acquired and maintained for years now? Can I imagine letting go of this so that God can lead me to something I have never experienced before?

SJC

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