Tag Archives: reason

February 12: Have your ELECTRIC BLANKET serviced … I


It’s a good headline isn’t it! Poor Saint Valentine gets supplanted by Ash Wednesday this year. Let’s remember him in advance!

One day last October we were out foraging for sloes, those sharp, purple little wild plums, the fruit of the blackthorn, one of the earliest spring flowers. Something reminded Janet of this passage in the old ‘Dutch Catechism’ which was part of her journey into the Church. Appropriate reading for Saint Valentine.

People begin to suspect that they are meant for each other when they experience the marvel of falling in love. A young man and a young woman discover something in each other that no outsider can fully see. The hope and the need of giving themselves to each other completely take over and grow and grow.

The heart has its reasons which the reason does not quite know, according to Pascal, nor is it necessary that it should. But if one is to give oneself to another totally and for ever, one must make a decision with one’s whole person. Hence reason and conscience cannot be left out. The enchantment of love opens the eyes to the uniqueness of the other, but it can also be blind if it remains a superficially sensual or romantic attachment.

A New Catechism, Catholic Faith for Adults, London, Search Press, 8th impression, 1978, p 385

And that headline was on the bookmark Janet was using all those years ago.


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January 13. Temperance VII: Beauty, Reason and Will

Jack Lonnen Meadows in costume 1At last we may return to one of the key ideas in the first quotation I cited some days ago in these posts on temperance. The philosopher Josef Pieper says that the virtue of temperance is beautiful in itself and renders the human being beautiful. What can he mean? Isn’t temperance about self-control? Beauty belongs to some other virtue, maybe, but not to temperance.

But beauty, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is an attribute of temperance because temperance enables us to control ourselves in relation to those things which can most degrade us. When our passions are indulged in an intemperate way, they ‘dim the light of reason from which all clarity and beauty of virtue arises’, according to Thomas. Let’s linger over this a bit. St. Thomas mentions the ‘light of reason’. We are always being reminded by St. Thomas that the human being is a rational being. Our reason, as we have noted in all our posts, is a great attribute, a precious gift. It is, you might say, like a musical instrument that needs careful handling. A violinist carries his instrument in a specially constructed violin case that protects the strings and the wood from damage so that the violin is able to produce the sweetest sound. Our reason, too, is meant to be protected from damage so that it can function well. Intemperance can cause a kind of damage to our reason. It is not hard to understand this. Just think of someone who is drunk. What becomes of the light of reason and the clarity of thought in an intoxicated person? Or think of someone in a rage so intense that the mind stops functioning, and violence takes over.

The role of the will is important here. ‘The will,’ says Thomas, ‘stands between the reason and the passions and may be moved by either.’ Our will, then, is a bit like a traffic policeman, allowing some things through and making others wait. The traffic policeman commands obedience from drivers in the same way that the will, directed by the reason, can command obedience from our passions. If our passions do not obey will, the will can be run over by them, and this causes havoc for us. Thomas goes on to say, ‘Although the passions are not in the will, it is in the power of the will to resist them.’ We are not at the mercy of our passions, regardless of their seeming strength. Just because we may passionately want to do something that we know is not good, our will need not capitulate.

It is always possible for the passions to respond to the will’s directives. The passions are not all-powerful. The will, moved by the light of reason, is able to resist them.

Yet, the beauty of temperance is not merely that it protects us from going hay-wire with regard to the physical pleasures of food and drink and sex. It has a positive effect on our entire being, body, soul and spirit. Temperance is not directed only to our physical appetites. We have a host of emotional appetites also: the craving for control, for popularity, for possessions, for acceptance, for love, for attention, for money, for safety, for comfort – the list goes on and on. We cannot treat all of them here. But from all of them in their extreme and intemperate form, temperance is liberating and purifying.

The particular beauty of temperance is ‘the glow of the true and the good’ radiating from within the temperate person. Temperance, you might say, works on us to bring about the purification of our entire being. How? By submitting our most intensely personal feelings and desires, our most passionate impulses and cravings to the light of divine truth.

As Pieper says, temperance is ‘that purity by dint of which the selfish and furtive search for spurious fulfilment is abandoned.’ He continues:

A new depth here opens to our view: purity is not only the fruit of purification; it implies at the same time readiness to accept God’s purifying intervention… to accept it with the bold candor of a trustful heart, and thus to experience its fruitful and transforming power.


Maurice’s great-great-grandfather was an actor.

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12 January, Temperance VI: Temperance, Restraint and Anger.


One of the important aspects of the virtue temperance is that it is not just about our physical appetites. It is about all our appetites, and develops our ability to handle such emotions as intense fear, desire and anger. And so, it complements moderation with something that uses perhaps more ‘muscle’ – and that something is restraint. Restraint is that power of soul whose act is to choose. In so doing, it curbs the desire for immediate gratification by showing us that we may fulfil our being more truly by making a reasoned choice than by gratifying an impulse that is coming (as in the case of anger) from a hidden desire for vengeance.

Restraint has particular relevance to the passion of anger. Anger can be a very strong passion indeed, and it is worth dwelling on it for a moment. St. Thomas grants that some forms of anger are useful: the anger that surfaces in regard to injustice, for example, and any kind of abuse. Anger is a necessary passion in these circumstances. I would go even further and say that there are some situations to which anger is the only healthy response. But, once again, anger must be directed by the light of reason. Intemperate anger can be destructive and abusive itself, and St. Thomas would not allow that it is good to fight violence with violence. This is where restraint comes in. Blind wrath, bitterness of spirit, revengeful resentment: these forms of anger are highlighted by St. Thomas as being the most dangerous aspects of anger and therefore most in need of the curbing powers of restraint. Blind wrath, he says, is anger that is immoderately fierce and destructive. Bitterness of spirit is to do with a state of anger that lasts so long that it becomes a part of one’s very character and personality. In this case the offence remains in one’s memory, and gives rise to what Thomas calls ‘lasting displeasure’ that does not stop until punishment has been inflicted. Revengeful resentment is an aspect of this ongoing bitterness in which the disposition becomes chronically sullen and the mind is endlessly preoccupied with taking revenge.

When these aspects of anger are delineated here in writing, it is easy to see how harmful they can be – to ourselves and to others – but let’s face it: we have all been there and probably done it. I don’t doubt that many of us have at times been swept away by the intensity of our feelings and indulged in precisely the kind of angry behaviour Thomas describes. These temptations are part of the weakness we have as fallen beings. But the virtue of temperance brings good things to bear on this state of affairs. Through gentleness, justice and charity we can restrain the onslaught of anger.

Gentleness, contrary to what we might think, does not mean that we never feel angry, or that if we do, we can get over it almost before we feel the full force of it. Rather, gentleness is what makes a person master of herself, and therefore master of the power of anger, according to St. Thomas – for anger is a power, and as such is capable of accomplishing something good. Gentleness is about channeling that power rightly, dealing with the cause of the anger fairly, addressing the whole situation that gave rise to the anger in such a way as to change it for the better.

In order to do this, of course, we need to enlist the aid of our reason. We are back to the need to think. Our reason then, brings justice and charity to bear upon the situation that has caused our anger. Justice and charity working together with gentleness enables us to focus on something other than our own pain. We become able to focus on the feelings of the one (or ones) who offended us, on seeing the situation from the other side, and on effecting the changes that will lead to the establishment of peace – even if some of those changes are changes that need to take place within our own heart.


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


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.


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November 16: Jesus Beyond Dogma II: xvi: ‘God is giving birth all day long!’

Palm Sunday Lumimba 2015 03

Relating says something crucial of God. Birthing seems to capture God’s activity. When asked what God does all day – Eckhart replied: God is giving birth all day long! The will-to-life always triumphs and always will – something primitive religions seemed to grasp with the worship of the Great Earth Mother Goddess. Despite all attempts to subvert this practice the sacredness of the earth itself and its ingenious capacity to survive surely calls for recognition.

This isn’t a gender issue – but about the human capacity and need to image God. Because we issue from the divine we must carry something of this. Obviously God’s continual birthing forth is more readily appreciated through the female rather than the male, while acknowledging that both genders contribute. Birthing is a motherly concept; and redemption does not come through mortality but through natality, celebrating the birthing of all Creation.

The universe is saturated with life in abundance – largely invisible to the eye and to science; becoming manifest through channels of energy in embodied forms of which the cosmos itself is the primary body and co-creates with the divine bringing forth the vast range of creatures, including humankind. God did not create a perfect world, which we spoiled and had to be repaired – God created a world able to become perfect by the way it is lived-in.

Embodiment is not just for humans. Creation is alive with a vast range of embodied expressions. Insofar as embodiment is a primary requisite for incarnation, God has been incarnating for billions of years. We have abused this by relegating embodiment to humankind. In a sense Jesus belongs to a timeless realm – he is forever urging us to transcend narrow and confining boundaries. The rational only considers real to mean what can be quantified and measured.

The Gospels speak of the Kingdom – royalty language doesn’t sit easily with us. Why does Jesus use this term, when he sought to transcend all confines. We have sanitised Jesus – making him a well-behaved adult of a middle class culture – through a felt need for convention, order and authority. Where is the Jesus of the Parables? The Kingly realm is now of a different character – now it is power with, not power over. No ruling classes, no privileges; simply equality through a love that gives unconditionally, inviting us to the greatest challenge we will ever face – to love as we are loved.

Discipleship is now different; no longer allegiance to an exalted figure at the top. Love is key, so too is justice, love without justice rapidly becomes sentiment. We have done great things in the name of charity, yet the poor remain poor, because they don’t know the justice which guarantees equality. The Kingdom is for practical change, for radical transformation. The Jesus story is not closed, it is open to the creativity of every succeeding generation.


Picture from Missionaries of Africa

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30 September: Fortitude VII, More Endurance.



This idea of endurance is worth lingering over. When I taught this subject as a class, a student once asked, “Isn’t it better to fight for what is right, rather than just put up with something that is evil? Shouldn’t we utilize anger and aggression against an evil which threatens?” St. Thomas allows this, in fact. Moreover, he nowhere says that we should ‘put up with evil’ in a passive way. He says that in resisting evil, all the emotions of the soul can be employed by the virtuous person if they are modified according to the dictate of reason. But as for anger and aggression, they are effective only sometimes. At best, “moderate anger”, as he calls it, can be useful because it is both “moved by the commands of reason and it renders an action more prompt.” Moderate anger, then, is not a tantrum, a rage, a show of personal power. It is intelligent, it speaks without shouting, it has a rational basis for its concerns. That is what Thomas means by being “moved by the commands of reason.” Moreover, an angry person doesn’t delay and stall about doing what needs to be done: an angry person acts quickly. This can be a very good and useful thing.

Then, if the anger is under control, if one has a reasonable set of objections and can communicate them in a rational way, and without dragging one’s feet, then this would be St. Thomas’s idea of the virtuous way to utilize the emotion of anger and grow in fortitude. It might be effective if the difficulty is the type than can be resolved by reasonable argument. Some are.

The Iron Bridge is a symbol of endurance: Abram Darby III’s endurance against scoffers, and nearly 240 years of Shropshire weather and the vagaries of the river Severn.

But, sadly, not all difficulties can be resolved in this way. For Thomas, the bottom line still seems to be that we must accept that most serious problems take a long time to resolve. This is why endurance, in his teaching, is more effective than anger – even moderate anger. Endurance isn’t merely a passive virtue, for ‘do-nothings’. Rather, endurance actively stands firm on the side of what is truly valuable and good when trials come. It does not capitulate to pressure. It keeps hold of the ethical reasons for taking the stance we take. This, as anyone knows who has ever tried it, is not easy. That is why fortitude is a virtue.

I would like to end these reflections with what The Catechism of the Catholic Church says about fortitude.

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice one’s life in defence of a just cause (no. 1809).

For further study:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ,Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper, University of Notre Dame Press


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30 April: Prudence VII, Reason.

mercy.pier (640x340)

Saint Thomas Aquinas says that it is important for prudence that a person be “an apt reasoner” (Summa Theologica 49.5).  We have just said that we must not be thinking forever about what to do, but still, we must think enough.   We know, for example, the exasperation we feel when someone flip-flops from one decision on one side of the problem to the opposite decision on the opposite side with very little rational explanation for the change of mind.

Today, pop psychology has placed a rather inordinate stress on the so called “gut feeling,” as though our gut somehow has access to a truth that the mind and the reason cannot find.  Saint Thomas thinks more highly of our powers of reason than that.  He says that reason is the faculty that researches, weighs and evaluates.  Going off on tangents, or taking quantum leaps isn’t really the way to attain prudence, in his thinking.  Rather, he says,

‘The work of reason is research proceeding from certain things to other things.’ 

Eminently reasonable himself, Thomas would have us take a step by step approach to discovering the most prudent course of action:

  ‘It is proper to the rational creature to be moved through the research of reason to perform any particular action.’  





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10 March, Human Will VI: Renunciation of the Will?



Yesterday’s post ended praising the will as a vital faculty of the soul.  Today we are considering the notion of renouncing the will.  But why would we want to renounce something as wonderful and necessary as our will?  Didn’t we establish that the will is good?  That it is an ally of the reason and an enabler of the life of virtue?

It is important to reflect that when the idea of the renunciation of the will occurs in spiritual writings, the literature is not talking about the will in this vital sense, nor in the sense of willingness, as we discussed in yesterday’s reflection.  The recommendation to renounce the will is referring to that in us which is turned away from God in an ongoing attitude of wilfulness.

Perhaps if we look at the use Holy Scripture makes of the concept of the will we might better understand what we are doing when we renounce the will.  In both the Old and New Testament, the concept of the will is used predominantly of the will of God.  In speaking of the ‘will’ of God, we mean his designs, his plan for humanity.   But the bible isn’t a text-book, explaining God’s will in the abstract, as though God were one thing and his will another.  As an inspired text, Scripture gives the prayerful reader an encounter with God himself.  This is, in fact, an encounter with his will, for God’s will is not separate from himself: it is himself.

In the daily practice of lectio divina, which is the slow and prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture, we have the unspeakable privilege of encountering God.  This is why lectio has the power to speak to us on such a deep level.  This encounter with the living God elicits a response of awe, reverence, love, and above all, faith.

It is faith that is the important word in this reflection as we consider the concept of the renunciation of the will.  In the faith-filled encounter with the Holy One through lectio divina we are led by the Holy Spirit to give our very self to God.  This surrender of the self is not an agonised act.  On the contrary, it is a spontaneous response of love to the encounter with Love himself.

Giving our very self to God: this is what is meant by the renunciation of the will.  We place our whole being at God’s disposal – we give him our will.  But in giving God our will, we are certainly not left with a void inside.  In giving our will to God, we unite our will with God’s will, and we live from that “place” of union and love.  It is the “place” the Lord himself described when he says in the Gospel of John, ‘Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home in him’ (John 14:23).


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9 March, Human Will: V Clarification of Terms



In our reflections so far, we have been considering the will as a faculty of the soul, which, when guided by our reason, moves us in making choices that align with what is truly good, with what is directed to God and to others in charity.  In this sense, the will itself is something good, something vital for the functioning of our spiritual life.  It is the locus of the true self.  By its work, our emotions become integrated and our decisions and actions gradually align with what is good and true.  We need to know that our will is there – and appreciate it.

But, on the other hand, the will has also received some rather bad press.  ‘Oh, my little Jimmy is so wilful,’ an exhausted mother of a two-year-old might say.  Used in this way, the notion of the will can seem to be something problematic, stubbornly chained to the disordered cravings of our emotions and allied to our selfishness.  Is our will something good or something bad, then?

In a superb book, Will and Spirit, written in 1982 by the psychologist Gerald May, an important distinction is made between being wilful and willing.  This distinction focuses on the will not only as a faculty of the soul, but as an operation.  According to May,

Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself.  In contrast, wilfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence.  More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment.  Wilfulness is saying no….

     Willingness and wilfulness…reflect the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself.  Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it.  Wilfulness forgets it, ignores it or at its worst, actively tries to destroy it [Will and Spirit, Harper Collins, 1982, Ch. 1].   

Perhaps, simply put, when we are talking about the will in terms of wilfulness, then, we are speaking of an aspect of our interior life that is self-involved, determined on its own agenda, closed to God.  When we are speaking of the will as a faculty of the soul, then we are usually speaking of it in terms of willingness, as Gerald May describes.  And more, we mean the will as an ally of our reason, giving us an ability to make wise decisions and choices, as well as motivating us to carry them out.



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February 16: the New Creation


The way we overcome fears is not by coldly reasoning out an alternative. It is by accepting the gift of Christ’s new heaven and new earth, given to us as love. Mary received that gift on our behalf, a vision of new stars and a new sun, the sun of righteousness and integrity. Joy is an aspect of wonder in the Christian outlook of hope, because we look forward to transforming love as a community of joy. We cherish this authentic vision of love in all the layers of our personality.

As Karl Rahner expresses it:

“An authentic vision can probably be explained as a purely spiritual touch of God, affecting the innermost centre of a man, and spreading from there to all of his faculties, his thought and imagination, which transform this touch. Hence, when a ‘vision’ reaches the consciousness of a visionary, it has already passed through the medium of his subjectivity, and therefore also bears his individual characteristics as regards language, interests, theological presuppositions and so forth.”

Does this make our distinct cultures into barriers? Not so.

“The grace of which the Church is the enduring sign is victoriously offered by God even to those who have not yet found the visible Church and who nevertheless already, without realizing it, live by its Spirit, the Holy Spirit in the love and mercy of God.” “Some who would never dream of telling themselves… that they have already received ‘the baptism of the Spirit’ of the radical freedom of love… nevertheless live in a community secretly liberated by God’s grace in the deepest core of their existence.”


January 2017.


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