Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Smallness of the Large By David Warren

Just the tiniest little thing: Jesus Christ, lying in the manger. Those who have ever held in their arms a newborn baby, will know how delicate they are. Without a word, this fragile creature tells us to be careful with him. His neck is weak, and his head must be supported. Your attention rivets on the miniature eyelids, mouth, and nose.
One of the reasons I believe in God – the proper, Triune, Catholic God – is His way with paradox. This strikes me as true to my own experience of the universe we currently occupy, which is full to busting with scale reversals.
Were Christ, indeed, the Author of this universe, I would expect Him to show the same “sense of humor” – by which of course I don’t mean, “telling jokes.” Or perhaps, there are jokes far beyond laughter.
This begins with the magnitude of the heavens: the normal human perception of distance to the stars, and to the stars beyond the stars beyond them. (It is a myth that any of our ancestors thought they were close. Regardless of their cosmological schemes, all men have known that the stars are very far away, and that they speak of immensity.)
But at the other end is a sub-atomic scale. It seems to parody the large, in smallness. There are distinct specks within specks, and specks within those, down to “force carriers” and “flavors.” We find the Singularity where, if physics has any coherency at all, we have reached the interface with “nothing.”
That is to say, there cannot be smaller, in any material scheme for small, for the same reason that the universe cannot be larger. At least, not as we have found it to be. We could run the abstract numbers up and up, or down and down – but in either case we come to that hard, material Singularity. Go any farther in either direction, and we’re not in this universe any more.
So where are we on this scale?
Man, standing around one fathom tall, is right in the middle, midway between the “nothing” and the “everything.” In the numbers we’ve been able to compile, our position is rather spookily at the intersection of all roads.
As we’ve come to learn, mostly in the quite recent past, the strangeness is insupportably great, for the universe itself is “tuned” to many dozen – perhaps many hundred, perhaps many more – precise settings of physical “law” or constants. Adjust the dial ever so slightly – adjust so slightly any one of those dials – and the very possibility of Man is obviated.
Of course, the observation is tautological, but even in that we see God’s hand: that He left us with the freedom to see, or refuse to see, what is dead obvious.
In a limited, merely scientific way, since 1931 at the latest, the existence of “God” has been irrefutable. That was the year in which the finitude of the universe was established beyond reasonable doubt: that it had an origin, at a calculable “first moment” in time; that it has from that a calculable size; and what has a beginning must have an end. (See: Georges LemaĆ®tre.)
And towards the end of that last century, in the later 1990s, the chief hint was provided to calculate that end. For not only can we now know the universe is expanding, but also that it expands at a constantly accelerating rate. We must reach a point where the universe itself comes up against the good old speed of light: and once again, a Singularity. (See:Accelerating universe.)
A small thing, perhaps, as that ingenious Belgian physicist, Monsignor LemaƮtre, once had to explain to his pope, who was on the verge of announcing that the Catholic cosmology had been scientifically proved. For as the good priest said, it is just science, which rattles about from day to day. The part that takes us from two plus two, to four, will always have to be supplied by Faith.
Science only shows what’s there, not the meaning of it. Yet the nature of the universe remains plain to see, whether on the grand cosmic scale, or in little biological facts, provided to our senses directly. The acorn and the oak are one, from never before, to never after. Whether through telescope, or microscope, we see the same in a glass, darkly.
Modern man can look at the large, and he can look at the small. There is nothing wrong with God-given eyes, should we wish to use them; nor in the blind, with the mind’s eye. Nothing has ever been concealed from a man, that the man needed to know. But oh, he is willful.
What modern man has trouble seeing, is the large in the small, and the small in the large. Our ignorance – which can be stupefying, compared with ignorance in ages past – fastens upon one thing at a time, with ever-diminishing attention spans. In effect, we have lost the ability to see and think at the same time.
And to this modern mind, as to others past in the habit of missing the point, the whole idea of God presented in this swaddled bundle of human flesh, is nonsense. God, should He turn out to “exist,” must be infinitely large; this baby is way too small.
A real God would take anything He wanted; this baby missed out on the inn.
A real God would be all-seeing; this baby sleeps in Mary’s arms.
A real God would arrive with angelic armies; this baby lacks even a security guard. . . .
We could construct a litany like this, of ways in which Jesus Christ was not very plausible. Even to many ancients, as we know, the whole idea of Him came as something of a little joke. Surely the Christians could not be serious.
Imagine their surprise when, paradoxically, that little baby conquered their world.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Finding our Footing in Prayer by Dr. Anthony Lilles

Today, many are concerned about confusion in the Church and a lack of confidence about how we are to live. Angry accusations fly back and forth like arrows poisoned and barbed. Violence rips at our communities and all kinds of aggression is unleashed in our homes. It is hard to bear with one another. We want peace but we lack the common ground we need to find it.  For all the technology and information at our fingertips, we lack, among other spiritual things, the gift of understanding.

Understanding is among the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, a characteristic of the Spirit of the Christ. The great Fathers and Doctors of the Church described this dynamic disposition of mind as perfecting the stand we take toward ultimate reality, God Himself.  The gift is a readiness to be grounded by the Holy Spirit, an interior receptivity to His promptings that we need if we are to find our footing in prayer.

The Gift of Understanding is a divinely inspired intellectual propensity to be purified concerning one's judgments about God and who He is.  In ways that no mental gymnastics carried out under the impulse of reason can manage, this gift protects the soul against all kinds of idolatry by rooting it in the mystery of God's presence in real life.  The Holy Spirit convinces us concerning sin and frees us to repent of it.

All kinds of self-contradiction are laid bare as the ear of the heart attends to the surprising freshness of the Holy Spirit's secret judgments, especially about those things with which we would rather not have to deal.  But the mind raised in love can no longer put things off. Dissipation and dulness recede before this unfamiliar radiance.

This movement of the Holy Spirit leaves the soul speechless because it has rendered the mind vulnerable to splendors so wonderful no word can express them.  All at once, this mysterious rectification of the mind sobers and inebriates, humbles and exalts, bows down and lifts up.  The mind under the influence of this movement of the Holy Spirit penetrates the deep things of God even to the point that one's whole life is intensified and a source of intensification for others.   Falling in adoration, one finds one's proper footing for prayer.  

The Gift of Understanding is about standing in the shadow of our crucified God.  It is about seeing the invincibility of the Father's love in the face of our sin at the foot of the Cross of Christ.   It is about drinking in the deep things of God flowing from the pierced heart of Christ.  This gift is about the freedom to be astonished and gripped by divine tenderness in all kinds of unexpected ways.  


Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Life Free From Care – Thomas Merton

(In August 1965, Thomas Merton was granted permission to live full-time in his hermitage. This is an excerpt from the last talk he gave to the novices before moving to the hermitage. Reflecting on “freedom from care” as essential for the monk and especially for the hermit, Merton touches on a theme that has relevance for all people.)

What does the solitary life mean? It is the same as all monastic life. There is one basic, essential thing in the monastic life and in the Christian life, the thing that we all seek in one way or another, and it is some assurance that it is possible in this kind of life to put away all care, to live without care, to not have to care. Now, what do you mean, “not have to care”? Not to say: “Well, I don’t care. I don’t care what they do. I don’t care if they say Mass in Chinese, they won’t faze me.” No, that’s not it. But the life of the world, in the bad sense of the word, is a life of care. It is a life of useless care. And it is a life of self-defeating care, because it is a life which cannot confront the inevitable fact of death. It is a life which is full of death, it has death built into it and it cannot get away from that fact. A life that is nothing but a straight line towards the grave and a lot of little circular lines to forget the grave as you travel towards the grave is a life of care, and it is a life of ever-increasing care and it is a life of frustration and futility,

Ideally speaking, the hermit life is supposed to be the life in which all care is completely put aside. First of all, because it is a death. It accepts death as a completely built-in fact of life. It is a death to society, it is a death to certain consolations of society, a death to certain kinds of support, and it is a renunciation even of care. A person doesn’t  go into solitude simply to practice a lot of virtues. If that’s what is supposed to happen I’m probably not going to be able to make the grade. But you go into solitude in order to cast your care upon the Lord.

Here is this beautiful passage from Caussade about what I think that I am supposed to do, living up on top of that hill and what we are all supposed to do, one way or another: “Since God offers to take upon Himself the care of our affairs, let us once for all abandon them to His infinite wisdom, that we may nevermore be occupied with aught but Him and His interests.”  Period. That is what the solitary life means. It is a life in which you no longer care about anything because God is taking care of everything. That is why you don’t have a great many contacts with the world, you’re not terribly occupied with a lot of people and a lot of works and projects; you are simply letting God take care of all those things. You cast your care upon the Lord.  (From Thomas Merton, Essential Writings- Selected by Christine M. Bochen)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

From: THE STRUGGLE WITH GOD by Paul Evdokimov

Man’s transgression confines him to a situation that is closed to all that is not of this earth. The more material this is and the more it is made a thing, the more it appears deprived of reality and of any substance. This is the world of finance, with its temple, the Stock Exchange, and its votaries of luxury; it is the political world of ambition and covetousness, of collective neurosis of mad passions and unfaithful sensual love. It is a world vacillating above an abyss, without any consistency, being made of vapors and peopled with phantoms, and which at any moment risks disappearing “as smoke in the air and as wax melted by fire”. On the other hand, Origen compares the efforts of the hermits of the desert, in their march toward perfection, to the slow departure of the inhabitants of Plato’s cave. Leaving the silhouetted shadows for a vision of reality, where nothing is interposed between man and the truths of the divine life, the monk of the desert kept firmly to the way of return toward the kingdom. [page 68]

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Chesterton on Imagination, Reason, and Insanity

 From Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to a man’s mental balance. . . . Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad, but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic; I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.
The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. . . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
In conclusion:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that.