Pray without ceasing…

December 16, 2011

Ever wonder how one could possibly fulfill Paul’s directive to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)?  I have, and I’ve also been asked by students how one manages such a feat.  (Does sleeping count?)

Apparently St. Augustine wondered the same thing because he gives a nice interpretation of the phrase in today’s Office of Readings, which I thought worth sharing.  His answer struck me as rather “Ignatian,” in the sense that Ignatian discernment trains us to be attentive to our desires and where they’re leading us.  And our desire for the coming of Christ is one of the great undercurrents of this quietly joyful season of Advent.

So here he is, the ever-profound, ever-insightful St. Augustine:

[T]he desire of your heart is itself your prayer.  And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer.  The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying:  Pray without ceasing.  Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands?  Is this what is meant in saying:  Pray without ceasing?  Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart.  Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless.  Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire…

AL, SJ


God’s Forgiveness and the Two Sons

September 25, 2011

This little parable (Matt. 21:28-32) from Jesus is more complicated than it first appears. It seems pretty cut and dried when compared with the other parables of Jesus that tend to shock us or twist the meanings of words and situations. This one seems straight forward, the first son, who says “no” to his father, but eventually goes and works in the vineyard seems to be the one who does the will of his father. The one who says “yes” but then shirks his duties is the scoundrel.

To our 21st century American ears, it’s pretty easy to determine which of the two sons did the will of the father. The first one. However, to the ears of the listeners of Jesus in first century Palestine things were a bit more complicated. In a way, both sons brought shame and disgrace to the father. The first son commits the heinous sin of saying no directly to the face of his father. In a culture where family hierarchy was more stratified, this is an unpardonable offense, even if he changes his mind. To publicly say “no” to the face of one’s father was one of the worst things the first son could have done. And his going and working in the vineyard, to the minds of the earliest Christians who would have heard this gospel message from Matthew, would not have made up for or atoned for his betrayal of the father. Read the rest of this entry »


Zillions of Talents

September 14, 2011

Fr. Pidel’s Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time speaks of “the ‘huge amount’ that we all owe the Father for our very existence and for our redemption.”  I want to add something about how huge that amount really is.

Last Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the two servants, contains one of my biggest translation peeves in the US Lectionary.  We are told that the first servant owed “a huge amount” (Mt 18:24), which he could not repay, and so his master had compassion on him and forgave his debt.

The Revised Standard Version more accurately renders this “ten thousand talents,” reflecting the Greek, which says “muriōn talantōn.”

The first word there might be recognizable even if you don’t know much Greek, as it comes to us in English as “myriad.”  While it is true that it can mean the number 10,000 (actually, it’s the largest number that can be expressed in Greek with a single word), more generally it means “numberless, countless, infinite” (according to the Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon).

Even more vividly, the Bauer-Danker Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature translates it as “zillion” (“in our lit[erature] used hyperbolically, as in Engl[lish] informal usage ‘zillion,’ of an extremely large or incalculable number”).  So here, “zillions of talents.”

That’s considerably more vivid, and a lot larger, than “a huge amount.”

Just to give some perspective: Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, lists the assets and income of Athens at the height of her strength and as their epic war with Sparta was beginning:  “on an average six hundred talents of tribute were coming in yearly from the allies to the city… and there were at this time still on hand in the Acropolis six thousand talents of coined silver (the maximum amount had been nine thousand seven hundred talents)” (II 13.3, translated by C.F. Smith, Loeb Classical Library Edition).

So this poor man owes zillions of talents, and even taking it literally as 10,000 talents, that is more than the maximum contained in the Acropolis of Athens!

The point of course is that this is a ridiculous amount, utterly impossible to repay.  His only hope is for his master to have mercy on him and forgive his debt.  (And what does it say about the wealth and power of the master that he can forgive such a debt!)  By contrast, the second servant owes a hundred denarii (US Lectionary: “a much smaller amount”), which is a hundred days’ wages: a paltry amount by comparison, quite possible to repay with a little time and forbearance.  The disproportion between what he has been forgiven and what he is owed is beyond all measuring.

Understanding these proportions makes clear the limitless extent of God’s Divine Mercy.  We are such debtors, who owe God more than we can possibly repay.  Our only hope is in his mercy, which we receive in abundance, greater even than the uncountable myriad–the zillions–that we owe.


Spiritual Direction and Confession

September 11, 2011

“Confession is not spiritual direction.”

This is a principle that I have followed and a maxim that I have often repeated.  By this I mean that in confession, people generally need only some brief counsel, encouragement, and absolution.  Of course, the sacrament of penance is private and personal, and there are many situations that would require something different.  But I had thought it a sound principle to distinguish clearly these two different activities.

I might have to revise this thinking in light of what I have learned from reading the Congregation for the Clergy’s recent document “The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy: An Aid for Confessors and Spiritual Directors.”  This document was dated March 9, 2011, but seems to have received very little attention.  This is probably for several reasons.  First, there is nothing controversial in it (unlike the 1997 Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life–which remains in my opinion the wisest, most useful, and practical instruction for confessors, not only on the particular topic it addresses but for the general principles it provides).  Read the rest of this entry »


Polish piety

August 10, 2011

In the chapel of the oldest continuously operating Jesuit novitiate in the world, in a sleepy village in southern Poland, the likenesses of great Jesuits of the past gaze from the walls above, their faces turned attentively toward the altar—with one exception.  Francis Xavier is looking out the window.

It’s not irreverence, of course, that has the saint turned the other way.  Xavier, who agreed to leave Europe for the Orient on a day’s notice, was, in addition to being the greatest missionary since Paul, one of history’s great travelers, a man whose desire to plant the seeds of the Gospel where they had never been sown before was extinguished only by death.

There’s something essentially Jesuit in that desire, and hopefully at least a spark of it burns in each one of us.  Our formation, you may recall, aims to prepare us to go anywhere in the world, though usually we’re given a bit more notice than Francis Xavier.  For me, this summer was no exception and saw me spending July in Krakow teaching English to Jesuit scholastics from Poland, Croatia, and Russia.

It was heartening to meet and live with such good brothers, and equally heartening to be immersed in Polish culture.  The Poles are a wonderful people—noble, warm, and very, very Catholic.  I realize that this is a bit of a generalization and that one should be careful conflating religious and ethnic identity.  (And in fact, at an academic conference I attended earlier in the summer I met a number of young and quite impressive Catholic scholars from such bastions of secularism as Belgium and France.)  What makes Poland special, however, is the degree to which Catholicism has penetrated the culture, the ways in which the faith is palpable in all aspects of Polish life.  The Poles are unabashedly pious.

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Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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Contra Dennett II: The Crusades, the Inquisition, and all that

June 21, 2011

Last week, I argued that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell amounts to an attack on a straw man, “Religion,” an amalgam of what he calls “an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds—or billions—of quite different possible theories.”

Billions, huh?

Dennett is right in noting that many of these theories are vague and incompatible, and it would be a mistake to treat them all as equally valid. (Another reason believers should be on guard against relativism and syncretism, which result in religious absurdities at which skeptics rightly scoff.)

His straw man stuffed, however, Dennett is determined to beat the hay out of him. His argument is that in weighing up the pluses and minuses of Religion, it turns out that the phenomenon has been a net negative to human progress. There’s nothing even remotely scientific in Dennett’s method here, and he relies on stringing together a series of loaded associations without seriously exploring what his examples actually prove.

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