Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 8 – Baptism

Baptism

Baptism of infants (adult baptism will be discussed further below) is unusual among the vehicles of grace in that it does not involve action by the beneficiary, but rather an action performed for her by others. The baptized, usually a baby, is commonly washed with the water over her loud objections, with no conception of the significance of the sacrament. How does this work to convey grace?

To understand baptism, one must realize that since the baptized person is commonly not a conscious participant in the process, she must not herself be the means by which grace is transmitted. She is not like the participant in Holy Communion, who receives grace through the opening of his own mind and heart to the participation in the body of the faithful. Baptism operates, if at all, through the persons around her.

The function of baptism is to cleanse the taint of original sin. Adam’s sin of pride was that of learning to realize that he had a choice between doing the right thing or doing something else, and succumbing to the temptation to do something else. As I have already discussed, Adam’s fall was, paradoxically, also our salvation, for it was only through the development of the ability to choose to do wrong that we gained the virtuous ability to choose to do right instead. Nonetheless, the resulting responsibility to choose to do right was a new burden, the burden of sin, which falls upon us all as soon as we are old enough to realize that we can choose to do wrong.[1] It is this burden that baptism is intended to ease.

Clearly, baptism does not wipe out this burden of choice – we still face temptation after baptism. What does it do? It shows to the parents, godparents, and other concerned assembled that the baptized has, as of that moment, a clean slate. Any taint or temptation will arise as she goes forward through her life in the world. The parents, godparents, and congregation make a commitment to help her to find the path of virtue, to give her love and guidance. They take on a heavy responsibility, but it is a sweet burden, for they by their efforts can help to bring this new soul to joy. Baptism brings the child in from the dark and lonely desert where she must see and resist sin on her own, and brings her into the warmth and protection of her family and congregation, who will do their best to throw light upon the shadows of temptation and deception so that she may clearly see the way to bliss. Baptism is a grace to parents, godparents and child together, if it is properly received. It is the gift of a bond of responsibility, an opportunity to guide and a chance to be guided. The child receives this gift simply by virtue of her birth. The parents and godparents will have to work hard for the child, but if they are open to the grace they will perform this function willingly. The gift to them, the chance to experience the pleasure of helping the young innocent to find bliss, is given to them not based upon their past merit, but in trust of their willingness to do right in the future.

Again, though, the grace can only be given to willing recipients. If the parents and godparents fail to realize the significance of the charge they are given in having this clean soul delivered into their hands, they are unlikely to provide the support the child needs to begin life aright. Like any trust, the one formed at baptism can be violated, and the grace forming the trust can be squandered.

Adult baptism adds an additional element similar to confirmation. An adult who chooses to receive baptism is taking an intentional action to wash away not just the sin of Adam but the sins of his youth. Children make mistakes and may stray along misguided pathways. A person who properly receives the grace of adult baptism is making a choice to turn away from those errors and begin anew, again with family and community undertaking to help them. In sects that practice confirmation, the person having reached the age of independent decision likewise makes a firm choice to follow the ways of virtue with the support of family, sponsors, and church.  Christianity is not the only religion that has celebrated the concept of washing away sin with water.[2] It is an ancient notion, but I believe that every religion that followed this practice rejected the idea that sin could simply be washed away like dirt by an unrepentant person. The practitioner must have the correct intention, viewing the washing as the physical sign of a spiritual process in which they reject sin and seek purity of heart. Those who undertake these processes thoughtfully and sincerely, not as empty rituals, receive grace through them. The person must recognize that he bears Adam’s burden, the free ability to choose his own destiny. He must use the knowledge he has acquired through the teachings of others and through his own experience and prayer to recognize that he will be subject to temptations to stray, and he must make a real choice to follow a path that will avoid falling into the pit of those temptations. If he makes that choice, he will receive the grace he needs to succeed. If he rejects that grace and merely goes through the motions, he will receive what inevitably follows. Decisions have consequences.

[1] Any parent will recognize that this ability comes early. Little children lie and scheme and need help to find the path to virtue. Sadly, a few even become remarkably evil at an early age.

[2] Again, the kind and generous Christian God would not leave his children without guidance. People have an inborn sense of the teachings and concepts of Christianity, and that sense can be seen in different forms amongst those who were raised in different pagan or modern faiths.

Conversation starters in the Media: Both The Godfather and Ed Wood  have scenes involving baptisms that are obviously of the wrong sort. Tess is sort of at the other end of things, with a mother who desperately wants  to give her baby the grace but who is denied the ritual.

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 7 – Communion

The Grace of Holy Communion

Many Christian sects have, of course, abandoned the sacrament of Holy Communion, a point which I will address momentarily. My discussion of it here does not, I think, depend on the sect of the reader, however, for the grace that I will discuss flows (or fails to flow) from within the participant, rather than from the rite itself, and as such is available to all, whether or not they consume the bread and wine as Christ requested of his disciples.

In Holy Communion the communicant receives the body of Christ – the physical object that contains the spiritual body much as a person’s physical body contains their spirit – into their own, in the process making themselves a part of the body of the Church. This is not the consumption of a magical potion that performs miracles of its own accord. Children are expected to learn the significance of communion before they take it (but how many really do?), because communion depends upon the cooperation of the communicant for its effect. The successful communicant will think of the communion wafer as the container of the spirit of Christ flowing into her body and taking her into the body of the Church. This thought will, as the name of the ritual implies, bring forth a refreshed awareness of her role in the community of God’s children. She will open her feelings to the community, feeling the shell that is her own body dissolve like the wafer, liberating her spirit to join the greater body of the faithful. She will draw strength from that body, a strength beyond herself, renewing her spirit and healing the damage done by the assaults of daily existence. The grace, then, consists of this healing communion with the greater spirit of the body of the Church. It is an experience that helps us to correct our drift away from God by focusing our eyes back upon the guiding light of faith, and to overcome the obstacles that we cannot overcome in isolation.

Those that do not take Holy Communion may receive a similar sort of grace in many ways, ranging from quiet contemplation of nature to adding their voice to a rousing hymn; God does not deprive those who seek Him just because their sect has given up a ritual intended as the vehicle for this form of grace.[1] Everyone is offered the chance to feel communion with God and with the community of the faithful, if they are only willing to reach out and accept the offer.

It is important to realize that the grace and the ritual are not one and the same. Just as the grace may be obtained outside of the specific ritual, empty practice of the ritual will not bring grace. Whatever a given sect’s opinion may be regarding the process of transubstantiation, I believe all would agree that a person who takes the communion wafer and murmurs a reflexive “amen” while thinking about mowing the lawn or the taste in clothing of some other parishioner will not receive grace. The sacrament is a vehicle for grace, an opportunity for an experience that would be difficult to obtain while sitting down on a break from doing the vacuuming. The vehicle cannot reach its destination unless we open the gates of our minds and focus on the meaning of communion. Likewise, the alternative vehicles cannot serve the purpose unless we allow them to. One person may sit alone looking at a starry sky and feel spiritual communion with the universe, a participation in the glory of nature’s God, whose warm presence may be most strongly felt when we are alone and quiet. Another may sit beneath the same sky and wonder what’s on television. One person may be roused by a hymn to a feeling of oneness with the voices rising together in harmony, feeling the strength of communion in the beauty and power of the music. Meanwhile, the man next to her may be thinking: “That guy’s off key, and that woman always sings too loudly.” One receives grace, the other pushes it away.

In my view, the reason behind the Catholic Church’s teaching that communicants should cleanse themselves of serious sins through confession prior to taking communion is the desire to keep the taking of the bread from becoming a mere empty ritual. A person distracted by unrepented sin – that is, by a focus on desires incompatible with faith in religious virtue – is unlikely to be transported by the experience of communion. He must first prepare himself to want the benefits of the grace, to want to feel the sufficiency of union with the bliss of the faithful, before communion can have its effect. Those who habitually undergo the ritual without this preparation will fail to receive the grace that comes through successful participation in communion, and indeed the vehicle for grace will be destroyed by this bad habit.

[1] In fairness, the Catholic Church would contend that Holy Communion is unique, and my intent is not to quarrel with that proposition as such. But the Catholic Church does not offer Holy Communion to non-Catholics, so it cannot object to the advice that persons of other sects seek the essence of Communion in other ways, and Catholics do not contend that God condemns non-Catholics, so He must allow other paths to virtue.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 6 – Grace and Marriage

Grace – The Reward to Him That Works is Not Reckoned of Grace, But of Debt

My previous explanation of prayer may help to illustrate the concept of grace. We say that we receive God’s grace in prayer, in the sacraments, or in our daily lives. What does this mean? What does grace do for us, and how do we obtain it? Why is it important for us to recognize our opportunities to receive grace?

Grace by definition is not a thing that we earn. It is something that we receive, or at least have available to us, by virtue of the generosity of the giver, not the merit of the receiver. As has already been noted, God should not be confused with a petty human monarch, who dispenses favors to those that please him and punishments to those who go against his will. God loves everyone and gives everyone a chance to use their free will to find their way to divine bliss. God’s grace is offered freely to all who will take it. It is not denied because a person has sinned, or held back until the proper ritual is performed using the right magic words. A loving parent would not deprive her child of helpful advice just because the child had been irritating, nor would she withhold it until the child said “pretty please”, but rather gives it as a grace simply because she loves her child, and will continue to give it even if her child turns away from her for a time. If the child will receive the advice, it will be freely given, whatever the circumstances. God is no less generous or loving. If a person is willing to receive grace, it will be given.

However, as any parent who has offered advice to a child well knows, merely offering a grace is no guarantee that it will be accepted, no matter how valuable it may be. While God can offer grace, if a person’s mind and heart are closed to the gift it will do them no good. We must recognize and desire grace or we cannot receive it.

Of what, then, does God’s grace consist? It is assistance in achieving alignment with God. In the discussion of prayer I explained that the things we properly pray for are things that God has already made available to us; prayer is the vehicle by which we receive and use the gift that has already been given. That gift, in its various forms, is part of the grace of God.  Through it we find bliss in virtue. To understand how this works, or fails to work, it may be helpful to walk through a number of the common opportunities to receive grace, and clarify how the grace is transmitted to a willing recipient.

Marriage

Let’s begin with marriage. In the sacrament of marriage we commit ourselves to lifelong, unselfish love of another person. A person who takes the marriage vows is promising to attend to the happiness and well-being of his new spouse, come thick or thin. In practice, however, brides and bridegrooms can generally be sorted into two categories with regard to the significance that they attach to this vow. To one group, it means: “This person has a lot of attractive features, and so I promise to stick with her in a monogamous relationship for so long as I continue to find her attractive and find marriage to be compatible with the things that I want out of life. However, if I ever feel that my marriage is constraining me and keeping me from doing things that I think would make me happier, then I can always get divorced.” To the other group (which, unfortunately, no longer appears to be a majority) it means: “I vow to do whatever I can to help my spouse to be happy, and I have faith that my own path to happiness lies in keeping true to this vow and understanding that happiness does not lie on the other side of the fence, but rather here in our home, together. I have faith that I can never increase my own happiness by chasing ambition, freedom from duties, or a younger and prettier face, but must find happiness in my own heart and the heart of the person who loves me. I have faith that I cannot improve my happiness in marriage by asking my spouse to give me more, but that I may continue to increase my wedded bliss if I offer to give her more every day, for her happiness will be my happiness, and her sorrows my sorrows, tomorrow as today, forever.”

A bridegroom in the second category participates in the sacrament with full understanding, faith and love. In so doing, he achieves, with respect to one other person, the state of divine bliss in which he will receive pleasure from the very act of trying to please and help his bride. That gift of marital bliss, which most are offered but many fail to accept, is part of the grace of God, a chance to participate in a significant way in the full glory of the love that is God. It is not a self-maintaining gift. The bridegroom will need faith in the importance and value of the grace in order to resist the temptation to chase other, inferior goals that would interfere with marital bliss. He will also need some luck in his choice of a bride, for it takes two to make a marriage.  If the spouse becomes extremely selfish and abusive, or is led astray by some worldly ambition that cannot coexist with the continuation of the marriage, or becomes so preoccupied that the love offered by her spouse no longer produces joy, then the sacrament will fail despite the faith and efforts of the bridegroom. Where a marriage begins in love and faith, though, the power of worldly temptations will be weak, for each partner will know the height of joy that love brings. The gilding on the worldly distraction would need to be very shiny indeed to unfasten the gaze of a true lover from the joy that he possesses in his spouse.

Couples living together without the benefit of marriage often ask “what difference can a ceremony and a piece of paper make to two people who love each other?” The sacrament of marriage is not just a ceremony. It is a vow, the heartfelt vow of the bride and bridegroom in the second category.  Without that heartfelt vow a marriage ceremony does not make much difference – there is no sacrament, just a hollow ritual followed by a nice party. Where the vow is truly present, on the other hand, the sacrament exists no matter how it is administered or what form of words is used, or even with no ceremony at all, but it is difficult to imagine that such a couple would not want to celebrate their joy with a marriage ceremony attended by the people they care about, the people who will help them through any difficult times ahead.[1]

A bridegroom in the first category, in contrast, will not receive grace through the sacrament of marriage, no matter how elaborate the ceremony.  He views marriage as a bargain, “I’ll love you if you’ll love me, but I can break the contract and pay money damages if a new opportunity comes along that makes it seem worth it.” He sees value in being loved, but fails to understand the value of giving love. He lacks faith that loving his wife is more important than anything else in his life, and by lacking that faith he fails to feel the unassailable bliss that such a conviction would give. He feels he must weigh his options, pay attention to other opportunities, wonder if he has done the right thing. If his wife has a bad day and is crabby, he will wonder “why do I have to put up with this?” instead of thinking “the poor dear, what can I do to cheer her up?” If he finds himself without time to pursue the recreations of his idle youth he will wonder “why don’t I get a chance to have fun anymore?” instead of thinking “I love just being with her – when we were dating I would have dropped anything for a chance to be with her, and that feeling just keeps growing stronger.” If the demands of parenthood cause her to slip a bit in maintaining her appearance, he will think “gee, why doesn’t my wife look like that film star?” instead of “gee, I’m glad I’m not married to someone whose whole shallow life is her looks, like that film star – my wife is far more beautiful to me than a plastic doll like that could ever be.” In thinking such thoughts he plants the seeds of his own suffering. He loses his chance for bliss, a chance offered but not taken. We would pity the lottery winner who, misreading his ticket, throws it away thinking it is worthless and loses his fortune. Far more pitiful is the person who wins the greater prize of love, and lets it slip away because he fails to recognize the significance of the gift.

How can a person fail to accept this grace? Why would he be so blind that he fails to see the value of giving love? When mankind has devoted so much of its art, literature and music to expressing the joys of love, how can people be so lacking in faith that they demand constant tangible rewards of marriage, at the cost of losing its true value? In part it is a matter of ignorance. How often have you heard a sermon in church that really pointed out the joys of loving your spouse? Did you ever have a Sunday school class where the topic was “some day, you may be lucky enough to have the chance to devote yourself to loving someone with all your heart, to pouring yourself into their happiness, and the joy that it will bring you will be heaven on earth, for you will then feel the joyous love that is God, and it will transport you above all the petty concerns of daily life. It is wonderful to be loved, but when you find that chance to love in return seize it, for it is a prize without equal in the world”? Despite the art and the poetry, the plays and the songs all celebrating the joys of love, we are not well schooled to recognize the grace when it is offered. This ignorance leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable to distractions that may blind us to God’s grace.

The siren songs of the material world can be a very powerful distraction.  In a “winning is everything” culture, nothing is seen as having intrinsic value.  Everything is just a counter keeping score in the game of life. Is your spouse as good looking, as rich, as smart, as famous as someone else’s? If not, can you trade in for a higher-status spouse? In an advertising-centered culture of manufactured desires, we are constantly assaulted by commercial demons luring us towards dissatisfaction. They tell us that we cannot possibly be happy if we are not spending our time earning enough money to buy an ever-growing list of amazing objects that we never knew we desperately needed, or if we are not spending any leftover time pursuing extreme sports or other new recreations. They use beautiful models to convince us that we should want some beer or cola, and in the process sell us on the idea that we should want the beautiful models. We would find it pleasant to look at beautiful models without any help from the advertising agencies, of course, but would the mindset of the average person be different if products were sold with ordinary-looking models made beautiful by the warm smile of a loving disposition? There are in fact actresses who are very attractive despite having less than ideal anatomical features, so it’s not such a ridiculous idea. The great power of advertising is that it can induce us not only to believe that we can get what we want by buying their product, but to urgently want something that would otherwise have been of minor interest. In practice, advertising convinces us to covet the kind of beauty that is immediately apparent in a ten-second shot in a television ad or in a billboard photograph.[2]

In a society where traditions are swept away by dramatic change, we learn of life and love through television rather than from the happily married couples in our village. Television teaches us the rules of a world that has been transformed since the days when our parents were our age; it is the mirror and the propagator of an ever-shifting culture that derives its unity and substance from mass communication. A stable and happy marriage does not make for exciting television, and so we tend to grow up with role models who love for a season and then move on. We see proof on the screen that the people who bail out of a relationship and bounce right on to the next one succeed and are happy. When people stay stubbornly married, one of them is bound to be shot dead in the last episode of the season, the inevitable result of a placid lifestyle. Confused by these images, unprotected by significant efforts by parents or church to point out the importance of a relationship in which one has the privilege of giving love, it is easy to be blind to grace. We see love as in a mirror, pale reflections of the brilliant substance. Now it requires a degree of luck to be one of those who turn around by chance and become transfixed by the beauty of the real thing. Helping a child to turn and behold this grace, to recognize and pursue it when it the chance appears, is one of the great services that a parent can do. Helping Johnny to understand trigonometry so that he can get admitted to a good college will have far less effect on Johnny’s future happiness than would helping him to understand the value of loving.

I said above that marital bliss is a gift that most are offered. Sadly, it is not offered to all. There are those who fully understand the value of loving, yet who never find love, or love hopelessly. This does not mean that they are not offered the grace that flows from the sacrament, for the grace at its core consists of having the power to love. They have this power, and may exercise it, but under circumstances that bring the pain of longing together with the pleasure of loving. Why is fate so cruel to them? How can they bear such a precious gift, yet fail to find someone to receive it?

It is not that the human heart is unduly particular about specific criteria for its target. We are not all waiting for Mr. or Miss Perfection to come along. Indeed, while many of us find a true soul mate who thinks and reacts to the world as we do, it is interesting to note that a study of identical twins – who tend to have very similar personalities – found that their chosen spouses are not significantly more similar in personality than are the spouses of randomly selected unrelated people. Further, for the most part the twins did not find their co-twin’s spouse to be notably attractive. Even in the case of conjoined (“Siamese”) twins, one of the pair will find a partner who loves her alone, not the co-twin. Cupid aims his arrows by his own rules, not by a matchmaking service checklist of compatibility factors, and love may be found in unexpected places. It is not thwarted by superficial matters.

I would suggest instead that forlorn love is a product of the general failure of society to teach the value of love. One who knows the value of love and wishes to give his or her heart completely will not be drawn by someone who is obviously superficial and self-centered (or if he is, then the love may end in sadness anyway). When society does not foster true love, the task of sifting through the shallow sands of ego and materialism for the gem of affection becomes more difficult. Thus the deserving are thwarted by the multiplication of the undeserving, and love’s labor is made more difficult by the scarcity of lovers. Because of this, by teaching one person the value of loving it may be possible to bring joy to two souls, the newly wise and his previously unmatched loving companion. This two-for-one offer on the multiplication of grace gives special value to educating one’s children on the merit of giving love, beginning with providing them with an instructive example of parents who show their love for each other every day, in every word.

[1] True friends or the bride or groom will be deeply supportive of the marriage, checking to see if there are indicia of a bad and abusive relationship, but if there are no such indicia then providing support to find a way forward.

[2] Okay, this has nothing to do with religion, but the new habit of altering models’ photos to enlarge their eyes and so forth seems to be creating a sense of beauty that only space aliens could meet, which seems very strange to me, and rather disturbing.

Summary:

God offers his grace to all, not just to the most outwardly churchy or those who say the right words.

Grace is an opportunity to advance your  alignment with God.

The grace of marriage lies in having someone that you can focus on loving unselfishly, and experience the joy that such divine-expired love brings. Those who view marriage as a contract do not experience this grace.

Conversation starters in popular culture:

As discussed above, this is one where movies tend not to provide great examples, because pure mutual love in itself is not very dramatic. While there are plenty of romances, the movie tends to focus on the drama that the lovers overcome rather than on their ongoing relationship. In my humble opinion, one of the best screen romances is that of Castle and Beckett on Castle. The series takes time to make it clear not only that  these two  would die for each other, but that they take real and enduring pleasure in making each other happy. Beckett cures Castle of his worst habits because he knows he has found what makes his life truly worthwhile, and Castle cures Beckett of her psychological wounds and leads her back to joy. Screen representations of bad, selfish and ineffective marriages are too common to mention.

 

 

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 5 – Prayer

Prayer – Ask and Ye Shall Receive

There is much confusion surrounding the nature and function of prayer.  I think most people would agree that God is not Santa Claus, and that there is no point in praying for a new red bicycle.  Oddly, though, most people would pray for peace in Afghanistan (or wherever the current war is), for the homeless, and for Aunt Millicent’s speedy recovery.  Is this based on the belief that the war in Afghanistan escaped God’s attention until we thoughtfully pointed him to it?  Or is it based on the belief that God would normally not worry about Aunt Millicent’s suffering, but since we asked so nicely he will be inclined to fix her up?  This is not the purpose or effect of prayer.

Prayer is part of the process of aligning yourself with God.  There is only one thing that it makes sense to pray for, and that is the personal faith, resolve, and wisdom to behave in a virtuous manner.  It makes sense to pray for the spirit of caring and empathy that will help you to do something to help stop the war in Afghanistan or to help relieve its victims.  It makes sense to pray for the wisdom and resolve that will enable you to go out and personally help the homeless. It makes sense to pray that you will be sensitive enough to Aunt Millicent’s plight that you will visit her and help make her feel better.  It makes sense to pray for the strength and focus to lift yourself out of despair. It does not make sense to go to church, ask God to take care of those problems, and then go home to watch television and forget about it. God is not the errand boy of any petitioner, preacher or congregation, nor is he a human king who grants petitions to suit his own vanity and earn the gratitude of commoners. He is a generous father who seeks to give us what we need, but like children we must be willing to accept what is given before it can help us.

In prayer, you are taking time out to firm up your faith by focusing on the things that you should do or avoid doing.  Prayer is not a process of chanting magic words or putting on a show to impress your fellow churchgoers.  It is, properly, a quiet but fairly intense process of concentrating your mind and opening up your feelings.  You must concentrate your mind to clear away confusion and find the path of action that you truly believe to be correct.  You must open up your feelings to shake off the numbness that we all build up around ourselves as protection against the demands that the world makes upon us.  We cannot individually cure all of the horrible ills that exist in the world, so we to a greater or lesser extent screen our feelings from them, learning not to think too much about the latest crime victim in the news or the poor people in other countries.  To some extent, we have to do this to stay sane.  Yet if we allow ourselves to become too numb, then we will not cure as much as we can.  In prayer we must open up our feelings on the selected subjects that we are praying over.  If I am praying for the sensitivity to go and visit sick Aunt Millicent, then I must strip away my numbness towards her suffering.

How does prayer work?  Does God in heaven hear your request and send down a magical bolt to fix you up?  Again, that does not make intuitive sense.  If what you needed was for God to give you something, then would God hold back until you asked politely?  The image of God as a vain monarch that gives favors only when underlings ask him in an appropriately humble way does not fit the God of the Christian religion.  If your boss at work knew that you needed something but refrained from giving it to you until you went in and said “pretty please”, you would think he was a jerk.  Do you have lower expectations of God than you do of your boss?  If not, then we must assume that he does not wait for us to ask in prayer before granting us something that is within his power to grant. If we receive something in prayer, it must be a thing that God cannot just give us at will.  We must receive it not because we ask, but rather through the process of asking.

What’s the difference?  If I ask you for a coin and you give it to me, then you have given it to me because I asked.  If I ask “why do I feel bad?” and figure out the answer, then I receive something (the knowledge as to why I feel bad) through the process of asking.  Prayer works the same way.  For example, if you are afraid to do something you know is right, you might pray for the courage to do it.  In praying, you will think about the thing to be done, and think about your fears, and think about the fact that you want to do the right thing despite the dangers that make you afraid.  Doing this will help you to realize that you truly believe that the virtue of doing right is worth the risk, and your doubts and hesitations will fade.  You will find the courage of your convictions.  Thus, in praying for bravery you unleash the courage within yourself.  You did not need a new gift; you just needed to find the gift that you had already been given.  God cannot give us what we pray for in the absence of the prayer because we already have it within us.  Prayer is a process of choosing to follow your sense of virtue, of using your free will to choose to do good despite the difficulties involved in that choice.  As a creature with free will the process of making that choice is something that only you can do.  God cannot do it for you.

This description of prayer may not sound very familiar.  We are used to ritual prayers, such as grace at mealtime or the various formal prayers recited in church.  These are not really meaningful prayer, and it is important to recognize the difference between such ritual prayers and meaningful prayer.  Ritual prayers serve the useful purpose of reminding us to stop and think about religious issues.  They are popular because the ritual can be imposed upon you by a pastor or by parents, people trying to help you to develop the habit of thinking about religion.  However, meaningful prayer cannot be imposed by anyone other than yourself.  Properly understood, then, ritual prayer is helpful.  On the other hand, if it is mistaken for meaningful prayer, then it can serve instead to confuse the worshiper and cause him to develop a misguided view of God.

We need to understand that a prayer of thanks at mealtime is not required because God will otherwise think that we are ingrates and get mad at us.  Only humans are so vain and petty that they demand a show of gratitude for the gifts they give, and even the average human parent would be satisfied (perhaps overjoyed!) if her children simply refrained from voicing complaints about the dinner they had been given.  The mealtime prayer is instead meant to be a reminder to be appreciative of the good things in life so that we may guide ourselves to contribute towards those good things.  When we remind ourselves not to take basic things like food for granted, but rather to feel lucky to receive them, then we help to protect ourselves against the material obsession that flows from feeling that whatever you’ve gotten isn’t enough.  We must understand that a ritual prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer, where we ask God to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, is not a magical charm that keeps an otherwise mischievous God from leading us into temptation.  Rather is a reminder to ourselves to be aware of temptation and, through meaningful prayer, to seek to lead ourselves away from it.  Likewise, the child who prays:

"Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take"

should not be given to believe that this prayer will determine the fate of her soul if she in fact dies in her sleep.  She should instead be lead to understand that she is using that moment of prayer at the end of the day to shake off the things that disturbed her spirit during the day, and bring herself back to a feeling of peace and happiness, so that her soul is with God even as she sleeps.  Such understanding will help ritual prayer to grow into meaningful prayer, leading the petitioner to God, rather than letting the ritual take the place of meaningful prayer, leading the ritual participant simply to feel that the whole process is nonsense.  When we substitute the form of prayer for its substance we cast ourselves adrift upon the open sea, losing the greatest tool we have for finding our way to God. The infliction of meaningless ritual prayer upon a child, without a real attempt to help him to progress to meaningful prayer, is worse than useless, for it will surely turn him against a process that an untutored child may well grow into on his own. When a parent helps her child to find the meaning in prayer, on the other hand, she gives him a compass that can guide him safely home no matter how off course the winds of sin may take him.  He need only fall back to prayer to find his way out of the fog that the material world has raised up within his mind, for the soul needs only the quiet of prayerful meditation to find the course that it is meant for.

Prayer and Schools

There has been much debate across America as to whether prayer should be allowed or required in public schools.  Generally, the prayer advocates want to impose a ritual prayer consistent with their sect of Christianity.  One wonders whether this debate would have been more helpful if it was suggested instead that teachers ask students:  “Please take a minute to think about something nice that you want to do for someone else today.”  Such a request would not conflict with any religion, or even with the most militant atheism, yet it would teach children far more about the true function of prayer than they would learn from any ritualized recital of words.  Children do not need to learn how to get the words of their parent’s favorite prayers right.  They need to learn to focus their minds and hearts on finding and following the path of virtue.  Parents who focus on the recital of words instead of the meaning are badly missing the point.  Those who think the subject through will see that asking a public schoolteacher to lead children through a ritual recital of words without providing supporting education as to the purpose and meaning of those words accomplishes nothing.  Asking that same teacher to focus the children’s minds on the most basic of Christian virtues, on wanting to perform a generous act for someone else, would provide a far greater service, the beneficial effects of which are not dependent upon the invocation of God’s name.  If children focus on the joy of helping others   they will surely find God, without ever needing to know that they were seeking him.  That achieved, it is not so difficult for parents, without assistance from the public authorities, to tell them his name.

Summary:

God does not withhold good things until we ask nicely. Prayer is a process through which we find that which has already been given to us.

The function of prayer is not to ask for things that God would otherwise withhold

The proper object of prayer is internal, to find faith, strength, and virtue

Prayer is a way to focus on the truth and strength already within you

Conversation starters in popular culture:

The Wizard of Oz teaches us about prayer. Dorothy, the scarecrow, the tin man and the lion think they need a gift from the wizard, but all had what they sought all along.

Further reading:

The Serenity Prayer

Prayer of Saint Francis

 

 

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Difficult Concepts Made Simple 4 – Faith continued

Faith – The Power and the Peril

Can faith cure physical illness?  To some extent, yes.  Any time scientists test a new drug or other medical cure, they must use a control group of patients who take a placebo, a fake pill made with sugar or some such inactive substance, instead of the drug to be tested.  Why?  Because some of the patients always get better just because they think they are receiving a cure.  In order to prove that the test drug is effective, the scientists must show that it cures a percentage of patients that is higher than the percentage who are cured simply by their own belief that they will be cured by the treatment.  More broadly, any doctor or therapist will testify that patients do better if they have a good attitude than if they allow themselves to feel miserable and despairing.  Religious faith helps people to have a hopeful and positive attitude, and to avoid fear and despair.  In this way, faith can work real and sometimes dramatic physical cures.  By curing diseases of the soul it can help to cure diseases of the body.

But focusing on miraculous physical cures can cause us to overlook an even greater and more common miracle of faith.  Parents see a simple version of this form of miracle every day, when a child asks her mother to kiss a scraped finger and make it better.  We tend to think of this little ritual as just “fooling” the child into thinking the hurt has been cured, but in fact, from the child’s point of view, the kiss really does make the hurt better.  The kiss cures the child’s attitude towards the pain, and in doing so it makes the pain essentially go away.  Faith can do the same thing for the larger ills of grown-ups.  If you have faith that you should get on with your life as best you can, then you will focus your mind away from the injury or illness.  By keeping away fear and despair, faith makes us feel much better, even if we are not physically cured.  The wound may still exist, and it may still hurt, but we don’t mind so much that it hurts.  Not everyone benefits from miracle cures of the body, even if they have very strong faith, but everyone with faith benefits from this miracle of the mind.  It may be difficult to accept that God allows good people to suffer serious injuries or illnesses.  We feel that in justice such things should only happen to bad people.  God, however, does not deal in the material, but in the spiritual.  Justice lies in the strength of spirit that good people acquire by learning alignment with God, a strength that will see them through the bleakest adversity, for their vision sees through the clouds that may gather about their person to a brighter light beyond.  Justice lies too in the weakness of the corrupt, who suffer greatly from the thwarting of their material obsessions.  For them, every pain is magnified a hundredfold by the microscope they focus on themselves.  A mother may not be able to fix a bloody knee, but she can distract her child’s attention away from the blood and turn his screams into laughter by distracting him with a joke or a tickle.  In the same way, God may not fix the physical hurt, but through our faith he turns our attention away from the pain, and makes us better. To get the most of this, one needs to focus on an action – caring for your family, working to help others from suffering your problem, or anything where you can focus on doing something helpful. Faith is an active process.

Can faith move mountains?  In a sense, yes.  If a person has faith that she should do the right thing, even if she doesn’t see any positive results from doing it, then she will be a powerful personal force.  Think of the times in your life when you have failed to do something that you wanted to do.  Why did you finally give up?  Did you feel like you weren’t getting any credit or gratitude for your efforts?  Did you get bored or frustrated when you seemed to be banging your head against the wall without making any progress?  What could you have done if you had been absolutely convinced in your own mind that the thing had to be done, no matter what anyone thought and no matter how difficult or time-consuming it was?  A single person with the faith to persevere can find ways to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.  She may not be able to pick up the mountain, but she will chip it away stone by stone until the job is done. Faith is strength.

Can faith be dangerous?  Potentially, yes.  Faith is a very powerful force.  By freeing us from the constraints of caring about public opinion or our own comfort or convenience, it permits us to take unpopular actions with enthusiasm.  This is often a very good thing.  Persons who opposed the Nazis in wartime Germany were undoubtedly not popular, but they were doing the right thing.  On the other hand, sometimes popular opinion is correct, and an action may well be unpopular because it is misguided.  Concern for public opinion causes a person to think twice before doing something that most people have decided is a bad idea. Strong faith can reduce this checking force, and thus places a stronger burden on the individual to make sure that his actions are not misguided.  The suicidal followers of Jim Jones and the unfortunates in the Heaven’s Gate cult who tried to send their souls after the Hale-Bopp comet clearly had strong faith, but misguided ideas.  Soldiers kill out of faith that their government is correct, when the soldiers of at least one side (and usually both)  in every war should redirect their faith to a more reliable source.  Religious zealots in every age have committed all manner of terrible crimes that would sicken most of us, overriding normal constraints of decency by the strength of their misguided faith in the rightness of their actions.

The above instances all share a common theme, which illustrates the way to avoid the dangers of faith.  In each case, the faith involved is faith in the correctness of an idea mixed together with the faith that correct action should be pursued regardless of personal consequences.  The latter form of faith provides the strength to do that which most people would reject, while the former form of faith provides the willingness to accept as virtuous that which most thinking people would rightly condemn.  We should not have faith in ideas.  Being the fallible creatures that we are, our ideas are probably wrong more often than not.  Correct ideas never suffer unduly by being questioned, for if the questioner probes far enough he will simply clear the dust away from the gleaming beauty of truth.  On the other hand, probing questions are the enemy of lies and error.  Thus, an unquestioning acceptance of any idea is not wise policy; it is an open door to evil.  The Father of Lies cannot succeed where all his lies are questioned.

Again, Christian faith is not faith in the specific tenets of the Christian religion.  It is not faith in the truth of particular ideas.  Even Christian ideas can and should be questioned.  Christ was a great questioner of commonly accepted ideas that were enforced with some vigor by the religious authorities of the time. Not only did he ask questions himself, he relished being questioned by others.  His style of teaching was to receive and answer questions, for he above all knew that questions would burnish, not tarnish, the lamp of truth. He even disliked providing straightforward instructions, which could easily be distorted and turned into dogma, preferring instead to speak in parables so that his followers would be required to think and understand, rather than to follow his commands blindly.

It is important to apply this same questioning spirit to little things as well as the large. It is very tempting to people who have enjoyed the good feeling that virtue gives to then set up a thousand little rules to follow, so that they can feel extra-virtuous for obeying all those rules. We must remember that one of Christ’s primary messages was that the scores of rules professed by the religious authorities of the day were nonsense and should be ignored, that instead we should concentrate on one rule – love. This, again, is the principle of connectedness. Christ wanted to make it clear that following needless rules is not the same thing as virtue, and that faith in rules is misguided faith.

Christian faith is simply faith in the value of virtue, and virtue lies in doing right by others.. Finding that virtue is a different matter.  Fortunately, Christianity provides us with extremely helpful tools for that quest, and it is to one of those tools, prayer, that we will turn in my next article.

 

Summary:

Faith provides the strength to get beyond suffering, to persevere, and to prevail – but its power must be properly directed

Faith can heal, and provides the strength to deal with suffering

Faith can enable you to move mountains – one rock at a time

Have faith in virtue – but be skeptical of ideas and rules

Springboards for discussion:

The movie Leap of Faith illustrates both the manipulation of faith and the power of the real thing

Further reading:

Jim Jones

The children’s crusades

The mormon meadows massacre

 

 

 

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Some Difficult Concepts Made Simple 3 – Faith

Faith – The Strength to Do What Needs to Be Done

The word faith is much abused, because religious discussion speaks often of faith without making clear what we are supposed to have faith in or to be faithful towards.  There have been many evil people in history – Cotton Mather, Jim Jones, Osama bin Laden, and thousands of others other large and small scale abusers – who have tried (too often successfully) to convince others that faith means believing whatever they are told, so long as the manipulative person in question is the person doing the telling.  For this reason it is especially important that children learn from an early age what the concept of faith really means in the Christian context.

To understand the concept, it is only necessary to look back to the principle of alignment with God and our example of the three children asked to clean their room.  Angela derives pleasure from the task of cleaning her room – a task which offers no pleasure in itself – because she has faith that it is the right thing to do.  The faith does not lie in her believing that cleaning her room is good.  That belief is based on logic, experience, and moral reflection.  We are not required to believe that something is “good” just because someone in authority says so, if our own logic and experience say otherwise.  The faith involved is her deep, emotional acceptance of the idea that doing what she logically believes to be the right thing is the only acceptable choice for her.  She is not troubled by thoughts such as “maybe it’s good, but it’s no fun – I want to go watch T.V. instead.”  She is convinced that the virtuous choice is the only choice for her, and so she feels good about doing the right thing even if it’s not inherently fun, and she would not enjoy shirking her duty by going out to play instead.  Christian faith is simply faith in the proposition that virtue is its own reward.  Such faith, once acquired, is difficult to shake, for by truly believing that virtuous behavior is a good thing without regard to material rewards or appreciation from others, the faithful person acquires the ability to feel pleasure in virtue under all circumstances.  For her, virtue is indeed its own reward because she believes it to be true.

Stubborn Stuart and Contracting Connie haven’t yet found this key to heaven.  Stuart makes his own and his mother’s life miserable because he is convinced that he should always do exactly what he wants, rather than thinking he should want to do what is right.  Connie thinks that she should receive a material reward for a virtuous act, and so not only fails to take pleasure in the act, but leaves herself open to having no pleasure at all if the material rewards ever stop.  Angela’s faith, her ability to feel good about doing the right thing just because it is good, is a treasure that the others lack.  By definition, no one can achieve the bliss that is heaven  without such faith, for without it one is incapable of feeling that bliss.

The value of such faith in achieving heavenly bliss is clear. Faith is the force that provides immunity against the pain of doubt and despair.  It frees us from the need for material rewards and satisfactions.  Most importantly, it protects us against the form of desperate desire that characterizes sin.  Stubborn Stuart really suffers when he cleans his room, because he is convinced that he by rights should be doing something else, and is absorbed in his unfulfilled desire to be elsewhere.  He cannot feel good about performing the task.  Angela does not feel the desire to be elsewhere, or at least not in the same way.  If she thinks about it she may wish that she had a room-cleaning robot, but she knows that she would not enjoy doing something else while the necessary task remains undone.  This prevents her from focusing on wanting to do something else, and immunizes her against that unfilled desire.  Her virtue shields her from unpleasant feelings, leaving her mind free to enjoy her accomplishments. Further, it helps to immunize her against the kinds of anxious feelings that can lead to despair.

Faith is subject to many tests, for life is filled with material distractions and many of them are subtle.  The admiration and thanks of others are particularly effective decoys from the pure joys of virtue.  It is easy to believe that if others admire you, you must be doing good things.  However, virtue and applause are not the same thing.  A very good person working to help unknown poor people in some rural county is unlikely to be as widely known and admired as some basically selfish football player who gives a check to charity.  A person who gets caught up in seeking applause will be easily discouraged from virtuous tasks.  He may find the heart to be a hero when television cameras are pointed his way, but his courage will fail when he is alone.  “Why should I help those ungrateful people?”, he will think.  “Why should I speak out against that evil if all my neighbors will think I am a nut or a troublemaker?”  When he does do the right thing, his joy will be measured by the applause meter, not by the goodness of the act.  If his neighbor helps in the cause and gets more attention for it, he will be jealous, rather than feeling joy in the virtue of his neighbor.  By allowing himself to be distracted from the conviction that virtuous action is worthwhile simply because it is virtuous, he will lose the joy that pure virtue brings. Further, he will lose the strength that faith should bring, the strength to feel good about himself and his choices even when others disapprove.  To enjoy the benefits of faith, then, we must clearly understand its role and work to purify our faith against such subtle attacks.  We must learn to enjoy virtue purely for the sake of the good that it does, and not for the sake of being perceived as virtuous by others.  As I will discuss in a later article, prayer can be a useful tool for distilling faith in this way.

(I should add at this point something that will be covered further later. We are not called upon to be perfect angels, and if one makes that mistake it will tend to undermine faith and replace it with inappropriate guilt. Angela will feel good about cleaning her room rather than making her mother do it because she does not want to burden her mother, not because she feels a compulsion to keep her room pristine. If we are following the principle of connectedness, we will recognize what is important and what is asking too much. Another writer has made this point well. )

Christ’s suffering was necessary for him to provide an example of perfect faith, free from the taint of vain distractions.  He did not face the cross in the context of a hero.  The people of Jerusalem turned against him and reviled him.  They tormented and humiliated him and called for his blood, choosing to have him executed in preference to a common killer.  His own disciples betrayed or disowned him.  Despite this, he accepted his assigned fate, firmly believing that he simply had no other valid choice.  Despite his words on the cross, he was not forsaken by the Father, for he was spared the torment of doubt.  Without that torment, anything is bearable.  Christ proved this, in the form of a man who knew fear, pain, and abandonment, and who was given the chance to avoid his fate, but yet never wavered from doing what he knew he should do.  Adam’s original sin was the pride that gave humankind the pain and danger of a choice between doing good or doing evil.  Christ purged that original sin through his demonstration of a faith so perfect that the pain of choice was eliminated – the virtuous course was the only course for him.  For anyone else who follows Christ’s example in faith, sin will be swept away.  They will not be tempted to stray from virtue, and will not feel the pain of doubt in the face of adversity.  This is not to say that they will not have to make difficult choices, for the path of virtue is often obscure, but they will choose knowing that their objective is to do the right thing.  They will feel joy in their virtue, and they will be spared from wondering:  “Am I a fool?  Is this worth it?”  For such a person, bliss is not difficult to find.

This brings us to another one of the hard questions.  Most Christian children have heard that one must have faith in order to get to heaven.  On hearing this, they will often ask what happens to children in other countries who have not been raised in “The Faith” – are they automatically condemned to hell?  I hope that the above discussion shows why this is a misguided question.  One does not need to be raised in “the Christian faith” or to believe in any of the details of Christian doctrine to have the kind of faith that one needs to find heaven.  Those who think so have been confused by the many different uses of the word “faith”.  The faith that counts is faith that virtue is its own reward, that a person should do the right thing simply because it is the right thing.  A person raised as a Muslim, a Hindu, or an atheist can all have that type of faith, they can all be good people, and they can all find the bliss that comes from such virtuous faith.  Christ did not sweep through cities in a blaze of fire and glory, making everyone believe without question that he must be divine.  His body was not removed from the cross by a glowing angel as proof to the onlookers that he was the son of God.  Instead, he walked the earth as a man, talking to people, and he suffered ridicule, torture and death to give an example of perfect human faith for other people of faith to follow.  When Thomas, after being a disciple up through the crucifixion, still doubted, he was not cast into a lake of fire; he was given reassurance to help him to find the faith to do what had to be done next.  This is not, in short, a religion that demands uncritical, unthinking acceptance of particular teachings.  Rather, it is a religion that asks us to seek to build the faith within ourselves that will help us to want to do the right thing, and to build the wisdom to figure out what the right thing is.

In the next article I will address the power of faith, and the hazards that come with that power.

Summary:

Faith is the deep emotional conviction that the virtuous course of action is the only acceptable one. It makes alignment with God possible.

Faith is the deep conviction that one should and must do the virtuous thing

Faith frees us from the pain of doubt, sin and despair

Christ’s life and death gave us an example of perfect faith

Adam and Eve brought the choice of good and evil, Christ showed faith removes that burden

A common movie theme is the ordinary person who becomes a hero because he or she is emotionally unable to choose the other path. They have faith. In Angels With Dirty Faces, James Cagney does the right thing at the cost of earthly “honor”, through saving faith.

Further reading:

Integrity – Doing the right thing for the right reason

Doing the right things for the wrong reasons

Virtue is its own reward

 

 

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Some difficult concepts made simple part 2

Heaven and Damnation – We Choose What We Desire – Hell is not what you may think

What is hell?  A lake of fire?  Demons sticking people with pitchforks?  No.  Hell is the state of not being in heaven.  If perfect happiness comes only through alignment with God,  then failure to achieve that alignment must result in unhappiness, an unhappiness that the sinner inflicts on himself.  Dante’s Inferno  illustrates this point well.  The poor souls in the Inferno are, in large part, pursuing the same obsessions that they pursued in life.  They may be chasing wealth, sex, food, power or whatever else they focused their attention on in this world.  What all of those things have in common is a state of constant wanting.  Those who lust after money, power, or sexual gratification in preference to more virtuous goals never feel that they have gotten enough.  Indeed, often the more they get the greater the wanting becomes, feeding their own obsession.  Their very success in feeding their desires increases the misery of wanting, until they are sucked down into a whirlpool of their own cycle of wanting.  It is by choosing this course that they condemn themselves, and the fire that consumes them is the flame of their own ever-burning desire. Understanding this is the key to understanding the true concept of sin, and in distinguishing between sin, crime, and nonsense.

In considering this point it may be helpful to examine your own experience with material desires and virtuous desires.  Imagine that you have just received an increase in wealth or power.  Imagine further that you are experiencing the initial dose of pleasure that flows from that.  How (honestly!) will you feel on observing that some acquaintance has gotten more wealth or power than you did?  Will that increase your pleasure, giving you a warm feeling from knowing that he has gotten something good, or will the knowledge instead take a bit of the shine off of your own pleasure?  Does it make your new wealth or power seem a bit less than it seemed before?  Do you wish that you had gotten more?

Now imagine that you have done some virtuous act in a good cause.  You have done the right thing for the right reason – not to win the admiration of your friends, but just because it is the right thing to do to advance the cause.  You feel good about it.  Now an acquaintance performs an even more difficult virtuous act for the same cause.  Do you feel jealous, or do you experience a warm feeling because other right thinking people are helping to advance the cause?  If your motives have been pure, there is no basis for jealousy.  The joy of virtue is only enhanced by observing virtue in others.  Indeed, you would likely feel disappointed if others failed to make the same effort to advance the cause.  Would you feel the same sort of disappointment if others (excluding friends) failed to match you in wealth and power?

Similarly, imagine a guy (I will not place you, virtuous reader, in the place of such a person) who is pleased that some good-looking female has agreed to go out on a date with him, and that this pleasure stems from vanity (“wait until they see who I’m with!”) rather than from affection.  Is that pleasure likely to be increased or decreased upon observing some other guy with an even more attractive date?  Now imagine instead that you are out with someone you love, and who loves you in return.  If you observe another couple in love, will that reduce your pleasure, or help to remind you of your own happy state and enhance your joy?  Virtuous pleasure feeds itself.  It flows largely from the pleasure that virtue gives to others, and increases as the joy of all increases.  Material pleasure is jealous.  It is material craving, not material pleasure, that feeds on itself.

Hell then, like heaven, is a state of the soul.  Damnation is not a punishment inflicted by God.  It is the natural and inevitable outcome of the way the damned have chosen to mold their own desires.  They feel no pleasure in virtue, for they have become so obsessed by their cravings that their souls have become blind to the inherent pleasures of goodness.  Instead, they crave things that can never satisfy, carving a hole in their souls that cannot be filled.  Given the way these creatures have shaped their own souls, how would they respond if they were transported into heaven?  Set among the blissful millions with the instruction to be happy in their own virtue and that of those about them, in their alignment with the goodness of God, would they feel the thrill of divine bliss?  No.  They would immediately be bored and would want to go back down to hell so that they could continue chasing their desires.  They are deprived of heaven because they have shaped themselves in such a way that heaven offers them no joy.  Given the choice – and in fact they have been given the choice – they’d rather be in hell.  Their torments are not punishments, but rather are the very substance of their craving souls.  Like the criminal discussed in an earlier installment, they would feel the torment of insatiable desire even if their every material wish were granted.  They have placed themselves beyond salvation.

Going back to our earlier question, then, why does God permit people to do this to themselves?  Because in order to achieve the bliss of heaven, people must have the free will to choose to do good.  Otherwise, they will be like a computer that has been programmed to follow a set of instructions and then “label your condition upon finishing the task as ‘satisfaction'”; it will comply, but the result will be meaningless. In order to have free will, people must also have the real ability to choose not to do good.  They can receive various guides towards making the right choice.  They may have a natural good feeling  when they choose wisely on earth and a feeling of dissatisfaction or the prickings of conscience when they choose badly.  Parents and friends and church members and books may give them good advice.  They may see examples of people who make themselves miserable chasing material desires.  Their own logical thoughts may demonstrate to them that if they have enough money to live comfortably and still spend their lives trying to grab more, then something must be wrong with their value system.  Yet, despite all the guidance and help and grace, they have – and must have – the ability to choose poorly, and a rather surprising number of people do.  In doing so they condemn themselves, and what they condemn themselves to is the pursuit of those wants that they themselves have established as the goal of their desires.  God weeps at their choice, but cannot do more to help them without destroying the very possibility of virtue.  Those who instead choose wisely, who set virtue as their goal and learn to take pleasure in virtue for its own sake, just as inevitably create their own spiritual heaven independent of the material world.

It may seem disingenuous to say that the damned choose their fate.  Who would choose hell over heaven?  Yet, you have only to look about you to see the answer in practice.  Heavenly bliss and hellish damnation are not reserved for the afterlife.  We are given a full opportunity to taste of them in our ordinary lives.  We see many examples of people who have chosen a destructive cycle of wanting.  Crack-addicted mothers who engage in prostitution in front of their doomed children in order to feed their habit are living a life that most of us can recognize as hell on earth, and yet they commonly fail to seek social services designed to rescue them from that life.  Young stars who get rich too quickly commonly spend their wealth on drugs, divorce lawyers, and psychiatrists.  In marriage after marriage, people choose to throw away the gift of love because they feel that they want something that they are not getting, instead of building their love to a level where it overwhelms such wants.  Aren’t these people choosing the torments of insatiable wanting?

We see other people who have found happiness despite profound poverty or lack of material opportunities.  It often seems like there are many more people living lives of misery than there are living happy lives, but research statistics indicate that this is an illusion.  It is always somewhat amazing when a person who has all of the material things in life manages to be miserable, yet we can intuitively understand how a good person can manage to be happy under humble circumstances.  Therefore, the great and miserable are much reported and discussed, while the humble but happy live out quiet lives, receiving less notice than they should.  They are the ones who have found the road to heaven, and we would all do well to note and follow their course.

I must comment on another possibility, something that does not fit within the usual definition of sin, though at least Catholics point it out in the context of suicide being a mortal sin. A person may not be preoccupied with greed, lust, vanity, wrath etc., but may instead  fall into utter despair of a sort that prevents them from experiencing the joy of virtue. I would propose that suicide may not be equivalent to sin in some circumstances where it is rational given the alternatives. In the case of a person tempted to suicide because of despair, however, while it is not sin in the sense of being bad,  it is mortally tragic in the sense of cutting off learning to feel joy in virtue. This circumstance further demonstrates that God has no interest in punishing people for a sickness of the soul – we know that God desperately wants to help innocents suffering in despair. Still, those in despair need to find the power within them to reach out for that love and gift. They have it within them – God grants it to all. If they can focus their mind in true prayer they can find it. Such cases are particularly difficult, though, and that is part of my motivation in writing this series and my book. We need to flood the world with love, with good examples, with people who have moved beyond the mistake of self-righteous condemnation and on to God’s message of reaching out to their fellow creatures and letting them know that they are loved and valued.  We need to help all children to realize that they have value and merit no matter what other people think of them. We need to help them to see God’s simple plan of loving others and feeling good about it, and to recognize early on how to respond when they see problems in their thinking leading to their unhappiness, to turn guilt into thoughts and  actions that put them back on the path to joy. This can be a very tough task, but it is extraordinarily important, and it is much easier if we start out with a sensible view of what it is all about.

Now that we have identified our desired destination, and the destination we want to avoid, how do we navigate in the right direction?  The articles that follow are intended to help in this task.

 

Again, popular culture is full of examples of people’s self-destruction by chasing the wrong ends. This demonstrates our intuitive sense of this truth, as well a people’s puzzling but common failure to change course and save themselves.

Citizen Kane illustrates the perils of obsession with wealth and power. At the end, Kane yearns for the pre-wealth innocence of his childhood.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the classic tale of the destructive power of greed

The Perks of Being a Wallflower speaks to addressing hurt and despair by focusing on friendship and love.

 

 

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