Living in the Gaze of Christ

One of the dangers of familiarity with certain stories is that since they are so familiar, our ears can grow deaf to the small details within the narrative. I think that today’s Gospel is one of those familiar stories. And it is precisely one of the easy-to-miss details from today’s Gospel that gives us key insight into the Season of Lent, the process of conversion, and the Joy which the Church invites us into on this 4th Sunday of Lent. 

Read again the first two sentences of the Gospel:

“As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. 
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

In between those two sentences is something important for us to pray with, especially during this season of penance and conversion.

Jesus is looking so intently at the man that the disciples notice. The gaze that Christ is looking at the man with must be familiar to the disciples, because they can already tell what Jesus is going to do. They ask Jesus about the sin that brought blindness on the man, which indicates that they are expecting Jesus to heal him. Think of the healing of the Paralytic: Jesus forgives his sins and he is healed. 

The way Christ looks at the man is unique and telling. Surely the disciples recognize that same Gaze from the way Christ looked at each and every one of them as He called them to follow him.

I think that if St. Mark were recounting this story, he might have included the same description of Jesus’s gaze that he did when Jesus encountered the rich young man. St. Mark told us that Jesus “looked at him with Love.”

Jesus looks at this blind man before the blind man even knows he’s there. Jesus looks at him with love and the intention to heal him before the blind man even knows that healing, that sight, is possible.

The beginning of this man’s movement from blindness to sight has its beginning – not in the man crying out, not in the disciples bringing the man to Jesus or someone asking Jesus to prove Himself – no – the blind man’s movement from darkness to light begins with the tender gaze of Love which only the incarnate God can give. 

Our joy as Christians comes from living in that Gaze – from being looked at by the God who cries out to each and every one of us: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead…”

Every movement toward the Light starts with God – God loved us first! Do we remember that Gaze? Do we spend time trying to just be there, in the tender gaze of Love that God looks at us with? Or do we run from that Gaze? Do we hide out of feelings of unworthiness or guilt?

The story of the blind man is somewhat easy to relate to, because it is the story of each one of us. The Church reminds us what that Gaze was like and calls us back to it, here in the middle of Lent and in this strange time of COVID-19.

The basic movements of the story are: the blind man encounters Jesus, Jesus acts decisively to begin his healing and sends him to Siloam, the man is healed and begins to testify, to witness to the people around him about his healing and the one who brought that healing about.

Each and every Christian has had some sort of encounter with Jesus. In even small and subtle ways each of us has felt his tender loving gaze break into our darkness, our sin, and give us a hope we did not have before. It’s possible that we don’t remember what is was like, maybe we haven’t felt that gaze in years, or maybe we think that the Lord has never looked at us like that. This time of silence and isolation is a perfect time to return to the Lord, spending time with Him to remember and feel that tender gaze of Love again, perhaps for the first time in an intentional way.

After that initial encounter, Jesus worked to remove our blindness – our self-absorption, our isolation, the loneness of our sin. And He called us to wash in a pool – a pool named “sent.” This pool that Jesus sends the blind man to has often been interpreted in the Tradition of the Church as a foreshadowing of Baptism. Jesus is the one who is sent from the Father – the man washes in the pool of the “Sent One,” we have washed in the waters of Baptism. Our eyes were opened, we were given the light which is Life in Christ. 

After this encounter and healing, we went out to proclaim and witness to what Jesus did in our lives to a world which does not always accept and does not want to believe in Jesus.

And we are blessed even more to spiritually accompany the Catechumens of the Church on this very same journey during this time of Lent: they have encountered Christ, have felt his loving Gaze and have been sent by Him to the waters of Baptism – and even now, but more fully later – they give witness to what Jesus has done in their lives – and we thank God for that.

All of that being said, we all know too well how easy it can be to go back into the darkness – to become blinded again. And this is what we are invited to reflect on during Lent. Because in our lives we can often be the blind man again – and so Jesus continues to invite us back – to send us again to Baptismal purity through the Sacrament of Penance. And we begin again to proclaim Him. 

This is certainly a source of great joy! That God’s mercy is not just extended once, but extended to us every time we are willing to allow Jesus to work in our lives – over and over until we no longer want to return to the darkness and blindness of our sin, but simply desire to sit and live in that tender and loving Gaze with which He looks at each one of us (this is truly the joy of Heaven).

So today, we are invited to return to that first and crucial moment in our lives of faith. The tender gaze of Christ is the foundation of our entire lives as Christians. And it must be this gaze, the love of God, that motivates and purifies every aspect of our lives! All of our penance, all of our good works and prayer find their true source in that experience of Love, which enlightens and heals us, which brings us into Light.

This strange time that we live in is also a blessed opportunity to spend time praying with God about the way he looks at you. Pray about that moment you first felt His tender gaze calling you to Himself, and the ways in which you experience that gaze here and now. Rooted in that tender, powerful gaze, we will be able to see clearly what God asks of us, what in our lives gets in the way or tries to darken our vision of Him and we will learn the Joy which is properly Christian, the Joy of knowing and experiencing a God who loves us more than we could possibly know. 

A Year in the Eternal City

It’s hard to believe, but almost a year has passed since I last saw my beautiful homeland (the United States) and came to Europe. A lot has changed in that brief year, and I found myself reflecting on a particular aspect of life that I had a vague idea of before, but now see pretty clearly. To put it simply, a year of getting ingratiated into a different culture is a good preparation for thinking about life as a Christian.

Sounds a little weird, or not really connected, but hear me out.

Ask anyone who has had to spend any considerable time away from home, and I am sure that they will tell you that there was some sort of culture shock that was part of their experience. Even when people go on short trips abroad, they pick up on the ways in which the different culture functions, or at least draws them out of their comfort zone or their “normal.”

In Italy, for example, there are hundreds of ways this American has been challenged to see the world from a different perspective, or even just learn to enjoy something that isn’t done the way I would think it should be done. From not being able to have a cappuccino after noon, to riding a bike in high traffic in Rome, to learning the way idiomatic expressions are made in Italian, to not having AC except in the occasional store or shop, there are many experiences a different culture can offer to help you see the world just a little differently.

Why am I talking about this?

This whole experience got me thinking, the same is true for our life as Christians. Part of being baptized in Christ means that we are made new, something completely different. We no longer can live for ourselves, but (as Paul says), but it is Christ who lives in us. This means that we need to immerse ourselves into the culture that is the Mystical Body of Christ. This means that the way we see the world should change, the way we talk should change, what we find acceptable and what we are willing to do for others should change.

One thing that stands out in particular is the issue of language. We need to learn the native language of the Body of Christ. By learning a new language, we not only learn a new way to say the same words we already use, but more so, we learn a new way of seeing life, a new way of seeing how to express an idea or how to name an object. By way of example, in Italian you do not say “I spent time.” Time is not a commodity that is spent. Rather, you would say that you “passed” time. The idea here is a little different. It’s these subtle ways that things are different that really draw us out of ourselves to see a different way of seeing the same things.

To really enter into the Body of Christ and live there like a native, we need to learn the language. Not only that, we need learn how the natives live. How do we do this? Prayer, community, service, etc. Above all, in the Liturgy we learn the language, the culture, and the worldview that is native to the Body of Christ the best. Scripture, teaches us as well. Community with fellow citizens of the City of God also helps draw us towards a better living and understanding.

We are of course free to not enter into the culture of the Body of Christ, just like there are plenty of tourists in cities all over the world who resist the shocking change of foreign cultures. You can, of course, survive for short trips that way, but if you really want to make a place feel like home, you have to be willing to change and be changed.

God desires us to make His home our home. He is already chasing after us and He desires that we conform our lives to the new culture of our Heavenly calling. Let’s not be tourists in the City of God, but let’s make our home there. When we do that, and when we are changed by the culture of true, self-giving love that sums up the whole place, then we will be ready to draw others there, too.

“What can you do?”

On John 6: 30-35

When someone is trying to sell us something, the natural questions that arise go along the lines of, “why do I need this?” “how will it improve my life?” “how much does it cost?” All of these questions really hinge on the essential question: what can it do?

What an item does for us is of supreme importance, because it determines how much we value it. Our value determination regulates our investment in something, and therefore has an effect on our lives to a varying degree.

What an interesting thing, then, that in the Gospel of John the crowd asks Jesus: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do (6:30 NAB)?” A better translation of that word “do” in this situation might be “perform” (RSV), but the point remains. The crowd treats Jesus like he is selling something, like the life he is proposing is some sort of diet or life advice. “Ya, the Bread of Life and the Kingdom is cool and all, but what can you do for me?”

But the point is not about the doing. It’s about who Jesus is not what he does. In fact, the crowd betrays themselves when they immediately follow their question with a Scriptural passage: “As it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” They’ve missed the point.

They are focused on the giving, the doing. What they’ve missed is that the bread was given to them and was sustenence precisely because it was from heaven. What matters is what it is, secondary is what it does.

This is even more so the case with Jesus. Often, we approach Jesus just like we would a salesman who’s selling a nice car or computer. “I’ve heard what you’re giving has done great things for people.” “The commands you’ve given have really helped a lot of people, maybe they can help me.” “If I live according to your commands and prohibitions, maybe you will give me what I ask for in prayer, or better yet, maybe if I give you some of my Sundays, you’ll let me into heaven.” It’s a subtle game of constantly asking the Lord, “What can you do?”

Jesus, however, both sees through our foolishness and desires to actually do so much more. His response is simple. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst (6:35 NAB).” What matters first is who Jesus is. What he does is not there to convince us to join his feel-good club, it’s a direct result of who he is. Jesus calls us to himself, and it’s when we are in relationship with the Son of God that we expirence the effects of his presence in our lives.

Especially in our consumeristic society where we use people and love things, Jesus is calling us to first love people (first of all God) and from that relationship, things are done. We need to constantly assess how we respond to the proposal Christ is making to us so that our response is not “what can you do?” but rather, “who are you?” Because in the end, the thing that gives any credibility to the claims Jesus makes and the miracles he performs is that he is the Son of God. If he wasn’t that, then anything he did or performed simply doesn’t matter.

If Jesus is the Son of God, then his very being demands the totality of ours. That’s what the crowd doesn’t understand. This is not just another teacher or miracle worker, this is Someone who is totally unique at the level of his being. Belief preceeds the miracles. Assent to who he is comes before he does anything “for” you.

The question the crowd should have asked is the same question we should ask. Not “what can you do?” but “who are you?” The second answers the first.

Why You Need a Rule of Life

Socrates famously stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. After 2500ish years, those words still ring true. However, the Christian Event (the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ) has changed things. We should be striving not only for an examined life, but an ordered life in Christ.

Jesus Christ brought order back to creation and part of our life as His followers is allowing Him to re-order our lives, our desires, and our actions. The disorder had its start in the first sin. After the Fall, things were no longer how they were in the beginning. For example, no longer do Adam and the dirt get along; Adam must toil for the land to bear fruit. Also, a fundamental disorder is shown in the relationship between Adam and the Woman. Adam does something he had not done yet (and probably didn’t think to do before) – he gives the woman the name Eve. In the perfect relationship they had before, he would not have done this because only God could have. Now disorder has entered and the way Adam and Eve relate is changed (not for the better).

But Christ undoes this disordering and invites us into His new life.

So… what does this have to do with a rule of life? Freedom, here again, rears its splendid head. If we want to enter into the life in Christ, we need to practice this reordering so that our hearts are made ready for God’s work. This is where a rule comes in. It is a tool intended to draw us to Christ by drawing us out of ourselves.

What is a Rule?

A rule of life is simple, it is a set of expectations that one lives by. Every religious order lives a Rule (most are in someway related to St. Benedict’s Rule, which is subtly one of the most influential documents in the history of Western Civilization). A Rule can be simple or complex, but it is intended to simplify life. It is really beneficial when you live in community because it becomes a standard that all strive for and answerable to. 

How a rule works can be seen by way of example in Lenten penances. Before Lent, we know that prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are the pillars of the season, so we make decisions about how we will live those more intentionally for the duration of Lent. Making that choice at the beginning of Lent actually gives us immense freedom. Instead of having to think of new ways to live those three pillars and choose to do it everyday, we know exactly how we are being called to act (assuming the choice of penitential acts were chosen with proper discernment). It frees us to grow by giving order and clarity.

In a very similar way, a Rule gives freedom because it frees you to die to self in a specific way.

So now the question is: how do I do this? I do not think it is necessary to plan out every moment of your day or every action. For people living a vocation to Matrimony, life is unpredictable in a lot of ways. Therefore, the best way to start is in general. What a Rule does is spell out the most important aspects of your life so that all other decisions are made based on the essential aspects of your life. So start there.

Here’s a suggested list to begin with:

1) Our family/I will go to Mass everySunday and Holy Day

2) Our family/I will go to Confession at least twice a year/once a month/every other month.

3) Our family II will eat a meal together at least __ times a week.

Or, you could also be more a little more specific like:

a) The TV and computer will be turned off in my home at 9pm each night

b) I will pray (or my spouse and I will pray) for at least 10 mins a day in (insert specific place)

The whole point is, once you have discerned and set out those things which are essential to your life, you are free to live instead of constantly having to choose in the moment. One example of the application of this: will the invite to this event make it hard or impossible to go to Mass on Sunday? Answer: I am committed to going to Mass every Sunday, so I can’t go to that event unless I can also get to Mass.

Start small, discern and pray about it. Then let the Rule free you as it shapes your life.

Are You Ready to Change?

“Put off the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.”

Eph. 4:22-24

These words from the letter to the Ephesians are what Dietrich von Hildebrand describes as “inscribed above the gate through which all must pass who want to reach the goal set us by God.” Further, he says,

“All true Christian life, therefore, must begin with a deep yearning to become a new man in Christ, and an inner readiness to “put off the old man” — a readiness to become something fundamentally different.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand
Transformation in Christ

What does it mean for the Christian to become fundamentally different? It is a call to be something wholly other. To throw off the old man, who is a slave to our narrow world view, our prejudices, our vices, to sin itself and the will of the Evil one. It is a change in us that draws us back from bondage to sin into the glory of the Lord who has created us in love.

What allows this difference to happen? This is key because often we want to change ourselves. Recently I was listening to a podcast about forming new habits and one of the points that the speaker made was that when we go about forming new habits it’s important that we start to think in a new mindset. So rather than thinking, “I don’t do that anymore” when it comes to, say, watching 6 hours of Netflix, it is more effective to say, “the type of person I want to be does not watch 6 hours of Netflix on a Tuesday night.”

I think this points to a reality that is deeper than wanting to change bad habits. The change that Jesus Christ effected in the world by His Passion was clear, effective, and permanent. The world can never be the same. God has suffered, died, and rose from the dead. Sin has lost, the battle won.

We are called to life in Christ, to an encounter with a living God who desires to draw us ever closer to Himself. Because of the victory won for us, we cannot just simply say things like “I don’t do that sin anymore” or even, “the saint I want to be wouldn’t do that sin.” The change that God wants to effect in us is deeper and more powerful than any habit change.

We are adopted sons and daughters of God. We no longer live for ourselves, but rather Christ lives in us. Our “readiness to change” really rests primarily in our “readiness to die to self” so that Christ might live in us.

We know when this doesn’t happen in ourselves, and we certainly know when it isn’t happening in others. But we are presented with a great opportunity in the season of Lent to really foster this readiness to change. Because that is the beauty, God does the changing, we just have to be ready.

Through self-denial, exercises of temperance, and even noticeable changes in our daily routine we are not trying to earn holiness or even do penance in the strictest sense (yes, they are penitential practices). Rather, I think it is more helpful to see all of the things we do for Lent as ways that stretch us to be ready (like the wise virgins) for the coming of the Lord into our life. Once we are ready to change, to die to self, then He can come in freedom and accomplish His good work in us.

“The readiness to change is an essential aspect of the Christian’s basic relation with God; it forms the core of our response to the merciful love of God which bends down upon us: ‘With eternal charity hath God loved us; so He hath drawn us, lifted from the earth, to His merciful heart (Antiphon of Praise, Feast of the Sacred Heart).’ To us all has the inexorable yet beatifying call of Christ been addressed: Sequere me (“Follow Me”). Nor do we follow it unless, relinquishing everything, we say with St. Paul: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? (Acts 9:6)”

Dietrich von Hildebrand
Transformation in Christ

That Glorious Freedom Pt. 4

This is the final installment of a series which began here.

Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Creation has been redeemed in His blood. And the Holy Spirit is fighting tooth and nail to bring the power of that redemption into your life and the life of each and every person who has ever lived and ever will live.

What really motivated me to reflect on this idea was a conversation I had with a friend over the dinner table in which we were discussing miracles and healings. What came up in the conversation is just how complex they are. Here I do not offer a definitive explanation of all things miracles, or even a novice understanding. Rather, something has struck me about the beauty and mystery of miracles and I want to reflect on it.

In his commentary on C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (which is right above Orthodoxy on my list of books that every person should have to read) Peter Kreeft tells the story of Bertrand Russell near the time of his death. Russell was a militant atheist. Someone asked him what he would do when he died if there was a God and he had to face him. Russell apparently replied by saying, “[I] would say, Sir, I see now that you clearly do exist, so I ask, why didn’t you give us enough evidence?” To this Kreeft points out the age-old answer, that God gives just enough evidence so that those who wish to see Him do and those who do not, don’t.

Well, this got me thinking about how beautiful God is, especially in the way He treats us. At the heart of an answer to Russell and, I suspect, many modern people, is the Glorious Freedom of the Sons of God. Love is what God desires so much that He is willing to do everything He can to draw us to Himself, but since freedom is a necessary foundation for any actual love to exist, everything He does in the world is marked by the need to never compel anyone to lose that freedom.

This really means that every action of God is marked by authentic love in that it cannot force anyone into a relationship with Him. In some ways, it cannot even force someone to believe in Him. Something is lacking in love if you are forced into it. Why does God work miracles for some and not for others? Why does He or His Mother appear to some and not to others? I think that one way we can make sense of these confusing issues is to realize that every miracle, every appearance, every action, is aimed to draw every person to Himself while never violating anyone’s freedom in the process.

I’ve never been satisfied with the idea that God leaves any prayer “unanswered.” I know that we don’t think we mean that God doesn’t hear all our prayers and answer each one when we say that word to describe an unfulfilled request of ours, but I think that we are slowly conditioned to a dangerous premise by using language like that. (All I can think of is that country song that goes, “sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers…some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” And come to think of it, now you are probably singing it in your head…sorry.)

The truth is that God answers every one of our prayers. What limits our perception of His answer and its power in the world is our lack of freedom to accept it, to let it change us. God’s work in this world is mind-numbingly complex, but every action He takes is to draw each one of us into an intimate relationship with Him.

What Jane and Mark seem to be looking for throughout THS is happiness on their own terms, with their own vision being played out as they will it. Ultimately, what Lewis seems to be drawing us to through this work is seeing that our freedom has a purpose and that the paradox of our freedom is that the more it is submitted to the will of God, the freer we become.

May we all grow in courage and freedom as we try to allow God to work more freely in our lives. And may we be ready for change, especially when it requires us to step outside of our own narrow view of the world and God and into the mystery of God’s love and the glorious freedom of the sons of God.

That Glorious Freedom Pt. 3

“I am the Director,” said Ransom, smiling. “Do you think I would claim the authority I do if the relation between us depended either on your choice or mine? You never chose me. I never chose you. Even the great Oyeresu whom I serve never chose me. I came into their worlds by what seemed, at first, a chance; as you came to me- as the very animals in this house first came to it. You and I have not started or devised this: it has descended on us — sucked us into itself, if you like. It is, no doubt, an organisation: but we are not the organisers. And that is why I have no authority to give any one of you permission to leave my household.”

This a series of posts that begins here.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you want to know the whole story first, read The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.

Now we turn to Jane and see an entirely different story. Jane begins the story just like Mark, with an improper view of Freedom. She is regretting her Marriage to him, her being tied down in a regrettable situation which isn’t what she thought it would be. Her vision of Marriage is wrong, but her vision of what freedom looks like within Marriage is really what’s driving this problem. She wanted to remain herself, not get lost in the other. Since both her and Mark have this attitude, they are both failing to give themselves wholly to the other, both failing to freely empty themselves to love the other.

In the midst of this, she finds herself troubled by an incredible gift she has: the ability to see past her own experience. In this way, Jane really becomes the center of the novel, because both sides desperately need her. It is this skill and how it is sought after that I think best tells us Lewis’s view of the workings of the Devil and God.

I am struck by the laxity of Ransom’s approach to the whole situation of convincing Jane to join his rag-tag team. The attitude he presents is one that communicates the truth – they could really use her as part of the team, but ultimately his trust is in something more powerful and therefore she is totally free to choose. If she comes, great. If she joins Belbury, well, its certainly a setback, but the crux of the fight really doesn’t rest on her in the way the reader would expect.

The same is true for us in a way. God has won the victory over sin and death. In reality, He doesn’t need us to help Him in that, in fact, He is fine without us. Therefore, His concern is not trying to build a more powerful army, with the gifts and abilities he needs to win. Rather, God is concerned with building a community of beloved Sons and Daughters who live in intimate and unceasing union with Him and each other. The only way that happens is when we willing submit ourselves to His Fatherly Love.

In the same way, Ransom certainly sees the use that Jane’s gift brings, but he is in no way interested in forcing her to join them because in forcing her he would remove any meaning her being on the team gives. It would limit her free gift of herself which is the prerequisite for love. He would gain nothing because the person is what matters, not the skill. This is seen in Mark’s case as the opposite by him being so concerned about how they will use his abilities and where he fits in in Belbury. Jane knows she brings a useful skill, and Ransom knows how it will be helpful, but she has to give herself over in freedom before that skill is any use to him.

“There you are,” said Camilla.“Oh, Mrs. Studdock, you must come in. You must, you must. That means we’re right on top of it now. Don’t you see? We’ve been wondering all this time exactly where the trouble is going to begin, and now your dream gives us a clue. You’ve seen something within a few miles of Edgestow. In fact, we are apparently in the thick of it already — whatever it is. And we can’t move an inch without your help. You are our secret service, our eyes. It’s all been arranged long before we were born. Don’t spoil everything. Do join us.”
“No, Cam, don’t,” said Denniston. “The Pendragon — the Head, I mean, wouldn’t like us to do that. Mrs. Studdock must come in freely.” “But,” said Jane, “I don’t know anything about all this. Do I? I don’t
want to take sides in something I don’t understand.”
“But don’t you see,” broke in Camilla, “that you can’t be neutral? If
you don’t give yourself to us, the enemy will use you.”
The words, “give yourself to us,” were ill-chosen. The very muscles of Jane’s body stiffened a little: if the speaker had been anyone who attracted her less than Camilla she would have become like stone to
any further appeal. Denniston laid a hand on his wife’s arm.

The appeal is for her to give herself over. The reason she is so hesitant at the suggestion is that she has yet to build trust with the person to whom she is giving herself over; in this case, Maleldil, in our case, God. The reality is that the goodness of Maleldil leaves no room for a half-hearted gift. In our response to God, as was mentioned in the first post, He doesn’t want our ability to write, or cook, or whatever. He has no use for them. The only thing he wants is the entirety of our being, all of our love. That is something that is incomprehensibly great, something that doesn’t happen at once, but through conversion and constant growth. Jane’s process is not an inside/outside of the circle process like Mark’s. It’s a slow integration into the community that happens to the extent that she is willing to give yourself to us.

Jane’s freedom is never violated. In fact, her freedom is constantly maintained by Ransom, who understands what love is and what it demands. This is the trusting love made possible through an authentically free gift of self to God that will conquer That Hideous Strength.

“I am not speaking of the wraiths,” said Ransom.“I have stood before Mars himself in the sphere of Mars and before Venus herself in the sphere of Venus. It is their strength, and the strength of some greater than they, which will destroy our enemies.”

Mars and Venus, the Masculine and Feminine, are for us the most understandable symbols of the Love that conquers darkness. They are the representatives of that time, in Original Justice, when Man and Woman loved each other in perfect freedom and God had possession of their entire selves as a free gift. It is this love, which points to the very mystery of God’s love which is possible by the pure exercise of free will that conquers. It is what drove the Incarnation and what allows us, here and now, to be wrapped up in God as his beloved Sons and Daughters.

Freedom, then, is seen not for what we think it is. Freedom is not license for us to do what pleases us. Rather, freedom is the underlying necessity for love. Once we are caught up in love, in a sense, we lose our freedom. Why is this? Because the free assent to love, to respond to the other, is what allows us to see the other as a part of us, and us a part of them. Once we realize that we are part of that Lover, obeying the wishes of a Lover is really an exercise of freedom rather than a limit on it. The paradox is that the more we love, the freer to love we become because disobeying the pure wishes of our Lover –specifically God who made us– is to go against our nature, to attempt to be something more than a creature, to attempt to be God.

Next time, we will conclude this little reflection with some thoughts about how freedom is maintained at all times by God.

That Gloriou​​​s Freedom Pt. 2

Last time, I set the basis for this discussion in presenting some aspects of freedom and how important it is as a basis for Love. This time, we are going to dive into the ways in which the experience of the two main characters of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength demonstrate how God works versus how Satan works, especially when it comes to freedom.

This is the second part of a series that begins here.

I once again note this series is going to, by necessity, contain some spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Let’s start with Mark. Poor chap.

“Making things clear is the one thing the D.D. can’t stand,” replied Miss Hardcastle.“That’s not how he runs the place. And mind you, he knows what he’s about. It works, Sonny. You’ve no idea yet how well it works. As for leaving, you’re not superstitious, are you? I am. I don’t think it’s lucky to leave the N.I.C.E.You needn’t bother your head about all the Steeles and Cossers. That’s part of your apprenticeship. You’re being put through it at the moment, but if you hold on you’ll come out above them. All you’ve got to do is to sit tight. Not one of them is going to be left when we get going.”

Throughout this tale, Mark’s driving motivation is to be part of a circle, a community. It display’s itself from the beginning with his involvement in the “Progressive Element,” and turns out to be his demise as he falls into the trap of the NICE. And that’s just the point, Mark is controlled by this need to fit in, to belong, and it is this un-met need that the evil forces use for their own ends.

His whole situation screams of manipulation. He is essentially preyed upon by the NICE in an attempt to get to his wife. Once brought in, he is convinced that he cannot leave (although as the story develops it is clear that he has strong reason to believe that he cannot leave as anyone who tries to is murdered). Even when he is eventually given some “freedom” it is again only used as a tool to manipulate him into doing something for the evil power, be it trying to convince his wife to come to Belbury or watching over the Tramp.

The point here is this: Mark was never free. In many ways, he is convinced he is free, especially as regards the way in which he views his marriage. But the whole time, his mistaken perception of the world and freedom are being used to draw him into the heart of evil in the world. He starts convincing himself that he is disconnected from what is happening by just being the guy writing up the lies for the papers, not the one making them, etc. He is trapped in a false view of freedom that only serves to manipulate him and keep him stuck in his own small self, not open to Reality.

It’s also important to note that he is in pursuit of a good, namely, belonging. He cannot get that feeling with his wife, because they both refuse to subordinate their wills and lives to the other, instead choosing to try to live the lie that they can maintain total freedom and yet have an intimate and meaningful relationship, and so he searches for it elsewhere, to no avail.

By way of a brief, but related aside: I think it is important to note here how freedom plays into our vocations. In every vocation, we live out a call to intimacy with God if we live it rightly. This requires us to submit freely to the will of the other, in Matrimony it’s the spouse, in Religious Life and Priesthood, it’s Jesus and His Church. Our freedom is not limited when we give it away like this, because every day we must renew our free offering of self. Things go awry when we stop giving ourselves completely to the other, this is when marriages and religious life start falling apart—because we start keeping some of ourselves for our own (like Mark and Jane do).

Another way in which this takes place explicitly is in the process he goes through as his “initiation” into the inner circle. This endless pursuit of the “objective” is nothing more than a repression of his freedom. In a world that only looks for “objectivity,” one becomes a slave to data (which can be skewed quite un-“objectively,” mind you). What is removed is the whole Affective sphere of Man’s experience, which is ultimately dehumanizing. Without the ability to exercise the affect, man is hardly capable of being anything more than a slightly more apt robot, subject to the whims of commands of someone else guised as “reason” instead of the unique person who is capable of encountering Truth with his whole being and learning to respond to it.

What happens to Mark in this story is what happens to us as we fall into sin. We slowly convince ourselves that our “freedom” is really a license to do what benefits us while we pursue our own vision of what life is and confine any “supernatural” power acting in the world to our narrow worldview. As we find company in this endless pursuit for meaning apart from what we were made for, we slowly find ourselves deeper and deeper inside an existence that has no meaning, that seems to draw life out of us and leave us less than ourselves with doubt, anxiety, confusion, etc.

The whole time our experience of the Devil is revealed: he is someone who will do anything to convince us to join him, even fooling us about the good. Further, once we join him, he convinces us that the only way to survive in his hopeless world is to go deeper, to find the secrets that God doesn’t want us to know, to exercise “freedom” by not being limited by any rules that we don’t like. That is what the title of this work refers to, That Hideous Strength of Satan. What is the answer to such a sad reality? To the pressure exerted on us with what seems like overwhelming strength? For an answer, we must assess Jane’s situation.

That Gloriou​​s Freedom Pt. 1

“Not that way either,” said Ransom, hesitating like a man who is reluctant to come to the point.“No power that is merely earthly,” he continued at last, “will serve against the Hideous Strength.”

Recently I finally finished reading another great work by C.S. Lewis: The Space Trilogy. More specifically, I finished That Hideous Strength having finished the other two in September of 2018 (yes, to my shame, it took me that long to get around to finishing the Trilogy). The reality is, I wasn’t very motivated to finish because I wasn’t enjoying the beginning of the third book. After the spiritual high that ensues from reading Perelandra, the beginning of That Hideous Strength (from here, THS) is, well, just not that interesting. It’s also kind of weird. Just putting that out there.

It wasn’t until forcing myself to finish that I realized the immense beauty of the series as a whole. One thing has been stuck in my mind since and that is a reflection on a motif that I think dominates both the series and the Christian life: Freedom.

Warning: What follows is a multi-part reflection that requires some plot points to be discussed. If you haven’t read the book and are planning on it in the near future, read them and then come back to this. You’ve been warned. Also, I do not claim to have a perfect understanding of the book, I simply present some simple thoughts about one way to view it.

There is one thing God wants, and surprisingly, it is the one thing He cannot take. What’s God after? What has He been waiting for, working for, for all eternity? Your heart.

God is omnipotent, but it would be an absurdity to think that God can contradict Himself due to His all-powerful nature (the question of whether God can make a stone too large for Him to lift falls into this kind of category, but I digress). Therefore, if God creates each one of us in His image and likeness, He creates us with a free will that He cannot manipulate, because that would mean its, eh, well, not actually free.

John tells us in his first letter that, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Without going into the distinctions of love and its complex nature, it suffices here to simply say that without freedom there can be no love. That is why God must give us free will if we are made in His image and likeness.

That we might not is precisely what makes that we do meaningful (that is why the phrase, “you didn’t have to”, or “you shouldn’t have” sneaks into our vocabulary as a way of expressing gratitude for a surprise act of love). Therefore if we are made to love, our freedom can never be interrupted or manipulated in any way in authentic love. One way we experience this is in every Sacrament there is some aspect of the expression of consent.

When you present yourself for Confession or Anointing you come by your own free will. When you come to the Church to be married, you are asked before all if you come “without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly (Rite of Matrimony).” When a man petitions his bishop for Holy Orders, at the end of the letter he must assert that he will “receive the sacred order of his own accord and freely (Can. 1036).” In Baptism you are asked what you desire from the Church (or your parents are asked for you). In Confirmation, you ask your sponsor to present you to the Bishop.

Lastly, at the Eucharist, you freely come forward to receive communion. However, I would contend that your assent to receive actually is made during the preface. In the dialogue with the priest before the Eucharistic Prayer begins, he says to the people: “Lift up your hearts” to which the people respond, “we lift them up to the Lord.” One can only imagine how long God has waited to hear you say those words freely and without reservation.

It is the freedom of all of these encounters that makes love possible. If we are in any way coerced into a relationship, it loses its meaning because part of us is missing, namely, our free will which is essential to who we are as humans.

In the next part, we will go into the ways in which THS shows how God invites us into His love and how Satan creates roadblocks of all kinds to do his best to prevent our freedom from being exercised.

The Universal Language: The Person of Jesus Christ​

“The shutting up of oneself in this inner fortress of isolation, which exists secretly even in the most jovial joiners of clubs, is proof of narrowness, limitation, even stupidity. For it presupposes a certain egocentric attitude toward the world and God. The man who has been melted by the sun of values, and above all the man who has been wounded by the love of Christ, is also lovingly open to every man and has entered into the objective unity of all. Yes, this ultimate true spirit of communion, the universal disposition to love, and the life in the ultimate loving “We,” is only possible as a fruit of the ultimate “I-Thou” communion with Christ, through which we are transfigured into Christ. Every attempt to achieve this “We” without Christ leads to a superficially anchored pseudo-communion.”

Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality

Given some of the unique opportunities that have presented themselves to me by my being a student in Rome, I have been recently reflecting on the beauty of the universal Church and the light of Jesus Christ in my own life and the life of the world. What I have come to find is that the measure of community that we experience is intimately tied to our relationship with Christ.

For Christians, no meeting is mere chance, everything works, in the end, for God’s glory. My travels of late have taken me to three different nations. In each one, I have found that it is my relationship with Christ, more than any human language I know (or not know), that makes true communion and intimacy with others possible. Yes, it is true that on some basic human level, we are all able to connect. However, that connection, that intimacy, is deepened in unimaginable ways when people are striving for intimacy with the Lord.

For the years I am blessed to spend here in the Eternal City I am not able to return home for Christmas. Therefore, this year was the first Christmas I have ever spent away from home. I did not really have any particular expectations of what this would be like; I knew it would be hard, but so is being away for the major part of five years. I decided to go to England for a few days around Christmas, and so I cannot help but recall that great quote of Chesterton:

“Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.”

-G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

And gloriously surprised I was. I stayed with a friend at a lovely parish where we were able to serve Mass and enjoy fraternity with two other priests and the pastor. On Christmas day I was tasked with cooking the meal. In proper English fashion, the meal looked like American Thanksgiving. I just found myself struck by the fact that all five of us were from different parts of the world, and yet, here we were speaking and living as though we were old friends. We had met each other just a day earlier, yet our mutual love of Jesus Christ gave us an infinite communion to share.

After returning from England with a quick stop (just long enough to do my laundry and see the New Year’s fireworks of Rome), I was headed off to Corsica, France. Here, some friends and I were staying at a pilgrim house for a few days. Honestly, I once again had no idea what to expect. And once again, I was gloriously surprised by Christ. The sisters had sent a woman (a friend of the convent that has the pilgrim house) to pick us up from the port and bring us up to the house for the first time.

The sunset on Corsica

When we were walking up to the exit from the port, we saw a woman whose smile widened as we appeared. She asked us (in French) if we were seminarians. Luckily, the word in Italian, French, and English are close enough that we knew to say yes to the question. From that moment on, she poured out her love on us in helping us navigate the city, driving us to Mass, and praying holy hours with us. For four days we shared a large chunk of time with this woman, some of the days there was another guest who knew some English and could translate, other days not. For the entirety of the time, we were still able to communicate because we spent our time communicating about something we held in common: Jesus Christ.

Lastly, a random opportunity presented itself this last weekend (I had written this post before, but didn’t like it, so I waited to rewrite it. While waiting this happened, so…the Lord wins again). I was asked by a fellow seminarian to fill in for him for a Mass that he had been asked to serve. I said yes (for some of the guys its finals season here while mine does not start until next week) becasue I was free.

Here in Rome, there have been plenty of holy happenings (and not holy happenings, but that’s a different story) over its 3000ish year history. One moment of Grace was the appearance of our Lady to a man in the Church Sant’ Andrea delle Fratte. Every year since our Lady inspired this man’s conversion to the Catholic and Apostolic Faith, she is celebrated at the altar where she appeared.

It was this Mass that I was asked to serve. The place has a special place in my heart as St. Maximilian Kolbe celebrated his first Mass there too. When we arrived, to our surprise, we were asked who was going to MC the Mass. When no one volunteered, I did (I have done it before, but not often enough to jump at the opportunity). Why did we hesitate you ask? Because the Mass was being celebrated by the Cardinal Archbishop of Genoa, that’s why.

I told the priest who was coordinating everything that I knew how to do it but that I don’t speak Italian well, so I wasn’t sure if he really wanted me to do it. He just smiled and said it would be fine. Thus began a night of real grace as I got to be right by the side of the Cardinal for two hours. What struck me most was this man’s love for Christ and his deep calm and prayer. He is a man in love with Jesus Christ. It was peaceful. We did not exchange much, just some simple small talk afterward, but having stood next to him while he prayed the Eucharistic Prayer and noticing the ease with which we communicated throughout the Mass, I could not help but be once again struck by this intimate communion through Jesus.

This post begins with a quote from one of my favorite books of all time, Liturgy and Personality. In it, Dietrich Von Hildebrand lays out a vision of the Liturgy that challenges one to embrace the veil of mystery and through that embrace to catch a glimpse of the reality. His view of the community formed through the Church’s Liturgy is a great description of what I have attempted to express here: that the closer each one of us is to the God-Man Jesus Christ, the closer we will be to each other. Any attempt to grow closer to each other that is not directed towards intimacy with Christ is folly, and at best will keep us at the same distance away from Him, while at worst it will take us far from Him. I have attempted to sketch it:

What transcends all peoples, all languages, and all cultures without destroying anything that is good in them, what actually enables us to be united with each other in a real spirit of respect and good will, what actually brings peace into the world is Jesus Christ. Any attempt at union or communication without Him is folly, and at worst utter madness. Our desire for unity and community should always be directed towards Him, and if it is, it will bear much fruit.

What I have described is nothing more than the life of the Church and what God wills for each one of us. It is the love of Christ which enables us to love each other, and that is somehting that knows no limits and is not restricted to any one human language.

“What really matters in life is that we are loved by Christ and that we love Him in return. In comparison to the love of Jesus, everything else is secondary. And, without the love of Jesus, everything is useless.”

-St. Pope John Paul II