Faith Brings on Life!

Faith, I learned as a child is a theological virtue. To this day, I’m not so sure I know what that means. I do however know what Faith can do when I listen to people like Daniel Kish into today’s TED selection.

Daniel tells me that if I learn to live with the gifts (some might call them crosses) I’ve been given, I will experience the abundance of life, I will find resurrection. The dark unknown will no longer rule my life and Alleluia will truly be my song. Thanks for sharing Daniel.

Is Sin Really Necessary?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

What are we to think of this? No sin, no mercy. Does this mean sin is necessary for a display of mercy? Should there be no sin, then there would be no mercy? Surely I can show mercy without being provoked by sin!

Maybe not. Is not the Latin word for mercy, MISERICORDIA? And is not this Latin word a combination of the words “heart” (“cordia”) and “mercy” (“miseri”)? Misery of some kind or other, that is, a deplorable situation, is linked to the inner working of the heart moving it to mercy, its fundamental response mode. If there was no misery, or deplorable situation, then there could be no heart motion called mercy. There might be kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, but there would be no room for mercy.

So, in a perfect world, with no lack of any kind, or deviation, or failure, or emptiness, or suffering, or mishap—there would then be a world without mercy. So what, one might respond? Why postulate something so undesirable, so unwanted, so foreboding, so painful as these things, just in order to have some occasion for mercy?   It seems to me I can get along just fine without mercy if it means I can avoid all the unpleasant things that seem to make mercy possible. I can get along in a world without the pain, suffering, disappointment, lack, emptiness, coldness, cruelty, failure that make life here below so unpleasant and downright undesirable. Better no life at all than a life full of such negative experiences.

So then I wouldn’t have to worry over or fret about a baby about to be born with spina bifida or a cleft palate or blindness or deafness. I could then welcome a perfect baby into my life, and live happily ever after.

God apparently made a terrible mistake in setting up a world in which the possibility of multiple mishaps, misfortunes, mistakes and misadventures could occur. For these bring nothing but misery to us, and keep Him forever busy patching up all the mistakes that could have been avoided had He just carefully thought this whole situation through.   After all, He is perfect, and mistakes are not characteristic of His handiwork.

BUT, that is true except for one striking factor. He would never be able to manifest His mercy to the world if everything worked out just perfect. After all, what kind of God would we be dealing with were He all powerful, all wise, all holy, all knowing, all beautiful, but not all merciful because no occasion was available for Him to show His mercy, lacking any need or opportunity for doing so?

What is the greatest deed God is capable of? Showing mercy. This is how God wants to be identified by us: as the merciful one (Neh9.31). He doesn’t want a series of perfect little creatures like ourselves coming forth from His creating hand and then going about our happy ways with no more need of Him than of the man in the moon. No, God wants to be needed, to be wanted, to be longed for, and to be loved, but there will be no needing, or wanting, or longing for, or loving if we were all doing quite well, thank you. It would be like bringing an infant into the world who displayed no need or expectation of us at all: a perfectly self-sufficient and completely out-fitted little creature who can well afford to do without us because he or she has no need of us.

But, as a matter of fact, we all have needs, plenty of them, and they cause us misery. And we cannot handle them by ourselves because they’re linked to our sins, which we cannot eradicate or root out of our lives. All of our miseries are related to ours sins, and, ultimately, the only recourse we have for our sins is the mercy of God. In fact, God is delighted that this is so, because, more than anything else, God wants to be appreciated by us as a merciful God: more so than as a wise God or strong God or eternal God or infinite God or beautiful God. He is perfectly content to be regarded as a merciful God. His most cherished claim to fame is His mercy, and it is our sinfulness that triggers His mercy.

So, the trademark of the Christian way of life is the crucifix, for there is no better sign of Who God is for us and what He stands for in our life than the mercy He displays on the cross. So we thank and praise God for our faults, our failures, our weaknesses, our inadequacies, our ineptness. In short, we are grateful for our inept humanness because nothing better calls to mind Who God is in His infinity. We and God make a perfect team, complementing one another: we are finite, He is infinite: a compatible formula for working together well.

How Best to Learn?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Some people know by book-learning; others by experience. Can we compare them? Is one way better than the other? As a matter of fact, most of us know both ways, but, admittedly, some of us tend toward one more than the other.

There are those who first read the recipe book, and then prepare the meal. There are others who go straight into cooking the meal, experimenting as they go along. Which way makes the most impression on us, that is, a lasting impression? Do we better learn by “book learning”, as some describe it, or by just “doing it”?

We occasionally run into geniuses like Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college at an early stage, and strike out on their own, just as he did, and proceeded to score great success in the computer/electronic industry. There are others who are information collectors, like boys with baseball cards, hundreds of them, covering decades of great players on every team, and they can rattle off more information about a player than the rest of us.

To change an automobile tire, we can read all about it in a car’s manual stashed away in the glove compartment. Or we can go into our garage and do it ourselves, probably badly the first time or two, but gradually grow adept at it. Of course, the same would likely be true of learning about it by reading the manual.

Or we can read about the danger of boiling water, how badly it can burn us if it spills on our hand. And this can lead us to be careful. But we can also experience a burn first-hand, accidentally spilling the water while standing at the oven. Which is the better way of learning?

Experience can be likened to an art, like that of making friends. There was a well known book of several decades ago entitled: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, by Dale Carnegie .   It was a reading approach to doing this. But, of course, there is also an experiential approach to the same task, that is, by just diving into a crowd of people at a party, introducing oneself and start talking.

A standard example of the difference in learning by book and learning by experience is swimming or riding a bicycle. Again, the experience of being thrown in the water or placed atop a bicycle seat and shoved off along the sidewalk differs considerably from learning about these ventures through instruction.

Then there is prayer. There are many books to read on how to pray. Scores of books have been written about HOW TO TALK TO GOD, OR CONVERSE AND COMMUNE WITH GOD. But there’s also the experiential approach of darting into the rear of a church and planting oneself in the presence of God. We recall the gospel story of the tax collector standing at a distance in the temple and asking God to have mercy on him, a sinner (Lk 18.9-14). We suspect this was an experience-based prayer.

Book learning takes place in the head. Experiential learning involves the whole body, almost like a chill running throughout one’s body. Forgetting is more likely to occur in the head than it is at the level of experience. Learning by experience to ride a bicycle, at a young age, surprisingly remains with a person for a long time, so that, even after thirty years of not riding a bike, one can do so again, without more ado.

We can read about the Jewish holocaust, and the skeleton-like humans found in the concentration camps at the end of WWII, and this makes a lasting impression. But the military, who first came on this scene at war’s end, experienced in a totally different way what the holocaust was like, knowing it by presence to it.

That is why so many veterans of war and military ventures are loathe to talk about it upon returning home. The experience of war has embedded itself into the sinews of their bodies in such a way that it’s basically non-communicable to those lacking that experience. Reading war episodes is fascinating, but cannot match personal presence to it.

Mothers relate to their children, especially infants, in this experiential way. They know, without being told by the baby, what is going on within the tiny confines of that body; they need not read Dr. Spock. Or similarly, there is the quality of compassion some people enjoy, whereby they can enter into the sufferings of another person and experience it as their own. They are not told of the suffering by the sufferer, but they know in a “feeling” fashion what another is going through. They experience it.

So we ask: how best do we learn: by head, or by experience?

The Last Word

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

For those influenced by the Passion tradition, the reference to “the last word” likely rings a bell, because it is reminiscent of a tradition of piety centering around the Seven Last Words of Christ (Lk 23.34, Lk 23.43, Jn 19. 26-27, Mt 27.46, Jn 19.28, Jn 19.29-30, Lk 23.46). These are words of prayer, concern, suffering, forgiveness. They stand in contrast to words attributed to Lucifer: Non serviam/I will not serve (cf. another application in Jer,2,26). Last words are usually more significant than other words (perhaps with the exception of one’s first words).

In the secular setting where we live out our lives, the phrase, “the last word”, frequently refers to the outcome of a dispute or an argument between individuals or organizations or governments, concluding with one of the “combatants” gaining a victory of sorts by having the last word in the dispute.

In the somber setting of death, whether that of Christ or of anyone else, we often comment that death had the last word. And by that we mean that death won. The sick or wounded person died. And this has come to mean a personal defeat. And there is much to suggest the truth of this because usually, especially in the case of younger persons, one is classified as a victim” because he or she doesn’t want to die, and fights with every ounce of available strength to stave off the approach of death. This plays itself out in a time spectrum (that is, there is a process unfolding around a protracted ailment or injury), during which the victim does not want to die and regards death as the last enemy to face. In this scenario, who will have the last word? Curiously enough , however, for those present at the deathbed struggle of such a person, a curious turn-about frequently takes place, in which death does not have the last word. Rather, something unexpected occurs. Resistance disappears. Acceptance emerges. But not because one has been “beaten” and ignominiously submits to death as having the last word. Rather, acceptance emerges as a victorious way to go, a development that, earlier on, would have been out of the question, but now, through some unforeseen conjunction of hope, vision and determination, a new kind of last word gains the upperhand, not because all else has failed, but because victory now looms on the horizon, replacing defeat. The evil of suffering and death succumbs to the overwhelming onslaught of something very good and desirable. The resurrection experience has finally been imbued, especially for one anointed by the sacrament of the sick and nourished by Viaticum.

The significance of this is the deathbed victim scores his or her greatest witness to the final triumph of good over evil.   Who has the last word here? Far from being overrun by the mother of all evil (death), an empowerment occurs to achieve a victory salute to the power of good over evil. It’s no longer a matter of having no other choice but to submit to the evil of death. Rather, it’s one’s finest hour. “Where, O death, is your victory, Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15.55)

That is the ethic of the cross, the laying hold of the truly good through the epic struggle against the truly evil. The centerpiece here is “the last word”. Who will have the last word? Not the one whose victory comes at the expense of another’s loss. There is another way of gaining the last word, shown by Christ’s final words on the cross. Lucifer’s departing word, “non serviam”, brought him no victory.

Is there a Difference? Does it Matter?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Cross and crucifix mean the same thing, right? No. Even if NO, it makes no difference, right? No. There is a difference, artistically and religiously. Artistically, or structurally, cross is a convergence of two bare pieces of wood, plastic, metal, or other material intersecting one another at right angles, vertically and horizontally . Crucifix is constructed that way also, with an addition: a corpus/body hanging upon the vertical section, and the arms of the corpus stretched out along the horizontal part.

Is it the body, then, that accounts for the difference between the cross and the crucifix? Yes. Does any body suffice to constitute this difference? In some ways, yes. The bare cross, historically, probably had little significance other than some architectural use for it, or serving as a marker of some type or other, e.g., along a pathway, or as part the script in some language. On the other hand, the crucifix, across the ages, did serve a purpose: it was an instrument of torture and death for a criminal or an alien who was an enemy. In other words, it was a punishment.

This latter usage provides its religious significance. Certainly, in the Christian context, the crucifix was a Christian sign or symbol that goes back to its origins two thousand years ago, but the cross also acquired Christian meaning early on. During Holy Week, references to “the cross” and “crucify” abound, though they are present also throughout the Christian year. And, frequently enough they appear throughout the bible, especially in the New Testament: “…whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Mt. 10.38), “…save yourself by coming down from the cross.” (Mk. 15.30) “…but they continued their shouting, ‘crucify him! Crucify him!”, “Shall I crucify your king?” (Jn. 19.15)

While in such settings “cross” and “crucifix” may seem to mean the same thing, with the passage of time differences began to emerge, so that “cross” came to bear more closely on the meaning found above in Mt. 10.38, where “cross” bears reference to us. We carry a cross. We have come to regard our sufferings as our cross.   Indeed, the bare cross can be displayed without the corpus of Christ on it because we are to be the ones hanging on the cross through bearing our sorrows, disappointments and losses.   The cross is bare to remind us that it is we who are to suffer in the footsteps of Christ, and thereby we hang on the cross. We become the corpus on the cross.

This is a beautiful thought not to be brushed aside. We find it in the bible. But it differs from an even more Catholic view that it is the crucifix that captures the heart of the message: “…while we were still sinners Christ died for us”. (Rom 5.8), “…Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures;” (1 Cor. 15.3) Here it is the corpus of Christ that hangs on the cross.

For while regarding ourselves on the cross helps us imitate Jesus, placing Christ on the cross does more: for He reconciles us with God. While imitation is good, reconciliation is better. Imitation is OUR action, but reconciliation is HIS action. And His actions are more significant than ours, good and praiseworthy though ours may be. Good Friday focuses more on CHRIST hanging on the cross than on us. We look to Christ’s action to save us, not to our actions. Our actions may be helpful, but His are indispensable. We do best to imitate Simon the Cyrenian on whom they laid the cross of Jesus and who was called upon to carry it behind Jesus. (Lk. 23.26)