Friday, March 6, 2020

The End Sought: A Slightly Early Rumination

     First, some musical stage-setting:

As the dust settles, see our dreams,
all coming depends on you,
If our times, they are troubled times,
show us the way...tell us what to do.

As our faith, maybe aimless blind,
hope our ideals and our thoughts are yours
And believing the promises,
please make your claims really so sincere.

Be our guide, our light and our way of life
and let the world see the way we lead our way.
Hopes, dreams, hopes dreaming that all our sorrows gone.

In your hands, holding everyone's
future and is all in you,
Make us strong build our unity,
all men as is all in you.

Be our guide, our light and our way of life
and let the world see the way we lead our way.
Hopes, dreams, dreaming that all our sorrows gone...forever.

     Second, a stunning reflection from the late, great Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen:

     “It is by endurance that you will secure possession of your souls (Luke 21:18). The possession of a soul means the undisturbed mastery of oneself, which is the secret of inner peace, as distinguished from a thousand agitations which make it fearful, unhappy, and disappointed. Only when a soul is possessed can anything else be enjoyed. Our Lord here meant patience in adversity, trial, and persecution. At the end of three hours on the Cross, He would so possess His soul that He would render it back to the Heavenly Father.”

     [Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ]

     Take a moment over those two pieces before continuing on.

     During the Lenten season, it’s a longstanding Catholic practice to give something up – something pleasurable, that is – in honor of the great Sacrifice in which the season finds its object. I’ve always found that orientation a little off-kilter, but let it stand. My thoughts this morning center on what such a temporary renunciation can do to improve one’s own life and soul, whether during Lent or any other time of the year.

     Consider, if you will, the temporal practice of dieting to achieve a temporal object: weight loss. This is a painful practice for many: a test of the will that defeats many who attempt it. Our bodies cry out to be fed, to be filled. The cries are especially loud in those of us who’ve indulged our appetites too freely over the years. One’s flesh often gets its way despite one’s desire for an end that the indulgence would defeat.

     The experts on weight control will tell you: Every diet works, if you’ll just stay on it. That is: if you’ll commit not merely to remaining on the diet until the weight has dropped off, but also to maintaining the changes in your eating habits thereafter. Achieving that enduring mastery of mind over body is the tough part.

     Isn’t it always that way? Our desires are rooted in our bodies: what our genes and glands silently impel us to pursue. Either they will master us, or we will master them; there is no middle ground. The minor tragedy of a failed diet is a whispered warning to the sufferer that his will is the inferior contestant.

     Mastery is not renunciation. Our bodies are what they’re supposed to be, designed for the sort of life God intents us to live. Christ did not demand that we renounce the pleasures of life, only that we master them. Occasional fasting reasserts the supremacy of the will over the flesh. That’s what makes it valuable.

     BUT! Viewed purely as a temporal gain, this would seem as pointless as unbridled gluttony. Indeed, it would be just another form of gluttony, which is excessive concern with things of the flesh.

     The spiritual value of attaining mastery over one’s desires is twofold. First and most obvious, it armors one against certain varieties of temptation. Second and far more important, it promotes the mind – the attribute that distinguishes us from the lower orders – to supremacy over the flesh. That allows us to appreciate our uniqueness in the biological realm. For “What a piece of work is Man!” Equipped with sentience, capable of self-mastery, made in God’s image and potentially heir to eternal bliss in His nearness!

     The irony here lies in this: to attain mastery of the will over the flesh, it is necessary to review one’s nature as a child of God, and to celebrate the unique assets and faculties He has bestowed upon us. For no purely temporal rationale would lead one to the conclusion that to deny the desires of the flesh, even for a limited term, is somehow superior to allowing them free rein.

     The opening music, from Gentle Giant’s first “big concept” album The Power and the Glory, was about the desires of the common folk of a realm to be led – by a temporal leader, a king – to better things: the solutions of their problems and the fulfillment of their hopes. The tale ends in sadness as the new leader proves no more virtuous, no more idealistic, than his predecessors. But in the main, temporal leaders are like that: they’re sincere about their intentions far less often than we would prefer. It’s the dynamic of power-seeking, which is only a special case of the innate dynamic of human ambition: the power-seeker values power above all else.

     Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind, was both fully human and fully divine. He shared the desires of the flesh with us ordinary mortals. However, He was their master, not the other way around. The stories of His temptation, both by Satan while He fasted in the desert and by His own quite human aversion to the suffering and death He would face, are immensely instructive. Consider the tale of the Transfiguration:

     And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.

     [Luke 9:28-31]

     Even Christ needed the occasional measure of support for His mission. Then we have the episode at Gethsemane:

     And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him. And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation.
     And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

     [Luke 22:39-44]

     If the Son of God needed reinforcement to face what lay before Him, is it not reasonable that we lesser ones would need it in our turn? And to Whom should we apply for it, hmmm?

     Archbishop Sheen’s interpretation of “the possession of a soul” as “the undisturbed mastery of oneself” is powerfully illuminating. The agent of mastery is one’s will, fueled by one’s spiritual resources and the grace of God. The story of His Passion tells us that Christ was fully the master of Himself. Such a perfect degree of self-mastery might be impossible for a mere mortal. Yet to strive toward it, perennially strengthening one’s will over the contrary impulses of the body, is a highly desirable end. The temporal benefits are enormous. Never to be victimized by a desire one knows one should not indulge? Fabulous! Yet how much greater are the gains to one’s soul!

     Our aspirations to higher things express themselves in several ways, but above all in this: we yearn to be masters of ourselves, just as He was master of Himself even unto the most terrible death ever contrived by men. For we know, even if inarticulately, that in self-mastery lies the true fulfillment of our nature as spiritual beings made in the image of God. The attainment of that mastery provides peace in this life, and will occasion our admission to His nearness in the next.

     May God bless and keep you all!



Thank Hashem It's Friday!

Ragin' Dave said...

I had a bishop who challenged us to ADD something to our lives in Lent rather than take something away. His reasoning was that giving up chocolate for Lent hadn't really worked to make his flock more holy (in his estimation) and all it did was make people miserable, and thus they made HIM miserable. So rather than detract, add. Add the rosary. Add daily prayers for your enemies. Add a novena to your morning ritual.

It's worked for me so far.