On the Journey: Cast Off Your Old Self

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapters 2-3

I strayed still farther from you and you did not restrain me…For your almighty power is not far from us, even when we are far from you.Confessions II.2

To be Christian is to be in conversion, but that also means that we must recognize our past and God’s presence even in our darkest moments. Here in these two chapters, we find a stark picture of Augustine prior to his conversion to Christianity, seen now through the eyes of Augustine the believer. He recognizes the depths of his depravity and his continued descent into sin and lust, and at the same time recognizes that even though it seemed that God was not present, He was, in fact, always there: “How presumptuous it was for me to say that you were silent, my God, when I drifted farther and farther away from you!” (II.3). Even in the depths of sin, lust, and fornication, Augustine recognizes that God was still present, all at once never impinging on Augustine’s free will, but always waiting for the future bishop to return to His loving embrace.

800px-Hans_Speckaert_-_Conversion_of_St_Paul_on_the_Road_to_Damascus_-_WGA21655

Hans Speckaert (circa 1540–circa 1577) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Before I was baptized, I lived a life typical of many young people bound up in the world. I was also in school part time, but didn’t really apply myself. My existence consisted of living day-to-day, not really caring about those outside of my immediate reality, and sometimes even less.

Despite my continued spiritual quest through the New Age movement, God was essentially not part of my life, but he was certainly still present. I searched for fulfillment in all the wrong places, and like Augustine, “I should have awaited your [God’s] embrace with all the greater joy” (II.2). I found that while He was not a part of my life, I was certainly a part of His; in other words, He was always present, a fact that I can see so clearly now that I can hardly believe that I didn’t see it before.

I never saw him working through my parents. Through my mom’s and dad’s encouragement, or my sister’s willingness to be with her little brother (even when he was annoying). I didn’t see Him in the presence of my grandparents, who did so much to support my sister and myself, particularly my grandmothers, who constantly showered love on both of us and prayed for us every day. I never saw his presence in that of my teachers, who tried to push me beyond my own self-imposed procrastination-laden limits. In short, I was blind to His love present in the actions of others, and I wouldn’t begin to discover it until I was nearly 20 years old.

When we are mired in selfishness and sin, we are blind to God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Sin and vice cut us off from the divine life, and leave us empty, thrown askew into the world, to the point to where sin itself becomes the goal, in order to meet the expectations of the world, rather than seeking the goal that is heaven:

Nothing deserves to be despised more than vice; yet I gave in more and more to vice simply in order not to be despised. If I had not sinned enough to rival other sinners, I used to pretend that I had done things I had not done at all, because I was afraid that innocence would be taken for cowardice and chastity for weakness. (II.3)

But of course, we have hope, so much hope! Following Jesus Christ, we find that God is in fact always present in our lives, no matter what the mistake, misstep, or sin. We may find it difficult to approach His love, especially amidst a world that has, in many cases, confused sin for virtue, vice for love.

Like Augustine, let us begin to move toward God and heed the words of Saint Paul:

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4.22-24)

Questions for reflection:

  1. Where has sin and vice made me blind to God’s presence in my life?
  2. How has God worked through other people in my life in order to draw me closer to Him?

Up next time: Confessions II.4-5

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

+JMJ+

On the Journey: The Importance of Reflection

Augustine’s Confessions Book II, Chapter 1

For love of your love I shall retrieve myself from the havoc of disruption which tore me to pieces when I turned away from you, whom alone I should have sought, and lost myself instead on many a different quest.Confessions II.1

Mirror

By Cgs (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Self-reflection is, I think, largely a lost art in today’s world. So often we hear about people going about their daily lives, merely allowing the unrelenting pull of existence to carry them where it will, living without intentionality. We often fail to look at where we have been, and so miss where we might go, where the Lord is leading us, where the Spirit speaks to the still quiet recesses of our hearts. Our lives are filled with noise, and so we fail to hear not only the Lord, but our own inner voices as well, and simply allow ourselves to be swept away.

When I fist entered seminary, I received a it of advice from my mom: from the beginning, keep a journal. She recognized the importance of self-reflection, and encouraged me to develop this skill which, I eventually found, became indispensable in my daily life. The journal has ebbed and waned over the years: sometimes there are consecutive daily entries, and sometimes I may go several weeks without writing anything down. I have tried, however, to keep my mom’s advice, advice that has helped to shape not only my experience in seminary, but to shape so many other aspects of my life as well. Self-reflection, if we hope to grow closer to God and embrace our humanity to its fullest potential, is indispensable.

In his first chapter of book II, Augustine endeavors to show just how indispensable reflection can be. He realized that in order to move forward in his spiritual journey, he needed to look back as well: “I must now carry my thoughts back to the abominable things I did in those days, the sins of the flesh which defiled my soul. I do this, my God, not because I love those sins, but so that I may love you. For love of your love I shall retrace my wicked ways” (Confessions II.1) Here we see two main points regarding self-reflection which must not be forgotten:

  1. While we do indeed turn inward, at its core, reflection isn’t merely something to look back and see how good or bad we are, but it should in fact help us to turn outward toward God, giving Him thanks and asking for His grace and mercy.
  2. Sometimes self-reflection is not a pleasant process; in order to grow, we must accept both the good in our lives as well as those areas in which we have fallen in order to gain a true self-understanding of where we stand before God.

In the end, Saint Augustine did not take on this task because he loved his sinful past, or even to put on a show to display how great a sinner he was, and so how holy he had become after his conversion, but rather he took on the task of self-reflection to grow closer to God. He knew that in order to more fully unite himself to the Holy Trinity, he needed to reflect on the “different quests” of his life, seeing in those moments where God had been the entire time. So, too, can we look at those different quests in our lives, discovering the presence of the Lord in both the smallest moments and biggest breakthroughs, in times of failure, and in times of triumph.

This is the key: in everything we do, we must set as our goal to grow closer to Him, whether it is self-reflection, or daily work, or taking on some new adventure. In this way, we begin to truly “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3.1).

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do I undertake a daily examen, or even journaling,  in order that I may more fully reflect on my life?
  2. How can I live to be more intentional, rather than letting the tides of the daily grind sweep me away?

Up next time: Confessions II.2-3

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

+JMJ+

Bill Nye and the Loss of the Liberal Arts

Bill NyeThis past week, Bishop Robert Barron published a critique on a recent video posted by Bill Nye, known to us millennials as The Science Guy. In the video, Nye answers a question from a philosophy student (full disclosure: I have a degree in philosophy) who asks whether or not philosophy is still relevant. Nye answers in the negative, and while he provides one or two salient points (such as the fact a career in philosophy is not exactly lucrative, but most people going into it know that anyway), for the most part, he misses the point entirely; it’s quite clear that he is outside his field of expertise. While I think that Bishop Barron does take some of Nye’s examples too seriously, I whole-heartedly agree with the Bishop’s main point: Nye fails to realize that in order to truly flourish as a society, we need philosophy, and the other liberal arts, to teach us about beauty, truth, and the intrinsic value of the human person. As Bishop Barron points out:

Father BarronThe physical sciences can reveal the chemical composition of ink and paper, but they cannot, even in principle, tell us anything about the meaning of Moby Dick or The Wasteland. Biology might inform us regarding the process by which nerves stimulate muscles in order to produce human action, but it could never tell us anything about whether a human act is morally right or wrong. Optics might disclose how light and color are processed by the eye, but it cannot possibly tell us what makes the Sistine Chapel Ceiling beautiful. Speculative astrophysics might tell us truths about the unfolding of the universe from the singularity of the Big Bang, but it cannot say a word about why there is something rather than nothing or how contingent being relates to non-contingent being. How desperately sad if questions regarding truth, morality, beauty, and existence qua existence are dismissed as irrational or pre-scientific.

Science is, indeed, a critical and necessary part of our lives. Without science, we would still be in an age that equated astronomy with astrology and chemistry with alchemy. We cannot, however, throw out philosophy and the other liberal arts. As Bishop Barron points out later in the article, without these disciplines, we wouldn’t “know anything about how to live a decent life, how to differentiate between the sublime and the mundane, how to recognize God.” I have great respect for Bill Nye. He taught me a lot about investigative science when I was a kid, and now as CEOt of the Planetary Society, he has done a lot of good work to increase awareness of the need for planetary exploration. That said, he certainly does not understand philosophy or the value of the liberal arts.

While our lives would be dark and perhaps even more dangerous without science, so too would they be dreary, boring, and meaningless without philosophy, without literature, without a study of the human person in all its glory and brokenness, without a recognition of the good, true, and beautiful.

Science, specifically astronomy, pointed me in the direction of faith, but it could only go so far. In the end, it was these other disciplines, and most of all Divine Grace, that carried me the rest of the way. I suppose Bill Nye would see that as trite and perhaps a bit deluded. That’s OK.

Come to think of it, Grace carried me the entire way from the beginning, because it was probably by His grace that the first book I ever checked out from the library was a book on the solar system, initially piquing my interest in the larger universe. Then, years later, He would draw me closer to Him through the recognition of that same beauty I could see through the telescope was created by Goodness itself, with His Son by my side the whole time, waiting for me to open my heart to the promptings of the Spirit so that I might come to faith and trust in Him.

Pax.

You can see the original video here. 

Find more from Bishop Barron and his Word on Fire Ministries here.

On the passing of Mother Angelica

“The sun and all the stars cannot compare with the beauty of one holy soul.” -Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, PCPA, founder of EWTN

Mother Angelica

If there is one thing I hope to express with this blog, with as much as I love astronomy, it is the above sentiment given by Mother Angelica; if there is a second, it is the fact that we are all on a journey to becoming that holy soul, a journey that has twists, turns, hills, and valleys. That’s OK. Mother Angelica experienced that in her own life too.

Mother Angelica, the founder of EWTN, passed to her reward this Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016. Today she was laid to rest in Alabama, her home for almost 60 years (you can read the homily here).

If it were not for Mother Angelica, I probably wouldn’t be a Catholic, much less in seminary studying to be a priest.

About the same time I was first considering the Church after stumbling into a Catholic bookstore, I also discovered the Eternal Word Television Network. The first show I saw on this strange Catholic T.V. network (who knew Catholics had bookstores, much less television stations!) was, you guessed it, Mother Angelica’s famous call-in program. By this time she was in reruns, as she had experienced a severe stroke three years prior to my discovery, but her points were no less relevant. In fact, I have found that the more I have watched her over the years, the more I see that she knew what she was talking about, and could foretell where our society was heading.

So I watched as much of this old nun on T.V. late at night as I could, as I didn’t want my roommates discovering my secret (let’s just say they weren’t fond of Catholics). Mother Angelica, in her straightforward, no-nonsense, and humorous manner taught me about the faith. Along with the catechism lessons I was receiving at the time, and with the many books given to me by the aforementioned bookstore, Mother Angelica imparted to me a foundation in the faith I will cherish to my last days. She was truly a Godsend in my life, and the lives of many others, teaching us about faith, hope, love, beauty, and the value, and necessity, of sacrifice. She taught us about trusting in God, radical obedience, and keeping our hearts open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In other words, she taught us about being followers of Jesus Christ.

Thank you, Mother Angelica, for so readily responding to the Lord’s call, and for following Him in all things, no matter what the cost. If, in my vocation and life, I can emulate your example even by a fraction, then it will have been fruitful. May you come you come to rest in the peace of Christ, and hear those words which we all long for: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter now into your Master’s house…” Thank you, Mother Angelica, for being that beautiful soul, for outshining the sun and all the stars.

Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat ei. Requiéscat in pace. Amen.

You can find more about Mother Angelica, including writings and video, at EWTN’s memorial site.

Updated: The Beauty of Creation

The Beauty of Creation

Yosemite Winter Night Courtesy of Astronomy Photo of the Day

Before I converted to Catholicism, I always had the understanding that the Church was against science. I spent years studying (as an amateur) subjects such as theoretical physics and astronomy, and I continue to today when I can. I enjoy math, but certainly not to the extent of people like this, who may disagree with me from the religious perspective, but nevertheless are very skilled at making difficult scientific theories accessible to the general public. In any case, I always thought that these topics were eschewed in Christian circles. Boy was I wrong.

Example: the originator of the what would become the Big Bang Theory was a Jesuit Priest, Georges Lemaître (please hold the Jesuit jokes for later, thank you). Sure, there have been moments where the Church hasn’t always been a shining example of scientific openness, but even those times are almost always blown out of proportion and taken out of context.

Anyways, as I grew to learn more about the Faith, I realized that the Church did not neglect science. In fact, particularly in the modern-day world, the Church is a bastion of good, thorough, and ethical scientific practice and theory. I eventually discovered what so many others have found: science and religion are simply two sides of the same coin. They both lead to Truth, albeit in their own ways. Both science and religion, if handled properly without presuppositions, both reveal the same God of Love that us Catholics are so familiar with.

I believe the opening words of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor says it all:

The splendor of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:6).

When I spend time in nature, whether I am hiking, fishing, or stargazing during a campout, I can not help but see the imprint of the Creator, this same splendor of truth. In the beauty around us, contained in the natural world and the very people who are a part of our lives, we are given a glimpse of the Divine. Slow down and take a look. Spend a moment or two with the Creator. How does He reveal Himself in your life?

Happy (early) Feast of the Epiphany!

Pax et bonum,

Dean

PS: As a side note, one of the best meteor showers this year will be the Perseids on August 12-13. The moon sets before midnight, leaving a promising opportunity for viewing. While the peak will be on the above listed days, you should still get quite a show the previous weekend of August 10-11. Might be a good time for a camping trip…

UPDATE: Dr. Kaku has posted a fascinating video entitled “Math is the Mind of God.” Check it out. His analogy of music, hyperspace, and the mind of God comes very close to how Tolkien describes the creation of Middle-Earth in The Silmarillion. I would say, however, that Dr. Kaku gets a little too close to reducing God to an equation…