From Darkness to Light

It’s been almost three years since I’ve talked about the subject of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (post) and I thought it might be worth following up on. During that time, I can probably count the number of times I’ve been to confession on both hands, maybe even one. That’s pretty infrequent, considering that most priests I’ve listened to, suggest that you try to go at least once a month, sometimes more frequently, depending on your situation. The last time I wrote about confession, it was a positive experience. So, what’s changed? That’s what I’d like to talk a bit about in today’s post.

Here’s an important lesson I’ve learned in the last three years: the longer that you stay away from confession, the more afraid you get internally about going back. There is (at least for me) an apprehension and fear of going to confession that feels like a massive weight that I’m spiritually and mentally carrying around. It’s exhausting, draining, I’m constantly tired, and weakened. I’m more susceptible to temptation and feel further away from God. Staying away from Confession, from the Lord and seeking His forgiveness and mercy…well, that’s exactly where the devil wants you. It’s one of his dirty little secrets. I’ll explain why.

When the devil speaks, he is loud, confusing, seductive, condemning, pushy, (to name a handful of techniques), but I think he really loves to keep people feeling isolated, alone, trapped, like whatever you’re going through, just keep those sins to yourself, keep it unspoken, silent, and you can’t tell anybody, let alone a priest. And you know why that is? Because, once you begin talking about a problem, you can start looking at how to fix it. You can go to confession. You can receive forgiveness. You can begin to heal, and experience freedom. And that’s exacting what the devil doesn’t want. He wants you in chains.

A while ago, I saw this illustrated beautifully by a drawing that popped up on my Instagram feed. There was man, depicted as kneeling in the confessional, separated by a screen from a Catholic priest, and around the man’s neck and body, chains were being broken. It’s a powerful image of absolution. As we receive God’s mercy and pardon, we place ourselves once again under Him, and are no more slaves to sin and death. We are once again, baptized and confirmed, sons (or daughters) of God, and if sons or daughters, then heirs with Jesus. And how powerful that redemption is! We are spiritually speaking, no longer bound to that darkness, but restored to God’s light, and that union with Him.

But how can you tell when you’re beginning to drift? What can you look out for — those early warning signs? This process requires developing a spiritual discernment on the movements of the spirit, the consolations and desolations we go through, as written about by St. Ignatius of Loyola. I’ve talked before about spiritual discernment (post) if you’re interested in learning more. The gist of it is — how is your spiritual life changing for the worse? Let’s briefly take a look at a few questions you can ask yourself.

— Do you feel further from God?

(This might be spiritual desolation God is allowing to help you grow, but could also be sin separating you from God). During a recent Examination of Conscience, I became more aware of all of my personal failings and the venial sins that I’ve clung to, that keep me from being closer to the Lord.

— Am I paying attention at Mass? Am I praying every day? Am I spending time reading God’s Word?

When we remove ourselves from opportunities to have communion and fellowship with God, to understand what He wants for us and from us (through His Word), it creates an opening for the cares and worries and other messages to stream in and crowd out the good.

— Am I experiencing an increase in temptations, or temptations to graver degrees of sin (ex: from venial sins to mortal sins) than I was before?

Sin separates us from God. Sin makes us weak. Some sin (grave matter) is a form of spiritual suicide. When the devil finds a weakness, he will exploit it. You may find yourself having thoughts you wouldn’t normally have before, temptations to do more serious forms of the same sins that you’ve grown accustomed to/accepted their presence in their life. The devil loves wooing us towards these mortal sins that destroy our soul. If you find these temptations present, it’s a big red flag to examine your conscience, and get to confession ASAP.

These were all red flags and if I’d been paying attention, maybe I would’ve spotted the problem sooner. It had been almost five months since my last confession (yikes!) and I’ve been in a period of spiritual desolation. My last confession was in September, and I thought about going around Advent, but it just kept getting further and further away from me, and harder and harder to come back again. It’s probably no coincidence that September was also when I last felt closest to the Lord. I’d been to confession. I was making resolutions to grow spiritually. I read a book of essays by C.S. Lewis and blogged about it (post). And somehow, things went into a deep decline and that led to this recent visit to the confessional.

The great news though is that, God was there, waiting for me. He’s still there, waiting. Waiting for me. Waiting for you. Waiting for all of us prodigals to come home. So let’s not presume on His mercy, or delay too long. Let’s journey together, and trust in His unfailing help. Let’s make time every day and every week, to cultivate our relationship with Him, and to spend time with Him at mass. And definitely, to be on the lookout for those warning signs when we’ve missed the mark.

From darkness to light.

From sin to grace.

From slaves to sonship.

God is waiting for you.

The World’s Last Night, and Other Essays

Recently, I stumbled onto a collection of essays, The World’s Last Night, and Other Essays by C.S. Lewis, published in 1960 by Harcourt Brace. It has been years since I’ve read any of C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction works, and I thought it could be fun to dive into these bite-sized topics and if I didn’t abandon the reading entirely, perhaps even talk about them here. For anyone who may not recognize C. S. Lewis’ name at a glance, he is the author of the beloved fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

This particular collection has seven different essays, all previously published in various reviews or magazines, and here compiled. Any errors in describing or misrepresenting the author’s work is my own error entirely, but, I’ll do my best to be as concise and accurate as I possibly can.

The Efficacy of Prayer

This opening essay discusses whether prayer has any effect, or if the things that we pray for would’ve happened anyway, even without believing and praying to a Higher Power. Lewis defines prayer as a form of request, and draws comparison between the requests we make to God, and the requests (or prayers) we make to our fellow man. This gave me pause, as I tend to think of prayer as being communication between one person and God, or perhaps a group of persons, if corporate prayer, and God, rather than some of the allusions Lewis makes to, the request a man makes to a woman for her hand in marriage, for example. Lewis goes on to express the view that prayer should not be viewed as something that God only hears the select few, as if He played favorites. Prayer is not us giving God advice on what to do. It is not a magical incantation.

We put requests to people, and have a reasonable expectation of a reply (in favor or against) because we know them. We have a relationship with them. We are dealing with a person, not a myth. What stands apart, with prayer, according to Lewis, why we can believe that prayer works, is the foundation of our relationship with God. “Our assurance is quite different in kind from scientific knowledge. It is born out of our personal relation to the other parties; not from knowing things about them but from knowing them” (7). Because prayer is grounded in a relationship with a Person. This argument, of whether God should be treated as a myth or a Person, is continued in his essay, “On Obstinacy in Belief”.

On Obstinacy in Belief

Lewis goes on to explain, “To believe that God — at least this God — exists is the believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent [does God exist or not?], but with a Person who demands your confidence” (26). And if God does exist, it’s reasonable to suppose that we may not always understand why He acts as He does, because we lack that divine understanding. We can instead, only put our confidence in Him, whether this thing or that thing that we ask for is given or denied, and that it is for our benefit, even if we cannot rationally see its outcome.

Lilies That Fester

In “Lilies That Fester”, Lewis discusses the potential of the human spirit for an appreciation of higher pursuits, the lilies that fester from over-cultivation by culture, embarked upon for its own sake. Lewis argues that elements of culture must be spontaneously embarked upon, to be inspired by our own interests and passions, to have any lasting value, rather than the pursuit of a thing because it is considered ‘cultured’ or ‘refined’. The self-awareness destroys the learning.

When I read this, I wonder what Lewis would have made of tourists queuing to take the same insipid photos of the same unchanging vista, the one that’s been taken a thousand times before, cameras and camera phones all jostling overhead for that perfect shot unmarred by the sight line of another camera by the stranger’s next to yours. I suspect that Lewis would’ve eschewed such pastimes, or if he viewed them, found a quiet spot instead to reflect upon creation and its Creator, and left the camera at home entirely.

Lewis discusses the superficial knowledge of culture, of knowing the right remark to say on such-and-such a topic, but when plumbing its depths, you find that pretense of culture is instead a Potemkin village, a propped-up illusion with no substance behind it. “I should have hopes for that boy [reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world aside]. Those who have greatly cared for any book whatever may possibly come to care, some day, for good books.

Screwtape Proposes a Toast

Lewis’ own foray into fiction was quite extensive, and no collection of essays would be complete without an example of his allegorical writings. The Screwtape Letters were a charming allegorical tale, in the epistolary style, where Screwtape, an elderly demon, teaches his nephew how to better torment his human assignment and lead him to hell. In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, we revisit Screwtape who addresses a demonic hoard in the form of a toast, that is more or less, a long monologue. Screwtape discusses how the intensity of evil has diminished over the centuries in individuals (with some exceptions), but what hell lacks for the solo human bastions of evil, they have an over abundance of tepid souls — in short, quantity over quality, as it were.

This wasn’t my favorite sampling of Lewis’ work from the bunch but I get what the author is trying to do. It’s pretty straightforward and hard to miss. I find it disturbing comparing the idea of demons feasting on evil, like humans feast on a buffet, and the comparisons of humanity’s sin to food and wine is deeply unsettling. For this essay alone, I would not recommend this for younger audiences.

Good Work and Good Works

Moving on from a discourse on evil to what type of action we should take on this earth, in “Good Work and Good Works”, Lewis makes a case for the nature of work, and how good work has become nearly impossible. Lewis is critical of the advertising movement, which he says is designed solely to make people want to buy things that have already been made.

“In a rational world,” Lewis says, “things would be made because they were wanted.” (76). Lewis extols the virtues of a simpler time, when the craftsman was rewarded for making things that were not only needed and necessary, but built to last, and ornamental. Now, we live in an age where things are not needed, but manufactured en masse, and then we are manipulated into thinking we need them. Worse yet, they are made to last a short time, and we must replace them again, feeding the consumerist cycle.

It is nearly impossible to find good work to be had, work that needs doing for its own sake, and should we find it, we may not want it. The job worth doing, the ones most labor-intensive, are too often the least financially profitable, and therefore, not desirable. Lewis explains it thusly, “We shall try, if we get the chance, to earn our living by doing well what is worth doing even if we had not our living to earn. A considerable mortification of our avarice may be necessary. It is usually the insane jobs that lead to big money; they are often the least laborious” (78). How topsy-turvy the job market seems, when described this plainly!

As a final example from this essay, Lewis also discusses how the role of the artist has changed in society, from being one where the artist was formerly, perhaps, a trade of necessity, like, a storyteller or singer of songs, someone who could make no other trade, and this being a way they could support their community. Now, Lewis says, the community exists for the sake of the artist. Our ‘duty’ as society, is to laud the artist for art’s own sake, regardless of whether it represents or reflects the needs, desires, or tastes of the community. If we don’t, we are a pariah. How accurate and backwards this seems, when put in this light!

Religion and Rocketry

Lewis’ interest in science fiction (and his own writings) may have influenced his next featured essay, “Religion and Rocketry”, where he muses on the space age race, and the possibility of alien life on other planets and whether they might have souls that need Salvation.

This was fascinating to me, as we cannot presume that we would necessarily find intelligent life, or intelligent life with souls, or intelligent life with souls that would have the same level of fallen natures as humankind. Lewis speculates that no doubt, there would be a kind of “theological imperialism” in space travel, where humans would try to impose their own religious beliefs on alien races, because, there will always be people who believe that what applies for humankind, must apply for all., irregardless of the conditions of the soul of the ‘native’ population.

While I haven’t read it myself, Lewis mentions this august topic has been discussed previously, by one of the saints. St. Augustine wrote a piece speculating on the “theological position of satyrs, monopods and other semi-human creatures” (92), which is such an imaginative direction that I completely didn’t expect to find from St. Augustine, I’m tempted to take a peek at it sometime. At any rate, it shall be interesting to see how history plays itself out (if it happens within my lifetime), as it did not in C. S. Lewis’ case. He did make a prognostication that is worthy of mentioning here, on the subject of what manner of people would most likely be the first to reach populated alien worlds. ‘Our ambassador to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done” (89). This sounds grim, frankly, but, in my opinion there is a certain kind of logic — space exploration funded by greed, technical genius, the foolhardy or the desperate. What do you think of Lewis’ claims?

The World’s Last Night

The final essay in this collection, “The World’s Last Night”, was, predictably, about eschatology and the Judgment spoken of in the Book of Revelation, and other places. Lewis believed that the world would likely end when there has been a global shift in how we view Christianity, that is, from the possibility that God might exist, to the compulsory belief that He does not, fed by a strong, nearly irrefutable case against Christianity, which would “deceive (if it were possible) the very elect, [which] will appear with Antichrist” (92), and then, the world would end.

The bulk of this essay delves into the differences between viewing the end of the world and judgment, as a theory, a maybe, to living in preparation for it and always being at the ready, like the Biblical story of the faithful servant, ready at the gate, or the wise virgins who had their lamps trimmed, awaiting the Bridegroom when He appears. Lewis (of course) errs on the side of being watchful and ready. He does caution against living in the agitated excitability of when, and instead, being faithful in every moment, disciplining ourselves to look at our thoughts, words and actions, in the light of Eternity.

Concluding Thoughts

This was an absolute treasure of a collection that I never meant to stumble upon but am so grateful that I did. I’ve tried to accurate represent C.S. Lewis’ essays here, but any errors are my own. The copy that I found (dusty, old, forgotten) may or may not be in print anymore, so, I’ve tried here to give a fair summary of its contents, in case you cannot locate a copy for yourselves, but I would highly recommend reading this if you’re a fan of his writings, and looking for something new, or if not, then perhaps you are intellectually curious and want to read his writings for yourself. This book is for both types.

The Greatest Commandment

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV).

What is the nature of love? Love cannot exist without truth, whether it is the expression of care for a neighbor, or the earnest kinship felt between friends, or two souls knitted into one in the marital state, or a soul laid naked and bare before the throne of God…love cannot exist without truth.

How can we love God fully without truth? How can we love our neighbor if we exchange the truth for lies? We are no better than liars, if we Christians won’t stand up and speak out against this pervasive….wrongness…that exists. This modern-day Babylon. This Sodom and Gomorrah. Where are our Daniels and Abrahams? Where are the righteous few who aren’t afraid to risk themselves to speak the truth, to stand against the current of evil, to cling fast to the truth, out of love of God? Are they all gone?

I speak, not counting myself amongst them. I am a hypocrite. I know that full well. If I won’t risk myself…to be the salt, the light, then what’s the point? What value am I bringing? These are some of the unanswered questions that I will be bringing with me to church today. Kyrie eleison.

The Transitory Nature of a Moment

When was the last time that you shared a moment with someone and you knew, this is our goodbye? Did you take a pause to honor that situation or that person, why or why not? Do you have any lingering regrets?

Recently, I’ve begun meditating on the transitory nature of moments – how they pass away so quietly and we often don’t recognize in that brief span of time that it is the final time. We assign no goodbyes to mark the occasion. They just slip away quietly, relegated to the recesses of our memories. As a friend recently mentioned to me, one day was the last day you went outside to play with the neighborhood kids. Or, as I thought, when is the last time that a child requests a hug or a kiss, or a wave goodbye? When is the last time we see a certain place, or a group of friends or colleagues? I suspect that while some of these moments, a job transition, a death, moving away, all have a definitive end, far more fall into that other category, just silently fading away.

One day, without realizing it, there will be a final blog post, and this site here will be shut down, the domain and upgrades not renewed, and the articles and musings will disappear. Today isn’t that day, but, the reality is that it’s coming, someday. Goodbyes are inevitable. I don’t know about you but since I can’t undo those moments, those relationships, that weren’t honored with a proper goodbye, it makes me all the more eager to live in a state of awareness of the present, to cherish each moment, each person that enters my life (however briefly) and to try not to cling too tightly, for who knows when that passing moment will be the last?

If you could go back, would you hold that child just a smidgen tighter, longer? Would you savor that meal that much more? Linger a few more moments with that friend, before rushing off home or to your next engagement? Hold their hand a while longer? Embrace every moment, my anonymous readers, and take care.

In Search of Freedom

Happy belated Fourth of July, or, as I like to say to my friends across the pond, “Happy Insurrection Day!”. If you’re an American and celebrated the holiday this weekend, I hope that you had a great time of fellowship, food, fun, and fireworks.

Fireworks are always something I’m a bit leery of — I worry that the loud BANG! will frighten the pets. My own cat seemed to do just fine, but he was definitely sticking to dark, quiet, cave-like spaces…so perhaps it bothered him more than he let on. There was a community fireworks display, which we weren’t sure if it was going to go on as planned or not (apparently so). For our part, we picked up some not-so-loud, kid-friendly fireworks at a tent in a neighboring county and brought them out to be enjoyed by family we went visiting this weekend.

Fireworks have really evolved. They still have the smoke bombs I grew up with, but now there are also smoke sticks, that accomplish the same thing and burn longer. Snappers are still around, but so are firecrackers, that you light and throw and a loud POP! follows. Sparklers are no longer just wands, but they glow neon or change colors. And I still manage to burn my fingers attempting to keep a lighter lit long enough for the fuse to catch….instead of just using any of the number of provided pumps instead (haha).

Did you have a favorite firecracker growing up? Mine, either are no longer made, or just weren’t available at the highway stop that we tried. I think my personal favorite was one I nicknamed the “Japanese Lantern” — a beautiful disc that spun around, once lit, with sparks, and it exploded into an accordion of paper that you could hang up, and for lack of a better term, they looked like a delicate rice paper lantern, that you could hold suspended in the air, or string up and admire from a distance. Whatever your favorite, if you think back far enough, there’s probably a fond memory too.

Some of the firecrackers brought to this year’s celebration. I’ve no idea what that large bulb-looking one does.

As we drove home, I reflected on the glaring absence of any patriotic hymns, sung either at church earlier that day, or amongst family and friends. When did it become out of fashion to celebrate being an American? I hardly know. In small-towns, or in the heart of Trump country (sometimes, the same thing!), you might still find tiny flags lining driveways and large signs thanking our troops and veterans, or a Main Street parade with hay-strewn floats, tractors, and fire engines. Is it polarizing to be patriotic these days, maybe? Or maybe a better question, should outward signs of celebrating the holiday be a fair judge to begin with? Perhaps not, but that’s where I find my mind drifting.

Missouri skews largely Republican in the majority of the state, and predominantly Democrat in the two major cities, so, these party lines are keenly felt the the more rural you get, as there’s a shift. This may differ in your own area, and I don’t mean to imply that patriotism is strictly Republican, but, small-town America, in the rural parts, seems to be where you’re most likely to encounter these homey holiday touches that feel like they’re quietly vanishing. By the time my nieces and nephews are fully grown, and have children of their own, will their children be celebrating the Fourth of July in the same way I did at their age? Will there even be a free America to celebrate?

John Locke once said that “Liberty is not license”, and he goes on to speak that this license doesn’t permit us to destroy ourselves, but to seek a nobler purpose than just preservation for its own sake.

Jim Caviezel, who notably portrayed Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, cautioned in one of his speeches, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom exists not to do what you like, but having the right to do what you ought.”

St. Paul, in the book of Galatians, wrote, “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15).

These are just a few ready quotes that come to mind as I’m mulling over the nature of freedom, in this case, to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not unreasonable to make the observation that you turn on the news and a lot of it seems to be the “biting and devouring” that St. Paul cautions the Galatians against. We are being consumed by one another, and our Nation with us. We have lost the noblest origins of our country’s founding, and it’s questionable whether we’ll ever see it again. These somber reflections leave me this year with a bigger question that I’m not sure how to begin to answer: is our nation’s freedom still worth celebrating?