The Eighth Way

all your grace are belong to us

Category: Prayer

Holy Obligation

Today I rejoiced. The USCCB approved what I think is the most important liturgical project it has recently engaged. Today the Bishops approved a new translation project for the Liturgy of the Hours. Finally! The Roman Missal was a giant step in the renewal of the whole English speaking Catholic world. This will be no less of a renewal. But it is a renewal with a narrower scope. This, I think, will be a large step toward the renewal of the clergy and religious.

You see, we take on the obligation to pray with and for the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is our Holy Obligation, hence the name: Divine Office. It is a sanctification of all time and all space, hence the name: Liturgy of the Hours. The Office, as it is tersely referred to, is not a private devotion. It is a public act of Worship. It is not undertaken for the sake of building the virtue of religion in the one who is praying it. Rather it is prayed for the salvation of the whole world.

However, one who prays the Office faithfully cannot help but be changed by it. Such repetition begins to form one’s thinking, one’s actions, one’s prayer life. Holy habits are just as formative, and addictive, as profane habits. I know it has dramatically effected my own life. My favorite psalms are always whirling through my mind during the day. But more than that, the very schedule of my day is literally ordered around the celebration of the Divine Office. It permeates everything a cleric or religious does.

Something that is so deeply infused into the life of the cleric or religious is going to deeply form him. The Mass is a big part of this, but I think the Divine Office is a much bigger influence on those obliged to keep it. I’m really excited by this move. It is a tangible point of demarcation in the effort to renew the clergy and religious in our country.

Now, if we could only get Rome to re-reform the structure of the Office.

Universal Call to Holiness

We all hear about the need to be holy. God tells us. The priest tells us. Mother Angelica tells us. Our Grandmother’s tell us. But what does it mean for each of us to have a personal vocation from God to be holy? Yes! Each of us. Essentially it has to do with our baptism.

Baptism turns us into something new. A baptized person is essentially different than an unbaptized person. Why? When you were baptized you were grafted onto the Mystical Body of Christ. Just like grafting in horticulture the new limb takes on some of the attributes of the plant to which it has been newly joined. We are joined to Christ. We begin to participate in his nature. We are divinized. In this identification with Christ we specifically participate in his role as priest, prophet, and king.

Our baptismal call is to live out these roles with gusto. Religious life is merely a radical intensification of what all Christians are called to do — how all Christians are called to live. Each of us are called by God on account of our baptism to live a life radically united to him. Look to how a Religious ought to live. That is how you ought to strive to live too. So, you have children and a job. Do what you can. It was said that the house St. Dominic grew up in was more like a Monestary than that of a minor noble and knight. Being a layman is no excuse for neglecting the more rigorous aspects of a radically lived Christian life.

Being baptized has consequences. Christ accepts no half measures. We are held to a higher standard because of the nature we participate in through baptism. His nature! This means all the baptized. Those who poorly live the Christian life, those who deny it, and those who try to live faithfully are all called to the radicality demanded by Christ. All are accountable to God for living that call or for squandering their life following worldly allurements. We too, those actively seeking holiness, must take care. We have an obligation to help all the baptized live this Christian radicality. We must take care that we do not place unnecessary obstacles in the path of those weaker or immature in their faith. We must not build up loads that we are unwilling to carry.

We must always remember that we are sinners. We are afflicted. None of use, myself included, live up to the life required by the Gospel. Therefore we must have mercy on each other. This does not mean we look the other way when a brother sins. On the contrary, we must hold him accountable. But, this accountability is for reconciliation. We are not so much interested in punishment. We are interested in getting people back on the right path. We want to build up not tear down. We are all in various stages of this life. We must try to help each other limp along the path. We must strive to help each other get to heaven. This is what it means to love one another as Christ has loved us.

Christian BE what you already ARE!

Be Ye Reconciled: Part 4

We’ve spoken about both the objective character of a sin and the subjective character of sin. Hopefully this will be helpful. Maybe it’s just been confusing. If it’s been confusing or you have questions just shoot me an email. You can find that email address on the About page. In this final post in this series I’ll try to give some practical advice for the Christian life.

Actually prepare before you go to confession.

Take the time to think about the manner in which you have been living your life. Identify your sins and really think about the gravity of each. Be honest with yourself. Be willing to admit to yourself where you are weak and where you are strong. Ask God to help reveal your own heart to yourself. Too often when we examine our consciences we neglect God’s assistance. The Lord is the one who knows the heart. As a psalm says, “in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.” Implore his aid in your examination. “O God come to my assistance. Lord make haste to help me.”

After going through this process get yourself to confession.

Go to confession as frequently as you need. In doing this don’t simply think of confession as something functional. Think of it as it truly is — an encounter with Christ. We should think of the sacraments as acts of love. We should want to receive the sacraments because we love God not simply because of what they do for us. So, go to confession because you love God. Make this your disposition and it will be rewarded.

When you go to confession make sure you are faithful to the requirements of the Church.

Remember to name the sin, express its gravity, and the frequency with which you committed the sin. When you do this it doesn’t need to resemble a shopping list. You can have a conversation with the priest. Remember, confession is not spiritual direction! If you need spiritual direction make an appointment. However, have an honest conversation about your sins with the priest. Also, you don’t need to confess the sins of others. Exercise Christian maturity and take responsibility for your sins. Don’t try to blame others for your sins. Only recount the involvement of others if it is essential for explaining the gravity of a sin.

Enjoy the sacrament.

Sacraments are celebrations. Celebrate the great mercy that God has given us in the forgiveness of sins. What a wondrous thing! I think that it is hard in our present culture to do this. It requires us to first realize that we are all sinners. Our society doesn’t like this reality. They think it harms our self-esteem. I say, better my ego is damaged than my immortal soul be lost. I think we have so much anxiety over going to confession because we are told that we are supposed to be perfect already. We are told by the world that if we admit our sinfulness then we are somehow less. But remember, Christ came for sinners, not the righteous.

I think the main point is that we need to feel sorry for our sins and at the same time rejoice in God’s mercy. If we keep this disposition in mind and educate ourselves then we can celebrate this sacrament well. Our God is truly a savior who has promised to provide for us in our deepest needs.

Be Ye Reconciled: Part 3

Okay. So. This part is a pretty big task. Also, I am going to rely on the mercy of everyone reading this because there are a lot of disputed issues and pitfalls. Essentially I’ll be trying to explain Question 73 of the First Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae. Synthesizing and doing justice to each article here will be a challenge.

When we want to determine the praise or blame (culpability) to assign to an action we have to wrestle with all the various circumstances that can effect human action. We can never have a perfect picture of all of these circumstances. Only God can have a perfect picture. However, we do our best. When we are considering sin and want to know how much blame should be applied to a sinful action we can look at specific things to determine how grave the sin was. This is really important for everyone to understand. Let me explain why.

When you are preparing to go to confession you generally want to determine what sins you have that are mortal so you can confess them. As I said earlier, I think this is unhelpful. Instead we should number our sins and then determine how grave they are. Thinking of sin as a disease is really helpful here. When we go see the doctor we don’t generally tell him what complaints are deadly. We tell the doctor that we are experiencing a number of problems, some worse than others. The doctor, on his part, will try to determine the degree of each complaint to prioritize treatment. So, in preparing to go to confession it is not a bad idea to think about our list of spiritual ailments. First we should treat them all as equally harmful. After all, each sin is in some way an offense against God and does damage to the Mystical Body of Christ and contributes to the general evil in the world. Then, in our preparation for the Sacrament, we should try to discover which sins cause greater harm than others. To be able to do this we need to honestly reflect on our culpability for each action. This is hard at first, but it becomes easier. So what is the criteria we should use to judge each sin? Here we turn to the Angelic Doctor.

The first question we should ask ourselves concerns who we primarily offend by the sin. Sins against God, like blasphemy, are worse than sins against human beings which are worse than sins against the other animals or other living beings. Also, there is a distinction between internal and external offenses. So, murder is worse than theft because murder offends the person directly while theft harms the person indirectly (by way of things attached to a person). This makes perfect sense, stabbing a person is worse than stealing their wallet, blasphemy is worse than destroying a holy icon. Offenses against persons is worse than things and offenses that attack a person directly are worse than those that attack him indirectly.

The second question we should ask concerns the virtue we offended in our sinful act. Virtues are placed in a ranking based on their excellence. Charity is greater than hope or faith. These theological virtues are greater than the natural virtues. This is why it is good to have a copy of the Summa Theologiae around. If you look at the so-called “Treaties on the Virtues” you will see a proposed ordering. So, the more excellent the virtue we neglected to practice the more depraved the vice.

The third question is easy. Is it a sin of the flesh or a sin of the mind. Sins of the flesh are less grave than sins of the mind. I’m reminded of a friend who was listening to me rage against the industry that is Las Vegas (I despise that place). This friend is a Monk. He quickly told me, “Gabriel, those are the sins of children. If you want to see real sins, come to the Monastery.” We laughed but he was right. Lying, gossip, or grudge holding are more grave than fornication, unjust violence, or drunkenness. The old saying is, “sins of the flesh are the least grave but more frequent, sins of the mind are the most grave but less frequent.”

The fourth question has to do with the will. Essentially the distinction here is about whether the cause of the sin was internal or external. So, the way I would put this is thus: Did I know it was a sin and still chose to do it without external motivation or was I compelled by external forces. The more one is compelled by external forces the less grave the sin.

The fifth question is a little difficult. It has to do with the circumstances that surround the action. I don’t mean circumstances in the common use of the term. I mean, what are the ways that my sins effects the world and others. There are three types. Aquinas gives a great example to demonstrate what he means by the first type. He proposes the situation where a man commits adultery. Well, if the woman he did this act with was also married then now the sin is more grave because he facilitated her committing adultery and not simply fornication. So, the relevant circumstance in this example is that the woman was also married. But, if the man didn’t know that she was married then his ignorance of that circumstance absolves him of blame for that circumstance. But, if he knew that she was married then his sin would be graver. So, this circumstance changes the nature of the sin by adding injustice against the woman’s spouse. Another circumstance would be what Aquinas calls the ratio of the sin. This is the sort of circumstance where a man sins in more ways than one by a single act. It is similar to the first kind but it is multiple instances of the same sort of sin in a single act. So, the example that Aquinas gives is the wasteful man who both gives what he ought not give to who he ought not give it. So, an example is someone who gives an inordinate amount of money to a charity thus depriving his family of some necessary goods as opposed to a man who does the same but gives the money to a criminal organization. The third type of circumstance is when the sin is just bigger. So, embezzling $100 from your company is bad but embezzling $1,000,000 is far worse. So, one way to think about this whole thing is that sins stack.

The sixth question has to do with quantity of harm. Simply, were more hurt by my sin. So, the person who commits fornication is better off than the person who commits fornication in public. This should be pretty obvious.

The seventh question is about the state of the one offended. This is similar to the first question but instead it has to do not with the objective category but with relationships. So, it is more grave to injure a saint than a sinner because he is more closely united to God. It is more grave to harm a friend than a stranger because he is more closely related to you. It is more grave to harm many people than one person because of our responsibility toward our neighbors.

The eighth and final question has to do with your own state. First, the more virtuous you are as a person the more grave the sins you commit become. Second, sinning is a lack of gratitude toward God because he is the source of all good things. Thus, the degree of ingratitude with respect to the excellence of the goods God has given you makes a sin more grave. Also, if you have a public station like a political office or you are a religious leader then your sins can be more grave than the common man. The example here is the priest who is a fornicator or the prince who commits injustices. The priest has taken a vow of chaste celibacy and the prince is the guarantor of justice. Hence in the areas of life over which a public person has command, his sins in those areas of his influence become more grave.

So these are question:Who did I sin against and how? What virtue did I neglect to practice? Was it a carnal or spiritual sin? Did I freely chose to sin or was I compelled by external factors? To what degree was I aware of circumstances that increase the gravity of my sin? How much harm did my sin cause? What is the status of the person injured with respect to God, yourself, and others? What is my state before God and man?

In my next and final post of this series I’ll tie all these things together and help provide a sure means of approaching Confession in a healthy, adult manner.

Be Ye Reconciled: Part 2

Previously, I shared an insight about some of the underlying reasons why people either never go to confession or become scrupulous. It’s becoming my belief that both of these dispositions are born out of a poor understanding of how to judge whether a sin is confessable matter or not. Before I offer some practical solutions I want to explore a better of way of understanding the degree of a particular sin.

So, I said that every sin has an objective character but also a subjective application. What do I mean by this? I mean we have to understand what a sin actually is in its broadest sense. Fundamentally a sin deprives the whole of the created order of some good. Another way to put this could be that when we sin we add evil to the world. But properly speaking, by sinning we remove goodness from the world. This isn’t the first thing we usually consider. These days we either consider the relational or legal aspects of sin first. We often think about who we offend or what law or rule we broke. These two things are part of sin but they are not the first consideration. We must first realize that sin, no matter its degree, is an act of violence against the good of God’s creation and God himself.

Why is this important? If we ground our understanding of sin in either relationality or legality then we ground sin in something arbitrary – shifting sand. If it is grounded in relationality then something could cease to be considered a sin if the one offended doesn’t experience the offense or ceases to be offended by  it for some reason. So in this scenario, if Molly is married to John and he commits adultery then it is only a sin if Molly considers adultery a sin. If Molly and John have a so-called “open marriage” then neither would experience adultery as an offense. See the problem? Also, if we ground sin in legalism or rule following it is equally arbitrary. If a law changes then the law doesn’t recognize what was previously considered wrong as an offense any longer. Take for instance the sin of abortion. The American legal system doesn’t view abortion as an evil – a sin. So, it is either neutral or a good according to the American legal system. But, prior to the judicial ruling of Roe v. Wade it was considered an evil act according to the law. So, it should be pretty clear that neither relational experience nor law are sufficient grounds for determining the objective aspect of sin. But, if we ground our understanding of good and evil in ontology, in the nature of creation, then we can speak intelligibly about the objective qualities of sin.

So, when we consider an action we must determine if the action is objectively good or evil. An action is objectively good if the action is consistent with nature. An action is objectively evil if the action is contrary to nature. So, giving a plant water is good. Giving a plant ammonia, however, is not so good. This objective characteristic is not the same as the assignation of praise or blame for the action. So, when we judge an action we want first to know if it is objectively good or evil. We must know this before we determine the praise or blame we should assign to the person who did the act. The reason for this is because of the relationship between the objective characteristic of an action and the process of assigning praise or blame. This is because an act that is objectively good could, in the assignation of praise or blame, be judged either a praiseworthy act (which is obvious) or a blameworthy act (not so obvious). An objectively evil act never becomes praiseworthy and is always blameworthy (on some level). So, the objective characteristic is binary. An act is either objectively good or evil. The subjective characteristic (praise or blame assignation, also known as culpability) is a gradient or sliding scale.

Okay, if you have been able to wrap your mind around this then you are ready for the next part. If not, reread this and comment on my Facebook wall and I can try to clarify some of the details. But, I want to stop here in this post so that these basics can sink in. Next, I’ll post about how to determine the praise or blame that should be assigned to an act. This is the heart of what I want to get at. But, I needed to start here before we moved to that conversation. Once all these parts are together I’ll offer the promised practical solutions for how we should approach the Sacrament of Penance, a.k.a., Confession, a.k.a. Reconciliation.