Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord"

To say that St. Paul's Letter to the Romans is dense is only to state the obvious and perhaps to have the effect of steering people away from reading it. The density of this text certainly arises from its complexity, but the complexity can be resolved by just reading the letter in an attentive way. Of course, it certainly helps to read from a well done study edition of Scripture, but, at least for me, it needs to be one in which the explanatory notes only serve to elucidate the text, making it clearer, and not add complexity on top of complexity. Today, I am still reading chapter six in which Paul is writing about the effects of holy baptism, what God does in and through the waters of baptism.

One of the things Paul was criticized for by others was that by proclaiming the Gospel of grace so boldly, he encouraged people to sin. So, he asks, as he does in more than one place- "Shall we sin because we are not under the law but grace?" He answers the rhetorical question emphatically: "Certainly not!" Picking up on what I read about yesterday earlier in this chapter, the apostle goes on to point out, mining a vein of the Lord's teaching (Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16:13), that we are the "slaves" of what we obey, to that to which we adhere (v. 16). So, we are either "slaves" (doulos) "of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness" (v. 16).

Paul thanks God that though the Christians in Rome "were slaves of sin" they "obeyed from the heart" the Gospel they were taught, humbly submitting themselves to God by observing the apostolic teaching they received (v. 17). As a result of their submission they were "set free from sin" and "became slaves of righteousness" (v. 18). As I am focusing on the need we have to bring our bodies into conformity with Christ, what Paul writes next is of crucial importance: "just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so you now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness" (v. 19).

Like the ancient Christians of Rome, "when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness" (v. 20). What does this mean? Well, it means something like we are all free in the sense we can choose how we live, how to face whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves. Freedom is certainly one of the inviolable aspects of the human person. The Gospel does not ever seek to rob us of our freedom, but to complete it, to bring us to the full realization of what it means to be free. So, if in our freedom we choose sin, we become enslaved to sin and, as a result, alienated from righteousness. Being slaves to sin, as Paul goes to great pains to demonstrate, not just by his words, but with his whole life, which was so fraught with trials for the sake of the Gospel, is no freedom at all. It is not even slavery. It is death. Authentic freedom, as John Paul II taught tirelessly over the 26 years of his pontificate, is tethered to truth and realized in virtue. Virtue, in turn, is acquired through our free cooperation with God's grace, which in Latin, we call habitus, or, closer to home, habit.

How do you become more patient? By practicing patience in circumstances that cause you to be impatient, something in which prayer plays an important part. How do you become more chaste? By practicing chastity, etc. This brings me back to the point about the necessity of mortification, of deliberately denying myself even things that in themselves are not bad.

Yesterday, the second day of my annual six week preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord, in the mid-afternoon, a group of people returned to the office from lunch. They had gone to a popular wings and barbecue joint, a place that I frankly love. They plopped down on the desk next to mine a big takeaway box full of wings, still hot and smelling delicious. They invited everyone to dig in. I have no problem admitting that I really wanted one and that this desire was in no way a bad desire. Beyond that, it was a lovely act of generosity on the part of my co-workers. I thought not just about what I am doing, but why I am doing what I am doing. I said consciously to myself, "I can have a wing or two. I am free to do so, but I choose not to, not because it is bad or would be in any way sinful for me eat one or two, but because it would interfere with my effort to open myself more to God's grace through this time-proven method."

Chapter six of Romans concludes with his well-known verse: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v.23). For me at least, this is the only end worth pursuing. It is the best gift of all.

All holy men and women, pray for us


  1. Scott said:

    "I am free to do so, but I choose not to, not because it is bad or would be in any way sinful for me eat one or two, but because it would interfere with my effort to open myself more to God's grace through this time-proven method."

    I just wanted to re-state that because it really is something that we need to hear again and again until it is ingrained in our mind and heart.

    I wish the priests and brothers would have taught this more when I was in High School. They always taught that it was a corporate practice of the community, so that we are part of something together.
    This is, of course, true. But what you said, speaks so much more personally, from the perspective of love.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Scott.

  2. I'm glad it's useful for you, Dan. I hope it is for others, too. It was truly the case in the Church that fasting and abstinence at certain times and during certain seasons was obligatory on pain of sin. While this, for the reasons you point out, was not useful for most people, but an occasion to grow neurotic, when all of this was reformed after the Council, making it just as important, but leaving it to each person's freedom, as I wrote on Sunday, the baby went out with the bath water. So, a recovery is in order.

    My object here is not to hold myself up as a shining example of the Christian life. Those who know me at all know I am not. I just want to share my experience in the hope it bears some fruit. Whether it bears fruit and how much is up to God entirely. Over the course of the next 6 weeks I am just as likely to "give in" to such enticements as delicious chicken wings and the like. Just like the the times I succeed, the times I fail, as Paul tirelessly points out, can also be moments of grace, but only if I continue to adhere. In other words, when I fail, do I just scrap the whole project, which is always a temptation? As Paul would no doubt say/write "Certainly not!"

  3. Dear deacon,

    Thank you for your response. I would like to follow up with a few points/clarification before we both move on in our journey.

    I only posted because some people I know had read your posts and they asked me if this was part of the Advent tradition. I am very familiar with the nativity fast of the eastern/orthodox churches, and yes I know about the St. Martin fast in the west. But in the Roman church a whole new tradition of advent has grown up and it is very different in emphasis and expression. So that was the reason I was asking if you were Eastern Christian or bi-ritual. It helps to put things in perspective and since anyone can come across a link to your blog…perhaps more of an introduction would help to clarify where you are coming from for those who are new to your blog?

    I did not mean (and I do not find) the phrase “cafeteria spirituality” to be abrasive or offensive, and I sorry if it offended you. I understand that many find it helpful in their spiritual life to learn and incorporate traditions and practices from both lungs of Christianity. Even if some look to the east for traditions that are already in the west, as long as they get to the reality then all is well? And to answer your example, if some in the east take up the rosary, that is wonderful. But this is on the level of ones personal spiritual journey that is worked out under the guidance of the holy Spirit.

    Where I find a great need in the church is for priests/deacons etc. to help initiate people into the deeper mystery of the liturgical life of their church. and on this deeper ecclesial level, it is more important to receive the tradition and enter into the mystagogy. And on this level I do know how helpful it is to mix the traditions, but to enter into one by way of deeper initiation. Of course fasting and almsgiving are a part of the Christian path, and it is an issue of real debate why these disciplines do not have the same emphasis in the West these past 50 years in the churches corporate life,.

    But sometimes we have to remain open and give more time for discernment, I have a great trust in the Holy Spirit guiding the church and these changes came through the magisterium (meaning the changes came from Paul Vl). And what is clear in the history of the Latin Church, at this time, is a real openness to this being an age of Mary and an age of mercy more than ever before. This is very clear especially in the teaching of Pope John Paul2.

    I am not disregarding the importance of fasting and almsgiving and the whole desert spirituality. But in this year when we have pondered the gospel of Luke, how can we not see the incredible mystery of mercy that comes first? The prodigal son, the “impure ones” (tax collectors, good thief, shepherds etc) came to known the mercy of God first. And perhaps in the west at this time of the church’s life, fasting and almsgiving are not so much ways to grace as expression of one’s encounter with mercy? The emphasis is not so much as a means but as fruit of encounter?

    I am sorry I cannot express this better in such a short space and I pray many blessings on you and your ministry during this coming advent season.

  4. Patrick:

    First off, thanks for continuing to engage.

    I am glad people read my post and asked about it. As far as I am concerned this is a success in and of itself. However, if they had taken the time to read what I wrote they would clearly see that I am talking about practice among Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians and that I clearly distinguish this from current Western practice, which, when it comes to fasting, is, in my view, woefully deficient. I hardly feel bad about encouraging people to fast for purposes of mortification and penance.

    As Ruth Ann observed yesterday, there is a distinct lack of catechesis not just about how these traditions differ and how they can enrich our own lives, but that they even exist. Most people are surprised to learn that not all Catholics are Roman Catholics.

    What has grown up in the Roman Catholic Church with regard to Advent over the past 40 years or so is not a whole new tradition, but the wholesale abandonment of tradition in which we just jump over Advent, often with the exception of the Advent wreath, which holds a sentimental attachment for many. The way I see it, hope for wholesale renewal among Roman Catholics lies in the revival of the liturgical calendar that is used in parishes where the Rites are celebrated in Latin, which is an opportunity to restore and encourage the practice of periodic communal fasting.

    New tradition, certainly in Christian terms, is akin to the introduction of a round square. A penitential season of fasting prior to our two main liturgical celebrations (i.e., Easter and Christmas) is what is handed on to us by the single tradition inherited by the whole Church, East and West. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving do not merely constiute a desert spirituality (i.e., was not invented by the desert fathers), but is something taught to us directly by the Lord and, subsequently, by the apostles, with each constituting an important pillar of any authentically Christian praxis.

    You mention Pope John Paul II. You would be hard pressed to find someone who lamented the loss of pentential practices more than him, who even practiced as pope self flagellation (see my post The particular holiness of Karol Józef Wojtyła: the role of mortification in spiritual practice). At a time when many Catholics turn Eastward and practice yoga and other non-Christian forms of spirituality, practices to which I am not wholly opposed, but that I think need to be entered into with a firm grasp of one's Christian faith, I hardly think I am leading people into error by writing about ancient Christian practices and encouraging to people to engage in them.

    As far as my blog Καθολικός διάκονος (Greek for Catholic Deacon) says it all, as does my heading, in which I do identify myself as, among other things, a Roman Catholic deacon. All things Catholic are on offer here. My posts about Eastern Christianity constitute now and have from the beginning an important part of my writings. If you started with my post from Sunday and read through to today, you would certainly have all the information you needed to see what I am not only saying, but doing.

    Christian traditions, again, as Pope John Paul II went to great pains to point out, are mutually enriching, not mutually exclusive. More often than not being Catholic means saying both/and not either/or. As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (4:8).

  5. Dear Deacon,
    Perhaps this way of communicating by com box is not working, I do not mean that fasting and acts of penance are not very important in the Christian life.
    And if someone wants to use Advent as a time to grow in those areas, that is great.

    And I am not talking about “advent season” that has grown up in the past 40 years.
    I am not sure what that is, but I am thinking of the deeper biblical/liturgical spirituality of the current missal and lectionary.

    But we do not need more miscommunication! So God bless you and your ministry.

  6. Thanks, Patrick. I appreciate your honesty and sincerity. However, I think words are sufficient for communication. If I thought otherwise I wouldn't bother writing.

    It seems to me that you have a problem with me encouraging people to observe the Nativity fast, or to observe Advent in a more traditional way, which you see as somehow undermining the way Roman Catholics ought to observe Advent. Let me ask you this, Would you criticize a Roman Catholic for using the Jesus Prayer as a means of praying more every day, or, to use this example again, an Eastern Catholic for praying the rosary? I sincerely hope not.

    So, if prayer, fasting, and almsgiving constitute the basis for any authentic Christian spirituality isn't any time honored Christian practice that enables/encourages people to do this more and better, as it were, to be encouraged?

    Now, it would be an entirely different thing if I was saying you had to observe Advent this way, or that this was the only Christian way of observing Advent. I am saying neither thing. Heck, even if what I write just helps people live in a greater awareness of this lovely season in order to experience God's mercy and love given us in Christ Jesus more deeply that would be enough for me.

    Besides, the bulk of what I write during Advent and Lent are personal reflections. People either find these useful or they do not. I am fine with that. I find it odd, frankly, that anyone would criticize that. To be even more honest none of your comments even indicate to me that you have bothered to read anything I have written. As a result, you have made a straw man argument.

    To give an example, one of the things you criticize me for is confusing Roman Catholics about what is required of them during Advent. Well, if you the read the very beginning of my post on Monday, which I entitled The Nativity Fast begins you would know-

    "Today we begin what is known among Eastern Christians (i.e., Catholic and Orthodox) as St. Philip's Fast (otherwise known as the the Nativity Fast). It is called St. Phillip's Fast because on the Eastern liturgical calendar 14 November is St. Philip's feast. The St.Philip whose feast is observed on 14 November, like St. Stephen, was one of the original seven deacons from the sixth chapter of The Acts of the Apostles (verses 1-7). This fast is similar to the fast of the Great Lent, though not quite as austere in some aspects.

    "According to Byzantine Catholic practice..." I don't know how much clearer I can be. Again, if people are unfamiliar not only with Eastern Catholic practices, but Eastern Catholics, I am happy to raise their awareness, especially given the precarious situation of many Eastern Christian Churches, which was the subject of the recently concluded special synod in Rome.


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