|Don't let the deceiver lead you|
off on a disastrous detour!
by Fr. Tom Collins
One of the most serious problems in the spiritual lives of so many people is the fact that they fail to assess critically the foundational premises of their spiritualities.
There is an adage, “Well begun is half done”. If our premises are correct, it is much more likely that we will arrive at the right conclusion.
Unfortunately, though, as Ann Barnhardt points out in her lecture on diabolical narcissism, our sinful humanity tends to embrace alluring, but defective premises for our spiritual lives. The results of such an error can be both tragic and traumatic. I would, therefore, like to point out some of the more serious deviations from authentic spirituality, which are widely embraced in our secularized society.
Dialogue vs Discernment
In recent years, there has been a strong emphasis on promoting dialogue in human relationships. Although this may be good in developing a deeper understanding of each other’s premises, perspectives and practices, it is inadequate for the development of integral human relationships. Dialogue is merely an exchange of opinions. But opinions are not necessarily in harmony with the truth. On the contrary, they often ignore or obfuscate truth in order to promote an agenda. In sharp contrast to this, discernment is a reverent docility to truth, which often transcends the facts we are able to see or willing to accept. Whereas dialogue tends to be guided by a sense of hubris, discernment is guided by a humility, which is open to ongoing repentance and readjustment of our priorities.
Reconciliation vs Regeneration
In the quest for peace and harmony in human relationships, there has been a strong emphasis on the need for reconciliation. While this is good, it is inadequate for bringing the true dignity of our humanity to fruition. Appeals for reconciliation can easily be abused in order to accommodate defective or even perverse premises for the sake of allegedly promoting better social harmony. In contrast to this, in light of the gracious, merciful and transformative love offered to the world through Jesus Christ, it needs to be emphasized that we are all called to be regenerated in that love. Just as Jesus is eternally begotten by the Father, we are invited to be eternally regenerated by the Father through the gracious fidelity of the Holy Spirit to the Bride of Christ, His Church. In our fallen human condition, mere reconciliation can lead to moral stagnation or even moral degeneration. The regeneration offered to us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus gives us the ability, both here and hereafter, to joyfully witness God making all thing new in Christ.
Justice vs Righteousness
In the ordering of human society and relationships, there is a tendency to stress the need for justice. Although this aspiration is good, it is inadequate for integral human development. It was once noted that, if we understand justice as giving to each person what that person deserves, Christianity is based on injustice. It was founded by Jesus receiving what He did not deserve, a cruel death by crucifixion, and humanity receiving what it did not deserve, the gifts of salvation and eternal life. Thus it is that even many discussions about human rights are flawed. Due to our sins, the only right we have is the right to eternal damnation. But God has the right to be gracious and faithful to His original commitment to beget and form us in His image and likeness. Thus it is that all human rights can only be legitimately exercised in harmony with His loving and righteous commitment to form us and all our relationships in His image and likeness through a sacred and sanctifying communion with Jesus Christ, His Son.
Grace vs Graciousness
In recent years, several popes have stressed the need to correct the tendency to view the mystery of salvation in terms of grace. The tendency they wish to correct is the that which views grace as an objective, or even quantitative, reality. This can lead people to pursue ways in which they can stockpile the graces they need to come to eternal life. But grace, by its very nature, is always a gift. And a gift stops being a gift, when it is hoarded as a possession. Jesus tells us that what we have received as a gift, we must share as a gift. And He exemplifies this by being the perfect dynamic of graciousness in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Thus it is that authentic spiritual growth is rooted in committing ourselves with and in Christ to become more perfectly gift to each other. And that giftedness is multidimensional. For example, numerous Christians have testified how those, who feel marginalized as a burden to society, have through their patience and prayers brought them inspiration and hope as they struggle with the many traumas and tragedies of life. God’s ways are not our ways. And those authentically attuned to God seek to grow more graciously each day in a sacred and sanctifying communion with Him, Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Symbiosis vs Covenant
The lyrics of the Eurythmics song, Sweet Dreams, epitomizes the spirit of symbiosis, by pointing out, “Some of them want to use you; some of them want to be used by you. Some of them want to abuse you; some of them want to be abused by you”. This perspective is tragically reflected in the modern tendency of so many to deny their own sacred dignity and the dignity of another by divorcing the conjugal embrace from the sacred covenantal commitment of marriage. Mutual satisfaction and gratification are used as the basis of continuing to live together and to degrade each other in a spirit of alienation and fornication. Although many would be reluctant to be this blunt, in such a relationship it is asserted, “I love you, not because you are intrinsically sacred, but because you are useful to me and help me to fulfill my desires and agenda.” In direct opposition to using another, covenantal love is based a deepening mutual, reverent and sacred commitment to love one another as Christ has loved us. Such irrevocable love is rooted in the spirit of generous and sanctifying sacrifice. And through the many forms of gracious, generative and regenerative ministries it inspires, it enables both husband and wife to be ever more fruitful in the redemptive and sanctifying love of Christ. Mere symbiotic relationships offer transitory and ephemeral gratification. But faithful commitment to abide in and nurture covenantal love leads to a joy and a fruitfulness, which perdure unto eternal life in more ways than we could ever imagine.
Responsibility vs Accountability
While it is good for people to take responsibility for their lives and actions, in our fallen human condition such responsibility can easily be detoured from authentic personal integrity by judging our actions in terms of external consequences, rather than in terms of character formation. It ignores the fact that, as human beings, we are relational, and as such accountable to God and to others as to how faithfully we are promoting the integral formation of our common humanity in God’s image and likeness, manifested to us most perfectly in Jesus Christ. Responsibility alone can subtly draw us into a spirit of alienation from God and others, whereas accountability keeps us aware of the fact that God is continually entrusting us to each another’s care. Accountability thus is always directed to drawing us into a more pure and perfect communion with God and others. Likewise, the spirit of accountability nurtures a deep respect for the fact that true integrity always be in full harmony with objective morality and the gracious regenerative mercy offered to the world in Jesus Christ.
Merit/Credit vs Graciousness/Mutuality of Ministry
One of the persistent problems in the life of the Church has been Pelagianism. The idea of personal merit tends to leave souls open to either spiritual pride or despondency. Since love cannot be bought, but only graciously given and gratefully received, the idea of merit tends to poison authentic spirituality. To be honest, any virtue, which a person seems to possess, is merely a privileged participation in the virtues of Christ, which He is continually sharing with His Mystical Body, the Church, through the gracious fidelity of the Holy Spirit. Instead of developing virtues in alienation from others, a person grows in authentic spirituality by developing a humble gratitude for the prayers and sacrifices of others, through which he/she has been privileged to be integrated more deeply into the mystery, mission and ministries of Christ. Authentic joy is thus realized not through the paradigm of merit, but rather through the paradigm of gratitude, most perfectly exemplified to us through the humble compassionate reverence of our grateful Eucharistic Savior. And through this mystery, we grow in the realization that there is always a quality of mutuality in authentic ministry. Christ sends us to the poor, so that they can enrich us through their poverty, as we are privileged to enrich them through our attention, talents and concern.
Loathing one’s self vs Reverencing one’s self
St. Paul points out in Col 3:3 that, through Baptism, we have died and that our true self is now hidden in Christ. Thus it is that we need to re-examine our language with regard to ourselves. Each of us is sacred, and as temples of the Holy Spirit, we are most true to ourselves when we cooperate with the Spirit in sanctifying every person, situation and relationship we encounter.
Sadly, though, in many spiritual writings, the term, self, has taken on a number of negative connotations. The word, selfish, has thus come to be understood as a quality of being narcissistic, superficial and perverted – all of which tend to promote a negative sense of self-esteem. This is also indicated by the idea that we are instruments used by God to accomplish His plan. But authentic love never “uses” the beloved. It does, however, often have to call the beloved to enter into a more profound sacrificial participation in the ministries needed to sanctify the world. But this is always done in a spirit of reverent humble gratitude.
So Christ never uses anyone, but rather calls them into a deepening communion with Himself and others as patiently, faithfully and lovingly He reaches out to embrace humanity more deeply into His redemptive and transformative graciousness. And, ironically, in this shared ministry, we are often being most fruitful at those moments when we feel most frustrated. We are called to keep in mind that we live in the hope of the Resurrection. And just as Jesus was most helpful to humanity when He was most helpless on the cross, we also, through our living communion with Him, are often being most helpful to others, when we seem to be most helpless – or even worthless.
Evolution vs Evocation
For well over a century now, there has been a strong tendency to view human development in terms of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Even a number of prominent Church leaders have come to embrace this paradigm. Sadly, though, this concept tends to be laced with a certain hubris, which poisons a healthy appreciation of human progress. Note, for example, the hubris, which led to the building of the famous Tower of Babel. Evolutionary theory tends to have not so subtle roots in Pelagianism, and thus is contrary to authentic Church teaching. Thus, while human progress does take place, it is not guided by an impersonal evolutionary dynamic. Rather, any authentically human progress is the fruit of evocation: i.e., God’s fidelity in lovingly calling all of Creation into a more profound communion with His regenerative holiness, truth and love.
Church Fathers stressed that love (God) is our origin, love (God) is our life, and love (God) is our destiny. Any “development,” which is not in harmony with this call to Divine Intimacy, is actually destructive to ourselves, our relationships and our environment. As an aside, it is worth noting that the error of the evolutionary paradigm even tainted the famous statement that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life, when the more accurate assertion of our Faith is that the Eucharist is the source, sustenance and summit of the Church’s life. God does not merely spawn children and then tell them to evolve. Rather He is always, as a faithful Father, lovingly reaching out to us in order to beget us anew in Christ.
Thus it is that we need to prayerfully and careful discern the premises of our spiritual lives. Defective premises will gradually blind us to the truly awesome beauty of God’s promises, and thus leave us more vulnerable to the seductions of sin and to the temptation to value spiritual gratification over the sanctification offered to us through the mystery of Christ crucified.