(What I Believe to Be) The Hardest Commandment

A lot of people reject Catholicism or even all of Christianity because they believe it to be too hard.  Most people think the church’s teachings on chastity are too strict, or its position on wealth isn’t fair.  I first off don’t think its too hard to the point of being impossible.  We have examples of humans, sinners like us, who became perfect in heaven after following the church’s teachings, even the hard ones.  But I also don’t think chastity or whatever rule it is are the hardest things we as Christians are called to obey.  CS Lewis, one of my favorite authors ever, agrees with me.  I am by no means saying chastity or whatever virtue isn’t insanely hard, but its not the most difficult thing we are called to do.  CS Lewis in his great book explaining what Christians believe, Mere Christianity, says that is loving our neighbor, and even our enemy, as God loves us.

I’m sure you all know that you’re supposed to love your friends and enemies alike, but boy, its easier said than done.  I struggle with this a lot, as many of my friends may be quick to tell you.  It may be that I’ve been to New Jersey once to many times so that it rubbed off on me or something, but I can hold a grudge for a long time.  But normally, its with very anti-Catholic or militantly pro-abortion people that I get angry with, and stay angry with.  My anger could be justified, as they are supporting murder of children or whatever it is.  But the thing is, anger can never be justified against a Child of God.  Not the initial emotion that all humans feel, even Jesus shows righteous anger in the Temple when He flipped the tax collectors’ tables.  Not the emotion, but the genuine hatred and disunity that may follow.  Disunity if Satan’s goal.  What does he fear most?  All humanity united in the Body of Christ against him in perfect harmony and love.  What does he want most?  Every single human being isolated from the others in their own pride.  In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the lowest part of Hell is reserved for Satan alone.  He sits there in the ice by himself, isolated from everybody.

On Sunday one of the Franciscan brothers was giving a homily.  He was talking about disunity.  He said that when they do a holy hour, they pray the psalms for 15 minutes, and then its silence for 45 minutes.  Its all good, for the first 30 seconds, until someone sniffs, or sneezes, or coughs.  He said that he just wants to shout “SHUT UP!  GET OUT OF MY CHAPEL!!!”.  Over time he really starts to dislike some of these people.  We all know people we dislike.  That kind of person that makes you grumble when they sit next to you at lunch.  You don’t want to accept that person.  You could care less if they sat by themselves every day.  But here’s what the friar said ,”This is satanic”.  I was shocked by his use of words.  Sure, thats what the devil wants, but satanic?  That gives the impression that you are serving satan.  That’s a seriously disturbing thought.

In JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, it begins with Eru Illuvatar, God.  He creates many beautiful and powerful angels, the greatest of which is Melkor.  He instructs them, and they play music like that which would never be heard again.  Melkor started playing to his own desires, and others followed him.  Soon there were two bands, competing for dominance. Eventually Melkor, now Morgoth is thrown from the heavens, but he has achieved much of his goal at that point.  He has created disunity.  This I think is a spectacular metaphor for the fall of Lucifer.  Down on earth, Morgoth continues to divide the free people who oppose him, and create distrust and enmity between the various races.  Only millenniums later when these races unite under one banner to march on the Dark Lord is he finally defeated.  The call to love your neighbor as yourself is the remedy to disunity, harmony against chaos, charity against hate.

One of the things the Pharisees hated most about Jesus was that he hung out with sinners. We’re blessed with so many examples of charity like Mother Teresa and Pope Francis that this line is not such of a surprise as it was intended.  Jesus Christ, omnipotent Lord and Master of the Universe, hanging out with a couple of tax collectors.  One of the best stories in the entire Bible is the conversion of Matthew, the tax collector.  Tax collectors were scum.  They were Jews who collected taxes for the oppressive Roman government ruling their people, and most cheated and stole while they did it.  This is like the equivalent of a gangster today.  Jesus is out chillin with his bros, when He points to Matthew, a tax collector, a gangster, and tells him to come, and follow Him.  Matthew gets up and follows him.  What do they do next?  They throw a party with a bunch of other tax collectors.  Not only does Jesus loves sinners, He likes them.  For us speaking English at least, the word “like” can be much stronger than the word “love”.  Sure you love your brother but do you like him?  Do you enjoy hanging out with him and spending time with him?  Jesus likes sinners.  He hangs out with them and in the process draws them into himself.  Its comforting to know that Jesus likes you, and everything you are.  But its also important to know that you are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, and spend time with the sinner, instruct the ignorant, and bear wrongs patiently.

I find it interesting that they threw a party.  If I was a tax collector, and this all-righteous Jesus guy invited me to follow Him, I would probably be thinking that He’s got the wrong guy.  I’m not the kind of person saints invite to their birthday parties.  But then this Matthew, one of the tax collectors, like me, goes and hangs out with Jesus and His buds.  I’d be thinking, wow, maybe I can follow Him.  Maybe God is calling me.  Remember what I said earlier, about the Body of Christ?  Well, its not like its just half Jesus and half you.  The entire Church is part of it.  And if you love your neighbor, and if you follow Christ, others will follow your example.  Others just like you who would’ve thought that there is no way that God’s mercy could ever possibly reach them, until they saw it reach you.  Whatever you do good radiates the world, and whatever wrong you do darkens it.

Today’s reading fits into this very well.  Its the whole thing where Jesus separates the saints from the sinners in Heaven, and tells the sinners that what you did unto the least of my brethren, you did unto me.  Well, its easy to pity a hungry child and help them. Its not hard to visit an innocent man in prison.  The least of my brethren.  imagine someone you hate, and would love to see fail.  And that person does fail, and loses all he has.  He comes to you for help, for shelter, for the love of Christ?  Well I could tell you without a shadow of a doubt that I would probably smash the door on his face and never regret it.  The least of my brethren is not the worst off, but the person you see as scum.  Its the person who you make to be the worst off.  Forgive me, but another movie metaphor is imminent.  In Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast, the story begins with a rich prince, who has all that he has.  An old beggar comes to his door and offers to give the young prince a rose in return for shelter from the cold rain.  It says the prince is “repulsed by her haggard appearance”.  We kind of get the vibe that he’s stating to hate her already, and he refuses.  Well it turns out that old lady was a super powerful enchantress and he gets turned into the beast and the movie begins.

You see, we’re not only called to love complete strangers, but even our most hated rivals and enemies.  Imagine the person you hate the most in the whole world.  That one guy whose nose just annoys the heck out of you, that one boss that is super mean and blames everything on you, that one girl at school who just likes to make fun of you in front of everybody.  That is Christ, challenging you to live like God lives.

Love your neighbor as yourself.  Seems pretty easy.  That super cool guy who lives next door to you that brought you dinner when your family had a baby.  Sure, you would love to return the favor.  Your called to love, even like those who you hate, the people you utterly despise.  This is totally contrary to where our emotions would take us, where logic would even take us.  Someone hurts you, you hurt em back, right?  Jesus calls us to love them instead.  The single most radical thing Christ calls us to do.  No religion in the history of mankind had yet taught this, even Moses said to fight your enemy.  And of course, its also probably the hardest thing He calls us to as well.

You may be thinking that this is relatively easy, that you do it all the time.  I know people like this who are just naturally nice and pleasant to everyone.  This comes easy to them.  But to those who much is given, much will be expected.  For those of you like me, who struggle with this, who would like nothing more than to just clock that one guy, God knows its hard.  He’s not oblivious to things like this.  God is all-just and all-merciful.  He won’t expect the same niceness from you as someone who is just naturally kind.  But that’s no excuse not to try as hard as you can.  All He calls us to do is to give it all you got, and you will be rewarded.  Just do your best, and God will take care of the rest.  Hey, that rhymes.  Maybe it will help you remember.

One thing CS Lewis recommends is to act nice, to pretend you like some person, and eventually, you’ll start liking this person more and more.  If you are mean, you’ll find yourself hating and hating even more.  For lent, I’ve decided to tackle this particular vice.  Whenever I get annoyed or angry with someone, I say a Hail Mary with the intention that they have a great day.  Its super hard to genuinely wish them the best, but when I do, I find me self being kinder and kinder.  So I recommend trying that and see how it works out for you.  Maybe even pray for their parents or family.  You have to deal with this person for maybe a couple of hours, they’ve been dealing with them their entire lives.

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”
-Mother Teresa

 

In Christ, Catholic2theMax

The Gradual Death

Well, Happy 2016!  I hope all of you had a great Christmas season filled with joy, laughter, and good food (and maybe a little too much good food). Most of us are by now realizing how hard our New Year’s resolutions really are.  I told myself I would start running more.  I can tell you I’m not writing this on the treadmill right now, if thats any indicator to how that’s going.  Anyway, if you still haven’t figured out your resolution or looking for a better one, I have a late Christmas present for you.

Before I start off, if you haven’t read the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, that is now your New Year’s Resolution.  No ifs ands or buts, hightail it to a Barnes and Noble and get it.  I don’t really think I should have to persuade anybody to go to Barnes and Noble anyway.  I mean, most have fireplaces and a Starbucks, tons of books, soft jazz and that special bookstore smell.  So there’s that.

I read the Screwtape Letters a while back, and was completely intrigued by the way it was written.  The author of the letters the book is comprised of is Screwtape, a high ranking devil giving advice to his rookie nephew, charged with ruining a young man.  The story is played out solely from the perspective of hell, giving the reader a very unique interpretation of the story.  CS Lewis himself hated writing the book.  Having to put himself in the person of the devil is not a pleasant task.  I’m not sure if its a compliment or not, but he did a splendid job of doing so.

Throughout the story, we see the tempted young man change and grow…and struggle and fall.  I’ll do my best not to spoil it, but I do want to share some key points.

In the book, we see how involved demons are in this young man’s everyday life, but he’s not a murderer or a terrorist.  He’s just a normal person.  Going on with his life and not being too great at anything.  The devil is not trying to make him kill people or blow up buildings.  Most of the time he doesn’t even try to get him to do anything.  Screwtape said, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”  This shows us that the battle for our souls won’t be a siege easily weathered.  We have to attack and fight for our spiritual lives.  The devil didn’t try to get him to attend a satanist temple or become an atheist, he just tried to water down his faith.  Screwtape told his nephew, ““A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.”

We see now the devil’s standard strategy, especially with us Christians.  He will try to warp our religion and get us to “good enough”, which of course is not good enough.  I call this the gradual death.  The soul is not doing anything very bad, in fact its not doing anything really.  Its just stagnant, decaying while Satan waits.

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”

Our greatest danger seems to be falling into lukewarmness.  Its hard to detect, and addictive.  As the character Ahem said in the Veggie Tales show The Lord of the Beans, “Once you taste the life of ease, my friend, there is no going back”.  And yes, I just quoted Veggie Tales.  I’m just that awesome.

So, how did this young man ever escape the trap Screwtape set for him?  He didn’t.  Or at least, not by himself.  It was a special grace that saved him in the end.  A natural grace, nothing to out of the ordinary.  He fell in love with a girl, who happened to be a devout Christian.  And little by little, he was fished out of Screwtape’s hands until he was beyond their reach.  It is indeed as Screwtape said, small things, little things such as the song of a bird or the face of a girl is enough to topple the devil’s plans.

So, my suggestion for a New Year’s resolution.

  1. Read the Screwtape Letters.  But not like any other book, think about what you read, and pray over the topics that it brings up.  It really is a  profound book.  Readers are advised to remember, the devil is a liar.  Not all Screwtape writes is to be trusted (obviously).
  2. Be Legendary.  Be the opposite of lukewarm.  If you don’t feel like praying, get off your butt and say a decade.  If you’re to lazy to go to daily mass, but have the opportunity, you better take advantage of that and go.  Be on fire with the faith.
  3. Go to confession once a week, or if your schedule doesn’t allow, at least twice a month.  Don’t worry about what the priest will think.  You won’t say anything he hasn’t heard before.  Trust me, you’re not that creative.
  4. See Star Wars VII.  I thought it was amazing.

God Bless and have a great 2016!

In Christ, Catholic2theMax