I don’t often get writer’s block; as you know from experience, I just post a day late or, in extreme cases, skip a week. But in prepping for this week’s Monday Morality post, I felt a recurring dissatisfaction with the material, or at least my ability to work with it, specifically the moral quadrant of the Catechism. My frustration was probably on display last week, too. The Catechism states “The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching.” I had a college professor who walked into a class one day with our corrected exams. He stated, “I have in my hands an assortment of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and a total absence of concrete answers.” I think this summarizes my problem with the way the Catechism addresses the Beatitudes; in the language of the good, the true, and the beautiful, but without the specifics of human behavior.
Having completed a somewhat ethereal treatment of the Beatitudes, the Catechism text moves into its comfort zone, the Ten Commandments and the natural law, with the precision of laser surgery and an attitudinal language of certainty that is easily open to misinterpretation and even arrogance. The religious man of letters G.K. Chesterton is famous for his quote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism who brought his best pre-conversion life with him, understood that lived Christianity is hard, in large part because the sweeping challenge of the Beatitudes and the cost of living them; the contemporary theologian Richard Rohr uses the term revolutionary. Dogmatic certainty cannot forestall the uncertainties of God’s future.
[I have a good Chesterton story to insert here. He and a friend were walking in England when a man accosted them “down on his luck,” as they say. Chesterton reached into his pocket and gave the man money. His friend became irritated. “You shouldn’t have given him that. He’s just going to spend it on drink.” To which Chesterton replied, “That’s what I was planning to do with it.”]
The Catechism, in its quarter century of use, has proven to be a less than optimum tool in defining moral awareness, assigning as it does an almost “creeping infallibility” to certain moral matters that the Church has found wanting for its own consciences and the Church’s engagement with what is now accepted as a secular age. In discussing homosexuality, for example, the Catechism in paragraph 2357 states that “its psychosocial genesis remains largely unexplained,” but then continues “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” It is my contention that given how little we know about sexual orientation, (or, for that matter, how much we need to know), it is at the very least premature to make such pronouncements. In truth, I find discussion about homosexual life unsettling to me personally; we are, in the final analysis, talking about people with souls, created by God, in my own case close relatives, priests, fellow parishioners, and friends. Catechetical instruction that segregates and objectifies populations worthy of dignity is itself a breakdown of the unity Christ longs to see in his people.
There are many such questions in Catholic morality, and how we address them among ourselves and to the world at large will determine the credibility and integrity of Catholic life as it lives in a world significantly different from 1300. In A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium (2015) Paul Lakeland introduces the idea of a “kenotic ecclesiology.” The word kenosis refers to an “emptying out” or a total self-giving. You may recall the hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at; rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave….” Lakeland and many other Catholic theologians hold that the only way for the Church to be taken seriously in the new landscape of global meaning is to pour itself out in service to the world, in the fashion of peacemaking, hungering for justice, and the other moral priorities of the New Kingdom of Jesus expressed so well in the Beatitudes.
The same author cited in the previous paragraph illustrates an essay on the new evangelization on the USCCB website. The essay cites Pope Benedict XVI’s concern that while the Church wishes to “transmit the gift of truth,” it wants to assure “people and their Governments that she does not wish to destroy their identity and culture by doing so.” Rather, the Church “wants to give them a response which, in their innermost depths, they are waiting for.” Other authors in a variety of texts put the situation more bluntly: the Church comes to every meeting, whether with another Christian body, world religion, or civil institution, with all the answers. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes is shunted to the side; GS teaches that the Church “is not unaware how much it has profited from the opposition of its enemies and persecutors.”
This morning I was also impacted by a Facebook exchange between my two sisters: a lengthy, thoughtful, and inspiring exchange so rare on social media. Philosophically and theologically speaking, they come from different points on the compass. One is an active Catholic health provider; the other a post-Enlightenment humanist with decades of work in Buffalo’s demanding inner-city schools. The discussion began with my Catholic sister’s profound concern about the multiple ills of present-day American life and the idea of prayer in school. My humanist sister, while sympathetic, expressed concern about the cacophony of denominational confusion and the belief/practices of some religious groups that many might find invasive to the common good.
As their debate unfolded, I could see that both were seeking a common good—the enrichment of culture with commonly held values—a stasis where children are not routinely massacred in schools, for example. Discussions such as these are far too rare in American life, where a lust for certainty and superiority trumps the honest search for a sacred way of life. The times demand a kenosis, a pouring out of my individual and corporate certainties, a realization that there is no monopolization of truth. Catholic morality in this context involves corporate engagement in listening to the good will of other seekers. Catholicism’s position of arriving with all the answers and waiting for others to see the light—a position not restricted to Catholicism, incidentally—is counterproductive to secular and religious unity.
Consequently, I am going to jump ahead to the specific moral teachings of the Catechism, the “nuts and bolts,” beginning at para. 2084 with an eye toward translating how these teachings may be understood in the third millennium and, frankly, commenting on certain texts lacking sufficient basis in Scripture and Tradition, or actual Catholic practice, or interdisciplinary support; in a few cases, calling out formulations more hurtful than helpful in the living of the Beatitudes.
1716 The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching. They take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham. The Beatitudes fulfill the promises by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to the Kingdom of heaven:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward is great in heaven.
1717 The Beatitudes depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity. They express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ's disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints.
The Beatitudes as detailed in the Gospel present the biggest obstacle to those who would prefer their moral directives in cold, precise logic. As Paragraph 1716 puts it, “The Beatitudes are the heart of Jesus’ teaching.” When paired with the judgment statements of Jesus in such places as Matthew 25, especially verses 31-46, we get the best picture of the moral dimension of the Kingdom of God. One would think that the Beatitudes would find place at the center of catechizing and preaching, instead of some of the agenda-driven oddities that you do see in “approved texts.” I receive dozens of mailings from religious education publishers, including one on the USCCB approved list whose text states, in so many words, that youthful candidates for Confirmation must have entered the United States legally. [This is bad sacramental theology for starters; and its agenda seems to be DACA. The publisher may not know that one DACA boy is now an ordained priest working in the Atlanta Archdiocese!]
While much lip service is paid to the Beatitudes, even in the Catechism, institutional Catholicism has never embraced Christ’s words as a moral Magna Carta. In the first instance, the text itself is not fully understood. It takes time to unpack the precise Biblical meaning of terms such as “poor in spirit,” “mourn,” “meek,” “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “merciful,” “pure in heart,” “peacemakers,” and “persecuted” have long history in biblical usage, but in contemporary culture words like mercy, meek, mourning, etc. are seen as code words for “snowflake” or an absence of power.
To better appreciate the power of Jesus’ words, we need to see them in their Old and New Testament context. I am bringing out several “big guns” to help us, notably Father John P. Meier, whose epic A Marginal Jew remains the best study of the historical roots of the historical Jesus. In Volume II (p. 317ff) Meier observes that “if isolated from any larger context, the beatitudes are open to a number of different interpretations.” (Use the search page on Amazon Books: there are over one-thousand entries of books unpacking the meaning the beatitudes.) Meier and other Catholic scholars continue to labor to this day to provide the most precise understandings of the terms of the beatitudes, given their definitive impact upon moral theology.
The full treatment of the Beatitudes in the Catechism, in the realm of morality, is frankly poor. Given that the Beatitudes open the three-chapter section on the new Law of Christ as put forward in St. Matthew’s Gospel, it is remarkable that there are barely a dozen references throughout the nearly three thousand points that make up the Catechism. The Catechism quickly lapses back into the legalism of the pre-Council manuals of sins where it seems to be most comfortable and devotes what little text it does to man’s comprehension. It reverts to the question of man’s ability to make free choices in opting for God’s will.
What the Catechism leaves untreated is the event of Judgment upon which beatific living is based, and the specific moral demands of the eight revealed statements of life in the Kingdom of God. My thinking here is that the Church feels a necessity to lay out a concrete and detailed moral system, which the Catechism will do, to honor two agendas: (1) preservation of the “manual norms” which in very times have been granted “eternal status; in matters of sexual ethics, and (2) preservation of the Church’s authority. It is hard for any institution to manage open-ended norms. The Beatitudes do not carry a “measurable outcomes” component as the old manual morality did. Who can say, for example, that he or she has exercised enough mercy in a lifetime? Jesus, in his instruction to Peter that forgiveness should be offered 7 x 70 times [i.e., to infinity], an indication that one successful deed does not a virtue make.
The noted Franciscan writer and preacher Richard Rohr probably explains the Church’s fear of plowing into beatific soil to grow a morality for tomorrow: “When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about an utterly different way of relating to human society as we know it. He was talking about a new world order, a term recently on the lips of politicians. What a false sense of the term they have used…. I doubt that any major political leader would align a new world order in terms of cooperation, trust, service, and redemptive suffering. For all the talk of a new world order, it's simply the old-world order. The 'New World Order,' or the 'Reign of God,' is the heart of the New Testament."
It is amazing that para. 1718 would state that the beatitudes “express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life.” The Catechism never addresses what those “actions and attitudes” of the Gospel might be, settling instead for the tired manual of cold deeds and ahistorical physical acts. At lunch today, a gentleman told me it was his impression that Catholic churches do more for the poor in his community than other Christian communities. All I could think was thank God, their moral personhood is drawn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the Law of the New Testament, and blessed will they be on judgment day.
1708 By his Passion, Christ delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Holy Spirit. His grace restores what sin had damaged in us.
Paragraph 1708 describes the work of Christ: He delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Spirit. His grace restores what is damaged by sin. The term for all of this is “salvation.” I can recall when I moved to the deep south in the 1970’s the intense evangelicalism of my neighboring churches, and from time to time I was asked personally if I was “saved” or “born again.” The wrong answer, I quickly learned, was that I had been baptized and saved in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant. Nothing made a 1970’s evangelical blanche more painfully than this string of Catholic “heresies.” My heresies? First, the Catholic Church of Rome was “the professional lady from Babylon and thus the anti-Christ.” Second, Catholics don’t baptize correctly in that we rarely use full immersion. [Catholic law permits full immersion, but I digress.] Finally, infants are too young to profess Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
I miss the Evangelicals of years ago. Having sold their souls in 2016 on the empty promise of a Pro-Life agenda from the current administration, they are torn by anger, division, and I believe shame, in the position they now find themselves. I pray for them now more than I used to. I surmise that in the last generation or so, Evangelicals have opted to “save society from itself” by closer entrenchment in real world politics, particularly in matters of family life and sexual mores. The general principle of bringing the good news to the market place is laudable, necessary in fact, though I think the communicative art of persuasion and example is preferable to state-imposed morality, as a rule, which smacks more of Gelasian “two-sword” governance.
The language of para. 1708 is time conditioned; Christ is depicted as delivering us from Satan, the personification of evil. In the early passages of Mark’s Gospel, the Sunday texts for 2018 [Year B], Christ demonstrates his mission of ushering in the kingdom of God by the expulsion of demons and multiple healings—both actions understood at the time [and today] as works against evil. Some caution is necessary here; it is easy to slip into an easy image of Christ engaging with another powerful force for the destiny of man, but as we discussed last week, later Jewish thought came to understand that evil is internal, within the psyche of man.
I am uncomfortable with terms like the Evil One, Lucifer, or personified devils, because such talk suggests of duel kingdoms, God’s and the evil beings, the latter attributed with powers to overcome the morals of good souls and steal them from God. This strikes me as a diminishment of God’s infinite power. The language of devils, not unique to Christianity, does serve a useful purpose in avoiding language that implies God create evil (as in Genesis 3, where the serpent in the garden is said to be “the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.”) The idea of devils and evil ones was suitable for the culture of Palestine and the early Church, but for the most part our language today does not address evil in those terms. What was once described as demonic possessions might find better explanation in mental illness or mass hysteria—the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of 1692 are an excellent example of histrionic attribution of evil to the devil at the cost of 20 lives.
The ugliness of evil and sin can be so invasive that we feel compelled to look outside of the human experience. Coming up in the Thursday Reformation page of the blog in a few weeks is a discussion of the impact of the Black Plague (1347+ A.D.), a catastrophe described quite graphically in The Great Mortality (2005), which killed 50% of the European population alone. (See my review.) The United States Atomic Energy Commission uses the plague as a model for post-nuclear war consequences. (TBP, p. 11) One would imagine that this ravenous terror—thought to be the end of the world from England to Italy—was borne by the full army of Lucifer and his minions. In fact, the cause of the disease was simple mutation of the virus Y-Pestis, a direct descendant of a virus that afflicted the Roman Empire a millennium earlier. Y-Pestis mutated on the backs of field rats in China, journeyed to Europe alongside Turkish traders on new medieval trade routes, and infected every European port with amazing alacrity.
That the world is filled with injustice, crime, natural catastrophe, and perhaps most of all, chronic failures of humans to connect in constructive ways is beyond dispute. Para. 1708 states Jesus’ salvific agenda, of delivering us and remaking us. We Catholics use the words “Jesus” and “saves” probably daily. But as one Catholic journal put it this week, how do you preach salvation to a population that believes it has no guilt to be rescued from, which is pretty much what I see and hear from my own little cabbage patch?
A major part of the answer is the absence of a sense of Jesus as a Cosmic Savior. As St. Paul writes eloquently, the impact of the cross extends throughout the cosmos, including entire human systems of enterprise. Catholic catechetics continues to focus on a highly personal and highly specific focus of morality, just about all of it sexual. I don’t deny that there are critical issues of personal morality, but more oriented to the concept of Christ’s kingship is a saved people, as in plural. The Church has a feast to emphasize universal salvation, Christ the King.
My argument with neo-Evangelicals is similar to my concern about a highly personalized Catholic morality. Next week many churches will conduct Pro Life awareness, obviously a major need in the present day. But I was moved to look up how children in our country fare once they survive the birthing experience. I came across a Washington Post piece from 2014 reporting on a study of infant mortality, i.e., in the first year. The United States, which leads the world in medical spending, ranks 26th in infant care. In twenty-five nations, newborns have a better chance of reaching their first birthdays, in some cases by a factor of three. The conclusion of the study cites a significant decline in the availability of infant health care after leaving the hospital, proportionate to income.
Jesus never used the words systematic or holistic in his teachings, and understandably so, given his time. But his call to a moral life and the reach of salvation goes out to individuals and communities. If we as individuals are judged for our individual conduct and rewarded our faith, how will God address our corporate conduct?
1707 "Man, enticed by the Evil One, abused his freedom at the very beginning of history."10 He succumbed to temptation and did what was evil. He still desires the good, but his nature bears the wound of original sin. He is now inclined to evil and subject to error:
Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.11
I was hoping for an easy morning, as today is clinic day, but it appears that I will need to explain the nature of evil itself before I pack my lunch and IPad and head out to work. The Catechism itself chose the easy route of “blaming it on the snake,” so to speak, in its explanation of how sin and evil came into the world, with its use of the term “Evil One.” The footnotes for Paragraph 1707 take us back to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (joy and hope), “The Church in the Modern World.” While I don’t think I have it in me to explain the nature of evil, today’s post may set the parameters of the question, at any rate.
Footnote 10 comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, which makes for captivating reading. Paul states that from the beginning of time, “[God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” Put another way, man has always enjoyed the capacity to discern God by the very way he is created and composed. If this is so, why do all of us miss the mark of good living, sometimes quite dramatically? Paul is writing for a Gentile audience, and he asserts that although every man knows God, “they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks.” He goes on, “They became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened,” exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.”
Again, recalling the setting of this letter, Paul is calling out the Roman practices of worshipping a human being (emperor worship) or various forms of idolatry. The mention of a snake is almost certainly a reference to the fertility rites of many religions of the time where public ceremonies involving a living or depicted snake invoked divine intervention on behalf of the female population. This form of phallic idolatry afflicted Israel as well, and it may be the reason that the snake, of all creatures, introduces sin into the world in the telling of the Garden account from Genesis.
Paul does not explain why humankind turned its back on the evident glory of God, but he accepts this as the human condition. Because of the denial of the true God, “God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.” Paul becomes more specific: “females exchanged natural relations for unnatural…and males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” It is intriguing that Paul would use homosexuality as his prime witness for human degeneracy. He may be reflecting the prominence of same-sex activity in Roman society, or he may be falling back to his training in Jewish Law, which teaches that “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them." [Leviticus 20:13]. Catholic tradition is not nearly as extreme; the Catechism itself [para. 2357] admits that regarding homosexuality, “its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”
The theology of Paul on the origin of sin—in his explanation to Gentiles-- can be summarized here as inherent hubris, a pride with no impulse to bend the knee to a God visible in all his works. In the late Old Testament writings, Scripture addresses the origin of sin and evil in both philosophic and metaphoric language, the most famous attempt being Genesis 3. An unfortunate catechetical failure over the years has been the absence of any sustained effort to mine Genesis 3 for its moral richness with adult spirituality. To unpack Genesis 3, it is necessary to state, for the last time, that the text is revealed philosophy, not chronological history.
The authors of Genesis 3 begin with the assertion that “the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” The idea that God is the creator of “cunning” is still a puzzle to this day. The old literal interpretation of my childhood, that Satan appeared to Eve disguised as a snake, was rather comforting—until about the eighth grade, when I had the impertinence to ask the Christian Brothers, “Well, who made Satan?” [And if you don’t believe in Karma, I get unsolicited email today from people advising me that Satan is taking over the planet, or at least the Café.]
Genesis 3 lays it on the line that in some way evil is inherent in creation. Its implication is not that God made bad things, but rather, “free people,” beings who were and are made in such dignified fashion that they enjoy God’s creative freedom, the ultimate free choice being the acceptance of and obedience to the Creator. Man is made with enough power to damn himself, too. In remarkable prose, the authors of Genesis proceed to make their point that humans do not choose infallibly. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”
Genesis 3 shares with St. Paul the idea that the ultimate human sin is hubris. The serpent, or “best supporting actor,” puts forth the Achilles heel of human existence, “God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” We are a proud people, independent gods, who do not wish to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. Genesis goes on to enumerate the breakdown of the human condition caused by the human condition of sin: (1) Adam blames Eve for their collective sin, she who was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh; the capacity to love is damaged; (2) Eve blames the snake, symbolizing the break between man and nature; not for nothing did Pope Francis write Laudato Si; (3) Adam and his descendants will be at war with nature in order to eat; “Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you….”
(4) The issue of childbirth is the most psychologically complex of the couple’s curses. “I will intensify your toil in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The very continuation of humanity will depend upon a life-threatening and intensely painful experience of childbirth. And for all of that, the urge for the husband in the sexual sense will remain intense, despite his domination over her. The text here should not be interpreted in any way as a critique of procreation, or even less as a commentary on the status of womanhood, but rather as a proof from experience that human experience—of man and women--is complex and not always trustworthy. As Paul observed, we are creatures of our passions; the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. In any event, we are not independent “gods” nor can we blame our sins on the "Evil One."
1706 By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him "to do what is good and avoid what is evil."9 Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person.
I was looking at my calendar this week and I realized I am due to start taking courses again in counseling psychology and law to meet license renewal requirements. Shopping for courses—actual class settings or the on-line offerings—is discouraging, because my field—and its cousin psychopharmacology—has produced little in the way of groundbreaking insights in the healing of the mind. A depressed patient in 2018 is still prescribed, as a rule, some variant of the old work horse Prozac (fluoxetine). Many of you may be surprised that electroconvulsive therapy (aka, unfortunately, “electroshock therapy”) is a depression treatment option still available to practitioners, particularly in cases of severely depressed pregnant women for whom medication may be harmful, though the improvement is short term and the treatment must be retreated frequently.
Not unlike other fields, mental health passes through trends. When I started in practice, the prevailing wisdom was “letting go of your anger,” or getting patients to articulate and feel repressed rage. Later studies showed that this kind of therapy simply improved the client’s skills at expressing anger (a serious flaw in Dr. Melfi’s TV treatment of Tony Soprano, who, by the way, was prescribed Prozac, too, which can have energizing side-effects.) Post-traumatic stress treatment has been a staple of workshops since the first Gulf War, but one major failure here has been a lack of full appreciation of actual brain damage which impedes “techniques” that we might use in our offices. (There is a considerable gulf between the orientation of masters’ therapists like myself, life managers if you will, and psychologists who must hold doctorates and are better versed in the holistic interplay of biology and mind activity.)
This year my catalogues are full of training sessions on “mindfulness,” our cure du jour. I have seen the term frequently but had not looked closely at this school of treatment till this week. The magazine Psychology Today describes mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”
Before I start hurling brickbats at this trend, I will say that helping patients understand why they are emotionally distraught in a given moment is extremely important. I have often commented to a patient, “you look like you’re about to burst into tears,” which gives the patient (I think) permission to say what has been long repressed. I subscribe to the Rational Emotive School (RET) of Albert Ellis and his offspring the Becks, which among other things assists a patient to reexamine his or her current life script or interpretation of personal history. Mindfulness can be a critical tool in therapeutic progress.
However, if you Google “mindfulness,” you will find that the term and the practice have a strong affinity to Eastern thought and practice, particularly Yoga. Wikipedia’s definition is useful if incomplete in making this connection. The goal of mindfulness and its attendant lifestyle is escape from the past and the future and absolute focus on the moment. Eastern mysticism in general is profoundly metaphysical; it holds that human experience is profoundly internal, waiting for discovery when the human subject can escape the care of this world. One can quickly see some points of contact between Christian mysticism and Eastern philosophy, particularly the premise that there is a rich life beyond the scientific, observable field.
The Trappist mystic and spiritual writer Thomas Merton devoted the last decade of his study to exploring possible bridges between Eastern and Western thought and religious practice. Ironically, he was killed in this quest in 1968, electrocuted while presenting a workshop to Eastern monks in Burma. His death is a serious loss to the Church, particularly in its moral and spiritual possibilities, as we continue to seek a unity of the temporal and the eternal in personal development.
Paragraph 1706 states that “Everyone is obliged to follow this law [do good and avoid evil], which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor.” The challenge is in the hearing. The Catechism cannot be precise on the dynamic of the communication between God and the mind, nor for that matter, God and the will, or even our own minds and wills alone. The nature of such communication is beyond our ability to find adequate linguistics; when we profess faith in God, we profess faith in a process we believe is happening but cannot explain with precision.
However, the disposition to hear and understand is something we do control to a point; the Catechism is clear in many places that we are created with freedom to meaningfully choose the good [the Revelation of God] or reject it. The mystery turns on why some individuals embrace the good and others do not, or more to the point, why we ourselves make good choices at one point and poor choices in another. What is impacting us at the moment of a poor choice? Putting the question this way, mindfulness is a valuable spiritual tool. The insights of mindful thinking and process are not usually so flattering—as Shakespeare observed, “it is the worst treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” I do plenty of “good things” for a mixed bag of reasons; the key is honesty, and I have always believed that God loves a less than cheerful giver of mixed motive so long as his will is obeyed.
The caveat with mindfulness is whether the accent upon the immediate is an enlightenment or an escape. If it is true, as I have observed, that Yoga and self-awareness are as hot a ticket as ever on the train to better living, it is also true that California and other states and locations have recently taken steps toward the legalization of recreational marijuana. It has been a lot of years since my college days, but the pot smoking jargon then went something like “trip out” or “take a trip,” which sounds a lot like escapism. The same can be said for any mood-altering or mind-altering substance that takes us out of the present. Moral consciousness and the clarity of mind and heart to hear our better angels is the mental heart of prayer and good conduct.