Friday, November 7, 2008


Subtitled: yet another long-winded, far too long dictactic essay on a subject you probably don't care about

Crucifixion -- Georges Rouault

I do not touch the political side,” said the Count serenely, “but only the philosophical. It illustrates how the wise man can get behind time and space and turn the levers of them, so to speak, so that the whole world turns round before our eyes. But is it so hard for you people to believe that spiritual powers are really more powerful than material ones.”

“Well,” said old Smart cheerfully, “I don’t profess to be an authority on spiritual powers. What do you say, Father Brown?”

“The only thing that strikes me,” answered the little priest, “is that all the supernatural acts we have yet heard of seem to be thefts. And stealing by spiritual methods seem to me much the same as stealing by material ones.” -- The Song of the Flying Fish, Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton

Even the Catholic Church's negative proclamations (condemnations, prohibitions) are an embodiment of something at her centre that is not of this world, and of which her followers do not sustain within themselves by following their own will; indeed, not even preserved by their faith, though their faith is essential.

The Church's negative proclamations are not essentially what make her stand against the grain. For every one of her negative proclamations opens out behind itself, if given thought for longer than one's bigotry allows, and connects to a vast cosmology and reason - reason elevated in the Incarnation, which holds the eternal destiny of people in mind.

For instance, the depth, meaning and sacredness of family grows positively and reveals more beauty and gravitas alongside, though not due to, the Church's negative response to contraception. The prohibition of contraception as a mortal sin is inherently tied to an even more uncompromising stance on the positive sacredness and goodness of the family, springing from the sacred conjugal act. The Church's unwavering negative prohibitions are connected to, and outweighed by, an even more extreme goodness, sacredness and freedom - these, as objective realities. One cannot take into account her prohibitions as such and expect to understand them without taking upon oneself the immense positive proposal that is our personal fulfillment and salvation. This positive proposal that is also the most practical and sensible. The proposal that make sense of our very reason, by giving us reason's end.

No sooner do we accept these (prohibitions), even hypothetically, than the whole of the Church's universality threatens our own paradigm with the Word in whose image we are made: it is not the prohibitions that gall and inflame her enemies' cynicism, but that she has all the apparent madness of being unreservedly hardwired to reality, to the core of it, so much so, that the precarious and vastly unrewarding life her accusers are enslaved to, under the forms of entitlement, relativity, autonomy, worldly acceptance and so on, the Church engulfs in the mere advanced initial flames of produced reason. No dichotomy. (What! Using reason as though it were connected to objective truth!) While in so doing, she completely reframes the whole scenario, the entire battle (whether one recognizes the battle or no), from the timeless precursor that is her endless potency within, which is the Blessed Sacrament, the institution of which is the for-real, unbloody reenactment of Calvary.

Now, it is the very point that the Church's rules and guides and principles and prohibitions are there precisely because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ; because of Christ's coming to us; because of God sending His only Son; because of God's scandalous coming to His creatures as one of His creatures. No, God did not become perfect man for the reason of making a bunch of rules, but what we don't seem to realize is that if those preexisting sanctions were altogether abolished, it would be an imposition - among other things. Since Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, the rules are there on the basis of His Incarnation - in the form of being simply sustained from the past and transfigured into a whole new meaning. They are in a very real sense no longer rules or laws because our end is not in them, but in Jesus. Because of Jesus' Incarnation, everything of and about the human person, except sin, has been so identified with God - identified to the point of actual incarnation - that everything human takes on an immense and exquisite importance. Not to mention delicate and joyful importance. Man is a sacrament.

Thus, there is a sense in which the true freedom we want is to be found in the Church precisely because she covers all these details about the life of man while at the same time not being bound to them (the rules) as though they were her, and our, end. To repeat from before, the fact that the Church has these prohibitions in actual fact testifies that she does not infringe on one's personal freedom; but she would be infringing on one's personal freedom if she somehow excised the rules and merely minted us with our end. She leaves to us this inescapable notion that the way to true freedom begins where we recognize where we are shackled. Some would say the Church shackles people, merely because the Church addresses all these things that shackle us. The prohibition of contraception is nothing but a perfect thing (as far as prohibitions go). For contraception is nothing but a prohibition. (It would be superfluous to note how ironic it is that a person complains that the Church wants to infringe upon and imprison one's freedom with regards to her stance on contraception - contraception which is the act of putting constrictive, infringing devices around the gift of sex - but well, there it is)

What if, while eating at the breakfast table, you had a curiosity about what 'your horoscope' had to say in the newspaper, which happened to be open at the horoscopes page? Say you had a curious impulse to read just for fun - as though it were no more than say, perusing the comic strips. Would you think it rather extreme if you were told that such an impulse came from the 'dark side'; that it was very much a real temptation to be resisted, and if not resisted, a sin?

Aided by the mediocrity and lack of standard surrounding us (indeed, the imposition of non-standards), we find that when it comes to our own experience, we isolate it, in what is a kind of reverse hypocrisy: we give it the "humble" aspect of having no importance, of having no ramifications. This is one of the main causes of peoples' depression, or nagging emptiness; it is not the recognition of the sin and ensuing repentance that is a cause of depression, but the sustained inability to come to grips with it. The sustained inability to see sin as sin is a virulent cause of depression today. In short, unreality. I throw a baseball through a pane of glass…and maybe the glass was made to break; after all, that's what glass does - it breaks. Recall Chesterton's words about how when he was told, yes, he was right, he felt horrible, but the minute he was told he had been wrong, he leapt for joy.

Where does one encounter the spiritual world if not at the breakfast table? In the addressing of such miniscule details begins either our path to truth and freedom, or begins our path of subjective rationalizations. And we are always beginning. How many are there today, who, when you say the word "spiritual", actually think, That which is more real than this world and which actually gives this world material form? Not many. Most are actually inclined to think of it as the reverse. Many tend to associate the ethereal and vague with the word "spiritual", like something produced entirely by ourselves - like gas. But it is here where the Church becomes distinctly clear-cut and not vague.

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future.48 Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone. 2116

First thing of note is the assigning of horoscopes (those seemingly glorified fortune cookies) in the same section that addresses divination and "recourse to Satan, demons, conjuring up the dead…" While certainly horoscopes are not in the same intensely dark league as "recourse to demons", especially when read for passing entertainment, horoscopes are, in the Catechism, unmistakably placed right alongside all those other much darker things. It is not what you would call a good thing. Then there is the unabashed language itself: "…all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers." (emphasis mine)

Aside from the thoroughness and straight-up manner in which such things are addressed in the paragraph, the word conciliate jumps out at me. Some definitions of conciliate:

To overcome the distrust or hostility of; placate; win over: to conciliate an angry competitor

To win or gain (goodwill, regard, or favour)

To become agreeable or reconciled

To overcome the distrust or animosity of; appease

To regain or try to regain (friendship or goodwill) by pleasant behaviour

To make or attempt to make compatible; reconcile

To gain or try to gain someone's friendship or goodwill

Cause to be more favourably inclined; gain the good will of

Come to terms

Make (one thing) compatible with (another)

Hidden powers. There is in everyone this wish to appease. To win over people (or the unseen forces from people) who would otherwise dislike us, or seem to. One of the things that play in this is the worship of our self. The obsessing over whether we are liked by someone is to 'consult our horoscope', and see what it says about our self. What condiment are you? What does your taste in food say about you? Take our quiz. What art era are you? Take our quiz. Just fill in the blanks and we'll tell you what kind of person you are. I want the full scoop on myself; tell me doc, hold nothing back. Please God, let the diagnosis consist of more than ten syllables. I couldn't bear anything less. The wish to conciliate hidden powers. The actual consulting of horoscopes is but a form (a rather pathetic form) of practising this 'conciliation'.

If that were not clear about where the Church stands in her belief in the realm of spirit, and the Church's place in it, testifying that this reality we call a spiritual world is conveyed through its being a literal war, going on right now, there is the next section:

All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity. 2117

"…by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion". I quote this not as pertaining to horoscopes specifically but for the language. Note how much the Church believes in the objective reality of this subject. There's no generality here; no making it fuzzy by declaring it a lot of fickleness; no pietistic incompetence about the reality of the darkness. It is the language of one, a soldier perhaps, coming in from the noisy battle lines, with injuries perhaps, and, being on his way to get healing, doesn't mince his words to the bystanders who ask him for a little information about what is going on out there.

Her declarations of truth (in the case of this essay, merely the declarations in the form of negative prohibitions) about the matters of this world have a precursor of revealed truth about that world which gives this world material form: the spiritual world, which is continually intersecting and penetrating this world. And she announces again and again, much to the chagrin of others who want their quietism: "There is a mighty war going on between the angels of heaven and the demons of hell; but be assured hell will not prevail". And in the words of Pope John Paul II:

I would like to remind everyone of a basic principle of faith: prior to and beyond our projects there is a mystery of love which surrounds and guides us: the mystery of God’s love. If we want to give good direction to our life, we must learn to discern its plan, by reading the mysterious "road signs" God puts in our daily history. For this purpose neither horoscopes nor fortune-telling is useful. What is needed is prayer, authentic prayer, which should always accompany a life decision made in conformity with God’s law. (Angelus address, Sept. 6, 1998)

There we come to what was also addressed in the sections from the Catechism: the mystery of God's love. Again, from section 2116, after listing all those 'divination' things (like horoscopes) we ought not to do, says: They contradict the honour, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

This is the most important in understanding the prohibition of horoscopes, and all the Church's prohibitions for that matter. Why do these things contradict the mystery of God's love? Or to put it another way: why do they have to contradict God's love? Why can't one read horoscopes and still not contradict God's love? Precisely because God's love has already given us the ways and means of attaining what we wish to attain when we read horoscopes.

The ways and means God has provided cost Him nothing less than His life - His only begotten Son. And His Son, being our very life, is intent upon and fascinated (in the most disinterested way) with the details of our very life - more than we typically are ourselves. No dichotomy.

Yet we act as though this uncomprehended Love was a mere matter of opinion or some kind of political difference and go ahead and do foolish things like read horoscopes or have our palms read or worse things, as though it were more conducive to who we are as human persons, who go about as people asleep in the depths of salvific history.

What an insult to the exposed, sacred heart of God. Do we understand that Christ makes Himself vulnerable in the Blessed Sacrament? Yet this is His power over our hearts: His practically imperceptible tenderness. When you see how masterfully Jesus abides in us when we receive the Blessed Sacrament, how he masters someone by making Himself dependent on that one, you see that when you stray away from this, it is a sin against Love itself. It is also an ugly expression of ingratitude. Compounded on this after a little time there rises fear. Fear that God is some bully wanting to nearly crush us like some overbearing and rigid father; one who wants to take away our fun and pastime comforts and our shelter.

Of course, in reading horoscopes the way most do, for 'entertainment', one doesn't commit an extremely grave offence on par with those committed by Satanists, who steal the Blessed Sacrament and desecrate it in their rituals. But make no mistake: it is a transgression; one that needs to be obliterated and washed away in the sacrament of confession - along with all our other offences.

I was working at a lawn and garden equipment store (a job which I quit after around two months) and one day the wife of my boss, who was also my boss, asked for my driver's license before I went with their truck to deliver an order to another equipment store, since it was my first time doing delivery. When I showed her my driver's license, she became interested in my birth date. I believe she said her birthday was October 27 or something, two days after mine, and with an interested bantering that I could tell was yet serious, she said with a kind of intentness, "So, you’re a scorpio too. That's good; you also bite." ("Bite" here was intended as the synonym for "sting", and not "bite" in its derogatory slang sense)

I could tell she put stock into such things, though it was fun-seeming. The thing is, though it was just a passing incident, it was quite an enormous temptation. A temptation to what, one might ask. Well, a temptation to pride. To selfishness. To vanity. Maybe we've heard these words too much before. Maybe try something else: To an untested, hermetically sealed complacency. Let's try another. To gazing into the mirror of the false self and glorying in one's own "personality". Let's try yet another. To conciliating 'oneself' through a manner that will never give it to one, while ignoring the undeserved and freely given manner in which one can conciliate oneself (confession). In other words, to things that lead one away from the cross. (This by no means is intended to mean that I live my life in full accord consistently with the cross; but, well, one is either being led closer to the cross, or away from it)

Pride? We picture pride in phantasmagoric shapes, overthrowing us like it does some guy climbing the echelons of privileged society in some mob movie. Where does pride occur but during such mundane seconds of everyday life and, in consistency with those everyday mundane seconds, in a form quite subtle, even homely, even passing? Such temptations can come about in the span of a few words. And they are indeed spiritual. All that old "monkish" talk of past saints, mystics, hermits and the like, about avoiding the ways of the world have something very vital to tell us. There is too often an artillery of flaying knives, flying spears and arrows in the everyday gabbing between folks.

You will notice the cross comes between things. One fellow in the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild, who is an experienced calligrapher and illuminator, and who funnily enough, made his past living as an enamel sign-maker, recounted an episode where he was involved for a day or so with some prison ministry. He was repulsed by the insincerity of the prisoners' feigning interest in being evangelized. They were all big smiles and enthusiasm, but retaining the full con-man awareness of the hardened inmate. And so, he was telling how much he wanted to get out of there, naturally being disgusted. It is of course necessary that prison ministry still do what they do, in spite of such things, because you never know, and besides, the ministry is not to be curtailed or shaped by immediate response. Anyhow, he strolled outside after some session to where the inmates were, who just a minute ago were 'being evangelized', and they were talking full tilt amongst themselves about their 'signs'. When he came in contact with their group they asked him what his 'sign' was. His initial disgust not yet being quelled, he said back in his Swiss accent, not without some indignation: "The sign of the cross!"

And that pretty much says it. Because that is our true sign. Not only that but it is the sign that preserves for us the very reality and nature of signs. Signs and symbols have a peculiar way of aggregating what they signify. Then there are the ultimate signs, the sacraments of the Church. They are signs that literally impart the reality they signify. Signs that are what they signify. There are seven of them:






Holy Orders

Anointing of the sick/dying

The cross before the riches; the riches through the cross; the cross opens the floodgates of riches; and the riches are made all the more rich through the fact that the cruciformed soul, being both enriched and crucified, does not hoard the riches lavished on it. The soul's partaking of those riches becomes of such a delicate, exquisite partaking, that the soul desires more and more this being cruciformed. It can take delight in the smallest of things, for the soul's ultimate desire is set in order: the desire for God. The soul desires a certain obliteration which is the opposite of suicidal nihilism, or quashing of the self; it is the desire of being fully small as one is and being lost in the depths of God. It is a desire of proportion taken to its ultimate end; the desire of the proper proportion of the creature in relation to God. This lived proportion is endless.

The beginning of this lived proportion cannot begin anywhere but where you are the worst, right in the concrete details of your life. For there lies our assurance that we will not try and set bounds to God's love, which is boundless. And the fact is that every one of us has in the depths of his or her heart, the seed of rebellion - the seed of rebellion which we, because of our fallibility and fallen state, inherently take to be normal, and which we normalize and rationalize. It doesn't matter that you’re a nice person. Niceness never has and never will be the final test of human behaviour. Plenty of nice people are nasty. Some will say that peoples' niceness is precisely where they are most nasty.

A person who guffaws the Church's statements on these matters most likely does not realize that the Church takes these signs, like horoscopes, more seriously than those who read them. Not only seriously as in the Church regards them as something that will draw people away from the truth, but seriously as in the Church regards them as an objective reality, as consequential and real as fire. If you are ever in doubt about one or other of the Church's teachings, remember this: at that very moment of your doubting, the Church believes more the reality of Satan than you do.

So, there are three basic things here: the Church in condemning the reading of horoscopes and other forms of divinization typically takes more seriously and objectively those things than does the sinner mired in them. Secondly, the really important thing to remember about the efficacy of such prohibitions is the Love of God, and that it is His love which offers us more than we can imagine, and being fully open to us, is open to offence, which is what we often commit against His Love. Thirdly, signs aggregate realities; some totally (sacraments), some in lesser but still significant manners, and our true sign is the sign of the cross; the sign of the cross contains God's Love (of the aforementioned second point), and renders real and readable all other signs placed in our way, as opposed to not seeing objectively their reality as mentioned in the above-mentioned first point.

Being in this way entails humility towards signs and their real significances. This gives way to a humble approach to the deepness of reality, an approach imbued with awe. We take care then, in our contact with seemingly insignificant signs; we will be that much more unclouded in our perceptions.

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