Occasional notes from online conversations and other informal contexts shared here in no systematic order but simply for upbuilding in Christ and the Church. By Timothy Lavenz
We are Blessed to Cooperate with God
Obeying God, though prayer and acts of service, using our talents and gifts to his purpose, brings a fullness and joy and expanse of heart unrivaled by any human success. Of course, in this world, anything short of total “self-determination” looks like a “sacrifice” of individual authenticity, and so such an idea is hard to accept. I lived under that illusion for a long time. I understand it. But I have come to know that we are most free where we are most dependent on God for our being – the more our work coincides with God’s will – whereas most view freedom as independence to do whatever one wants. However, there is no contradiction between being-oneself and being-in-God, in fact the two increase in direct proportion. There is a uniqueness of personhood that is only perfected as we come nearer to God and share in his being. And whatever one gives up to walk the path of Christ, is nothing in comparison to the life received. It is not a diminishment but a blessing to cooperate on earth with God, relying on the Holy Mystery in surrender, rather than thinking we decide what is, based on our own thoughts and our own will. Self-will is finally just a prison, a deceit; it is in emptying ourselves out in self-giving love that we are free.
Christ the Perfect Balance
What we see in Christ is every perfection perfected.
Christ is love – and truth.
Christ is mercy – and judgment.
Christ is forgiveness – and the call to repent.
He heals – but says: “Go, sin no more.”
He is grace to our weakness – and asks of us the most incredible courage.
Every other excellent figure displays one feature, but not all of them in a perfect balance.
Christ is humility – and boldness.
Christ is obedience – and power.
This makes our imitation of him even more difficult, and the need to trust him and learn from him that much greater.
Seeing the Form of Christ
To see the form of Christ means keeping everything in the frame as much as possible – the whole Christ. This will inevitably lead exegesis and theology to embrace mystery in its very form and approach, because the whole of God is ever-greater, and we have never grasped or comprehended Him. At the same time, it is only by embracing the fullness of His mystery that a true definitiveness, a definitive rule for the faith, can be achieved. Better yet: a true statement of faith that is united with the act of faith itself. For that is what we read preeminently in the saints: their saying is a doing, an existential act involving the whole person in response to God’s offer of eternal life. Faith is an act for all eternity, a conferance of myself into Him. The saint’s believing is not abstract or simply intended but an entrance into the life of the Triune God. And the Word of God is not merely words on a page but the power of God growing within, while the outer nature decays. By grace and cooperating self-consecration, the Gospel becomes a living reality in the saint’s soul, such that anyone who encounters them encounters it. Their presence on earth points to Christ in His Church. That is where the Church knows herself the spouse of Christ and a virgin for His sake, where the purity of an encounter with God is made completely concrete in a flesh and blood human being — and the “new creation” is not just a way of speaking or a far-off idea but a real thing.
All of humanity is to be remade in the image of the New Adam: that is the Church’s task and there is no greater. Find where this new creation is taught, exhorted, practiced, and realized, and you will find you are in the Catholic Church.
Encountering the Saints
I pray for all inquirers and prospective converts to have an encounter with the saints.
I think to understand the Catholic Church, it really helps to contemplate what it intends to nurture and has nurtured — saints. The reasons for the papacy, the reason for the Marian dogmas, the reason for the Eucharistic dogmas, etc etc — well one primary and foundational reason is to preserve the depth of _mystery_ for the faithful; it is to inculcate _holiness_ in sinful persons; it is to support and amplify _unending variety_ in devotion to God and Jesus Christ; it is to create an all-embracing culture of abundant life and complete joy. (At the very least, evaluating the Church’s workings on this basis would be helpful.)
Saints are models of holiness, models of imitating Christ which help us figure out how to imitate Him. They innovate ways which guide millions and transform the very life of the Church. Paul sets the tone with “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” We attach to saints, we learn from saints, we rely on our supernatural family because — we are sinners and need all the help we can get! The Church is like the earthly access road to the communion of saints in the fullest way possible. The purpose of the liturgy of the hours, of the orders and special charisms, of the different theological schools, of the vast bodies of devotional literature, etc — it’s all there to grow the Body of Christ in every way possible. “To be all things to all men, so that I might save a few.”
Oh, if I could only communicate to you the beauty and comfort of the Church’s “we believe” in its precision and expansiveness! Especially in our reception of the Eucharist, we experience: every mission is a mission in and for the whole Church. The personality of our response to God can and will find a home in the universal Church – this is so emboldening! The Church is the home for the deepest spiritual work imaginable – let’s do it!
Once you are approaching and inside the Church, you will understand this variety and also the beauty of it all being “bound together” (religion) and “handed over” (tradition) within the one Church. No, it is not always pretty, and the call to “Rebuild my Church” is constant. She is not a finished house but a construction project always returning to her foundation and cornerstone (Christ), her “source and summit” (Christ in the Eucharist). And furthermore, the Church is not only a Church of office (Peter) but a Church of love (John) and a Church of world-transformation (Paul). The “office” aspect is codified in concert with others, to foster them and be fostered in turn. It is the visible umbrella allowing millions to take shelter in the invisible and, from within that shelter, to love, sacrifice self, pray unceasingly, and consecrate everything to God’s glory.
I pray the Church fulfill all its vocations and that we are courageous enough to recognize the true scope of its mission/s. Ultimately only God can pierce this amazing plurality, this messiness, this temporal design, this motley allotment of gifts, and reveal its Spirit-given reality to us—its eschatological essence in Christ. It is through Him alone that we come to see how eternal life is alive in the Church; yet He communicates this with many and consistent spiritual touches from the living cloud of witnesses in heaven. (They are not always officially canonized!) Christ uses His servants and friends to reach us, because cooperation in love is how God wills it to be.
“Individual salvation” is a misnomer— we are recreated in the New Adam as part of one body, one spirit, one redeemed corporate humanity; or we remain divided and splintered apart, under the reign of sin and death in the Old Adam. Choose rather to be transubstantiated into the Kingdom of Christ! Let us take the road of the saints! – boldly, humbly, patiently, with God Himself, sustained by the power of His Mystery. (Otherwise, it is perhaps the case that we do not even know what we’re really referring to when we say “the Catholic Church.”)
“God is Love” changes Ontology
The statement that “God is love” has the power to totally revamp our ontologies. A thing “has being” through its participation in love. That is why what is evil finally has no existence. As Aquinas put it, “insofar as we are sinners we fail to be, and are not.” This non-being of sin and evil is of course a paradox, because it’s so painfully existent in this “evil age,” but in Christ God gives the pledge for us to believe that Love is victorious over sin and death. Aquinas’ statement there has the capacity to situate claims about Maya and the whole discourse about ignorance and delusion in the Indian tradition, while lending a strong notion of existence as participation in God’s being (in the triune life as a communion of essence in love), which gives the fullest definition of “liberation.”
As Rahner emphasizes, the very idea of creation reaches its culmination where God creates a free creature and that free creature freely says Yes to God. The fundamental ontological datum of our experience (insofar as we are spirits created for transcendence) is that we are derivative of God and free/independent. It cannot be resolved further. But in Christ we see the fulfillment (as you point out from Maximus in the interview): we are most free, most ourselves, where we are most dependent and reliant on God. As Rahner puts it, unlike with any worldly relation, here it is the case that self-possession and dependence increase in direct proportion. (Leading to the Pauline idea that the freedom of a Christian is to be a slave for Christ.)
The only Indian thinker I’m aware of who really does not compromise on issue of the created world is Sri Aurobindo. He rejects any doctrine of escape that would teach that all is illusion. He rejects Shankara, though he does find footing in Ramakrishna. For Aurobindo the world is not Maya but the place where consciousness evolves from lower to higher forms. The earth is where we are to realize the divine life. The principles of his yoga are 1) vigilant will and aspiration to be open to God, 2) rejection of the lower movements or anything at odds with truth (e.g. sin) and 3) surrender to grace and its work at every plane of our existence. It is no coincidence that he places the entire emphasis on entrusting oneself to the Mother, the Mahashakti who is the creatrix, protectrix and transformatrix of all (in that system).
Why follow Jesus?
Why do we need to follow Jesus? The need is manifold:
1- Humanity is fulfilled by honoring God and doing God’s will. Sin represents our failure to do this – including the failures of those who have been directly given God’s law. Humanity thus needs a corrective, a direct example, a palpable embodiment of what pleases God. In the incarnation of the person of Jesus, we believe that God’s will and human will achieves perfect unity, and so in Jesus we have an actual image of human fulfillment. Obedience to God is perfect in his case, and so we can look here to understand how to be perfect and holy ourselves. (If we set our own standard, we’ll get it wrong somewhere.) The words and teachings of Jesus, and even more potently his example of self-sacrifice out of love for God and neighbor, show us the way (or the way back) to truth, goodness, and God. (How each one “takes up one’s cross and follows him” will be unique and, very likely, a mystery to others, because here we have the model of a life lived entirely by dint of communion and communication with the Almighty God.)
2- Along with the Jesus’ example comes the support and encouragement of a Savior who says: you can be forgiven for what you’ve done wrong. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “I come not to condemn the world but to save it.” Humanity very easily falls under the weight of guilt over its own sin and failure. It very often just resigns itself to the darkness. So here is a steady light that promises forgiveness and new life to those sinners who take responsibility and change their ways. God’s verdict is not cruel, but ready to restore. But as you say, sin keeps plaguing us all the days of our life, so our need for repentance, conversion etc, never goes away; neither do the words of Christ. We can submit vulnerably to God, not fearing punishment, but trusting the promise of a total renewal. (Once this happens to you, or to the extent it happens to you, your amazement at the grace of God will never die.)
3- Pledge of victory in eternity – this is the meaning of the resurrection, which I cannot exhaust here. But basically, resurrection says: the bonds of love are stronger than the death, despite all appearances. It is a pledge that there is eternal life in God/love (through a sharing of God’s life which is love), even if the physical life is taken away. (“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalms 73:26) Jesus gives the courage to stand up in the face of endless falsehood and violence, and to hold the stance of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice and also truth, knowing that to live for God here on earth is to live in God forever (mysterious as this is). His promise is to be with us in those struggles, to remind us that the power of God rests upon the pure heart (See Matthew 5).
These impromptu statements of belief try to encapsulate gigantic issues, and I left out multiple points, but that would be the first sketch at answering a question which, truth be told, any genuine believer asks themselves every day.
Truth is Mystery “after all”
Truth is the reality of what is really the case – what we are, what we’ve meant, what it means that we’re going where were going and have been where we’ve been.
I can attest to imagining many things were true that proved to be false. Many compelling tracks that wound up in a dead-end. It happens after all: what we think fails us. We overestimate constantly what we come up with, thinking we have reinvented God. I say that without any condemnation but convict myself most of all of this awful fact.
So likewise, in what I believe about God today, if I did not continue to refine it and reenter it through prayer, surrender, study, moral reflection, and service, I would be betraying the truth, God, and myself. Because such a pattern would not hold. It might entertain or attract, but it will lose its salt. How many things have already lost their salt! Whatever I contrive is false compared to God. The wiser path is to submit to his mercy.
Ultimately, the truth is mystery. The Holy Mystery is and gives the truth. I come closer to truth when I confer myself to the Mystery of God, body, mind, soul and strength. “Faith seeking understanding” and “If you comprehend it, it is not God” go together. I just pray to be humble enough to know I don’t really know anything – so that I will stick as close as he allows to his Mystery, and God enter into my knowing “after all.”
Moral Crisis in America
I’m all for reform at level of guns, mental health, fairer treatment under law, improved access to healthcare, and so on–but today we are facing a moral crisis. There is a breakdown in the fabric of trust and meaning between people. I believe this stems from the error of “voluntarism”: the idea that it is my will that can dictate how things are, how reality operates. But we cannot just design the world the way we want it! We cannot think “my way or the highway” and construct a society. All you get from that is division, pride, violence, greed, and death. “God” is rejected by many, but let’s make it simple: we come to know “God” when we do what is right and good (Jm 4:17). God is there where we love others, serve others, think of others first, while also standing firm for moral truth. Our inner voice of conscience is created and informed by God. If we quiet down, we can turn inward and pray to God from that inner place. There is strength and guidance there for every circumstance.
My heart breaks for the victims of so many tragedies in our country, and I hope for the full extent of justice and to fix all the social elements that we can. But let us not forget the soul issue, which is a deeper, long-term battle. It is the devil who takes control of these young men and turns them to destruction and violence as the answer to their pain. The more we push out God of our culture, the less we reverence the sacred dignity of each human person, the worse things will get. Please pray and encourage others to pray, along with all the efforts of reform. Let’s rediscover the godly conscience of our nation before we go the way of Cain.
Personhood is not Ego
Ego is what results when the relationship between creature and Creator is ignored, disrespected, severed, such that the being created to be free in God’s being becomes a being free only for its own self-will. The latter is the illusion the East speaks of, and the Christian West would agree. Self-will ends in delusion, destruction, abyss, and why? Because anything severed from reality is not real (and if it seems to be, won’t be real for very much longer).
Where East and West seem to differ is on what is left or what is restored once this faulty ego is out of the way or dissolved or its obstinacy of death in some way mitigated. The East tends to go in one of two directions, either to monist identification with the Self, or to thoroughgoing liquidation of self into an impersonal arising.
The West, for its part, wishes to affirm that what is left is what was created in the first place – a free being created in freedom in a free relationship to God. (Such a being is very clearly not self-generated.) When these two freedoms (finite and infinite freedom) agree, align, confer, the very idea creation is realized: a being freely using its freedom to say Yes to God (whereas ego implicitly or explicitly says No). Then the creature is real, the Creator is known to be real, and “reality” is the acceptance, the letting-be of their relation (this is the very fecundity of love). The mystery of personhood finds itself “at home” in the mystery of God.
For persons always exist in and as an interrelation of persons in love. That is our being created in the image of God. When the person is cut down by materialism and economics and rivalry (etc: “the world”) to the “individual,” what you get is an isolated and autonomous and self-choosing thing severed from the communion of love that alone would give it a meaning, purpose, and dignity that lasts. (We know this love and can respond to it, because we were first loved.)
It seems so very hard to see, but really it is so simple. We exist in and from and for the love of God and other people. If we don’t “do” that, “live” that, we won’t exist. For all the rest is vanity, vanity, vanity (and worse).
Good Use for Meditation
With Buddhist meditation, at least as it’s been received in the West, we are generally non-interventionist: we simply watch our thoughts without judgment, following the breath or focusing on a simple object, and let the thoughts unwind and come to rest.
I personally don’t see this method as incompatible with Christian spirituality, as long as we do it with an orientation to God, knowing that we are “enlightened” not by our effort but by His grace. By silenting the mind and clearing away the mental junk, we are in a better position to hear and receive the Lord. And we are freer to aspire after him with our whole heart. Plus, one can always put up a Christian picture and symbol and focus on them in a way that transcends thought.
The crucial difference comes when we get to the philosophy and theology. In Christian meditation, we are not trying to dissolve the self or analyze the mind or see the emptiness of things. We are trying to surrender our hearts to God, so we can do His will more perfectly. We are trying to come closer to God, so yes we go inward; but we also lift ourselves up and out to Him. And all this by His grace, not as our own spiritual feat.
At the limits of our meditation, we do not find an illusory reality or a voidness, we do not escape from the world, rather we find God’s glory in creation and commit to His work of salvation on earth. We find ourselves entering ever deeper into the Mystery of the Holy One, God Most High, and we tremble with gratitude for His gift of eternal life.
Christianity is not monistic
“Everything is One Thing”: there’s a number of other religions that teach this realization as the goal of spirituality or the conclusive ultimate reality, but in my judgment (having become familiar with said religions) it flies in direct contradiction to everything that the Gospel and Christ stand for.
Above all, the teaching about personhood and love. If there is no I-Thou, ‘love’ is just a conventional reality, not real love. The uniqueness of the Christian conception of God is to have found the I-Thou in eternity: love among persons at the heart of the Godhead itself. As Edith Stein put it:
[Love] is giving of the self to a thou, and in its perfection it is a being-one that is founded on mutual self-giving [Selbsthingabe]. And because God is love, divine being must be the being-one of a plurality of persons, and the divine name “I am” is thus equivalent to an “I give myself wholly to a Thou,” an “I am one with a Thou,” and therefore also with a “We are.” (Eternal and Finite Being, VI.4.5)
Similarly, Paul’s statement that in the future age God’s being will be “all in all” does not lead to the conclusion that everything will be reduced to One Thing. This seems a rather primitive way of looking at it. Faced with the pain of existence, humanity fantasizes a retrogression to the undifferentiated as ‘solution’ to the problem, but ultimately, this just glorifies the dissolution of boundaries, distinctions, forms, names, persons, created reality as such – monism leads to erasure of everything in the One.
But God has proven, in Christ, that He can become in what is not God. The Word became flesh. God does not take back his project of creation, he redeems it by giving Himself to it, inviting it to participate in His Life.
The idea that we started from an undifferentiated unity and that we’re falling towards that again in some sort of ultimate perishing into a Oneness is a pretty idea in a superficial way, but it’s discarding a whole lot of holiness and Mystery and gorgeousness that God has actually provided in existence.
Perhaps others do not have as much familiarity with the many brands of monism in other philosophies and religions, thus making such grandiose statements sound attractive. I would just caution the Christian in such delights, as they might thereby liquidate their own faith.
Personhood vs Monism
Personhood is the most beautiful thing God creates, yet so many religious doctrines seek to liquidate it, dissolve it, confuse it, relativize it, conventionalize it. That is by and large the modus operandi of monism, which comes in a thousand stripes. Not to mention modern individualism, which profanes personhood to the point of banality and absurdity, reducing it to a monism of social-biological function and consumption. A nihilist monism of evasion and immediacy that the traditional monisms risk feeding with the promise of enlightenment now. I believe we must be on guard against the temptation of mystic monism and defend the Christian doctrine of personhood, along with our sense of the precious YES that God says to HIS creation, from all its enemies and silencers.
Trinitarianism vs. Monism
Theology is not restricted to monism or an avatar of the One. The central Christian mystery is not monistic but trinitarian. Long before philosophers of difference and the relational ontologist, there is a thinking of unity in the plurality of the Trinity, of self-expression into and before and for the Other, of relationship of persons as consisting within the one divinity (disproving any notion that what’s at stake here is a numerical one). Not only that, (in) the Trinity is the eternal event of giving and receiving, of sending and returning, of offering and acceptance, of infinite proximity over infinite distance, of creation through self-emptying, to name just a few themes. It is sometimes hard to swallow critics of theology and their ‘all-binding’ rhetoric when they have not even gone so far as to read and engage something as fundamental as the Creed or, simpler yet, the statement “God is love,” which in itself implies a relation between persons (since that is what love is) and has not just gone away because a few philosophers have rejected their own truncated idea of God.