Looking Forward

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent. St. Anthony of Padua Church, Brampton, ON
(to be published at Lifeissues.net)

Deacon Doug McManaman

            The gospel today is not easy to interpret, but I think it is correct to say that it is and was relevant to everyone who has read it and will read it. This means that it does not just refer to events of the 1st century, such as the destruction of Jerusalem–otherwise it is not relevant to us–, nor does it only refer to the period that marks the end of the world–which means it would not have been relevant for those in the first, second, third, fourth centuries, etc. This gospel says: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.”

            What is this mysterious “day” that he speaks of here? It is the “day” of eternity. Eternity is a single day that is forever; it is the “day” when eternity breaks into history and history breaks into eternity. And so, it refers to a number of things. It refers to Christmas, in which the eternal Son of God entered into history; it refers to Easter when the eternal Son of God rose from the dead, and it refers to the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ, and of course it refers to the end of our own individual lives. 

            Christianity is forward looking. The Kingdom of God has been established by Christ in this world, and it began as a tiny seed, but it continues to develop and grow throughout history as individual human beings permit Christ to reign over their lives. Christ’s kingdom entered this world at Christmas, when he joined a human nature to himself, that is, when he became flesh. A king is born, and if he is a king, he has a kingdom. A king also goes to war to firmly establish that kingdom, and Christ came in order to defeat in battle the one enemy that no earthly king could defeat, namely death, and the paschal mystery is that defeat (Good Friday and Easter Sunday). He entered into death in order to inject it with his divine life, and his resurrection is his victory over death. And so, Christmas looks forward towards Easter; for Christmas takes place during the darkest and coldest days of the year. We have to endure the darkness and cold of late December, as well as the cold of January and February, but light and heat always follow the darkness and cold. December 25th is precisely the day when it is possible to notice that the days are beginning to get longer, gradually getting lighter and warmer as we move towards Easter. 

            But just as Christmas looks towards the victory of Easter, at the same time we today look towards the victory of Christ’s Second Coming, when time will come to an end and he will usher in the fullness of the kingdom of God. It’s precisely that end that gives meaning to human history. If time were not to come to an end, history would have no meaning; for it is always the ending of a novel that gives the story its ultimate meaning, which is why we’re anxious to get to the end when we are reading a good book. I find nothing more frustrating than those Netflix series that just continue on and on, without any hint of a resolution–I feel I’m being strung along and manipulated in order to keep me watching. If I sense that this is just an artificial prolongation, I’ll stop watching. It’s the end that gives meaning to all that goes before, and without an end, it is all meaningless. 

            The meaning of human existence is precisely that Second Coming of Christ, the day that Christ ushers in the kingdom of God in its fullness. And so, Christ commands us to be vigilant, to stay awake, to pray, to beware that our hearts do not become drowsy from being so focused on the goods of this world that we no longer look forward, that we no longer look ahead, and thus lose awareness of the shortness and brevity of our existence. Because life is short. Every day is really 24 hours closer to the grave than the day before. And when we become aware of our own death, life becomes less burdensome and more enjoyable. My final 20 years of teaching were at a high school in which the chapel was on the 2nd floor, just at the top of the main staircase, and at the bottom of the same staircase going down from the 3rd to the 2nd floor. And on both walls beside the chapel doors are the pictures of those students who died while they were students at the school. There are about 10 students there, each one looking at all of us as we climb or descend the staircase. I used to tell my students that when you see them, smiling at you from the other side, just remember that they’re saying: “You might be next”. I used to get quite a reaction out of my students when I said that; they are just not used to thinking about their own death; they find that repugnant.

            But the irony is that when we come to terms with the fact that we are going to die, that our life here is brief and fleeting, we begin to experience a joy that we would otherwise miss. Our eyes are opened to the richness and beauty of the present moment. The result is we stop wasting our present moments. The more detached we become from the world, the more we are able to enjoy the world around us. If we covet the goods of this world, if we become anxious to acquire more and more, we lose our own peace of mind and life becomes burdensome. 

            So let us continue to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming. We have no idea when the end of history will be, but we do know our own end is relatively near. Whatever sacrifices we make in this life for the sake of eternal life will be returned to us in the end anyways, and it will be returned one hundredfold, so there is no need to be anxious. People are anxious when they are afraid that their lives or their livelihood will be taken away. Well, the fact is we are going to lose everything we have; everything will be taken away. It has to be. We cannot rise to eternal life unless we die to this world. And the sooner we begin dying to this world in the hope of the fullness of the kingdom of God, the sooner will the joy of heaven begin now. 

Adele and some fundamentals about love

(to be published at Lifeissues.net)
Douglas P. McManaman

On the 14th of November of this year (2021), Adele put on a One Night Only special concert at the Griffith Observatory in Hollywood, which earned more than 10 million viewers. There were some interesting ironies in this; for all of Hollywood’s talk of inclusivity and its aversion to anything that smacks of exclusivity, this outdoor concert was only for the invited, which included the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Selena Gomez, Drake, Ellen DeGeneres, Gordon Ramsay, Seth Rogen, Tyler Perry, Lizzo, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Nicole Richie, etc. I tried to see if the uninvited “plebeians” were at least permitted onto the trails behind and around the Observatory to listen, but the trails appeared to be empty. Nonetheless, it was her interview with Oprah that was aired intermittently during the televised concert that was particularly distressing. In that interview, she spoke of her “unhappiness” and of her divorce from Simon Konecki. She had made the point earlier in her interviews with British and American Vogue that neither of them did anything wrong, that neither of them hurt one another,[1] and she pointed out to Oprah that she still loves Simon very much; but, she said, she is no longer “in love”. 

Why is this disconcerting? There are certain very basic truths that young people need to understand well, one of the most important of which is that love is not a feeling; rather, love is an act of the will. Emotion and will are two essentially different kinds of appetites. Because the human person is a “rational animal”, there are two kinds of love in the human person that correspond to the two distinct appetites: 1) love on the level of the emotions, and 2) love on the level of the will. The former we have in common with animals, and this involves loving something or, God forbid, someone, primarily for what it/him/her does for me; i.e., I love chocolate, not for the good of the chocolate, but for what it does for me–makes me feel good. But the specifically human kind of love, which the Greeks knew as agape, involves “willing the good of another for the other’s sake”. Romantic love, or eros, is fundamentally emotional; it is the passionate attraction between two people–hence, the origin of the word ‘erotic’. Conjugal or married love, on the other hand, is a type of agape. What establishes a marriage are not “feelings”, but a freely given consent or act of the will–it is a decision to give oneself entirely to another exclusively and totally, that is, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, until death severs the union. The implication here is that there are periods in married life when one does not “feel” like continuing in the relationship. A person’s love is challenged when his or her spouse is sick, perhaps sick with cancer and has lost hair or possibly more, or when both are getting on in age and do not look as attractive as they might have in their younger days, or when the couple is going through very difficult and trying situations that put a tremendous strain on the relationship, etc. Romantic love is not strong enough to act as the foundation for such a total commitment, because romantic love is temporary. One of the best chapters ever written on the nature of romantic love comes from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled. He writes: 

Of all the misconceptions about love the most powerful and pervasive is the belief that “falling in love” is love or at least one of the manifestations of love. It is a potent misconception, because falling in love is subjectively experienced in a very powerful fashion as an experience of love. When a person falls in love what he or she certainly feels is “I love him” or “I love her.” But two problems are immediately apparent. The first is that the experience of falling in love is specifically a sex-linked erotic experience. We do not fall in love with our children even though we may love them very deeply. We do not fall in love with our friends of the same sex—unless we are homosexually oriented—even though we may care for them greatly. We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated. The second problem is that the experience of falling in love is invariably temporary. No matter whom we fall in love with, we sooner or later fall out of love if the relationship continues long enough. This is not to say that we invariably cease loving the person with whom we fell in love. But it is to say that the feeling of ecstatic lovingness that characterizes the experience of falling in love always passes. The honeymoon always ends. The bloom of romance always fades.[2]

It is typical of adolescence to expect romantic love to last forever, but if we reflect on our own emotional experiences, we notice that the various emotional loves that we experience in our lives are always fleeting and eventually “get old”. Only agape love is enduring and humanly-divinely meaningful, for it is freely chosen–we do not choose to “fall in love”–, and agape is sacrificial and fundamentally selfless. There is nothing heroic about “falling in love” with someone, but to will the good of another and work to achieve that good, regardless of how one feels, all throughout a life that has its share of difficult and trying moments, is truly heroic. If young people graduate from high school without a firm grasp of these basic truths and are allowed to remain under the illusion that married love is essentially “romantic” (erotic, emotional) in nature, we should expect to see a continued decline in marriage with all its social repercussions, which in all likelihood directly impact teachers much more than those of any other profession.  

Another important revelation for young people that came out of Adele’s interview with Oprah was her admission that she was unhappy. This is a woman who is universally admired as one of the best voices of all time, a woman who has more money than the vast majority of us will ever see in our lifetime, who can purchase almost anything that money can buy, and who is practically treated as a goddess wherever she goes, etc. The obvious implication is that happiness does not consist in money, wealth, financial security, comforts, pleasures, fame and honors, etc. Adele seems to understand that happiness has something to do with love, but she conflates authentic love with the experience of “falling in love” and expects romantic love to endure. 

Once again, however, a very basic principle of the moral life is that happiness is virtue, not pleasure, honors, fame and power. Moreover, genuine love is channelled through virtue; for it is the virtues that dispose the emotions to follow the demands of reason, and the emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason. When the emotions are so governed, they become more fully what they are intended to be, and the result is that the virtuous person is much more passionate than he or she otherwise would be. It is for this reason that happiness is difficult to achieve–because virtue is difficult. If happiness were as easy as falling in love, and if romantic love were permanent as young people tend to believe it to be, we’d be living in heaven on earth. But happiness is work, it is an achievement, a moral achievement, one that is rooted ultimately in the will, not the emotions. When a married person is no longer ‘in love’, that’s when the difficult work of genuine love begins–unless of course one turns one’s back on one’s spouse in the pursuit of adolescent excitement. 

Genuine love, and thus real joy, demands an “exit of self”. Consider that the word ecstasy is derived from the Greek word ekstasis, which means ‘to stand outside of oneself’. That is why those who are inordinately preoccupied with themselves, that is, with their body image, with how they are feeling at every moment of every day, with their own personal state of happiness, etc., are always unhappy. But the more a person exits the self in a self-forgetting posture of genuine agape love of others, the more that person finds himself, or herself, and marriage is precisely that context in which the conditions for a continuous exit of self are established. If the highest and most noble kind of love were romantic love, marriage would be the last place to secure the conditions of its continuance. That is why when love was identified with eros in the period of the late 60s and 70s, marriage went on the decline, and rapidly so. Adele says she’s been on a journey to find her true happiness ever since, but hopefully the majority of those ten million viewers understand that we only really find our true happiness when we no longer search for it, but forget about it, and focus on willing, despite our feelings, the true good of others, first and foremost our own spouse. 

Notes

1. Christina Montford. “Adele Reveals the Real Reason She Got Divorced”. <https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/adele-reveals-real-reason-got-divorced.html/> Showbiz Cheatsheet. Oct 8th, 2021. 

2. He writes: “Falling in love is not an act of will. It is not a conscious choice. No matter how open to or eager for it we may be, the experience may still elude us. Contrarily, the experience may capture us at times when we are definitely not seeking it, when it is inconvenient and undesirable. We are as likely to fall in love with someone with whom we are obviously ill matched as with someone more suitable. Indeed, we may not even like or admire the object of our passion, yet, try as we might, we may not be able to fall in love with a person whom we deeply respect and with whom a deep relationship would be in all ways desirable. This is not to say that the experience of falling in love is immune to discipline. Psychiatrists, for instance, frequently fall in love with their patients, just as their patients fall in love with them, yet out of duty to the patient and their role they are usually able to abort the collapse of their ego boundaries and give up the patient as a romantic object. The struggle and suffering of the discipline involved may be enormous. But discipline and will can only control the experience; they cannot create it. We can choose how to respond to the experience of falling in love, but we cannot choose the experience itself.

Falling in love is not an extension of one’s limits or boundaries; it is a partial and temporary collapse of them. The extension of one’s limits requires effort; falling in love is effortless. Lazy and undisciplined individuals are as likely to fall in love as energetic and dedicated ones. Once the precious moment of falling in love has passed and the boundaries have snapped back into place, the individual may be disillusioned, but is usually none the larger for the experience. When limits are extended or stretched, however, they tend to stay stretched. Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience. Falling in love is not. 

Falling in love has little to do with purposively nurturing one’s spiritual development. If we have any purpose in mind when we fall in love it is to terminate our own loneliness and perhaps insure this result through marriage. Certainly we are not thinking of spiritual development. Indeed, after we have fallen in love and before we have fallen out of love again we feel that we have arrived, that the heights have been attained, that there is both no need and no possibility of going higher. We do not feel ourselves to be in any need of development; we are totally content to be where we are. Our spirit is at peace. Nor do we perceive our beloved as being in need of spiritual development. To the contrary, we perceive him or her as perfect, as having been perfected. If we see any faults in our beloved, we perceive them as insignificant—little quirks or darling eccentricities that only add color and charm.

If falling in love is not love, then what is it other than a temporary and partial collapse of ego boundaries? I do not know. But the sexual specificity of the phenomenon leads me to suspect that it is a genetically determined instinctual component of mating behavior. In other words, the temporary collapse of ego boundaries that constitutes falling in love is a stereotypic response of human beings to a configuration of internal sexual drives and external sexual stimuli, which serves to increase the probability of sexual pairing and bonding so as to enhance the survival of the species. Or to put it in another, rather crass way, falling in love is a trick that our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive mind to hoodwink or trap us into marriage. Frequently the trick goes awry one way or another, as when the sexual drives and stimuli are homosexual or when other forces—parental interference, mental illness, conflicting responsibilities or mature self-discipline— supervene to prevent the bonding. On the other hand, without this trick, this illusory and inevitably temporary (it would not be practical were it not temporary) regression to infantile merging and omnipotence, many of us who are happily or unhappily married today would have retreated in wholehearted terror from the realism of the marriage vows.” The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. M.D.Touchstone Books. 1978. p. 84-90.

The Faith of Bartimaeus

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

https://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/mcm_360homily10.24.2021ordinarytime30.html

Deacon D. McManaman

            What always strikes me when I read this miracle story is Jesus’ question to the blind man, Bartimaeus. He repeatedly calls out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”, and he’s rebuked for doing so, and they try to silence him, which turned out to be counterproductive. And of course, Jesus heard him, because he tells them: “Call him”. The blind man leaves his cloak behind, which was personally valuable, so much so that by law a lender could not take possession of a person’s cloak as collateral, only his tunic. Bartimaeus leaves that behind and goes to Jesus. Furthermore, the blind man refers to Jesus as “Son of David”, in other words, Messiah. Also, he would not have witnessed any of Jesus’ miracles with his own eyes; he would only have heard about them. And that was enough for him. He believed that he was the son of David, the King of Israel, and he believed in the power of the son of David to heal him. That shows tremendous faith.

            But note the question Jesus asks: “What do you want me to do for you?”  Isn’t it obvious? Do we really think Jesus wasn’t sure what the blind man wanted? It was patently obvious. So why would Jesus ask? To make him say it. Come out and say it. And he was healed immediately when he did so. 

            This is a tremendous lesson on the power of faith. We would see many more miracles in our lives if we had the faith of this blind man. Most people today do not see miracles, because they don’t ask for them, and they don’t ask for them because they don’t really believe that God pays too much attention to them, that God really wants to permeate their lives with His joy, and so they don’t believe He would answer their prayer if they turned to Him. But all we have to do is believe that he has the power and will to heal our lives, and have the humility to ask Him, to beg for His mercy, like Bartimaeus.

            A fellow parishioner years ago had a serious stroke which landed him in the hospital, and I remember him telling me that when he was in a coma, he experienced a tremendous love surrounding him, an otherworldly love; he described it as being loved like the dearest brother, the most intense love for him that he’s ever felt directed to him. There is a rather thick veil that separates us from experiencing that love from the other side, from God and from the communion of saints. That love has been there from the first moment of our existence; for that love is the source and origin of our existence. But all we really know here in this broken world is the imperfect love of others, and it really is an imperfect and defective love, and it is the experience of this defective, inconsistent, and rather impure love that gives rise to that thick veil that blocks the radiance of this deep and divine love behind the veil. This life is about learning to be loved like that, that is, allowing ourselves to be embraced by the Father. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but the more we spend time with the Lord, the more we listen to Him in silence, the thinner that veil becomes, and the light of His love begins to seep through it. We begin to see what St. Catherine of Siena was able to see, that God loves each one of us as if there is only one of us, in the sense that we are the only one who exists for God to love. That is supposed to be what we experience from God; for although He does not have our undivided attention, we have God’s undivided attention at every instant of our existence. But as we spend more and more time with the Lord in silent prayer, the more we begin to see that we really do have his undivided attention, and thus God knows about the apparently insignificant matters of our lives, and they matter to Him as they matter to us, and so, we ought to take the liberty to ask Him to address these matters as well, confident that He will; for “nothing displeases Him more than cold reserve” (Father John Nicholas Grou, S.J.). 

            But when we pray a prayer of petition, we have to then leave it up to God. What some people do is they ask, but their asking is a test: “I will ask and see what happens”. Deep down underneath that sentiment is a faith that will depend on how God answers: “If He does not answer, I’m done with prayer”. But God knows the human heart, He knows what’s in the deepest regions of our own heart, more than we do. In fact, that deep region is often closed to us–we don’t really know ourselves at that level, but God does, and He will not answer prayer that is conditional. He waits, holds back, and when we then decide to rely on another source–because God did not act on our terms–, He allows us to go our own say. The result is we no longer rely on God for everything, which is why we see so few miracles in our lives. 

            What has to happen is that we resolve to trust and follow Him regardless of the outcome. God knows whether the answer to our prayer will bless us or curse us. Very often we pray for things that will, in the long run, destroy us by actually turning us away from God. And so, we have to pray with absolute trust, aware that God’s knowledge is not limited: “For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Is 55, 9). If God does not answer our prayer on our terms, it is because He knows better. His decision is always rooted in the very same love for you that was the very origin of your existence and the source that is sustaining you in existence at this very moment. This life is about coming to know that love, allowing ourselves to be loved as God wants to love us, and of course eventually channeling that love to others.