Freedom and the Good (and the Now)

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With what force do previous lessons return to me today! How enthusiastic I was once about the daily, practical pursuit of holiness. How I reveled at the beauty and importance of the single day – the idea that one faithful day was of priceless value and that is was precisely the loss of this knowledge amidst cares and concerns that so paralyzed the spiritual journey. How loudly I wanted to speak, nay preach, about the immense value of one day holy. I wanted to write blogs, make videos, teach courses, write books.

Today, as I set out on the ocean that is Scheed’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions, all in a flash I realize the presence of a thought, persistant as a drumbeat, that has been in my head these recent days (weeks, months, years?) – what good is the now?

What good is this action without the surety it will be repeated? What good is today without a plan for tomorrow? What good is this thought or inspiration if it is not remembered? Written down? Communicated? Shared? Recognized and appreciated? (Shown off?)

How long have I been in lost in this thought? How many days have passed by far more quickly than they ought? What an immeasurable loss.

I see now, too, that my old habit of comfort-seeking had returned in a new disguise and has taken me long to unmask. In an earlier stage of life, this vice needed no cover, for it was allowed openly and consciously. My time, I thought, was my own, and after perhaps giving the bare minimum to my duties, I would fill and compose every moment with my whims and desires.

As duties increased, leaving less room for whim and desire to play, I see now that even amongst my duties, amongst the normalities and inanities of domestic life, I fell again into the habit of doing the good I want rather than the good I ought, choosing according to my preference rather than according to what is best. I worked, but first and primarily on the things I enjoyed and which returned quick satisfaction and feedback. I prayed and studied, but only when the need arose and only at times and in manners that pleased me. I loved but only when so doing was pleasant and rewarding.

Day after day I felt more powerless to choose rightly, for I deluded myself into thinking my choices were anything other than according to my own whim.

I see now the full, terrifying truth that Wojtyla discussed in Love and Responsibility. Does man have free will? Only, ultimately, in moral choices. All others will contain all or some part of necessity following from biology, society, desire, etc. Only the moral choice offers man the opportunity to step outside the stream of causes and influences, to choose something, perhaps something unutterably difficult, simply because it is right or because it has been commanded by one who it is right to unconditionally obey.

For a time my adherance even to my simple rule of life faltered. After a time it failed. Days passed and I would enter into daily life running, tripping, but not living, certainly not choosing in any very meaningful sense. Did I fight back against my sloth? Against my descent into the bindings of comfort and pleasure? As the bonds pulled tighter, reinforced by daily practice, I certainly told myself and others that I fought them. But what form did my resistance take? I see so clearly now: I simply moved to different comforts, different pleasures. In every area of my life, I neverthless chose the most desirable rather than the most right.

Even those mornings that would arise early in an effort to recall by imitation my earlier fervor, yet in my heart I only chose what I believed would bring comfort, bring release, bring lightening to my melancholy, bring ease to my conscience. Why was I surprised or disappointed to find that displaced or redirected self-will was still self-will? That a change of setting or content could not change my captive will?

Strange to think that one can, ultimately, only lose one’s free will to one’s self. The more my will has become my own, the more it has waned. The more my will has become my own, the more I have felt at the mercy of my whims, my passing and immediate desires. The more my will has become my own, the more all my best plans, hopes, dreams, resolutions, and promises have slipped from my grasp a moment after their conception. How loose the grasp has become on my very self, my very identity, the more I have practiced a continual and near complete self-willing.

And now here I find myself. Three days ago, in the morning, I arose again, early, determined, so I thought, to make a new start of study, of reflection, of growth, of work. If only I could return to my routine, my plans, my devices, if only I could think for a moment…if only I could work things out in my mind…

And all at once, I hear those soft creaks, those soundless murmers that signal the waking of my family. Oh no! Are my efforts to be frustrated yet again?

On this morning, in a flash, it occurred to me that I had a very simple choice to make before the day proceeded.

I saw that I had been looking at everything through the lense of my desires. All my family duties, spousal interactions, professional responsibilities, academic endeavors, and even my spiritual life, had been begun to be looked at, evaluated, measured, and chosen according to me. It was not that I had ceased doing/choosing good things, but rather that always and everywhere I chose the good things I wanted precisely because I wanted them. It mattered little, after a time, that in many or most cases my choices lined up with the actual good or God’s will.

Thus the subtlest, simplest of choices lay in front of me: obedience to God or obedience to self.

And now with all the prodding the memories and clarities begin to fade. I know simply this: at the moment I realized the bondage of my self-will, I made the simplest, subtlest resolution: I will simply expect, accept, do, and embrace the next right thing. Today will be a day for others and for God. Whenever a choice arises, my standard of evaluation will be thus.

And now how things have fallen, gently, peacfully back into place. All at once, how free, how frighteningly free I feel. Suddenly, with its relinquishment, my will is again mine. My self is again my own, to squander or to lay at the feet of my Lord.

The thought of how easily I have squandered my freedom before haunts me. It is the thought by which I have been recalled to that simple reflection: one day holy, one day holy. I needn’t and mustn’t worry for tomorrow or even tonight, but only for NOW.

I have grace, I have freedom, I have now. I choose the good.

“I will be good though my body be broken!
I will be good though my body be broken!
I will be good, may I want for nothing at all.”

– Typhoon

Home for a Hermit – Introducing “Friends of the Little Portion Hermitage”

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Kevin Lowry, William Newton, and I have started a non-profit organization to raise money to buy and/or build a hermitage to house my good friend, colleague, and mentor, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, and others who may succeed him in this vocation. Our organization is entitled “Friends of the Little Portion Hermitage”. Please take a moment to read the following blog post from our president, Kevin Lowry:

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Br Rex This is Brother Rex Anthony Norris, or Br. Rex for short. He’s a hermit.

Yes, a real, live hermit.

So what does a hermit do? Well, suffice it to say that what is referred to as the eremitic life is a vocation, and has to do with what the Church calls assiduous prayer.

He prays. A lot.

Br. Rex is something of a walking contradiction. You might reasonably think that a hermit experiences some level of solitude as part of his (or her) vocation (yes, there are women hermits too). And you would be correct.

What doesn’t show up on paper, though, is that the guy is a total crack up. He’s hysterically funny, with a tremendous sense of humor and thoroughly infectious laugh. Simultaneously, he’s a deeply committed prayer warrior, who spends countless hours in intercessory prayer and takes his vocation extremely seriously.

You definitely want to be on this guy’s prayer list.

In knowing Br. Rex for the past couple years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called when things were rough, knowing he would take my prayer requests to his daily Holy Hour and hold them before our Lord. In fact, my debt of gratitude became so great, that a couple friends (the esteemed Jon Marc Grodi and Billy Newton) and I started a non-profit organization called Friends of Little Portion Hermitage to “support the worship of God, the eremitic life, Christ-centered solitude, contemplative silence, intercessory prayer and the spiritual works of mercy.”

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Our vision is very much in line with the above: “Through the generosity of our donors, Friends of Little Portion Hermitage seeks to provide for the temporal needs of Little Portion Hermitage and the hermit who resides there. We believe consecrated life to be essential to the spiritual well-being of the Body of Christ, most especially the witness of those in consecrated life whose lives give first place to prayer for the glory of God, the good of the Church and the salvation of the world.”

So here’s where you come in. Br. Rex was lamenting to me the other day that he hasn’t received many prayer requests through the website we set up, littleportionhermitage.org – and that’s an opportunity.

At the same time, Friends of Little Portion Hermitage would like to purchase a modest hermitage for Br. Rex and his successors. Thankfully, he lives in a part of Maine where land and buildings are inexpensive, but we still need at least $50,000 to make things livable – even for a hermit.

Would you help us? Please stop by littleportionhermitage.org and send Br. Rex your prayer requests. It will make him happy, and these intentions will be treated with the utmost respect and confidence.

Also, if you can afford to make a donation towards the home for a hermit project, we would appreciate it ever so much. Let’s keep Br. Rex in prayer – and facilitate his prayers for us. Thank you for your support!

Special note: We’re happy to announce that Br. Rex will be appearing on EWTN’s The Journey Home program on Monday, April 7 at 8:00 p.m. EST. Hear the story of Br. Rex’s conversion to Christ and His Church!

(Article reproduced with author’s permission. Originally published at http://gratefulconvert.com/hangin-with-a-hermit/)

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For more information on Br. Rex, please see:

http://chnetwork.org/2014/02/interview-with-brother-rex

 

You Have Nothing Better To Do

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In my recent post “Discernment and the Hard, Long, Right Road Beneath Your Feet” I pointed out that as we discern what to do with our lives, since God never intends us to reach some good end via evil means, we can rule out options, however attractive, which seem to necessitate blameworthy shortcuts. Either we have been deceived (from within or without) about the actual goodness of the good we have in mind, or it is indeed a good, but not one we are being called to do, or perhaps we are and we just have to be patient. With this in mind, I concluded by talking a bit about this very challenging notion that, thus, in some sense, the road we are on is the road we are meant to be on. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t have something better in mind for us and it doesn’t mean that if we are in dire straits we are meant to stay there, but it does mean that the next step is most likely somewhere within 2-3 feet from where we are standing (give or take a bit, depending on the length of your legs).

With this in mind, here is an interesting question: Is the familiar colloquialism “I have better things to do” ever really true? When we say, merely mutter, or mentally muse “I have better things to do,” we assert that the present frustration or inanity is keeping us from something more important – something “better”. But is this really the case? What does “better” mean here?

Sure, in the general, abstract, objective sense there may be higher goods than are attainable in the long line at the grocery store, or when faced with the third poopy diaper in the span of 10 minutes, or when having to go help with breakfast whilst one’s magnum opus lies unfinished on the computer screen (alas!). However, the good/best (or evil/worst) actions are also contextual:

…the morality of every human act is determined by the object, the circumstances and the intention. If any one of the three is evil, then the human act in question is evil and should be avoided.  – What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad? by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

As we can only ascertain the “better” in light of the “best,” and since the “best” actions (in a moral sense) must not only be good objectively but also good in relation to our circumstances and the state of our heart, I find the conclusion rather inescapable: There is never a moment in which I really have “better things to do” than those right in front of me, as frustrating, humbling, or inane as they may be.

Whatever situation I am currently in is the one which I am (now) called to embrace with heroic virtue. No matter where we are going, to whatever more exciting or glamorous goods we are impatient to get started on, our next step is right in front of us and it is that step, first (temporally) and foremost (eternally) that we must seek to live out as perfectly as we can.

So, wait patiently in that grocery store line and be sure to give the cashier a smile. Change that poopy diaper whilst singing “Bingo,” and be prepared for a fourth barrage. And go ahead and hit save on that magnum opus because…

*yells* “I’m coming down, sweetheart!”

… you really have nothing better to do.

(Click here to read more of my musings on holiness in the now: One Day Holy)

One Day Holy

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“In the end, life offers only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” – Leon Bloy

I have long been fascinated by the thought of the importance of the “here and now,” and our being more engaged in it. The present moment, since it is the only moment within which we can act (as opposed to a moment in the past or future), is thus the only moment we are really responsible for. Additionally, as my good friend Brother Rex commented:

it is also the only moment in which we can actually experience God’s Presence. The name He revealed to Moses was I AM, present tense. We can reflect upon His Presence in the past; with blessed assurance we can hope for His Presence in the future. But we can only encounter His Presence in this present moment.

If, by God’s grace, I wake up tomorrow morning to another day, I will be grateful for it and live it as best I can, but until then today is the only day I have been entrusted with for sure — the only day during which I can encounter the Presence of God.

This is encouraging as it breaks this giant project of living a good, holy life into bite sized pieces that we needn’t (and in fact can’t) eat more than one at a time. But it is also very challenging and humbling when we consider how many precious moments/days we take for granted.

Think about this: If I, by God’s grace, were to give 100% of today — my time, my talents, my best effort, my most heroic attempts at virtue, and my sincerest repentance whenever I fail — I will have given Him everything, for today was all I had.

But what If I fail to give today to God? What If I hold today back for myself? What If I continue to say “Tomorrow! Tomorrow I’ll begin praying! Tomorrow I’ll break my bad habit!”

If I don’t give God today, I will have given Him….nothing.

It’s true. I haven’t squandered one day of many; I have squandered the only day I actually had to give in the first place.

Thus, the transcendent purpose and goal of our lives that we look towards with hope — being one day holy — is accessible to us only in the most immanent here and now: doing our best to be just one day holy.

We tend to overwhelm and discourage ourselves thinking about the daunting task of living a (whole) holy life, but we are overestimating what has actually been asked of us. What about living just one day holy, specifically the one and only day that has yet been given to usCould we be faithful and obedient to Christ for just one day? 

Well, ready or not, this is the day (“… the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” – Psalm 118:24).

We have one day to walk with Christ — a very finite number of hours between now and whenever it is that we go to bed tonight. Let us seize this moment of grace. Let us, you and I, focus on the task at hand. For today, just today, let us love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

One day holy.

The clock is ticking.

State of Family and Marriage Research

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Terri Carrol, a sociology professor at Bowling Green and the co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR), has a lot of interesting information to share in the article “State of the American Family” that was recently published in BGSU Magazine. But what goes unsaid in fact speaks far louder. Behind the litany of sociological observations, one gets the sense that Carrol and the researchers at the NCFMR think that the movement away from the traditional family ideal is a positive and perhaps liberating change.

“Pervasive,” “15 year aberration,” and a “nostalgic myth” are a few of the terms used to describe traditional families as exemplified in the 1950s show Leave it to Beaver. While the Cleaver family in the 1950s sitcom was certainly unique to the time period in many ways, a more traditional family model seems to be guilty by association. Far more “pervasive,” though hardly aberrant, is the primordial model of the human family consisting of a monogamous mother and father and their children — no nostalgia or myth-making necessary. After we read that only 15% of people now belong to such traditional families, Dr. Susan Brown (another BGSU sociology professor) is quoted as saying, “But the era represented by ‘Leave it to Beaver’ is long gone, reflecting rapid social, cultural, and economic changes. We have more options today. There is no longer one, uniform model of family life.” Here again the language carries an amount of implicit interpretation of the data. Changes to the normal structure of the family are called simply “options” and the existence of such options implies, in Brown’s estimation, that any prior model of family is losing its relevance.

The crucial question not being asked is this: Because there is a movement away from the traditional family structure, does that mean there ought to be? Does the fact that many modern families increasingly fail to fit into more traditional models imply that such a failure is in fact a success? We realize of course that these days, any and all “change” is something we are expected be “hopeful” about, but does that hold true for the changes observed by researchers at the NCFMR?

We can and must reflect on where our families are now (as has been done by the NCFMR) but we cannot interpret what that means without some sense of where families should be.  We can say where we are on the map, but we cannot say our location is good or bad unless we know where we are going. In the same way, we cannot begin talking about the “state of the American family” without putting thought to what a family truly is — what it ought and ought not be.

Without any sort of ideal of what the family should be, we cannot say (or imply) with any weight whether or not the current state (or states) of the family is better or worse off. However, this seldom deters us from putting blind faith in “progress.” It is a purely modern prejudice to assume that we are better off now than in the past, simply because the past is the past. We speak so often of “progress” though we have no idea where we are progressing to! Brown has told us that we have many new “options” for what the family might be, but she has not told us whether or not any of these options are good options (at least not explicitly). If we want to be able to make any qualitative statements about the “state of the family,” then we must have some criteria or ideals by which to evaluate.

We surely can agree about some things that make a family healthy and good, but we rarely find it convenient to follow such intuitions to their conclusions. We all intuit the value of commitment. For example, commitment of fathers and mothers to each other and to their children has always clearly been regarded as a good thing. Any first or second-hand experience of divorce or separation can show us that commitment belongs to the ideal family. We like families that last. We also don’t like adultery. Anyone who has been “cheated on” can say that is not a good thing. Such things may be “options,” but are they not options to be avoided?

Families should ensure the welfare of children. In fact ensuring the wellbeing of the next generation is one of the primary purposes of family. Thus we have another easy ideal with which to question the health of the modern family: does it care for children? Does it put their needs, their rights, and their welfare first? What type of family structure or parental arrangement is best for children?

Unless evidence can show that the traditional “option” of a mother and a father in a committed monogamous relationship is not ideal, why do we so hastily dilute the meaning of the word “family” to include any and every new set of circumstances? Brown asserts the validity of these options with no justification other than the fact that they are new, available, and have been  occurring in society.

Certainly, the data paints a picture of fragmentation and flux regarding family structures. We would imagine that even those 15% of families that resemble what is considered “traditional” have more than their fair share of dysfunction. Fathers and mothers have left their children and spouses, most families are divorced or broken in one way or another, and young parents are frequently underprepared for the necessary responsibility and commitment. We heartily affirm the valiant efforts of loving individuals who attempt to pick up the pieces of such unfortunate circumstances, but we do them no good by attempting to re-label their circumstances as merely “new options”.

The fact that there is infidelity in many marriages says nothing against the goodness or possibility of marital fidelity. The fact that many children grow up without a mother or a father does not mean that mothers and fathers are not the ideal parents for a child. The fact that separation, division, irresponsibility, betrayal, and selfishness break up so many families and cheat so many children out of a normal life does not mean that we should throw up our hands and calls such circumstances “options”. In fact, we must realize that the ideals of what a family could and should be are what allow us to affirm our best efforts in imperfect situations. We say such things as “he is like a father to me” or “they were the only family I ever knew” precisely because we recognize the heroic love and sacrifices that often occur in less-than-ideal situations. Either there is such a thing as an ideal family, and loving individuals in less-than-ideal situations strive to provide something like it, or there is no such thing as an ideal family, and all of our judgments, opinions, praise, criticisms, and “family and marriage research” are meaningless.

The data in the “State of the American Family” is interesting and certainly has its place in the public discourse; it tells us where we are currently at and clues us in to how we got here. However, even Dr. Wendy Manning recognizes that there is something of importance intuited in the primordial family relationship:

Everyone has a family. As the primary organizational group in our society, people are aware that healthy families are key to a healthy society. People sense intuitively that families are evolving and, therefore, are interested in our findings. 

Dr. Manning, we couldn’t agree more: everyone has a family, healthy families are key to healthy societies, and the state of the family is drastically changing. The first two observations, if taken seriously, should give us great pause in light of the third.

We are in need of frank, courageous, and honest consideration of the traditional, primordial model of the human family which the researchers at the NCFMR so readily marginalize. Let us think carefully on the nature and purpose of family, not in order to condemn best efforts of loving individuals in tough situations, but in order that we may plot a course of true progress, even if it means retracing our steps.

This article was written by BGSU Alumni, Rob Hohler and JonMarc Grodi in response to “State of the American Family” published in the BGSU Magazine.