Every preacher faces a choice. One can preach stability, promoting the existing spiritual situation of the congregation. This is preaching what the congregation desires to hear: they are doing well and they are headed for salvation. On the other hand, one can decide to preach transformation, promoting a higher level of spirituality for a congregation so it can recognize the need to move closer to the Triune God. Most congregations do not like to hear preaching that tells them to change, making them uncomfortable with the lives they lead. Transformative preaching takes courage and skill. A quick review of the preaching lives of two historical preachers might put this concept into better focus.
I must admit I don’t have an answer to this one and theology does make it seem like an impossibility. But as doubtful as it is, I’d love to think that they do because one thing is obviously certain to me. Dogs can teach us more about living the Christian life than most people. Now dogs have different personalities and natures, so this does not pertain to every dog. However, I have been blessed with some truly remarkable pets throughout my life.
What is it about dogs that I admire? What have I learned from my dogs that I would do well to emulate in my own life?
First of all, loyalty: for the loyalty of a good dog is something to be admired and rarely found among our peers. You can mistreat a dog, forget to feed him or walk him, or ignore him and yet he persists in being faithfully attached and would never abandon your home for another person who offered him better food and treatment; as his loyalty is built on love and trust.
Also, patience: for the patience of a dog is amazing. They wait for their owner to pay them some attention, to play with them, etc. and never give up hope that the hour will come – if not today, maybe tomorrow or the next day.
Obedience is another admirable trait. Some dogs surrender their will to you entirely. They only want to be pleasing to you. Though they do not understand our motives or the outcome of our commands they are only happy to promptly comply with our wishes – no back talk, no hesitation.
An attitude of self-sacrifice is present in many dogs; willing to give their very lives to protect their family and to come to their aid. They do not weigh the odds or ponder the possible failure of their action – they just defend what they have come to believe in, which is us. Their love is agape love or self-sacrificing love and is of the highest order.
Cheerfulness and joy is the normal disposition of a dog that has been properly raised and socialized. They always lift your spirits by their show of happiness and joy at just seeing you after a short absence. Leave the house for 5 minutes and upon your return your dog will greet you like he hasn’t seen you in months.
Long-suffering is another trait that truly amazes me. They live in the moment with no thoughts about past sufferings or future uncertainties. I have seen dogs on the verge of death lying on an operating table at the vet. At their first sight of a familiar family face they express pure joy by wagging their tail even if they have lost the ability to sit, stand or roll over. When hurt, sick or dying, they suffer in silence without so much as a whimper. They simply go silent and suffer in silence.
A dog may be mans best friend on a number of levels and we might learn more from our dogs than they do from us. I can teach a dog many silly tricks but a dog can teach me to practice the theological virtues of faith, hope and love in a most profound way. An entire book could be written about many other admirable qualities of these fine animals but these will suffice.
If I could only live a life that expressed my love for God in such a manner I might become a saint. Dogs may not go to heaven but they just might help some of us get there by setting a wonderful example. All we have to do is apply it in our lives and thus mimic their behavior in acts of unconditional love for God. That might make them more than man’s best friend; they may be our soul’s best friend and spiritual director as well.
P.S. Wally, dog on the right, went to his reward about 1 1/2 years ago. Fred, on the left, has taken up Wally’s role as spiritual director and seems capable of filling the paws of his predecessor.
In an adult apologetics class some years ago we spoke of how God uses “fallen man” in His plan for our Salvation; that through the Church, God works through ordinary human beings in order that His Holy Will might be brought to fruition. It might even seem that God is relying on “us” for the success or failure of His Divine Plan and that He exercises great patience while He awaits “our” obedience and labor in this regard. It is obvious that God wants us to participate in the great battle (and the eventual triumph) of good over evil. Not unsurprisingly, each and every one of us has been given the opportunity to heed His call to arms. God wants to share His victory with us and by our obedience to Faith, we will. Such a humbling of the Most High to allow the very creatures, who have continuously shown themselves unworthy of the task, to partake in this struggle is a lesson in theology that we must take seriously. “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like unto men. And appearing in the form of man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross.”__ Philippians 2:5-8
By this same principle one can solve many conundrums, which are certain to arise in the spiritual life. No one can doubt that the heart is of a higher order than the mind, though the heart when unregulated by the mind is given to flights of fancy and will soon lead a soul astray. God has therefore given us the gifts of heart and mind, or in theological terms, the gift of faith and reason, in order that we might have balance. Both are necessary to a proper spirituality: A spirituality that is capable of soaring to the highest reaches of Heaven but at all times solidly grounded in Truth.
Likewise, theology is the Truth that has been garnered from God’s Revelation to man and developed by the Church with the aid of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Indwelling has created for us an indispensable library of maxims that are sure to keep our spirituality on track and discourages any flight of fancy that might stray from the Truth. In this way, the well-reasoned theology of the Church (the lesser of the two) becomes the servant or handmaid to our spirituality or faith. Spirituality can take many forms (as many as there are individuals) but in order that our spirituality remains valid, it must always conform to holy theology.
The same applies to the gift of “the fear of the Lord” in relation to the gift known as “the love of God;” a much higher principle. Let us not forget that “the fear of the Lord” is also a virtue. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is prudence.”__ Proverbs 9:10 It is hard to imagine that one might ever attain the higher virtue of “love” without first regulating our lives by means of this lesser but vitally important virtue. It is a slow maturation of the mind, the heart and the soul, which at first fears retribution for the acts that she has committed but slowly gains a delicate and refined conscience, which feels deep sorrow whenever she might happen to injure the object of her love. The lower virtue transforms itself into the higher, teaching us to be remorseful and deepening our respect and love of God: not unlike a child who at first fears the punishment of a father and eventually, out of love, feels sadness for the hurt they might cause the father.
Freedom is a higher principle than obedience, though we can only find true freedom in lawful obedience: especially in obedience to faith and the truths that are foundational to True Faith. I am sure we can all think of other applications of this principle. It seems to be an important one.
You cannot boast of a robust and vibrant spirituality when you ignore basic theological reasoning. Sound theological principals are essential or, better yet, the guidance of an experienced spiritual advisor grounded in good theology. This will give you assurance that you have not lost both your spiritual life and your quest for the truth: both are equally needed for true progress in the spiritual realm.
Prayer has a twofold end: worship and petition. The prayer of worship can be divided into three distinct sentiments that are offered to God, adoration, thanksgiving and reparation, while the prayer of petition is principally a request for the effective operation of God’s Grace. Therefore, even petition is an act of confidence in Him and can be viewed as a form of homage to a loving God Who hears His creatures and pours His Grace upon them.
Prayer further can be distinguished by its form: mental, vocal, private or public. Mental prayer has no outward expression but is a silent conversation of the soul with God. All interior acts that tend to unite us with God can be considered mental prayer. This includes, recollection, consideration, reasoning, self-examination, loving thoughts of God, contemplation or a simple longing of the heart for God. These acts deepen our convictions, exercise our virtue and train us for our heavenly life: the eternal, loving contemplation of God. (See Chapter V, Sect. IV of Tanquerey’s, The Spiritual Life)
Vocal prayer expresses itself in word and in act stimulating devotion by the very sound of the words or the use of pious gestures. Therefore, we are called to be serious, attentive, and pious in the recitation of our prayers and the use of prayerful gestures; genuflection, kneeling, bowing, etc. One must be constantly aware of Who it is that this conversation is between. Further, such attentiveness helps our neighbors, who become more devout when exposed to people who are especially devout in their prayer. Therefore, devout and pious prayer is contagious; an act that reinforces one another’s faith and confidence.
As mentioned earlier, vocal prayer can be either private or public according to whether it is offered by an individual or by a group of individuals. “The prayers of the many cannot go unheeded when they unite in one.” __ St. Thomas’s commentary on Matthew 18:20. It is for this reason that we are urged to join in common prayer frequently and why the Church calls us together for Holy Mass and other religious liturgies every day of the week. The Church has always recommended our participation in Her daily prayer to God for Her people. Even so, a priest is urged to say Holy Mass even though the faithful cannot be present. Even so, this prayer is offered for all the people. Further, priests and religious recite daily the Divine Office, often in private, but always for the entire Church. We too are urged to join this prayer of the Church privately or publicly with a prayer group.
We are prodded to practice all types of prayer on a continuing basis: to offer God our homage and thanks, to make amends for our sins, and to ask for help with our special needs. We are invited to make our prayers mentally throughout our waking day and to join our voices and gestures to public acts of worship whenever possible. The purpose of our prayer life should reflect the reality which St. John the Baptist declared so aptly in John 3:30, “He must increase: but I must decrease.” For prayer is the soul’s preparation on Earth for our life with God in Heaven: a focus necessary to our eventual realization that God is All in all and we are merely unprofitable servants in dire need of His Divine Mercy.
Humility is the “foundation of prayer” (CCC 2559) as well as the foundation of our own spiritual edifice. Since our spiritual life can only be as good as the foundation we build upon, the virtue of humility is essential. We start with a good foundation lain upon the Rock of Christ; for if we build our house on sand, it cannot stand. (see Mat. 7:24~7:27)
The virtue of humility is related to both the virtue of justice, which allows us to judge ourselves justly, and also the virtue of temperance, which serves to moderate the sense of our own worth. “Humility may be defined as a supernatural virtue, which, through the self-knowledge it imparts, inclines us to reckon ourselves at our true worth and to seek self-effacement (reserve in speech, behavior, or dress) and contempt (to be regarded as inferior or base).” (see A. Tanguerey, The Spiritual Life, 1127) Therefore, the basis of humility is Truth, which allows us to see ourselves as we really are, and Justice, which inclines us to act on that knowledge. Rightly understood, justice demands that we render to God all the honor and glory for that which we find as ‘good’ within us and to recognize that all ‘evil’ within us proceeds from ourselves. (see A. Tanguerey, The Spiritual Life, 1128 A.) As Christ Himself said: “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18).
We know well that though we have been washed clean of original sin by the waters of baptism, concupiscience (an inclination toward sin or evil) remains. Therefore, a true reckoning of ourselves, when viewed through the lens of God’s Goodness and Holiness, leaves us to see that we have nothing of our own which can be called Good but that which is of God Himself. Our will to abide by the Good, which God has worked in us, is then our cooperation with Him and His Holy Will. Our concupiscience remains but can be overcome by our willingness to cooperate with the Grace that God imparts to us.
Humility could simply be described as an attitude that takes responsibility for the wrongs we think, say or do while only rendering credit to God for that which is regarded as good and holy. Our demeanor might then become reserved and free of self-pride. A humble heart such as this is greatly loved by our Lord and He tends to incline His Ear to the whisperings of such a soul. It is this meekness and humility that becomes a solid foundation for our relationship with God.
The pillars of Faith, Hope and Charity sit squarely on the shoulders of this virtue, as does our prayer-life, which is the loving discourse between our souls and God. If you wish to increase your faith, hope and love and deepen your prayer-life it may pay great dividends to work on the virtue of humility. This requires vigilance in knowledge of God and in self-knowledge too (a daily examen of conscience and frequent confession aid in this regard). In order to accomplish this work within our souls, the virtues of temperance and justice might also stand in need of some strengthening.
As previously stated, our humility is to rest upon the Rock of Christ and therefore we need to conform to every projection and crevice of this Rock. There should be no voids between this foundation of humility and the Rock upon which it is poured, thus we ensure that our foundation conforms to Christ in every detail. Our humility then must begin in a liquid state, capable of being molded into the necessary shape. Once humility has allowed us to be molded by the Rock, it becomes an extension of Christ Himself, hardening into a Foundation that is unbreakable.
If we set out to build a spiritual edifice we must keep in mind that which any builder knows. The building is only as good as the foundation upon which it stands.
The basis for all spirituality is adherence to a standard. In the case of Catholic Spirituality the standard is, of course, the definitive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church; including Her moral standard, as well as Her practices.
To borrow one of the late Fulton Sheen’s illustrations, let’s imagine ourselves sitting at a piano.
When we strike any key on the instrument no one can say that we have hit a wrong note. However, in the context of playing a particular piece of music, many wrong notes are possible. The music to be played is a standard that must be followed precisely if we are to receive the applause that follows a successful rendition at a concert.
Our spiritual lives are very much like this. Our saints are like the virtuosos who garner much admiration after a difficult musical performance. We do not see or hear the mistakes previously made during practice nor are we made aware of the depth of the trials that these persons overcame in order to achieve their success. But rest assured that a struggle was a necessary prelude to all that they achieved.
The piano player made mistakes in practicing and worked them out. If they were beyond his ability to recognize and correct, he sought out a maestro or teacher who could give them musical exercises to overcome their shortfalls. But never did they decide to rewrite the score themselves in order that they might more easily play the piece or because they disagreed with some section of the musical piece. They adhered completely to the standard.
Likewise, a Catholic soul who desires to lead a spiritual life, who wishes to attempt Christ’s lofty goal to “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), must practice holiness like a virtuoso practices his instrument. When he stumbles and falls, he returns to his Maestro (the Church) for correction. It is through this never ending and meticulous process of failure, confession, absolution, and spiritual direction that the soul is purified and our Catholic Spirituality made sound. We don’t rely solely on our own abilities nor do we re-write the teachings of the Church to aid us in our journey. For then we have only substituted our private standard for that of the Church and our spirituality becomes as flawed as the musician who ‘does his own thing’ without regard to the music that he has been asked to play. Just as such a musician will not long be a member of an orchestra, so too those who create their own standards cannot long remain members of the Divine Orchestra the Holy Catholic Church unless one fully accepts the Divine Music and at least attempts to play the performance according to Her Standard.
The first step to a healthy spirituality then is the desire to play in the Heavenly Orchestra and to humbly submit to play only those notes that are written. The next step is to practice according to the rules those things that are difficult and to seek help in correcting those things with which we constantly have problems. Once the soul has begun to faithfully apply himself to this humble obedience (this training of the will) and has sought help through prayer, countless days of practice (making virtues habitual, and through the utilization of appointed teachers within the Church, much progress in the Spiritual Life is assured.
In music one studies the theory of music, seeks help and listens to others who play well, while in Spirituality the soul studies the teachings, the moral laws and precepts, prays, practices the virtues, and acquaints themselves with the great saints in order that he might acquire their abilities which are not yet possessed in full. Imperfections and failures are certain along the way but with these basics one can proceed safely without danger to ones immortal soul. “For what will it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26) Remember that sloth or laxity is a capital sin that we must always be on guard to fight. Zeal for the Faith and zeal for Christ comes no other way: it requires spiritual exercise and slow, hard work.