Thursday, September 29, 2016

Are Angels For Real?

Today, September 29, in the Catholic Church, we celebrate the feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, three archangels mentioned in Sacred Scripture.  And this coming Sunday, October 2, we celebrate the memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels.  So, today, I’m thinking about angels in general.  We have individual angels and archangels as well as groups of angels, including guardian angels, Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Principalities, and Powers.  All are pure spirits … except when they apparently take on human form, which is when they are sent to Earth for a particular purpose as mentioned in the gospels.  The three archangels we celebrate today are declared saints in the Catholic Church.

The most famous is probably the archangel Gabriel.  He was sent to earth to deliver a very important message – he announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the divine Savior (Luke 1:26-38).  Michael and Raphael are mentioned in the Old Testament.  Unnamed angels also appear in Scripture, such as to Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20) and Joseph (Matt 2:13 and Matt 2:19-20).  Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his work Summa Theologica,describes the groups of angels mentioned above based on Scripture, Seraphim and Cherubim in the Old Testament (Isai 6:2 and Gene 3:24) and the others in the New Testament (Colo 1:16 and Roma 8:38 for example).   

There are also “bad angels” or “devils.”  Devils are led by Satan, also called Lucifer.  The book of Revelation states the following about the bad angels before man was created (Reve 12:7-12):  “War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.  The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it."  These bad angels today, in the words of the Catholic prayer to St. Michael, “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls” and this is a major problem for you and me.  Our temptation to sin, including adultery and the rejection of the Catholic teaching, which are so common, result from his “wickedness and snares” here on earth.

And what of “guardian angels?”  Their existence is supported by Sacred Scripture in the words of Jesus (Matt 18:10):  “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”  The prayer to my guardian angel that I learned in elementary school and still use every now and then goes something like this:  “Angel of God, my guardian dear to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side to light, to guard, to rule and guide.  Amen.”  I believe I have seen the interventions of my guardian angel in my life.  Usually these take the form of a good Samaritan in human flesh, such as giving me directions when my travels take me completely off track.  They are strangers.  I do not learn their name.  They are here, and then they are gone.

The photograph shows the sanctuary of the chapel at the Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House near Waverly, Nebraska.  Notice the statues of the angels on either side of the tabernacle kneeling in adoration.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Physicists, Philosophers, and Me

Recently I purchased the movie “The Theory of Everything,” the story of the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking.  I had not seen it when it was in the theaters, so I was pleased when I happened upon it at my local Shopko store.  I watched it not once, but twice, in the last few days.  I had purchased and read Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time” a few years ago.  At present, I am reading the book “There is a God” by former atheist Antony Flew.  So I think you know what is on my mind this morning!

It amazes me how physicists and philosophers seem to always be trying to prove, or disprove, the existence of God.  They are continuously seeking physical evidence (when it is right under their noses), or considering this or that theory (which seem to be mostly pure speculation).  It seems to me that they work too hard at it!  In the movie, the Hawking character states that he is working toward finding that one mathematical equation that proves God’s existence one way or the other.  A mathematical equation!!  That seems rather cute at best.  I like to think of God, who profoundly loves us without limit, is up there in heaven smiling down on us with the evidences and speculations that are uncovered, delighted when his people are on the right track while annoyed when they conclude that he does not exist. 

To Hawking’s credit, he concludes his book “A Brief History of Time” with the following (speaking of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist):  “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”  So, while he has atheistic tendencies, he leaves God’s existence as a rather open question.  He was 46 years old when the book was published.  He is now 72 years old.  I understand that his more recent pronouncement is his conclusion that God does not exist.  So God is annoyed and so am I!

While I have not yet finished the Flew book, I have found some tidbits there that give me hope.  For example, he quotes a historian of philosophy, Frederick Copleston:  “I do not think that it can be justifiably demanded of the human mind that it should be able to pin down God like a butterfly in a showcase.”  Amen to that!  I prefer to just look outside, or go for a hike in the mountains, or go to the edge of the Grand Canyon, or go to a botanical garden, or watch (with my camera) as a butterfly sucks the nectar from a flower, or to just lie in the tall grass on a warm summer night, to look up at the stars and imagine what is out there.  And, while I’m doing that, I prefer to imagine the human body with all its intricacies:  the brain, the eye, the ear, with light and sound and all that we have here on earth. 

A mathematical equation?  Speculation about the laws of physics and what might be?  No.  God exists all right.  The theory that makes the most sense to me is the theory that God revealed Himself to us through Christianity and Sacred Scripture.  I think that Man would do well to accept that as truth and live life accordingly.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Combating Moral Relativism with Virtue

I apologize to my faithful readers for being late this week.  It’s been a very busy week for me and here I am, on Friday morning, with some time on my hands.  That is not to say that Thursday passed me by without my having any thoughts.  That is impossible, of course.  So, here we go.

Have you noticed that there is a serious lack of virtue in our world today?  I’m talking about basic human virtues ... those qualities that commit a person to do the right things for the right reasons.  The Catholic Church defines cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude) and theological virtues (faith, hope, and love).  All of these are qualities from which good habits flow.   Examples of the good habits are kindness, patience, compassion, and perseverance.  Why is there a serious lack of these things in today's world?  

Could it be the fact that the “moral worldview” of people has changed in recent years?  Could it be that people no longer believe in “moral truth?”  We now live in a world of what has come to be known as “moral relativism.”  We have become so accustomed to our freedoms that an “anything goes” attitude has taken over.  “I’m free to do anything I want whenever I want.”  In such a culture, there is no “real truth.”  There is only “my truth,” or “your truth.”  People are only accountable to whatever “truth” they are feeling at a given time.

I think first we must give a correct definition of “freedom” here.  True freedom is not simply the ability to make whatever choice we prefer when confronted by a particular issue, i.e., to do anything I want whenever I want.  Rather, it is the power to choose what is right and to then exercise that power.  We need to return to a value system in which certain moral standards are considered fundamental, imperative, and right.  In short, we need get back our faith in God, hope in Him and love Him (think theological virtues), and then we need to become “other-centered.”  The Book of Deuteronomy has this to say:  “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!  Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.  Drill them into your children.  Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.  Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead.  Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” (Deut 6:4-9).  Sounds like this is important, doesn’t it? 

Once faith in God, hope in God, and love of God are restored, then comes love of neighbor, i.e., becoming “other-centered”:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Luke 10:27, Matt 22:39, Mark 12:31).  These commandments say it all.  If someone should argue a particular point, we should try hard not to get angry.  Be patient.  Be kind.  Be thoughtful.  Be compassionate.  Have courage.  Present arguments based on truth.  Work hard not to offend.  Be a light to the world.  Show the people with the opposing viewpoint that your worldview makes you extraordinarily happy (if it does).  Let your happiness shine through.  Do the right things for the right reasons, instead of for profit, fame, or esteem. 

Pray to God that you will have a proper disposition and demonstrate virtuous behavior in your life.  It may be that you don’t convert a particular person to your worldview.  But at least they will see how happy, patient, kind and compassionate you are, and some of that has to rub off.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Profound Love of God

Every now and then, I come upon a book that really moves me.  The latest is Love Unveiled:  The Catholic Faith Explained by Dr. Edward Sri.  I own four other books that Dr. Sri has authored and every time I read one, I marvel at the clarity of his writing.  This book is for you if you are someone whose Catholic faith has gone stale.  This book is for you if you are a Catholic who has left the faith for a Protestant faith because someone has convinced you that the Church Christ founded is no longer relevant.  This book is for you if you are of another faith but have has some skepticism about what the real truth is in the matter of our salvation.  It’s impossible to give a full review of the book in such as small space as this, but let me give one example of an issue he addresses:  the forgiveness of our sins through the death of Jesus on the cross.

This is a topic that I have wrestled with for several years now.  If God the Father wanted to forgive the sins of mankind and open the gates of heaven, why didn’t He simply snap his fingers and say “let it be so?”  Why did he choose to have the second person of the Trinity become one of us to accomplish this mission.  Why was it necessary for Christ to die the horrible death on the cross?  And how does it happen that this death takes away our sins?  Sri uses Scripture passages along with quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and the writings of St. John Paul II to answer these questions.  It all comes down to love.  “It is love ‘to the end’ (John 13:1) that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction” (CCC 616). 

John Paul II explains that what gives the cross “its redemptive value is not the material fact that an innocent person (Christ) has suffered the chastisement deserved by the guilty (us) and that justice has thus been in some way satisfied.”  Rather, it was He who was without sin who “could take upon himself that which is the effect of sin, namely, suffering and death, giving to the sacrifice of his life a real value and a perfect redemptive meaning.”  Sri says that “in uniting himself so fully to the human family, which had been estranged from God and had been suffering under the curse of death, Jesus could lift us out of the grave with him in his resurrection and restore us to unity with the Father.”  So, Sri says, “Christ, a divine person, did what no regular human being could do.  He offered God the Father a gift of love that corresponds to the infinite gravity of sin committed against him.  Jesus alone could reconcile us to the Father.  Jesus, being truly human, can represent humanity and offer an act of love on our behalf.

Wow!  Powerful stuff!  God’s love for us is indeed profound.  A snapping of the fingers?  No!  An awesome demonstration of the love of God through the slow death experienced in a shocking crucifixion followed by the victory over death through his Resurrection?  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!  The witnesses became believers!  Our sins were taken away!  Amen!  Alleluia!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Jesus Did a Ton of Other Things

According to a commentary on the Gospels that I have read, the first Gospel that was written was that of St. Mark, about 70 AD, and the last Gospel that was written was that of St. John, around 100 AD.  So nothing was written for the early Christians (and for us) until at least some thirty-seven years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  During these thirty-seven years, the teachings of Jesus were communicated orally by the apostles in their efforts to spread the good news as Jesus had commanded.

The first Christians appeared to believe that the second coming of Jesus would occur in their lifetime.  However, they seem to gradually come to the realization that that was not the case.  And so, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the four evangelists undertook the writing apparently to ensure that the oral traditions were not lost.

I am intrigued by two passages from the Gospel of St. John that seem to shed further light on the subject.  The first comes from Chapter 20, Verse 30:  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book.”  The other is in Chapter 21, Verse 25:  “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.”  The whole scene must have been so extraordinary.  Imagine thousands of people (five-thousand at the miracle of the loaves and fish) following Jesus around the countryside - no cars, no horses, a few donkeys perhaps, but thousands of barefoot people on foot following Jesus down the dusty roads and watching as the countless miracles and healings unfold.  There was no TV, no network news, no CNN ... only oral traditions being generated and shared.

Today, I’m thinking that the concept of “Sacred Tradition” should be considered here, as the Catholic Church teaches.  In other words, the word of God comes to us through both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture and not through Scripture alone (“Sola Scriptura").  For the first thirty-seven years, Sacred Tradition is all we had.  Then, after all four Gospels were written, we have St. John telling us that there was a ton of other things that Jesus did that are not recorded in Scripture.  To me, it’s not a stretch to say that there are many things that come from this large “volume” of Sacred Tradition that should be believed.  I only wish I could have been one of the thousands.  My shoeless feet probably wouldn't have lasted long on the dusty roads.  But, hey, when the savior of all mankind is  leading the pack and giving us the good news of salvation, who cares about their feet!  Even the word "extraordinary" is woefully inadequate.