Friday, May 2, 2014
Getting To Heaven Means There Must Be A Commitment To Violence!
When people hear the word violence they have often have images of carnage from a television news cast. They imagine tattered bodies strewn across streets from third world countries, or mass school shootings where bodies of children lie dead in a classroom. But there is a certain violence that Catholics should know well, but is seldom discussed. It is the commitment we must have to violence against the flesh, for the benefit of the soul.
Certainly Catholics do not entertain the age old heresy of dualism, where the flesh is all bad and the spirit is good. What Catholicism does teach us is that our nature is fallen and that we must struggle valiantly to overcome it. With the grace of God and our determined will, the Catholic must truly bring violence upon his sinful nature in order to grow in virtue and obtain the prize of heaven. Unfortunately for the post Vatican II era of the Church, this mentality has largely been lost, even among those who consider themselves orthodox Catholics. We often hear about mercy, but seldom about justice for example.
There is an age old writing by Saint John Climacus called the 'Ladder of Divine Ascent'. Most Catholics today have never heard of St. John, much less read his famous work on the spiritual life. When St. John explains the first step onto the ladder leading to heaven, he minces no words in conveying the voyage one is about to embark on. "Violence and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend to heaven with the body, and this especially at the early stages of the enterprise, when our pleasure-loving disposition and our unfeeling hearts must travel through overwhelming grief toward the love of God and holiness. It is hard, truly hard."
This image that St. John paints is foreign to our minds today. It is easy to fall into a lukewarmness which kills the life of our souls. The first step of the ladder is to renounce our former lives and never look back on it. I think that this step is often times the one that keeps most people out of heaven. They never step foot upon the first rung, and yet think they are at the top of the ladder! We must possess that radical mentality to violently resist all attachment to sin that has become ingrained in us over time. This attachment may have come by negligence or even by a certain amount of ignorance in our actions. Habitual sin has a way of pulling us back much like a dog returning to its vomit, as scripture warns us. How can we overcome sin and climb the ladder to heaven? This lent and thereafter has taught me a lesson, which seems simple on its face, but theory and practice are two different things entirely. It is one thing to know something and another to practice or experience it. I can know about Bob Dylan, but that does not mean than I know the man.
This lent I gave up one of my favorite things. I decided to quit drinking coffee, which I usually drank every morning. It was one of things I just had to have. On my way to work I religiously stopped by McDonalds, Starbucks, or Panera bread for my cup of coffee. The first few days of lent it took some effort. I made made up mind very firmly that I was not going to have coffee over the next 40 days. Over the course of lent it became easier, and I even gave it up on Sundays. I began to drink more water and I eventually started drinking green tea as well. Over the course of lent I noticed that I began to feel better, more awake, less bloated and I even started to lose a little weight. Lent went by, and at the end of the forty days I decided never to go back to coffee again. I still have not had a cup since the the start of lent.
I began to put two and two together as to how this works in the spiritual life. A radical decision is made to do away with sin. We must begin by renouncing all serious sin in our lives. It must be a radical, direct and relentless hatred for sin. So we do violence at first to detach ourselves from the most serious sins, and as we progress we shed the lesser sins. But it is not just a matter of doing away with something, it is also a gravitating towards something else, or a someone in this case. Just as I did away with coffee and started drinking more water and even tea, which was more healthy for me, in regard to sin, I turned to the living water of Christ. In the spiritual life, prayer and meditation begins to take the place of sinful habits just as water and tea took the place of coffee. This lesson of course is not to be a health essay on the benefits of drinking water and tea over coffee, but is meant to convey a spiritual analogy of renouncing something radically in order to gain something better. In my case, the coffee represents sin, and the water and tea represents Christ and the gift of prayer.
In order for us to reach heaven there must be violence. There must be a radical denial of some things in our lives that distance ourselves from Christ. A solid and firm beginning is essential to running the entire race. This is the first step on the ladder, being resolved to living a life of violence against our sinful inclinations. St. John writes, "It is detestable and dangerous for a wrestler to be slack at the start of a contest, thereby giving proof of his impending defeat to everyone." We must have the same commitment against sin as we do when we start our lenten penance. It is in a sense a violence against our passions.
Before I close I wish to convey another analogy. All of us have gotten angry or upset at times in our lives where we have made a radical change in our behavior. For some of us it is that emotional argument where we resolve never to speak to someone again who has made us angry. You know, the eternal grudge against someone, right? Other people have a radical commitment to a car brand and commit to a Ford over a Chevy. There are those who are so radically in love over their favorite football team that they will spend hours watching football games, and spend their hard earned money to buy jerseys, shirts and other memorabilia. I am amazed at how people can get so into movies that they dress like their favorite characters. What about those who are so infatuated with themselves that they spend hours in the gym to the neglect of other things in their life? That being said, I can get radical sometimes too. Let me explain.
Amazon ticked me off the other day by raising their Prime membership on me after I have spent thousands of dollars with them over the course of 8 or 9 years! I mean anyone who knows me understands how much I buy on Amazon. It is embarrassing really. But in my mind, what a great way for them to show their appreciation for all of my business. Instead of offering me some incentive to keep my business, they decide they must chisel me out of $25.00 more on their membership! I am sure it is because they are so strapped for cash! Bezos is worth 25 billion dollars! The company made 239 million in one quarter! So, instead of giving the greedy chiselers more of my money, I called and cancelled my membership. Not only that, I have even resolved to never buy from them again! In fact, I have resolved to use their website against them and get better prices from their competitors! That is how ticked off I was. Yes, I know, its kind of ridiculous, but hey, I can be crazy like that sometimes. However, after canceling my membership the other day I was driving down the road feeling great about my new crusade to put Amazon out of business, and a thought came to me. If I can be so radically committed to not doing business with Amazon, then why can I not have that same commitment of not doing business with the devil? That put things into perspective. That great feeling kind of dissipated quickly after that thought.
Hence it must be so. To get to heaven and attain the eternal prize means there must be a radical commitment to doing violence against our sinful nature. This is the first rung of the ladder that we must step upon. "Let him who has set foot on it not turn back." (St John Climacus)