The Personalist Project

Not meant to be mere instruments

What does God, above all, demand of us? Our love. What is the question Our Lord puts thrice, emphatically to Peter in that great hour when He entrusts him with the care of His flock? It is the question as to his love. “Simon, son of John, lovest thou me?.” Those men err who believe it to be our supreme goal that we become pure instruments of God. … So long as we are a mere channel for the flow of God’s will, so long as we are nothing but an impersonal tool in the hands of God, as we have no desire other than to discharge a certain function in the universe according to the plan of God, we cannot be transformed in Christ. The attainment of our proper supernatural aim supposes an entrirely different attitude on our part. It requires that we surrender ourselves to Christ by an act of love which is nothing if not eminently personal.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ

Ever alert in my reading to items that highlight and clarify the meaning and implications of the master/slave dynamic, I pounced on one this morning, in St. Faustina's Diary. She is on retreat as she writes.

The great majesty of God which pervaded me today and still pervades me awoke in me a great fear, but a fear filled with respect, and not the fear of a slave, which is quite different from the fear of respect. This fear animated by respect arose in my heart today because of love and the knowledge of the greatness of God, and that is a great joy to the soul. The soul trembles before the smallest offense against God; but that does not trouble or darken its happiness. There, where love is in charge, all is well.

"The fear of the slave" is the fear of power and punishment and abandonment. "Please don't hurt me." It's a groveling fear, unworthy of mature human persons. But most of us are afflicted with it to one degree or another. Some of us cope with it by becoming the one feared, the "master," who makes others afraid.

Love is the opposite. The one who has it most induces others not to grovel, but to stand up.

"I no longer call you slaves, but friends."

I've been listening to the audio version of Witness to Hope, and was reminded recently of the first precedent-breaking incident of John Paul II's papacy. Traditionally, the new Pope sits on a "throne," while all the Cardinals successively kiss his ring in a gesture of reverence and obedience. John Paul II declined the throne. "I receive my brothers standing."

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Have you noticed this too? 

First, people started talking about "adopting" a puppy or a kitten instead of buying one. 

Now you see articles like this one, about an army service dog being given a funeral with full military honors.  "'We’re not just celebrating a dog’s life, we celebrate a serviceman’s life,' said Sgt. Aaron Walker, U.S. Air Force." Arko the Dog "is now a fallen member of the US military."

When I took our cat, Louie, to the vet, they handed me a form with two boxes I could check: "This pet is 'just an animal'," or "I consider this pet a part of the family." Depending to my response, they'd recommend more or less expensive treatment for what ailed him. 

What started out as a metaphor, an analogy--"Look at this picture of my babies," the woman who calls herself her puppies' "mommy" urges--anthropomorphizing our pets, service animals, and wild beasts has come to be treated as the literal truth. Any objection is seen as hard-heartedness, not just respect for reality.

Something else I've noticed: an increasing number of pictures of cats cuddling baby birds, or other natural predators acting affectionate and harmless with species they usually seek to kill. There's the theme of reunions of man and lion--the now-full-grown lion raised by a man who releases it and later arranges to reunite. You get the impression that it's normal for animals--even dangerous predators--to disregard their instincts and act cute and cuddly. I worry that there are other, copycat cases without such a happy ending as Christian the Lion's. arranged by people who ended up believing that predator and prey are categories that can be modified at will.

Sometimes we imagine animals are crossing the line towards humanity and personhood--and sometimes it's the other way around. Here's a story about a man who decided to live as a goat. He wasn't under any delusion that he truly was an animal (unlike this woman, who reportedly believes she's a cat trapped in a human body).  "My goal," he explains, "was to take a holiday from the pain and worry of being a self-conscious being, able to regret the past and worry about the future." 

I can see the appeal of that. And I certainly don't set myself up as judge of whether my friends are too attached to their pets. I'm as fascinated as anybody by stories about the mama cat who nursed ducklings, and I'm very fond of our Louie (below, doing a little birdwatching).

But something else is going on here. The line between animal and person is being intentionally and increasingly blurred, and simple biological facts are being treated as the exception, not the rule. 

The hot-button headlines these days are about men who believe they're women, women who believe they're men, and who gets to use which bathroom. 

But maybe that's just the latest wrinkle in a much older game of make-believe.

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The Pope recounts all our afflictions with such deep insight and loving concern in paragraphs 39 - 56.

Our world is preoccupied with ephemera. We treat everything—even the deepest, most important things, such as affective relationships—in a consumerist, egotistical way.

I am struck—even a little surprised—by his mention (more than once) of narcissism. Lately I have come to think of narcissism as the prime spiritual antagonist of the person. It is the mode of the antichrist in our day—an entrapping, destroying mode—the antithesis of love and communion. Some days I think maybe it's just me: I'm seeing narcissism everywhere because I happen to have encountered it in my own life. Now I have papal confirmation that my experience is part of a broad trend.

In paragraph 52, he raises the problem I'd hoped he would: the scourge of violence within families:

...violence within families breeds new forms of social aggression, since “family relationships can also explain the tendency to a violent personality. This is often the case with families where communication is lacking, defensive attitudes predominate, the members are not supportive of one another, family activities that encourage participation are absent, the parental relationship is frequently conflictual and violent, and relationships between parents and children are marked by hostility. Violence within the family is a breeding-ground of resentment and hatred in the most basic human relationships”.

He notes too that violence isn't limited to the physical realm. Verbal abuse is a form of violence, so is emotional neglect and a climate of hostility. 

Immediately after, the Pope reaffirms the indispensability of marriage as the ground of civilization:

...only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life... No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.

At the same time, he takes care to distinguish the essence of marriage—as exclusive, indissoluble, and life-giving—from the old patriarchal form of marriage that has rightly been rejected in our day.

Surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence, yet this should not lead to a disparagement of marriage itself, but rather to the rediscovery of its authentic meaning and its renewal. 

I wish more traditionalists would open their hearts and minds to this aspect of modern experience. Feminism (for instance) is not reducible to a nihilistic rejection of maternity or a hatred of men. It also represents a valid protest against real injustices, and an assertion of real values, which have been affirmed as true by the Church.

If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.

The Pope makes clear that equality doesn't mean sameness. Men and women have different, complementary roles in family life, according to their respective natural gifts. What he rejects is the subordination of women to men. He also rejects unambiguously the new gender ideology that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family." 

It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift.

But these are only a sampling of the range of challenges and problems facing the family today. He mentions reproductive technologies, euthanasia and assisted suicide, addiction, sex trafficking, economic stress, and many others. He ends Chapter 2 on a note of hope, though. We are never to lose hope.

The great values of marriage and the Christian family correspond to a yearning that is part and parcel of human existence”.48 If we see any number of problems, these should be, as the Bishops of Colombia have said, a summons to “revive our hope and to make it the source of prophetic vi- sions, transformative actions and creative forms of charity”.49 

Chapter 3 is about "the vocation of the family." I'll take that up in my next post.

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Do you cringe when you hear the word compassion? How about pastoral? Or dialogue?

Ii do--or I used to. 

When I first started writing regularly, I didn't realize there was anything in particular I was longing to say. But over and over I found myself honing in on the same theme: reclaiming buzzwords, salvaging grains of truth, rescuing babies being tossed out with their bathwater. 

Here's what I mean:

When you reduce some noble reality--say, compassion--to a red-flag buzzword, then of course you've done a disservice to the reality itself. If you can get people to think it's compassionate to do away with your cancer patient's suffering by doing away with him, or to address poverty by interfering with the conception or gestation of babies in Detroit or Nicaragua, then you've reduced compassion to a caricature of itself. People who don't know any better believe that that's all compassion means.

And that's a shame.

But look what else happens. People who do know better get so weary of watching the conniving, the sleight of hand that swaps out the real thing for the caricature--that we end up turning against the real thing too. The red-flag word sets off a reaction, and pretty soon we become not only circumspect when it's mentioned--not only cynical--but we start to acknowledge only the buzzword meaning. Confronted with a question calling for genuine empathy, our first instinct is to sneer, "Don't talk to me about your 'compassion!'" No one can say a word about the real thing without drawing our attention towards the counterfeit. Real compassion gets abandoned, eclipsed. We get so we can no longer admire it or even recognize it when it's under our noses.

One persistent objection to Pope Francis is that he naively embraces reductionist baloney, the buzzword-caricatures of realities like compassion, diversity, encounter, and, most especially, dialogue. You don't dialogue with evil, people object. You attack it; you defend yourself against it. You call it by its name.   

And they have a point. You can't just take at face value everything that slaps a pleasant-sounding label on itself. You don't just declare that because dialogue is a good thing it must be engaged in incessantly and indiscriminately. 

But how to make wise distinctions? How to avoid falling for the counterfeit without dismissing what's genuine? I found some help from, of all people, Pope Francis in Chapter One of his book Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on following JesusIt addresses how to know whether and when to engage in dialogue, but it also nudges you to ask whether you yourself are acting like a person worth entering into dialogue with.

Incidentally, too, it lays to rest the caricature of the Holy Father as a simpleton who can't tell propaganda from reality.

There are three kinds of people who seek dialogue, he points out, and Christ responds to each in a particular way.

The first are those who engage in "devious dialogue": the Pharisees, for instance, asking about whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar.  {"But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?"). Or the Sadducees, with their hypothetical seven-times-married woman. These He instructs, or He asks them a question in turn: He doesn't simply let them set the terms of the debate: 

This ploy is so shameful that the Lord doesn't even bother to argue with the tricksters; he responds simply by asserting the sublimity of the glorified life.

Then there are those who "want to lay down conditions." They want to learn from Him or follow Him, but only in secret (Nicodemas), or only if they can be the conversation-managers:

The Samaritan woman ...attempts to deflect her dialogue with Jesus because she wants to avoid what is crucial; she prefers to speak of theology rather than explain about her husbands.

He keeps dialogue going, but that doesn't mean He lets her get away with changing the subject.

Others agree to follow Him, but only after attending to other seemingly more urgent matters. Again, He doesn't refuse dialogue, He just declines to water things down one iota.

Finally, there are the open-hearted ones. They're not just trying to snatch something else under the guise of dialogue; they're not trying to negotiate a deal for eternal life at a reduced cost.

They put everything on the table. When people draw close to Jesus in this way, his heart overflows with joy.

Entering into dialogue, just like "having compassion" or "taking a pastoral approach," turns out not to be such a simple, all-or-nothing affair. By all means, let's dump the bathwater of reductionism and caricature. 

But let's make sure to save all the babies.

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If God can do miracles, why doesn't He just do them all the time? If curing one blind or lame or leprous man is good, wouldn't curing all of us of everything be better?

One angle, of course, is that the real point is not to relieve this or that short-term, finite, bodily suffering but to provide evidence that God is who He says He is. When the Messiah came, the blind would see, the lame would walk, and the deaf would hear. He came, they did, and the door to salvation was opened. He does wish to rescue us from this-worldly troubles, but mostly He wants to save us from something far worse. Miracles facilitate faith.

This makes sense to me, but in my own experience of miracles--examples in a minute--what's gained is not just knowledge of the proposition God exists, but something much more personal.

Here are some examples of everyday miracles I've experienced:

  • On a visit to Fatima, Portugal, pregnant, ravenous, and crabby, I trudged into the church and prayed to be in a more fitting state of mind. Immediately, I felt peace and also, entirely unexpectedly, the certainty that the baby I was carrying was a girl (she was) and that her name was Miriam Fatima (it is).
  • As a mother of seventeen young children under five (technically, three children, but that's how I remember it), I once prayed to Blessed Alvaro del Portillo to improve their behavior. He answered the prayer by not changing their behavior in the least but shifting something in me so that I suddenly saw everything they did as hilarious and endearing instead of aggravating.
  • Just the other day, (through nobody's fault but my own), I missed a flight. The agents informed me laconically that it was the last flight of the day and that there was no way to refund the hundreds of dollars in question or even to avoid paying hundreds more for a different flight. Recalling that the next day was Our Lady of Fatima's feast day, I prayed, mechanically and hopelessly, for some kind of miracle. But really, what could possibly happen? Was the same, unsympathetic ticket agent about to walk over and inform me that as a courtesy United had decided to waive all fees, and then perhaps inquire what time would be most convenient for me to fly the following day?

A few minutes later, that's just what happened.

  • A few years ago, God arranged what I could only describe as a "millenia-long, intersecting arrangement of ancient poetry, insect behavior, junk-food marketing strategy, and liturgical rhythms," just to entertain me with a silly pun and make me feel welcome (you can click on the link to read the details).
  • This last one happened not to me, but to a Lebanese priest named Fr. Antonio: He was discerning, or trying hard to avoid discerning, a vocation to be a monk. More or less reconciled to the idea, he still had one problem: he was very attached to his chicken-raising. Finally he gave in and admitted glumly that, after all, God's will was more important than a bunch of chickens. He presented himself at the Abbey, and the brother who opened the door greeted him with, "Welcome! We're putting you in charge of the chickens!" And thus he became the caretaker of a far larger flock than he'd ever had in the old days.

Do you see the common thread? 

Miracles like this are not about providing evidence for the proposition that God exists, or leading the intellect to assent to this proposition in order to gain some advantage. Instead, there's a quirky sense of humor and an enormous and very imaginative effort to customize events so that the benefactee is practically forced to admit--well, what, exactly? Not so much that Someone is up there, but that Someone up there must take a very particular interest in me and be willing to go to a lot of trouble to make sure I know it.

You'd almost think He was a Person.

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