Merry Christmas (we’re still in the Christmas season) and happy New Year! Are you looking to grow closer to God in 2022? Our video courses can help you with that. And we’re offering $5 off each of the courses we will be running in the next 6 months, only if you pre register by 12 AM on January 10.
Here is our planned course schedule for the year:
How to Grow in Prayer, starting January 17 and running 5 weeks.
Christian Meditation, starting March 7 and running 6 weeks.
Nothing Shall I Want” Peace Through Detachment, starting May 16 and running 6 weeks.
Once the sale ends, registration for the two last courses will close until 2 weeks before their start dates. You can continue to register for How to Grow in Prayer through January 16, but the price will be back up to $49 from January 10–16.
Last month I began converting my old posts to audio files, which you can listen to with your favorite podcast app. I began with the 10 most popular posts, and will be adding about 2 old posts per month, besides any new posts being automatically converted to audio. Look for the podcast Abundance of Joy, which is the name of a new website Dan and I hope to launch later this year. Here is the podcast on Google.
We are planning to create our own social media site there for subscribers as well, moving away from Facebook. Watch for updates.
Our latest video course is now open for registration. Class will start on Monday, October 11. The final Zoom Q & A is on Novemember 20. This is a 6-week class, for the same price of our five-week classes.
As always, scholarships will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.
It’s common to encounter the quote from the scholastic philosophers that “grace builds on nature,” or “grace perfects nature.” Encountering a correct understanding of this adage is less common. In order to accept the teaching of St. John of the Cross regarding the passive nights of the senses and the spirit, we need to understand what “grace perfects nature” truly means.
I am not a philosopher. When I hear the word “nature,” therefore, I tend to interpret it differently than a philosopher would. I am not alone. Here are some examples of misinterpretations found online:
On a question-&-answer site, someone wrote, “St. Thomas (in my opinion) is trying to say that if we change our nature, such as living a life of sin, to living a life of holiness, grace will build because of that change.” There is a truth here, but it’s not what St. Thomas meant.
On a blog called “Grace builds on nature,” the author says, “I understand it to mean that the Spirit works with me exactly where I am and builds from there.” That’s a common misunderstanding.
An online homily states, “Grace works according to the nature of the thing receiving it. Now there’s a problem with human nature. … [It] has been tainted by sin.” It’s true that we are wounded by sin, but sin does not change our “nature,” as St. Thomas and the scholastics use the term. This is basically a repeat of the first misinterpretation.
An online meditation on the Loaves and Fishes story ends, “[God] always wants us to make our contribution, however paltry it may seem. Grace builds on nature.” Both these sentences are true, but they aren’t necessarily related to each other.
A reflection by a religious priest, which is full of syncretism and psychologizing of the faith says, “To sum up: grace builds on nature. Therefore, it is desirable that we develop our full human potential. We need to integrate with conscious activity the energies of the deep-self so as to be fully alive.” I’ll skip the new-age-sounding final sentence. In truth, we only “develop our full human potential” as a result of grace, not as a prelude to grace.
Finally, in conversations concerning mindfulness, even so-called Catholic Mindfulness, I have been told that the peace that mindfulness brings is a good preparation for the peace of Christ. Since “grace builds on nature,” that means (proponents say) that it would be wrong or inhuman to set aside this “natural” peace. But supernatural peace does not require natural peace to preceed it. And, in fact, in order to obtain true peace, we truly must let go of self-generated peaceful states.
A few years ago when I was reading The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, I learned the true meaning of the phrase for the first time. He writes:
“St. Thomas takes it [the word ‘nature’] in the philosophical and abstract sense, which corresponds to the definition of man (a rational animal), to his nature, the radical principle of his operations, such as it comes from God, abstraction being made of every grace superior to it and also of original sin and its results. Human nature thus conceived corresponds to a divine idea.”
Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. 2, Part 3, ch. 1
In other words, when St. Thomas speaks of nature, he means what man is, not what an individual man or woman does or has done.
Man alone is a rational animal. Angels are rational, but they have no bodies, so they are not animals. Beasts are animals, but they lack an intellect and will, and therefore are not rational. Man is both spiritual and physical, possessing intellect, will, and body. So, when St. Thomas says that “grace perfects nature,” or St. Albert the Great says that “grace builds on nature,” they mean that grace presupposes a rational animal as the recipient.
Grace cannot perfect a squirrel. The squirrel does not have the requisite nature. Grace cannot build on the nature of a bird. The angels do operate by grace, but it is grace that is suited to their nature — i.e., it comes directly from the Holy Trinity, rather than through the work of Christ on earth.
“Grace perfects nature, but does not destroy it.” That means that grace does not make a man into an angel. Nor does grace circumvent human nature. God works with our intellect and our will, raising them up to a level they could never reach on their own.
When I “discovered” this truth, I told my husband about it. Unlike me, he is a philosopher. At least, he is just short of having a doctorate in Thomistic philosophy. His response? “Of course!” It never occured to him that non-philosophers would interpret the adage differently.
Now, why does all this philosophizing/theologizing matter?
Nature and grace in prayer
“Grace perfects human nature” — this truth has implications for prayer. Some problematic practices (Centering Prayer, for example) teach the practitioner to set aside the work of the intellect, will, and other faculties. When we act in this way, we leave grace nothing to work with. We cannot receive grace in prayer when we deny human nature by the prayer methods we choose. It is no coincidence that teachers of Centering Prayer also teach errors — amounting to heresy at times — about man’s nature and destiny. “As one prays, so one believes.”
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2590.
Raising one’s mind and heart to God is praying in a human manner. Purposefully setting aside the use of our faculties is not. The former opens the mind and heart to grace. The latter closes them. (Of course, in infused contemplation, God Himself raises our faculties, and then we must set aside trying to work with them at the same time. But that’s a topic for another post. Here, we’re speaking of pre-contemplative expressions of prayer.)
Nature and grace outside of prayer
This has implications for our life outside our prayer time as well. All day long, we should be open to the grace of God. Everything we do should be done in His presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a long and usually slow process to reach that state. We do so by lifting our heart and mind, memory, imagination, passions, and desires to God throughout the day. Practicing the presence of God consists precisely of this.
If we purposely set aside the use of our natural human faculties as we go throughout the day, we are closing them off — at least temporarily— to the workings of actual grace.We are rejecting our nature as humans and leaving nothing for grace to work with. What does this mean concretely? Dismissing or ignoring the movements of our faculties may result in missing opportunities of lifting our minds and hearts to God. That means missing opportunities of growing closer to Him and of being directed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We remain at an earthly level. (I don’t say “natural,” because suppressing one’s faculties is unnatural, anti-nature, even though one may accomplish this through “natural” means.)
This caution applies to mindfulness and meditation practices from Eastern religions, which implicitly deny human nature. They deny that thought, imagination, emotion, and desire are good gifts from God. In contrast, the Catechism says:
“[Christian] meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion and desire. This mobilization of the faculties is necessary …”
Cultivating mental habits that reject the use of our God-given faculties, as mindfulness — even so-called Catholic Mindfulness — does, endangers one’s prayer life and the entire life of grace. Mindfulness can give one a sense of peace, but it is not “the peace that passes understanding.” Nor does it prepare one to receive it. One comes from setting aside the use of the faculties. The other comes from lifting up the faculties to God. They are in conflict.
Now, I realize that many are ignorant of these dangers. God can make ways of breaking through to people of goodwill who are simply mistaken. Nevertheless, the person has, objectively speaking, put a roadblock in the way of grace.
Nature, grace, and the dark night
In the teaching of St. John of the Cross, who is the Mystical Doctor of the Church, the spiritual life is called a dark night. During the active phases of this night, we actively work to purge ourselves from all that is contrary to God’s will. During the passive phases, God Himself purges us at a deeper level than we can achieve with ordinary, actual grace.
In order to make our way through this night to God, we must follow the way of “nada” — Spanish for nothing. Nada does not require that we deny our human nature. Nor doesit aim for nothingness or a void. The nada doctrine means that we should ultimately live and work for God alone. Nothing but God. We must set aside seeking anything else, whether the “goods of earth,” or the “goods of heaven.”
In the passive night of the senses, one must (at least work to) let go of every delight coming through the senses. Clinging to the goods of earth holds one back from entering the illuminative way, the second major stage of the spiritual life. Regretably, most people decide it’s not worth the cost. They would rather have their earthly comforts — whether it be food or digital media or even “sensible” consolations in prayer — than to experience union with God in prayer. So, like the rich young man in the Gospel, they “go away sad.”
Now, we cannot literally give up everything on the sense level, but we must give up all willed desire for them. Only the pure in heart will see God. Of course, like everything in the spiritual life, perfect detachment is a process that takes a lifetime.
What of those who have been using Eastern techniques to experience peace? These are earthly methods and the peace they give is an earthly peace. So here is a second way in which they can inhibit the working of grace. The peace that comes through Eastern meditation techniques, although in a sense “natural,” falls outside Aquinas’s teaching of “grace perfects nature.” It does not lead to supernatural peace. Desiring this earthly peace will ultimately be a roadblock to grace, not a conduit of it.
Grace builds on and perfects human nature. Be human. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind” (Mt 22:37). Use the faculties God gave you. Lift them up to God, that He may perfect them. Live a life of grace.
“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
Anne of Green Gables
Why am I starting a Catholic spirituality post by quoting Anne Shirley? Anne understood something that our culture does not: the importance of words.
Writing and teaching about how to grow in intimacy with Christ, I regularly encounter certain words that are bandied about in a manner that can lead to scandal. What is scandal? We have mislaid the classic definition of this word itself.
The meaning of “scandal”
Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary, found online at CatholicCulture.org, defines scandal in this way:
“Any action or its omission, not necessarily sinful in itself, that is likely to induce another to do something morally wrong. Direct scandal, also called diabolical, has the deliberate intention to induce another to sin. In indirect scandal a person does something that he or she forsees will at least likely lead another to commit sin, but this is rather tolerated than positively desired. (Etym. Latin scandalum, stumbling block.)”
Here are some current examples of scandal:
admitting pro-abortion politicians to Communion
putting a rainbow on your social media profile to celebrate “Pride Month”
In and of itself, there is no sin in giving Holy Communion to a baptized Catholic who has made his First Communion. However, if that person promotes the grave evil of abortion, and he is allowed to receive Communion, others seeing this may think that it is permissible for a Catholic to support abortion.Such people may then be emboldened to sin gravely. This is scandal. It is likely to lead to such a result, but the result is not intended, so it is indirect scandal.
Celebrating Pride Month may be direct scandal, which is more serious. Celebrating another’s grave sin tells him that his sin is a good, rather than an evil. It actively encourages him to sin. Don’t forget that direct scandal is also called “diabolical.”
The sin of scandal
When is scandal a sin?
“As a general rule the sin of scandal exists when one directly induces another to do a thing which he cannot do without sin, either formal or material, e.g. by soliciting a person to perjury, drunkenness, sins of the flesh, etc., even though the person induced to this act is habitually or at the time disposed to commit it. It is otherwise when the thing we ask is good or indifferent; this may be done without scandal and without sin, when there is a just cause or serious reason for asking it; even though one foresees that the other will probably sin in granting it …”
So, celebrating Pride Month is a sin of scandal, since it entices people to sin. Whether my first example is an instance of the sin of scandal under this rule, I leave to the theologians. But there is another sin of scandal involved when a pro-abortion politician receives Holy Communion.
“He is guilty of the sin of scandal who without positively pledging or inducing to sin nevertheless performs an act evil in itself which will be an occasion of sin to another. The same must be said when the act is evil only in appearance, unless there be sufficient reason to act and to permit the fault of another …”
To recieve the Most Blessed Sacrament in a state of mortal sin is an act evil in itself. Doing so emboldens others in a state of mortal sin to receive, without repenting and confessing their sin. So the pro-abortion politician himself is guilty of the sin of scandal when he receives (besides the sin of sacrilege).
Now, I’m not going to get into subjective guilt, because I am using these examples to illustrate what scandal is. This blog post is not really about them. It is about another kind of scandal that can unintentionally lead people to fall away from the Faith. It’s a scandal that Anne Shirley probably would have recognized, but even some prominent Catholic priests do not.
I’m talking about the scandal of misused words.
Misusing words in a way which leads others to sin falls under a third instance of sinful — yes, sinful — scandal that I see happening routinely, even among devout Catholics.
” To prevent another’s sin one may even be bound to forego an act which is sinful neither in itself nor in appearance, but which is nevertheless the occasion of sin to another, unless there be sufficient reason to act otherwise. … we must avoid scandalizing the weak if we can do so easily.”
Ibid. (emphasis mine)
According to the Catholic Enclycopedia, “We should, to avoid scandal, forego good or indifferent works which are not of precept, if we can do so without great inconvenience.” And even some precepts should be avoided in limited situations, if fulfilling them will lead others to sin.
The scandal caused by words
What if your wrote your spouse a love letter and compared your love to a skunk cabbage? Would it matter to him or her that what you were calling a skunk cabbage was what other people call a rose? If you want to make your spouse happy, rather than angry or hurt, you should stick to calling a rose a rose.
What if your spouse gave you a bouquet of thistles and claimed that thistles and roses are more or less the same? Would you feel honored?
In Catholic theology, being precise about words has always been important. The Nicene Council taught that the Son was “consubstantial” with the Father. The Council of Constantinople was convened to rule on the phrase “mother of God.” Words have a precise meaning in our Faith.
So why are so many Catholics sloppy or outright scandalous in their use of words today?
Let me give you several examples that I encounter regularly.
In the 17th century, a Carmelite friar who copied and dispersed the works of St. John of the Cross coined the term “acquired contemplation.” John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, doctors of the Church regarding prayer and the mystical life, had narrowed the definition of contemplation to exclusively refer to an infused, supernatural gift. Ven. Tomas of Jesus, OCD, had good intentions when he coined this new term, but it led to the following bad results:
theologians began to speak of two paths to holiness: the normal path, culminating in “acquired contemplation,” and the extraordinary path of the saints, culminating in infused contemplation.
a misinterpretation of John of the Cross’s teaching on when one should abandon meditation on Scripture.
The first point discourages lay people from aspiring to infused contemplation. It unnaturally divides the Body of Christ between saints and the rest of us. The truth is, as Lumen Gentium teaches, we are all called to holiness. We cannot normally attain holiness without the infused graces given in contemplation.
It also paved the way for further errors such as Centering Prayer, by falsely equating contemplation with an active prayer that we can practice.
The second point continues to be a problem among today’s Carmelites. Just the other day, I read a passage in Peter Thomas Rohrbach’s book, Conversation with Christ, that illustrates the misinterpretation. In the past, I have recommended the book, because it was where I first learned to meditate on Scripture. But I had not read it in full for years. Reading the chapter “Advanced Mental Prayer,” I found that Rohrbach quotes passages in which St. John is clearly in context speaking of infused prayer, and then says that John is speaking of “acquired contemplation.” Thus, even though John says one may regress spiritually by giving up meditation “before the proper time,” Rohrbach advises people to give up meditation when they reach the prayer Teresa calls (not-yet-supernatural) “recollection.” This advice can be disastrous for one’s spiritual life. I followed Rohrbach’s advice myself, and I regressed spiritually, just as John predicted.
All these problems are the result of using words in a way that conflicts with the terminology of the doctors of the Church.
This term is used almost ubiquitously among Catholics in a scandalous manner. Here is a comment from a prominent priest in a conversation about mindfulness earlier this year in my Facebook group Authentic Contemplative Prayer:
I agree with Father that we must be “mindful of Christ,” and that in the abstract, “Buddhists don’t own the word mindfulness.” But no one lives in the abstract. In the concrete, a Buddhist worldview often lies behind the use of this word today.
Here is my answer:
Here is more of our conversation:
When we muddy the waters by trying to apply words from foreign religions, or “secularized” versions of a practice from a foreign religion, we confuse the faithful. The “little ones” whom Christ loves so dearly can seldom make the proper distinctions to discern that one type of mindfulness is okay and another may lead to serious psychological and spiritual problems.
Remember, “we must avoid scandalizing the weak if we can do so easily.” It is very easy to speak of “the practice of the presence of God” or “recollection” or “the sacrament of the present moment,” without using the word “mindfulness” and causing scandal. Let us not lead people into confusion or worse just in order to attract people by the use of the latest faddish term.
You might think that the definition of Centering Prayer was straight-forward. Fr. Thomas Keating coined the term (basing it on something Thomas Merton said) to describe a method of Eastern-style meditation, in which “the goal is a state of no-thought.” Despite the use of Christian terms in Centering Prayer circles, the practice is decidedly not Christian prayer. (You can read more about the problems with the practice in my book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? or my website of the same name.)
Yet I sometimes encounter people who are practicing St. Teresa’s acquired recollection, or even discursive meditation, and they call their practice “Centering Prayer.”
I also regulalry have people tell me, “I only practice Christian Centering Prayer.” I don’t even know what that means! There is no “Buddhist Centering Prayer.” Buddhist do not generally even pray. They meditate. Centering Prayer was created to be a Christian answer to the interest in Buddhist, Hindu, and New Age meditation. It ended up being nothing more than syncretism, as the numerous theological errors taught by Fr. Keating and his associates show.
Centering Prayer is one thing and Christian prayer is another, and never the twain should meet. Unless one enjoys “scandalizing the weak.”
In my Facebook group Authentic Contemplative Prayer, we do not allow any positive posts about yoga. Just a few days ago, this policy became an issue.
A member asked if Pietra Fitness was okay, or if it was really a kind of yoga. (Yes to the first, no to the second.) Another member defended the idea of going to one’s local gym for a yoga class, insisting that there was nothing Hindu about such a class. I and other admins deleted a number of her comments, because they could lead others to take up yoga. I wrote, “Neither you nor I have anyway of knowing whether the yoga class at someone else’s local gym is problematic or not.”
The member could not understand why we do not allow comments promoting yoga “purely as exercerise.” The answer is simple: scandal. In order to avoid being a venue from which God’s “little ones” are led astray, we allow no promotion of any kind of yoga, ever. There is simply no compelling reason to do so.
And finally, here is a term I don’t come across nearly as often: “Christian Zen.” There was, however, a book of that title by Fr. William Johnston, SJ, published in 1997. Here is part of an editorial review posted on the book’s Amazon sales page:
“This intense study of Zen meditation in the light of Christian mysticism demonstrates how Christian contemplation and Zen meditation have flowered into one graceful tree. . . “
Say what? No, Zen and Christian contemplation are as different as East and West. One leads toward “nothing,” the other leads toward the “All.” One to de-personalization, the other to a face-to-face encounter with the three Divine Persons.
We have been talking about Christian meditation: what it is,how to do it, and how to find time for it. We have learned that Christian meditation is not Eastern, non-Christian meditation forms. It is engaging the mind and heart in conversation with God. But you might be wondering what you should use as a basis for meditation. Should you use a book of pre-made meditations? Any random writing from the saints? Or something else?
The Catechism says:
“We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the ‘today’ of God is written” (no. 2705).
There is a variety of good sources for meditation. Notice, though, the first item in the list, “the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels.” Saints and spiritual theologians also recommend the Gospels as being the most appropriate material. The purpose of meditation is to get to know and love God better. It’s not about studying theology or learning about the lives of the saints. What we read should teach us about God’s character and move us to desire a closer relationship with him. Nowhere in the Bible or the writings of the saints do we come face to face with God as powerfully as we do in the Gospels. Jesus reveals the face of God to us. Every event in his life teaches us who God is and who we are in relationship to him.
When choosing a particular passage from the Gospels, it’s best to proceed in an organized fashion, rather than randomly picking a chapter. One good practice is to follow the daily Mass readings, meditating on the Gospel for the day. Another good practice is slowly going through one of the Gospels from beginning to end.
When you find the Gospels difficult
Some readers tell me that they find the Gospels difficult to understand. Others feel drawn to different books of Scripture. The Psalms are particularly moving, and you can find one to suit almost any joy or struggle you may be experiencing. I sometimes use the Psalms when the Gospels leave my prayer feeling dry. But although the Psalms are good for moving the heart, they do not always teach us about the character of God at the same level the Gospels do. I do recommend the Gospels for beginners.
If you find the Gospels difficult to understand, you might try a book of meditations on Scripture. Fr. Timothy Gallagher provides excellent meditations inAn Ignatian Introduction to Prayer(this is an affiliate link). Some will find the consistent format of the meditations helpful for learning the process of meditating on Scripture. By the time you have finished the book you will probably be ready to begin meditating without help.
Prayer should not become Bible study. In our prayer time, we don’t need to be concerned with understanding deep theological cocepts or learning the geography of the Holy Land. We want to learn about a person, not about facts. A little background information on the passage may sometimes help, but we should be careful not to get sidetracked into performing intellectual exercises. We seek what St. John of the Cross called “a little loving knowledge of God.”
Meditating on the Gospels should increase your love for God so that you can more easily engage in conversation with him. It should help you conform your life closer to his will, so that you can grow in intimacy with him. That is what prayer is about.
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Today’s post was first printed in the Catholic Voice of Omaha. I think it’s particularly relevant as we begin Lent this week.As a reminder, enrollment for the course Nothing Shall I Want: Peace Through Detachment ends Sunday, with the first lesson available on Monday.
As we saw previously, the Catechism calls prayer a “battle.” Finding time for prayer is one of the battles we must fight. We fight against the Devil, who will do his utmost to keep us distant from God. We fight against the world, which tells us prayer is a waste of time. We fight against ourselves and our inclination for a life of pleasure.
“I don’t have time to pray!”
Prayer takes sacrifice. Whether we are just starting out or wishing to grow in our prayer life, God asks us to give something up for his sake. We may hesitate. We may wonder if it’s worth it. We may question the need. On the other hand, we make sacrifices for many other things that are important to us. To afford a major vacation, we give up going out to eat. To afford a better school for the kids, we take on a part-time job. If prayer is more necessary than any of these things, we can also make the sacrifices necessary to practice it.
Simplify your life
But where is the time for prayer to come from? The more technology we have, the busier we seem to be. No one has time to just sit any more. Do we have time to sit and talk to God? In order to make the time, you may have to simplify your life. Can you take a fast from Facebook? Say “no” to the next volunteer opportunity? Limit the activities your kids need a chauffeur for?
Simplifying your life sometimes extends to material possessions. The more we possess, the more time we spend on the upkeep of our possessions. How much time could you save if you had a smaller house? Gave your surplus goods to the poor? Took vacations closer to home? Minimized your cell phone data plan?
Sacrifice could come in the realm of entertainment. Consider how much time you spend watching movies and TV. Could you skip half an hour’s program daily and spend the time with God instead?
Your best time may be that half hour when you reflexively hit the snooze button. You aren’t being productive then anyway, and you’re not getting much rest. If you can, schedule prayer for first thing in the morning. You’re less likely to forget it or let other activities take priority.
Your whole family may need to make adjustments so you can all become more prayerful. Busy parents need their spouse or older children to help them find time for prayer. Can you do tag-team mental prayer in the evenings and on weekends? Put a sibling in charge of little ones? Make use of a toddler’s nap time? Pray while nursing the baby?
How about visiting an adoration chapel during your lunch break or just before or after work? Working closer to home so your commute is shorter? Making simpler meals? Assigning more chores to the kids? Being satisfied with a slightly messy house?
Prayer takes sacrifice. It is a battle. It is a race. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor 9:24-25). The crown of eternal friendship with Jesus is worth your efforts. You will not regret the sacrifice.