Meeting Adjourned: Keeping the Faith After the Retreat

Those among my readers who consider themselves to be more sophisticated than I will not want to read today’s blog post.  Those of you who are more aware of your own mortality and utter dependence upon Divine Providence however, please stick with me.  For hopefully you will see a bit of yourselves in what I am about to describe, and you will see how we are, all of us, in the same boat when it comes to trying to keep focused on the horizon rather than on the waves that may toss us about.

Over the past few months I have been fortunate enough to attend the monthly Evening of Recollection for Men at the Catholic Information Center, here in the Nation’s Capital. And during that time it has inevitably happened that, soon after this monthly meeting, I suffer an absolutely horrible day.  This is not an exaggeration, by any means: quite literally, the next day I have some terrible thing happen at work or at home, or I suffer from some very painful physical ailment, or I receive some terrible news about someone I care about, or I have a combination of all of these things and more.

If you have never attended one of these recollection evenings – which by the way are held for the ladies as well – the format is rather like that of a brief spiritual retreat from the everyday world.  The attendees gather in the chapel and listen to one of the priests give a reflection, on some spiritual topic which will hopefully prove helpful to those in attendance.  Then private confession is available for those who wish to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation; alternatively one may simply engage in an examination of conscience led by one of the leaders.  Then the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, and this is followed by a second spiritual reflection by one of the priests, often continuing on a related track from the theme explored earlier, followed by benediction.

The reason I like these monthly gatherings is that an evening spent like this, at the start of the work week, is wonderfully refreshing to the soul.  I like to get there early if I can, and do some spiritual reading in the chapel before the Evening starts or during the quiet bits.  I usually take notes during the two reflections if I find them helpful, to transcribe and reflect on later.  And of course it is just a good thing in and of itself to sit in a quiet chapel in the presence of God, gradually forgetting things like deadlines, appointments, bills, and so on, in the company of other professional men who know all of these things and more – mortgages, children, serious illnesses, etc.

Strange to say, over the past several months whenever I have attended these Evenings, the very next day is absolutely rotten, pock-marked by all manner of things.  It seems that I leave the mini-retreat all refreshed and renewed, walking on a cloud, and yet something goes horribly pear-shaped within the next 12 hours.  In fact at this point, it has become so predictable as to be almost tragi-comic.

The return to the material world of course is part of the cause of this.  The spiritual and psychological “high” or sense of satisfaction one has after a good retreat, even a short one, is rather like the runner’s “high”, when the body is surging with endorphins, mixed with that peaceful and sated feeling after a really good Thanksgiving dinner which leads to falling asleep in front of the fireplace.  At any time there is nothing like a good confession for taking the weight off of your shoulders and feeling as though you have been picked up and cleaned of all of the muck that has been slowing you down.  However surrounding that with adoration, benediction, and these lengthy, insightful reflections just makes for a very fine experience spent in the presence of God with other men of faith.

And therein, I think, is what is going on, and why the next day, at least for me, is so inevitably awful.

Human beings are susceptible to evil, thanks to our fallen nature.  All of the supposed sophistication which each successive generation of human beings claims to have over preceding generations is really nonsense, for we merely replace one set of societal ills with another, scoffing at the backwardness of our forbearers while not realizing our own myopia about the outcomes of our justifications of disordered acts.  We simply enjoy doing things that are wrong, and then finding ways to justify our behavior through various means – political, editorial, legal, personal, you name it.  If a man likes to do something which will ultimately condemn him, unless he keeps making efforts to reform his life and contain himself, he will manage to find a way to justify doing whatever it is that gives him temporary pleasure, at the cost of his eternal soul.

Hell is very busy making converts on Earth, perhaps now more so than ever, when the popularity of ignorance has never been more widely taught and disseminated to such great effect.  Yet one of the things which Hell does not like is when individuals begin to believe that there may be more, and better, to come from this God person they hear of, if they stick with Him.  And so sometimes Hell likes to send us unexpected problems, or remind us of messes that are piling up, or throw some illness or pain our way, to try to turn us inward and distract us from looking to what lies beyond this existence.

If you do not believe this sort of thing can happen, you need to go back and read your Scripture, and the Lives of the Saints, for this sort of things happens all the time, with disturbing frequency.  Some of the saints were actively pursued by evil, and some of the great sinners were those who seemed unable to shut their ears to the calls of evil despite the best efforts of those around them.  In fact the really sad stories we read are the ones about people who did not take these attacks seriously, to the point of not even recognizing that they were giving in to the wishes of the infernal, rather than following the Will of the Eternal.

The solution is to open your eyes, of course.  If you recognize what is going on, when you are attacked and things go badly, you can and will experience the emotions of grief or anger or anxiety.  You can mourn and complain and feel rotten, and I do not think it unfair to allow anyone to do that, as they need to.  But once that time passes, then the strength that can be drawn from an Evening of Recollection, or confession, or just a quiet ten minutes spent in prayer, makes the believer pick himself up and keep going, as best he can.

It is difficult to remain focused on who and what actually matters, and I for one need to get better at it.  Yet there is no other choice available to us, in the end.  Either we do the best we can now, to do good in this world so as to prepare for the next, or we follow the path of materialism and nihilism to no purpose whatsoever.  I know which choice I intend to make.

See you at the next monthly Evening of Recollection. 🙂

Lenten Friday Reflection: Release the Prisoners

The Second Reading for the First Sunday of Lent this weekend is taken from the First Letter of St. Peter; you can read all of this coming Sunday’s readings over at the USCCB website.  In this letter, St. Peter describes how Jesus died for all of our sins, even though He Himself was sinless, so that we might all one day have the hope of eternal life in the presence of God. In this passage which we will hear at mass this weekend, there is an unusual reference that over the centuries has led to some substantial debate among various theologians, commentators, and scholars, where St. Peter describes the actions of Christ: “He also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient.”

For a number of Catholic theologians, including St. Robert Bellarmine, the great Cardinal of the Counter-Reformation, this passage was understood to speak of Christ releasing the souls of those who had sinned and died before His coming, but who were not condemned for eternity. In other words, they were people who at the end of their lives had died genuinely repentant of their sins, but before they had atoned for them, and also before Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection could release them to go to Heaven. They took the view that many Old Testament figures such as Adam and Eve were awaiting Christ’s Passion and Death, so that they might be released from confinement and finally admitted into Heaven.

Strange as this concept may seem to some of my readers, this passage from St. Peter’s letter was once a popular subject in art, as shown below. It was often referred to by various titles, such as “Christ’s Descent into Limbo” or “The Harrowing of Hell”. Nowadays, the subject is rarely depicted artistically, or even talked about. I suspect that it leaves many people feeling a bit perplexed, or even uncomfortable, and therefore they choose to ignore it.

Yet as it happens, every time you pray the Apostles’ Creed, you are referencing this event as described by St. Peter in this letter. The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest formal prayers we have, variously dated to the earliest centuries of the Church. In Latin, the relevant portion of the text of the Apostles’ Creed reads: “…passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad ínferos;” the translation in English reads: “…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, He descended into Hell.”

If we turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 632-634 address what happened after Christ’s Death but before His Resurrection. The Church teaches that Jesus preached the Gospel to those who had died, in order “to free the just who had gone before Him.” The significance of this is that “the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.”

This then brings St. Peter’s account back around to ourselves, as we come under that category of those “in all times and all places”. Even though those of us reading these words are still alive at the moment, we may find ourselves eventually becoming permanently imprisoned by sin, if we do not do something about it, now. When we give in over and over again to the temptations of this world, to greed, anger, lust, and so on, or we ignore the needs of others for spiritual or material charity on our part, we simply build the walls thicker, and forge the chains around us heavier. In effect, we are creating our own, personalized prison cell in Hell, to which we are condemning ourselves.

We create these places of detention, very often, by thinking, “I’m not such a bad person,” or, “God will forgive me because He is infinitely merciful.” We tell ourselves this at our eternal peril. Christ speaks far more about the dangers of death and damnation in the Gospels than He does about the touchy-feely, happy-clappy, sunshine-day version of the Gospel which many have come to believe.

When God tells us that something is sinful, we do not get to interpret how He will judge us for engaging in that sin: He is God, and we most certainly are not. If you have convinced yourself that engaging in a sinful activity will be forgiven or overlooked by a loving, all-forgiving God, you need to go back and read the many passages in the Gospels where Jesus warns us that there will not only be judgment, but also permanent condemnation, of those who do not repent and change their way of living. He does not tell the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more – but if you do that’s okay, I don’t mind.”

While we are still able to receive Him, Christ can come to release us from our prisons, if we repent and turn to Him to ask for His help. He can break down these prefab infernal holding tanks we find ourselves in, if we let Him, but He will not force us to do so. We have to submit to the Will of God, which may mean doing things that we find difficult or even painful to attempt.

Lent is often likened to a journey. As we set out at the beginning of Lent, we begin the journey to Easter, which will take many weeks. In order to make that journey however, we cannot remain where we are, chained to the walls of our respective jails and going nowhere. If Easter morning finds us still imprisoned by our unrepentant sinfulness, having failed to accompany Christ on His journey to Jerusalem, it will be because we chose to remain where we are, preferring eternal confinement and misery separated from Him because we prefer to live as we want to live, rather than to follow Him as He wants us to do. Let us all pray this Lent that no one reading these pages makes that fatal choice, no matter how difficult it may be for any of us to break out of that prison in which we have confined ourselves.

“Christ’s Descent into Hell” by Andrea da Firenze (1365-1368)
Santa Maria Novella, Florence