February 02, 2009

Preface to Retreat Notes

The retreat master began his talk acknowledging that the subject – the Four Last Things – was a self-defeating proposition for him. Where would he go from here next year? “Tips to keep from getting frostbite?” There’s no where to go but down from such an intrinsically interesting subject. When praised later, he said modestly that "this stuff writes itself".

Indeed it seems judgment is to religion what sex is to the average teenage male. It's what we thirst for, especially for certainty involving judgment. It's the reason that people hang on the words of the fire 'n brimstone preacher and it's the reason the early martyrs died. Jihadists kill themselves and "infidels" in order to send infidels to Hell and themselves to Heaven.

Too often I want to be "paid forward" in terms of love and service of God. But don't the pagans do as much? At one extreme, didn't Bertrand Russell say that God simply didn't provide him enough proof of His existence? At the other, wasn't Abraham, by contrast, willing to sacrifice the heir (his son) to the promise of many descendents, the symbol of eternal life for early Israelites?

How perfectly a recent responsorial Psalm (37) rejects the modern mindset! :
R. (39a) The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
Trust in the LORD and do good,
that you may dwell in the land and be fed in security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will grant you your heart’s requests.
R. The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
Commit to the LORD your way;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make justice dawn for you like the light;
bright as the noonday shall be your vindication.
Trust comes first and then he acts. Too often I want the reverse - I want Him to guarantee something and then I will follow. This Psalm states that it occurs in an opposite fashion. I commit to Him and he will act. I commit to working on my virtues (that is, courting pain in the form of greater discipline) and He will act in response.

Theologically, the priest said, death is a consequence of sin. And don’t think I didn’t miss that qualifier "theologically". He said we can’t know much of anything about the earliest man or whether death of animals was caused by Original Sin, although I thought that a curious statement since animal death preceded the existence of man by millions if not billions of years. I mean to press him on how to deal with the awkwardness of theological truths not being the same as factual truths. Perhaps I have too fundamentalist a cast of mind; he said it would not affect his faith one bit if Elijah’s chariot ride to Heaven and bypassing of death was not historical. Neither would it mine, but it's a different matter to simply throw away the factual basis of death as a literal consquence of sin.

Death, judgement, Hell and Heaven. Deep subjects. There were a couple pet owners who protested his statement that dogs don’t go to Heaven. I protested not for the sake of my dog but in order to try to understand the principle at stake: only the rational go to Heaven. Rationality , he said, is the only condition that is capable of the beatific vision. But what about the mentally disabled person who has never had rationality? Or the infant child whose cognitive skills match that of a dog? I think my dislike of putting together rationality and Heaven is that I dislike the pressure it puts on us humans to perform, i.e. it’s an emphasis on free will. Dogs don’t have it, humans do. I'm always hungry for underachievement and for envy of animals.

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Browsing the bookstore on the retreat grounds, a bookstore that is somewhat "liberal" if that label applies to churchy things, I feel sudden allergy to shallowness. While Fr. Michael Collins' book about the Vatican was physically beautiful, full of art and history, the book on the history of the Vatican Swiss Guard struck me as too culturally Catholic and thus a bit kitschy. Perhaps it was marred also by its juxtaposition next to one of those Voice of the Faithful type books. (While wondering amid the store the thought came to me: what if you had a bumper sticker showing an aborted baby with the caption, "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for McCain"?)

Our retreat master began with the provocative statement that death is something you endure and you do. It's not a totally passive activity. It's not just something that happens to you. You "do" it in the very moment of death, in that instantaneous moment. Father C. was quick to note that what follows is certainly not church teaching but is within the bounds of said teaching.

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