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Attaining Holiness: Our Efforts and God’s Grace

Although asceticism is necessary for the spiritual life, we must realize that in a certain sense all asceticism is destined to fail. Human beings cannot change themselves by their own power.

We must desire holiness and do all we can to acquire it. [Saint] Therese said: “I don’t want to be a saint by halves!” But the more the we drive ourselves to attain it, the more we realize that it exceeds our human capacity. When a ray of sunlight cuts through a dark room, we see that the air is filled with many more dust particles than we could have imagined. Just so, the closer the soul is to God, the more it sees its own poverty—its hardness of heart, its faults and blemishes.

Testifying in her autobiography to her awareness that she stood in relation to the saints as a grain of sand to majestic mountains—and yet she also wanted to be a saint!—Therese concluded that she must not become discouraged, that holiness was possible for her because God had given her this desire and that he is just and faithful. “I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.” After searching the Scriptures, she decided that she must let God act, and for that, she must remain little and become ever more so. We can’t transform ourselves or effect our own conversion: only God’s grace can reach the extremity of our weakness…. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, but we should see our efforts in context.

—from Fire & Light by Fr. Jacques Philippe, Ch. 3: “When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong!”


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We are most like God the Creator when…

Why should we praise and thank God, since God needs nothing from us? But need is not the point. Love is. God mad the world from nothing, needing nothing from the world, and our response to this grace is grateful praise—the response of a loving heart to the God who loves. We are most like God the Creator when we praise and thank Him, because then we enter most closely into the freedom of giving, and “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). That is the way to understand heaven. It is not the place where God grants our desires, whatever those may happen to be. It is the place where our desire for God is granted, a desire inherent in our beings as creatures capable of intellect and love. It is a place of reveling in the glory of God.

—from the book Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (book and CD) by Anthony Esolen, Ch. 12: The Glory of God

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Belief, Insight, and the Truth-Telling Thing

The Catholic life sometimes runs: Insight first, then belief. You see a truth and then happily find the Church teaches it. But it often runs: Belief first, then insight. We don’t get very far in the Catholic life without the second. We find, as we grow in our faith, that the belief points us and brings us to insight.


G.K. Chesterton described this in his great early book Orthodoxy. He wrote the book as a barely-practicing Anglican, 14 years before he finally entered the Catholic Church, but the “thing” to which he refers is clearly the Catholic Church.

Near the end of the book he gives his reason “for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion.” He had seen Christianity as a resource and not as an authority, a Divine institution, a Mother.

“I do it,” he wrote, “because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive.”

—from the online article, Yes, you can trust the Church by David Mills

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The Vine and the Trellis

I understand the need for the “encounter with Christ” as opposed to a faith that is merely propositional, but I also believe that without a clear affirmation of the propositions of our faith, the “encounter with Christ” becomes no more than a subjective religious experience.

Both are needed, and an analogy I have often used is that of the vine and the trellis.

The vine is what matters. It is a living, growing, fruitful gift. A vine needs a trellis to grow and reach the sun and bear good fruit.

The vine is the faith–the encounter with Christ–the real experience and adventure of living the Christian life. The trellis is the doctrinal and moral propositions that support the vine, but the trellis, being a dead thing needs constant maintenance and repair if it is to support the vine.

—from the blog post Why Doesn’t the Pope Answer His Critics? by Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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Einstein’s Relativity Theory and Moral Relativism

Einstein’s relativity theory properly concerns the physical cosmos. But it seems to me to describe exactly the situation of the intellectual and spiritual world of our time. Relativity theory states that there are no fixed systems of reference  in the universe. When we declare a system to be a reference point from which we try to measure the whole, it is we who do the determining. Only in such a way can we attain any results at all. But the determination could always have been done differently

What we said about the physical cosmos is reflected in the second “Copernican revolution” regarding our basic relationship to reality. The truth as such, the absolute, the very reference point of thinking, is no longer visible. For this reason, precisely in the spiritual sense, there is no longer “up or down.” There are no directions in a world without fixed measuring points. What we view to be direction is not based on a standard that is true itself, but on our decision, and finally on considerations of expediency. In such a “relativisitic” context, so-called ideological or consequentialist ethics ultimately becomes nihilistic, even if it fails to see this. And what is called conscience in such a worldview is, on deeper reflection, but a euphemistic way of saying that there is no such thing as an actual conscience, conscience understood as a “co-knowing” with the truth. Each person determines his own standards. And, needless to say, in general relativity, no one can be of much help to the other, much less prescribe behavior to him.

—from On Conscience, a collection of two essays by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVII) – from the first essay Conscience and Truth which was the keynote address of the Tenth Bishops’ Workshop of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, on “Catholic Conscience: Foundation and Formation,” February 1991

on conscience

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A Singing School!

In the final stanza, Montgomery unites the choir on earth with the choir in heaven:

Saints below, with heart and voice,
Still in songs of praise rejoice;
Learning here, by faith and love,
Songs of praise to sing above.
Hymns of glory, songs of praise,
Father, unto Thee we raise;
Jesu, glory unto Thee,
Ever with the Spirit be.

And that gives us one delightful way to look upon our lives on earth. They are a singing school!

—from the book Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (book and CD) by Anthony Esolen, Ch. 12: The Glory of God

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Suffering, Death, and Liberation Into a World

The Christian way is to enter into suffering and death with Christ. We see that He did not dismiss our suffering with contempt, but took it to Himself, embraced it, and fathomed the depths of desolation upon the cross…. He has broken the bonds of sin and death—death, not just the cessation of physical powers, but alienation from God. The Christian then looks forward to liberation. It is not so much a liberation from a world to be rejected, as the Buddhist rejects the wheel of desire; it is a liberation into a world to be desired.

So the best Christian hymns of consolation acknowledge both trials of this world and the joys of the true world, for which this world, pronounced good by the Lord at creation, prepares us.

—from the book Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (book and CD) by Anthony Esolen, Ch. 11: Consolation