Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dying Alone

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in the section about Abba Bessarion, as told by his disciple:

...[W]e walked on and came to a cave where, on entering we found a brother seated, engaged in plaiting a rope. He did not raise his eyes to us, nor greet us, since he did not want to enter into conversation with us. So the old man said to me, "Let us go; no doubt the old man is not sure if he ought to speak with us." We continued our journey...

On our return, we came again to the cave where we had seen the brother. The old man said to me, "Let us go in and see him; perhaps God has told him to speak to us." When we had entered, we found him dead. The old man said to me, "Come, brother, let us take the body; it is for this reason God has sent us here."

When we took the body to bury it, we perceived that it was a woman. Filled with astonishment, the old man said, "See how the women triumph over Satan, while we still behave badly in the towns." Having given thanks to God, who protects those who love him, we went away.

Well, somehow there is something very attractive about that scenario to me: living all alone, have people stop in occasionally, and then finally having someone find me dead, and bury me – and of course, having that triumph over Satan!

I don’t have a desire or feel a need to have anyone around me when I die. Of course, it would be good to die with the sacraments, so it would be necessary to have a priest there for that. But it has always seemed to me that most people who are at the moment of death really are not too concerned about who is there with them…but who knows?

I was with my mother at the moment of her death. Did she know I was there holding her hand as I listened to the “death rattle” of her labored semi-breathing? I don’t know. But I do know that I couldn’t continue to hold that icy hand after a while; it seemed like she was not there. My mom was the type who probably would have been saying, “Sure, hold my hand if it makes you feel any better”, but would not have cared one way or the other for herself.

I was with my sister at the moment of her death, too. I wasn’t holding her hand. I had entered her hospital room hours before, and she had acknowledged my presence with a vocalization that held not clue as to her state of mind; she was busy dying, I think. Anyway, as the time of her death approached, I was just sitting there in the darkness of 5am, listening to her struggle to take a breath and then remain silent as I counted the seconds between those breaths. Her husband was there too, and we didn’t speak; neither of us really knew if the other was awake. Finally, he arose and stood beside her. She hadn’t made a sound in a couple of minutes…I’d lost track of the seconds I’d been counting. He said, “I think she’s gone.”

That’s the extent of my experience with the dying. The thought of dying alone doesn’t bother me; it’s the meeting with God, my own personal judgement, that has me worried! And there is no one on earth who will be able to help me at that moment.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

I love the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Why? Well…I am not sure, exactly; probably it is in part because it is also my daughter’s birthday.

The Holy Innocents are knows as
the "flowers of martyrdom".
Last night as I was praying vigils, though, I realized something I had not thought of before. And that is the tension between the celebration of the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, and the mourning of their horrible deaths at the hands of a tyrant.
Here is the 4th lesson from vigils, from a sermon of St. Augustine:

Dearly beloved brethren, today we keep the birthday of those children, who, as we are informed by the Gospel, were massacred by the savage King Herod. Therefore let earth rejoice with exceeding joy, for she is the mother of these heavenly soldiers, and of this numerous host. The love of the vile Herod could never have crowned these blessed ones as hath his hatred. For the Church testifieth by this holy solemnity, that whereas iniquity did specially abound against these little saints, so much the more were heavenly blessings poured out upon them.

They were massacred, but we rejoice; they are crowned by Herod’s hatred in a way his love could never have accomplished.

In the responsory, we focus more on the tragic circumstances of martyrdom:

R. The blood of thy saints have they shed like water round about Jerusalem.
* And there was none to bury them.
V. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the air, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.
R. And there was none to bury them.

In the 5th lesson, St. Augustine continues:

Blessed art thou, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, which hast suffered the cruelty of King Herod in the slaughter of thy children; who art found worthy to offer at once to God a whole white-robed army of guileless martyrs! Surely, it is well to keep their birthday, even that blessed birthday which gave them from earth to heaven, more blessed than the day that brought them out of their mother's womb. Scarcely had they entered on the life that now is, when they obtained that glorious life which is to come.

Those Holy Innocents have been found worthy! The event of their murder – their birth into Heaven – is more blessed than their birth on earth. But we acknowledge the evil done to them in the responsory:

R. These holy ones suffered for thy sake, O Lord take vengeance for them.
* For day by day they cry unto thee.
V. Avenge, O Lord, the blood of thy saints which is shed.
R. For day by day they cry unto thee.

Always in our Catholic life, I think, we should be thinking about the possiblity of physical martyrdom and the fact that our Faith is worth paying that price. But also, I think that as Catholics we should always be mindful of that tension between the tragedy and horror of the death of the body, which is of course linked to the possibility of eternal life in Heaven with God and all the saints.

It is a tension that our shepherds, sadly, seem to have forgotten to preach to us…

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, December 23, 2013


For the first time in many years, I’m feeling some genuine excitement and anticipation about Christmas!

I don’t mean that I haven’t felt that excitement and anticipation at all; but this year is so different just because we did not put up the Christmas tree on Thanksgiving day or the day after! That is because our daughter has moved out on her own, and she was the main impetus for setting up the tree. I just have always seemed to be powerless to say “no” to her on that point (and many others, much to my chagrin. But she seems to be turning out okay anyway).

So, the tree is still not up, and I am actually looking forward to that little project! This is in contrast to most years, when I have not enjoyed doing it because we were doing it so early.

On a more spiritual level, there’s that little “Christmas novena” which is more than a novena. It starts on the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30) and continues through Christmas Eve. It’s the one where you are to say 15 times per day:

Hail, and blessed by the hour and moment at which the Son of God was born of a most pure virgin, in a stable in Bethlehem, at midnight, in the piercing cold. At that hour, vouchsafe I beseech Thee, to hear my prayers and grant my desires.

I did this last year, too. I am not good at keeping count, though; I just say the prayer at the beginning and end of each of the hours of the Divine Office, and at other times if the thought comes to me. The idea, I am sure, is simply to keep the thought of this incredible meaning of the feast in our minds. And saying the prayer all through the day certainly does that.

For me, it’s not about the particular intention I have for the prayer, though I do form an intention. Rather, it’s about the Nativity of Our Lord…of course! Saying the prayer builds anticipation in me; it makes me think about that Holy Night in a new way, somehow. I thought I might not say the novena this year, but then I remembered how much it affected me last year. And this year has been even more special, largely due to the timing of the setting up of the Christmas tree!

So I am anticipating. And I was so looking forward to the Midnight Mass of Christmas. But alas…apparently there is no Midnight Mass scheduled at my parish this year. I am very sad and disappointed about that. But never mind! I will offer it up, and my prayers for the Office of vigils will be extra special.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Spiders and Demons

I was reading an excerpt from a book entitled Evagrius of Pontus: Talking Back. It has the subtitle of “A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons” – quite the promising volume, I would say!

Evagrius lists “thoughts” that come from demons, or from our own concupiscence, I guess, and offers Scripture verses to combat them – “talking back” to the demons in the words of Scripture. Evagrius, according to the introduction, emphasized the importance of confronting the thoughts as soon as possible, and heading them off at the pass, so to speak, before the thoughts can become sinful actions. Evagrius notes the need for the grace of discernment to do this.

I know only too well the value of cutting off the demons’ voices early in the game! I hope I am learning to do that.

Well, anyway, last night when I went out to the chapel, there was a spider on the wall. As I usually do, I removed my shoe and squished the little creepy crawler. I don’t like spiders. But it made me think of Evagrius and the demons.

My chapel seems to be quite attractive to spiders, and a few other bugs. But mostly spiders. Perhaps that’s because it was just a garden shed once upon a time, and maybe the spiders had taken up residence in force. Certainly there were more spiders in the beginning than there are now.

But that brings us back to Evagrius. When the shed became the chapel, and I saw spiders crawling out of the woodwork, I started killing them. And slowly, there became less of them. I think that is an apt analogy for “talking back” to the demons. Cut them off at the knees with Scripture, and after a while there will be fewer of them!

With the spiders, my discernment of their presence has grown. I am very, very sensitive to them, and I am very, very vigilant, too. I hate it when they scurry across the page of my prayer book in the middle of a psalm! I don’t like spiders. Oh yes, I think I mentioned that. When I walk into the chapel, I usually take a quick look around. I have become expert at spotting the tiniest dark spot on the white walls, and identifying it as a spider. Off comes the shoe; down goes the spider!

Now, if I can hone my demon-discerning skills to that level, I will be making some progress! I guess there’s a lesson there. I must be as vigilant and discerning about the thoughts that enter my mind as I am about the spiders that enter my chapel.

And Scripture certainly will make an effective “shoe” with which to squish them.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Efficacy of Our Prayers

About a month ago, I saw this quote from Dr. Peter Kreeft:

I strongly suspect that if we saw all the difference even the tiniest of our prayers to God make, and all the people those little prayers were destined to affect, and all the consequences of those effects down through the centuries, we would be so paralyzed with awe at the power of prayer that we would be unable to get up off our knees for the rest of our lives.    

I was a little taken aback. I thought: can that be true? So I asked my spiritual director that very question. He replied, “Indubitably, my dear Photini. (If it weren’t, I’m wasting my life away.)”

Well, I thought, the same goes for me! But this little exchange made me realize that I don’t really believe that my prayers have much of an effect. And I realized that a conversation I had had with my spiritual director years ago had led me to that conclusion. I still believe it was important to pray (obviously! Since I have kept up the practice all along!), but I didn’t realize how much I doubted the efficacy of my prayers.

My SD further reminded me that whether or not there’s anything special about my prayers is immaterial: the Bible commands us to pray for one another. The degree of efficacy is something only God knows. As long as we desire to and actually try to conform our wayward wills to His perfect will, we need not concern ourselves with investing in an “efficacimeter”: we can leave that to God. Even if, objectively speaking, they’re only 1% efficacious, we still ought to pray for one another. And to assure another of our prayers is itself a spiritual work of mercy.

I also started to wonder why God should listen to me, sinner that I am! But my SD pointed out that God will listen to me because He’s promised to do so. And if we can’t rely on God’s promises, then what else is there?

Those demons will do whatever they can to stop us from praying, won't they!? Reading that quote above and thinking about it, and asking my SD those question gave me a newfound confidence in my prayers. And with that growing confidence in my prayers, and I want to pray. Instead, though, after the initial burst of joy, I began to feel depressed, and I just want to weep. Why? Who knows? Tears of relief, in part. Tears of despair in part, too, for lost years. Tears over misunderstandings. Tears over my current life. 

But, I looked at it as another trial-and-tribulation to offer for the love of God and salvation of souls, etc. I was happy about that. I can’t change the past, so there’s no point in dwelling on it, other than to repent with a firm purpose of amendment.

“Delicta juventutis meƦ, et ignorantias meas ne memineris.” - Ps 25(24):7
(Remember no more the sins of my youth)

Yes, the Prince of Darkness will do whatever he can to stop us from praying. If he can’t make us stop, he'll try to cover us with a spirit of darkness, of confusion, of doubt, of despair.

My SD’s advice: Be aware of his tactics, make the Sign of the Cross in faith, and just laugh at his futile efforts. Above all, perfect the virtue of hope: hope and trust in the Divine Mercy.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sin and Contrition, Prayer and Penance

A reading from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers mentions Abba Apollo of Scetis, who had been an “uncouth” shepherd. As such, he had one day been prompted by the devil to kill a pregnant woman in order that he might see the child in her womb. The story continues:

Immediately his heart was troubled, and filled with compunction, he went to Scetis and told the Fathers what he had done… He said, “I am forty years old and I have not made one prayer; and now, if I live another year, I shall not cease to pray God that he may pardon my sins.” In fact, he did not work with his hands but passed all his time in prayer, saying, “I, who as man have sinned, do you, as God, forgive.”

… And he was sure that God had forgiven him all his sins, including the murder of the woman; but for the child’s murder, he was in doubt. Then an old man said to him, “God has forgiven you even the death of the child, but he leaves you in grief because that is good for your soul.”

Elsewhere, I have read that it is good, when making a confession, to sometimes confess again a past grievous sin, in order to achieve a greater degree of contrition for one’s sins. This story seems to illustrate that point.

Also, this story made me think about women who have aborted their babies. It might be easy for them to fall into Satan’s trap of believing that in the case of the murder of a little unborn baby, even God would not be able to forgive that sin. But of course, that is not true. Nevertheless, it is a horrible sin (and I suppose the degree of horrible-ness depends on the willingness of the woman, whether she was coerced in some way, her own degree of ignorance, etc.); therefore, wouldn’t that sin require, perhaps, a greater degree of penance? a greater degree of purging?

If one can endure feeling “unforgiven” but at the same time maintain the intellectual knowledge of God’s endless mercy, doing so would reduce, perhaps, the time in purgatory which might be required in order to be purged of the stain of that particular sin. At least, that seems a reasonable thought to me. I do not know whether it is the correct theological perspective, though.

At any rate, I feel a similar sort of compunction and contrition when I think of the children whose birth I prevented via use of artificial contraception, or the children I may have unknowingly aborted through the same avenue. Sometimes when I think of that sin, and other sins I have committed – which have been confessed – I feel a horror that is painful, and a remorse that is unremitting at least for a time. And I think that what I am likely to experience in purgatory will be a hundred times more intense than that. That’s an incentive to embrace the pain here; that is what could make one say, “If I live another year, I shall not cease to pray God that he may pardon my sin”…and do penance accordingly.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Trusting God For Our Very Lives

This reading from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers raises an interesting question:

One day Abba Agathon questioned Abba Alonius saying, “How can I control my tongue so as to tell no more lies?”

And Abba Alonius said to him, “If you do not lie, you prepare many sins for yourself.”

“How is that?” said he.

The old man said to him, “Suppose two men have committed a murder before your eyes and one of them fled to your cell. The magistrate, seeking him, asks you, ‘Have you seen the murderer?’  If you do not lie, you will deliver that man to death. It is better for you to abandon him unconditionally to God, for he knows all things.”

It is so very difficult to trust God in situations where we really think we know what to do, isn’t it?

The Desert Fathers excerpt reminded me of something I had seen on canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters Face Book page. He quoted the following, with the preliminary comment, “Who thinks things through at these levels today?” (emphases added)

Par. 269. It is asked, first, whether it is permissible to kill a drunken or insane aggressor? Answer. Yes, more than probably [probabilius], unless it is clear to you that [the aggressor] is in a state of mortal l sin. The reasoning is that, although a drunk or insane person is not a formally unjust aggressor, he is nevertheless a materially unjust one, and your right to life is not lost because of his drunkenness or insanity. But if you know certainly (which would be extremely rare) that he is in a state of deadly sin, from which he would be able to recover after his disturbance or inebriation [passes], and at the same time you believe with moral [certitude] yourself to be in the state of grace, charity requires that you prefer his eternal salvation to your temporal life. Nevertheless nothing forbids, even in this hypothetical, that you strike or wound him so that, though his life is safe, he is rendered unable to harm. Aloysio Sabetti (Italian Jesuit, 1839-1898), COMPENDIUM THEOLOGIAE MORALIS, 30th ed., 4th ed. post Cod. as rev. by Barret (Pustet, 1924) at 274.

sin. The reasoning is that, although a drunk or insane person is not a formally unjust aggressor, he is nevertheless a materially unjust one, and your right to life is not lost because of his drunkenness or insanity. But if you know certainly (which would be extremely rare) that he is in a state of deadly sin, from which he would be able to recover after his disturbance or inebriation [passes], and at the same time you believe with moral [certitude] yourself to be in the state of grace, charity requires that you believe with moral [certitude] yourself to be in the state of grace, charity requires that you prefer his eternal salvation to your temporal life. Nevertheless nothing forbids, even in this hypothetical, that you strike or wound him so that, though his life is safe, he is rendered unable to harm. Aloysio Sabetti (Italian Jesuit, 1839-1898), COMPENDIUM THEOLOGIAE MORALIS, 30th ed., 4th ed. post Cod. as rev. by Barret (Pustet, 1924) at 274.

 Yes, that is certainly something to think about, isn’t it? When I read it, I realized that it is the underlying thought that makes me believe I could not kill someone even in self-defense. Who am I to take another’s life?! Their very soul could be in danger of hell!

Of course, I have not been in the situation, so I don’t know whether my resolve would hold, or whether I would be swept up in the passion of the moment. After all, we do have a survival instinct, and we are supposed to desire life over death, all things being equal.

Both of the examples, though, are pointing toward a definition of true charity. Are we really concerned for the other person’s soul? If so, that will sometimes, perhaps, require that we act in a way that seems to make no sense at all. When it’s a matter of verbally offering correction to a sinner, many of us probably can see the value of risking “offending” the other person. But when it’s a matter of life or death? Well…that complicates the issue a bit, doesn’t it?

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thinking About Death

Do you think about death much? I asked a friend that question, and she said she didn’t.

Maybe it's the “monastic” training I've received from my spiritual director that has led to my habitual consideration of death; monks are supposed to think about it daily. I also read a book about purgatory a few years ago: Hungry Souls. Now there is a book that will make you think long and hard about death!

Sometimes when I really "see" my sins, I realize what an affront they are to God; then I experience a horrible feeling of filth on my soul, and it makes me want to escape from myself because it is so awful – but of course, there’s nowhere to go! You can’t escape from yourself, not even (maybe especially) in death. When we die, we face God, and I think we will finally have a realistic sense of our own sinfulness; the pain I feel concerning my sins here on earth is probably a drop in the bucket compared to the pain I will feel at the moment of death and judgment.

In purgatory, I think, that stain of sin will be so visible and painful that it will be practically unbearable, and yet I will have to bear it until it is purged from me! And that leads me to the thought of how truly awful hell is. And all of that makes me resolve to avoid sin, though of course I soon forget the horror of it and fall back into old habits. But I think I have improved a little bit!

I read something about death on a blog the other day; the blogger was commenting on the actor that recently died in a car crash.  The blogger’s thoughts sounded like he was reading my mind! He wrote:

I do not know, as I was saying, much of Paul Walker’s life. … What I do know is that when he got up on Saturday morning his guardian angel, the Blessed Virgin, and the Holy Ghost knew he would never wake up alive again. And I know, I know, that some serious work was going on in the background as Paul Walker’s immortal soul lived its last hours on earth.

Whenever I read about a local death, even if I don't know the person, I think about it exactly as he is saying above. And I think, "What is it like to stand before God and suddenly be aware of every sin you've ever committed? Of all your shortcomings?" Etc.  

It sounds morbid (ha!) and depressing, but I don't think of it that way, generally speaking. It's just...well... reality. We're all headed in that direction!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!