Friday, June 15, 2007

Some Doubted, Part 3

I began this series of posts with the question, posed to me by an old friend, if I ever doubted my vocation. There are cheap and easy ways to answer such a question. For example, in one of my visits with Abbot Philip this week, we discussed the opinion of St. Ignatius of Loyola who said that solemn vows and ordination are 'non-discernible', that is to say, it simply cannot be possible that once you have made solemn vows that God is not calling you to religious life. The Catholic maintains the same about marriage vows. We were discussing this because we are both 'throw-backs' of sorts who still think this is true. However, to say that I've made solemn vows and been ordained a priest and therefore I have no doubts is not a satisfying answer to the struggle of faith that is reality today.

Yesterday, we came upon the idea that sometimes our desires and feelings need modification, and that the direction in which they are modified is often best suggested to us by some authority. My art history teacher in college, presenting the idea of authority and tradition in visual art, used to joke that if all of us had to learn everything on our own, most of us would die of mushroom poisoning. Having sisters who are raising infants and toddlers right now, I might raise the ante and say that most of us would never get past potty training. Kids have terrific enthusiasm for life: they run, crawl, throw their food, pull down the telephone off the desk, draw on the walls with magic marker--all in great fun and joie de vivre! But parents who love their children try to channel this exuberance into more sociable behavior. Parents do this because they know that their child will not grow up to be a happy adult if these behaviors are not changed.

Children of course also are known to throw tantrums. One of the profoundest passages of St. Augustine's Confessions (for me at least) has always been his observation that babies fight with one another over milk, even when there is plenty for both. It is his evidence (against Rousseau and modern bucolic 'State of Nature' thinkers) that our passions are out of whack even from early on. Something in nature isn't working correctly. He calls it 'Original Sin'. In any case, parents here need to teach the child that tantrums are not acceptable behavior either.

As we mature, we start to learn rules about living with others: saying "I'm sorry," and "Thank you;" picking up after oneself, getting work done before playing, eating the main course before dessert. We also learn about the laws of nature. If you touch a hot stove, you will burn yourself. If you fall off of a swing, you will skin your knee. If you bike too fast and hit a pothole, you break your collarbone... Thus, as we mature, we condition our behavior to take these facts into account. In some cases, perhaps in many of them, we again need some advice from those who either have more experience or possess specialized knowledge. "When you start to skid in a car, steer into the skid and not away, and pump the brakes--don't lock them." This advice is given because our reactions in this case are generally at odds with the relevant laws of physics. Out of fear, inexperienced drivers slam on the brakes and go out of control. So we practice driving, and we even may envision the situation before it occurs, so that in the actual event of a skid, reason overrides our instinct to panic, and we pump the brakes as we were told.

Just as there are scientific laws that force us to conquer our instinctual responses to situations, and there are social rules of behavior that induce us to modify our desires, there are facts having to do with the spiritual life that also call for us to conform to them if we wish to live a fulfilled life. Whether we can demonstrate these facts by reason is one of the most debated questions of philosophy since the Reformation. However, we still have authority and tradition to turn to. If we accept on faith the fundamental truths about God witnessed to by those who went before us, we can immediately find places in our lives where we are living 'unreasonably', 'as if' the truths of our faith are actually not true. So we can say that we believe, and at the same time act as if we doubt. Thus, the dictum of St. Ignatius alluded to above is true to a point. However, if I do not act in concord with my solemn vows, then I act as if I were doubting, discerning some other way of life and action. In this sense, yes, I believe that all religious doubt, but the question is, 'will I work, with the help of grace, to modify my behavior in such a way that it is in accord with what I have been taught and what I have professed to believe?' We will take this up, as well as giving some demonstrations, in our next post.

Please say a prayer for my safe return to Chicago, for the community here at Christ in the Desert, and for my own community at the Monastery of the Holy Cross. I promise to remember you!

1 comment:

lucy said...

father peter, i am reading along with great interest and resonance and i even got the part about infants and toddlers, but i must pose the question as a mother of two teenagers...where do they fit? they seem to barrell at full speed into conditioning.

keep praying as will i!


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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