Two Standards

To catch up on my series of posts about my recent Ignatian retreat click here.

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Benedictine crucifix in my floor’s study at the end of the hall.

After warming up with a hot shower I opened my curtains just in time to see that the sun was rising. I hadn’t realized my window faced due east. From where I sat on my room’s couch see the sun ascending over the trees on the hills. It is blinding my left eye and warming my face. It was thirty-two degrees when I awoke this morning. A beautiful start to my last day of retreat.

I can’t remember the last time that I observed consecutive settings and risings of the sun. Probably the whitewater canoe trip on the Rio Grande when I was a senior in college. That was twenty-two years ago. Too long.

From this morning’s Office of Readings:

“God is faithful.” ~ St. Augustine

I read a few paragraphs from a book I purchased at the retreat center’s gift shop the day before and came across this brief passage:

“Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” ~ Romans 13:13-14

This is the verse that St. Augustine read that led to his finally converting.

– From The Fulfillment of All Desire, by Ralph Martin. Page 40. Augustine has been everywhere this retreat.

Click to enlarge

After breakfast I took a walk outside but decided against trying to shiver my way through more prayers at the grotto. It was another crisp and bright blue morning and was invigorating to say the least. On my way back inside I walked past the monument that has the Ten Commandments on one side and The Beatitudes on the other. Since reading Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration a few years ago and in particular his chapter on The Beatitudes I’ve paid them more attention, and so this morning I stop to remind myself of them once more.

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Our morning exercise is The Two Standards. This “meditation on two hills” is meant to help one get a strong sense of the differences between following Christ and following Satan.

Imagine another hill where Satan is the ruler. He summons his demons to lead people to riches, honor and pride (Remember them? If not, go here.) In this way he opens mankind (us) to all vices from his fiery throne.

Fr. John Hardon, SJ, while leading an Ignatian retreat put it this way:

First then, the standard of Satan: Let me first quote from St. Ignatius, “The chief of all the enemy summons innumerable demons and scatters them. Some to one city and some to another throughout the whole world, so that no province, no place, no state of life, no individual is overlooked. He goes around to lay snares for men to seek to chain them. First they are to tempt them to covet riches, as Satan himself is accustomed to do in most cases, that they more easily obtain the empty honors of this world and then come to overweening pride. The first step then, will be riches, the second; honor, the third; pride, from these three steps the one leads to all other vices”, unquote St. Ignatius.

Now imagine a great hill near Jerusalem where Christ is the supreme ruler. Christ is on his serene hill. He summons friends and servants to go out and help all people through spiritual poverty, and even actual poverty, through consecrated life. Leading people to humility. A “Kingdom of the Heart.”

Fr. Hardon again:

Now the Standard of Christ: In the words of St. Ignatius, I quote, “Christ our Lord, the Lord of all the world, chooses so many persons, apostles, disciples and sends them throughout the whole world to spread His Sacred doctrine among all men. No matter what their state or condition may be, the address which Christ our Lord makes to His servants, whom He sends on this enterprise, is to urge them to seek to help everyone. First, by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty and should it please the Divine Majesty and should He deign to choose them, even to actual poverty. Secondly, by encouraging them to desire insults and contempt, for from these two things comes humility. So then, there are three steps. The first poverty, opposed to riches, the second scorn or contempt, opposed to worldly honor, the third humility, opposed to pride. From these three steps Christ leads them to all virtues”, unquote St. Ignatius.

We now have the contrast and what a contrast this is. Christ’s strategy is the direct opposite of Satan’s. It begins by inspiring His followers and future apostles in every age, in every state of life to practice the first beatitude, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, detachment of heart from earthly possessions. And even, if it is God’s will, attracting them to dispossession.

You cannot play both sides. You cannot love, as Christ tells us, both God and mammon.

The antidotes to those three main vices:

  • Poverty – opposes riches
  • Contempt – opposes honor
  • Humility – opposes pride

Christ induces people, no matter their state, to all other virtues. And Christ presents us with a choice.

I know some of you are reading this and perhaps scoffing at the medieval imagery used by St. Ignatius and still in use today for his spiritual exercises. That is likely in no small part to the fact that today we have shaded everything, and I mean everything, in gray. There are no absolutes, we say. Everything is nuanced. There is no truth, only what you or what I say it is. Our truth. Yours and mine.

“What is truth?” someone once famously asked just before washing his hands of the murder of God. Over two thousand years later and we’re still struggling with our answer, mostly out of pride.

What this exercise does is remind us that there are two very different sides offered to us. We do have a choice. If there is gray it is because that is the color that Satan uses to paint anything and everything. His whole gig is to get us to buy in to that. To waiver or waffle to the point of either accepting the gray and living in it. To think that we do not have a choice. He’s pretty clever in this regard, and quite good at it.

But we do have a choice. Christ freely offers us that. The Truth never changes, only the pigments used by Satan’s paintbrush.

As I was writing this down weeks after my retreat I read from today’s Office of Readings the following by St. Vincent of Lerins in which he talks about Truth:

Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale.

Who can be so grudging to men, so full of hate for God, as to try to prevent it? But it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.

The understanding, knowledge and wisdom of one and all, of individuals as well as of the whole Church, ought then to make great and vigorous progress with the passing of the ages and the centuries, but only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import.

The religion of souls should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person.

The tiny members of unweaned children and the grown members of young men are still the same members. Men have the same number of limbs as children. Whatever develops at a later age was already present in seminal form; there is nothing new in old age that was not already latent in childhood.

He concludes:

In ancient times our ancestors sowed the good seed in the harvest field of the Church. It would be very wrong and unfitting if we, their descendants, were to reap, not the genuine wheat of truth but the intrusive growth of error.

C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione, offers words we would do well to heed: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

The truth never changes. It expands, but is not altered. Our understanding of it certainly can change as over the years it is more fully revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. But that does not mean the truth has changed; only our capabilities to comprehend it. Evolution, if you like.

You read that right. Choice and evolution as Catholic beliefs. Go figure.

So ultimately I am seeking humility. I am in fact seeking what St. Ignatius calls the Third Degree of Humility. The first degree is to avoid mortal sin. The second degree is to avoid venial sin. The third degree of humility is not only to avoid what is sinful, but to choose and hear the word, to choose what is more pleasing to God, even though no sin is involved. The Third Degree of Humility means choosing what is more pleasing to God. Choosing what is more difficult, more demanding, more self-sacrificing, not because I have to under the pain of sin, but because I love Jesus Christ, and out of love for Him, I want to be like Him in choosing what He chose.

Humility is to live in the imitation of Christ which is, after all, what all Christians are called to do.

Jesus never said it would be easy. But while this yoke is heavy, the burden is light.

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Tomorrow: my final walk with Cocoa

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I wanted to snap a photo to remind me of the time spent on retreat. This was my desk Saturday night prior to my walk beneath the stars.

And this is a photo of it on Sunday. Actually, a much more accurate photo.

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