Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Competing for God's Love

A spiritually enlightened friend recently discovered a religious pamphlet left behind in a church pew entitled On The Number of Sins beyond Which God Pardons No More the subject of a sermon by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787).

Fr. Alphonsus Maria Liguori was an Italian Catholic Bishop, spiritual writer, theologian, and founder of the Redemptorists, an influential religious order. He was canonized in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI and declared a Doctor of the Church.

According to this saintly individual God does not forget our sins and balances them against a predetermined number of graces. Ligouri thus warns his audience that since the number of God’s graces are fixed we could eventually reach a point where God will no longer pardon us. Based on this rather distressing information I visited the Our Lady of the Rosary Library the website responsible for distributing this material as well as taking a cursory look at the life of this saint through the eyes of Wikipedia. The one aspect of Liguori’s character that struck me most vividly was his pathological pre-occupation with scrupulosity - a trait that many religious fanatics today seem to admire. Many of Liguori’s sermons most definitely fit into this sad category. Through these homilies we meet a punishing and fearful Deity who demands obedience beyond any human ability to obey him to perfection –instead of to the best of our ability. This God is unable to love us as we are because we only see ourselves, in comparison to God and others, as weak and sinful creatures. In an effort to avoid God’s inevitable vengeance we feel the constant need to deny and punish ourselves (flagellation?} before he and others will. Today, anyone suffering such religious obsessions and compulsions would be advised to seek medical help. If we cannot see ourselves as we truly are we will often compete to be someone else – at the expense of others and worse yet; at the expense of our unique true self!

Anthony de Mello, S.J. said there are three marked instances we first loose our innocence when:

• we compete

• we try to become someone else

• we push ourselves to be holier than we are

Whenever we compete it seems that we are fearful and no longer satisfied or comfortable with the self. In today’s world it seems almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in the never ending quest to be better than our neighbour. Almost from the time we are born we learn to compete for attention and recognition. Later we learn to compete for scholastic, athletic, corporate, and social standing. This never ending cycle is constantly reinforced with many worldly rewards and other ego boosting admonitions.

We all compete when the motivation is strong enough. However, competition is not the real purpose of life. Fulfilling the measure of our creation can only be achieved individually. We are not in competition with any other person, so we do not have to compare ourselves with others. We do not have to become discouraged because we think that someone else is better than we are in a particular area. The essence of our being is equal to that of any other person. There is only one person that can fulfill our role and that is us. This means that others cannot beat us to the finish line because there is no race. This is not to say that others do not have a similar role to us, but it is never the same. This is important to understand if we are going to enjoy life. Every human being is unique and cannot be duplicated.

For centuries the Church has held up various Saints as examples of who we should strive to be. Yet, few people ever ask who that particular saint modeled him/herself after. I believe that the qualities that make an individual so unique are not the qualities possessed by others but rather the recognition that they themselves were loved by God just as they were.

As a postscript It is interesting to note that today Liguori Publications recognizes the problem of scrupulosity and offers several instructional pamphlets to help sufferers deal with the problem.

Many thanks to me friend Steve, for bringing this matter to my attention - it has helped me to better understand my false need to compete for God's love as well as that from others. At the same time it helps me to understand the problem of scrupulosity and how it can mislead us to think of God as someone 'who pardons no more'.

Thanks to the likes of Fr. Richard Rohr I was able to recover from the many fearful images presented by St. Liguori and get back on track with the God I have come to love and appreciate more and more each day. Here follows his message for Tuesday, December 27, 2010. on the memorial of my father’s birthday 1913.

“On that day you will know that I am in the Father, you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20)

Most of us return to the garden, this place of union, to our own center, by a rather arduous route. The ordinary path back to Paradise is the blood, guts, and ecstasy of the whole Biblical text: usually three steps forward and two steps backward, just like our lives.

Human life should be a gradual awakening and an occasional quieting, a passion for and a surrendering to, a passionate caring that is balanced by not caring at all (detachment). Transformation happens at both the center and circumference of our lives, and I am finally not in control of either one. But we must begin somewhere.

For most of us the beginning point is at the edges. This reality, felt and not denied, suffered and enjoyed, becomes the royal road to the center. In other words, reality itself, our reality, my limited and sometimes misinterpreted experience, becomes the revelatory place for God within me and yet always also beyond me.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, p. 15

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