It isn’t all or nothing: On dealing with Lenten (and other) dissonances

It isn’t all or nothing: On dealing with Lenten (and other) dissonances February 18, 2015

I became a vegetarian in September 2001. It was my first week of university, and when I saw that the cafeteria offered ample vegetarian options for every meal, I quickly made up my mind that eighteen years of meat-eating had been more than enough.

“It was because of the chicken wings,” I told my family when they alarmedly voiced their concerns for my iron and protein intake. “They served this flavourless pile of skin and bones and called them Buffalo chicken wings – what a joke!”

However, the absurdity of this explanation became apparent when, upon visiting my hometown of Buffalo, NY a few months later, I did not immediately run to the Anchor Bar (birthplace of this famous culinary delight) for a plate of genuine Buffalo wings, nor did I take a single bite of the Thanksgiving turkey my family placed on the table. My mind was made up. I was vegetarian. And, contrary to what I told my family, my reasons went deeper than a college caprice. I’d actually been planning for a vegetarian adulthood as early as 1995, when the movie Babe alerted me to the horrors of factory farming and the cruelty inherent in the food we eat. So, as time went on and my family’s questions persisted, I let the truth emerge: I was a vegetarian because I cared about animal welfare.

Nevertheless, I was worried about how people would respond to my stated reason. I was hardly a viable portrait of an animal rights activist. I owned a leather jacket. I wore leather shoes. I used make-up and moisturizer and plenty of other products whose making depended on animal cruelty. Feeling like I could not easily change these self-contradictory behaviours, I tried to keep my vegetarianism as concealed as possible. I didn’t want to have to have to justify this decision. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I told myself that the bad-Buffalo-wings explanation was as good as any.

Nevertheless, I was bothered. I did care about animals. And, as the years went on, I found more reasons to support my vegetarianism: land usage and climate change. But once again, I could hardly portray myself as any kind of environmentalist. I was a frequent air traveller. I didn’t always recycle. I was consumerist as any other American twenty-something.  Once again, I couldn’t claim a name for myself without running up against massive contradictions.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), we hear a firm instruction from Jesus:

“Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”

I couldn’t help but smile as I heard those words this morning. We were being told to pray in private, secretly – and yet, here we were in a big church, seeing and being seen by one another. And, immediately after this gospel’s conclusion, we were marked with the sign of the season. I knew from past experience that as soon as we left that church, the ashes would be transformed into a very public mark of identity. We may want to be identified as Christians by our love; today, however, we are known by our ashes. For me, this raises a serious concern. Can I live up to the image I project?

Looking at the gospel message, I do not believe that Jesus wants us to keep the signs of our faith a secret. After all, it is in the same gospel of Matthew – just one chapter earlier – where he declares, “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16).

Jesus’ main preoccupation in Matthew 6 is with hypocrisy. Few people frustrated him more than the Pharisees and sanctimonious religious leaders, eager to display all the external trappings of devotion while devoid of genuine charity. For Jesus, humility and self-effacement are the best ways to avoid falling into this trap. By praying and meditating in private, we can cultivate the strength of perception that lets us know when we are straying into self-righteousness; by keeping our good deeds anonymous, we make sure that we are doing them out of genuine concern for others rather than the desire for accolades. As sound of a strategy as this is, though, it can backfire if our desire to avoid hypocrisy makes us abandon all attempts to do good.

Lent is the season in which we struggle to turn from sin and cultivate virtue, when we sacrifice certain pleasures so as to direct our attention toward growing in love for God and one another. And yet, I can’t tell you how many of my Lenten promises have gone the way of failed New Year’s Resolutions. I remember the year I resolved to attend Mass every day. I made it for four days, and then one case of sleeping through my alarm led me to abandon the whole plan. The same thing happened when I tried to give up chocolate, and don’t get me started on the year I committed myself to forty days without Facebook. Disheartened, I eventually stopped trying to observe Lent at all. I now know that this sort of discouragement is not in the spirit of the season.

During my senior year of university, I became friends with a young philosophy student who was (and still is) a serious animal rights activist. A committed vegan, he consumes no animal products; he wears no leather shoes. If anyone was in a position to chastise me for my partial commitment to animal rights, it would be this friend. As we munched on soy Buffalo wings (very well-flavoured, I must say) in a delicious vegan restaurant, I told him about my hypocritical vegetarianism, dreading his response. To my surprise, instead of a rebuke, he offered a gentle smile. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” he said.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. As soon as I heard those words, a weight was lifted from my mind. The fact that I am a vegetarian rather than a vegan may not be ideal from an animal rights perspective, but it is a start, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t tell others my true motives for sticking to this diet. The fact that I cannot get myself out of bed for morning Mass seven days a week during Lent does not mean that I shouldn’t strive to do so three days a week. The fact that I succumb to temptation and break my Facebook fast doesn’t mean that I should abandon any attempt to return to it. The game isn’t over while we’re still here to play it. We can always do better the next time around.

I’ve long held the belief that, to some degree or another, we are all bound to be hypocrites. We inevitably fall short of the standards we set for ourselves. The Lenten season reminds us quite beautifully that as Christians we are not paragons of moral perfection (like those Pharisees so eagerly claimed to be). Rather, we are as vulnerable and faltering as children, constantly in need of God’s healing, mercy and grace. The fact that we celebrate Lent annually suggests that we probably won’t ever reach a point where we’re doing everything right. But, this is no reason to stop trying. Through private prayer and contemplation, we can cultivate the ability to be honest about our limitations and to examine the true motives for our actions. But, there is also a time to step out into the street, to let people see the ashes on our foreheads, to share our faith with those around us – no matter how limited we may be.

Happy Lent, everyone!

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  • Thanks for sharing you journey.

  • ‘It isn’t all or nothing’

    In reading your post I’m struck by the ‘victory/failure’ dynamic that emerges in these challenges that you (we) create for yourself (ourselves). In my opinion, there’s a whole tradition that’s somewhat misguided about building ‘spiritual muscle’ or ‘reprograming the will’, etc. Of course this is rarely successful since we are mostly looking inward for fortitude (i.e. drawing our strength from our own inner resources) rather than asking God for Wisdom and guidance. We do penances of our own choosing, but we are not penitents.

    The crucial distinction between ‘parading the faith’ as the hypocrites do and ‘uncovering the lamp’ as the faithful disciple does is in the source of the display. The hypocrite displays his own intent (blows his own horn) while the faithful person displays God’s intent: even if they appear to be doing identical activities, such as almsgiving.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    This is a beautiful piece and a good reminder to all of us that spiritual discipline, like physical discipline (i.e., getting in shape), needs to be both slow and realistic. Yes, if you can spend all day, every day in the gym, then in 30 days you will look like an extra for the 300. (In fact, this is roughly what they did.) And if I could retreat to a monastery in the Egyptian desert for all of Lent, then maybe I could blast my soul into shape. But in the real world, it takes time and patience and a willingness to start up from where you left off.

    I am also reminded of something a woman in my Franciscan fraternity said some years ago: We have a God of second chances. And if he is going to give us another chance, we should have the courage (and humility) to give ourselves the same second chance.

  • non vivam ultra

    So far as I can see yes, yes it does have to be all or nothing. “Whoever is not with me is against me”; “Because you are lukewarm, being neither hot nor cold, I shall spit you out of my mouth”; “You must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect”, and “enter by the narrow gate.”

    • non vivam ultra

      Please note that I don’t come even remotely close to following this advice and am barely in the Church at this point.

      • Non vivam ultra, I am definitely familiar with the passages you quote here. Jesus definitely poses a challenge to his listeners – he’s definitely out to stir people up and shake us out of complacency. And it may turn out to be true that in God’s eyes anything less than 100% is tantamount to 0%. However, that has not been my experience so far – the God I know has been merciful, similar to the father rejoicing over the return of the prodigal son or the vineyard owner giving the same opportunity to the workers who start at the end of the day that he gives to those at the beginning. I agree that our aim is to enter through the narrow gate, but as Tausign has commented, we need God’s guidance to do so. And as David Cruz-Uribe has said, we have a God of second chances. This doesn’t mean that we can squander God’s mercy (but would we really want to?) But it’s comforting to know that when we fall into a hole, we don’t have to stay there. On that note, here’s a poem by Portia Nelson that might give you some hope:

        Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

        By Portia Nelson


        I walk down the street.
        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
        I fall in.
        I am lost … I am helpless.
        It isn’t my fault.
        It takes me forever to find a way out.


        I walk down the same street.
        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
        I pretend I don’t see it.
        I fall in again.
        I can’t believe I am in the same place
        but, it isn’t my fault.
        It still takes a long time to get out.


        I walk down the same street.
        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
        I see it is there.
        I still fall in … it’s a habit.
        my eyes are open
        I know where I am.
        It is my fault.
        I get out immediately.


        I walk down the same street.
        There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
        I walk around it.


        I walk down another street.

        • nonvivamultra

          Well, I’m glad you have experience of God, and that it’s been pleasant. I haven’t had any experience of God, and what I’ve read of him hasn’t helped at all. The Jesus I see in the Gospels foams at the mouth and tells those that dare to ask for some reason to believe he is who he says he is of wanting to murder him. The God I read of in the lives of the saints, in the psalms, in the sermons, is a monster.

          Alphonsus Liguori teaches that God does not forgive the desire to sin, that God will not forgive beyond a certain number of sins (known only to God), and he and Chrysostom both teach that God’s mercy consists of not striking the sinner dead the moment they sin, and thereby damning them. St Gregory teaches that God will punish most harshly those to whom the most mercy has been shown. Many of the saints teach that the vast majority of humanity will be damned (St Leonard of Port Maurice and Alphonsus Liguori are both suitably depressing, but only a tiny sample). The vision at Lourdes supposedly demaned “penance, penance, penance”. I forget which one supposedly said that the Virgin was growing tired holding her Son’s arm back from striking out with his wrath.

          Consider the number of saints who practiced ascesis to the extent of harming their own health – most recent are Mother Teresa and John Paul II, but the list is exhausting to look at. Remember Jesus’ words to Teresa of Avila – “this is what I do to all my friends”. Oh, and of course, the capacity to sin by omission.

          God demands that you believe in him, but will do nothing to help. To get to know him you must ‘die’ to everything else; and if you don’t, or you want a reason before you destroy yourself for the sake of someone who might not even be there (and has given you no reason to think he is), then you’re going to eternal hellfire.

        • Non vivam ultra, I would be curious to know more about you. You say that you are barely in the Church and have never experienced God…and yet the fact that you are reading Vox Nova suggests that you are interested in both. You also seem very well-read in theological topics. I’d be very eager to know more about your background and how you’ve come to be where you are now.

        • nonvivamultra

          The only things I “know” about theology, I’ve picked up from other people.

          I was brought up Catholic and I’m an embittered homosexual pervert who resents/is angry with the God who demands suffering (and who made the world with that express intention – remember, he’s all-knowing,eternal and all-powerful. He is complicit in everything, if he exists – see Amos 3:6). The only reason I haven’t done the ‘sin against nature’ is fear of hell.

          I came here after googling James Alison, because I was looking for a good rebuttal of him, and finding an old discussion here. I didn’t find that good rebuttal.

        • Thank you very much for sharing this personal information about yourself and also for discussing these serious matters so directly. Your comments are unsettling, and I am concerned for you because it’s clear that you are suffering. Your bitterness is understandable. The Church on earth is flawed and always has been, and in your comments you’ve been quite adept at pointing out many of its shortcomings. But there is a lot of goodness there as well, and as far as I can tell, this goodness drastically outweighs the wrong (though it does not excuse it).

          I guess I’ve been fortunate – I was also raised in the Catholic Church, with sixteen years of education in Catholic schools, and I did not have the negative experience that you did (if I had, I probably would not be in the Church today). I vividly remember my high school chaplain, who was one of the most intelligent and holy people I’ve ever seen. He was all but openly gay and had founded a resource centre for HIV/AIDS patients in the late 1980’s. He was a man of exemplary goodness, charity and courage, and whenever he’d give a homily at one of our school liturgies or meet with students individually it would become clear that his virtues stemmed from the grace of God and the inspiration of the Gospel message. Have you never met anyone of this sort within the Church?

          As for the idea that God has willed human suffering…The problem of evil is highly perplexing and frightening; there are many answers given to it, but I can understand why they might fail to satisfy. For me, some of the most powerful explorations of these questions are from literary writers and critics outside the Catholic Church – I’m thinking of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” and the more recent book, “The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity,” by Alan Watts. None of these texts answer the question for me completely, but they definitely help.

          Thank you for mentioning James Alison. As a newbie blogger who is interested in learning more about contemporary theology, I am eager to know more about him and would be grateful to have a good recommendation for which book I should read first. Looking at this past interview (, I hardly think that this theologian would describe you and other LGBTQ people in the negative and disrespectful way that other people clearly have. Returning to my first comment, it appears that you are finding life to be quite harsh. Do you have support?

        • nonvivamultra

          Thank you for listening. I didn’t mean to unsettle you, or concern you. I don’t think I have pointed shortcomings in the Church, even if I did attack God with his servants (another grievous sin…). Yes, the Church does many good things in the world. That only makes it more confusing.

          I haven’t had a negative experience of the Chuch but I haven’t seen anything ‘supernatural’ in it. I’ve tried to be obedient, and still found more comfort in sin. I have met some people who were like you mention. Few of them seem to me to have been perfect in orthodoxy or orthopraxy. None of them seemed to be supernatural, or to rely on anything except being themselves.

          I have read none of Fr. Alison’s books, only his talks on his website. I do not suggest you do the same. His views are dangerous because they are well-argued and precise. They must also necessarily be wrong. I haven’t been treated badly for being gay since I was a teenager, mainly because only a handful of people know, or have any reason to suspect. I am seeing a counsellor. There is no Courage branch near me and their website puts me off. I’m seeing a therapist. You woudn’t believe how pampered and pleasant my life is.

          • Thanks for responding. I’m very glad and relieved to hear that you have support. Meanwhile, you say Fr. Alison’s views are “dangerous because they are well-argued and precise. They must also necessarily be wrong.” Why would that be?

            I know very little about the group “Courage,” but I feel put off by what I do know. I’ve heard of an alternative group called “Dignity” – have you heard of that one?

        • nonvivamultra

          Thank you. Fr. Alison’s views must be wrong because they contradict the Tradition. If he is right, then the Church is not infallible, and Catholicism is false. If the Church is wrong on this, what else is it wrong about.

          I have heard of “Dignity”. They are a heterodox group who lobby for change in the Church. This is pointless as their issue is with God, not the messenger. To associate with them would be to malform my conscience more than it already is. That, too, is sin.

        • You raise a good point that I’ve heard before (about the infallibility of the Tradition). Once again, though, I’m not sure if it’s as all-or-nothing as you suggest. The Church HAS changed throughout its history, many times. It undoubtedly will continue to change in the centuries to come. The changes brought in by Pope John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council are an example of this. Fr. Alison could be wrong, or he could be a sign of coming changes that genuinely are part of God’s plan.

        • nonvivamultra

          Maybe. The answer to that is that the Church has never changed a matter so established in dogma as the evil of the “sin against nature”, only altered its prudential judgements, and Vatican II brought in no new dogmas (and if it did, then they’re heresy and it’s a false council). God’s public revelation ended with the last Apostle. And anyway, would you wager that hope against eternal damnation? Assuming any of this is true.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      On the all or nothing in scripture: while there are many passages that can be read that way, Luke at least gives us a juxtaposition that suggests otherwise. To the rich young man, Jesus says: sell all that you have and give it to the poor. The rich young man despairs and walks away. Almost immediately we have the story of Zaccheus who spontaneously offers to give half of what he has to the poor and Jesus says: salvation has come to this house. Notice that he did not say “all or nothing!” I think in the end he wants it all, but he is willing to take it to the degree that prompted by the Spirit we are able to give it.

      • non vivam ultra

        Sorry, but I don’t think that comparison shows what you say it does. Jesus demands of the rich man what he knows the rich man can’t/won’t give up, and refuses from Zaccheus what he will/can.

  • Mark VA

    “It isn’t all or nothing” at first blush sounds as perfectly reasonable advice, a soothing lullaby we long for at the end of a tough day. Yet upon critical reflection, questions about its wisdom may start swirling about. If I were to play Till to its lied, then this could be bluntly proposed:

    This advice is an invitation to mediocrity and unprofitable servanthood: “But I did my best, Boss, it shouldn’t be all or nothing!”

    • Mark VA, I’m certainly not endorsing the pursuit of mediocrity! Please see my comment above.
      I’ve actually never seen the Amadeus film – thanks for ruining the ending! 😉

      • Mark VA

        Ah, your reply, Jeannine, makes me feel old – “Babe” is ayes, “Amadeus” is ano, could Stewart be amaybe?

        • I haven’t seen this one either, but I’m really illiterate about movies! I’m definitely going to see “Amadeus,” though…

      • Mark VA


        Methinks, don’t worry about the ending of “Amadeus”, the essence of the plot is elsewhere. If you love the music of Mozart, this movie is a “must see”, just as Sir Charles Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra are a “must hear”. The PCO has an unbroken line of “interpretive succession”, going back to W.A. Mozart himself. I assume Czeski a no problem?

        The Scottish Chamber orchestra is superb with Mozart as well:

  • This brings up a good point about the “all or nothing” thinking. I’ve heard priests brag about telling young men, “You only have two options in this life: become a saint, or go to Hell.” At one point in my life, I would have applauded that advice. But now I cannot help but wonder. How many people in the audience decided, “Well, I’m never going to be St.Francis of Assisi, so I might as well have fun before going to Hell.”

    • Dante Aligheri

      Here’s the problem I have with that. Strictly speaking, it’s true. But, if we take the doctrine of purgatory or some kind of purification seriously, hardly anyone was ever so saintly that he or she didn’t need it. Venial sin does not impede one from grace, receiving sacraments and belonging with the salvific life of the Church, while certainly requiring human resolve afterwards, both here and later on; only mortal sin does condemn and cut one from the sacraments, which requires a grave matter and deliberate intent. So…what is a saint? Someone who never messes up, even venially? To me, that’s hinting of scrupulosity. When we mess up, we can repent and resolve to do better, grow through charity towards God and neighbor through the life of the Church and the Christian life.

      Furthermore, the late medieval theologians had a saying that one can only do “what is in you.” Since God is the wise Creator who never works in vain, they were confident that God gives each and every person the capacity to do the good. In other words, do one’s best. God will take care of the rest. If I may an ecumenical Lutheran twist, one might also say: “Because God has done has acted through Christ and the Spirit, then one can do such and such…” Fr. Kimel (Orthodox priest at Eclectic Orthodoxy) said he finds this to be helpful, without jeopardizing the justification debates, at least pastorally, because it then no longer becomes about one’s own burden but about acting on behalf of something else, the Spirit.

      One of the early Desert Fathers put it this way: “If one wills, then one can become all flame.” It helps take the burden of sainthood off of oneself and onto the Spirit.

      Finally, for me at least, I try to remember Julian of Norwich that “all will be well.” While, yes, this side of things sainthood is uncertain, the virtue of hope does spring eternal. Despair, by contrast, is an ultimate sin. So, if hope is a virtue and despair is one of the greatest sins, what is there to fear if one can hope?

      At least, these were my first impressions.

  • “Well, I’m never going to be St.Francis of Assisi, so…”

    Even the young Francis never thought he was going to become St. Francis. More importantly he never took credit for the change that came about in his life…he accounted it as gift from God. Regarding his own conversion he made this testimony:

    “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.”

    The dynamic in this testimony bears a striking resemblance to what is described at the end of the Canticle of Zechariah. which is recited each morning in Liturgical Prayer ‘In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace.’ Lk.1:78-79

    The merciful love of God flows into those with open hearts even though they are sinful: cleanses them and creates ‘new hearts’. This conversion (or dawning experience of Christ) is where the true life of penance begins and it is always a gift…one that should be prayed for. Furthermore, without some underlying reality of conversion, penances or mortifications (even fasts and almsgiving which are good acts in themselves) do little for the hard hearted because of self-justification, righteousness, and pride.

  • Ronald King

    Dante, I want to make a statement about this, ” Despair, by contrast, is an ultimate sin. So, if hope is a virtue and despair is one of the greatest sins, what is there to fear if one can hope?” I have seen a lot of despair within a lot of people and it’s roots begin within the family history of each particular person’s life. All of us are wired for despair/hopelessness and at some point in our lives we will reach that point. It is a symptom or evidence which indicates we have experienced the isolation of being alone and the love which we have been created to receive and ultimately to give has been lost or has never been encountered. It is a void within each of us which ultimately must be brought to awareness and loved because its existence began with the sense of not being loved. It influences us to think in terms of sin/fear rather than in terms of love.

    • Dante Aligheri

      I’ve met people in such a prolonged situation, where one would never suspect they are in fact despairing. And I certainly don’t want to trivialize that or to say that hope is easy, to say that despair can be rationalized away. It can’t. In many instances, at least in my experience, one can know that one should hope, have a knowledge of hope in that hope is a good thing, that one ought to place faith in hope and still never “experience” hope.

      This is why that message (“become a Saint, or go to Hell”) is unhelpful. It works, concerning the spiritually proud, the overly confident, the Pharisees. But the despairing shouldn’t focus on this as they are already knocked down. They should hear that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last,” that God made a kingdom and a bride out of the wandering Aramean and the outcast.

      Still, that doesn’t make it any easier, although the message is more exacerbating the problem, and I hope that I didn’t create the impression that hope was simply a “Pollyanna” panacea. Or, even more insiduously, that despair was something we choose, like a personal sin – or that’s even fixable by choice, especially where clinical depression is involved since that really just causes more anxiety for the depressed. I probably came on too strongly by calling despair a sin in an unqualified sense, in a legal sense rather than in a sense of an affliction or lack of given love. For that, especially given the weight of such language, I am sorry.

      • “I hope that I didn’t create the impression that hope was simply a “Pollyanna” panacea. Or, even more insiduously, that despair was something we choose, like a personal sin – or that’s even fixable by choice, especially where clinical depression is involved since that really just causes more anxiety for the depressed. ”

        For what it’s worth, I didn’t get that sense at all from your comment. I knew what you were trying to say, that the “Become a Saint or Go to Hell” does not work and that our God is a God of mercy who remembers what we are made of.

      • Ronald King

        Dante, no need to apologize. I should have prefaced what I wrote with the fact that I enjoy reading your comments because of the depth of your knowledge, wisdom and sensitivity. I apologize for my mistake. My intent was to give another perspective to the idea of despair separate from sin.

    • As someone with a family and personal history of depression, I concur.

    • Mark VA

      Mr. King:

      What you wrote touched me, because it rings true to me. I would like to share the below with you, because it too is about despair, hope, and love, and such testimonies are not easily dismissible:

      • Ronald King

        Mark VA, Thank you for that gift. Many things she stated resonate with me. One point she made about not being able to put into words what she learned while in the presence of Love rings especially true with me. It has been stated somewhere that mortal sin prevents us from receiving the sacraments. In my experience of living in “mortal sin” for 40 years I was graced with receiving God’s Love without the sacraments. The “all or nothing” perspective seems to be the outcome of unresolved despair/fear. It seems we form our theology from a foundation of defense mechanisms constructed to protect us from the pain of isolation and nothingness. We seem to become obsessed with formulating profound and complicated ideas rather than face the isolation and pain within. Until we do this we are still alone no matter how much we gather with others in our normal daily routines.

        • Mark VA

          Ronald, I wholeheartedly agree with all your points.

          While I don’t discount the fundamental importance of the sacraments, neither do I presume to know the scope of God’s mercy. He did put us on notice that His thoughts are not our thoughts, so I think we should take Him at His word. Nevertheless, I would not assume that extraordinary means will be granted to me, if I neglect the ordinary means. OK, I think I’m starting to sound rather rabbinical…

          Regarding the video, I too noticed that she said there are no words to describe some of her experiences. Perhaps we should not be surprised. Not too long ago, I came across a remarkable piece of information from a scholarly source:

          By age four, children from poor, middle, and upper socio-economic levels have heard a total of 13, 26, and 46 million words.

          It took me a while to get over the shock of what’s implied by these disparities.

          By analogy, our world and the vocabulary that supports it are a small part of the Whole. Thus, it seems her experiences went beyond our human linguistic (but not conceptual) limit.

          I’m tempted to say that we can go farther with music, but I would be interested if Jeannine could say something about the power of poetry at this point.

          I leave you with this:

        • I see all of the arts as one body with many parts that speak to different people. Music, dance, theatre, poetry, painting, and so many other artistic modes help take us a little closer to touching the ineffable and making sense of our own experience of being human…

        • Mark VA

          Well put, Jeannine.

          Norman Davies, in his recent book “Vanished Kingdoms” points out that what’s left after the various kingdoms, states, or empires depart the stage, is a more permanent “residue” of their existence.

          I too think along your lines – much of this residue has to do with the enduring human need to touch the ineffable, and much of that need is expressed thru the arts. Perhaps in this life, we should strive for the “Kingdom of the Residues”:

  • Ronald King

    Mark VA, “By age four, children from poor, middle, and upper socio-economic levels have heard a total of 13, 26, and 46 million words” I would fit into the first category. One of the implications for me was the belief that I was not good enough. From that core belief I assume you know from your reflections the implications of this belief.
    Also, thank you for the Mozart piece. There is an article which I have planned to read today about the healing power of music and its influence on the neurobiology of the brain.

    • Mark VA


      I remember that music came first to me in the early, prior to school childhood, and words later. When listening to music, especially to Mozart’s piano concertos, I strongly felt (and still do) as if a “conversation” was taking place.

      Later on in my (officially atheist) grade school, Mozart’s music, whenever mentioned, would be attacked as “disconnected from the healthy folk idiom”, thus “inauthentic and corrupt”. It would be described as “candy music” for the “idle amusement of the bourgeoisie”. Bartok, Enescu, Dworak, Chopin, Tschaikowsky, Shostakovich, Holst, even Beethoven (probably because of this 3rd and 9th symphonies) yes, but Mozart – no. Totalitarians, big and small, in their pathological need to control individual people and culture, leave no stone unturned.

      BTW, the “number of words” article I referred to previously is titled “How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement” (May 2013), written by Eric Jensen.