Careful! You May Be Your Cat

Thoughts on the Gospel
for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”.

Matthew 16:25

Careful! You May Be Your Cat

You may have noticed that when you contemplate any morally significant action, two voices may be heard In your mind’s ear. One of these is the voice of your passions, your desires, quite natural but lacking any moral sense. The second is the voice of your conscious, morally attuned self, full of advice about what you ought and ought not do. It is because you are human, not a dog or an orangutan, that you heard that second voice, a voice that does not trouble dogs or orangutans because they are beasts. Your cat does not hear the voice of ought and ought not, only ‘food,’ ‘comfort,’ ‘pleasure,’ and no amount of admonition regarding the destruction of the furniture by busy claws, no orthinological course teaching the importance of birds to the ecosystem, will make your cat do better, better, in the moral sense, not being accessible to his feline mind. You have that second voice because it is human to know and desire the good, to shape the passions in service of the intellect and will rather than simply to follow the urgings of nature, nature that knows existence is good, that pleasure is good, but is blind to the good that transcends nature.

When Jesus taught us to deny the ultimacy of those promptings of nature he called the self, he set us free to become citizens of his kingdom of the new heart, in which every claim of nature, even the claim of parental obedience and affection, must give way before the claims of holiness and obedience to God’s will as we know it. The refusal to grant nature the ultimacy it would claim has a cost. In its most elementary and essential aspect the cost that must be borne is the constant watchfulness, often descending into warfare, incumbent upon every soul to rest the passions that belong to the world, passions that because of the fallen nature of nature will always offer resistance, sometimes gently, sometimes aggressively to the desire of the soul to please God. What is called ‘natural’ is not really natural, but is the created good warped by sin. It is for this reason that the apostolic letters depict the Christian life a struggle, as warfare, so that they counsel patience. Our faults were not acquired in a day and they will not be reformed in a day.

Regrettably, we live in an era in which ‘science’ namely psychology, has determined that the real you is the voice of nature, of fallen nature, which should be followed. This was the inheritance of Sigmund Freud, who promoted the importance, indeed ultimacy, of the unconscious—if one can discern its meaning– to the detriment and neglect of that higher self which tells us to pursue the good even if this means inconvenience and finally suffering. This subordination of intellect and will to ‘natural’ motives touches the wider range of human actions. It has long been held by some psychologists that continuing in an ’unhappy’ marriage causes psychological damage. This attack on the possibility of restraint and discipline , is causing a new chapter in our culture wars. The world says that the repression of our ‘natural’ desires is futile and inauthentic. Thus ransacking your local convenience store is understood as being justified by the fact that “I wanted,” the cigarettes or the soda, but the greater danger comes when the relation between men and women is view through the lens of naturalism, which now considers restraint, not acting out our passions, unnatural and unjustified. So when a marriage seems boring, unexciting, tired, there is no reason not to check out. When boy sees girl, he is like the dog that sees the food bowl. There is no reason not to go for it; ignore the voice of conscience, of reason, of the higher self.

Adding to this crisis of agency, the national psychological association which maintained for years that perversion is a sickness have since 1974 concluded that such behavior is ‘natural ’ in the sense that  “homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social and vocational capabilities.” Really? In principal this conclusion was not new. It was David Hume who argued in the late eighteenth century that thought was characteristically employed in the satisfaction of the passions. So we are back to the cat.

Superficially, Jesus’ teaching regarding the importance of denying the immediate promptings of nature on behalf of goodness and truth is the capstone of the teaching of Aristotle’s ethics, a doctrine he shared with the Stoics, whose message was the importance and necessity of bearing suffering nobly, and if they did not so much teach about the importance of the pure inner life, they surely understood that to be human was to resist cowardice and despair and overweening pride. A Stoic might say: “Stand tall before adversity and be comforted in the knowledge that your resistance to the lower self is truly human.” This had been the common teaching of the best of the philosophers for centuries. It had produced aspiration and courage, but souls had not been healed so that their desire would be for God and goodness. The law had not been put in the human heart.

To this philosophic attempt to be truly human Jesus added a supernatural calling empowered by the supernatural gift of His enabling Spirit. Jesus said, when I go away I will send the comforter, who will strengthen and guide you when you face moral adversity. When you do resist temptation I am with you. When you are tempted to deny me, I am with you. Rely on me; if you rely on nothing more than yourself you will fall. But when you give your life for me and my gospel, I am there to receive you into my presence forever. And second, there is the final verse: Our hard won victories over temptation are not achieved noy only for ourselves but for Christ and His gospel.

What this leads to is a culture in which Jesus’ advice that true life requires taking up the cross of discipline and even suffering, while it is subtly mocked and often ignored by ‘the world,’ among Christians defines the path of that life which is pleasing to God. They know that to try to realize one’s natural self is to lose that real self of intellect and will, which loss is in the end the death of the soul. The heroes of the twenty-first century are those mothers who educate their children for the Christian life of duty and restraint motivated by love, and the fathers who every day care for their family by doing their duty, taking up their cross and following Christ. The world around us does not descend into chaos immediately and completely because the created good, warped by sin, still contains and sponsors the outline of conventional decency, but we see that standard, always weak, now become useless as it retreats before the powerful forces of naturalism.

To meet the high standard of companionship with Jesus, the giving up of the supposed rewards of the ‘natural’ life must be for the sake of Christ if we would find our true selves. Contrary to appearances, this life is not a lonely life, because it is lived in and with Christ, whom to know sacramentally and in prayer is peace passing understanding and joy in anticipation of good things to come. It is ironic that in a world dedicated to humanitarian causes that minister to the necessities of this life, among people many of whom labor to present the basest passions as the ‘natural’ best, in their desire to satisfy their ‘natural’ selves, are not easy to distinguish in principle from the cat in the kitchen; in this world in which passions rule, the only true humanity is to be found in this Christian communion, among those who deny themselves for the kingdom of God.

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