‘The Christian and Anxiety’: Hans Urs von Balthasar nails it on the transition between fear and hope

One of the most comforting feelings for individuals who have deeply thought about their faith is to find serious minds who came to similar conclusions. Top-tier intellectuals articulate complex ideas with a clarity and eloquence that makes readers sigh with relief and exclaim — “I think I’m on the right track!”

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety is one such example for this blogger.

“Inasmuch as the accomplished salvation remains eschatological and the sinner is still journeying toward perfect righteousness, then to some extent the twilight between ‘fear and hope’, or, to put it more clearly, between the sinner’s fear of God and of condemnation and the believer’s hope for salvation, will never be completely illuminated. Does not the New Testament foster this twilight by strengthening both the promise and the threat and making them definitive? Yet, in so doing, which requires anyone who stands in its force field to endure a superhuman tension (to fear in earnest and to hope simultaneously, to be certain yet to leave everything in suspense), has it not overstrained the human soul by winding its powers too tightly? Is it feasible to live within this contradiction? […] Does not the Christian who takes sin and salvation seriously get lost in a dialectic with no exit, in which each increase in grace brings forth an increase in unworthiness, even guilt, so that in this tangled thicket religion becomes the real inferno? …

Christianity cannot be blamed for this loss of footing; it has to be laid at the door of the man who does not want to take Christianity seriously. Christianity offers man, not a bottomless pit, but solid ground — grounding in God, of course, and not in self. To place oneself on this solid ground involves relinquishing one’s own ground. The sinner wants to stand on his own, not on God. And whoever tries to stand both on God and on his own is sure to fall into the bottomless space in between.

The uneasy conscious that many Christians have, and the anxiety based on it, do not come about because they are sinners and backsliders but because they have stopped believing in the truth and efficacy of their beliefs; they measure the power of faith by their own weakness, they project God’s world into their own psychological makeup instead of letting God measure them. […] They lie down to rest in the chasm between the demands of Christianity and their own failure, in a chasm that, for a Christian, is no place at all.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian and Anxiety.

I, like anyone else who honestly wants to become a better person, found myself at some point looking for ways to monitor my progress — a “goodness barometer” of sorts. That is extremely difficult for a Christian because the benchmark for most people is, “What is the guy next to me like? How do I compare to my neighbors? How do I compare to my local politicians? How do I compare to the president?” And so on and and so forth.

All that, however, is irrelevant. We cannot see into another man’s heart and soul, and therefore it is spiritually dangerous to compare yourself to those around you. The only soul you can ever read is your own — and even then we often use our minds as a vehicle for self-deception.

Who, then, is the proper litmus test for spiritual progress? Answer: Christ.

And that, dear reader, is where the chasm von Balthasar mentions comes in. On many levels, your entire life is just a one-on-one conversation with God. The clearer God becomes to you, the more of your own blemishes you will see — and that can be terrifying.

The challenge for Christians is to keep their eyes focused on God while walking toward Him, because when one looks down into the chasm of their own wickedness for too long the experience can mutate from something humbling into something crippling.

There is much more to say, but for now I will just suggest reading The Christian and Anxiety if this is a topic that has ever concerned you. Von Balthasar is a brilliant man, and I have no doubt that if you read his works then your faith will be strengthened by the experience.

‘Proof of Heaven’: Neurosurgeon turns NDE into fascinating read for skeptics, believers

Proof of Heaven

Skeptics have fascinated me for many years because they will often hear a supernatural story from a trusted source — a long-time friend who no history of mental illness or a reason to lie — and still find ways to dismiss it. Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who also worked at Harvard Medical School in Boston, was one of those skeptics until he contracted a case of E. coli meningitis, which attacked his brain and left him in a coma for seven days.

What makes Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife such a compelling read is that its author a.) was a secular man, b.) is a doctor who specializes in the brain, and c.) knows that his illness attacked the very parts of the brain that give skeptics an “out” in terms of believing that neath death experiences (NDEs) offer proof of the spirit world.

Dr. Alexander’s NDE is important because he isn’t just some random guy who drowned and was resuscitated; it is important because he knows about “endogenous glutamate blockade with excitotoxicity,” the limbic system, the lateral amygdala, N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) “dumps,” cortical function, etc.

In short, he is not a man who can be “out-scienced” because he has dedicated his life to medicine.

Random blog posts by a lucid dreamer who was visited by a floating purple orb can be easily dismissed — but a Near Death Experience by a neurosurgeon with over 25 years experience, who uses science to back his claims, is much more difficult to deny.

Dr. Alexander says at one point:

Depending on whom you talk to, consciousness is either the greatest mystery facing scientific enquiry, or a total non-problem. What’s surprising is just how many more scientists think it’s the latter. For many — maybe most — scientists, consciousness isn’t really worth worry about because it is just a by-product of physical processes. Many scientists go further, saying that not only is consciousness a secondary phenomenon, but that in addition, it’s not even real.

Many leaders in the neuroscience of consciousness and the philosophy of the mind, however, would beg to differ. Over the last few decades, they have come to recognize that ‘hard problem of consciousness.’

Like many other scientific skeptics, I refused to even review the data relevant to the questions concerning these [supernatural] phenomena. I prejudged the data, and those providing it, because my limited perspective failed to provide the foggiest notion of how such things might actually happen. Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena indicative of extended consciousness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.”

For those still stuck in the trap of scientific skepticism, I recommend the book Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, published in 2007. The evidence for out-of-body consciousness is well presented in this rigorous scientific analysis. Irreducible Mind is a landmark opus from a highly reputable group, the Division of Perceptual Studies, based at the University of Virginia.” — Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven, (Simon and Schuster, 2012), 151-153.

I do not want to spoil any details of the doctor’s experience in the spirit realm, so I will refrain from mentioning them here. I will say, however, that Proof of Heaven is a quick and worthwhile read for anyone interested in the subject matter. The paperback edition is $16 for a new copy, but it is money well spent.

Yes, dead relatives can visit you in your dreams

My day job requires me to be a voracious reader. Over the past few months I’ve read a spate of articles on why increasingly technological and science-minded societies cannot shake off spirituality. There are many reasons for that, but one is visitation dreams.

If you don’t believe your friendly neighborhood Catholic blogger, then perhaps you’ll listen to Patrick McNamara Ph.D., of Psychology Today.

Dr. McNamara wrote in October 2011.

My father and mother died over a decade ago and about one year apart. Approximately 6 months after each death, I had at least one vivid dream with one or both of them in it. In both cases the dream did not feel like the typical run of the mill dream.

Instead the dream had a kind of hyper-real intensity to it. I felt that I had been touched or visited or communicated with. I could not easily shake the conviction that my father and my mother had communicated with me from beyond the grave. Now if I, an individual who studied dreams with a skeptical scientific cast of mind, could not shake the conviction that I had just communicated with my dead parents, how much stronger must be the conviction of someone with a less skeptical approach to dreams than me?

The general rule of thumb about a visitation dream is that if you have to ask yourself if your were visited by a deceased relative, then you probably were not. Regardless, here are a few signs that someone was trying to communicate with you:

  1. Visitation dreams are like dreams in high-definition.
  2. The deceased relative does not look sickly or old. If they are old, they will have a glow to them.
  3. The deceased relative will be direct and to the point. They have a message to get across and a short amount of time to communicate.
  4. You will wake up with a sense of relief.
  5. You will wake up and know in your gut that you were visited.

Since it would be rather rude to say “This is real” and then not share an example from my own life, I will do so now.

My grandmother died four years ago. We were extremely close. When she was in the hospital with a blood clot, I remember staying with her and brushing her teeth. When she was sick in her late 90s, I remember sleeping on the floor next to her bed so I could be there to help her get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She moved in with our family when I was born and always said, “We came here together, Douglas!”

She was, for all intents and purposes, a second mother to me.

Prior to my grandmother’s death, my mom called and said I should buy a plane ticket as soon as possible. I secured a flight home that night, but sadly I did not make it from Washington, D.C. to Chicago in time. My grandmother visited me in a dream within a few days.

In my dream — my “high-definition dream” — I was standing over my grandmother’s bed. She was “dying” again in a way where I was allowed to be there, but she looked at peace. I told her I was sorry that I couldn’t be there in time. She told me not to worry and that she was okay. She said she had to leave and that she loved me. I told her I loved her and kissed her on the forehead and she disappeared. I woke up and my lips felt like electrical currents were running through them. I was crying tears of joy because I knew in my heart it wasn’t a dream — and my “official” grieving process ended. I knew she was at peace, and there is nothing anyone on earth can say to make me believe otherwise.

There are other ways the dead sometimes communicate with the living, which I am happy to talk about, but the five points above are tell-tale signs of a visitation dream.

If you’ve had a visitation dream, feel free to share it below. I’d love to hear about your experience. Or, if you just have questions about dreams in general, then I’m happy to talk about that. Regular readers know that I am a lucid dreamer.



Mysterious ‘angel’ priest at car crash reminds us of our true nature

Car crash

Miracles happen every day. Angels exist. If you’re on the fence about either statement, look no further than New London, Missouri, where a mysterious priest has fire fighters and rescue workers scratching their heads:

Emergency workers and community members in eastern Missouri are not sure what to make of a mystery priest who showed up at a critical accident scene Sunday morning and whose prayer seemed to change life-threatening events for the positive.

Even odder, the black-garbed priest does not appear in any of the nearly 70 photos of the scene of the accident in which a 19-year-old girl almost died. No one knows the priest and he vanished without a word, said Raymond Reed, fire chief of New London, Mo. …

The scene unfolded Sunday morning. Katie Lentz, a sophomore at Tulane University, was driving from her parents’ home in Quincy, Ill., to Jefferson City, Mo., where she has a summer internship and planned to attend church with friends. The Mercedes she was driving collided with another vehicle on a highway near Center, Mo. The accident crushed Lentz’s vehicle into a ball of sheet metal that lay on the driver’s side, Reed said.

Reed’s team and emergency workers from several other jurisdictions tried for at least 45 minutes to remove the twisted metal from around Lentz. Various pieces of equipment broke and the team was running out of choices. A helicopter waited to carry Lentz to the nearest trauma center. Though Lentz appeared calm, talking about her church and her studies toward a dentistry degree, her vital signs were beginning to fail, Reed said.

“I was pulled off to the side by one of the members of the” helicopter evacuation team, Reed said. “He expressed to me that we were out of time. Her condition looked grim for her coming out of that vehicle alive. She was facing major problems.”

At that point, Reed’s team agreed to take the life-threatening chance of sitting the vehicle upright so that Lentz could be removed from it. This is dangerous because a sudden change in pressure to the body can be critical, he said.

That’s when Lentz asked if someone would pray with her and a voice said, “I will.”

The silver-haired priest in his 50s or 60s in black pants, black shirt and black collar with visible white insert stepped forward from nowhere. It struck Reed as odd because the street was blocked off 2 miles from the scene and no one from the nearby communities recognized him.

“We’re all local people from four different towns,” Reed said. “We’ve only got one Catholic church out of three towns and it wasn’t their priest.”

Fireman missouri angel priest

Mr. Reed continued in an on-air interview with the local news station:

“He came up an approached the patient and did offer a prayer. It was a Catholic priest. He had anointing oil with him. A sense of calmness came over her then, even more so than what she had been already — and it did us as well. I can’t be for certain who said or how it was said or where it came from but myself and one of the other firefighters who was beside mewe very plainly heard that we should remain calm, that our tools would now work, and that we would get her out of that vehicle.

As a first responder, you don’t know what you’re going to run into. Everything is on a case by case basis. Everything that we come across. We have a lot of tools that allow us to do many things and we have extensive training. In this particular case it is my feeling that it was nothing more than sheer faith and nothing short of a miracle,” (Raymond Reed, fire chief, New London, Mo.).

Who was this mystery priest? Was he an angel in human form? Was it just a priest who happened to be wandering the corn fields of Missouri at the perfect time in the perfect place to come to the aid of a devote Catholic who asked for someone to pray out loud for her — just as her vital signs were failing? Did the fire chief of New London, Mo. and the local townspeople all decide in the moments after a gruesome car crash to put together an elaborate hoax? Interesting questions, indeed.

The fact of the matter is this: Whether Katie Lentz was saved by an angel or comforted by the wandering priest of the Missouri cornfields, a miracle happened. And in the end, this story reminds us that we are all spiritual beings. We all have a higher self. When we realize that, we too can act as earth’s angels. Are the emergency workers any less of an angel than the priest? In many ways, no. As humans, we are confined by our physical bodies but we are certainly not our physical bodies and we are not our thoughts. We are the animating force behind our thoughts. Once an individual realizes their true nature then nothing is impossible.

Matthew 21:21 Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.

The story of the mystery priest reminds me of the two Christian girls who pulled a 3,000 pound tractor of their father’s chest when they prayed for God to give them strength. When you believe in something with all your soul the physical world has no choice but to react. There are countless instances of this being the case, but to the non-believer such stories simply serve as more material for a round of jokes. And that is fine.

Teal Scott explains the predicament of the non-believer with stunning accuracy:

Even though every single person alive today has [the attention and devotion of angels], regardless of what you’re doing, you must ask for their active help in your life because of the law of free will. When you came into this physical dimension you chose to become two points of perspective. You are the perspective of your higher self; you are also the perspective of your individual physical existence. And as such, you have the free will of focus. You get to pay attention to whatever it is you want to pay attention to, and thus your subjective reality will become the exact match, the physical match, of that focus. And so, if you choose not to focus on the presence of angels they can not show up in your objective reality. And we can flip this and say: Unless you choose to consciously focus on and invite these angelic presences into your life they can’t be a part of your reality. If you choose to focus on angelic presences and invite them into your life, they must become a part of your subjective reality. They can not impose themselves on your reality.

We create our own reality. The difference between Katie Lentz and the person who makes jokes about the priest who appeared before her when she needed him is this: Katie invited God into her life with open arms. Ms. Lentz is smart enough to know that there’s a whole heck of a lot out there that is beyond human comprehension. Thankfully, she’ll be around for a lot longer to share her experience with others once her wounds heal.

I believe Ms. Lentz may very well have been visited by an angel. However, if I am wrong I hope the priest stays silent. I like it better that way.

Matthew 6:1-6

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

No matter how you slice it, a miracle was performed in Missouri. For that, we can all be thankful.

Update: The mysterious ‘angel’ has come forward. His name is Father Patrick Dowling of the Diocese of Jefferson City:

“I thank God and the amazingly competent rescue workers,” Mr. Dowling said Monday. “I thank them for making me welcome in such a highly charged situation and allowing me to minister as a priest.”

The Aug. 4 wreck near Center, Mo., involving Tulane University sophomore Katie Lentz made news nationwide after reports of a man dressed like a priest who supposedly cured her and disappeared without a trace.

Miss Lentz was trapped in a clump of twisted metal that used to be her Mercedes as her vital signs continued to fall. Rescuers spent almost an hour trying to remove her from the wreckage when she asked someone to pray for her.

“I will,” the priest said.

Some people have already used this revelation to mock the idea that an angel came to Katie’s aid. Indeed, a priest just so happened to be in the perfect location at the perfect time to come to the aid of a devout Catholic who asked for someone to pray out loud for her — just as her vital signs were failing. I still maintain a miracle was performed.

Also note this from Father Dowling:

“I was probably part of the answer to their prayers, I came by and Anointed and absolved, (but) I didn’t say another word … I did not say anything like the machinery would begin to work or they would succeed in getting her out of the car.”

Take it for what you will.

Your mind can not be trusted because you are not your mind

Science mind

In a strange turn of events, the conservative guy who doesn’t believe in science (Didn’t anyone tell you us conservatives don’t believe in science?) was catching up on his regular reading of the “I F**king Love Science” Facebook page and thought he’d share it on his little old blog.

Consider the following procedures:

The Ganzfeld Procedure:

At first this sounds like a bad practical joke. Begin by turning the radio to a station playing static. Then lie down on the couch and tape a pair of halved ping-pong balls over your eyes. Within minutes, you should begin to experience bizarre set of sensory distortions. Some people see horses prancing in the clouds, or hear the voice of a dead relative. It turns out that the mind is addicted to sensation, so that when there’s little to sense — that’s the purpose of the ping pong balls and static — your brain ends up inventing its own.

The Incredible Shrinking Hand:

Last month, researchers at Oxford University announced the discovery of a powerful new painkiller: inverted binoculars. The scientists found that subjects who looked at a wounded hand through the wrong end of binoculars, making the hand appear smaller, felt significantly less pain and even experienced decreased swelling. According to the researchers, this demonstrates that even basic bodily sensations such as pain are modulated by what we see. So next time you stub your toe or cut your finger, do yourself a favor: look away.

The Rubber Hand Illusion:

If you happen to have a rubber arm in the closet, then this hallucination is for you. Begin by hiding your actual arm behind a box on a table so that you can’t see it. Then arrange the fake arm on the table, so that from your point of view it looks like it could be your hidden arm.

A friend should then stroke both the real hand and the rubber hand in the same place and at the same time. After a few minutes, you should feel like the fake limb has become your own flesh.

Then have your friend stab the rubber hand, or hit it with a hammer: You will feel a powerful jolt of anxiety and pain, since your brain is convinced that the rubber hand is real.

Science is great, but it has its limits. Worse, hubris leads researchers to believe that through their five (often unreliable) senses they could unlock all the mysteries of the universe. For many, science is just as much of a religion as Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism.

One of the questions I often have for my skeptical friends is: How do you know that there aren’t forces in motion that are operating on levels beyond the understanding of your fives senses? A tape recorder is made to understand the world through sound waves, but that doesn’t mean that light waves don’t exist. Likewise, we (the elegant machines we are) understand the world through sight, sound, touch, smell and taste — but it’s very possible the world is made up of “matter” that our senses can not detect.

As the “I F**king Love Science” page points out, the mind is apparently “addicted to sensation” — so much so that it will “invent” sensation when you try and cut it off.

Another way of saying all of this is that your ego is addicted to sensation. But you are not your ego. You are much, much more. Many people have so much faith in science that they refuse to explore these questions, and as a result they become a slave to their ego.

A host of faiths have asserted for ages that there is a “self” operating behind the ego, and those who have become more in tune with it have used that connection to greatly enrich their lives (and the lives of others).

As I’ve pointed out before, it is no coincidence that television programming encourages you to run up the credit card for things you don’t need. The brain is addicted to sensation, and with that comes an addiction to gadgets and gizmos, designer clothes and fancy cars. At that point, you are a slave to other men and organizations that do not have your best interest in mind.

The person who can observe reality from a higher level of consciousness does not care about celebrities and video games, gossip and politics. The person who is in tune with his oneness with the universe and cognizant of his own higher being is not easily pitted against his fellow man. He can not be exploited by politicians. He thinks for himself and follows the path his heart instructs him to follow.

You were meant to accomplish great things. You have a higher purpose, but modern society is geared towards getting you to deny who and what your really are. Whether it’s through meditation, reading the wisdom of Lao Tzu, familiarizing yourself with the teachings of Jesus or simply opting for your friendly neighborhood Google search engine, I encourage you to explore the interconnectedness between science and spirituality even further. If you do, I believe you will be well on your way to realizing your full potential.

Good Friday and the wisdom of self-denial

Americans can learn a thing or two from the Knights of Malta, particularly when it comes to self-denial and its ability to lead to personal growth.

It’s Good Friday, and if you’re a Catholic you’re probably sick of people asking why you can’t eat meat. You’re forced to either listen to a bunch of dumb jokes, or take time out of your day to explain it. If you’ve had a tough time articulating why fasting is so important—not just for religious reasons but for for personal growth—then you’ve come to the right place.

Perhaps the most eloquent passage I’ve found to date comes from The Spiritual Heritage of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, by Francois Ducaud-Bourget. (I’d link to it, but it doesn’t exist online. If you want more you’ll probably have to go to a rare books library like I did, at least for the time being.) If you’re not familiar with the history of The Knights of Malta I highly suggest researching them, the numerous works of charity they’ve done, and the work they continue to perform for the world’s sick and needy.

Regardless, Ducaud-Bourget writes:

The first means for attaining perfection offered by the Rule of the Blessed Raymond is chastity, which is the domination of the flesh and its appetites by the spirit.

For good reasons it was formerly called “continence”, a restraint which contains, which masters what is opposed to duty.

Of the three lusts of which St. John speaks the flesh is the most brutal, the most seductive, but the easiest to overcome. To dominate it, the will to do so, with the help of the grace of God, suffices. But since it is not only outside of us but also in us, because we are its unconscious accomplices, it can all the more easily charm, flatter, madden, and reduce us to slavery. Energy yields, truth fades away, before lying pretexts and more or less subtle excuses; courage is broken, and we fall. We no longer have enough strength to flee from danger, and, giving it the false name of love, we accept weakening pleasure, the always degrading sensuality. All the “muscles of the soul” are relaxed, loosened, by this acceptance; then they are atrophied by the inaction in which this disorder immobilizes the high powers of the spirit and heart. Reaction against evil becomes difficult, then almost impossible, without a kind of divine miracle. The sensual person finally finds himself completely a slave of his appetites: laziness, gluttony, or voluptuousness, a trilogy often fusing in the same individual to annihilate his real personality and suppress his spiritual, fecund, and creative virility.

Against all the forms of egotism summarized in those three capital sins, against that unrestrained love of self (or rather, against that blind hatred of self) which makes of the individual the center of the universe and sacrifices the whole world to his appetites and desires, against that monstrous caricature of real love which forgets itself in order to procure happiness for others, against the blasphemy of the self-centered flesh which sets itself up as the god and universal rule of creation, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem supposes the virtue of chastity which, strangling the interest which each person has in himself and the appeals of a nature which promises pleasure, but brings only disillusionment, affords us the real and noble joy of being our own masters and of making our own that Law we have received and heartily accepted, and finally, of accomplishing the noble and exalting sacrifices required to fulfill the Christian ideal.

Amazing stuff. To see how such teachings are applicable to everyday life all you need to do is look at Sylvester Stallone’s chiseled abs at 65, or you can look at the walking heart attacks you see at work, in retail stores, a Kevin Smith interview or…possibly in the mirror. When we improve our self-control and discipline we become a completely different person. In fact, we move closer to the person we were meant to be, because we can never reach our full potential if we don’t have control over the desires of the flesh. Don’t believe me? Ask any number of politicians caught with their pants down. Think back to your favorite musician or movie star who died too soon because of substance abuse. Ask your next door neighbor who is sure he lost the love of his life because he was unfaithful.

It says a lot about our society that abstaining from meat a few times a year for six weeks is considered an onerous task. It says even more that so many people are unfamiliar with self-denial as a means with which personal growth can be attained.

Every day I am thankful for the few short years I spent as an infantryman. Having to live and work in the field for long periods or time, deprived of life’s amenities—it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I became focused. I became serious. It was there that I learned the wisdom of self-denial, and by extension the wisdom embedded in many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. In the Army there were constant references to conditioning the body and the mind; the Catholic Church does the same thing, except it stresses that a sound mind and body will in turn feed the spirit. The Knights of Malta fused the best of both worlds, and came up with The Spiritual Heritage of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. When it comes out in print I’ll be sure to review it here.

Happy Easter,


PS: for my non-religious readers, I’ve included a little philosophy from Tyler Durden, who it’s probably safe to say is not a Catholic character. He does seem  to know a thing or two about self-denial and humility, though.