Times Square Parade, by Alexander Chen
WE are living in dangerous times. But few are those who realize it. What I’m speaking of is not the threat of terrorism, climate change, or nuclear war, but something more subtle and insidious. It is the advance of an enemy that has already gained ground in many homes and hearts and is managing to wreak ominous destruction as it spreads throughout the world:
I am speaking of spiritual noise. A noise so loud to the soul, so deafening to the heart, that once it finds its way in, it obscures the voice of God, numbs the conscience, and blinds the eyes to seeing reality. It is one of the most dangerous enemies of our time because, while war and violence do harm to the body, noise is the killer of the soul. And a soul that has shut off the voice of God risks never hearing Him again in eternity.
This enemy has always been lurking, but perhaps never more than today. The Apostle St. John warned that noise is the harbinger of the spirit of antichrist:
Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world. Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever. Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. (1 John 2:15-18)
Lust of the flesh, enticement for the eyes, a pretentious life. These are the means by which principalities and powers are directing a blast of noise against unsuspecting mankind.
NOISE OF LUST
One cannot surf the internet, walk through an airport, or simply buy groceries without being assaulted by the noise of lust. Men, more than women, are susceptible to this because there is a stronger chemical response in men. It is a terrible noise, for it pulls not only the eyes, but one’s very body into its path. To even suggest today that a half-clad woman is immodest or inappropriate will draw bewilderment if not scorn. It has become socially acceptable, and at younger and younger ages, to sexualize and objectivy the body. It is no longer a vessel for transmitting, through modesty and charity, the truth of who the human person truly is, but has become a loudspeaker blaring a distorted message: that fulfillment comes ultimately from sex and sexiness, rather than the Creator. This noise alone, now broadcast through rancid imagery and language in nearly every facet of modern society, is doing more to destroy souls than perhaps any other.
NOISE OF ENTICEMENT
In the Western nations in particular, the noise of materialism—the enticement of new things—has reached a deafening pitch, yet few are resisting it. Ipads, ipods, ibooks, iphones, ifashions, iretirement plans…. Even the titles themselves reveal something of the potential danger that lurks behind the need for personal comfort, convenience and self-pleasure. It is all about "I", not my brother in need. The exportation of manufacturing to third world countries (often bringing about injustices in itself through pitiful wages) has brought about a tsunami of low cost goods, preceded by waves of relentless advertising that place oneself, and not one’s neighbour, on top of the totem of priorities.
But the noise has taken on a different and more insidious tone in our day. The internet and wireless technology continually serve up a vast array of high definition color, news, gossip, photos, videos, goods, services—all in a split second. It is the perfect concoction of glitz and glamor to keep souls enamored—and often deaf to the hunger and thirst in their own soul for the transcendent, for God.
We cannot deny that the rapid changes occurring in our world also present some disturbing signs of fragmentation and a retreat into individualism. The expanding use of electronic communications has in some cases paradoxically resulted in greater isolation… —POPE BENEDICT XVI, speech at St. Joseph’s Church, April 8th, 2008, Yorkville, New York; Catholic News Agency
NOISE OF PRETENTION
St. John warns about the temptation to "pride of life." This is not limited to simply wanting to be rich or famous. Today, it has taken on a more cunning temptation, once again, through technology. "Social networking", while often serving to connect old friends and family, also feeds into a new individualism. With communication services like Facebook or Twitter, the trend is to put one’s every thought and action out there for the world to see, fostering a growing trend of narcissism (self-absorption). This is really in direct opposition to the rich spiritual heritage of the Saints in which idle chatter and frivolity are to be avoided, as they cultivate a spirit of worldliness and inattention.
CUSTODY OF THE HEART
Of course, all this noise must not be considered strictly evil. The human body and sexuality are gifts from God, not a shameful or dirty obstacle. Material things are neither good nor bad, they just are… until we place them on the altar of our hearts making them into idols. And the internet can also be used for good.
In the house of Nazareth and in the ministry of Jesus, there was always the background noise of the world. Jesus even walked into "the lions den," eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. But He did so because He always maintained custody of the heart. St. Paul wrote,
Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind… (Rom 12:2)
Custody of the heart means that I am not fixed upon the things of the world, on conforming to its godless ways, but upon the Kingdom, God’s ways. It means rediscovering the meaning of life and aligning my goals to it…
…let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. (Heb 12:1-2)
In our baptismal vows, we promise to "reject the glamor of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin." Custody of the heart means avoiding that first fatal step: being sucked into the glamor of evil, which, if we take the bait, leads to being mastered by it.
…everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)
Jesus walked among sinful people, but He kept His heart unstained by continually seeking first the will of the Father. He walked in the truth that women were not objects, but reflections of His own image; in the truth that material things are to be used for the glory of God and the good of others; and by being small, humble, and hidden, meek and gentle of heart, Jesus shunned the worldly power and honor that others would have bestowed on Him.
KEEPING CUSTODY OF THE SENSES
In the traditional Act of Contrition prayed in sacramental Confession, one resolves to ‘sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.’ Custody of the heart means avoiding not just the sin itself, but those well-known traps that would cause me to fall into sin. "Make no provisions for the flesh," said St. Paul (see The Tiger in the Cage.) A good friend of mine says that he hasn’t eaten sweets or had any alcohol in years. "I have an addictive personality," he said. "If I eat one cookie, I want the whole bag." Refreshing honesty. A man who avoids even the near occasion of sin—and you can see the freedom in his eyes.
Many years ago, a married fellow worker was lusting after the women who were walking by. Noting my lack of participation, he snorted, "One can still look at the menu without having to order!" But Jesus said something quite different:
…everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:28)
How, in our pornographic culture, can a man keep from falling into the sin of adultery with his eyes? The answer is to put the menu away all together. For one thing, women aren’t objects, commodities to be owned. They are beautiful reflections of the Divine Creator: their sexuality, expressed as a receptacle of life-giving seed, is an image of the Church, which is a receptacle of the life-giving Word of God. Thus, even immodest dress or a sexualized appearance is a snare; it is the slippery slope that leads to wanting more and more. What is necessary, then, is to keep custody of the eyes:
The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. (Matt 6:22-23)
The eye is "bad" if we allow it to be dazzled by the "glamor of evil": if we allow it to wander around the room, if we peruse the magazine covers, sidebar internet pictures, or watch movies or shows that are indecent.
Avert your eyes from a comely woman; gaze not upon the beauty of another’s wife——through woman’s beauty many perish, for lust for it burns like fire. (Sirach 9:8)
It is not a matter then of just avoiding pornography, but all forms of indecency. It means—for some men reading this—a complete transformation of the mind as to how women are perceived and even how we perceive ourselves—the exceptions we justify that, in reality, snare us, and drag us into the misery of sin.
One could write a book on poverty. But St. Paul perhaps summarizes it best:
If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim 6:8-9)
We lose custody of the heart by always shopping around for something better, for the next best thing. One of the Commandments is to not covet my neighbour’s things. The reason, Jesus warned, is that one cannot divide his heart between God and mammon (possessions).
No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. (Matt 6:24)
Keeping custody of the heart means acquiring, for the most part, what we need rather than what we want, not hoarding but sharing with others, especially the poor.
The superflous riches which thou didst hoard and suffer to become rotten when thou shouldst have given them in alms to the poor, the superfluous garments which thou didst possess and preferred to see eaten by moths rather than clothing the poor, and the gold and silver which thou didst choose to see lie in idleness rather than spent on food for the poor, all these things, I say, will bear testimony against thee in the Day of Judgment. —St. Robert Bellarmine, The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haakadels, p. 166
Custody of the heart also means to watch over our words, to have custody of our tongues. For the tongue has the power to build-up or tear down, to snare or liberate. So often, we use the tongue out of pride, saying (or typing) this or that in hopes of making ourselves appear more important than we are, or to please others, gaining their approval. Other times, we simply release a wall of words to entertain ourselves by idle chatter.
There is a word in Catholic spirituality called "recollection." It means simply to remember that I am always in God’s presence, and that He is always my goal and the fulfillment of all my desires. It means recognizing that His will is my food, and that, as His servant, I am called to follow Him in the path of charity. Recollection then, means that I "gather myself up" when I have lost custody of my heart, trusting in His mercy and forgiveness, and once again committing myself to loving and serving Him in the present moment with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
When it comes to social networking, we need to be careful. Is it humble to paste pictures of myself that stroke my vanity? When I "tweet" others, am I saying something that is necessary or not? Am I encouraging gossip or wasting other’s time?
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. (Matt 12:36)
Think of your heart as a furnace. Your mouth is the door. Every time you open the door, you are letting heat out. When you close the door, keeping recollected in God’s presence, the fire of His Divine love will grow hotter and hotter so that, when the moment is right, your words can serve to build up, liberate, and facilitate the healing of others—to warm others with God’s love. At those times, even though we speak, because it is in the voice of Love, it serves to stoke the fires within. Otherwise, our soul, and that of others, grows cold when we keep the door open in meaningless or sinful chatter.
Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones, no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving. (Eph 5:3-4)
STRANGERS AND SOJOURNERS
Keeping custody of the heart is foreign sounding and counter-cultural. We live in a world that encourages people to experiment with a multitude of sexual acts and lifestyles, plaster themselves all over YouTube, seek to become a singing or dancing "Idol", and be "tolerant" of anything and anybody (except practicing Catholics). In refusing this kind of noise, Jesus said that we would look odd in the world’s eyes; that they would persecute, mock, exclude and hate us because the light in believers would convict the darkness in others.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. (John 3:20)
Keeping custody of the heart, then, is not some outdated practice of bygone ages, but the constant, true, and narrow road that leads to Heaven. It’s just that few are willing to take it, to resist the noise so that they can hear the voice of God that leads to eternal life.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be… Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Matt 6:21; 7:13-14)
The love of worldly possessions is a sort of birdlime, which entangles the soul and prevents it flying to God. —Augustine of Hippo, The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haakadels, p. 164
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