What does “bearing witness” to our culture look like?

Rev. Paul Scalia calls us to imitate ancient prophets in final lecture of Archbishop’s Series

Therese Bussen

Bearing witness to our culture hangs on this deeply personal question: “Are we convinced that what has been given to us will satisfy the human heart?”

It’s a question that Reverend Paul Scalia, son of late Justice Antonin Scalia, asked the crowd in his talk March 21, the final lecture of the season in the Archbishop’s Lecture Series.

Titled “The Word of the Lord Came to Me…,” his talk explained how ancient prophets show us how to be examples of our faith in our modern culture. The most important lesson from their stories is that we first have deep conviction in that which we bear witness to.

“Authenticity requires that these words come from within us — only our personal investment in the Gospel can make us authentic prophets,” Reverend Scalia said.

We especially need to be connected to that firm conviction inside ourselves in the areas where the culture needs it most; namely, marriage and family life, Reverend Scalia said.

He outlined other various areas where we can imitate the ancient prophets, who were seen as “odd” in their respective countries at the time. He referred to Flannery O’Connor, who is attributed to the quote, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

“Bearing witness to the truth might make you odd,” Reverend Scalia said. The ancient prophets were often seen as outsiders in their own homes, and we must be ready to not fit in as well. We are “strangers in a strange land,” especially as people in our culture are increasingly indifferent toward religion.

“This religious indifference is a challenge for the Church as well. [We’ve] had to scale back. Denver is fairly unique in its growth,” Reverend Scalia said.

March 21, 2017, Denver, Colorado Archbishop Lecture Series featuring Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington speaking on the topic of the importance of prophetic Catholic witness in the culture today. Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

March 21, 2017, Denver, Colorado Archbishop Lecture Series featuring Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington speaking on the topic of the importance of prophetic Catholic witness in the culture today. Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

He said that we also need to be witnesses to both the past and the future. This doesn’t mean we are harbingers of doom; rather, we “proclaim not what will happen, but what God has already done,” Reverend Scalia said.

“The failure to remember what God has done creates a mistrust of what God will do in the future,” Reverend Scalia continued. “Our role should be one of giving hope, especially to those who are suffering.”

Our testimony message needs to be this hope, “that the Lord is trustworthy,” he said.

He also noted that acts of charity and the suffering we experience for love of God and neighbor are the biggest opportunities to bear bold witness to our culture.

“If we aren’t suffering, we are compromising on our love of the Lord, or of our love for people,” Reverend Scalia said. “The Lord allows suffering as a way of understanding the sadness and pain in his own heart.”

“Suffering, in the end, is the most convincing witness to the truth,” he added.

COMING UP: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”