Lay Dominicans of Dallas & Fort Worth | Southern Province ~ St. Martin de Porres

Month: April 2021

Past Imperfect

Don’t Rely Solely on the Past to Define Your Self-Worth

     Before considering whether or not it is useful to reflect on past life events, we must understand the difference between introspection or self-absorption and the examination of conscience.

     Introspection, if not supported by professional therapy, will become an exercise in self-absorption in exploring the past. The object of such an exercise is the contemplation of one’s worth. Such an exercise is in itself is useless; because it doesn’t result in any personal improvement. The mental exercise of withdrawal or self-absorption leaves no room except for oneself. Whoever does this is left alone, withdraws from reality, and puts all hope of perfection and perhaps salvation on self-worth or esteem. The problem with this practice is that one ends up contemplating personal limitations, at the risk of falling into anguish and even guilt when seeing how far one is from reaching the self-imposed ideal of oneself.

     Special care should be taken not to confuse psychological introspection with the practice of ethical self-reflection or religious examination of conscience. These practices are aimed at improving the human person. Their purpose is not the contemplation of oneself, but the discernment and evaluation of the conformity of one’s actions with the ethical and moral standards and the norms of a given society or religion.

     The way these practices work can be summed up in the proverb: the tree is known by its fruits. We constantly evaluate our conduct in the face of ethical-moral or religious standards. If we discover that our conduct does not conform to those standards, then another plan of action is developed with the aim of achieving the perfection of moral conduct. Ethical-moral and religious norms, not having their origin in our subjectivity, are capable of purifying our heart (conscience) by shedding light on our true intentions. They point to higher moral dignity, and therefore, have a therapeutic action, correcting the intentions of the heart that are at the origin of our actions, while urging us to leave our moral comfort zone.

     It is important to note that ethical-moral and religious norms, alien to our subjective imaginary, are not susceptible to psychological manipulation that impoverishes them by equating them with one’s own worth. On the contrary, those who are carried away by their psychological urges become the measure of their own conduct and are unable to attain virtue or character. Self-absorbed, they are at the mercy of mood swings making them prone to anguish, guilt, and self-pity, as these feelings come from self-criticism and not from ethical and religious values. Torturing ourselves by ruminating past failures and missed opportunities is nonsense. Moral and religious norms, on the contrary, plant us firmly in the present towards the future. It is in the projection towards the future that morality and religion become, for those who welcome them, in ideals of life greater than oneself.

    The self-absorbed person lives in the subjectivity of imagination and memory, a meeting place with the past. In contrast, the centered and level-headed person exists in the present. In fact, our mental health is determined to some extent by our attention and performance in the present. The matter of our bodies makes us experience change or becoming, our psychology testifies to this. However, we also experience that we are different from our becoming: we exist and we are! The experience of existing in the present tells us that we are different from our past, from our memories, and from our failures; thus healing our wounds. The present makes us understand that we are not our problem. Self-absorption on its part prevents us from recognizing our existence and our being as different from the situations and circumstances that hurt us.

     Those who judge their past in light of the present run the risk of reproaching and condemning not only their past actions, but their whole lives, shaming themselves and becoming morally rigid and discouraged. By “light of the present” we mean knowledge acquired through studies, work, or dealing with valuable people from whose example we learn prudence and wisdom. It also means changes in our well-being and our spiritual life, in addition to opportunities for self-improvement. In short, what now allows us better judgment and maturity than we previously lacked. Therefore, we should not judge the past based on the present, since we never experience the same situation twice in life and under the same circumstances.

     The past does not change, but we can consider it in light of what we want to achieve in the future. It is not the future that can be changed. It is the present! All change takes place in the present. The past becomes a life lesson when viewed in light of a self-improvement project. Past experience seen in the light of an ideal that surpasses us in dignity will build the improved version of ourselves.

Submitted by Valdemar G. ~ an inquirer with our Chapter

Four Causes, Four Pillars

A Fullness of Description

How can we know Love.” “Let me count the ways.”

(ST. ALBERT THE GREAT PRIORY – Irving) If you want to give someone a complete description of something, what kind of information do you need to provide? You would want to make sure you explained what it was for, right? But is that enough? If you say, “This thing is used to hold other things,” have you fully explained it? You could be talking about a basket, a hook, a drawer, a cupboard, a wallet, a bowl, etc.

What if you simply described its shape. “This thing is roughly a square, with an empty area, it has wheels and a sort of handle that you use to direct it.” Ok, that could be a shopping cart, a rolling suitcase, a car, or a wagon. Or maybe something else.

What if you wanted to emphasize what it is made out of? You could say, “This thing is made of metal.” But, why metal and not some other material. Does it matter if it is wood or sugar or ice or reeds or plastic? Maybe, maybe not.

What if you explained that it was made by a line worker at the local factory? Is that important? Does it matter where it was made? What if you need to make one? Do you need to understand how it was made?

The Four Causes:
The notion of Four Causes arises from Aristotle’s efforts to explain change, which is part of a different topic involving Act and Potency, and which we need not explore at present. But, as Aristotle worked out how to account for change, he developed these Four Causes. Please note, he uses the term “cause” in a broader sense than most of us do today. We can gain some insight by using the term “explanations” or “descriptions” along with “causes.” You can also think of “cause” as that which answers the question, “Why?” or “How?”

I described these four causes in the beginning of this article though I did not designate them as such. They are, Formal (loosely, what is it’s shape, what form does it take), Material (what is it made of), Efficient (how it came to actually exist), and Final (why it was made, what it does.)

N.B. The formal cause is easily overlooked because it seems obvious. If you want to carry things, you obviously need something shaped in a way that will carry them. Also we are not used to thinking of a shape as a cause. Yet, when we describe something, its form is part of a complete description.

The object I have in mind is in fact a shopping cart. I want an actual thing that is well made for holding things and moving them about easily, and which can do so over and over again reliably. This is the Final Cause. This is why it is in the shape of a lidless box with wheels, the Formal Cause. To be reusable and sturdy it is to be made of steel and rubber, the Material Cause. And then in some manner it needs to come into existence, which is the Efficient Cause.

You may have noted that I began my description of this thing with its Final Cause. That’s because when someone is going to make something, they start with an end in mind. There is a Greek word, “telos”, which means “end”, “purpose”, or “goal”. The study of ultimate ends is called teleology.

The end of something just is the reason it was made. So, when you need to make something, you start at the end, that is to say, you have in mind, before you start, the purpose of the device, the goal you mean to achieve by making this thing. You have in mind what the final product of your efforts will be.

This end or final cause then leads to the formal cause. We have to figure out how best to carry a large amount of products and move them about easily. The formal cause next determines what material cause is needed in order to have something sturdy, reliable and reusable. And then we need the efficient cause, we have to figure out how to make it, or hire someone to make it for us, so that we can in fact have it.

Consideration of things in the context of the Four Causes is a very useful way to explore the world. Why was this made? Why was it made in this shape? Why was it made from these materials? How did it come to be made? Because I am a Lay Dominican I am driven to apply this Aristotelian/Thomistic world view to, well, almost everything. And so why not apply to Dominican Spirituality?

The Four Pillars:
Dominican Spirituality is best described by the Four Pillars. They are Prayer, Study, Preaching, and Community. We have a framework here that can be set in terms of the Four Causes. Dominican Spirituality has as its goal The Beatific Vision, Communion with God. This is a precise way of saying “salvation.”

The Formal Cause is Prayer. It is what Communion looks like. In order to commune with God we have to communicate with God. Seem obvious? Remember, I said the formal cause is easy to overlook because it seems obvious. Prayer is the shape of Dominican Spirituality.

The Material Cause is Study. Can you truly commune with (love) someone you don’t know? We study and contemplate what we have studied so that we can more fully know God that we may more perfectly love God. Study is the raw material of Dominican Spirituality.

The Efficient Cause is Preaching. We take our prayer and our study and we bring forward the fruits of our contemplation to build up our Community, both Dominican and our extended community, the family of man. Preaching is how we make Dominican Spirituality.

The Final Cause is Community. Communion with God and Man. Our Dominican Community prepares us for Communion with God. It is the proper goal of all legitimate spiritualities. Union with God is the End or Purpose of Dominican Spirituality.

Mark C. is a permanently professed Lay Dominican and our Treasurer.

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