Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
The thought crossed my mind the other day: What if the apostles tweeted? You can just imagine what the message looked like when Andrew was on his way to bring Peter to meet the Lord. Filled with the joy of discovering no one less than the Messiah the God of Israel had been promising to send to the people chosen to be God’s own, Andrew surely would not have thrown up from his iPhone® a message any less majestic than:
@SimonCalledCephas – Ur not gonna believe who I found #messiah
To which Simon Peter probably would have replied in a Spirit-filled moment of assent to God’s plan, intended for him from before time began:
@AndrewHisBrother – Srsly could not care less…btw it’s been a blast mending these nets by myself #srynotsry
Or what about the moment when Matthew’s Gospel records the incredible revelation of who Jesus is, coming from the very lips of Simon Peter. In that moment Peter announces, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus promptly then bestows to Peter the power to bind and loose. I wonder if Peter could have resisted the temptation to tweet something like:
@Beloved Disciple – Did you hear that? I’m the cornerstone #likearock
Later the Beloved Disciple, St. John, might well have had his own words for Peter:
@SimonCalledCephas – I’m at the cross—where ru? #didthecockcrow
It’s certainly a temptation sometimes to wish the Gospels gave us more information. Often I ask myself—especially after one of Jesus’ miracles—I wonder what the disciples were feeling? It seems like we only get occasional hints from the Evangelists about fear or astonishment, often in moments we would expect. They were afraid when Jesus calms the storm and at the Transfiguration. The apostles were astonished at his teaching, for no one had ever taught with the authority he possessed. But what about those moments of exasperation? What about the little pokes and pricks the all-too-porcupine-like group of friends must have given themselves? Where’s that in the Gospel? Why don’t we know more?
The fact of the matter is that Scripture contains everything God meant for the evangelist to include necessary for our salvation. Liberties of style could have been taken by a book’s human author, but it would be impossible to think that the Holy Spirit was incapable of ensuring that everything we needed to know would be handed down to us.
Moreover, we might think God the Father could have set things up so that we could have more “access” to Jesus. If Jesus, or even the Apostles, had Twitter accounts, it seems like more people would be able to follow them than the technology of first-century Palestine allows. Thomas Aquinas thought about this question in his own way, in the terms of his time, when he asks, “Why didn’t Jesus just write a book?” Amazingly enough, Aquinas’ answer continues to inspire, even with us asking our Twitter version. Among the reasons he gives arguing it would have been unsuitable for Jesus to have written a book, the most poignant he offers says that because of Christ’s dignity, his teaching should be implanted on hearts, rather than on pages.
Even today, that’s still the point, isn’t it? Blogging friars, pastors on Pinterest, tweeting apostles—none of these would exist to communicate just facts or information about Jesus. Hearts are only converted by encountering Christ. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest are useful tools to be conscripted into Gospel service, but in the end there is only Friendship with Christ. He’s the only one we can follow.
Image Source: memebase.com
What shall I render unto the Lord, that I can recall these things and yet not be afraid! I shall love Thee, Lord, and shall give thanks to Thee and confess Thy name, because thou hast forgiven me such great sins and evil deeds. (St. Augustine, Confessions II.7)
Memory is a peculiar thing. It can be the source of joy and nostalgia, a reliving of some of the happiest times in our lives. But it can also be a source of pain and grief, a testament to our failures and to the various trials that make this world a “vale of tears.” Each of us can recall events in our lives that we might wish had not happened: a harsh word spoken to a loved one; an ordeal that has scarred us physically, mentally, or both; a humiliation that put our brokenness on full display. How should we consider those aspects of our life that bring us the most shame and pain? In St. Augustine’s Confessions we see a profound reflection on memory as a witness to the mystery of providence. By seeing our past sins in the light of God’s care for us, they can become opportunities for growth in the spiritual life.
Written in the form of a prayer, the Confessions recounts Augustine’s upbringing in northern Africa and the winding path that led him to embrace the Christian faith after years of searching. Early on in the work he explains his aim in writing:
Not to Thee, O my God, but in Thy presence I am telling [this account] to my own kind… to that small part of the human race that may come upon these writings. And to what purpose do I tell it? Simply that I and any other who may read may realize out of what depths we must cry to Thee. (II.3)
St. Augustine here articulates one of the fundamental principles of the spiritual life: self-knowledge. In reviewing his past, Augustine sees in his sins not merely objects of disdain (though they are that); he also sees in them reminders of his frailty and his need for God’s mercy. Painful though the memories of our failures can be, these memories also can serve as an antidote to pride. When we recall how often we have fallen, we come to realize our utter dependence on God. Indeed, considering our failures from this perspective can transform them into occasions of gratitude, even of joy. Later on Augustine prays:
Grant me, I beseech Thee, to retraverse now in memory the past ways of my error and to offer Thee a sacrifice of rejoicing. For without Thee, what am I but a guide to my own destruction? Or at my best what am I but an infant suckled on Thy milk and feeding upon Thee, O Food incorruptible? (IV.1)
Rather than simply wallowing in his misery, St. Augustine sees in the more unsavory episodes of his life the mystery of divine providence: God comes to us in our weakness and uses even our mistakes to draw us to Himself, our true end – and this is cause for rejoicing.
How did St. Augustine come to this conviction? His initial conversion, famously recounted in Book VIII of the Confessions, was sparked by a child’s sing-song chant, “Take and read, take and read.” This chant drove him to open up the Scriptures and to entrust himself to Christ. But for Augustine the seal of this conviction came through the sacraments. Describing his reception of baptism (together with the son he had conceived out of wedlock), he remarks, “We took him along with us, the same age as ourselves in Your grace, to be brought up in Your discipline: and we were baptized, and all anxiety as to our past life fled away” (IX.6). There they stood, the father and his son, a living reminder of his sinful past, together washed clean in the waters of baptism.
Like many of us, even after receiving this newfound freedom, St. Augustine harbored doubts about his own weakness. What sustained him through these misgivings was the Eucharist. At the end of Book X of the Confessions, Augustine prays:
He Thy only One, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, has redeemed me with His blood. Let not the proud speak evil of me, for I think upon the price of my redemption, I eat it and drink it and give it to others to eat and drink; and being poor I desire to be filled with it among those that eat and are filled: and they shall praise the Lord that seek Him. (X.42)
At the heart of Christian worship are the words, “Do this in memory of me.” By regularly recalling and participating in Christ’s great sacrifice and seeing our own past in its healing light, we, too, can recognize God’s love for us and face our failures with confidence that “in all things, God works for the good for those who love Him” (Rom 8:28).
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Augustine (Sta Maria Minerva, Rome)
It happened more often than I would have imagined: an elderly Catholic with whom I was speaking would break down in tears. Why were they weeping? Because his or her children or grandchildren had not been to Church in who knew how many years. Their beloved progeny had lost the faith; and the grandchildren did not even have it yet to lose!
I don’t think this is unusual today. Many, many veteran Catholics have seen and are seeing their children drift away from the faith. Sometimes aggressively, but more often apathetically. Matthew Arnold’s hauntingly beautiful lines in “Dover Beach” come to mind:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
What went wrong? What did these presently dolorous parents neglect in their child-rearing? The question of responsibility is easily answered: tears of parents tend to mean they did all they could to raise their children as Catholics. But what is to be done now? Well, pray, obviously. Pray to a mother who knows all about this situation, one who won her son back through intercession and tears: St. Monica.
Monica is one of Christianity’s most famous mothers. Her son, St. Augustine of Hippo, left the world one of its finest masterpieces, his Confessions. This autobiographical story of a wayward youth and his return to the Catholic faith is also the story of a mother’s love, a love that provides an example for those struggling with wayward sons and daughters today.
Monica brought Augustine up in the faith:
When I was still a boy, I had heard about eternal life promised to us through the humility of our Lord God, coming down to our pride, and I was already signed with the sign of the cross and seasoned with salt from the time I came from my mother’s womb. (Confessions, I.xi.17)
During Augustine’s time baptism was often delayed until late in life, yet he was signed and sealed as a Christian. Monica undoubtedly spoke about her faith in Christ to her boy. But it didn’t stick, or didn’t seem to; Augustine wandered away from the faith he was raised in and fell among numerous bands and fashionable circles, intellectual and otherwise. But Monica did not account this wandering to her own neglect; she did not spend time wondering what she had or hadn’t done. She, like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:1-8), prayed and cried out to God for her son’s return to the faith. Monica also bothered a bishop, badgering him to speak with her son; but he declined, telling her of his own return from wandering away as a boy. But, as Augustine relates it, Monica was not deterred:
She pressed him with more begging and with floods of tears, asking him to see me and debate with me. He was now irritated and a little vexed and said: ‘Go away from me: as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.’ (Confessions, III.xii.21)
The bishop was correct. Augustine returned to the faith through his garden reading of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. And who did he go to first following conversion? Monica, of course, who “saw that [God] had granted her far more than she had long been praying for in her unhappy and tearful groans (Confessions, VIII.xii.30).”
St. Monica is an exemplar: one need not descend into despair over the waywardness of one’s children or grandchildren; God is in control. Sometimes talking with the fallen away is helpful, but often, like certain strong demons, only prayer and fasting can conquer spiritual rebellion. And many, many tears, for as a medieval Irish poem has it: “Great are the claims of tears on cheeks.” Did not Jesus weep bitterly before he raised Lazarus from the tomb? So too the Psalmist sings: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Ps. 30:5).”
St. Monica is ready to intercede for fallen away sons and daughters today. Catholics instinctively call upon St. Anthony to find lost things; perhaps they will learn to call upon St. Monica to find their lost children and bring them home. But, as the old saying goes: Be careful what you wish for… “I only wanted him to practice the faith again, not to become a priest!” God’s providence means He decides not only when a son or daughter returns, but also what he or she returns for. Monica herself had to modify her grandmotherly expectations; as Augustine writes: “You ‘changed her grief into joy’ (Ps. 29:12) far more abundantly than she desired, far dearer and more chaste than she expected when she looked for grandchildren begotten of my body (Confessions, VIII.xii.30).” Through her intercession, may other parents likewise experience abundant joy in whatever purposes God has in store for their children upon their return to the faith.
Image: Benozzo Gozzoli, Death of St. Monica
“It was like I got hit by a love truck,” she replied. I had asked about the moment when the doctors first placed her newborn son into her arms.
She sighed, though. She hadn’t seen her son for decades, not since he was taken away. I didn’t dare ask why, how, or who.
We were standing on the porch of a soup kitchen. I could guess the possibilities: drugs, alcohol, homelessness. I couldn’t blame the authority that had intervened on behalf of the child. But my heart broke with hers. She got hit by a love truck and never recovered.
My friend’s story was not unique. At the soup kitchen, many guests shared a similar anguish of their children’s absence. One mother showed me pictures of her son’s high school graduation. She didn’t attend. She wasn’t invited. All she got was a text message—and yet she still beamed with motherly pride.
Another showed me her children’s names tattooed on her arm. She confessed that of all her pains, missing her children was the worst. This was the pain that nothing could erase: no amount of money, no high from heroin, nothing. Her children’s absence carved a chasm in her heart.
I had come to the soup kitchen to serve Jesus, to feed Him in the least of His brethren. And in these mothers, He was revealing Himself to me. In their broken hearts, He showed me His Sacred Heart, pierced by our sins and for our salvation. Their pain confused me, but Jesus knew it through and through. He knew the pain of their children’s absence and the pain of all their guilt. He had already made their pain His own.
And in these mothers, Jesus was revealing the Father. They had lost their children because of some shortcoming, but it is our sins that separate us from the Father. These mothers grieved for their children, and even more so, the Father longs for His children: for you and me. He calls to us:
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.
See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name. (Is 49:15-16a)
These mothers were bonded to their children as if by super-glue, even amid such anguish. And yet God tells us that He is bonded to us even more intensely. No matter what is in our past, present, or future, God will not forget His love for us. Even our crafty schemes to allude Him cannot foil His mercy.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
My Father, how many times have I turned away from You! How easily I forget Your tender goodness and instead cling to ugliness. Yet in these moments, when I feel utterly unlovable, You search for me as Your lost sheep. You reveal Your unfailing love, Your intimate mercy, Your abiding peace. Though unworthy to be called Your servant, You name me Your child—and so I am. Have mercy, my Father. Hold me and never let go.
Image: Giovanni Bellini, Presentation at the Temple
Most people’s answer to the question in the title of this article would simply be, “In most cases, it’s not.” The typical modern American reaction to a woman bearing either a child conceived by means of in vitro fertilization from two other parents, or receiving the sperm of the father and bearing a child related to her for another couple, suggests that this is all “common sense.” The argument probably would go like this: “As long as the surrogate mother is willing and compensated for her pregnancy, and the parents are fit for child-rearing and have a compelling reason to enlist a surrogate, then I guess not only do I not see the problem — I am edified by this service to help another family.” This common position would be bolstered by countless photographs and stories of the children conceived in surrogacy. Presumably, just like “test-tube babies,” many will turn out to be fine citizens, happy, healthy, and kind.
And so, what could be the problem? Surrogacy has been getting some headlines recently, including a front-page headline story about two Portuguese men who came to the US to have a child through surrogacy.Although the article seems to favor the practice, it does acknowledge some drawbacks, especially abortion. It turns out that if either party gets cold feet, abortion or abandonment seems to present the easiest way out of the deal. Just read of the recent controversies in Thailand here.
But if you grant me that there are stories that support the down side of surrogacy, but also other cases that seemingly show more uplifting endings, I would like to present the case for the Church’s understanding, namely that the child must be conceived in a union of his or her mother and father, without a third party and without methods that separate the marital act from the conception of a child (see CCC 2376-2377).
Catholic teaching offers at least three reasons why surrogacy is not morally feasible, even with otherwise good results. Catholic teaching always affirms that one may not do something that is immoral for the sake of a good end. In our culture, we often look only at the consequences, but our vision is so limited, we can’t possibly see them all, nor are we always good at arranging their importance.
- Commodification of the mother
Of course there are cases where a woman becomes a surrogate purely to help a couple who couldn’t otherwise conceive and bring to term a healthy child. Conversely, there are many cases where a woman needs money and enters into surrogacy for monetary reasons. However, even if a woman is willing to carry the burden, the act of bearing another couple’s child denies the importance of the gestational process of a mother bonding with her child in the womb. It removes the loving act of intercourse from the creation of new life, and forces a parting of the child–who grows “under her heart,” as Kristin Lavransdatter says in Sigrid Undset’s classic novel–from the birth mother for the rest of their lives. Even more complicated would it be if, like the kind of surrogacy arrangement that ended so disastrously between Hagar and Sarah (Gen. 16:1–16; 21:9–21), the two mothers have some on-going connection to one another.
- Commodification of the child
For the child, we can see two basic outcomes as well. There are cases of abandoned or aborted children for a variety of reasons, and there are cases of healthy, thriving children. In both cases, it seems today that the most common source of surrogacy is IVF. This method is also not approved by Catholic moral teaching for the reason mentioned above: in IVF the act of conception is removed from the marital act. Moreover, it makes the child a commodity because the successful embryo is usually selected from a group of embryos on account of certain attractive characteristics that it has; the remaining embryos are either discarded, frozen, or used in research. As a former embryo, that is challenging to think about. Nowadays, toward the goal of ranking the best embryos and eliminating the poor and the lame, steps are taken by both fertility clinics and paying customers. Read the first article cited above (from The New York Times) to see this trend toward keeping only “the pick of the litter.”
No matter the good intentions of those who engage in surrogacy, the process itself industrializes human reproduction. There is a slippery slope argument that could be made, but in this case, the action has already gone too far. The artificial production of a child is an extreme form of consumerism that should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it should go without saying that, despite the moral problems with surrogacy, children conceived through such means are endowed by God with the dignity of all human persons, and they should be treated as such.
- There is no “right to a child”
Lastly, even though infertility is unimaginably difficult for affected couples, no one is owed the life of another person. The desire to have a child is one of the most basic and beautiful realities there are. But a child is a gift, and nature does not like to be coerced. It is surprising that in this age of returning to nature, especially in the area of food and animals, the general public does not seem to be concerned with the synthetic ways that human beings treat their own bodies and the bodies of their children.
The trials faced by infertile couples are certainly no small thing. However, the moral teaching of the Church offers guidance precisely for those in such difficult situations, not to legislate, but to let truth shine in times of darkness (as recent writing by those who have suffered infertility attests). These couples should be respected and assisted through means that respect their dignity and the dignity of any future children.
Image: Bob Walker, Human cell-line colony being cloned in vitro through use of cloning rings
Summer is a time for fun, games and relaxation, including going to the beach, the carnival, or going on rides. It is a time for festivals of all kinds, including the annual parish festival. These times of merriment are important for coming together as a community. The psychology of this interaction is explored by Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1940s work Rabelias and His World. For Bakhtin, the carnival is a time where people come together and the standards of society are turned upside down. Quasimodo experiences this in the opening books of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As the ugliest man, he is elected the Pope of Fools and enjoys leading the procession, even though he knows that he will again be reviled by the crowd the next day. Participation in the crowds and experiencing this turning of norms upside down can also be beneficial, in that we can see ourselves and our motivations more clearly. For me, this became very clear at that most ubiquitous of torture instruments: the dunking booth.
Near the end of our novitiate in Cincinnati, there is a tradition of the novices manning the dunking booth during the St. Gertrude Parish Festival, to raise money for the parish school. This is nothing short of a crucifixion, and sitting up there for 30- or 60-minute stretches for the entire three-day festival is plenty of time to meditate on Our Lord’s Passion while sharing in His sufferings.
First there is the physical suffering of being dunked, often hitting your lower back on the board as you fall down. The water feels nice when the sun is beaming down, but when the sun starts to set, the light breezes become quite chilly as the soaking habit clings to you, the scapular twisted about. The hardest part can be climbing back onto the board 40 or more times in an hour.
Second is the psychological trauma of not being able to relax. You never know when the ball will hit the lever and you should never, never trust little old ladies, as many of them have excellent aim. After the ball hits the lever, there is an instant of time before you fall – an instant too fast to process that you will fall, but just long enough to be unsure if the lever was actually hit.
The third and, for me, greatest challenge was the incredible loneliness up there. You are surrounded by many people and the brethren, but you are very much alone. This is compounded by the fact that without my glasses I really cannot see the people clearly. While you are the one being dunked, you are actually not the center of attention during the process of someone trying to dunk you. The focus is on the ball thrower and the target (the lever), which is to the side of the booth.
The fourth aspect of the dunking booth is where we differ greatly from Christ and his Crucifixion: Sitting in the booth, we are out there mocking the people, goading them on, encouraging fun … and ticket sales. There are many ways of doing this. Some of the brothers read newspapers, which worked until the first time they were dunked. Others brought out various pool toys and a rubber duck for the tub. I instituted the water attack – kicking water on people as they walked by to encourage their revenge. This works best on younger folks, as well as with men who consider themselves decent athletes and have had a few beers with their friends.
Looking back at my time in the dunking booth, the first thing I am glad for is the fact that it was at the end of novitiate and not the start. It certainly was for a good cause, and the St. Gertrude’s community is and remains very supportive, welcoming, and generous.
Secondly, the experience of being dunked was a good lesson for humility and charity. After the Parish Festival, when society was turned right-side up again, I did think about how I have hurt others, and in turn how others have hurt me. How have I physically hurt people by my actions or lack of concern? Christ promises His peace, and yet I have sometimes failed to give to others that same peace I have received, to welcome them when they are lonely or isolated. Once while splashing water from the tank, I hit someone who was not expecting it. The person stopped still and—unable to say a word—just stared wide-eyed at me, incredulous that anyone would do such a thing. My intentions were good-natured and innocent, but I can ask myself: How has my mockery or dehumanization destroyed others’ innocence? We are called to be peacemakers and to build up, not to tear down. Sometimes, we need to step into the carnival and turn our world upside down, to see just how far we still need to go.
St. John the Evangelist, silent sentinel at the foot of Cross, pray for us.
Image: St. Gertrude’s Parish Festival
Pope St. Pius X was a great reformer and a holy pope. He fostered liturgical renewal, frequent Holy Communion from childhood, and the codification of canon law. He also waged war against the heresies of his day.
Unfortunately, this last facet of his pontificate receives an outsized share of attention from certain people, influenced by the “spirit of St. Pius X.” This spirit, the younger sister of the more popular “spirit of Vatican II,” unfortunately distorts the legacy of the real St. Pius X.
The spirit of Vatican II was born in the 1960’s by those seeking to use the excitement and, quite ironically, the authority of the Second Vatican Council to support their own unique views. From then until now, this spirit is infamously invoked to provide a veil of legitimacy for ideas and interpretations that are not present in the council itself.
Others, who felt the disagreement between their views and the council spanned a wider chasm than a letter-spirit divide, rejected the council explicitly. Thus, invoking the pope who had been most recently canonized, the “spirit of St. Pius X” was born, closing itself off from the renewal inspired by the Holy Spirit and championed by Pope St. Pius X and Vatican II. Not to be outdone in rebellion by their “liberal” counterparts, they set their own spirit of St. Pius X against the gathering hurricane of the spirit of Vatican II.
To reach the truth beyond these noisy spirits, let us mirror the approach of the most recent popes, who emphasize the actual text and a hermeneutic of continuity to understand the Second Vatican Council. Let us similarly allow Pope St. Pius X to speak in his own words and view him in a historical context of continuity.
Popes reveal their priorities by their papal mottos, as well as their first encyclicals. For Pope St. Pius X, these were one and the same: “Restore all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
Various aspects of Church life were first among the things that needed to be restored in Christ, including clerical formation, Christian education, liturgical piety, and sacramental practice (all important to Vatican II and recent popes also). But Pope St. Pius X’s perspective was not merely defensive. His program of restoration was an early phase of a larger renewal, spanning more than a century, starting on the inside and moving outward into the current phase of the New Evangelization. The internal focus of the popes at the turn of the 20th century was and is a necessary starting point, from which the renewal of all things in Christ must flow.
As the world – rife with economic, social, and political injustice on both interpersonal and international levels – was plummeting toward the Great War, Pope St. Pius X continued the fight of his prolific predecessor Leo XIII. That is, he continued his fight for social justice, for the protection of the Church from interfering secular governments, and for the preaching of the faith in the face of pernicious heresy.
He urged the proclamation of the Gospel, both in terms of man’s eternal destiny and as it impacts us here and now, as later developed in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. He writes:
We must use every means and exert all our energy… to proclaim aloud the truths taught by the Church, and her teachings on the sanctity of marriage, on… education, property, and the duties that men owe to the State; to restore equilibrium between the different classes of society according to Christian precept (E Supremi).
In continuity with his predecessors and successors, he promoted Catholic social teaching and the use of every means in evangelization. He also understood the importance of all of the members of the Body of Christ, describing the vocation and mission of the laity, as later described by Vatican II and all popes since, and rallying the laity to preach the Gospel through their words, actions, and love.
It is not priests alone, but all the faithful without exception, who must concern themselves with the interests of God and souls . . . The times we live in demand action… the frank and open profession of religion… every kind of charitable works. Such luminous examples given by the great army of soldiers of Christ will be of much… avail in moving and drawing men. Large numbers will be won to Christ, becoming in their turn promoters of His knowledge and love which are the road to true and solid happiness.
The way Pope St. Pius X speaks of Christ’s love as the road to true happiness is echoed by the council, Pope St. John Paul II’s vision of Christ as the redeemer of man, and Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on God as a communion of love.
Finally, in his tone toward those who have strayed, Pope St. Pius X expresses a gentleness, understanding, hope, and mercy that are reminiscent of our Pope Francis, who has captivated the world.
No means is more efficacious than charity. ‘For the Lord is not in the earthquake.’ It is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary… [we must work] ‘with all patience.’ Jesus has certainly left us examples of this… ‘Come to me all ye that labor and are burdened and I will refresh you.’ He meant only those who are slaves of sin and error. What gentleness was that shown by the Divine Master! What tenderness, what compassion towards all kinds of misery! This charity, ‘patient and kind,’ will extend itself also to those who are hostile to us and persecute us. Who will prevent us from hoping that the flame of Christian charity may dispel the darkness from their minds and bring to them light and the peace of God?
Pope St. Pius X never focused on the Church to the exclusion of the world, but sought to prepare her, as the Lord prepared St. Paul in the desert, for her missionary vocation. As Christians we do not reject or hate the world or any person. Instead, we “wage war” with our enemies (and all that is harmful to them) by loving them, praying for them, and trying to save them, just as Jesus Christ himself did and continues to do through his Church, the sacrament of salvation. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide us, as he guided Pope St. Pius X, so that restoring all things in Christ, “Christ may be all and in all” (Colossians 3:2).
Image: Pope St. Pius X
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whom the Church celebrates today, possesses a mighty reputation. Hailed as one of the most influential men in the twelfth century, he resuscitated a struggling new community of monks and transformed them into the great Cistercian Order that boasted several hundred monasteries across Europe after only four decades. His influence didn’t stop there. He counseled lay nobility and healed schisms at the highest levels of the Church hierarchy. His accomplishments are numerous and his title as a Doctor of the Church prevents him from falling into any obscurity within Church history.
What precisely made him such a great leader and advisor? Certainly we can point to his personality or his penetration of theology and the Christian spiritual life. His treatises, On the Love of God and The Steps of Humility and Pride, are only highlights of his contributions to the Church. However, I think that his greatness consists not merely in his illuminating knowledge of the spiritual life, but in his own living out of this knowledge. In TheSteps of Humility and Pride, he writes:
A brother’s misery is more truly felt by a miserable heart. But in order to have a miserable heart because of someone else’s misery, you must first recognize your own so that you may find your neighbor’s mind in your own and know from yourself how to help him.
He was not a great counselor because he saw himself as a man above others who had a higher perspective – he was a man amongst others who simply kept perspective. He knew how to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”(Rom 12:15) because he himself first rejoiced and wept. He recognized his own need for mercy and forgiveness. Consequently when he saw others suffer, he did not look down upon them from on high. Rather, he suffered with them. His suffering and the recognition of his own misery became a gift.
Without that gift, he would have remained distant from those he served. But with the gift, he could unite himself to them. Understanding their broken hearts prompted him to pray and to exercise mercy towards them. All of this was in imitation of our Savior who experienced the greatest suffering for our sake. He knew our suffering from all eternity but upon the cross He experienced our suffering and had compassion.
Suffering in itself is not a good thing and, thus, isn’t the most advisable of things to seek out; however, Christ’s work on the cross has transformed it. We can see it as a gift insofar as it conforms us to Christ and enables us to suffer with our neighbor. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. The pain of our own suffering can move us to pray for those who suffer. We know the perseverance, the courage, the hope they need to endure suffering. Because we have been there already ourselves, we can be there with them in prayer. It isn’t the most pleasant of gifts, but when we follow the footsteps of St. Bernard and imitate our Savior, our suffering and misery are transformed into a mighty and powerful gift.
Image: Francisco Ribalta, Christ Embracing St. Bernard
Over the course of the summer, one of the brothers and I took turns labeling each other “liberal” or “conservative.” It was always in jest and the sides constantly shifted based on absurd rationales such as: “You poured weiss beer in an ordinary glass! How liberal!” or “You pray the rosary every day? You’re very conservative,” or “You don’t have a problem with eating meat on a Friday [outside of Lent], because you’re a liberal,” or “White wine with pork? How conservative!” By themselves, these actions do not signify being liberal or conservative. Selecting wine or following precise fasting protocol is not a political statement.
As the absurdity of our mutual jabbing illustrates, the relative terms “liberal” and “conservative” are things that everyone thinks he understands, but the list of ideas that one associates with each side can be unique to each person. Why, for instance, should it be “very conservative” to pray the rosary every day? We use these comparative terms as shortcuts to dismiss complex issues with a throwaway phrase.
What would one make of a priest who substitutes an arbitrary hymn for the responsorial psalm and Sanctus, but wears a Roman (“fiddleback”) chasuble and prays the Eucharistic Prayer ad orientem (that is, with the priest and the people facing the same direction)? Or another who grows his hair really long so that people question their stereotype of a priest, but who uses incense every Sunday? Or a congregation where most people sit during the Eucharistic Prayer, but receive Communion on the tongue, kneeling at the altar rail? Such juxtapositions are, admittedly, not typical. Yet, the labels we apply to theological positions and practices can sometimes reveal more about our own prejudices than they meaningfully communicate about the issues themselves.
We have already seen that attempts to apply a quick label to Pope Francis led to frequent mistakes. While the Pontiff has sent some conservatives into a panic and has had some liberals call him one of their own, he calls himself a “son of the Church,” and there is plenty of reason to believe that these previous claims are wishful thinking. But he is not the first pope to undergo such media misunderstanding. Pope Pius IX was widely reported to be a reformer and liberal when he was elected, but when he refused to support a united Italy, people began to see him as a conservative. Many today want to label Pope John Paul II as a conservative, but liturgical traditionalists see him as anything but. These simple labels applied to the Church just don’t work.
While it may be silly to apply political labels to modern popes, it is down right foolish to do so with Christ. Yet that doesn’t stop people from publishing books like Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All, or God is a Conservative.
The plain fact of the matter is that Jesus and Christianity as a whole do not fit easily into our categories and labels. Christ preaches hard moral truths, together with the offer of salvation. The Kingdom of God is open to tax collectors (Matthew 9:9–13, Luke 15:1–7), but money changers need to be run out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–17, Luke 19:45–46, John 2:14–16). Divorce is forbidden (Matthew 5:32, 19:9; Luke 16:18), but adultery can be forgiven (John 8:1–11). So is Jesus a liberal or a conservative, a reactionary or a progressive?
Any vision of Christianity that forgets that Christ is the one Savior of all and that we all need saving, is missing something. We cannot reduce the Gospel to mere side taking. We are one Church united in the one Christ, not an assembly with warring factions trying to take control.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Blackfriars, Oxford
One of the reasons that many Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of human evolution is that it seems to suggest that the fact we are here is an accident, and there is nothing stopping us from evolving into something else down the road. There are many ways to address the question of why humanity evolved, but the one I want to focus on looks at the end of evolution. Specifically, is there some stopping point to evolution, and can that stopping point be considered the goal it was ordered to in the first place?
In looking for an end of evolution, we must first ask whether evolution has actually come to rest anywhere. For any plant or animal we find in nature, the answer is in part, yes. Evolution has finished, has done its job and contributed to the production of an organism properly adapted to its environment. Of course, this assumes that the environment is stable, which brings us to the “no” part. Any stable population that is placed in a new environment, assuming it can survive at all, will begin to adapt to the new surroundings. Like so many natural processes, evolution does not come with a determined endpoint, but its operation depends on many factors. Gravity may bring a boulder to rest on the edge of a cliff, but an additional push, whether by wind, earthquake, or human hand, will start the process of falling again until gravity finds the boulder a new place of rest. Arguing for an absolute endpoint intrinsic to evolution would seem to require that all evolution is pushing life to the same state of rest which, if the diversity of life is any indication, seems unlikely.
If there is no absolute endpoint of evolution, we can still ask about the particular states of rest we find. In particular, is man still evolving? This is a complicated and much debated question. For instance, many cultural variations, ranging from skin color, to lactose intolerance, to the ability to breathe at higher altitudes, have been traced to particular populations of humans settling in particular geographies. Further, there is strong evidence for relatively recent adaptation among humans in genetic resistance to various diseases. It is clear that evolution is at work on small scales, adapting man to changes in his environment. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that any part of the human population is diverging so much as to become a new species. Some argue that our ability to change our environment, as with the rise of agriculture, and the fact that humanity is no longer geographically isolated have largely slowed some of the effects of evolution that might lead towards a divergence of man into new species. Is there some conceivable situation in which our intellects would not be able to properly adjust the environment and evolution would drastically change some population of human beings to the point of evolving a new species? Perhaps, but that situation seems to be thoroughly in the realm of science fiction.
What then of the second sense of end, of the goal towards which evolution tends? Naturally speaking, because there is no absolute endpoint for evolution there cannot be an absolute goal, only relative endpoints and relative goals, adapting this population to better survive in this environment. One of the relative goals, and a particularly stable one at that, seems to have been the human body, but man is not simply another animal. We are an animal that has an immaterial rational soul, something no natural process could produce. So while it seems evolution has helped produce the human body, this was in no way its intrinsic goal, and, furthermore, it has no part in the production of the soul.
Still, this is not the only level on which we can ask these questions, since evolution, like all natural processes, is an instrument of God, caused and maintained in all of its working by His divine providence. Like all instruments, the process of evolution can be given a power beyond its natural capacities and ordered to some end higher than it could attain alone. Evolution is not intrinsically ordered to the production of an animal materially capable of being informed by an immaterial intellectual soul, but this is, in fact, what it has achieved. This is exactly how it was ordered by the providential hand of God. The claim is not that evolution was somehow tweaked or changed to create the animal that would become the human person, but that in His providence over the whole of creation, it was the process God used to achieve this end.
Given that God has used evolution for the production of the human body, we can ask whether this particular goal of the divine plan is absolute, or a stepping stone to something higher. Once again, the answer must be yes and no. In the Incarnation, Christ took upon himself our human nature in order to save us, but if some part of humanity evolved into a new species, some new nature, it is unclear how they could share in that salvation. As St. Paul says “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28), and we can see how evolution prepared the way for our good, our very existence, in producing the human body. It seems unlikely that God would allow evolution to produce some branch of humanity incapable of attaining beatitude, our true good, meaning that in the divine plan the human body is a goal of evolution – arguably the goal. Nevertheless, we also believe that this earthly human life is a stepping stone to something higher, namely “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This new life will not be achieved by evolution or any natural process, but by the salvation won for us by Christ, “True God and True Man.”
Image: John La Farge, Nocturne
The student brothers are on retreat the week of August 11-15. Rather than leave the blog dormant, we offer you reflections by and about various Dominican saints for your meditation. Regular blogging will resume on August 18. In the meantime, please remember us in your prayers and be assured of our prayers for you.
From an apostolic letter motu proprio of Pope Saint John Paul II on October 3, 1982
“Whoever does the work of Christ, ought always to stay close to Christ.” This was a motto constantly repeated by Brother John of Fiesole, who was called Beato Angelico because of the highest integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of his paintings, particularly those of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
While he was still a youth, he was attracted to the religious life, and asked to be received into a stricter discipline in the Order of Friars Preachers (called the Observance), which had been established in the convent at Fiesole. He diligently took up all of the duties imposed by the brethren or superiors. It was the fame of his outstanding art work, particularly his painting, that spread far and wide. Therefore, commissions for his work became more frequent and urgent.
Pope Eugenius IV called him to Rome. While brother John was painting the Basilica of Saint Peter’s and the Vatican palace, Eugenius IV took the most opportunity not only to admire the virtue of this outstanding artist, but even more than that, the piety of this religious, his observance of the Rule, his humility, and his memorable spirit that made many people his own.
Nicholas V had an exceptional opinion about brother John. For “he honored and reverenced this man alone, because of the integrity of his life and the excellence of his morals.” Therefore, he commissioned him to decorate his private chapel. When brother John had finished it, it almost seemed a prayer expressed with painted color.
At Rome, in the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, he closed his eyes in death after a life that produced famous art, but even more exemplified religious and benevolent virtues. For the opinion of all was that he was a “man of complete modesty and religious life.” Furthermore, “he also blossomed with many virtues. He was meek, and honorable for his religious genius.” Beyond these things, “he was a man distinguished for his sanctity.” Even more, Vasarius, who collected many stories about his unblemished life in the city of Florence, was persuaded of that graceful and heavenly character which one can see even in his sacred paintings. He did not paint on any other subjects and were the products of that greatest harmony between his holy life and his creative virtue.
Brother John, therefore, by placing his rare natural gifts at the service of art, stands both to acquire and to confer on the people of God an immense spiritual and pastoral benefit, by which they might travel more easily to God. According to the Second Vatican Council, this is particularly fitting for sacred art, as we read in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest expressions of human genius. This judgment applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. By their very nature both of the latter are related to God’s boundless beauty, for this is the reality that these human efforts are trying to express in some way. To the extent that these works aim exclusively at turning our thoughts to God persuasively and devoutly, they are dedicated to God and to the cause of His greater honor and glory.”
Truly, Brother John, a man altogether exceptional for his spiritual life and art, has always attracted our attention. We, therefore, believe that the time has come when he should be given the particular attention of the Church of God, although his heavenly art has not ceased speaking to us even now.
Image: Fra Angelico, Dormition of the Virgin
The student brothers are on retreat the week of August 11-15. Rather than leave the blog dormant, we offer you reflections by and about various Dominican saints for your meditation. Regular blogging will resume on August 18. In the meantime, please remember us in your prayers and be assured of our prayers for you.
From a Letter of Saint Catherine of Siena, virgin, to Christophora, Prioress of the Monastery of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano
In the name of Jesus Christ crucified, and of sweet Mary:
To my very dear daughter in Christ, the sweet Jesus, I, Catherine, minister and servant of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious Blood. I desire to see you and your sisters follow in the footsteps of our holy mother Agnes.
I implore you and I wish you to follow her teaching and her character. For you know that she always gave you the teaching and example of true humility. This was her chief virtue. I am not surprised by this in the least, for she had what a bride must have who wishes to follow the humility of her spouse. She had that uncreated charity that continually burned and consumed her heart. She had the taste and hunger for souls, and always applied herself to keeping vigil in prayer. There is no other way of acquiring the virtue of humility, because there is no humility without charity, and the one nourishes the other.
Do you know what made her arrive at a perfect and authentic virtue? It was free and voluntary self-denial, which made her renounce herself and the goods of this world, not wishing to possess anything. This glorious virgin realized that the possession of temporal good leads one to pride. One loses the sweet virtue of true humility, falls into self-love, loses the warmth of charity and abandons the habit of watching and praying. A heart and senses full of this world and of self-love are unable to be filled with Christ crucified and cannot taste true and sweet prayer. Seeing this, Agnes put off herself and put on the crucified Christ. This was not only for herself, but also for us. Her example obliges you to it, and you must follow it.
You know well, consecrated brides of Christ, that it is not what comes from your father that you are supposed to possess. Since you have a spouse, you have to guard and possess what comes from your eternal spouse. What you have from your father is your sensuality, which we have to abandon when the moment has come to follow Christ and to possess his treasure. What was the treasure of Christ crucified? The Cross, disgrace, pain, torment, torture, mockery and reproaches, voluntary poverty, hunger for the Father’s honor and for our salvation.
If you possess this treasure with the force of your reason, moved by the fire of charity, you will arrive at that virtue of which we have spoken. You will be true daughters of your mother, and eager and watchful brides. You will merit to be received by Christ crucified. By his grace, he will open to you the door of a life that does not end. I will not say any more. Wash yourselves in the blood of Christ crucified. Arise, full of zeal and love. If you are united and not divided, there will be no demon, no creature, that can harm you or hinder your perfection. Abide in the sweet and holy love of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus my love.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Good Shepherd
The student brothers are on retreat the week of August 11-15. Rather than leave the blog dormant, we offer you reflections by and about various Dominican saints for your meditation. Regular blogging will resume on August 18. In the meantime, please remember us in your prayers and be assured of our prayers for you.
From a sermon of Saint Antoninus, bishop
John says in the Book of Revelation: The Lord showed me the Tree of Life on both sides of the river, bearing fruit. Christ crucified is that Tree of Life, which is said to be on both sides of the river, because the Fathers of both the Old and the New Testament were saved through Him. God Himself on the Cross brought forth universal fruits for the salvation of the human race, produced by the wood of the Cross, as we have in a figure. Let us consider four of these fruits as they regard the human race. The first fruit is the price of our redemption. As Ambrose says, Our sin was so great that we could not be redeemed unless the Only Begotten Son of God should die for us debtors. The reason is that the offence of the human race was infinite because of the one who was offended, of the good of which it was deprived, and of the nature that it darkened. Therefore it was necessary that this offence be purged by the passion of Our Lord. So Peter says: You know that you were ransomed not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish.
The second fruit is the privilege of divine love. Things given as gifts usually have the effect of inspiring us to love. The greater gifts inspire greater love, as it is written: He who is forgiven more, loves the more. This is the greater gift, and it is loved the more. Among all the things that are lovable, there is one that is more lovable than the rest, and that most lovable of all things is life. Whoever gives his life for his friend has given the greatest possible gift. As Saint Bernard writes, the cup that you have drunk, O sweet Jesus, that work of our redemption, has made me more lovable to you than anything else.
The third fruit is the shield for our defense. Before the suffering of Christ, many people were laboring in idolatry and were unable to resist the devil. After the passion of Christ, the enemy was made powerless, so that none can be conquered or overcome unless that person wills it. As Gregory writes, the enemy is feeble, which conquers nothing except by the will of another. We attained this through his death, as Scripture says: They conquered through the blood of the Lamb. This ought to be the blood recognized by faith in the eyes of the faithful by which they are strengthened for battle, as it is written: Recall him, who suffered such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you may not tire when you are weary in your souls.
The fourth fruit is the summit of our exaltation. Someone is called the highest exaltation of any city, if he is chosen to rule the whole world as Emperor, or as Supreme Pontiff to govern the whole church. Accordingly, great is the dignity of human nature, because Christ, through the death that he suffered in his human nature, received a name that is above every other, as it is written: Therefore God also exalted him, and gave him a name that is above every other name. In this nature in which he suffered he judges all creation, as it is written: He was appointed by God as a judge of the living and the dead. To this all the Prophets give testimony that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his Name.
Image: Domenico Passignano, Translation of St. Antoninus
From a Letter of Saint Catherine de’ Ricci, written on Palm Sunday, April 18, 1554
Rivalry has a place as a good. It is not envy, as if someone were to keep his neighbor from the good, lest that person gets there first. Holy rivalry is a thirst for the heavenly spring to which we must hasten with great vigor. We must strive to advance without an obstacle in anyone’s way. If this rivalry were in Christian hearts, how many people would come to that desired reward, which now only a few people are able to reach. My dearest children, let us so strive that we may run and obtain it. In this contest you will not be considered indifferent. The thief crucified with Jesus, though he was unprepared, was not judged to be unhappy, but rather happy. Does he not seem to you to have struggled far better than that great crowd of holy fathers who waited for their redemption for ages? For the thief, in an instant, ran swiftly to beat all the others and was worthy to be the first one at the victory, which he took away from none of those who were called to it.
We live at a time in which running and taking a stand is more than we are used to doing. Considering the greatness of the mystery of our redemption presented to us in these days, how much more should we stand firm and persevere!
We see the mercy that overcomes justice is made the mediator with the eternal Father. His immortal gift is that he sent his only Son to take on human flesh for the salvation of our souls. God reaches down from heaven to earth, and he whom the heavens are unable to contain is confined in the Virgin’s womb. By taking our human nature, he who is immortal and unable to suffer became mortal and capable of suffering. He who is divine became man. He who is the wisest of all became like a fool in the sight of all. The Lord whom angels serve became our servant.
What sort of mind, when considering these things, does not marvel that all of this was done so that human nature might pay the debt owed to the Divine Being? Our nature was unable to pay the debt and was unable to open the gate of heaven which disobedience had shut. Therefore, the Savior came, rich with such treasure, ready and able to pay off the debt for us and to restore us as heirs of the heavenly estate. This consideration ought to temper us in all of our activities, and keep us from those activities that are earthly and futile.
It is necessary that we run this course, inspire by the example of the great love of the Son of God for his creatures. He ran his race swiftly with our nature to endure the passion.
We must run this race, and we must push ahead with strength toward that great open sea by which we are washed and cleansed. He did all this for our sake. He signed our foreheads with his sacred blood, so that we may approach the eternal Father with this sign and tell him that his only-begotten Son payed our debt. We have competed and found the red and ruddy trophy, which is Jesus on the Cross, sprinkled with blood and deathly pale in the cause of love.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., The Fountain of Grace
From the Treatise of Brother Henri-Dominique Lacordaire on the re-establishment of the Order of Preachers in France
In the Thirteenth Century faith was deep. The church still held sway over the society that she had conquered. However, the European mind, which had been slowly worked upon by time and by Christianity, was nearing the crisis of adolescence. What Innocent III had seen from his bed in a dream – a church that was tottering – Saint Dominic revealed to the whole world. When the whole world believed that the Church was Queen and Mother, he declared that nothing less than a resurrection of the primitive apostolate was required to save her. Men responded to Saint Dominic as they had to Peter the Hermit – they became crusaders.
All the universities of Europe contributed their quota of masters and students. Brother Jordan of Saxony, the second Master of the Order, gave the habit to more than a thousand men whom he had won for this new kind of life. People said of him, “Do not go to Brother Jordan’s sermons, for he is a courtesan who catches men.” In an instant, or, to speak literally – for here truth surpasses metaphor – in five years, Saint Dominic who, before Honorius’ Bull had only sixteen collaborators, eight Frenchmen, seven Spaniards and one Englishman, founded sixty convents filled with exceptional men and a flourishing younger generation.
All of them, like their master, wanted to be poor at a time when the Church was rich, poor even to the extent of being beggars. All of them, like him, at a time when the Church was supremely powerful, wanted to exercise only one kind of influence: The voluntary surrender of men’s minds to their virtues. They did not say, like the heretics, “The Church must be stripped bare.” Instead they stripped her in their own persons and showed her to the people bare as she was at first.
In a word, they loved God, they loved him truly, they loved him above all else, and they loved their neighbor as themselves and more than themselves. They had received in their hearts the ample wound that has made all the saints eloquent. In addition to this asset of a passionate soul, without which no orator has ever existed, the Friars Preachers also had great skill in grasping the kind of preaching which was suited to the time.
All the same, I shall mention some of the names that are best remembered. Saint Hyacinth, apostle of the North in the thirteenth century, preached Jesus Christ in Poland, Bohemia, Great and Little Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Livonia, on the banks of the Black Sea, in the islands of Greece, and all down the coastline of Asia Minor. His progress could be followed by means of the convents established as he went. Saint Peter of Verona was felled by the assassin’s sword after a long apostolic career, with the blood that flowed from his wounds he wrote the first words of the Apostles’ Creed in the sand: “I believe in God.” Henry Suzo, that lovable man from Swabia in the Fourteenth Century, preached with such success that a price was put on his head. During the same period, brother John Tauler was much acclaimed in Cologne and throughout Germany.
Let me also mention Saint Vincent Ferrer who, in the Fifteenth Century, evangelized Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He achieved such a high reputation that he was chosen to be one of the arbitrators to decide the succession to the throne of Aragon. The Council of Constance sent a deputation to implore him to come and take his seat at it. Girolamo Savonarola was the constant friend of the French in Italy and the idol of Florence, whose liberties he defended and morals he wanted to reform. He was burned alive in the midst of an ungrateful people, but to no effect, because his virtue and his glory rose higher than the flames at the stake. Pope Paul III declared that he would regard as a heretic anyone who dared to accuse Savonarola of heresy.
I also add Thomas Aquinas, who became in a short time the Catholic church’s most famous doctor. There is also Brother Angelico – when Michelangelo saw the picture of the Annunciation that our Friar had painted in the church of Saint Dominic in Fiesole, he said that no one could paint figures like this unless he had first seen them in heaven. There is also Bartolomé de Las Casas and many others.
Let us leave these revered names in the safekeeping of those who know them and call upon them. Let us end our brief sketch of this great Order with the words of the Fourteenth Century poet and one of the greatest of Christian poets, in which the most celebrated singer of the Divine Comedy, sang the Order’s praises: He was called ‘Dominic,’ and it is to him that I refer as the gardener chosen by Christ to help him in his garden. He poured forth, like a stream from a lofty spring, his teaching, and will, and apostolic life. From that stream flow many brooks, by which the garden of the Catholic faith is watered.
Image: Fra Angelico, Fiesole Altarpiece
“Et quicumque hanc regulam secuti fuerint pax super illos et misericordia . . .”
In one corner of the cloister of our house of studies in Washington, D.C., there stands a statue of St. Dominic holding a lily in his right hand and an open book in his left. The lily–a traditional symbol of virginal purity–draws Dominican minds to a line from the O Lumen that calls our founder the “ivory of chastity.” Since we sing this chant nearly every night, the import of the efflorescent article in the statue’s right hand is unmistakable: Dominic was a man of stalwart purity.
The point of the open book, however, is less clear. They say that St. Dominic always carried St. Paul’s letters with him, so it isn’t surprising to find a Pauline verse scrawled across the book’s exposed pages. The verse, written in Latin, is Galatians 6:16, “peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule,” and you can’t help but wonder: why that verse? What rule is the statuary patriarch of preachers commending to his contemporary children? The early constitutions of the Order (often referred to as the “rule of St. Dominic”)? The rule of St. Augustine (unanimously adopted by Dominic and his brethren)?
Though reasonable, such answers strike me as only partial responses to the question. Dominic once threatened that, if he should ever find out that the brothers were imposing the rule (i.e., the constitutions) so strongly as to insist that breaking the rule was inherently sinful, he would go to that community and personally destroy their copy of the rule. Similarly, the whole reason he wrote the constitutions in the first place was because he acknowledged that the rule of St. Augustine didn’t perfectly fit the form of religious life he wanted to live, and so it needed a complementary set of norms. Dominic’s flexible approach to Augustine’s rule and the Order’s constitutions (i.e., subordinating these things to the Order’s ultimate purpose–preaching for the salvation of souls) makes us wonder if the deepest identity of the “rule” in question doesn’t lie elsewhere.
This doubt only grows stronger when we consider the context of the scripture passage in question. Recall that the passage comes at the very end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And what is the central focus of Galatians? Paul’s visceral invective against judaizing gentiles. The whole point of that letter is that gentile Christians should not be bound to follow the letter of the Jewish law, but rather should rejoice in their newfound freedom in Christ. If Dominic’s book bears a quote from Galatians, then the “rule” it refers to must be more than a mere code of conduct written on scraps of paper. It must be a way of life joined inseparably to Jesus Christ. It must be a way of life leading to peace and mercy. And it must be a way of life that Dominic himself walked.
So what is Dominic’s “rule”? I would suggest it is the following: “behave as gospel men, following in the footsteps of the Saviour, speaking to God or of God, among yourselves or with your neighbours.”
In the primitive constitutions of the Order, St. Dominic began his discussion of preachers with these words. The same words now stand at the beginning of our constitutions today. They form, as it were, the heart of the heart of Dominican life, for these words were themselves formed from Dominic’s own heart.
When we, like him, speak only to God or of God, we become conformed to Jesus Christ, who alone among men is perfectly united to and perfectly revelatory of God the Father. This union with Christ in prayer and preaching leads to total transparency of life. Truly evangelical men are such in private and in public, in the chapel and on the road. And that transparency translates into authentic Christian freedom. Dominic was everything Paul exhorted the Galatians to be–a man motivated by love and thus bound by no law but that of charity. All that he did, he did freely and for the sake of Christ.
Dominic was a vir evangelicus, a gospel man, and he calls his sons to be the same. His is a path of joy and freedom, a task that is easy and a burden that is light; for it is nothing else than the following of Christ the Preacher–speaking to God or of God, among ourselves or with our neighbors.
Peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule.
Image: Leandro Bassano, Honorius III Approving the Rule of St. Dominic in 1216
Since 1997 public television viewers everywhere have enjoyed the delights and dismays of antiques owners from cities all across the nation that have dragged old items before the camera and appraisers to see if what has been in the family for centuries or was found last week at a yard sale is treasure or trash. Personally, I always enjoy the times when an appraiser’s body language is giving away what they know the item’s worth is while they listen to “Peggy from Tulsa” drone on about how the antique came into her possession. The best of these moments however is when the high value of the antique is revealed to the unsuspecting owner and they in turn reveal that the item has been used for something utterly mundane, such as holding gun ammo for the past twenty years, and the appraiser’s countenance goes from delight to disgust just before the camera cuts away to a close up of the antique with accompanying graphic of the roadshow trunk, item value, and the “magic pot of gold” sound effect.
This brings me to one of the greatest analogies I have ever heard about a lapsed Catholic returning to their faith. A few years back I was waiting on table during our main community meal in Washington, D.C. when I overheard a guest say to the friars dining with her that she was raised Catholic but became lapsed in the faith. Now after returning it felt like she was on Antiques Roadshow, only instead of some material object, she had dragged her immortal soul out of the back of the attic and discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) that it was priceless. The joy and delight of her recent invaluable appraisal was something that had to be shared, like the parable of the woman who loses a coin and then upon finding it invites her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her (Lk 15:8-10).
Months later at one of our special events held at the priory I spotted this woman and introduced myself, breaking the ice by recalling how impressed I was by what I had overheard her say at the table that night. I mentioned that I would love to use her story and analogy down the road, and she readily gave me permission. I also went on to find out a few more details about her background and experience growing up as a typical Gen- Xer now in her early forties. The story is basically the same as millions of women from New York to San Francisco: raised nominally Catholic, practiced maybe up until college at best, got a great education, moved to a city, landed a well-paid high-performance job with flexibility and international travel mixed in — most likely with a score of hard-to-get reservations, being a bridesmaid at a few destination weddings, and the purchase of Apple products and Tori Burch shoes. A belief in God was still present, sure, but the reality of the immortality of her soul was not on her radar.
What material goods from our current age will we look back on and value like the items on Antiques Roadshow? Will it be the Kindle or DVD collection? The Ikea bookshelf or the fixtures for the sink bought at Restoration Hardware? No, very few of our goods are built to last nowadays. Even the chair made by Quakers in New England in 1783 that has survived at Grandma’s lake house is going to break one day. Our immortal soul will not. The soul animates the body, indeed, is the form of body, and because of its intimate connection with the body, even our bodies will one day be reunited with the soul and endure for all eternity.
The greatest news is that if this priceless value of one’s soul has been neglected in the attics of our life and covered over with the dust of sin, Jesus Christ can and wants to personally come and restore it, most especially in the sacrament of confession. Moreover, to keep the soul in almost brand new condition (though some debt of temporal punishment for sin might remain), He will even give us His very self in the Eucharist, offered at every sacrifice of the Mass. The sacramental life of grace and our prayers and good works add value to our soul in a way similar to how material objects gain value with time and safe keeping.
As we live in the age of the new evangelization with the task of representing the Gospel to so many again for the first time, perhaps this analogy of Antiques Roadshow might help you help someone see the priceless value of their soul in the eyes of the divine appraiser.
Image: Antiques Roadshow
How do we talk about homosexuality? Christians are caught on the horns of a dilemma: if we do talk about homosexuality we are told that we’re sex-obsessed and irrelevant; but if we don’t talk about it at all, the sex-obsessed culture takes silence as approval–consider the 59 percent of American Catholics who support same-sex marriage. So how do we escape the horns of the dilemma? A filmmaker working with Courage has proposed a stunning new answer: it’s called Desire of the Everlasting Hills.
The basic drama of this sixty-four-minute documentary is simple: three people with same-sex attraction talk about their lives, the choices they’ve made, the paths they’ve wandered, and the desire that brought them to God. Dan, Rilene, and Paul spend much of the film speaking directly to the camera, simply telling their stories. They don’t theorize, generalize, or abstract. They just reveal themselves, the mystery of who they are, the life they live, what God has done in them. Rilene sums up her intent for the film in her first speech:
For me, this is my journey. Nobody else is going to have the identical experience. And so you can choose to believe or not to believe that my experiences are true and valid. That’s okay. I just ask you to keep an open mind and consider that it might be possible that this is a genuine, authentic experience, and that it’s possible for more than just me.
That disarming humility resonates throughout the film, as the three narratives course and eddy through the events that have defined their lives. This film is not an ideological tool or a political vehicle; it is a true work of art, taking up the challenging proposal from Benedict XVI that opens the film: “Look at the face of the other… discover that he has a soul, a history, a life, that he is a person, and that God loves this person.”
So what happens when we look at three individuals who have lived openly as homosexuals, who still experience same-sex attraction, and who have left everything to follow Christ? We get what Pope Francis called for in his interview last year for various Jesuit magazines: “When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” We get the whole context, the pain, the joy, the loss, the friendship, the yearning, the desire: we get the person. And we see how God loves him.
Erik Van Noorden, the director, did a superb job selecting his interviewees. Dan, Rilene, and Paul are each lovable, personable, and powerful storytellers, comfortable and emotional in front of the camera as if seated before a close friend. Beyond that, each lived a very different kind of life, sexual and otherwise: Paul lived in high glamor as an international male model, cruising through New York, San Francisco, and all over the world in the ’70s and ’80s; Rilene discovered her attractions somewhat gradually and lived monogamously with a woman for twenty-five years; and Dan struggled to hide his desires with pornography and the Internet, eventually finding a year-long relationship with a man, followed by a slightly longer relationship with a woman. By hearing all three voices simultaneously, we hear a polyphonic perspective on the complex reality of same-sex attraction, unified in its most exalted and desolate moments by the same low thrum: a half-heard longing for something more.
In the end, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is not really a film about homosexuality–the word itself only appears once, as far as I remember. It is a film about desire. About discovering that the opposite of love is not hatred, but loneliness. About discovering that the way out of lust is not indulgence or frigidity, but chastity. About discovering that man is his own worst slavedriver. About discovering freedom in the desire for God. Dan puts it best in his last comment:
We’re made for better stuff than what we settle for. I realized my whole life I’ve settled. I don’t want to settle anymore. And even if that means living a life that’s single, I can do that. I don’t want to go back. But I wouldn’t rewrite the past either.
So how do we talk about homosexuality? I think it might look something like this film. We talk without fear, without anger, without reproach. We speak of courage, of love, of happiness, of companionship, of loneliness, of sorrow, of desire. We speak as a person, to a person. And we never lose hope that, however late we have loved him, Christ is the Beauty ever ancient, ever new.
Image: Paul Delvaux, Loneliness
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again?” (Mt 5:13)
We are nourished when we come to church, listen to God’s Word, and receive the sacraments. But after being nourished, we leave the temple to sanctify the temporal order. This is the mission the laity are specifically charged with by the Church. In Lumen Gentium, we read that given their secular character, and that the Church has an authentic secular dimension, the laity must be “present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth” (LG 4).
What does it mean to become the salt of the earth? There are the familiar uses of salt: preservation and seasoning. Being salt in the world means we preserve what is good in it, and by seasoning it we make it better. There are other uses of salt. It’s used as a sacramental to protect from sickness and evil, so by being salt we guard what we have preserved and seasoned. Salt can also be a means of destroying. Cities and fields used to be salted as a sign of their defeat and so that nothing would grow there. This means not only guarding what we preserve and season, but also fighting against that which threatens it.
This mission to become salt of the earth has implications for civil society, which is comprised of church, family, charitable institutions, and community organizations. Edmund Burke referred to these institutions as “little platoons” within which the individual flourishes and learns virtue. The laity’s mission of salting will take place here. Of course it will also take place in the economic and political sectors of society, but these sectors flourish when civil society does. A healthy society grows from the bottom up. For it is in church, in the family, in working with charitable societies that carry out the corporal works of mercy, and in community organizations that individuals become virtuous, learn civic virtue and spirit, and become responsible members of society, ordering it to God, its source and end.
So how should the laity sanctify the temporal order? How exactly do we salt civil society? We must preserve those institutions that have been handed down to us so that we can hand them on to those who will come after us. There are many voluntary charitable institutions that need to be preserved: the Knights of Columbus and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example. These help perform the corporal works of mercy. The family is also obviously in need of preserving. It is within the family, the domestic church, that individuals first encounter the faith and virtue lived out on a daily basis. Civil society must also be seasoned, that is, it must be improved where possible. We are not called merely to preserve, to watch, as these institutions grow old. We attend to them and make them better ordered to God and the truths he has established. We also guard such institutions against forces that would attack them. We especially see how there are certain forces, cultural and political, working against the family and religious institutions. And lastly, we don’t only play defense by guarding. We salt the fields of the enemy by fighting where and when necessary. An obvious Christian way to fight against forces that work against civil society is through prayer. But we can also do this through protesting unjust laws and organizations and through establishing new institutions that promote charity, justice, and peace in society.
Christ charges us to be salt of the earth, but He also intimates the possibility of our losing this salty character. We must remain salty if we are to sanctify the world. But if the faithful, especially the laity, are to order society to its Creator we must learn from Him how to do so. We must always return to prayer, the sacraments, and Scripture. But we can also look back at the Scripture quoted above when Jesus urges us to become salt of the earth and remain that way. Christ says this in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. And immediately prior to the verse above he gives us the Beatitudes. This too, given the context, is a way to remain salty. Be meek. Hunger for righteousness. Be pure. Be merciful. Work for peace. Turn the other cheek when insulted for the sake of the Gospel. The Beatitudes give us a program for staying salty. We have the charge (be salt), the place where it takes place (civil society), and the way to stay salty (prayer, sacraments, the Beatitudes).
Image: Pahudson, St. Patrick’s Cathedral Complex
“I’m ready for a change – I want to [surrender my life to God] like you. . . how do I start?”
The man who spoke these words couldn’t have reached his 40s yet, but his searching gaze looked as if those eyes had seen a lifetime of futility. “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain does the builder labor. If the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain do the watchmen keep vigil. In vain is your earlier rising; your going later to rest when the Lord pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber.” So runs psalm 127, whose words immediately came to mind. The man was lacking not human effort or will, but the grace of God and an openness to receive it to allow it to change his life. As for his question, “how do I start,” St. John Vianney can point out the answer: prayer.
“Prayer is to our soul what rain is to the soil. Fertilize the soil ever so richly, it will remain barren unless fed by frequent rains.” St. John Vianney knew first hand of long-term struggles in life and the importance of prayer as the means of lifting to God his personal problems along with all his efforts to overcome them. Not a natural scholar, he struggled with the studies needed to become ordained. When these were interrupted by Napoleonic wars and being drafted into the army (at least twice), it only became harder to return and complete them. Yet it was surely his constancy in prayer that transformed all his hardships into sources of sanctity.
Prayer – lifting the heart to God and entering into communion with Him – is meant for every one of us. Regular prayer was Jesus’ own habit, as we see in today’s gospel: “[Jesus] went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Mt 14:23). We can see also the role that an area of calm solitude plays – Jesus deliberately dismisses everyone, even His disciples, and goes off by Himself. In the midst of our very interconnected lives, such a place of peace and quiet may seem impossible to achieve. This atmosphere of quiet reverence is readily found closer than we think – churches, chapels, and even a small corner of our living quarters can easily lend themselves to this holy silence in which to pray. Once we climb away from the busy-ness of life, particularly from information traffic flow – shutting off our cell phone and computers – once we deliberately suspend our concerns for whatever work or projects clamor for attention on our to-do list, then we are ready to communicate with God.
Once we begin to speak with (and especially listen to) God, we can directly share with Him all that we are struggling with and all that we find joy and gratitude in. St. John Vianney reminds us that in prayer we receive what we need to strengthen us as well as the joy of knowing that we are united with God: “Man has a beautiful office, that of praying and loving. You pray, you love – that is the happiness of man upon the earth. Prayer is nothing else than union with God. When our heart is pure and united to God, we feel within ourselves a joy, a sweetness that inebriates, a light that dazzles us.” Connecting to God in prayer establishes a lifeline through which His grace can reach us, sooth our fears, and divinely supplement our own human nature so as to turn our lives completely towards God.
Image: Andrea Marchetti, Pray