Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
“Papa Go Sleep, Papa Go See Jesus”
This is what my two-year-old nephew Gabriel said when my sister and brother-in-law brought him to the casket at my grandfather’s funeral. Shortly after saying one last goodbye to his dear “Papa,” Gabe, in a bolt of energy began to run around the room of the funeral home, almost with reckless abandon. From one side to the other, he ran freely, as every child is compelled to do. Occasionally, he would stop and grab some attention from the family and friends present before continuing on his merry two-year-old way. There was a life and joy within Gabe that day.
In contrast, I was at a wake for my grandfather. As I knelt before the casket, looking upon my “Papa” one last time and praying for him, I couldn’t help but think of Gabe and what he said. At only two years old, Gabe didn’t understand the concept of death. For an energetic two year old there is no such thing as death – there is only life. Even when it seems that things stop and change, it is just one more step in the timeline of life. For Gabe, even if he couldn’t fully grasp it, our Papa’s death was a new step, pointing toward a new way of life.
As family and friends spoke kind words of consolation, saying things like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and, “He was a good man,” all I could think about was the end which Gabe alluded to: my Papa was going to see Jesus. With that, the beauty of it all dawned on me. We were in a place that most would recognize as sad and somber, and yet Gabe in his innocence of heart recognized the truth of it all and what we are made for.
So many people have a great fear of death because the only life they know is the one that they have created for themselves. Death disrupts this life. They have decided what their life is going to be like, what they are going to pursue, how they are going to prioritize, and it is for no one else to determine its ends and means. They think they are in control, but when death’s dark hand comes knocking, they frighten and realize how little control they actually had. The life they have created will be snatched from them in an instant, and some would rather take their own life, rather than see all that they have created be taken away. Death comes and conquers their lives. There is no triumph here, only capitulation. So they are scared, and rightfully so.
Yet, I was amazed at the sign Gabe was for everyone in that funeral home. As the body of my grandfather laid quietly in its casket Gabe ran with life. Gabe’s running was an image of true Christian death, where life is changed, not ended. Eternal rest is not so much a deep and peaceful sleep, but a fullness of life in every aspect: it is life with Jesus. Life is what we are made for. We find death unnatural and repugnant because in our very core, in our very being, we know it is foreign to us. And to its face, unlike so many, Gabe said “no.” In so few words, Gabe really said to us, “See! Go see the Lord and run with Him! Go see the Lord and you will have life!” Death has no gain, death has no victory, death has no triumph. The only triumph of death is the life of our Savior because in His death life is given to us, here and hereafter, forever and always.
So Papa went to sleep, but Papa went to see Jesus. May God grant us grace and love so that we can one day go see Jesus too.
Photo Credit: Brett Davies, Making the dream happen
Prayer, St. John Damascene says, is the unveiling of the mind before God. When we pray we ask Him for what we need, confess our faults, thank Him for His gifts, and adore His immense majesty. Here are five tips for praying better– with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas.
5. Be humble.
Many people falsely think of humility as a virtue of a low self-esteem. St. Thomas teaches us that humility is a virtue of acknowledging the truth about reality. Since prayer, at its root, is an “asking” directed at God, humility is crucially important. Through humility we recognize our neediness before God. We are totally and entirely dependent on God for everything and at every moment: our existence, life, breath, every thought and action. As we become more humble, we recognize more profoundly our need to pray more.
4. Have faith.
It’s not enough to know that we’re needy. To pray, we also have to ask someone, and not just anyone, but someone who can and will answer our petition. Children intuit this when they ask mom instead of dad (or vice versa!) for permission or a gift. It is with the eyes of faith that we see God is both powerful and willing to help us in prayer. St. Thomas says that “faith is necessary… that is, we need to believe that we can obtain from Him what we seek.” It is faith which teaches us “of God’s omnipotence and mercy,” the basis of our hope. In this, St. Thomas reflects the Scriptures. The Epistle to the Hebrews underlines the necessity of faith, saying, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). Try praying an Act of Faith.
3. Pray before praying.
In old breviaries you can find a small prayer that begins, “Open, O Lord, my mouth to bless your Holy Name. Cleanse, too, my heart from all vain, perverse and extraneous thoughts…” I remember finding this slightly amusing– there were prescribed prayers before prescribed prayers! When I reconsidered it, I realized that although it might seem paradoxical, it gives a lesson. Prayer is utterly supernatural, and so it is far beyond our reach. St. Thomas himself notes that God “wishes to bestow certain things on us at our asking.” The prayer above continues by asking God: “Illumine my mind, inflame my heart, that I may worthily, attentively and devoutly recite this Office and merit to be heard in the sight of Your divine Majesty.” The attentiveness and purity of heart needed to attain to God in prayer is itself received as a gift– and we will only receive if we ask.
2. Be intentional.
Merit in prayer– that is to say, whether it brings us closer to heaven– flows from the virtue of charity. And this flows from our will. So to pray meritoriously, we need to make our prayer an object of choice. St. Thomas explains that our merit rests primarily on our original intention in praying. It isn’t broken by accidental distraction, which no human being can avoid, but only by intentional and willing distraction. This also should give us some relief. We need not worry too much about distractions, as long as we don’t encourage them. We realize something of what the Psalmist says, namely, that God “pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber” (Ps 127:2).
1. Be attentive.
Although, strictly, we need only be intentional and not also perfectly attentive to merit by our prayer, it is nevertheless true that our attention is important. When our minds are filled with actual attention to God, our hearts too are inflamed with desire for Him. St. Thomas explains that spiritual refreshment of the soul comes chiefly from being attentive to God in prayer. The Psalmist cries out, “It is your face, O Lord, that I seek!” (Ps 27:8). In prayer, let us never cease to search for His Face.
Photo Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.
Today is the feast day of St. Chrysogonus. You may think you know nothing about him, but if you go to Mass regularly, chances are you’ve at least heard his name: “With Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian, and all the saints.” Thus runs one part of the Roman Canon, one of the Eucharistic prayers of the Roman liturgy. Today is also the feast day of St. Colman of Cloyne, St. Andrew Dung Lac, St. Columbanus, St. Alexander, and St. Anthony Nam-Quynh. In fact, according to one calendar, it is the feast day of over thirty saints and blesseds, and one would find similar numbers for practically every day of the year.
Most of these saints are unfamiliar to us. So why does the Church recognize and celebrate so many saints? Isn’t it a bit much? I suggest three reasons that the Church puts these men and women forward for our veneration: their numbers inspire hope, they manifest the infinite variety of God’s goodness, and they remind us that holiness is ultimately ordered to the glory of God.
Considering the vast number of saints recognized by the Church gives us hope, because the saints remind us of how effective God’s grace is. Not a single one of the saints became holy purely by his own efforts. The grace of God transformed them, fixing their broken nature so that they might become the images of God he created them to be (Gen 1:26-28), conformed to Christ, the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). If God has worked such a transformation in so many men and women throughout history – men and women who were just as broken as we are – then we can be confident that he can do the same for you and me.
The saints also manifest the inexhaustible richness of God’s goodness. God calls people from all cultures, times, and places, and from all walks of life. The same God who knocked a first-century Jewish tentmaker to the ground, irrevocably changing the course of his life, also invited a small Albanian Sister of Loreto to found a new order and set the world on fire. Doctors, priests, monks, scholars, virgins, mothers, Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians – no state in life, no culture is beyond the transformative power of God’s holiness. The Church gives us saints from every age and from every region of the world to teach us that no situation is outside the immeasurable grace and mercy of God.
Finally, the saints remind us that all our striving after holiness is ultimately for the glory of God. With so many saints on the Church’s calendar, some of them are bound to be forgotten or at least neglected – and they’re okay with that! Holiness is not about attracting the praise of others to yourself, but about drawing others to praise God, who is wonderful in his saints. With the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints sing, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” In imitation of their Lord, who humbled himself to the point of death, death on a cross, they, too, humble themselves for the glory of God. Through the intercession of St. Chrysogonus – and of St. Colman of Cloyne, St. Andrew Dung Lac, St. Columbanus, St. Alexander, and St. Anthony Nam-Quynh, indeed of all the saints – may we be strengthened to do the same.
Image: Michele Giambono, San Crisógono a Caballo
I recently visited a hospitalized woman in her seventies. She was very sick and could eat nothing without pain. No one knew the cause of her illness. Nor was it known where she would go if she ever got out. She was in between living arrangements and, for lack of funds, had already failed to secure housing at a number of places. She had always been poor. Her father had left the family when she was a girl, so from a young age she had worked and helped to raise her younger brothers. Now she was in a similar situation, for her husband had died years ago and could leave her no financial support. Sitting with her, I was reminded that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” and wondered about what he meant.
It was the first thing that Jesus said when he sat down to deliver the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). The qualification “in spirit” is not so much a relaxation of the counsel to be “poor” as a precision about its true significance. One can be materially poor and still be seriously sinful. And if mere poverty were blessedness, it would make no sense to give alms.
According to one major tradition of interpretation, “poverty in spirit” means humility, especially humble subjection to God. This is the habitual and lived recognition that without God we can do nothing. In fact, as creatures, without God we cannot even exist. Ours is a poverty not only of power but of being. And in Adam we marvelously declined to live in God’s garden and ended up hungering after the husks of swine—and no one would give us any (Lk 15:16). The poor man, the beggar, turns out to be an icon of the human being, seen in his ultimate context.
Maintaining this perspective is not easy. And here we catch another glimpse of why Jesus used the word “poverty” instead of “humility.” It is very praiseworthy to earn a living, to support one’s dependents, and to contribute to the Church and one’s civil community. But it is also true that the pursuit of money has the power to distract us from God, and the use of money threatens to inflate our sense of control and status. In short, it may happen that “the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Mt 13:22). As Jesus makes clear, the danger is surprisingly real: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24).
When the disciples responded despairingly, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus assured them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:25-26). In the knowledge of Christ, it is possible for the prosperous man to subject all money matters to God—to make mammon serve him!—to tithe, to support one’s family, to give alms, and in general to live with an appropriate simplicity. Intimate knowledge of the riches of Christ gives the lie to the idea that money can make us totally self-sufficient, or that worldly success will plead our case on the day of judgment.
If riches make us forget our utter dependence on God, the lack of riches makes us remember. This is part of the blessedness of being poor. But material poverty has its own problems; in particular, it can lead to despair. Again the answer is Christ. Though he was rich, he became poor, to bestow his divinity on those who trust in him.
At the end of our discussion in the hospital, the bedridden woman looked back on her difficult life and echoed St. Paul: “I count it all pure joy.” And I think it likely that she did.
Image: James Tissot, The Beatitudes Sermon
One of the greatest joys that I have found in my religious life as a Dominican friar has been the opportunity to use my previous studies in mathematics to talk about matters of the Catholic faith; grace does perfect nature, after all. So, when I was assigned to work at an all-girls’ high school for ministry this year (a task made less daunting by the Dominican Sisters who run the school), I jumped at the chance to give guest lectures in one of the math classes, among other pastoral activities. While explaining to the geometry class one day the differences and similarities between axioms and theorems, I found an opportunity to draw a parallel, as it were, to the logic of belief.
It is often the case that geometry is the first class in which students are introduced to the method of mathematical proof. Beginning from principles (axioms and postulates), the students devise logical arguments to demonstrate that the desired conclusions are true, and the same type of demonstration occurs in theology as well. While a theorem of geometry is proven in this way, an axiom (from the Greek axios, “worthy”) is proposed to us as worthy of belief, without having been proven.
While a high school textbook would include more axioms (also known as postulates), the first systematic textbook on geometry was built on only five axioms. This book is the Elements of Euclid, who lived in Alexandria in the third century before Christ. The first four axioms are facts that appear intuitively obvious, such as “Two points determine a line,” and they show how to use a straightedge and compass, the two tools used by ancient Greek geometers.
The fifth axiom, however, is not so obvious, and it is often expressed in geometry textbooks as the “Parallel Postulate”: Given a line and a point not on it, there exists a unique line through that point parallel to the given line. No one before Euclid had identified this principle, but his whole system of geometry would break down without it. Other famous results, such as the Pythagorean Theorem for right triangles, or the fact that the angles in any triangle add up to 180 degrees, depend on this non-intuitive axiom. For centuries, mathematicians have tried, and failed, to prove this axiom using the other four. Others have devised alternative systems of geometry that neglect or even deny Euclid’s fifth axiom, which lead to radically different results, such as spherical geometry (where even parallel lines could meet, like lines of longitude at the North Pole) or hyperbolic geometry (where lines in a plane that are not parallel could never meet).
A similar phenomenon occurs in the realm of faith. Just as the geometry book gives some statements as postulates when they can in fact be proven (though with difficulty), the Catholic faith proposes some ideas for belief, such as the existence and uniqueness of God, that can also be demonstrated. These proofs rest on principles that are as self-evident as Euclid’s first four axioms; for example, St. Thomas begins his first proof for the existence of God, “It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.” Yet the proof itself requires some knowledge of metaphysics, and it is easy to make mistakes in the argument; therefore, the Church proposes that we take the existence of God on faith, so that anyone can come to believe in Him.
Yet there are many statements of faith that are neither obvious, nor can they be proven. Take, for example, the Trinity, that the one God is three Persons; or the Incarnation, that God took on human nature in the person of Jesus Christ; or that this same Jesus rose from the dead. These articles, or axioms, of faith, can only be believed as true, if one is to study Christian theology, or more generally, to live the Christian life.
Some theologians have tried to prove these articles (a truly good God should become man to show forth His goodness, right?), but like the attempts to prove the Parallel Postulate, they fall short, as they cannot argue with certainty. Countless other thinkers have denied articles of faith because they are not self-evident and not subject to the standards of rational proof– but in doing so, they end up in a world even stranger than that of non-Euclidean geometry. By believing something contrary to the articles of faith, one could end up walking around in circles (like the spherical case) or diverging along any path imaginable (like the hyperbolic case), rather than living in an intellectual relationship with the living God who leads us on the straight-line path towards the infinity of eternal life.
Furthermore, while the last postulate that holds plane geometry together may come from the mind of Euclid, the axioms of faith can only be revealed by the God who loves us to the point that He communicates His inner life to us and calls us into His company. Because they are revealed by the God who loves us into being, these axioms, like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection, are truly worthy of our belief, and with God’s grace, we can take them on faith as the basis for living each day of our lives.
Image: fdecomite, Hyperbolic Paraboloid Variation
Does God love some people more than others? On the surface it sort of seems like he does. Life is full of inequality, and it leaves us with a gut feeling that life is just unfair.
So is it God’s fault? Scholastic theology has a very interesting answer: God loves each of us with the same intensity of love, but he loves us each to a different degree.
That means that God’s love is the same for all people – it’s the same love which shone from the eyes of John Paul II and which little Johnny Fischer discovered at his First Communion in grade school. But it also means that God calls some people to a greater mission or greater degrees of intimacy, compared to, well… the rest of us.
St. Therese of Lisieux has a famous analogy to explain this: In heaven we will all be like cups – all of us different sizes, but full to the brim with God. This image, though, still allows us to compare our different sizes. So Therese offers another analogy: In this life we are all different flowers in God’s garden. We cannot compare ourselves for each of us is a different kind, making the garden glorious by such great variety. This passage earned Therese her nickname, the Little Flower, writing that she is happy to be the smallest of all God’s flowers.
I love Therese and her analogies, but sometimes it’s hard to think of myself as a cup or a flower. So I’ve tried to think up other analogies in which I can still stay human.
The first is Thanksgiving dinner and how it relates to heaven. As in the Gospel, a great feast is ready and all are invited, with more than enough food to go around. But none of us goes to a feast and spends the evening watching how much more everyone else is getting – we pay attention to the food! We are lost in the sight and smells of all the succulence before us, and we’re happy together, and we give thanks for the meal because each person (regardless the size of their appetite) gets their fill. Then, just like heaven, we “enter into our rest” as we find a couch to sleep on for the rest of the day – “Let the faithful exult in their glory, let them sing for joy on their couches” (Ps 149:5).
Another analogy is a football game. It’s a Saturday night face-off between two rivals. You’re cheering for the home team, the underdog, and the score is close, the atmosphere electric. To use sports rhetoric, both teams are “playing out of their minds” – which translates, they’re playing better than usual. Then in the final seconds, your team seals the deal with a final score. Everyone erupts, the joy is inarticulate – people are just screaming. That’s not exactly a moment where you turn and shout to your neighbor, “Gee, I wish I could enjoy this as much as you are!” Everyone is too busy celebrating – it’s contagious. But in fact, even though everyone is taken up in the joy of the moment, some fans are enjoying it more than others. Mr. Patrick Mansfield has followed the team avidly all year, but his wife Laura whom he brought along – even though she’s cheering too, and she really means it – isn’t “into” football as much as he is.
God’s love is something like that. We all share the same great feast, so no matter the different sizes of our appetites, we all end up happy and full, with no need to compare who got more. But it’s also like football, because even though we all watch the same touchdown and erupt together wild with joy, some fans are happier than others.
“Ok,” you might say, “Cool analogies about heaven, but what about this life?” And that’s a fair point. In life we’re surrounded by different people; we constantly compare ourselves with them. Now, not all comparisons are bad – they can even motivate us, or make us truly admire someone else. Michael Phelps is a faster swimmer than I am, and I’m ok with that. It makes me marvel at him. It also motivates me to exercise a bit more.
But even if we can see the positive side of it, the comparison game still seems to dominate us: we grow envious of other peoples’ accomplishments, their job, their beauty, clothing, intelligence, personality, social status, lucky breaks, just about anything thinkable! Even good things, like their patience or their kindness.
In this life, I only know of one “out” to the problem: Jesus. He is the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46). And that’s pearl, singular, for there is only one of him. Should we even compare ourselves to the saints, we receive no different version of him, no “less Jesus.” Because there is only the same Jesus, who says to each of us, “There is only one of me, and only one of you. You, come follow me.”
In this life we don’t know why some people are given better natural talents, are born into a better life situation, etc. These things will always be unequal. The only thing that can heal us, free us from a life of endless competition and constant comparison, is the love we find in Christ. We taste here something more valuable than everything else in life, so that we can let go of everything else in life – while two are left speaking, each to each.
Image: Norman Rockwell, Girls with Letters
A year after the release of its first album, In Medio Ecclesiae, Dominicana Records presents Ave Maria: Dominican Chant for the Immaculate Conception. In this new album, the schola of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., sing many of the chants from the Order’s history in honor of Mary and, especially, her Immaculate Conception. To order the CD online and have it shipped directly to you, please visit our Records page and click on the button “Buy CD” below the album cover. The album is also available for download through the button “Buy MP3,” also below the album cover, or through the iTunes buttons under the separate listings of the albums further down on the page. The CD will also be available at select bookstores, which we will list on our records page.
When the Dominican Province of Saint Joseph built a House of Studies in Washington, D.C., at the start of the twentieth century, the friars wanted to dedicate the new foundation to the Blessed Virgin. Just over fifty years after the solemn proclamation of the dogma concerning Mary’s perpetual preservation from the stain of original sin, the Dominicans of the United States opened the Priory of the Immaculate Conception. Therefore, when we decided to record and produce a new album, we naturally decided to dedicate it to she who is the honor of our race, she who was conceived without sin.
Recorded in the beautiful acoustic of Washington’s Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, Ave Maria features chants for the Mass of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and for Compline on Marian feasts. This recording creatively juxtaposes two sets of chants that are proper to the feast of the Immaculate Conception: the common chants for the Blessed Virgin Mary dating back to the medieval period and chants that were adapted or composed in the late nineteenth century for the new proper texts given to this feast after the proclamation of the dogma. Along with the medieval Mass, the schola sings the chants of Dominican Mass V, which has typically been reserved for celebrations honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Featuring all chant, this current album complements In Medio Ecclesiae, released in 2013, which draws more prominently from the schola’s repertoire in polyphony and hymnody. In continuing this project, begun nearly three years ago, we wish to share a fundamental part of our common life with the rest of the world. Music is an integral part of our common prayer life and presents just one way in which we seek to unite our present work with the rich history of our Order. In drawing from the wealth of the order’s past, we look to contribute to the present in ways that are both innovative and informed.
As we move toward the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we ask you to consider Ave Maria when thinking about the right gift to give to your loved ones. And if you know of places that may be interested in carrying Ave Maria or that may want to feature a piece on the album—such as a Catholic or classical radio station, a favorite blog, or a diocesan newspaper or parish bulletin—please contact the brothers promoting Dominicana Records at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, please check back on the Records page as we continue to add retailers, and please pray that many will be led to God through the beauty of the Church’s musical heritage.
Image: Cover Art, Ave Maria: Dominican Chant for the Immaculate Conception
You may be preparing for the impending zombie apocalypse. If so, I think you should read this article as part of your overall strategy.
This story begins at the beginning. God created man male and female in his own image. Things were good back in those days. People got along, food was tasty, pleasure was easy and strong. But soon, calamity struck. There he was: the proto-zombie. Lucifer, now Satan, beguiled the original humans with the big lie: life with God is a half-life. He did this as a dead person, seeking to consume the new fleshy creation, endowed with great gifts. Just like all zombies, he didn’t gain anything through this temptation: he just wanted to create more zombies.
The children of Adam and Eve roamed the earth, half-dead after being afflicted by their parents’ disease. They turned on each other and in on themselves. As in all zombie documentaries, however, the cure began to reveal itself. Nevertheless, this antidote was working slowly, coming along in fits and starts. Unfortunately, the zombified humans were shockingly resilient and resistant.
Then one day, there seemed to be a person who wasn’t afflicted by zombitis. He started curing people of their maladies and there was hope in the air. Of course, there’s nothing a zombie wants more than to make a non-zombie into a zombie. The proto-zombie came back to trick Jesus with the same lie—living in obedience to God is not really living. But he resisted. Enraged, Satan stirred up the horde to kill this anomaly.
You might have heard the phrase “zombie Jesus.” Get it? He came back from the dead. Therefore he is a zombie. Clever, but not true. Zombies are half-dead; Jesus is fully alive. Zombies make other zombies; Jesus frees the zlavez. Where there is death, he brings life. After his Resurrection, there were many who were brought from a half-dead experience to life.
Once again, zombies want nothing more than to feed on the living. Many of those who came back to life were killed for their vivifying faith. Through their witness, they brought many to life and gained eternal life themselves.
In addition to the martyrs, there were hermits and monks and widows who wanted to offer their lives as a sign of the healing power they received, and to give life to those who still were afflicted. Some began to use the phrase “dead to the world” to describe this life of consecration.
So were these who were “dead to the world” another group of zombies? Because they made vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, weren’t they just mindless half-humans, failing to enjoy life? On the contrary, these monks and nuns were working to give witness to the full life those in heaven enjoy. By contemplating God, and loving their brothers and sisters, they were setting out to live a more real kind of life than the lives which they led on the outside. And not only did they pray, but they contributed to this world as well. They brewed beer, made honey and jam, organized the copying and writing of books, educated others, composed music, provided refuge, gave medical care, and countless other services for individuals and the larger culture — services that continue even to this day. From these monks and nuns came other groups: the friars, sisters, and societies who go to the people and try to dispense the antidote to a life bound by sin.
The poison of sin always promises to give more life, but instead takes it away. These witnesses are not perfect; one of the zombie truths is that those who are ever sickened (namely, everyone) still suffer the effects and continually need to be medicated by the one who is Life. But those who receive the remedy for zombitis aim their lives toward the goal of life — to live with God and his loved ones forever, fully happy and fully alive.
All Christians have received the gift of life. We are all called to have one foot on earth and one foot in heaven, so to speak. God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. He wants us to have life and have it in abundance. Resist daily the lie that the life of faith is a half-life. Zombies are slaves to themselves. True freedom consists in living for someone outside yourself.
“Look! I am going to open your graves; I will make you come up out of your graves, my people, and bring you back to the land of Israel. You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and make you come up out of them, my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may come to life, and I will settle you in your land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord. I have spoken; I will do it” (Ezekiel 37: 12-14).
Image: Gustave Dore, The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones
We’re God-face blind.
There are people who see a face and have no way of registering who it is. Normally, someone sees together the eyes, nose, cheeks and lips so as to create a whole. However, those who suffer from prosopragnosia – commonly known as faceblindess – live in a world of strangers. They are incapable of associating a person with his face.
One such person is the contemporary painter Chuck Close. Close’s self-portrait above uses a grid in which he paints varying swirls of color. It ends up being a fragmented synthesis rather than a depiction of his face composed of flesh and blood. The face becomes an image of planes juxtaposed together. Close wants the viewer to piece the portrait together, in such a way that the viewer may see the face as he sees all faces. While this type of art is intriguing, it lacks the beauty and subtlety of expression of realistic portraiture, such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi in the Mona Lisa that Close’s self portrait can’t possess. We need not debate which face is more beautiful or handsome. Close and others like him suffer a privation.
Peek-a-boo is one of the first games a mother will play with her child. The infant always squeals with delight when that loving face reappears. Even after infancy, whether child or adult, a person can still be overwhelmed with emotion at seeing a familiar face. They can even be brought to joyful tears. A stranger can change to a loved one before our very eyes in a moment, the moment one recognizes the person’s face. Though someone may keep a picture of that loved one, there is no substitute for gazing upon him in the flesh.
How fitting it is then that God said to the Psalmist, “Seek ye my face,” or that the Church prays, “When I see your face, I shall know the fullness of joy.” John the Beloved even writes, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” God wants us to see Him, or rather to know Him. It is in knowing that we will see the face of God and, indeed, not as we see the face of one we love on earth. One mustn’t be like Philip at the Last Supper: “Lord, show us the Father and that shall be enough.” One mustn’t be like Thomas: “Until I see the wounds in his hands… I will not believe.” Christ’s response to Philip is, “Still you do not believe?” and to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
For each apostle, their understanding was still rooted in the flesh. It is not possible to see the essence of God with corporeal eyes. We cannot see the divine essence (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 12). At best, we can see in creation the effects of God’s activity. But, even with that more limited possibility, we have trouble seeing the signs of God. In this life, our nature is wounded and we’ve been subjected to the flesh. God’s activity is omnipresent, yet we cannot see him. As St. John of the Cross writes:
How sad is the blindness of your soul! You are blind to the most dazzling light and deaf to the powerful voices which solicit you.
It seems that those who suffer from prosopagnosia are a more focused depiction of our fallen state. They can see people, yet they can’t see the faces that belong to those people. We live amongst those made in the image of God, yet we cannot see the face of God. The remedy for those who are face-blind requires an attentiveness to signs and familiarity with the person. The life of grace requires sacraments—exterior signs of an interior reality—and time in prayer with God. Although the full vision of God is in heaven, by living in His presence, we may begin to see Him now.
You may recall the story of Bl. Mother Teresa shared by Br. Nicholas a few months ago. She was able to see a dying man on the side of a road. The distractions and chaos of busy traffic typically create a tunnel vision, but not for her. She was waiting for Christ, she was looking for Christ, and she saw Christ suffering in that man. She put it this way,
Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is the one person in the world at that moment. I see Christ in every person I touch, it is as simple as that.
Christs calls us to see Him in the other: family, friends, co-workers, the poor, or strangers. The words, “Whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did it to me,” are written on the hearts of the saints. Their intimacy with God and watchful dispositions make them like the mother waiting for her son to return from war, or rather the mother is like the saints awaiting God. That final union will be as St. Augustine writes, commenting upon the phrase of St. Paul, “So that God may be all in all”:
God himself will be the goal of our desires; we shall contemplate him without end, love him without surfeit, praise him without weariness.
Image: Chuck Close, Self-Portrait
This is the last of a four-part series on St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching.
To the ears of most readers of St. Thomas, the language of rights and human dignity will sound uncomfortably modern. However, these concepts do not have to be completely removed from St. Thomas’ rich understanding of the human person. It would be quite wrong to assert that Thomas Aquinas did not have any concept of the dignity of the human person. In fact, human dignity, in a sense, has quite a privileged place in his moral and ethical thought. Nevertheless, rather than attempting to resolve the distinctions between Thomism and modern political thought, let me first explore the role human dignity plays in the affairs of today, and then see how St. Thomas may help us appreciate the role of human dignity in Catholic social teaching.
As a starting point, let’s take the preamble to the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. The Founding Fathers assert the existence of certain self-evident truths, namely, that all human persons are created equal and by their nature have claim to “certain, inalienable rights.” In discussing this preamble, most people tend to focus on the founders’ assertion of fundamental rights and, yet, miss the allusion to the even more fundamental quality of the human person from which these rights flow: human dignity.
Everyone is created with the same dignity; hence, everyone is created with an equal worth and can expect treatment from others reflecting their inherent worth. Thus, human rights flow from human dignity. Furthermore, these rights are inalienable because human dignity is inalienable. We may speak of a loss of dignity, whether it pertains to someone with particularly loose morals or to somebody who has been cruelly objectified. But in these situations, it is not so much that people have lost their dignity, but that they have lost their sense of dignity. In such cases, dignity does not need to be restored, but rediscovered.
A few weeks ago, a young woman took her own life because she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness but wanted to die “with dignity” by dying on her own terms. Obviously, lots of things went wrong in that decision-making process, but the most troubling aspect was the mistaken belief that her preemptive actions would somehow preserve her dignity, when in fact they ultimately destroyed it. Her dignity and worth as a human person did not lie in her health or her beauty or even her usefulness to society. Her dignity was not something that could be diminished because she suffered a pain that she could not bear. Her dignity was something deeper than all that. Her dignity consisted in being alive, in being loved, in knowing and loving – in other words, in being. Though due to fear and sorrow she may not have been aware of it, she was known and loved and would continue to be loved, even in her darkest night of pain and death.
This struggle to find and experience our dignity is not reserved for those who suffer or appear to be lost in contemporary society. To some extent, every person searches for the fulfillment of his dignity and, ultimately, his being. The fulfillment that we seek can only be imperfectly satisfied on this earth, whether it is through enjoyment of material goods or interpersonal communion. No matter how hard we try, there will remain a nagging feeling of non-fulfillment that can only be satisfied by one thing, namely the source of our dignity, the Creator who has endowed us with certain inalienable rights.
At the very heart of Catholic social teaching is the strong and vital affirmation of human dignity and its fulfillment in God: “Discovering that they are loved by God, people come to understand their own transcendent dignity, they learn not to be satisfied with only themselves but to encounter their neighbor in a network of relationships that are ever more authentically human” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 4). Not even doing good deeds offers true and total fulfillment for any individual. In fact, it is the other way around: fulfillment in God’s love for them inspires people to interact in a way that is truly fulfilling and truly human.
Hopefully, the championing of human dignity should now seem a little less alien for readers of St. Thomas. In the prologue to the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas cites the imago dei—the image of God—as the fundamental principle for considering the morality of human actions. This image implies that every person is endowed with the powers of intellect, choice, and self-movement. Moreover, this movement is directed to a goal, that goal being none other than man’s ultimate fulfillment: union with God.
The dignity of the human person lies in man’s capacity for union with God, which, as St. Thomas teaches, is a union of love. It is this union that fulfills the dignity of man, not the bestowal of rights or services that may seem to cause pleasure or relief from pain. As St. Thomas repeatedly affirms throughout his writings on man, “Naught can quiet man’s will, save the universal good” (ST I-II, 2, 8). Since all created goods are finite, they simply are not able to satisfy man’s yearning for fulfillment. Only God, who is the source of all goodness, satisfies the yearning that is at the heart of every human being.
While we can and should help people begin to recognize their dignity and begin to satisfy their yearning for fulfillment, regardless of their relationship with God, it is important to ever keep in mind that true fulfillment is not something we can find on this earth. We can begin to sense it, though it be through a glass darkly colored. We can trust it, though it be veiled from our eyes. We can take comfort in it, though we struggle to find it…because God is faithful.
Image: Michael Mistretta, Look Up
This is the third in a four-part series on St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching.
It is well known that Thomas Aquinas had an unusual relationship with his family; how many teenage boys, after all, are put into compromising situations with young women precisely at the instigation of their family members? After the antics involved with their attempts to get the young friar to renounce his hard-mouthed mendicancy (with the unintended but happy consequence of the establishment of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity), Thomas’s family eventually relented and allowed him to rejoin his confreres. The Master of the Order, perhaps fearing a Pharaoh-saical relapse after their moment of generosity, quickly whisked him off to Rome and then to Paris.
We might expect that after such treatment as this, Thomas may have looked at his family with a weary eye—or at least dreaded the concept of a “home visit.” As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. In a charming article titled “Thomas Aquinas and his family,” Fr. Fergus Kerr, O.P., shows that Thomas remained close to his family throughout his life, staying with them when he travelled throughout Europe, serving as an executor of their estates, and praying for them when he had a sinking suspicion that they might still be in purgatory.
Thomas came from a wealthy family which he left behind to join a merry band of traveling minstrel preachers who happened to have a preoccupation with Aristotle. In embracing the poverty of religious life, however, Thomas did not reject or renounce his family members who chose to retain their riches. One way of considering this phenomenon is to realize that in addition to material poverty, there is also a form of spiritual poverty that can in some cases seem even more daunting than the difficulties of material poverty. Thomas’s family was in some ways a broken one—like all human families, it was bowed down by the selfishness and sinfulness of its members. And yet, Thomas never thought to reject or disavow his family, even if some of his family members might have thought about disavowing him. Thomas learned to be content with little or with much—with the littleness of the priory and the muchness of the hearth, when it happened to be fitting for him to return to his family.
Yves Congar points out in True and False Reform in the Church that we can never criticize or judge our families as if we were not ourselves members of them. Even if we feel we have transcended or overcome some deficiency of our upbringing or culture, we are always members of it. This means both that we will always be influenced by the circumstances of our origins, but also that we cannot be indifferent and detached observers of dysfunction, but must be agents of love and instruments of peace in our families.
If we extend this by realizing that we are members not only of our domestic families, but also of our parishes, towns, nations, and indeed of the human race, then we begin to see that for all of the necessary critiques we might make about the actions, ideas, and circumstances of others, we are not indifferent observers, but are brothers and sisters and fellow heirs in our creation.
With this realization, we begin to see that we must exercise solidarity and acts of love and material support not only for our domestic brothers and sisters, but for all of our neighbors. As Thomas rightly acknowledges, we properly have different degrees of affection for those we are related to or have special ties and affinities with, and yet through the outpouring of Divine Charity into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we learn to go beyond these family ties and act as instruments of the Spirit in manifesting the love of God for each of his creatures.
As a brother of the Order of Preachers, Thomas embraced material poverty in order to identify himself more closely with Christ, who became a poor man in order to preach the good news to the poor. As a brother of the family of Aquino, Thomas embraced and overcame the spiritual poverty of his mother and father and his brothers and sisters, in order to share with them the riches of his insights and practical sense. Each of us, whatever our calling in the Church or in the world, is of necessity a son or daughter, and in many cases a brother or sister; this gives us a special field in which we may learn to embrace and work to overcome the material and spiritual poverty that we encounter in our families and in our own lives. Through this school of the family, may we learn to be brothers and sisters to our fellow creatures of the One Lord.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Thomas Clothed in the Habit (Church of Sto Tomas, Ávila)
This is the second in a four-part series on St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching.
Just a couple of years back, a Dominican friar gave a presentation at a Theology on Tap on angels. He explained their nature, their ranks, and their place in our spiritual lives. A local news correspondent attended the lecture to dig up a story for the next day’s paper. Following the Q&A session, she approached this priest to fill out her notes with a little tête-a-tête. After a few cursory questions on the topic itself, she soon turned to what really rankled her: The Church’s moral teaching. The Bible and violence. Faith and science. The usual suspects. At first, the friar was delighted to give reasons point for point, but he soon decided it was high time to identify the more fundamental source of her antipathy. “Do you believe that Love created the universe?” Like a bomb in the middle of the bar, it resounded amidst the lagers and ales with a blunt force. She stood there stunned, and retreated from asking any more questions. And yet, while it may seem somewhat out of place at the local watering hole, this question is at the core of all that’s worthwhile, everything from beer to biblical exegesis.
Love is the muse and catalyst of all human striving. The reason why anyone chooses this over that, or even wakes up from his proverbial nap and quits the couch at all, is love. Amidst the bazaar of the world’s goods, man often finds himself tottering to and fro, bewildered and bemused by the panoply of options. And then he is struck by the goodness of something, something to which he can give his life, and the whole vision is altered. For some men it’s the first love. For others the first child. For still others, the painful realization that they’re forty and still playing video games in their parents’ basement. Love is kindled in his heart, making it a dynamo, generating power hitherto unknown. Mr. Darcy becomes affable. Sonia follows Raskolnikov to Siberia. The martyr suffers tortures.
St. Thomas resolves the whole of man’s passionate life to love. Love is the root of desire, of delight, and of hope; of hatred, of aversion, and of fear. It should come as no surprise then that love imparts an order to human life. Because we are made in the image and likeness of Love and because love is the driving force of life, it establishes the bounds of human communion and gives a pattern for our flourishing. And it holds true for every aspect of human life, from your prayer life to buying local.
St. Thomas teaches that love imparts a structure to the ties that bind us. God, who is the source of our whole being and the universal cause and destination of love, has the foremost claim on our hearts. Furthermore, St. Thomas goes on to enumerate the order of our affections after God: We love ourselves, our neighbors, our bodies, etc. He even distinguishes between the grades of love which are due to the different members of our families (Don’t worry moms . . . even St. Thomas with his antiquated biology affirms your importance in our lives). In the course of this discussion, he asks who among our neighbors we should love more. Surprisingly, he comes down on the side of those closest to us: “Even as regards the affection we ought to love one neighbor more than another. The reason is that, since the principle of love is God, and the person who loves, it must needs be that the affection of love increases in proportion to the nearness to one or the other of those principles. For … , wherever we find a principle, order depends on relation to that principle” (Summa theologiae, IIaIIae, q. 26, a. 6).
This principle of love’s order has considerable implications in practically every aspect of human communion and proves crucial for the organization of civic polity and economy alike. Because we are more closely bound to those nearer us, share more of our lives with them, and interact in a milieu of common thought, folk, work, and place, it follows that we can be expected to operate more effectively in the pursuit of common ends to the extent that this common vision is invoked. The most stable units at each level of society are those where a common love forges a common union trained on common ends. In fact, this union is often so significant as to constitute a kind of person (albeit a moral one).
From this follows one of the bedrock principles of Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity holds that communal problems and decisions should be handled on the most intimate terms as are possible. A problem that can be effectively treated at the local level should not be handled by regional or federal or international bodies. By examining the principles of this claim in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the rationale behind this time-honored practice should be evident. Love provides the impetus for communal striving, and can marshal a fantastic power when conducted within an ordered whole. By losing touch with the fundamental units (family, region, culture, land) wherein love grows organically, human interactions can descend into the frenzy of ideology. But when fostered “close-to-home,” in both economic and political spheres, love effects the union and attainment which it seeks.
Image: Alan Franklin, A Day at the Beach
When most people think of St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic Social Teaching is not usually the first thing that comes to mind. We more typically associate St. Thomas with the philosophical thought of Aristotle, or with the Trinitarian theology of the Summa Theologiae, or perhaps (though more rarely) even with his biblical commentaries. Yet it’s interesting to note that Leo XIII, the pope who in a sense began the modern tradition of Catholic Social Teaching with his encyclical Rerum Novarum, also wrote Aeterni Patris, an encyclical commending the philosophical thought of St. Thomas to the universal Church. This suggests, at least indirectly, that St. Thomas may have something to teach us about the Church’s social teaching. This week Dominicana offers you a series looking at some themes in Thomistic theology and spirituality that can help articulate the logic that underlies the principles of the common good, subsidiarity, solidarity, and the dignity of the human person. We hope this series will broaden your understanding of the scope of St. Thomas’s thought, as well as help you see more clearly the beauty of Catholic Social Teaching.
Read our four-part series, St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching:
St. Thomas and the Common Good: November 10, 2014
Grounded on Love: St. Thomas and the Logic of Subsidiarity: November 11, 2014
An Aquinas Family Vacation: Solidarity at Home and Abroad: November 12, 2014
The Honor of Seeking God: St. Thomas and Human Dignity: November 13, 2014
Image: Pope Leo XIII, 1898
This is the first in a four-part series on St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching.
Thomistic Reflections on the Common Good
Prayers of the Faithful, especially around election times, often include a petition like this: “That all elected officials and government leaders may enact laws in accord with the common good, we pray to the Lord.” After the perfunctory response, you may muse: “What is the common good?” Bonum commune, the common good, is one of those weird concepts that seems self-evident but upon further reflection is a bit mysterious in meaning. Perhaps a good way to start defining it, in the venerable tradition of negative theology, is by saying what the common good is not. This, at least, is the route the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church takes:
The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. (164)
But things get a little fuzzier when some kind of positive definition is offered, a definition stemming from a whole host of magisterial texts (see footnote 346 of the Compendium for these references):
According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.’ (164)
So the common good is the “sum total” of “social conditions” which allow people to “reach their fulfillment.” Is there a doctor in the house who can help unpack this? Perhaps a doctor communis to explain the bonum commune?
St. Thomas’ notion of totality and general justice
While St. Thomas doesn’t have a specific question on the common good, one can tease out his thoughts on it from a number of places, particularly his discussion of law and legal justice. In the treatise on Law in the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas writes: “Actions are indeed concerned with particular matters: but those particular matters are referable to the common good, not as to a common genus or species, but as to a common final cause, according as the common good is said to be the common end” (ST I-II, q. 90, a. 2, ad 2). This text allows us to make more precise our notion of the common good as found in the Compendium of Social Doctrine and the teaching of many popes.
As the magisterial documents make clear, “sum total” cannot mean a mere aggregate of things, nor some utilitarian calculus of the greatest possible conditions for the greatest number of social beings. Well then, what kind of “total” is it? For St. Thomas, it is an ordered totality, a totality of parts working together in one uniform way for a common goal. The common aspect in common good is not a catalogue or IHOP restaurant menu with a million individual options all present for the choosing; it is the organic unity of varied and sundry parts working together for one end.
St. Thomas explains this organic notion of totality or wholeness in his discussion of general justice:
Justice, as stated above [ST II-II, q. 58, a. 2] directs man in his relations with other men. . . . Now it is evident that all who are included in a community, stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole; while a part, as such, belongs to a whole, so that whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole. It follows therefore that . . . all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good. It is in this sense that justice is called a general virtue. And since it belongs to the law to direct to the common good, as stated above [ST I, q. 90, a. 2], it follows that the justice which is in this way styled general, is called ‘legal justice,’ because thereby man is in harmony with the law which directs the acts of all the virtues to the common good. (ST II-II, q. 58, a. 5)
Justice is the virtue that directs men’s actions toward one another and toward the good of all, the good of parts and the good of the whole, as St. Thomas would say. And the common good is the good of the whole social body, the whole body of the universe actually, so that all actions in some way are directed towards it. Eating ice cream is for the common good! Clipping your fingernails? For the common good! All these individual actions make up the ordering of the universe to this common good, the end of all things. Fine and commonly good, but what is this end? What is the common good as an end of all actions?
The end or goal of all our striving
The Compendium of Social Doctrine calls this end “fulfillment,” but perhaps the terminology of St. John XXIII in Mater et Magistra 65 is clearer when he speaks of the common good in terms of “perfection.” Perfection, now that is a notion for which St. Thomas has plenty of predicates. What is this perfection of the common good? St. Thomas waxes eloquent:
It does not belong to the First Agent, Who is agent only, to act for the acquisition of some end; He intends only to communicate His perfection, which is His goodness; while every creature intends to acquire its own perfection, which is the likeness of the divine perfection and goodness. Therefore the divine goodness is the end of all things. (ST I, q. 44, a. 4)
There it is: the common good is God; nothing more, nothing less. Because God is one, he is his goodness, and therefore he is the perfection of all things. This idea is part of the famous exitus-reditus motif of the Summa theologiae: all things come from God as their source, and so all things must return to him as their end. God is the unique source and the unique end of all things. As T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end,” and, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
God is the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. The common good, all our social striving, all our individual acts, are to conform to this end, the divine goodness of God as revealed through natural law and eternal law, through those things grasped by our finite intellects and those things grasped in faith through revelation. The common good, for St. Thomas and the Catholic Church, can be called the good of the universe. Moreover, this created common good is oriented toward the uncreated common good, the good of God, God himself. Herein, each thing plays its finite part in the infinite drama of creation, redemption and final consummation. Each thing plays its part in an ordered fashion; since God is perfect, his perfection is expressed in a multitude of finite things from amoeba to rocks to tropical parrots to persons. And it is this last group, human persons, that in some way encapsulate and transcend the order of all other things. For it is persons that God created to share in his eternity and persons whom God redeemed through the passion and resurrection of his Son, Jesus.
Because of this, St. Thomas can write the following in his treatise on kingship, De Regno:
Yet through virtuous living man is further ordained to a higher end, which consists in the enjoyment of God, as we have said above. Consequently, since society must have the same end as the individual man, it is not the ultimate end of an assembled multitude to live virtuously, but through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God. (107)
The difference St. Thomas makes and why politicians still disagree with each other
The common good is not some utilitarian calculus of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Nor is it some this-worldly Utopian social scheme. The common good is God; it is achieved through ordering all actions with his divine governance and providence, each thing in its own proper place and with its own proper significance.
If this is the case, why are there so many disputes between politicians and plebeians? Why the contentious elections of these officials for whom we are praying? With such questions, we focus our sights upon a terrestrial common good known classically as the political common good. The disputes between politicians and plebeians that fill our TV screens involve this common good of the political order. So, why all the fighting? One reason is that the political end does not always determine the exact means–there may be a number of ways to get to the same end, and it is not always easy to see which one, if any, is best. A second reason, of course, is sin and concupiscence. As hard as it may be to admit, politicians are not immune from these things.
The uncertainties of the political realm indicate the difficulty of attaining the common good in this world. At the heart of this difficulty, there is a mystery involved, the mystery of our creaturely status. We are creatures who do not know God perfectly in himself and who do not even know ourselves perfectly. In light of this precariousness of our knowledge, the great Teutonic Thomist Josef Pieper warned against the absolute adequacy of any exhaustive proposal for the common good:
No one can give a truly exhaustive account of what man himself ‘fundamentally’ is, and consequently it is just as impossible to give an exhaustive account of everything contained in man’s ‘good,’ for the sake of which man exists and which he has to realize in his life if it is to be said of him that all his potentialities [his perfections] have been brought to fruition. This and nothing else is the meaning behind the assertion so stubbornly defended by Socrates: that he did not know what ‘human virtue’ was and that he had still to meet a man who knew better. (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 98)
All the same, intellectual warnings rarely stop Thomists from proposing things, and thus I leave it to my fellow friars to fill out this Thomistic reflection with more specific principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
Image: Jacek Yerka, Loading Cities
Websites and magazines galore are littered with personality quizzes. To name a few:
The main flaw in this kind of ‘quiz’ (besides being a senseless waste of time) is that they highlight only one aspect of a given person or thing and equate the personality of the survey taker with a single idea, reducing him to one poorly written paragraph.
And yet it’s baffling how popular these things are. I think this phenomenon shows the needs of our generation to have an image. We hunger for additional labels from others to make ourselves more noticeable. We want to belong to a subculture within a subculture. Eventually, when we cling to certain labels more strongly, we arrive at plenty of false contraries:
1) Please check which word or person comes closest to describing your faith:[ ] Religious or [ ] Spiritual [ ] Justice or [ ] Mercy [ ] Pope Benedict or [ ] Pope Francis [ ] Liturgical or [ ] Social Justice [ ] Poor and ascetic or [ ] Intellectual and relaxed
2) Are you about to:[ ] Answer these questions or [ ] Mock this absurdity before reading the rest of this post?
The question of polarization and false labels in our culture has been dealt with recently. I posit this same danger even exists with our devotions. To many, there can be a constant tension between imitating the virtues in a certain saint’s life and pursuing our own in ours.
Today is All Dominican Saints Day, and a multitude of those who took the habit given by Our Lady to Bl. Reginald of Orleans are praying for us right now. Yes, the other saints are, too, but today we only ask for OP intercession (joke).
For those outside the Order, it may seem odd to have another All Saints Day just devoted to our Order’s saints. Yet we must praise the Divine Providence that allowed certain men and women to lead, write, preach, pray, study, and act in the spirit of St. Dominic. They, by their example, help lead us to Christ. They remind us that we don’t live in an isolated community, an isolated world, or an isolated age. Without the occasional reflection on our particular spiritual heritage and how it’s reflected in the Church Triumphant, we risk becoming complacent or ungrateful for our particular tradition.
Being a Dominican is humbling. For 800 years, a vast range of men and women have led incredible lives and offered a considerable amount to the Church in many ways. Thinking about the contributions of Thomas, the spiritual insight of Catherine, or the guidance of Pope Pius V, we can feel that we don’t have much to offer in comparison.
But that’s the thing: we aren’t to compare ourselves with them in every way. It would be a false form of devotion to emulate them contrary to how we’re called. No ‘OP survey’ gets passed around today to decide:
–Am I [ ] theological-Thomas or [ ] prayerful-Henry?
–Am I [ ] poor-serving-Rose or [ ] liturgically-moved-Pius V?
Reducing a saint to one aspect of his or her life is just as absurd an idea as limiting ourselves in the same way. In fact, it’s a refutation of God’s distinct will for our lives. I’m not meant to be John Tauler; I’m meant to be John Thomas.
Our lives are to be soaked with gratitude in every way. This day helps us do just that. Thank God that there are as many personalities in Heaven as there are saints, no labels needed.
Image: Dominican Family Tree, c. 1490
We value things. Tangible things. Quantifiable things. If a thing can be measured or priced, it has value. However, we tend to appreciate most what is intangible or immeasurable. Activities like reading your favorite book, spending time with friends and family, or worshiping our Creator all lack real quantifiable value. They have no real usefulness, so far as the world and its practicalities are concerned. They lack the tactile thing-ness or measurability that we often need to make judgements. However, despite their nothingness and uselessness, they are the most important aspects of our lives.
Some of my favorite activities many would consider not to be activities at all. I like to do nothing. I like to sit in a chair and think. Or take a walk and think. Or sit in the chapel trying to be perfectly quiet without thinking at all. This is useless. No one gains measurable benefits from these inactive activities. They are not done for some greater motive. They are done simply for their own sake. But these inactive activities are invaluable. Doing nothing or engaging in useless activities are necessary for being human. It is what separates us from animals or computers. Contemplation, as Aristotle says, is a useless activity that should be the highest act all men perform.
This is not to say that our lives are ones of inaction. Not at all. Human perfection requires action. All natures require motion, and we must act to achieve our ends. But, the highest goods and the greatest acts are those that have no other use outside of themselves. While many good acts — for example, eating and breathing — are useful and worthwhile, they are done so that we may participate in so-called useless acts. You can’t contemplate if you don’t breathe. However, it is the useless act of contemplation that is more important.
An appreciation of uselessness is also important for our relationships. A priest once told me that the best compliment he ever received from his father was that he was useless. While at the time he considered it an insult, when reflecting back on the situation he realized what a profound statement of love his father was making. Our friends and families should be useless. They are not here to serve us. If we are motivated by love to help them reach eternal salvation, we treat them as useless. In self-abnegation, we forget ourselves and our own desires just for the sake of loving others. Our concerns and desires become nothing.
In our own relationship with God, we should remember our complete insignificance. As the Psalmist says “You have given me a short span of days; my life is as nothing in your sight.” (Psalm 39: 6) We have nothing to offer God but the gifts He has first given us. Nothing could be more consoling.
So the next time someone accuses you of doing nothing or being useless, thank them for the compliment.
Image: Byun Hoon Chang lounging on grass
Why does Pope Francis reach out to atheists? If every conversation is a two-way street, then you’d think this is one dialogue that would go nowhere fast. On paper or in person, “faith-talk” + atheism doesn’t seem very fruitful. Why is it that we find evangelizing atheists so difficult and awkward?
The easy answer is that atheists have heard the Gospel and rejected it. But I don’t think that’s true. I think a deeper answer is found in how we approach dialogue with atheists.
There are two mistakes we often make when speaking to non-believers.
We often assume we have nothing to offer atheists. It’s not that we have nothing to say, but we don’t think there’s a way for it to be heard. Anybody who’s tried to share the faith with an agnostic coworker or family member has probably felt this way. Hearing “I don’t believe” or “I’m not religious” shrivels the spirit of the most evangelical among us. That non-believing “no” tempts us not just to end the conversation, but to conclude in pearls-before-swine fashion that the conversation was never possible. Why waste our time talking artificially and awkwardly about the truth when it will only be rejected?
But we may also think we have everything to offer atheists. The revelation we have from Christ gives us everything we need to be saved, and the Church really does possess the fullness of truth. But because we possess truth’s fullness there’s the temptation to get smug about evangelizing. Our having everything can make us think others have nothing, and this attitude alters how we converse with atheists about the faith.
It’s easier to have one of these mindsets than we’d like to admit. In an instant we move from talking about the faith to arguing over it. Even worse, we use a potentially evangelical moment not to clarify the faith, but to prove ourselves right. You make your case, quote some texts, list your sources, and leave the debate just as convinced as you were before, and the non-believer just as non-believing as he was before.
Why do we so often approach conversations with non-believers this way?
I think it’s because we begin with what divides us and not with what we share in common. If a dialogue is meant to draw two parties toward the same reality, then fruitful dialogue means finding shared ground. So what ground do we share with atheists?
We’re human. And this means at least two things.
We want the truth. All men seek the truth and desire to know, even if they’re coming from two separate worlds. Think of how Pilate met Christ. These men were far apart, yet the question of kingship brought them into dialogue (Jn 18:33-39). When Christ laid claim to a kingdom not of this world and said his birth brought him to bear witness to Truth itself, Pilate had the simplest question for him: What is truth?
I don’t think you could ask for a more honest conversation. Pilate may not have been in the religious circles of the scribes and Pharisees, but at least he had the honesty to speak to Jesus in a way those other groups never did. Pilate’s question reveals where he was. He’s not seeking an answer to a particular religious question – he didn’t even know how to begin asking that question. But this didn’t mean dialogue was impossible. Having a truthful dialogue with non-believers does not mean you have to get very far into faith right away either.
We also want to love. Everybody wants to love, and our desire to love at times brings us near unfamiliar faces. Think of the Good Samaritan. Here is a man on the periphery of Palestinian society, who finds himself with little incentive to act towards his neighbor. Yet charity is what drives him to act. Love allows him to see everyone as his neighbor, even if it’s easier to count the differences than to notice what’s in common. It may be easier to count the differences we have with non-believers, but that doesn’t mean we’re not called to love them.
I think we struggle to have loving conversations with atheists because we fail to have truthful ones with them. A dialogue in love presupposes a dialogue in truth, and a failure to show charity in dialogue may be rooted in our failure to speak to non-believers with any real meaning. Believers and atheists fail to have a loving dialogue because they are both too busy making up a fiction of who the other side is supposed to be. Loving someone you don’t know well is hard; loving a fiction of who they are is impossible. Real love needs something real to love.
The conversation with your coworker may have been artificial, but is your relationship with him any less so? You sincerely invited him to church or a young adult meeting or something else, but do you know how long he’s been working with you, or how long he’s been calling himself an atheist? Jumping into or forcing a faith-conversation is about as helpful as getting a fake plastic plant and expecting everyone to think it’s real.
If an atheist and a believer were honest with each other, they would see they have a common desire to love that is part of their being human. All men have a dignity and worth that we’re called to love, whether they’re inside or outside the Church. A dialogue in truth that sees this common dignity will be the fertile soil where love can grow. The Pope Francises out there who see this are the ones who have such a receptive audience, whether it’s from those with faith or those without it.
One time while I was on the streets of DC metro caroling, I saw a man listening to our singing on the sidewalk. He asked me why we were all out on a Saturday night singing together, and I told him we were Catholic brothers looking to talk or pray with those who wanted either prayers or conversation. When I tried to hand him a prayer card he looked at me strangely and said “I’m an atheist.” So I looked at him and said “And I’m a human being, so how about we start there?”
Image: Nikolai Ge, What is Truth. Christ and Pilate
YouTube has taught me a lot of things, most of which I probably should have asked a human being about: how to smoke a pipe, how to use a bucket of water to flush a toilet, how to use InDesign and Photoshop, how to peel garlic without using your hands, and so on. One thing I’ve never thought to ask YouTube to teach me, though, is something many of us do every day (or feel guilty about not doing): reading the Bible. In this essay, I thought I’d rectify that problem, illustrating five basic points about how to read the Bible by means of a few insights gained from those crazy Tubes.
Some of the good things in life have to be enjoyed at top speed, like running across those holes in the ground in Mario Brothers; those who shilly or shally won’t have enough speed to get over the gaps and will fall tragically into the void: the Harry Potter series, for example, The Edge of Tomorrow, or really any movie with Tom Cruise in it. By contrast, other good things have to be enjoyed slowly, if they are to be enjoyed at all: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” for instance, is almost unlistenable at full speed, but slowed down one thousand times, the listener is suddenly able to discover the meditative, primal character of the song; it’s so much better at that speed, in fact, that I suspect she may have composed it that way originally, and acquiesced to the faster version in a moment of weakness, which I’m sure she has had call to regret.
In any case, the Bible isn’t really in either of those camps, because it has a way of speaking to us at any speed. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a way to deepen your encounter with the Word of God, don’t just breeze through it, or even set yourself a goal of finishing a given book by a given date. Just slow down and let the text dictate its own pace to you; you might find that you spend half an hour praying about half a verse, or you might roam through a chapter or two before something grabs you. The point is to meet Christ, not to make tracks; start by reading a verse, a few verses, a chapter, and let yourself mull over what you see there, asking Christ to show himself to you.What is there? What isn’t there?
Okay, so you’ve slowed down, and now you’re reading the text at a snail’s pace. So what do you do? The first step is so obvious that you might miss it: ask yourself what you see and what you don’t see. Think about the Transfiguration scene, as it appears in Luke 9:28-36. What’s there? Jesus’ face is altered, his clothes become dazzling white, Moses and Elijah show up, speaking of his coming exodus, the disciples see his glory, a cloud overshadows them, they hear God’s voice from heaven, then everything returns to normal. Okay. But what’s not there that should be there? Well, let’s just think about the cloud, which throughout the Bible is used to symbolize the presence of God, and particularly the presence of God in the Temple (see Ezekiel 8-11, Lk 1:9-10). But if the cloud points to the divine glory in the Temple, where’s the Temple? Suddenly it seems like the Temple is extremely present, exactly because it’s absent. The Temple, the one site of true worship for the Jewish people, is nowhere to be seen, but the presence of God is, in all his glory. The absence of the Temple leads us to an unexpected presence: Jesus is the New Temple, the site of true worship, and wherever he is found, there is the glory and grace of God ready to transform those who worship him into sharing in that same glory. Such discoveries of presence and absence are nearly infinite in the Scriptures; all they take is a patient eye and ear, willing to attend to the details of the scene before us.Form and genre matter
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know that the form and genre of a story can exert a profound influence on its meaning. The way a romantic comedy or a heartwarming family film communicate the power of human relationships is rather different from the way that same idea gets expressed in a horror movie, for example. Likewise with the Bible. The profound allegories of the Song of Songs reveal the face of the Divine Lover in a different way than we find in the prophet Hosea’s treatment of the same issue, which is different yet again from the marital imagery Christ introduces in the Wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12). Attending to the different modes of presentation here allows us to see the complex richness of how God loves us more clearly and beautifully than if we gloss over the distinctions, or don’t notice them at all.Be ready for anything
The Bible is full of surprises. If you grew up Christian, you might be tempted to think that the Bible is old hat, all too familiar and uninteresting. Kid’s stuff. But if you approach it with patience, receptive to the different ways that God makes himself known, striving to read and interpret the Bible “in the sacred spirit in which it was written,” you will find that the Scriptures are as perpetually new and life-giving as the Holy Spirit himself (Dei Verbum §12).Commentators can be helpful
From time to time, of course, you will run across Scripture passages that are just too complex to grasp in a single go, or even after very many goes. When you get stuck, it can be helpful to turn to a trusted commentator, who can shed light on the spiritual drama of the passage, and maybe give some insight into its more cryptic elements. Someone who knows nothing about the Internet’s obsession with cats, the cosmic confusion of Nyan Cat, the horizons of tragi-comedy open to eHarmony videos, and the Gregory Brothers might find “Can’t Hug Every Cat” somewhat cryptic. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: an enlightening and spiritual commentary!
Above all, don’t give up! If a few simple YouTube videos can reveal key insights into approaching God’s revelation in Scripture, just imagine what you can learn from the way the Church prays those same Scriptures at Mass, in the Liturgy of the Hours, in her prayers and spiritual writings! The horizon is as infinite as the Holy Spirit.
Image: Holly Bible Book
“Martin, son of an unknown father.” Thus reads the baptismal registry for St. Martin de Porres, capturing the rejection Martin suffered from his earthly father, but even more, pointing to the adoption Martin received from his heavenly Father—the very grace of Baptism. “Though father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Ps 27:10).
This divine adoption is the key to St. Martin’s life—not only to understanding his life, but also to imitating it. We can see this in three ways: his miracles, his virtues, and his prayer.
For many, St. Martin is known for his miracles. He talked to animals, healed the sick, read peoples’ souls, and even bi-located. As a biography, these miracles dazzle with a certain saintly pizazz, but as a model for holiness, they seem far beyond us and perhaps even discouraging. If we can’t perform miracles, why bother with St. Martin?
It would be misleading to define St. Martin merely as a wonder-worker. At heart, Martin is an adopted son working with the grace of God. He did not work miracles for his own glory or according to his own will; rather it was God’s work, God’s glory, God’s will. The grace of working miracles is rare, but the grace of divine adoption is given to all the baptized. Miracles may be beyond us, but to be God’s child and to seek His will, this is possible for all Christians.
This dynamic holds true for St. Martin’s virtues. Again, he provides an impressive example: he humbly obeyed superiors, bore the insults of his confreres, worked tirelessly for the poor, brought peace to the divided, and inspired holiness in his neighbors. Altogether, his virtues tower over the good that most Christians can do.
As with his miracles, though, Martin’s virtues flow from his divine adoption. He is a branch grafted onto the vine of Christ, in the care of the Father (see Jn 15:1-5). The Father cultivates and prunes each of us so that we might bear the fruit of Christian virtues. Some bear great watermelons, others bear tiny blueberries. The fruit is God’s. Our concern is to be His child.
Finally, behind all the miracles and virtues is the prayer of St. Martin. He spent his nights in vigils, adoring the Eucharist and contemplating the Crucifix, often giving way to ecstasy and even levitation. During the day, he would interweave his work with prayer, interiorly uniting Martha and Mary. And to his prayer, he added austere fasting and penances. Again he’s impressive, but tough to imitate.
But Martin’s prayer was simply the lived intimacy of an adopted son with the Father, and this intimacy is extended to all the faithful. Jesus himself invited us to pray this way, teaching us the invaluable words: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Today, let us take St. Martin as our model. May he guide us in living the grace of God’s adopted children, and may his great life—his miracles, virtues, and prayer—inspire us to let the Father do great things through us.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Martin de Porres, O.P.
Spiderman, not St. Stephen. Batman, not St. John the Baptist. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not the North American martyrs.
I grew up knowing plenty about both superheroes and saints, but the comic book characters I dressed up as each Halloween were more real to me than any saint the Church honors tomorrow on All Saints’ Day.
On too many holy cards and in too many stained glass windows the saints all looked the same: doe-eyed, fair-skinned, more angelic than human. Their life stories melded together into a single, fantastic shape. They all seemed to have discovered some secret way to get on God’s good side, as He made Himself known to them in extraordinary ways—often performing all sorts of wild miracles for and through them—and they made it effortlessly to Heaven. The end.
Into my adult life, the saints continued to feel distant. What I heard in homilies and read in biographies served to encase them in a thick ice of piety. I did understand that they suffered trials and temptations, but their imperviousness to them rendered them impervious to me. Even trying to imagine how they spoke and behaved while alive, I couldn’t see how they would make for interesting dinner company. And forget about meeting a saint at a bar for a beer after work.
One thing which helped correct my flawed perspective was realizing that saints had walked the earth during my life. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta died when I was in high school, Pope Saint John Paul II during my first year of grad school. After they departed from this world, I slowly arrived at a greater awareness of what holiness—real holiness, not stylized depictions of it—looked like. These saints unsettled my assumptions about sanctity. In their backgrounds, vocations, and life experiences, these two magnanimous figures were quite distinct from one another. And as any number of stories about them reveal, they weren’t boring. They were funny. They did normal things. They loved. They forgave. They suffered like the rest of us (actually, much more than most of us likely will). And yet they cultivated heroic virtue, as has been formally recognized by the Church. So what had they gotten out of life—or put into it—that I was missing?
In effect, the saints show us what sameness and monotony look like. Except its ours, not theirs, that’s revealed.
Individualism is the hallmark of contemporary Western culture—and the more highly it’s valued, the less we see it authentically achieved. The world sells us on a cheap brand of individualism, and we lose ourselves in the transaction. We are left with “cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve,” as G.K. Chesterton puts it. Do you want to meet people who are truly themselves? Seek out the saints. Do you want to truly be yourself? Strive to be a saint. As Frank Sheed points out, only the pursuit of holiness offers us relief from the monotony modern individualism produces in and around us:
…men are in their essential personality irreducibly diverse: but sin blots out the distinctions and reduces the diversity: sin drains out the color of the man (which is his own and inimitable) and replaces it with the color of sin which is common property: all sinners look less like themselves and more like one another. Saints are intensely themselves.
When we are persistently self-seeking (as opposed to being habitually self-giving), we do not find ourselves, but deform ourselves.
Intensity is a defining mark of the saint. As it turns out, I don’t think I’d have the stamina to keep up with the exuberance of a saint’s dinner conversation. Again, as Sheed recognizes, sin is to blame: “…sin, being a following of the line of least resistance, inevitably lessens vitality: it takes no more vitality to go with the stream of inclination than with any other stream: but to go against it, as the saint does, demands intense vitality.” Sin dulls, whereas virtue sharpens.
How do saints attain this vigorous, holy selfhood? For starters, the saints truly become themselves by becoming true with themselves—and with God. Saints are more honest about their utter weakness, frailty, and sinfulness. They don’t try to hide it from themselves or from God. They are bold in their humility, submitting to Christ the key to every door of the heart, holding back nothing for themselves.
A fire can turn anything into itself if it is hot enough. The saints are sinners who aren’t afraid to walk straight into the Divine Fire—source of true love’s heat—to be purified and consumed and, in so doing, to be made like Him (cf. 1 Jn 3:2).
All you saints in Heaven, from the most renowned to the most obscure, pray for us!
Image: St. Catherine of Siena & Bl. Teresa of Calcutta