Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
Of the many memorials here in Washington, DC, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is especially notable. Commemorating those soldiers whose fates we do not know, it pays tribute to sacrifices hidden from the sight of men. Yet it recognizes that no sacrifice, no deed, is unknown to God, bearing an inscription reading:
Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God
In a certain sense, this qualification of unknown—“known but to God”—isn’t exactly a subtle exception. Once we acknowledge the reality of God’s omnipotence then it immediately follows that nothing can be absolutely unknown, but rather that, at most, things can only remain unknown to men. This is an important distinction to make because it directly affects how we live as Christians, since Christ has given us a warning:
Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them … And when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. (Mt 6:1-4)
When we give alms we are not even to let one hand know what the other is doing. In an age of Instagram and Twitter, where we let our every thought be known to the world, this prescription seems particularly foreign. Why did Christ instruct us so? Because those hypocrites who pray or give alms or do penance in public in order to be seen “have received their reward,” namely, the praise of men. But as Christians, we ought to desire to please, or fear to displease, no one but the Lord our God.
Christ’s prescription to hide our works from the sight of men is a precaution against pride, that all-invasive vice that can poison even the best deed. St. Augustine notes in his Rule that “every other vice produces evil deeds with a view to doing evil, but pride sets a trap for good deeds as well with a view to destroying them.” It is worth hiding our just works from men in order to avoid the trap of pride.
However, we do not hide our deeds only to protect against pride, as worthy a reason as that may be. It has a positive character as well. We hide our prayer, our almsgiving, our penances, because they are acts we do for God—because they are in some way our gifts to Him. And gifts given out of love are intimate, demanding privacy. That privacy is obvious in human relationships—between spouses, brothers, friends—and acts of love within these relationships are cheapened if made public. That’s why declarations of love posted on Facebook are somewhat meaningless expressions, however genuine the feeling may be. And if privacy is demanded among us on earth, how much more between us and our God, who knows us better than ourselves?
Yet, it is never quite so simple. Our God is a God of light, not darkness, and Christ again tells us:
He that doeth the truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (Jn 3:20)
We are instructed to hide our works so thoroughly that even our left hand does not know what the right is doing, and at the same time to come to the light that our works may be made manifest. Just as a candle is not hidden under a basket, so our works should be a sign to men that they may see and glorify God through them. But importantly, it is God who may choose to reveal our works, for our doing so could lead to pride. We are told to keep our works unknown to men, and if God so chooses He will make those works manifest, as He has done for so many of His saints.
Ultimately, all will be made known, “for there is not any thing secret that shall not be made manifest, nor hidden that shall not be made known and come abroad” (Lk 8:17). Until then, when we pray, when we give alms, when we do penance, we keep our works hidden, “known but to God.”
Dominicana is excited to announce the launch of a new website, coming this Easter Monday! The new address will be www.DominicanaJournal.org, where all visitors to our usual blog site will be automatically directed. But don’t worry! All previous content has already been transferred over, and the new site will keep up the same, steady supply of daily blog posts. This time, however, you’ll find them presented with a sharper look, and the site will be more closely tied to our bi-annual print journal, produced by the same authors you know well.
Lastly, we’d like to offer our thanks to our many faithful readers over the past years. May God bless you during these last days of Lent, and may He meet you with much joy and many graces this Easter season. So, tune in April 5th to continue the journey with us.
During my friend’s Master’s defense, she stood before her committee, nervously pinching her necklace between her thumb and forefinger. I remember her words clearly: “I consider myself spiritual, but not religious.” She was trying to express the thought and meaning in her design. She hoped her design would inspire something beyond materiality and superficiality without resorting to traditional motifs or symbols.
Most of us have encountered these words in some respect or another. Someone may elaborate by saying, “Well, I think there is something higher, something spiritual in us, in our world, but I don’t think that religion captures it. Religion tries to get at it, but I think ultimately religion restricts it, or abuses it.” The prominent New Atheist Sam Harris puts it this way:
Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.
We can see evidence of this aspiration being built, in an ironic way, in the architectural project included above. Commonly known as the “disappearing church,” this project is award-winning. What kind? A religious architecture award. Reading Between the Lines, its official title, was voted on by readers of Archdaily—a popular architectural blog. I find it ironic that it’s considered religious because the only thing religious about it is that it takes its form from the Christian church in the main town. The building evokes the image of a traditional Christian place of worship, only to vanish before one’s eyes into the landscape. The space doesn’t offer itself for worship, but for observing the landscape. It suggests that the disappearance of the Church allows one to see the world anew, in a spiritual way (though even that idea needs some starting point, i.e., the Church).
I think this project is a perfect example of the spirit of the modern movement in architecture. Modernism in architecture hails abstraction and simplification, and it parallels a secularization of religion.
“Less is more.”
“God is in the details.”
“Form follows function.”
“The freedom of ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.”
These quotes from early twentieth-century architects capture the spirit. Modern thought took our built environment on a new journey. The way of tradition and subtlety in design gave way to originality and invention. New materials such as steel, large plate glass, and reinforced concrete became new toys to build an abstract utopia. (Fun fact: Reading Between the Lines is composed of 30 tons of steel.)
As materials started to be mass produced, designs became modulated, and buildings became machines. “Form follows function” soon devolved into “form is accidental to function.” Rather than seeing the form of a building as being integral and wedded to its function, modernists designed buildings simply to fulfill program requirements. We went from schoolhouse to Bauhaus.
Buildings became box-like, unadorned, and white. Whether or not it was a principle interest of the designers, works of modern architecture became a blank canvas for viewers and users to imbue meaning. The mind was thought to be freed to see the spiritual in the abstract (take away the crucifix and what is religious or spiritual there?). Yet, I think that unless someone is given direction (e.g., this is a church, think church things) or some sign (e.g., the crucifix) there’s no meaning present. The spirituality of a design is proportional to its presentation of traditional religious design and thought. The abstraction is a privation of the tradition.
Philip Johnson once said, “I don’t see how anybody can go into the nave of Chartres Cathedral and not burst into tears.” While enjoying quiet solitude inside San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, my silent contemplation was broken by a man gasping for air. He walked in, clutched his breast, and looked up in awe. I literally saw beauty take his breath.
True religious churches imbue transcendence. True religious lives imbue transcendence. Any attempt to attain transcendence apart from religion will only lead to frustration. That’s because the whole dialogue and understanding of the spiritual is rooted in religion, and the truest form, expression, and existence of it is in Jesus Christ.
St. Paul preached that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church (Eph 3:10). That wisdom (namely, Jesus Christ), which all spiritual desire longs for, will be found in the Church. Designs remain hidden in the mind of an architect until the building is constructed. Likewise, in his Commentary on Ephesians, St. Thomas explains that the manifold wisdom of God’s revelation remained hidden in the minds of the Apostles until preached. Thomas writes:
However, once the concepts are realized externally in the construction, in the house after it is built, anyone can learn from the building what previously was concealed in the architect’s mind. Yet, they are not taught by the house but in the house.
That house is the Catholic Church, protected by the successors of the Apostles. The world isn’t “dangerously riven by [Catholic] doctrines,” as Sam Harris would have it. The world is led to true beauty and transcendence by that doctrine. One only has to be willing to receive it and be taught in the house.
“I’m spiritual but not religious.” While my friend said those words, she found comfort grasping her medallion. Unbeknownst to the room was that it was the Miraculous Medal hanging over her heart. She was seeking refuge in the image of Mary, the Mother of the Church.
Image: Reading Between the Lines
One of my favorite things at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the series of mosaics depicting the original fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. Each mystery is paired with an event in the Old Testament that somehow foretells it. Some of the connections are fairly obvious. The slaughter of the Passover lamb, for example, is paired with the death of Jesus, and the Nativity is connected with Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz: “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). Some are more obscure. For example, the finding of Jesus teaching in the Temple is connected with the rescue of Susanna, when the young Daniel defended her before the assembly against the two perjuring elders.
One of the most striking juxtapositions is that of the angel’s annunciation to Mary and the call of Moses at Mount Horeb by way of the burning bush. The connection has been made at least since the fourth century, when St. Gregory of Nyssa observed, “The light of divinity . . . did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of her virginity was not withered by giving birth.”
The burning bush signifies also the result of the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat, namely, the Incarnation of the Son of God. Just as the fire did not consume the bush, so the divinity of Jesus did not destroy his humanity. We beneficiaries of the ancient Nicene formulation “true God and true man” may not appreciate how easy it is to be mistaken about the relationship of Christ’s humanity to his divinity. Among the early Christians, some mistakenly thought it beneath the divine dignity to be united to matter, and so they concluded that Jesus could not have been truly human, but only apparently so. Others thought (again, incorrectly) that Jesus did not possess a human mind or will, since the divine ones would seem to render them redundant. Others worried that the human nature of Christ threatened to diminish his divinity, so they divided him into two persons, such that the Blessed Virgin could be said to be the mother of Christ, but not the mother of God. Ever since, when the Church calls Mary the mother of God, she means to imply that full divinity and full humanity are united in the one person of Christ.
Each of these errors tends to suggest that human nature and the divine nature are somehow at odds. It is as if God could defile himself by coming too close to humanity, or that humanity could be crushed by the weight of divine glory. But the burning bush, the Blessed Virgin, and the Incarnation teach us that divinization does not entail dehumanization. The Creator so transcends his creation that between God and creatures there is no comparison, no contest. And humanity itself is open to transcendence, such that in knowing God the human being is brought to human perfection.
God will not destroy our humanity. He doesn’t want to take away our identity. On the contrary, he wants to show us who we truly are and to free us from tiresome self-misconceptions. This is part of the point of penance. Why should we make peace with tendencies to self-destruction? Why should we say, “In the end, the flesh is all I am,” when God is waiting to conform us to his Son? The divine fire may cause us pain, but it also causes joy—a joy that will endure—because it makes us burn with the love of God.
Image: Mary as the Burning Bush
Dominicana Blog is happy to offer this audio recording of “St. Benedict Joseph Labre: Tramping with the Cross.” It was given by Br. Thomas Martin Miller, O.P. as the third installment of a four-part series of Lenten Conferences, offered at the Dominican House of Studies.
All conferences are open to the public. Join us for last installment “St. John of the Cross: Night Ascent” given by Br. Edmund McCullough. It begins at 8 p.m. tomorrow night, March 25.
Image: St. Benedict Joseph Labre
“He who sings, prays twice,” said Augustine. Well, except that he didn’t. He had plenty to say about singing, but his most famous line on the subject turns out not to have been his. Still, whether singing does double duty or not, it’s clear that it does augment prayer somehow. During Lent, then, when we’re invited to a deeper relationship with Christ through fasting and almsgiving and, yes, prayer, it makes sense that singing is given more attention. One example is the Church’s instruction that during Lent musical instruments be used in the liturgy only insofar as they are needed to support the singing; another is the increased intricacy and beauty of our Dominican chants proper to Lent, such as the In Pace and the Media Vita.
Composers seem to have sensed for ages the fit between sublime music and Lenten meditations on the Passion, from the plaintive polyphony of Victoria’s Tenebrae responsories to the brooding brilliance of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244. One of the chorales in this latter work, Herzliebster Jesu, was a popular German hymn which Bach arranged and used for the Matthäus-Passion’s third and fifty-fifth movements. The text is best known in English in the beautiful translation by Robert Bridges, which is still sung today to essentially the same tune:
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.
Bach places this first verse immediately after Jesus predicts his Passion. As the Gospels recount, the disciples’ reaction to this prediction was confusion, grief, and even rebuke. Indeed, the notion of an afflicted Christ is a startling one for us weary sinners who know well our weakness: Jesus, the Light of the World, in whom there is no fault, afflicted? The fact of his humanity is hammered home with all the force of a nail through hand or foot:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
These questions are not inquiries but laments, for we know the answers: I am the guilty, I brought this upon thee. My treason, my denial, was the reason for the Savior’s suffering. ’Twas I, Lord Jesus: I crucified thee. I think there is a particularly Petrine character to this hymn, and especially to this verse. What must have been his anguish when, far from denying himself and taking up his cross and following Jesus, he instead denied Jesus and refused the cross and fled from him? And the Lord turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). As Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, O. Cist., puts it in his lovely book, Simon, Called Peter: “The words of his denial—‘I do not know the man’—were reflected in the Master’s eyes, so full of love and suffering, and fell back into Peter’s heart like salt on a wound. He had never truly loved the love of Jesus, and he measured within his own heart all of the solitude, all of the abandonment of his only Friend and Father. No, it was not the Jews, it was not the Romans who wounded Jesus that night, but him, Peter!”
Lo, the good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
This is the other verse which Bach employs, placing it on the heels of the crowd’s frenzied demands that Christ be crucified (“Laß ihn kreuzigen!”). The musical contrast is striking, moving from the frantic overlapping melodies of all the people clamoring for his death, to the the melancholic chorale imbued with hushed awe at the condescension of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (Jn 10:11), the beloved Son who becomes the suffering servant (Isa 52:13–53:12), the God-Man who truly intercedes for us (Rom 8:34).
For me, kind Jesus, was thine Incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter Passion,
For my salvation.
Why suffer so? Why become man at all, knowing that he would shoulder the burden of such mortal sorrow? For me, for my salvation. God could have saved us by any number of ways, but he chose to manifest his all-encompassing love in this way, to reveal its breadth and length and height and depth (Eph 3:18), which extends even unto death, and beyond it: the love of God is cruciform.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
How can one hope to respond to such a gift? How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? (Ps 116:12) By giving him all we have and are.Your servant, Lord, your servant am I, the son of your handmaid; you have loosened my bonds (Ps 116:16). The sacrifice of Christ elicits from us a sacrifice of praise; the free gift of redemption impels us freely to give ourselves to him, in whom is the fullness of grace and truth, mercy and glory, life and light.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Embrace of the Cross
Over the weekend, we passed through the vernal equinox, which means that (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere) the days are now longer than the nights. With the increase in daylight comes higher temperatures, the melting of the snows that battered our landscape this winter, and the return of the flora and fauna that show nature at its liveliest.
Every culture has some ritual to mark this arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature, from the fertility rites of the ancient Romans and Egyptians to the opening of baseball season in our time. My own ancestors in Poland had the custom of constructing an effigy of the Winter Maiden out of straw, then ritually drowning her in the nearest river. Any festival or rite to commemorate the coming of the spring season involves giving thanks in some way for the gifts of nature. But when such an offering is being made to nature, the results can be brutal.
Perhaps the best example of this brutality is the vernal pagan liturgy from my brother Slavs, the Russians, depicted in Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring. The ballet’s odd dance rhythms and dissonant chords generated tension, right from the opening bassoon solo playing as high as it possibly can, which led to a riot at the show’s premiere in Paris over a century ago. Its initial notoriety, however, has turned into acclaim, as the ballet has since been recognized as a groundbreaking work. A generation later, some of the music would serve as the soundtrack for an animated segment illustrating the evolution of life, from the early earth to the extinction of the dinosaurs, in Walt Disney’s Fantasia—thus giving the work a further connection with the rhythms of nature. (As a boy, the scene in which a Tyrannosaurus Rex fights a Stegosaurus to the strains of “The Glorification of the Chosen One” was my favorite part of the movie.)
The first act of the ballet, “The Kiss of the Earth,” shows what many in today’s postmodern culture find attractive in paganism: an opportunity to reconnect with nature. After a fortune-teller reads the signs of nature and determines that spring has, in fact, returned, the people of the village perform several group dances and ritual games, until the tribe’s elder, the Sage, arrives and blesses the earth—leading the people to dance frantically until they drop.
But the second act, “The Exalted Sacrifice,” shows that paganism is not all fun and games. At night, a group of thirteen adolescent girls dances in a circle, until one of them trips, signaling that she is “The Chosen One.” The other maidens call upon their ancestors, and then the Chosen One performs an elaborate and vigorous dance, becoming the victim of the annual sacrifice by literally dancing herself to death. The ballet ends with the shocking image of this maiden’s demise, meant to appease the pagan earth deities.
What a nasty and cruel end for those who want to get back in touch with nature! Yet, The Rite of Spring does indicate something true: we owe a great debt—not to the gods but to God—for the wondrous gifts of creation, not only the marvels of springtime, but our very lives as well. Now if only there were a way to make satisfaction to God without a yearly human sacrifice…
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel did have a system of sacrifices that only required animals as victims—an improvement, to be sure. Several sin-offerings aimed to make propitiation to God for the nation’s misdeeds, and the springtime sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb thanked God for the particular gift of constituting the Israelites as a chosen nation and freeing them from the bondage of Egypt. Yet even these sacrifices did not suffice to liberate the people from their greater slavery to sin, or satisfy for our infinite debt to our Creator.
Only Jesus Christ, both fully human and fully divine, could make such satisfaction. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews,
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. (9:13-14)
While the virtuous sacrifices of the Old Testament prefigured the Cross of Christ, and the vicious, ‘deadly works’ of human sacrifice among the pagans at least pointed to the existential need for a Redeemer, Jesus’ self-offering, once and for all, restored our fallen human race to friendship with God.
Moreover, Jesus chose to make his offering for our redemption during the springtime Paschal sacrifice, because “‘it is then that day grows upon night; because by our Savior’s Passion we are brought from darkness to light’” (see St. Thomas Aquinas, ST III.46.9 ad 3). The Incarnation, in which God the Son took on our human nature and entered His creation, was the true “Kiss of the Earth,” and so His redemptive death on the Cross, the true “Exalted Sacrifice,” is the subject of the Church’s own rites of spring. As we approach the high drama of the liturgical events of Holy Week, let us give thanks to God, not only for the gift of springtime, but for the even greater gift of our salvation.
Image: Vincent van Gogh, Branches with Almond Blossom
St. Dominic and St. Francis have been called “Brothers from Different Mothers.” While biologically correct, I would nuance this for two reasons. First, their brotherhood is a supernatural one, and therefore calls for a supernatural mother, whom they both have in common: the Blessed Virgin Mary. Secondly, I think we can be more precise about what kind of brothers St. Dominic and St. Francis, along with their respective Orders, are. Perhaps I am biased because of my own family background, but I think the two saints and Orders are best described as fraternal twins.
Too much projection on my part? (I myself grew up with a fraternal twin brother.) Happily, a letter from Blessed John of Parma—the Franciscan blessed whose feast is today—confirms this twin judgment. John was the seventh Minister General of the Franciscan Order, serving from 1247 to 1257. This was no easy time for the newly founded mendicant Orders. Some in the Church, especially the secular priests at the University of Paris, were unsure about these new apostolic men. It was during these times that Blessed John wrote his letter, extracts of which can be found here. Allow me to correlate Blessed John’s letter with three marks of fraternal twinship from my experience.
The first mark of fraternal twinship: the unity of the two brothers. Twins are always together, even wearing matching shirts when young (thanks, Mom!). I remember when an acquaintance in high school discovered our twinship and responded: “Oh, that’s why you two are always together!” In a similar way, there are numerous stories of Dominican and Franciscan closeness throughout history, many captured in beautiful art works. Think of St. Dominic seeing St. Francis in a vision and then meeting him with that famous embrazo and saying “You are my companion, let us stand together, and no foe shall prevail against us!” Or St. Thomas visiting St. Bonaventure in his study as he was working.
Interestingly, this letter is not only the work of Blessed John; it is actually a co-authored missive, written jointly with Blessed Humbert of Romans, Master of the Order of Preachers. The letter is addressed to both Orders and highlights the bond between them, using images of two great lights, two silver trumpets, two witnesses, and two bright stars. “Think, my beloved, think how much sincere love should abound among you, whom Mother Church begot at the same time.” The two Generals can co-author a letter because of the profound unity between their friars.
But fraternal twins are not exactly alike; they’re not as easily confused like identical twins are. Even though my brother and I had the same initials AC (was my mother trying to confuse our elementary school teachers?), there was plenty to tell us apart, physically and otherwise. One was taller, the other more stout and athletic; one had a mullet, the other had a sensible haircut.
This difference in unity is noted in the letter to the Orders:
Eternal Charity directed you to the same work, namely, working together for the salvation of souls. Although your profession differs slightly, you are so similar that we mutually love you as identical creatures.
This leads to a final mark of fraternal twins. My mother was told that while the biggest challenge to raising identical twins is identity, the challenge to fraternal twins is competition. In sports, school, parental affection, and affirmation—in all things, fraternal twins compete with one another. Of course some competition is healthy and spurs one on to greater achievements (I doubt I would have done as well in school if my brother was not always coming home with such fantastic report cards!), but competition can also jeapordize the naturally-formed bond of friendship. Happily I was not too old (perhaps a senior in high school) when I began to take pleasure in my brother’s achievements. I remember playing golf with him one summer afternoon, and instead of being frustrated that he was beating me as usual, I took joy in his excellent scoring. From that moment on I have taken pride in his achievements, as if they were partly my own.
Apparently this competition was threatening to damage the two Orders in the thirteenth century, at exactly the time when unity was most needed. Blessed John and Blessed Humbert call for a renewed fraternal charity between the Orders:
How great an example of mutual charity and peace did our holy Fathers, Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, leave us. Consider our other early brethren who loved to so live in this life as to sincerely show one another signs of charity by seeing themselves as angels of God, by accepting one another as Christ, by anticipating one another in honor, by rejoicing in one another’s progress, by praising one another’s preaching, by promoting what was of mutual advantage, by shunning scandals and other causes of distress to one another—doing all this with the greatest care and wisdom.
People describe the Catholic Church as a big family. I thank God that it is, and that within it one can find all the various family dynamics and relationships that one finds in natural families. Grace builds on nature, after all, and perhaps the supernatural twinship of the Franciscans and Dominicans can also teach the world something about true fraternal charity.
Image: The Brothers Chapman
How can St. Joseph help you this Lent? I propose five ways.
In John 6, when Jesus boldly declares, “I am the bread of life,” his hearers murmur among themselves and ask, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” (Jn 6:41). Apparently, they considered Joseph to be just a regular, law-abiding Jew—an average Joe, if you will. By implication, Joseph didn’t go around Nazareth working miracles and polishing his halo; rather, he lived his holiness wrapped in simplicity.
Every year on Ash Wednesday, we hear: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them” (Mt 6:1). Our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be kept for God’s eyes only. Yet we should also remember Jesus’ words earlier in the Sermon on the Mount: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:16).
The key difference is simplicity. When we act simply, we take no heed of our glory, but seek God’s alone. Such simplicity is a modesty of soul, guarding the intimacy we have with God through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
On May 1, we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. He is a saint who knows how to roll up his sleeves and put in a hard day’s work. Joseph reminds us of the dignity of work, beautifully captured in Gaudiem et Spes:
Through labor offered to God man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, Who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with His own hands. (GS 67)
Lent is a good time to live out this dignity of work by imitating St. Joseph. God draws us to Himself through the ordinary means of simply fulfilling our tasks. We need not search for extraordinary acts of penance or lengthy prayers, especially if these detract from our normal duties. So before we add on extra practices, we should redouble our attentiveness to the work already before us.
While Joseph shows us the dignity of work, he had some of his best moments as he slept. It was here that God spoke to him repeatedly through dreams.
We can distinguish two types of rest: physical sleep and spiritual abandonment to God. Both are critical for holiness. Sleep renews us for another day of work and love. Just ask the mother of a newborn about the importance of sleep. Abandonment increases our hope in God’s loving providence, strengthening our faith in times of trials and creating room for love to grow.
By both sleep and abandonment, we recognize our limits: we need sleep and we need God. We can see this pairing in the beginning of Psalm 127:
If the Lord does not build the house,
in vain do its builders labor;
if the Lord does not watch over the city,
in vain does the watchman keep vigil.
In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat,
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.
This psalm proclaims the futility of all-nighters and the emptiness of self-made saints. Psalm 127 is a good reminder during Lent, as we up the ante with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are not exercises of our sheer will-power. Our practices on their own do not make us holy. God makes us holy. And sometimes, God bids us to rest.
Remember the words of Moses to the Israelites as Pharaoh pursued them: “The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still” (Ex 14:14), as well as the words of Isaiah: “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved; in quiet and in trust shall be your strength” (Is 30:15).
Joseph was a great man, but where would he be without his family, without Jesus and Mary? I doubt he would make many appearances in 21st-century blog posts—most 1st-century Jewish carpenters don’t.
Joseph’s holiness came through Jesus and Mary, by serving them and receiving from them. Similarly, God draws us to Himself through those around us. We do not become saints as isolated individuals, but as members of a family or community.
With their parents leading the way by example and family prayer, children and indeed everyone gathered around the family hearth will find a readier path to human maturity, salvation and holiness. (GS 48)
Lent is a good opportunity to examine our closest relationships. Is there a need to forgive? Is there love that needs rekindling? Is there gratitude missing? These are excellent ways of giving alms.
- Jesus and Mary
Of course, Joseph’s family isn’t your normal family. There’s a special grace about Jesus and Mary (understatement of the year). If we compare our families to the Holy Family, we might be tempted to discouragement. But by God’s goodness, Jesus and Mary are not distant, but rather intimately close to us: Jesus is our savior and brother, and Mary is our tender mother. Joseph, for his part, can help stay close to Jesus and Mary, just as he did.
In the end, all of our Lenten practices are simply saying “yes” to Jesus, just as Mary first did at the Annunciation. May Mary pray for us, and may Jesus bring us to the Father.
Image: Francesco Conti, Saint Joseph with Christ Child
It was probably the weirdest instance of parental discipline I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing.
It was at some summer evening gathering, with family and friends and pot-luck, those kinds of gatherings that blight one’s childhood and give one a lifelong aversion to lima beans, merry-go-rounds, and girls named Sandra. On this occasion, the protagonist was Cameron, four years my junior, the sort of histrionic nine-year-old who seems to be perpetually acting a one-man play, and who at the drop of a hat will belt out Mulan lyrics like a mini-Bocelli. Cheerful, clumsy, and cherubic, Cameron also (to his credit) bore more than a passing resemblance to the character Beans from the Disney Channel classic Even Stevens.
At a certain point in the evening’s festivities, Cameron had dropped his overladen Styrofoam plate, spilling hot dog, watermelon, mac ‘n cheese, and potato salad onto the grass. This sort of tragedy has broken lesser men, and Cameron was not unmoved. He let out a piercing shriek, and with a power and range that startled only those unfamiliar with his aforementioned Mulan stylings, leaned back and hollered to God in his heaven, “I’m a FAILURE!” To which his mother responded instantly and with breathtaking sternness, “Cameron! We don’t use that word.”
It was precisely the same tone and expression most parents use when they hear their young progeny swear a cuss, or see the young son and heir practicing surgery on the cat. Nary an ounce of sympathy for poor Cameron’s crise existentielle.
Needless to say, Cameron’s anguished cry became a popular refrain in the Clarke household as an acknowledgment of human finitude, contingency, and general lament of the Fall. In fact, I have deep sympathy with Cameron. I am a failure.
Or am I?
A quotation of Mother Teresa’s comes to mind, one that is frequently (mis)applied to these sorts of occasions: “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”
This is taken by some as a salutary reminder that we ought to direct our gaze beyond merely worldly goals and standards. However, it is also used with unsettling frequency to give our natural timidity and fear of failure a veneer of respectability, as if Mother Teresa had said “God has commanded that we not be successful, since he wants us to be faithful.” Phew. Thank God. I’m not a failure—I’m faithful.
To my mind, it is a willful misreading of Mother Teresa’s point to suggest that we can drive a wedge between success and fidelity, where failure is better known as faithfulness, and whoever is successful in the world has some ‘splainin’ to do.
On one level, we all are failures. And yet this, as St. Paul reminds us, is where God came to meet us. “But God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). By his death, we are more than failures. We are given “power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12).
I think that this is what Mother Teresa is getting at. She is in effect proposing a new paradigm of success and failure, of victory and defeat, of fidelity and betrayal. New, but not original; she is not the source, but the echo of the only new thing under the sun, Jesus Christ, who said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:36). What we crudely call “having priorities” St. Augustine called the ordo amoris, the order of loves. What do we love most? For what are we willing to give our whole life? How much weight do we place on being successful, or having all the knick-knackery that makes for a comfortable life? Or conversely, how much do we fear lacking that knick-knackery, or being unsuccessful? Mother Teresa’s point is that a Christian should not understand success (or failure) in a primarily worldly sense. Our “success” is in fact fidelity, and so inseparable from the cross of Christ.
And yet our worldly success is not entirely irrelevant to our faithfulness to the Gospel. We should be wary of too readily dividing this world from the next. Major League Baseball’s all-time stolen base leader, Ricky Henderson, never signed a contract with the proviso, “steal an insane number of bases.” But stealing bases proved to be the way in which he was faithful to the basic terms of the agreement. In a similar way, the particular circumstances in which we answer the call to be faithful to the Gospel may in fact demand of us a high and difficult level of excellence and “worldly” success.
In the end, what counts as real failure? Clarence Oddbody offers a memorable answer in It’s a Wonderful Life: “No man is a failure who has friends.”
Clarence’s remark is in fact a striking commentary on St. Thomas’s description of charity as friendship with God. The saint is like George Bailey, toasted as the “richest man in town,” yet not on account of the cash piled in front of him, but because he has friends. Charity—friendship—should be our aim, in imitation of Christ who continually calls failures and makes them friends.
Image: George Bailey (from It’s A Wonderful Life)
“We always get a bump in calls around Paddy’s Day,” said Gillian Bird, the education officer at Dublin’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals, in an interview with Amy Chozick of the New York Times. The spring weather, heralded by the festivities of March 17th, lures reptiles and even snakes from their darkened hiding places. Hence the uptick in calls to various animal advocacies. But isn’t Ireland supposed to be snake-free? Irish legends tell us that St. Patrick himself banished all the snakes from Ireland. Yet—irony of ironies—according to a 2013 article St. Patrick’s Christian ‘isle has begun to slither again.’
During Ireland’s economic boom, many purchased exotic reptiles to keep as pets. When the country fell into a recession, however, the snakes, iguanas, and lizards were simply abandoned in Dublin flats or left on roadsides. One such rescued animal was a six-foot long boa constrictor. Another a crocodile. The image couldn’t be more striking: as the faith seems to be declining in a once-great Christian nation, its historic legends and most noble patron are inverted and attacked. Profession of the long-standing Irish religion wanes, and snakes, those deadly foreign invaders, begin to haunt her rolling hills.
In the ancient world, particularly in Scripture, snakes symbolize sin. Adam’s primordial sin in Eden famously results in his tempter’s punishment, “On your belly you shall crawl” (Gen 3:14). When the Israelites escaped from Egypt and crossed the desert wilderness, snakes were sent by the Lord God to punish their offenses (Num 21). In the New Testament, John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who harass him “a brood of vipers” (Mt 3:7), a phrase later echoed by Jesus himself (Mt 23:33). To crush the serpent (Ps 91:13) then is to stand above sin in the light and power of God. Often depictions of the Blessed Mother reveal her standing on a serpent as the New Eve, the precise fulfillment of Genesis 3.
St. Patrick’s purported banishment of snakes, then, stands symbolically as the triumph over ancient paganism in Ireland. In their total conversion to Christianity, the Celtic people of Érie even supported a strong tradition of monasticism which was a beacon to the rest of the world and almost single-handedly sustained learning through Europe’s so-called dark ages. To the Celtic monks of old—the heirs of Patrick the great missionary bishop—we owe countess innovations, including elements of our contemporary practice of private Confession.
Like the other nations of Europe today, Ireland’s turn away from the Christian faith is a highly complex affair, not able to be easily and comprehensively explained. Such an examination stretches well beyond this author’s ability and our purposes here. Our point is much simpler: if the present signs of the times attack the ancient patron, perhaps his life and teaching remain the answer to a people’s crisis.
First, we can emulate Patrick’s courage. After all, this is the saint who defiantly lit the bonfire of Easter on the Hill of Slane, against the wishes of the pagan High King. Because of this bold deed, the ancient legends tells us, Patrick was allowed to continue his preaching mission. As a young boy, during his escape from Ireland, Patrick refused to eat honey that had been offered to pagan idols (much like Paul’s own pastoral problem in 1 Cor 8). St. Patrick’s uncompromising integrity emboldens us to hold fast to our faith in the sticky moral situations of our own day. Finally, when a number of St. Patrick’s Christian converts were taken as slaves to Britain, the great founder of Irish Christianity wrote a moving letter defending the integrity of human life (assuredly recalling his own years as a slave) and calling the slave traders to repent and come to know the mercy of God and the Christian community. Patrick’s courage, integrity, and compassion took this light of Christ which Patrick lit on the Hill of Slane and ignited the hearts of the Irish people.
However, the most important thing about Patrick that should be said in our age is precisely the one thing that our confreres disdain to recall. St. Patrick preached Jesus Christ, and he baptized an entire nation in the Christian religion. He is the singular enemy of “co-exist.” Not all ways to happiness are equal; Christianity is the way to human fulfillment. St. Patrick gave to a pagan people the light and peace of Christ, and in so doing offered his entire life in service of the proclamation of the Truth.
Image: James Barry, The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St. Patrick
Dominicana Blog is happy to offer this audio recording of “St. Catherine de Ricci: The Counsel of the Cross.” It is the second installment of a four-part series of Lenten Conferences, given at the Dominican House of Studies.
The conferences are open to the public, and they will be offered at the Dominican House of Studies every Wednesday in March, starting at 8 p.m.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Catherine de Ricci (Hawkesyard Priory church, Staffordshire)
I had never heard the phrase until I spent some time visiting a hospice center, and it always struck me as incongruous. While everyone in their care was dying from one thing or another, they referred to patients who had shifted from slow and steady decline to the stage where the body starts to shut down as “actively dying.” Unlike a normal hospital, the hospice rooms had no monitors steadily tolling the patient’s heartbeat or screaming for attention when vital signs change, so the evidence of this new phase varied – perhaps a particular weakening of the breath, a lack of blood flow to extremities, or an inability to keep the patient conscious. This stage could still last for days, and the more I witnessed such a decline the more this “active” part of dying seemed oddly named.
In a certain sense, all death is passive. It comes about when the human body can no longer fulfill its life-sustaining functions because of disease, trauma, or simple weakness. Unlike the acts of speaking or running or jumping, the hospice patient’s “active” dying is something that happens to him, not something he does. We cannot simply will our body to stop functioning in the way we can will to raise our right hand. The truly human acts related to dying are always indirect. For good or for ill, they are only preparatory for a moment that we never fully control.
This thought struck me profoundly on my last visit to Fr. William Augustine Wallace, O.P. I had visited Fr. Wallace many times over the last four years, but by the time I first met him his Alzheimer’s had limited us to nothing more than a superficial conversation. There was a certain passivity on his part in all of our interactions, usually involving me saying something to get some response from him. Just walking into his room always drew a smile, and I would bring up his time in the Navy, his time as a priest, his teaching, or his work in natural philosophy, hoping to get a look of recognition and a few words, which usually trailed off incomplete. Early on I could ask for his blessing and he would gladly, if haltingly, oblige, but eventually I had to settle for leading him in the Our Father or a part of the Rosary.
A little over a week ago we got the news that he was declining – in hospice terms, actively dying. After compline, about ten of us brothers visited his room as he lay on the bed, eyes closed, breathing slowly, and clutching the rosary that one of the sisters had placed in his hands. He had already received the Anointing of the Sick, so a priest prayed aloud the Commendation for the Dying. He spoke loudly so that Fr. Wallace might still hear him, but I noticed no signs of recognition. After singing the Salve Regina, we decided to pray a decade of the rosary. None of us who were there could claim to have been his friend, or even to have known him much at all, but I remember thinking that I would like to stay with him overnight, hoping that at least one of his brethren could be with him in case he did not make it until morning. By the end of the decade the slow breathing had stopped. Fr. Wallace had died surrounded by ten of his Dominican brethren praying the Rosary.
Given the passive and reactive nature of our interactions over the years it is hard to imagine that he was actively holding off the physical shutdown of his body for some particular moment like this. It was truly a beautiful moment of Divine Providence. A moment hours, days, even years in the making, most of it out of his or anyone’s control. Still, Fr. Wallace’s decline over the years was simply a longer, drawn out version of what leads up to any death. We can never really be sure when death will come or whether we will truly have the time or the power to prepare ourselves when it becomes unavoidable.
The Church has always encouraged the faithful to reflect on, to pray about, and to prepare for our own death. This is not a morbid and depressing suggestion but a humble recognition that we will all face death and that the way we face it has serious consequences. Further, the Church encourages us not to take on this task alone but to draw on the support of our fellow Christians and, most especially, the saints. They have gone before us through death to eternal life, and we can trust that they will act on our behalf even when we cannot.
The last thing I remember Fr. Wallace doing before he was actively dying was faltering along as we prayed a decade of the Rosary, the same prayer we were praying the moment that he died, insistently calling upon the help of our Blessed Mother: Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Image: Alonzo Cano, Death of St. Joseph
If you asked someone on the street which doctrine of the Catholic Church is the hardest to believe in, you might hear “the Church’s teaching on gay marriage” or “contraception” or “the historical reality of the Virgin Birth” or “the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” or some other difficult teaching. However, I think one is harder than all of these.
This Easter Vigil, tens of thousands of men and women around the world, as they seek entrance into full communion with the Catholic Church, will say:
I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.
This is, I think, the hardest doctrine of them all. I, as a fully rational and free person, am asked to assent fully to a body of teachings—all of them. One must believe and profess all the Church teaches, and in addition, the teaching that all her dogmas are unchanging. This difficult doctrine of doctrines did not dissolve with Vatican II; it was, in fact, strongly reinforced. In Lumen Gentium, the document on the Church from that Council, we read:
This infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded…and the faithful are to accept this teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.
At the First Vatican Council, in the 19th century, the following articulation showed the unchangeability of doctrine:
If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.
All this seems pretty intimidating. It almost seems like I should pick one teaching to disagree with just to assert my independence and freedom of thought. Isn’t this the “thought police” telling me what to think, and me, just exercising doublethink, blandly assenting to a lot of teachings simply because someone more powerful than me said so?
I don’t believe so. Rather, I, Br. John Dominic Bouck, believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God—not because I think Pope Francis is a nice guy, or that Thomas Aquinas was really smart, or that two thousand years is a long time, and that that really gives a lot of street-cred to those teachings.
I believe most of all because I have been given the supernatural gift of Faith by God Himself, through the Church, and through my family and teachers. I have not earned it. God knows I don’t deserve to believe. I could come to a reasonable knowledge that there is one supreme being who created and rules. But I would not come to know that that Creator actually loves me as a Father, and that when I disobey Him, He is not an angry bully, but a lover who wants me back, just as He said in Hosea,
She went after her lovers,
and forgot me, says the Lord.
Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her. (2:13-14)
I believe because of the blood of the martyrs, especially of that truly great generation of men and women who knew Jesus while He was on earth. They were utterly convinced that Jesus was God, that Jesus was man, that Jesus died, and that Jesus rose—yes, rose from the dead. So convinced that they lived lives of self-forgetful charity, and died deaths of unspeakable torture. Martyrs not of a political cause, nor suicidal, but lovers slain testifying for their beloved.
If I should through my powers of reason and intellect find a contradiction, a real contradiction in the history of Church teaching, or a system of thought more comprehensive and more coherent and more satisfying than the Catholic Church–established by Jesus Christ–then yes, I would look into that seriously. But so far, nothing. And, indeed, I don’t think any real contradiction is possible. Jesus founded His Catholic Church as an agent of truth, and Jesus and His Church do not and cannot lie.
I believe because as St. Peter said to the Lord, “To whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). Even amidst doubts, what good would it do me to worship a god of my own creation? He can’t save me. In God alone is my salvation. And if there is no God, no salvation. That seems pretty clear to me. And if God is unchanging, and He wants to help us, it makes sense that He would make known to us what we need to know about Him and ourselves. And this he tells us through the Church.
That’s why I believe in all of it; Lord, help my unbelief.
An Act of Faith:
O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe that the divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy Catholic Church teaches, because you have revealed them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
Image: Jan Matejko, Maid of Orleans
No, that’s not a typo. “Jorrow” is a term meant to capture the ties that bind the Joyful and Sorrowful Mysteries. For bound they are.
Just think, for example, about the Joyful Mysteries themselves, and the experience of perturbation, grief, and affliction found within them. Not that these emotions dominate, but they’re certainly present: the fact that the Archangel’s greeting troubles Mary initially, or Simeon’s prophecy to Mary of a sword-pierced heart.
These distinctly non-joyful moments ripple out from the Joyful Mysteries and make them more realistic. Although we tend to draw a rigid distinction between joy and sorrow—we could easily define one as the absence of the other—we actually find that in everyday life it’s rarely an either-or. Sometimes they even show up concurrently, just as the rain can fall when the sun is shining.
Lent is a jorrowful season, organized around not only sorrow and penance for sin but also the joy of remembering that the glory of the Resurrection lies in store. In accord, here are reflections about the ways in which the Sorrowful and Joyful Mysteries speak to one another, and together proclaim truths about Divine Love that neither can fully contain on its own. (And since the best preparation for Easter takes place in the Confessional, each section concludes with a question taken from Pope Francis’ tips on making a good examination of conscience, in preparation for the sacrament of Reconciliation).
- The First Mysteries: The Annunciation & Agony in the Garden
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two yeses can reverse a no. These Mysteries reveal the world’s most profound moments of self-abandonment into the hands of He who knows us better than we know ourselves—which was precisely the truth Adam and Eve failed to remember when they said no to God, deceived into believing their Creator did not have their best intention in mind. But Mary’s assent to God’s plan at the Annunciation enables our Redeemer, the New Adam, to enter our world in the flesh. Christ’s submission to the Father’s will at Gethsemane, in turn, shows us that whatever the Father wills for us, no matter how arduous it may seem, is somehow, some way, intended for our ultimate good. So let’s let God be God.
Do I rebel against God’s plan?
- The Second Mysteries: The Visitation & Scourging at the Pillar
Before abandonment comes openness. God can and does make Himself present, but we must have hearts open to recognize Him. Old and barren, Elizabeth no longer expected God could bless her with a child. But God reverses her and Zechariah’s disappointment in dramatic fashion. Her joy reaches its peak with Mary’s visitation. Whereas Mary, the creature, comes bearing the Creator, the scourging at the pillar is motivated by the creatures’ condemnation of the Creator. Jesus does not meet the expectations of the high priests and scribes, so they turn over God’s Son to Pilate to preserve their self-generated, false images of the messiah. Thus, when our false ideas about God are proven wrong, it can be for us, like Elizabeth, a blessing—or, as for the high priests, a stumbling block.
Am I part worldly and part believer?
- The Third Mysteries: The Nativity & Crowning with Thorns
Christmas prefigures Calvary; the wood of the manger is also the wood of the cross. But before Jesus takes up the cross, He first submits to the woody thorns of the Roman soldiers’ mock-crown. Out of utter humility, God chose to be born in the lowliest of worldly places and circumstances. The same humility animates His silent acceptance of the soldiers’ derision. Is this weakness? On the contrary, it is the product of strength and self-possession, the kind that makes one appear lowly in the world’s estimation but mighty in the Father’s eyes, for it is motivated by love of Him.
Do I want to be served?
- The Fourth Mysteries: The Presentation & Carrying of the Cross
In the movie The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus is first confronted with the cross, He collapses to His knees, embracing it—almost with relief, as if finally beholding His beloved. Similarly, the aged Simeon clasps the infant Christ in the Temple with delight, relief, and a sense of purposeful finality. This is it, at last. Someday, we’ll each be presented with our own end. We’ll only get one chance to die well. How can we do that without some practice? The more we die to ourselves—to our grudges, rash judgments, self-interest—the more death will be a means rather than an end. A means to get to Him for Whom we’ve been dying to ourselves all our lives long, out of love for Love Himself.
Do I only turn to God when I’m in need?
- The Fifth Mysteries: The Finding in the Temple & Crucifixion
Twice Christ goes missing for three days’ time—in the Temple and the tomb. In our spiritual life, we’ll sometimes feel lost, as if abandoned by God. But feeling lost is not the same as being nothing. Remember: God acted first, and He holds us in being. We did not decide to be born; He fashioned us. All of our life, therefore, is our response to Him. From God we have come and to God shall we return. The surest way back? By the cross. There’s no more jorrowful, more authentic path.
Do I begin and end the day with prayer?
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Missionary’s Rosary
Imagine yourself on a pilgrimage. Not to Lourdes or Fatima, but wandering in the Sinai desert en route to the promised land of Canaan. You’re told by Moses and company that the land you’re aiming for is a great land, one flowing with milk, honey, and other delights. Yet as good as the goal sounds, it’s hard to think of the end when your stops along the way include desert-fatigue and the sword of Amalek. The question might arise, why put up with this at all? Couldn’t God bring me to the promised land without all this hassle?
Now imagine yourself in the midst of the Lenten season, with an overambitious list of penances and a waning fervor to do them. The question might arise, why do them at all? Isn’t there any easier way to sainthood than the hassle of penance and sacrifice?
I think we have trouble keeping up Lenten penances because we fail to see their meaning and depth. Faulty approaches to penance usually involve refraining from penance altogether, or overdoing it. The first fails to see that sacrifice can really change us, while the second’s scatter-shot method leaves us equally scattered and enervated from its misdirected zeal.
Faulty approaches to penance miss the mark because they fail to see sacrifice as something interior. If something isn’t interior to a person, then it will lack depth. And if it lacks depth, then there is little chance it will have a lasting, virtuous effect in our life.
So then how do you give sacrifice an interior depth?
Desire. When preaching on the First Letter of John, St. Augustine stated that “the entire life of a good Christian is a holy desire” (Sermons on 1 John 4, 6). But what must we desire to give sacrifice and penance meaning?
Before anything else, you must desire the invisible God who is Love itself. When you love something, but don’t see what you love, you desire it more for not having it completely. God is an invisible reality that no one has ever seen before (1 Jn 4:12). Yet the invisible God is also the God who is Love itself (1 Jn 4:8). Therefore, loving the invisible God stretches out our desire and gives a depth to our soul that God can fill with Himself.
But God who is Love has not remained invisible. Love itself has taken human form, with hands and feet and a face, who is named Jesus. Following your desire for the invisible God, desire a deepening of your love for Jesus, who is God made flesh and Love made visible. Speaking of this deepening love for Jesus, St. Augustine compares our hearts to a field in which God wishes to plant Himself:
God finds the hearts of men to be like a field…. If he finds growth there, he destroys it; if he finds the field cleared, he plants. He wants to plant the tree of love there. And what growth does he want to destroy? Love of the world. Listen to him…If anyone loves the world, the love of the Fathers is not in him (1 John 2:18). (2, 8)
To deepen our love for Jesus is to have Him dwell more deeply in us, like a tree of love planted inside us. But in order for this tree to grow, we need to be emptied of earthly love and attachments. This can only be done by sacrificing these earthly loves by the grace God gives us. This is how God cleanses us to have a deeper love for Him, and this is how our Lenten penances and sacrifices take on a deeper, interior meaning.
Our desire to deepen our love for Jesus doesn’t end in this life. Let your love for Christ become so deep that you desire to be joined to God completely in the next life as well. If we truly have a love for God, we will ultimately not desire our earthly pilgrimage for itself. Instead, we will desire to be joined to God as our good. St. Augustine advises, “Let him [who loves] not love the pilgrimage, let him not love the way. Let everything be bitter apart from him who calls us, until we are joined to him, and let us say what is said in the psalm…: But my good is to be joined to God (Ps 73:28). My entire good is to be freely joined to God” (9, 10).
This Lent, consider your sacrifices and penances not as a list of things to accomplish or achieve, but as a way of stretching out your desire for a homeland that you one day wish to enjoy. As St. Augustine tells us, our home is not here:
This world is to all the faithful who are seeking their homeland what the desert was to the people of Israel. They were indeed wandering the whole time and in search of their homeland, but, since God was leading them, they couldn’t go astray. They experienced delays because they were being exercised, not because they were being forsaken. What God promises us, then, is ineffable sweetness and a good, what the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man (1 Cor 2:9). (7, 1)
Image: Odilon Redon, Reflection
In fourth-century Edessa, the existence of several groups of Gnostic schismatics threatened the stability of the Christian faith. The Lord raised up in the Church a certain Biblical exegete, deacon, and proto-Dominican to contend with the heretical sects, a man who did so patiently, yet with a firm grasp of orthodoxy.
St. Ephrem the Syrian, now a Doctor of the Church, would use hymns to proclaim the truths of the faith. His works, which deal with topics ranging from Heaven to heretics, defy easy characterization. At the same time he was producing these beautiful and theologically rich writings, Ephrem was serving the poor and sick of the area, doing so until he himself contracted a certain illness that eventually led to his death. His most famous prayer, profound in its ability to provoke contemplation, is traditionally said by the Eastern Churches several times a day throughout Lent.
Some years ago during Great Vespers in an Orthodox Church, I heard this prayer for the first time. Its steady rhythm, natural beauty, timeless relevance, accompanying prostrations, and final series of Jesus prayers compelled me to learn it immediately. Every day since, I have made this prayer the first I say each morning:
O Lord and Master of my life, grant not unto me a spirit of idleness, of discouragement, of lust of power, and of vain speaking.
But bestow upon me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, of patience, of meekness, and of love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant that I may perceive my own transgressions and judge not my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
The first line immediately strikes one as seemingly odd: no one thinks of God as a giver of idleness, discouragement, etc. We know Him as the giver of all things, yes, but of all good things. Yet, just as we are not expecting harm in the Our Father when we say “lead us not into temptation,” so in St. Ephrem’s prayer we aren’t anticipating these certain impediments to virtue. In both instances, instead, we’re asking for a spirit that isn’t disposed to such destructive paths. We seek fortitude against the marks of fallen nature that incline us to desire too much or too little of what is truly good.
We then ask for certain virtues that are seemingly the hardest to come by naturally. Chastity, patience, meekness, and love, like any virtue, grow in the soul primarily through the gift of grace and secondarily through their exercise. The evangelical counsels come to mind whenever I hear this short list recited. While not exclusive pairings, vowed obedience is sure to try our patience and meekness; the vow of poverty frees us to love purely; and chastity has its obvious match.
The prayer then comes to an appropriate close. After once more revering the Lord, we ask for the fruit of that spirit which was described all along. That is to say, if we are truly chaste, patient, meek, and loving, we can’t waste our time judging others. If we do not distract ourselves with idleness, discouragement, lust of power, or vain speech, it’s impossible for us to shy away from the reality of our own sins.
In this prayer, St. Ephrem communicates that it is only by radical honesty with God and ourselves that we are left with the realization of our utter dependence on the Lord and Master of our life. He, the patient, meek, and loving God, gives us Himself and allows us to share in His life. We, souls poor and wanting, seek a blessed life from Him to truly live. It is fitting, then, that at the end of the prayer, the congregation concludes with some form of the Jesus prayer, asking the one thing we need for these spiritual hopes to become lived reality:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Image: Icon of St. Ephrem the Syrian
In a remarkable piece of long-form journalism in the latest issue of The Atlantic, contributing editor Graeme Wood investigates “What ISIS Really Wants.” That he hits the nail on the head is perhaps best evidenced by the multiple times the article has been tweeted out by ISIS supporters. Although Wood did travel the world to meet with ISIS ideologues and jihadi-Salafi sympathizers, he notes that anyone familiar with their propaganda can clearly recognize the ideological principle of the organization:
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.
What is “the Prophetic methodology”? As Wood explains, it is the careful emulation of the prophet’s own message, manner of life, and method of Islamic expansion, seen especially in the establishment of an Islamic caliphate modelled off of the earliest days of Islam. Willfully ignored by the West, this Prophetic methodology sheds light upon the practice and aims of the Islamic State: Why does ISIS crucify and mutilate the enemies of Islam? Why does ISIS reject borders and lasting peace treaties? Why does ISIS execute apostates? Because such is the Prophetic methodology.
Prophetic methodology in general is familiar to the Christian. As God incarnate, Christ is more than a prophet, and yet truly a prophet. He truly speaks in God’s name, and Christians are indeed called to imitate Him. After Jesus stoops down to wash His disciples’ feet, He tells them:
Do you realize what I have done for you? . . . I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (Jn 13:12-15)
In imitating Muhammad and in imitating Christ, two very different prophetic methodologies find expression. Nowhere has the contrast been seen more clearly in recent days than on the Mediterranean shores of Libya. There, twenty-one Coptic Christian men knelt in the sand, each with an Islamic State believer standing behind him. Both invoked the name of their prophets. Both professed to follow in their prophet’s footsteps. From the sand, the Christians invoked their slain Savior, “Lord Jesus Christ. Help me Lord Jesus.” With the sword, the Islamists invoked Muhammad as their witness: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission, the promise of our Prophet, peace be upon him.”
These two prophetic methodologies reflect two very different claimants to the prophetic office. Jesus embraced the cross upon which He died, forgiving the very men who crucified Him; Muhammad embraced the sword in order to seize Mecca, conquering the very men who had plotted his assassination. Jesus fulfills the Old Law, commanding the love of enemies, removing the violence of its judicial precepts; Muhammad speaks Allah’s last word, sanctioning the violence of his Arabian conquest, the stoning of adultresses, the mutilation of thieves.
Let us not forget that claiming to be a prophet is a bold assertion indeed: to speak for God Himself. Such a claim demands to be “backed up.” Here again our prophets differ starkly: Jesus healed lepers; Muhammad raided caravans. Jesus raised the dead; Muhammad raised an army.
Broad strokes? Certainly. By all means, investigate the details for yourself. But if we heed the counsel of Wood’s column, we dismiss the difference at our own peril.
The temptation to do so, to ignore real prophetic difference, falls into an error which I am inclined to label a third prophetic methodology all its own. Its precepts and taboos are seen in its willful ignorance of ISIS’s true Islamism. Wood relates how, in the opinion of one prominent scholar, even Westernized Muslims have come to adopt certain elements of this politically correct methodology:
Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
This secular prophetic methodology (or what Haykel cheekily labels the “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition”) is one that minimizes religious difference, seeing all religion as equally subjective, sentimental, and good.
Adherents adopt a cotton-candy view of all religions, willing it to be true that they are like so many kaleidoscopic shards, radiating the humanistic beauty of the Golden Rule and John Locke’s no-harm principle. This farce is on shameful display whenever its messengers engage in their religious-blame balancing act, claiming that violence done by religious persons is shared by all religions equally or cannot be ascribed to the beliefs of any particular religious group. All religions are equally valid, they say, overlooking the actual lives of the prophetic claimants and the boldness of their prophetic claims.
In the face of ISIS, some see this secular myth of religions’ equality as our only hope of peace. But in the end it offers no such thing—not just because its anthropocentric individualism tends towards demographic decline, but for a more fundamental reason. The secular West may have banished God to the realm of the subjective and the sentimental, but the hearts of mortal men will always yearn for God’s return to objectivity—for a prophet, and more than a prophet—for God with us.
What the world really wants is given only by one—the one who was spurned and rejected, the one who loved unto death, the one whose grave is empty and whose name still echoes on Libyan shores—the “Lord Jesus Christ.”
Image: Gala Medina, Lifeguard’s chair
Dominicana Blog is happy to offer this audio recording of “St. Francis of Assisi: The Poor and Happy Way of the Cross.” It is the first installment of a four-part series of Lenten Conferences, given at the Dominican House of Studies.
During Lent, we look to the cross that was wielded by Christ, especially through the eyes of four different saints in this Year of Consecrated Life. St. Teresa of Avila once remarked that the cross is the gift that Christ gives to his friends. These four witnesses – St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine de Ricci, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, and St. John of the Cross – were certainly friends of God. They were saints, and each of was given the gift of following the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in his or her own way. Their lives are four paths that ultimately converged on the cross.
The conferences are open to the public, and they will be offered at the Dominican House of Studies every Wednesday in March, starting at 8 p.m.
Image: Giotto, St. Francis
Think of your home state. Most likely there is some “attraction” which would make it into a Rick Steves’ America but to which you as a “local” have never made a trip. Maybe this place is so familiar by site–a national hall-of-fame or historic landmark–that you even feel as if you know the place well enough. You probably even have some opinions about the place or directives you offer to visitors. And your ideas might even possess some accuracy and truth! But honestly, how well is your view informed? Is it open to be surpassed by a wider truth?
Having passed the National Shrine of St. John Paul II in Northeast Washington, DC, several times, I had formed my own pre-conceptions. Too modern in appearance and non-churchy to help this friar! Providentially, a break from classes and some good reviews of the new exhibit inside on the life of the saintly Pole prompted me to see what the interior held in store. Making a pilgrimage would give me the chance to honor a man with an evident devotion to the supreme Truth–God–and whose Christian witness has always inspired me. Here follows an overview and short reflection about a free local resource which should impress and enlighten anyone on a similar “school break.”
The JPII Shrine’s impressive downstairs exhibit contains nine galleries, complete with well-selected video footage, insightful quotes and testimonies, personal artifacts and manuscripts, numerous (maybe too many) voice-overs, and cool interactive technology for the kids. The exhibit will lead you through Karol Wojtyla’s life from his pious Polish childhood to his college and seminary years during the Nazi occupation, to his days as a young, mountaineering philosopher-priest.
Aspects of his deep and far-reaching thought are woven into the exhibit. These include his passion for the beauty of nature, his reverence for the dignity of the human person, and his promotion of solidarity among peoples. This was all driven by his deep friendship with Jesus Christ, “who reveals man to himself,” as John Paul loved to echo the phrase of Vatican II. Other parts of the display include John Paul’s participation in the Council, his papal inauguration, and the overwhelming number of journeys, meetings with world dignitaries, and exhortations to believers and nonbelievers which he made in the shoes of the Fisherman of Galilee.
The exhibit ends with a striking admission—spoiler alert!—that this man, who witnessed and lived so completely for Christ and did so much to make use of his remarkable talents, would end his life in the most humble circumstances. With the advance of Parkinson’s disease he could no longer move as he once did, with the strength, confidence, and finesse of a movie star. Nor was he even able to speak those words which welled up in his mystical and pastoral heart. In his helplessness he would witness first-hand to the power of suffering, which can purify and save men and women, who all too often find value only in what they’re able to do rather than who they are.
Here was a man whose commitment to truth did not cause him to despair at every injustice or difficulty he encountered. Rather, he exuded a patience, steadiness, and vision that could only be had from learning and adapting God’s own point of view. This outlook into Truth came as part of St. John Paul II’s personal conformity to the Truth-made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. This led him to a deep level of Christian discipleship which appeared in him to be the most natural and freeing commitment a person could make.
This transformation in Truth is something we all must undergo (gung-ho Dominican student brothers included!) if we are to discover the profound meaning of our existence. The end of the exhibit gives us some direction as to how to reach this level of freedom: the Rosary and the Eucharist. First, the exhibit contains a room with beautiful mosaics expressing the Mysteries of Light, introduced by John Paul to supplement his favorite devotion to Mary. In these Rosary meditations based on the ministry of Jesus, we receive glimpses of how Christ initiates our own elevation as beloved sons and daughters of God.
The second “help” offered here towards our spiritual transformation is the Holy Eucharist. This Sacrament defined our Saint’s life from his childhood, and it became the foundation of his priesthood. (Notably, the upstairs level of the Shrine includes a chapel where Mass is said daily and the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for silent prayer.) John Paul was known to have spent the first hours of each day in worship and silent contemplation of the Holy Eucharist. Once in the habit of gazing upon the consecrated Host and receiving the True Presence in Communion, how could any of us not be changed? How could we not be illumined by the same Jesus who brings life and light to the human race (Jn 1)?
I end with a story of John Paul that inspires me to more deeply invest myself in these privileged gifts we have as Catholics–one more hint from the Pope who spent his life to assist our transformation in truth. To catch his meaning, you might have to whisper it aloud: When Pope John Paul was once asked why he woke up so early each morning, he responded simply with a knowing twinkle in his eye, “I like to see the sun rise.” May a visit to this Shrine provide you with a similar orientation.
Image: St. John Paul II