Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
Surfers and Pharisees—what could they possibly have in common?
Maybe they’re not so dissimilar. Just as Pharisees jockeyed for positions of power in the synagogues, surfers can be fiercely territorial of their local spots. Gossip over so-and-so’s reputation has its place in both Jerusalem and Oahu. Like surfers, Pharisees are also more interested in interpreting the weather than the Spirit, as Jesus reminded them: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk 12:56).
Sometimes Pharisees can behave like stereotypical surfers. After the Ascension, when the apostles are arrested for preaching in the Temple (Acts 5:17ff.) a Pharisee named Gamaliel—the teacher of St. Paul—raises his voice and talks the council down from condemning them. I paraphrase: “Whoa guys… they’re not hurting anyone. Let’s just leave them alone and see what happens, okay?”
Despite these similarities I’d like to point out a difference between the two. Pharisees, when before the face of God, fought desperately to maintain control, to play God in their lives. Given the gift of the covenant, they packaged it as a recipe for holiness with all their rules and regulations. This is why Jesus calls these weathermen “hypocrites”: they were given the gifts of God but they did not know how to interpret them. They were shown love and mercy, but they did not show the same to others.
Those who witnessed firsthand the words and deeds of Jesus should have realized deep down, “I cannot be God anymore.” This response is one of humility, which is precisely the fruit that surfing bestows. Look up “big wave surfing” if you need proof of this. On shore, surfers might be as selfish and egotistical as adolescents, but in the water they become as happy as children. The unique joy on their faces cannot be found anywhere else in the sporting world. For surfing is not a game, not something you set out to win by defeating an opponent: it is a gift or, on a particularly good day, a whole set of gifts to be enjoyed. In the world of water no one is a Creator, one is merely a cooperator with what God happens to stir up and send to the patient and persevering. Against the modern cult of control and technological manipulation, surfing remains a reversion to those happier days of man at play in the world.
Yet are not non-surfing critics right in saying that too great an interest in riding waves borders on nature worship? Don’t all its adherents turn into doped-out, pacifist surfer “bros” with little to contribute to society? First-century Palestine might have rejected and killed the Christ, but in twenty-first-century Malibu he would have been merely ignored and mildly tolerated.
While stereotypes have some truth, they often miss the mark. Perhaps the most unrecognized aspect of surfing is that it’s difficult. Surfers might incline towards pacifism and the Pacific, but they are by no means passive! It takes years to learn and continued commitment to stay in “paddling shape.” And if you hang around surfers long enough, you’ll soon realize they’re comprised of more than just community college dropouts. I have known doctors, lawyers, college professors, IT technicians, dads and their kids, and even Catholic priests who set the alarm to 4 a.m. when good surf is forecasted. Just this past week tropical storm Andrea brought waves to the East Coast, and at New York’s Rockaway Beach men of all trades were out at dawn catching waves, only to return after a few hours to rebuilding their houses still damaged from last year’s hurricane. Others even use surfing as a platform for mission work and spreading the Gospel.
Surfing doesn’t have to become a spirituality of its own. It is a form of leisure, and one that instills much humility and joy, creating an openness to God the maker and giver of waves and weather. “Waves without create waves of wonder within,” says philosopher and surfer Peter Kreeft. It’s no wonder that Gamaliel’s finest student became the great St. Paul, apostle to the nations. If more had studied at the feet of this first-century surfer of sorts, maybe, just maybe they would have been more inclined to recognize the Lord Jesus, that great and perfect “wave” that was arriving and breaking upon the world.
Image: Surfing on Cortes Bank outside of San Diego, California
Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, once allegedly claimed that, with a fixed point and a long enough lever, he could lift the world. Whether one interprets his confidence as ridiculous, haughty, or mathematically tenable, the proposal has succeeded in capturing the minds of many. In college, I had a professor constantly in search of what he termed an “Archimedic point,” that is, a place of fixity from whence a problem under consideration could be most adequately assessed.
The intuition, though simple, is profound: in an environment of seemingly constant flux, evolving principles, and passing trends, the pursuit of certainty can seem empty and nigh unto farcical. We’re in search of a stable ground that seems only as real as the cosmic fixed point for which Archimedes sought.
In an attempt to concretize what may seem to be an empty musing, perhaps an example will help. I recently saw a play entitled The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnar (1910). The main plotline was something of a Chestertonian thought experiment with a tragic twist: two young actors, married six months, have begun to vex each other to no end. Still madly in love and yet fearful that his bride will leave him, the husband devises to play the most brilliant role of his career: that of his wife’s next love. Two possibilities follow: either she resists his advances, and he can rest assured of her fidelity; or she acquiesces, and, though they must separate on account of her infidelity, at least he’ll have gained from her one honest kiss.
In three scenes, the play unfolds with delightful dialogue, tortured passion, comic relief, and a crescendo of tension to the final confrontation. The wife, having ultimately welcomed the suitor’s advances, awaits him at the couple’s Budapest apartment. In her suitor’s stead, her husband returns early from his engagement out of town and nonchalantly dons the suitor’s costume in the course of an otherwise typical chat with his bride. Rather than expressing her shock, contrition, or perhaps more appropriate rage, the wife is entirely unfazed. In the face of such unnerving placidity, the husband demands an explanation, and the wife replies that she knew all along. Yet neither he nor the audience is entirely convinced, and the play ends in a beautifully staged state of suspended ambiguity.
The play purposely leaves the audience to grapple with the question of whom to believe, but the staging and character development, with clear evidence of her mendaciousness and his deceitfulness, leave the question virtually insoluble. The audience is left to sift through its memory in an attempt to overturn what may potentially serve as an Archimedic point. A decision cannot be rendered—the proverbial earth cannot be lifted—without a place of fixity: a character witness, corroborating evidence, or a dependable vantage point.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I argue that the play lacks an Archimedic point entirely. There is no objective answer to the question of the wife’s fidelity because the play has not even one truly moral character in whom the audience can place its trust. To render a judgment in such a situation is an act of faith, for it is to accept evidence of a thing unseen—namely the state of the wife’s cognition and her subsequent motivation—on the basis of someone’s testimony. To give such an assent requires that the person giving testimony is not only in contact with the reality about which he’s speaking but also that he is trustworthy. Such a character simply does not exist in The Guardsman.
In the Christian life, the things one seeks to know are of far greater import and plumb far more unsearchable depths than that of a woman’s heart. The object of the Christian faith is God Himself and His mysteries, and the knowledge thereof affords more than mere piece of mind on the Metro ride home from the theater: this knowledge affords salvation itself.
Before such a proposal, man again finds himself in search of an Archimedic point: whom can we trust to render this truth about God penetrable to our minds? As St. Thomas wrote in the Adoro Te: “Truth himself speaks truly, else there’s nothing true.” The Christian receives knowledge of the highest truth through the Person and authority of God Himself. And so, for the Christian, in a world more akin to The Guardsman than we’re willing to admit, there is hope of true fixity and rootedness in adherence to Christ: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (The cross stands while the world turns).
Image: illustration of Archimedes, Mechanic’s Magazine, London, 1824
St. Anthony of Padua, affectionately known as the “Hammer of the Heretics,” had a similar background and character to that of his contemporary, St. Dominic. Both friars came from a noble family, had an early desire to live religious life, and each forswore his wealth and status to follow Jesus more fully. Both Dominic and Anthony spent much of their time preaching to the Cathar heretics. Men recognized for their brilliance, they desired to preach for the salvation of souls. Although quite learned, the humility of both men often shone more brightly than their learning. So desirous to enter into a life of penance and prayer was St. Anthony that it seems his brethren assumed him to be of simple mind and only able to pray the breviary and Missal, despite his noble blood and powerful skill in learning and memory.
One account of the saint’s life relates a tale of an ordination of some Franciscan and Dominican friars both, and at the gathering of the brethren the superiors desired that someone be designated to preach. Although the superiors had approached the Dominicans first, all of them declined claiming not to have anything prepared. They then appointed St. Anthony to preach. Much to the surprise of all, since he had never before displayed his brilliance, he delivered a most astounding homily full of erudition and sublime doctrine. It was upon this occasion that his public career began.
St. Anthony’s iconography often depicts him carrying the Christ child. Though this is a popular legend with no certified documentation, we can draw several spiritual points in meditating on this figure. One powerful point is the love and tenderness with which St. Anthony gazes upon the little Jesus, holding Him close to his person. Like Mary who “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19), St. Anthony treasured the Word of God made flesh and carried Him with him no matter where he went. And as Paul says in today’s reading from the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Anthony gazed “with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord” and was “transformed into the same image [of Christ Jesus] from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Our witness of this is the example of St. Anthony’s life. His sanctity was evident to all and his teachings important for the doctrine of the Church, hence his being named a Doctor of the Church.
Finally, St. Anthony kept Jesus’ Eucharistic body close to his heart. Strengthened and encouraged by his love for the Eucharist, evident in that frequently depicted vision of the loving look between the Saint and the child Jesus, St. Anthony strove to be a “slave for the sake of Jesus.” He sought to proclaim the power and mystery of the Eucharist and serve God among the heretics as one who was “sent,” an apostle. In both frequency and intensity St. Anthony loved, received, and proclaimed the Eucharist.
We may wonder at the zeal that consumed St. Anthony to proclaim the truth of Christ Jesus among the dangerous heretics, but it is no wonder that his zeal and authentic love for and service to Jesus have remained as a legacy behind him, earning him the title of thaumaturge, wonder-worker. St. Anthony, holy friar, Hammer of the Heretics, pray for us.
Image: Paolo Veronese, St. Anthony Preaching to the Fish
Oscars rarely go to movies released during the summer. Movies that make their debut during these hot months are generally not known for intricate plots, sophisticated character development, or penetrating moral analysis of today’s culture. Just as students take a break from the academic year, so too moviegoers take a break from artistic viewing and relax with a thriller, adventure film, or action flick. One of my favorites is the 1995 comic classic Judge Dredd.
The Catholic News Service’s Movie Review Office offers a decent summary of the film:
“Judge Dredd – In a chaotic future society where magistrates have the power to execute felons on the spot, an uncompromising judge (Sylvester Stallone) is framed for murder by a homicidal maniac (Armand Assante) long thought dead.”
As you can see, we have here all the ingredients for a fine summer movie. Of course, before viewing one should see what rating the Movie Review Office gives the film. In this case we find:
“Much mindless murder and mayhem, a twisted sense of law enforcement and a few instances of profanity. O (R)”
O? In case one is unfamiliar with the Catholic Media Ratings, O stands for “morally offensive,” the most serious category and a basic prohibition on viewing said movie. This rating is usually reserved for extremely violent, sexually explicit, and profanity laden films. Think Saw I-IV, or whatever that series is up to these days. How in the world can Judge Dredd, a campy movie based on a popular comic book, containing no nudity or sexual reference and an amount of profanity that one can count on five fingers, receive a moral prohibition as extreme as this?
When questions of this sort arise many people turn to Wikipedia or a Google search, but I turn to the Angelic Doctor. Does St. Thomas have anything that can help sort out this confusion? Of course he does.
In ST I-II, 95, 1 St. Thomas asks whether it is useful for laws to be framed by men. In the second objection he offers Aristotle’s insight in his Ethics that “it would be better for the execution of justice to be entrusted to the decision of judges, than to frame laws in addition.” In his reply St. Thomas refutes this claim, again with Aristotle, for three reasons. First, because it is easier to find a few men able to frame right laws than leave judgment to many individuals. Second, because framed laws can be more universal. Third, because individual judges can be affected by “love, hatred, or some kind of cupidity; wherefore their judgment is perverted.”
So St. Thomas’ problem with Judge Dredd would seem to be its lack of understanding the best way to craft correct laws. But the ardent Judge Dredd supporter might retort: “Sure, but the judges are not meant to craft laws, they are meant to carry out the Law itself. The problem is not with judges per se, but with corrupt judges.”
This leads us to the second reason I think St. Thomas would be opposed to the movie. In ST I-II, 96, 2, St. Thomas asks whether it belongs to human law to repress all vices. An affirmative answer is clearly the premise of the movie—judges enforce an extremely strict moral code. To give an example, a computer hacker named Ferguson who has just been released from prison breaks into a food machine to hide from a street fight. This interchange ensues after Judge Dredd finds Ferguson and sentences him to five years in prison:
Ferguson: Five years? No! No! I had no choice. They were killing each other in there!
Dredd: You could have gone out the window.
Ferguson: Forty floors? It would have been suicide!
Dredd: Maybe, but it’s legal.
This kind of discourse follows pretty easily from the second objection in ST, I-II, 96, 2: “The intention of the lawgiver is to make the citizens virtuous. But man cannot be virtuous unless he forbears from all kinds of vice. Therefore it belongs to human law to repress all vices.”
St. Thomas answers this objection with the following:
“The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.”
Human law must take into account the subjects it seeks to direct and St. Thomas, following St. Augustine, realizes that human law cannot lay too heavy a burden upon imperfect men lest they despair of reform and moral development. This lack of understanding of human law, at least from a Thomistic perspective, may be called morally offensive. The movie portrays a dangerous view of law that would in the end (as it does in the movie) lead to more violence and criminal behavior.
Judge Dredd may be zealous in his prosecution of an extreme form of Law, but zeal cannot change the morally offensive character of that Law.
Image: Karl Urban in Dredd (2012)
Discerning a vocation is a daunting yet necessary component of being human. And yet, the rhetoric which governs many conversations pertaining to vocational discernment betrays a certain fear of choice and anxiety about the results. Perhaps you’ve participated in conversations containing such standards as these:
“I think I’m called to marriage, but I’m not sure.”
“Maybe I’m supposed to be a priest, but I don’t know whether to go diocesan or religious.”
“If religious, then which order?”
“But how do I know if I’m called to that?”
We’re all out to make the “right” decision, and we’re not at a lack for good options; yet, the plunge remains to be taken. In its stead, one finds paralysis. A number of really impressive young people are profoundly uncertain of what to do and what God might want them to do. Raw voluntarism is one option, but not a consoling one. This could be called the “Nike approach.” The slogan ‘just do it’ is a helpful corrective that could get you started down a particular road. Perhaps once you’re there (in a relationship, in the seminary, etc.), things would sort themselves out as you found happiness or unhappiness in the chosen path. However, this seems insufficient, and a little too close to roulette or Pelagianism.
I suspect that at least one facet of the problem is this: that we’re all Cartesian discerners. It is not our fault- we didn’t choose to be born in an era very much affected by the thought of this particular seventeenth-century French philosopher—but it is our problem. Descartes began the task of rational thought from a stance of radical doubt: “But now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt.”
Descartes wanted certainty at any cost. To put it briefly, he located the real (what philosophy is concerned with) in the mind, and not in the rocks, walruses, and hummingbirds outside our minds. He did not deem trustworthy anything we perceived with our senses in the external world. Our appropriation of this mindset in the realm of discernment could take the form of a syllogism like this: I want to know God’s will for my life. Knowing God’s will requires praying in the chapel alone, still, silent, and with my eyes closed. Therefore, my vocation will arrive in this scheduled time of silent prayer.
Just as a caveat, don’t think that I’m criticizing silent prayer; I’m not. I’m simply saying this is not the only way of praying. The Catholic tradition is broad enough to include the shockingly physical nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic. This method of prayer has been meditated on by Vladimir Koukelka, O.P., and beautifully translated by my confrere Br. Pier Giorgio in the most recent edition of Dominicana Journal. We do happen to live, as I indicated above, in a very introspective age. It might be better to get out of our heads (though God is certainly present even in that dark, scary place) and into the external world. Take a second look at something in the world around you. We were trained from youth to take in an enormous amount of information quickly and process it all: articles, images, audio clips, sensations, etc. As a little exercise, try taking a long, hard, possibly even boring look at something outside. Keep looking at it until it appears slightly different from when you first looked at it. Then you’ll have a better idea of how the ancients thought about thinking: they didn’t think about their own thought the way Descartes got us to do; they thought about things out there. Wonder might even be reawakened. That is a way of looking at the world recommended by such diverse characters as Aristotle, Jesus, G.K. Chesterton, and Luigi Giussani.
The first of those four characters defined prudence as “right reason in action.” And it is necessary to be prudent in order to discern a vocation. However, there is the “action” part of ‘right reason in action.’ Sure, there are doubts, but if you wait around in your head too long, you might miss something that’s been right in front of you the whole time.
Image: Caravaggio, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew
In the film Jeremiah Johnson, a Civil War veteran decides to begin his life anew on the American frontier, braving the elements as a real mountain man. What’s interesting is that in many ways his story parallels that of St. Antony of the Desert, the fourth-century founder of monasticism.
Things don’t begin easily for Jeremiah Johnson. This ex-soldier’s first season of trapping and hunting yields meager results, and his first winter in the wilderness finds him without stable shelter or sufficient clothing. Running low on food, Jeremiah Johnson encounters an elder woodsman who teaches him how to hunt and trap. Over the years Jeremiah masters these arts, trapping game ranging from deer to grizzly bears. Having settled on a piece of land in one area of the mountains, he accidentally encroaches on the territory of Apache and Crow natives, and is soon engaged in a constant struggle with the Indian warriors over land and hunting rights. Through these tribulations, it is his drive to survive and his ability to withstand any of the obstacles that sustains him. His fortitude was no occasional exercise, but rather a consistent part of his character.
When we use the word courage or fortitude today, what we usually mean is a form of strength deployed when fighting against imposing obstacles. The fortitude of Jeremiah, for example, finds expression in his desire to survive against the threats of beasts and warrior natives who endanger his life.
Self-preservation, however, is not the best way to define fortitude. Fortitude does indeed involve enduring obstacles, yet it also includes some positive object to be obtained over and beyond this endurance. It is not just fighting against something, but fighting for something. The Catechism states that fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of good (CCC 1808). Fortitude of the soul binds our will firmly to the goods of reason in the face of great evils. It enables us to conquer even the fear of death, so that we can renounce or sacrifice our lives for the sake of a just or higher cause.
St. Antony of the Desert is an exemplar of this true fortitude. Although he wasn’t killed as a martyr, St. Antony endured innumerable trials throughout his life for the sake of receiving the ultimate good of the kingdom of heaven. Selling his possessions at age twenty, he set out for the Egyptian desert to live as a hermit. The life St. Antony chose was not easy: battered from the attacks of harsh climate, hunger, and demonic visitors, he withstood his natural and supernatural foes to the very end of his life. St. Antony relied not merely on his own resolve as the source of his fortitude, but always prayed and worked that his will and intent be perfected by grace and that his life be an imitation of Christ’s life on earth.
Jeremiah Johnson may have shot bears and grappled Apache warriors, but St. Antony could say to his demonic foes: “If any of you have authority over me, then let it be so; otherwise why come in such great numbers when one is sufficient to fight me?” Known as the father of monks and one of the greatest desert fathers, St. Antony can rightly say with St. Paul:
As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left . . . We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor 6:4-10)
From this perspective the Christian life appears a daunting task with a seemingly far-away goal in heaven. Our Lord warned us of the trials we would face in this life; anyone who thinks this life is easy needs to re-count the cost. But our fortitude, like our hope, is not grounded solely in our own efforts. Christ, who has won the victory over sin and death, offers us the grace to persevere and withstand any evils that we may face.
St. Thomas says that the courageous man delights in the good he will possess even as he knows this means facing various trials. Through the virtue of fortitude elevated by grace, modeled for us by St. Antony, let us take delight in the victory that comes from Christ’s cross and, by grace, belongs to us:
In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have conquered the world. (Jn 16:33)
Image: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Japanese war in Kagoshima
Every form of local patriotism is, to some degree, unintelligible to those who do not share it. Princeton University was my own little platoon, to borrow from Edmund Burke, and its particular methods and rhythms made a lasting impression on me. Just as Notre Dame football is more than just a collection of final scores, so too is Princeton much more than a set of courses, or a collection of buildings, for those who love it. The concept of ‘Princeton’ that lays claim to my loyalties and affections includes those particulars, but also involves a kind of spirit. This spirit is a set of attitudes, shared memories, and habits of mind and action that flow from association and fellowship with other Princetonians. It was reinforced in countless rituals, traditions, and routines that mark one’s time there. One such ritual was the singing of the Princeton alma mater, Old Nassau:
Tune ev’ry heart and ev’ry voice,
Bid ev’ry care withdraw;
Let all with one accord rejoice,
In praise of Old Nassau.
In praise of Old Nassau, we sing,
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Our hearts will give, while we shall live,
Three cheers for Old Nassau.
One of the qualities that drew me to Princeton was seeing the obvious love for the place on the part of students and alumni. Singing the alma mater with gusto reflects the loyalty that the University inspires in her sons and daughters. From such varied backgrounds and with such differing goals, these men and women are brought together for a common enterprise of learning, in an atmosphere of fraternity. However ambitious they might individually be, each success adds luster to the whole. It was by no means perfect—fallen human nature has a nasty way of reasserting itself—but there is real, undoubted good in the place. Having someplace like that in one’s life—be it a high school or a hometown, a college or a local sports team—is an important part of human flourishing and happiness. They fulfill our desire to belong, to be part of something greater than ourselves.
At their best, such local patriotisms direct us towards a higher reality, which they reflect by analogy. The human esprit de corps of my fellow Tigers points toward the altogether deeper, spiritual union found in the Church. As St. Paul observes in I Corinthians 12, out of many parts, with differing gifts and abilities, there is one body. This Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, is more than just the perfection of natural virtues like friendship and knowledge. Rather, it is the supernatural life of grace, wherein our love for one another flows from our love for God, and we attain wisdom far exceeding unaided reason.
If the singing of our school song can inspire such powerful sentiments of unity and friendship, how much more does singing the Lord’s praises in worship signify our deeper union and friendship with Him? If the University is impressive for marshaling varied personalities and competing agendas for a common purpose, how much more do we see the Holy Spirit at work in using the most flawed instruments to achieve incredible things? This does not mean that love for Princeton or other places has no merit; to the contrary, as long as it is ordered to its final end, this loyalty can prepare and form one for even higher loves and loyalties. After all, being a good Princetonian is helpful, but hardly sufficient, in the quest to be a saint.
So during this week of reunions and commencement, I will fondly remember the good old days at Old Nassau. But most of all, I will await the day when every heart and every voice is tuned to singing God’s praise, and all with one accord rejoice in the only name that can bid every care withdraw.
Image: Henri Rousseau, The Football Players
According to C.S. Lewis, Ronald Knox was “possibly the wittiest man in Europe.” But let’s not hold that against him. For one thing, he could hardly help it. For another, his wit was so understated, so self-effacing, so clearly aimed at pleasing rather than impressing, we can detect in it none of those offensive qualities which Americans typically associate with clever people. He comes across as entirely natural and unassuming, gracious and charitable.
Indeed, his leisurely, easygoing style, which more than a few in his day thought unsuitable in a clergyman, has induced some to regard him as ultimately superficial—a brilliant man whose charm got the better of him and who therefore never lived up to his full potential. In fact, however, the more one reads him the clearer it becomes that, underneath it all, Knox was both serious and deep. Perhaps this is what one of his contemporaries was driving at when he described him, somewhat unfairly, as “a sad little man with a wry smile.”
These contrasting qualities are certainly evident in Knox’s autobiographical work, A Spiritual Aeneid, in which he recounts his journey from Anglicanism (first evangelical then tractarian) to the Church. Knox, it seems, had a horror of taking himself seriously, and so he delights in sketching the course of his religious development by means of amusing little vignettes, such as this scene from his childhood:
One or two boys at school were Catholics; it never occurred to the rest of us to be interested in their beliefs. But I remember once hearing one of them taunted (in a fit of anger) with being a Papist; I remember, too, quite distinctly the sense of embarrassment and horror with which we turned on the railer and kicked him, by way of inculcating manners. There was no question of tolerance; we were simply in an agony of good breeding.
Then there are the occasional, unexpected volleys of satire, such as this, on biblical criticism:
I wrote an examination of Schweitzer’s assumptions in the form of a pamphlet which I had been asked to write for a series; it was not accepted, being probably badly written as well as over-orthodox. But my doubts about the Higher Criticism were redoubled, I fell into a horrible skepticism, in which at times I lost all lively faith in the existence of Q.
As the book proceeds, however, the attentive reader begins to realize how serious Knox was, as well as how much he gave up, humanly speaking, in order to enter the Church. We also realize what a prodigious work ethic he had—of course, one would expect as much from a man who single-handedly translated the entire Bible—and this is all the more notable for not having dulled his sense of humor. But most impressive of all, perhaps, is the humility with which he became Catholic, and the gratitude he showed toward both Anglicans and the Church once he had become Catholic.
It would have been easy for someone of Knox’s social and intellectual standing to see himself as a gift to English Catholicism and, indeed, to the Church at large—to assume the grand role of Defender of the Faith in a Protestant country. But, while he certainly appreciated the chance to work for an unpopular cause, and even regarded the number and variety of the Church’s enemies as evidence of her divine founding, he also believed that a militant or controversial attitude was entirely out of place in a person moving toward conversion. He writes,
It is wrong to join the Church because the Church seems to you to lack support which you can give. You must come, not as a partisan or as a champion, but as a suppliant for the needs in your own life which only the Church can supply—the ordinary, daily needs, litus innocuum, et cunctis auramque undamque patentem.
Upon entering the Church, Knox was pleasantly surprised to find life within its walls more liberating and, as it were, more spacious than life had been outside. Something of this feeling is captured in the Latin phrase just quoted, taken from Book VII of the Aeneid. What Aeneas and his companions had sought on their journey, Knox found in the Church: “a friendly shore, with water and air free for all.”
Image: Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888–1957)
Earlier in Dominicana’s ongoing series about the U.S. monasteries of Dominican Nuns, I profiled the first monastery dedicated to Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Newark, New Jersey. We will now consider Nuns of the Order of Preachers who are dedicated to the Perpetual Rosary. Just as the monasteries dedicated to perpetual adoration were founded to offer constant worship of Our Lord present in the Eucharist, so these monasteries were founded to pray the rosary day and night without ceasing, constantly invoking the intercession of the Blessed Mother for the Order and the whole world.
Like their sisters dedicated to perpetual adoration, the nuns of the perpetual rosary have their roots in France, and then in New Jersey on these shores. Again we go back to the latter half of the 19th century in France amidst a Catholic climate still emerging from the devastation of the French revolution, which saw the closure of so many monasteries and an exodus of religious communities of men and women. The re-establishment of the Dominican Order in France, under the visionary leadership of Fr. Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, O.P., signaled a rebirth in all forms of Dominican life, and demonstrated once again the great power of St. Dominic’s intercession. In October of 1857, Mother Mary Agnes of Jesus and a group of sisters left the Dominican Monastery in Nay, France to found the Monastery of the Most Holy Rosary at Mauleon, which was to be the first cloister of strict observance after the revolution. By May 31st of the following year, the Perpetual Rosary Devotion was established in the monastery by Fr. Marie-Augustin Chardon, O.P. The observance of the perpetual rosary consisted of two nuns praying the rosary at all times—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—becoming a sort of guard of honor for the Blessed Mother, attending always to her intentions and desires for the salvation of her children throughout the world. These cloistered Dominican women formed part of the Second Order, which serves as a source of constant prayer and support for the preaching of the First Order of friars. The observances of the Second Order nuns at that time included rigorous fasts, breaking sleep to rise and pray vigil prayers in the middle of the night, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. After a number of years, this proved too taxing on the health of nuns, and the perpetual rosary had to be suspended.
Yet, this movement of the Holy Spirit in the Dominican Order was to not be forgotten. Perhaps the idea’s time was not quite at hand, for it was only in 1858 that Our Lady would appear to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, creating a popular pilgrimage destination and rekindling devotion to the rosary. Fr. Ambroise-Marie Potton, O.P., conceived the idea of founding a group of cloistered Third Order sisters who would pray the perpetual rosary as the core of their observance. The Third Order of the Dominican family consists of active sisters as well as groups of lay tertiaries and priests. One notable sister of the Third Order was St. Catherine of Siena, a virgin who entered a Dominican association of widows called the Mantellate. By changing the perpetual rosary idea into a Third Order apostolate for women, this would relieve the sisters of the stricter observances required by the Second Order nuns, and preserve their energies for the observance of the perpetual rosary. The Dominican friar who would fulfill this dream of Fr. Potton was Fr. Damien Marie Saintourens, O.P.
Fr. Damien Marie Saintourens was born in 1835 at Marmande, France, and ordained a diocesan priest at the age of 25. He was drawn to the revived Order of Preachers, and was accepted as a friar in 1868. In 1875, Fr. Damien Marie was appointed Director of the Perpetual Rosary by the provincial in Lille, France. This apostolate consisted in itinerant preaching and promotion of the Holy Rosary. The laity would pledge to take part in the perpetual rosary themselves by enrolling in this confraternity whose members would pray the rosary for an hour each month, creating an unbroken chain of prayer to the Blessed Mother. Fr. Damien Marie deeply desired to establish monasteries dedicated to the perpetual rosary. He wrote to the Dominican Curia in Rome and received strong support. One story passed down through the decades by the nuns of Camden, New Jersey, is that Fr. Damien Marie received special permission to spend the night of April 20, 1876 in prayer at the famed grotto of Lourdes. There, while praying for the successful establishment of monasteries to act as an honor guard for Our Lady, it is said that Mary appeared to him, assuring him that his request would be granted and sharing several secrets that he said would only be revealed in heaven.
So in 1876, while preaching in southern France, Fr. Damien Marie visited the monastery in Mauleon and asked to speak with the prioress about his project. The prioress suggested Sr. Rose of St. Mary as a possible associate in this work. Providentially, at the age of 15, Sr. Rose had been thinking about a religious vocation when she heard Fr. Potton preach a Lenten mission at her home parish in Belfort, France, eventually entering the monastery at Mauleon in May of 1865 at the age of 19. If she accepted this request of her superiors to help establish this work, Sr. Rose would have to leave the Second Order and begin a new life as a Third Order sister. In the meantime, she was sent to Arles in Provence, France, in 1878 to help found a new Second Order monastery.
Meanwhile, Fr. Damien Marie was still hard at work to bring his vision into reality. In 1880, the prior provincial of the Paris province of Dominicans approved the establishment of the first convent by Fr. Damien Marie. Several postulants came to Calais to begin a period of formation in the ways of the Third Order under some Dominican Sisters there, and after several months they received the habit from Fr. Damien Marie. As anti-clerical and anti-religious sentiment rose once more in France, Fr. Damien Marie secured land for a new foundation in the village of Bonsecours de Peruwelz just across the border in Belgium. In November 1880, the now-Mother Rose of St. Mary left Arles to lead the new novices from Calais to their new home in Belgium.
It was at Bonsecours, in August 1881, that Mary Collin entered and took the name Sr. Mary of Jesus—a future foundress of the Perpetual Rosary Sisters in America. In the following year, Fr. Damien Marie received official affiliation for the Bonsecours foundation with Dominican Order from the Master, Fr. Joseph Marie Larroca, O.P. The community flourished, and with an abundance of vocations, the perpetual rosary continued without interruption as the monastery grew.
At the same time, Fr. Damien Marie was sent to North America as the Promoter of the Rosary, crisscrossing the continent preaching missions and retreats. As he did in France, Fr. Damien Marie established confraternities of laity who pledged to join the perpetual rosary for an hour and become part of Mary’s guard. Making connections across the U.S., Fr. Damien Marie received approval from Bishop Winand Wigger of Newark, New Jersey, to establish the first American Perpetual Rosary Monastery in West Hoboken, which is now called Union City.
With the growth of Bonsecours de Peruwelz, the sisters were able to send nuns to Fr. Damien Marie in December 1891. With the help of Sr. Juliana, an extern sister from Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx, and Mother Mary Emmanuel of St. Dominic’s Monastery, the fledgling community developed in earnest. Soon enough, the first American postulants (Catherine Fitch and Elizabeth Mannion) received the habit in 1892, under the watchful eye of Mother Rose of St. Mary, who had journeyed from France. Just five years later, the prospering community was able to establish its own daughter foundation in Milwaukee, followed by yet another in Catonsville, Maryland in 1899 and Camden, New Jersey in 1900. This last monastery, Perpetual Rosary, was the place where Fr. Damien Marie lived out his days as chaplain until his death in 1920, aged 85.
From modest beginnings, the monasteries of the perpetual rosary flourished—just as the Blessed Mother is said to have promised Fr. Damien Marie. From Union City, still more foundations (Linden, Virginia; Buffalo, New York; and Summit, New Jersey) were established in the ensuing years. From all the daughter monasteries of Union City came forth even more granddaughters: Syracuse and Elmira, New York; Springfield, Massachusetts; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Marbury, Alabama. The New World even began to establish monasteries in the Old: in Rome, Glasgow, and Fatima.
After the Second Vatican Council, with the reform of religious life in all the Orders, an old division was at last overcome: the monasteries of the perpetual rosary became full-fledged members of the Second Order, bringing full circle the story begun by Fr. Chardon. In spite of all the trials they have faced over the years, the nuns of the perpetual rosary continue to be a source of incredible spiritual riches for the Order of Preachers, and for the whole Church. These faithful sisters make a worthy guard of honor for Our Blessed Mother, just as Fr. Damien Marie Saintourens sought 143 years ago.
Image: Theornamentalist, The Blue Chapel in Union City, New Jersey
On the campus of Providence College in Rhode Island stands a bronze statue of St. Martin de Porres by the Dominican sculptor Fr. Thomas McGlynn. The statue captures the essence of the saintly Dominican cooperator brother with simplicity and realism. It is faithful to the reality of St. Martin, the embodiment of humility and piety, in every way except one: it stands at a towering 7’4”.
Saint Martin de Porres was born out of wedlock in Lima, Peru, in 1579 of a Spanish nobleman and a free black woman from Panama. His devotion, docility, and sanctity more than overcame the prejudices and poverty that his circumstances dealt him, including an early exit by his father who abandoned Martin, his mother, and his sister. Apprenticed to a barber-surgeon at age 12, he later joined the Dominicans in Lima and, as a cooperator brother, served both his religious community and the city itself in many important posts (from practical manager to spiritual director) throughout his life. Many astounding miracles were attributed to him including bilocation and miraculous cures. Yet he was surely never in danger of being thought to be seven feet tall—Paul Bunyan he was not.
Examining the lives of saints, particularly those known as “miracle workers” such as St. Martin de Porres or St. Pio of Pietrelcina (“Padre Pio”), one might be tempted to immediately dismiss the deeds attributed to them as “tall tales.” The reality, however, is that miracles do occur and are “tall” only insofar as they stretch our faith, inviting it to grow.
One of the distinctively “Catholic” signs of devotion is the keeping and veneration of relics of the saints which act as a reminder that these holy people are not simply fairy tale characters, but that they did in fact live as truly as you or I. Pieces of bone, drops of blood, or even a scrap of clothing forge direct links to these saints far better than even the most realistic statue. Beyond the corporeal connection, relics can even be associated with miracles here and now. While it is always God who is behind the miracles associated with the saints (and their relics), the very tangible reality of these holy men and women should inspire great confidence in God’s great love for us and help us to place complete faith in Him.
The saints are signs of our faith alive throughout history and active beyond the pages of the Bible. They are helps for the skeptical, who are tempted to compare the mysteries of our faith with the myths and fables which belong to every culture, including ours. Relics reveal the difference between the miracles of St. Martin de Porres and the colorful tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
If you have real trouble distinguishing the two, if your faith is truly lacking, perhaps you should take a close look at a relic in your church. Get to know something about the saint from whom it came. Perhaps even seek out someone who has himself experienced a confirmed miracle, such as Anthony Fuina of New York, Sharon Smith from Syracuse, or Jake Finkbonner from Ferndale, Washington. People seem to have no trouble believing that extraordinary things are acts of God as long as they are “bad” (earthquakes and other natural disasters, for example, or sudden tragic deaths of loved ones), yet those very same individuals are all too quick to dismiss miraculous cures or happenings as “freaks of nature” or “unexplained irregularities” without any attempt to reference God or any “higher power.”
Even if our obstinacy makes miracles more of a stumbling block to belief than a building block of faith, the saints help us by their example of real-life humility and devotion. Even if you cannot bring yourself to believe in St. Martin’s ability to miraculously appear at the bedside of sick novices and provide potent remedies for their sickness, you can try to strengthen your own faith by imitating his habit of diligent prayer, self-denial, and humility. Through such imitation of saints’ beliefs and lives of holiness, our own faith will be more easily oriented toward God, who calls us also to become saints and to enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven.
Image: Neuschwanstein Castle; Bavaria, Germany
“The bread of the needy is the life of the poor.” (Sir 34:21)
Food is a basic necessity of life. Without it we would die. However, many of us are privileged to have plenty of it. Procuring a home-cooked meal is rarely a matter of life and death in America. Yet for many people throughout the rest of the world it is. They do not always know when or from where their next meal will come, if it comes at all. In many countries there is a constant threat of malnourishment and starvation. It is for this reason that the book of Sirach equates the giving of bread with the giving of life to the poor and needy. Every piece of bread is another day of life.
But the poor and needy outstrip the merely physically poor. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta noted paradoxically “the poorest [nation] I have been to is America.” She explains that Americans suffer from a poverty of loneliness. I suspect this form of poverty extends beyond America; many developed countries in the West suffer from it. But what exactly is this loneliness? It is clearly expressed in our consumerism. We are never satisfied, sated or sufficiently pleased, no matter how much bread we have. We search for happiness and friendship, but often in all the wrong places.
Saint Augustine recognized this loneliness over a millennium and a half ago. He famously prayed to God, in his Confessions, “our heart is restless until it rests in you.” All of us are poor, restless, and needy. We may not starve physically, but we certainly starve spiritually if we do not seek our daily bread. As a poor person receives life with physical bread, so we receive spiritual life with our spiritual bread.
But what is this spiritual bread? Christ says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread he will live forever.” (Jn 6:51). This is the reason we celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi yesterday. Although we recall the mystery of the Eucharist at every liturgy, the feast uniquely refocuses our vision. It reminds us all of our poverty and neediness. Spiritually, we cannot live without the nourishment of Christ. And it is by being fed with the Word of God in both the Scriptures and in the Sacrament that we receive life. Without our Eucharistic bread we would starve.
But is there not too much focus on the Eucharist during this feast? It is common to see Eucharistic processions at many parishes. What are these processions all about? Why is it necessary to process in a circle with the priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament? Isn’t calling this importance of the sacrament to mind in the homily enough?
Perhaps an analogy or a parable can help. Take a man who has a wife and children and for whatever reason is not able to provide them food. The family would eventually starve to death. But suddenly the man gains access to a piece of bread large enough for his whole family. Upon returning home would he simply set it on the table and wait for everyone to come to realize it was there? Would he not rather run around the house, holding the bread in his hands above his head, waving the bread and shouting with joy, showing his family the prize he has found? He brought home life. How could he not rejoice? Likewise, how could we simply be content with keeping the Blessed Sacrament in a nice quiet little place in the Church and go on with our day? The Eucharist is our life. We are like the poor man who has found that life-saving loaf. Having found the Bread of Life, we process with the Blessed Sacrament, rejoicing at the reality that we have been given: the Bread of Life.
Image: Jeremy Irons; The Mission (1986)
When we’ve heard an astonishing and exhilarating piece of good news, we simply have to tell someone about it. Unable to contain our joy, we must share it with those around us, especially if we’re among the few who know it. Whether we find out about a new job, or an engagement, or the birth of a child, or even a sports victory, our joy is incomplete until we communicate the news and the joy to another person, particularly to someone close to us.
This happened to me during the recent papal election. Because I didn’t have class in the early afternoon, I watched the television news feed in the recreation room with two other brothers, my gaze fixed intently on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. After an hour, as day passed into night in Rome, white smoke finally emerged from the chimney. Once I was sure of the signal, I knew I had to tell everyone. “We have a pope!” I cried, and I went through the halls of the House of Studies, knocking on the doors of every classroom, spreading the good news. As everyone gathered to find out the identity of the new pope, we saw the dean of the College of Cardinals make a similar proclamation: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum!” (I announce to you a great joy!)
The news of a new Vicar of Christ is a great joy indeed. Yet, what if you had heard something even greater? What if you had heard about the coming of Christ Himself?
This is precisely what happened to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Right after the angel Gabriel told her of the coming of Christ within her, she “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste” (Lk 1:39) to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who had become pregnant after decades of childlessness. Mary’s journey to the hill country calls to mind the prophecy of Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news,
announcing peace, bearing good news,
announcing salvation, saying to Zion,
“Your God is king!” (52:7)
By visiting her kinswoman, Our Lady becomes the first to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, therefore, a model and patroness for all preachers. The mere presence of her divine Son causes the unborn John the Baptist to leap in his mother’s womb, and it causes Elizabeth to wonder, “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). Both are extraordinarily exuberant upon hearing these tidings. As Fr. Peter John Cameron describes the event in Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, “[Mary] makes her journey in order to generate in all people the union of love that she experiences with the Son in her womb. She brings to us the nearness of God made flesh.” As she brings the Good News to her relatives, Mary also bears the Word of salvation—that God is always with us—to the whole world.
This joyful sharing of the Good News is best exhibited in the words Mary spoke to Elizabeth—her Magnificat, which resounds throughout the universal Church every evening during Vespers. For centuries, countless believers have joined in her theme, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior,” giving glory to the God who lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and “has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” Mary’s song, as rendered by the evangelist Luke, draws from several hymns and psalms of the Old Testament, showing that the coming of Jesus Christ has indeed fulfilled “the promise He made to our fathers” (Lk 1:46–55).
By her Magnificat, Mary becomes the model not only for preachers, but for every Christian believer as well, for in her humility she makes known the presence and power of God. In the words of Venerable Fulton Sheen, “The more empty a soul is of self, the greater the room in it for God.”
As we finish this month of Mary with today’s Feast of the Visitation, let us look to Our Lady as an example and ask for her intercession, that, in all of our words and deeds, we may spread the message of salvation with joy, proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.
Image: Lewis Hine; Newark, New Jersey, 1909
Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now … He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
— From a short story by Flannery O’Connor
Growing up in Tennessee, one of my favorite Southern exclamations was the wonderfully endearing phrase, “Oh, bless your heart!”—always uttered, of course, in a mellifluous drawl. (Yes, such well-wishes are as pleasant to receive as you think they are.) Yet another interjection which I hear much less often since leaving Tennessee is the classically Southern “Lord, have mercy!” All too often these days, when God’s name is invoked in times of trial or stress, it is rarely to give Him glory or implore His mercy. Even in the genteel South, it seems somewhat odd that the standard reaction to a difficult situation should be an appeal to the blessings and mercy of God.
These two delightful phrases express a wish for the same thing—for how does God bless hearts if not by having mercy on them? Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, / whose sin is remitted (Ps 32:1). As Flannery O’Connor’s Mr. Head comes to realize, God loves in proportion as He forgives: the love and mercy of God are coterminous, they are two names for the same reality. When God forgives, it is an act of love; when He manifests His love for us despite our sins, it is an act of mercy. As the Psalmist famously wrote, the sinner begs forgiveness in the name of God’s merciful love and great compassion (Ps 51:3).
The grace of God’s mercy not only forgives our sins, but also humbles and transforms us. This is exactly what happens to Mr. Head after his most egregious offense:
He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair.
When we receive this grace which we do not—in fact, cannot—deserve, our lowliness is revealed to us, as is the boundless love of the One who forgives. This humbling effect of mercy saves us from despair. If the full extent of our sinfulness were revealed to us while still caught in pride’s snare, we would recognize our utter inability to overcome our sinfulness by our own powers (no man, after all, can absolve his own sin), but we would be like the proud Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel, incapable of calling out to the Lord for mercy (Lk 18:9–14). But thanks be to God, whose mercy endures forever! For the humility wrought in our hearts by His mercy “covers our pride like a flame and consumes it,” saves us from despair, and blesses our hearts with hope.
Image: T.C. Steele, Tennessee Scene
Today marks the 139th anniversary of the birth of G.K. Chesterton. To any typical person, even a Chesterton fan, this factoid would be fairly unremarkable. Instead of being shouted from the rooftops, it would instead rest deep within the bowels of a Wikipedia article. That is, in fact, where I found it.
Clearly, the writers of Wikipedia are not typical people. Neither, for that matter, was George Bernard Shaw, who was among Chesterton’s dearest friends while also being reputed his strongest adversary in debate. It might seem surprising that he would not have thought Chesterton’s 139th birthday to be worthy of note, but even more remarkable is his reasoning why. In declining to write on a certain anniversary of William Shakespeare, he argued: “I no longer celebrate my own birthday, and I do not see why I should celebrate his.”
It seems that Shaw’s objection to celebrating comes not from selfishness, but fairness. These dates are unremarkable in his case, why should they be remarkable for anyone else? Is common sense correct in proclaiming these milestones on cards and cakes, or would it be better to relegate such arbitrary points of time to an obscure corner of the internet? Perhaps even let them pass by totally unnoticed, and consign them to oblivion. Why remark on the unremarkable—no serious journalist regards it as newsworthy when a boy turns 8. Why should we?
Chesterton, a journalist himself, turns this argument on its head. Since daily occurrences are not regarded as newsworthy, and only the extraordinary merits mention, a reader would not know a particular man was alive until he died. The obituaries are his first and only introduction into the press. This is the logical conclusion of weighing the strange as more significant than the ordinary.
What has any of this to do with Shakespeare and birthdays? Chesterton, in his article “Birthdays and Mr. Shaw”, answers his friend with a rather sweeping conclusion: “Now I understand why he does not appreciate Shakespeare. It is because he does not appreciate birthdays.” Shaw’s ‘birthday defense’ mentioned above was not his whole argument; he also refused to write about Shakespeare because he had a low opinion of his writing. Rather than seeing these two arguments as distinct, Chesterton sees a deep connection between Shaw’s aesthetic tastes and his views on the simple moments that mark the ordinary course of events:
Shakespeare was very plausibly presented by Shaw as a mere sullen sentimentalist, weeping over his own weakness and hanging the world with black in anticipation of his own funeral. It was all very ingenious, and you can quote a great deal in support of it. But, all the same, I am pretty sure that Shakespeare celebrated his birthday — and celebrated it with the utmost regularity. That is to say, I am sure there was strict punctuality about the time when the festival should begin, though there may, perhaps, have been some degree of vagueness or irregularity about the time when it should end.
This disdain for the ordinary forces Shaw to “reinvent the wheel,” since he has deprived himself of common sense:
There are some modern optimists who announce that the universe is magnificent or that life is worth living, as if they had just discovered some ingenious and unexpected circumstance which the world had never heard of before. But, if people had not regarded this human life of ours as wonderful and worthy, they would never have celebrated their birthdays at all.
There is, in the common human experience, the principle that every human being has worth. Even if a man does not realize it, his actions betray that reality:
If you give Mr. Jones a box of cigars on his birthday the act cannot be consistent with the statement that you wish he had never been born. If you give Mr. Smith a dozen of sherry it cannot mean in theory that you wish him dead, whatever effects it may have in practice. Birthdays are a glorification of the idea of life, and it exactly hits the weak point in the Shaw type of optimism… Mr. Shaw is ready to praise the Life-force, but he is not willing to keep his birthday, which would be the best of all ways to praise it.
Our natural disposition to recognize the good in others hints at the need for a supernatural end. With recognizing the good that a man currently possesses comes the wish that he attain even greater benefits. Birthdays thus look primarily forward, not backward: “A birthday does not come merely to remind a man that he has been born. It comes that he may be born again. And if a man is born again he must be as clumsy and comic as a baby.” Chesterton did not attain this understanding on his own. For we have been set on our baby steps by Christ, who admonishes us: “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mk 10:15).
Happy Birthday, G.K. Chesterton!
When something stops working, our first reaction is often to find someone who knows how to fix it. Whether it’s a car, a computer, or a toaster, most of us aren’t inclined to try and tinker around with some machine that we are just as likely to make worse as better. We are all pretty good at telling when something isn’t working right, but it’s far more difficult to discern why. Clearly this piece of technology is designed to do some useful task, and when it stops doing that task, we need someone to reorder its parts to get it working again.
In certain ways this is exactly how many people look at the natural world as well. Many natural things obey observable patterns or standards. Squirrels tend to gather nuts for the winter; apple seeds tend to grow into apple trees; and water tends to flow downhill. If one of these normal trends fails, we notice, even if we don’t call a mechanic to look under the hood of the withered apple tree. While we may have some inkling as to what might have gone wrong to interrupt the process, true knowledge of the process is left to the experts. And for a long time, those experts have been telling us that nature, just like the machine, is simply a matter of understanding the parts.
We are basically told by these experts that our intuition that natural things move towards some end or purpose is just a convenient way of looking at things—a pretty picture to dress up our ignorance. The alternate model proposed is that one simply break the natural process down into its parts to see how each works, both individually and with the other parts, to produce the apparent purpose. By this process we can banish any talk of natural ends from our discussion of science.
There are a whole host of philosophical and scientific problems that this trend in modern thought raises and ample grounds to question the reasonableness of the project of denying natural ends. For instance, if you are going to explain away something that looks like a natural end by claiming that it is simply the purposeless motion of its parts, then you had better hope that the parts themselves don’t demonstrate motion to an end. Inevitably, parts are broken down into other smaller parts and the question only temporarily forestalled. The apparent purpose of the apple seed growing into an apple tree is slowly stripped away as we descend down to more and more fundamental layers of explanation. The descent passes through organs, cells, molecules, and atoms until we get to the fundamental particles of nature at which point the claim is that any semblance of a natural end has been seemingly ground into nothingness.
The problem is that the ends never actually go away. Electrons and quarks and any other particles we care to consider may not act like any normal macroscopic objects, but that does not mean they do not have natural ends. Quantum Field Theory is far from intuitive, but the motions and interactions it describes follow a coherent order and structure, despite the fact that it comes with a good dose of quantum “weirdness.”
One great example of the weird teleology of particle physics is the quark. As best we can tell, the protons and neutrons that make up the nuclei of all atoms are themselves made up of smaller particles that we call quarks. One particularly odd thing about the quarks is that, while we are confident they exist in abundance, we have never directly observed them in the way we have observed the particles they make up. The problem is that the “strong” force that binds several quarks into a “bound state” like a proton or neutron gets stronger as you try to separate one quark from the rest, unlike the electromagnetic or gravitational forces, which weaken with distance. At some point, as more and more energy is expended trying to keep hold of that one quark in the proton, there is enough energy in the system for new quarks to be created. Some of these new quarks will form a new bound state with the escaping quark and one will replace it in the original proton. We simply never find a lone quark, only bundles of quarks
Whether quarks are truly fundamental particles or are themselves made up of something smaller, one thing should be clear: they have a natural tendency towards something beyond themselves—a bound state with other quarks. That is to say, they have a natural end. So, for all the efforts of some people to explain away natural ends, modern science simply won’t oblige.
Image: Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
— Gollum’s riddle to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit
Time. It terrifies and preoccupies, captivates and desolates. We obsess over how to spend it, how to save it, how to use it, and how to gain it. To the busy man, time is his prison and his poverty, for he has no time. To the leisurely man, it is his liberty and his wealth, since he has all the time in the world.
But all this is vanity (cf. Eccl 3:1-19). Why? Because time is not man’s to have. It is not a piece of property like a chair or a desk; nor can we possess it like money or clothing. We cannot have more or less time. We cannot have all or no time; we cannot “have” time at all.
In one of her books on prayer, Servant of God Catherine Doherty insists that “we must lose our superstition of time.” Her point is both provocative and profound: time is not ours to give or to receive; it’s not ours to have or to hold—and to think otherwise is to attribute to man a power he does not possess. It’s as superstitious as imagining that the health of my mother’s back depends upon my attentive avoidance of cracks in the sidewalk.
If we give up our superstitious belief in “time management,” we will come to see that, as Doherty delightfully notes, “God laughs at time.” Divine Providence encompasses all, sees all, knows all, orders all. In one eternal now, all things lie open before the all-knowing God. Nothing surprises him. Nothing inconveniences him. Nothing frustrates him.
God possesses time, and human beings are possessed by time. Let God be God, and let yourself be human. You don’t have to order the world—or even your own life—according to a detailed plan of your own making. Trust in the goodness of God’s plan for your life. Giving up the superstition of “our” time makes us available: available for prayer, available for charity, available for God, available for our neighbor. This is, at least in part, what it means to “render unto God what is God’s.” Let God laugh at time in your life. It may be the most liberating thing you ever do.
Image: Mikhail Nesterov, Solovki
Before I became a Dominican friar I considered becoming a monk. I once related my monastic aspirations to a fellow Catholic who then became upset and objected, “I don’t like the idea of you sitting inside and praying all day while the rest of us have to work.”
A similar sentiment pervades the letters of the early friars to their Dominican sisters. St. Peter Martyr complained to the prioress of a convent in Milan, “You have gone up onto the mountain of sacrifice, while I still dwell in the valley of care, and have spent almost all my life for others. You take the wings of contemplation and soar above all this, but I am so stuck in the glue of concern for other people that I cannot fly. Woe is me, for my exile is prolonged.” And Bl. Jordan of Saxony, writing to Bl. Diana d’Andalo, states quite bluntly, “I hardly ever pray, and so ask the sisters to make up for my deficiency.”
While my interlocutor resented the leisure of monks, the friars were happy that their sisters had gained a life of contemplation. And, though the friars were saddened by the contrast between their own busyness and the repose of the nuns, they were grateful to the sisters for their total dedication to prayer and depended on them to supply the friars’ lack. This gratitude often engendered in the friars a deep affection for the nuns, which they expressed in their letters and in visits to the monasteries.
Another brother and I were recently sent on a preaching mission and had occasion to stay with the sisters at the Monastery of Mary the Queen in Elmira, New York. The monastery was founded in 1944 as a daughter house of Our Lady of the Rosary in Buffalo. Since 1945, the nuns have had Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament from morning until evening. And for decades the monastery has nourished the chapter of Third Order Dominicans to which the other brother and I had been sent.
The sisters received us warmly and gathered to converse with us in the parlor. The support they gave us on that visit by way of lodging and conversation reminded me of the help they always give to the friars by their prayers.
St. Thomas said that the task of the friars is to contemplate and to pass on to others what is contemplated. But preachers can feel as if they do not have enough time to contemplate what they are meant to pass on. The nuns, however, have a greater devotion to contemplation. The Constitutions of the Nuns of the Order of Preachers describes their vocation in this way: “the nuns are to seek, ponder, and call upon Jesus Christ in solitude, so that the word proceeding from the mouth of God may not return to him empty but may accomplish those things for which it was sent.”
While the friars are called especially to preach the word, the nuns are called especially to hear it. This activity is the beginning and end of preaching. As professional hearers of the word, the nuns work so that the word that the friars preach “may accomplish those things for which it was sent.” Thus the friars pass on not only the fruits of their own contemplation but the fruits of the nuns’ contemplation, too.
Visiting the sisters deepened my admiration and gratitude for their lives of careful listening to the word of God. Their work is fundamental for the Church. In the nuns, the Church is hidden with God—as one sister said, “at the heart of reality.” No cause for resentment here—only joy.
For more information on the nuns at Elmira, visit the monastery’s website.
The problem of boredom, though never lacking in our culture, is one that is especially pointed in the summer months. Perhaps it’s because school is out and parents are trying to find things for their children to do—camps, summer jobs, day care, vacations—or maybe it’s something about the heat that makes us lethargic and less inclined to activity. Whatever the cause, summer is a time when the words, “I’m bored,” are spoken with some frequency.
So what is boredom? It seems to be a restlessness, wherein the will has no object. The bored are looking for something to do. They want to want something. The problem, however, is not so much identifying boredom as finding a way to break out of it.
Man’s powers are directed to the expenditure of energy for an over-all purpose; if he lacks it, his giddiness and restlessness and consequent boredom are the price he has to pay. The most bored people in life are not the underprivileged but the overprivileged…the moral is to have something to do and live for, not for today and tomorrow, but always. (Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, Life is Worth Living)
Bored people often seek to be distracted them from their pitiful state, but distraction turns out to be no remedy. Television or the Internet may mask the symptoms for a time, but they cannot save us from boredom. The human person needs an activity that involves the whole person. We need a purpose for our life.
It is God who gives shape to our life. In seeking to be united with God, in orienting our lives to God, even tasks that “should” be boring are given new life. How is this possible?
Whereas boredom means that our will has no object, love is the act whereby the will is fixed to a real or apparent good. Love is the remedy to an aimless will, which we call boredom, and God, the Supremely Lovable, our ultimate end and purpose in life, is the object that can make our every action grounded in love.
Any moment of boredom can be solved by an act of love, whether that involves volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, helping our family or friends with something, or making an act of love for God by means of a simple prayer. But it is only by placing our entire lives at the disposal of God that boredom is totally cast out. In this way, even the most banal of tasks can become suffused with the light of love. Cleaning toilets, doing some repetitive or painful task, or even doing nothing: all of these things we can offer to God. And, in offering it up, we perform an act of love.
By living a life of such love, our humanity is transformed and conformed to the end it seeks—God. The children of God have life, and they have it in abundance. After all, who ever heard of a bored saint?
Image: Berthe Morisot, Summer Day (Bois de Boulogne)
Being alone. It’s that all-too-familiar human experience. It lies at the root of our fears, ultimately making the vast wilderness frightening and the dark so haunting. The unnerving experience of being alone often descends upon men and women and has the power to paralyze them or otherwise entrap them in illusions of helpless desperation or worse, despair.
For many ancient philosophers, embracing solitude and approaching “the alone” purifies man. Plotinus—a follower of Plato—writes, “This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of the earth, passing from the alone to the alone.” This mystical account of the acquisition of knowledge describes how Plotinus views the human condition and ultimately man’s final end. For Plotinus, the human person pursues knowledge, since he is, after all, a rational creature and capable of knowing things as they truly are. Ultimately, though, man will find peace only by drawing in upon himself and thereby mystically returning to the One, the source of all things.
For Saint Augustine, on the other hand, something markedly different happens in the Christian life. As one who admires and reflects much of the thought of Plotinus, Augustine offers a radical re-interpretation of Plotinus’s teaching, in light of the Gospel. For Saint Augustine, the human person finds rest not in being alone, but by being alone with.
Perhaps the most beautiful example of this line of thinking in Augustine comes from his Confessions. Just before the death of his mother, Saint Monica, Augustine describes a mystical experience they shared together at the port of Ostia. He writes,
We proceeded step by step through all bodily things up to that heaven whence shine the sun and the moon and the stars down upon the earth. We ascended higher yet by means of inward thought and discourse and admiration of [God’s] works, and we came up to our own minds. We transcended them, so that we attained to the region of abundance that never fails, in which [God] feed[s] Israel forever upon the food of truth, and where is that Wisdom by which all these things are made, both which have been and which are to be.
The beautiful language of Augustine conveys not only the overwhelming nature of the experience, but also a truth at the very core of Christianity. Christians never live out their call of discipleship alone in a solitary vacuum. Even hermits are bound by their prayers and by a particular relationship with Christ to the community of believers.
For Augustine, to be Christian means that we are never truly alone. As he recounts his vision, he tells his readers, “We were alone, conversing together most tenderly.” Augustine shared perhaps the most absorbing mystical experience of his life with his mother. They were by themselves, together, but not isolated.
The Christian tradition vividly teaches this truth expressed by Augustine. The clarion call to live lives imbued with charity demands the companionship of family and community. Discipleship means joining with the other members of the body, working alongside the other laborers in the vineyard. In a truly mysterious way, intimately coming to know the revelation of God calls us Christians out of ourselves. United in Christ, fellow believers standing side by side, together we climb ever onward toward the eternal place where we shall see God as he is.
Image: Timothy Boocock, Staring at the Milkyway Galaxy in Trysil, Norway
A friend once asked me about the thought process that went into my decision to join the Dominican Order. “To be honest, I actually didn’t think much about it,” was my reply. Before I could proceed to explain, my friend interrupted, “Well, that’s hard to believe! Isn’t it your job as a Dominican to think? It doesn’t seem fitting for someone joining the Dominican Order to not think about his vocation.”
I was taken aback for a moment. On the one hand, I was confident in the huge choice I made for my life—I did in fact have a desire to become a Dominican friar—on the other hand, my friend was truly concerned with what appeared to be an irrational and hasty decision. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t subject my mind to a careful screening process or scrutinize all available options in order to figure out the right plan for my life. Well, I certainly have had some time to think about this brief exchange of words.
The objection raised by my friend concerning the need to think carefully before acting is very reasonable and wise. Indeed, one must not jump to conclusions without seeking the right counsel and obtaining all the necessary facts. This is called prudence—it’s about putting all the pieces together. But how does one know when all the pieces have been gathered together without entering into an infinite regress? How does one even know whether all the pieces are from the same box?
At the other end of the spectrum is a “wait-and-see” approach to discernment. It’s about waiting for the right moment, the right opportunity, and then pouncing on it. It’s the Whack-a-Mole game—wait for the little guy to pop up and then wham! You win the big money. All the options are out in front, and I just wait for a sign to help me take the next step.
Looking back at our biggest decisions in life, can we ever say that we’ve given them enough thought? In one sense, I did think about my vocation. Or to be more precise, I pondered my vocation, and I am still pondering it. But in pondering the meaning of my vocation, I do not think so much about getting it right with God, but about the right that God does. I did not create myself, my family members, my friends, my neighbors, or the Dominican friars. God created them all and continues to work through them.
In reply to my friend, I suppose I did have a thought process going into my discernment, just not the kind he expected. I thought not about the various possibilities for my life, which can be close to infinite; rather, I thought about God and pondered the great things He has done for me and for others, especially for my family, friends, neighbors, and the Dominican friars. God does an infinite amount for us for which we should be thankful.
In another sense, I can say that I did jump right into the Dominican life almost in an instant. I got baited and hooked, like a fish in the ocean. I saw something beautiful fluttering about so I came in for a closer look. I bit into the dangling lure of the consecrated life and then, all of sudden, was drawn up out of the water. It was Dominic who caught me, and he put me securely in the boat of the Fisherman.
Image: Mikhail Nesterov, St Paphnutius of Borovsk