Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
We bless Thee for every comfort of our past and present existence, for our health of body and of mind and for every other source of happiness which Thou has bountifully bestowed on us and with which we close this day, imploring their continuance from Thy Fatherly goodness, with a more grateful sense of them, than they have hitherto excited.
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers
Nobody likes a spoiled child; except, perhaps, the one who does the spoiling. But seriously, how could anyone else care for someone with “the power of having rather too much her own way” and, even worse, “a disposition to think a little too well of herself”? That’s simply asking too much for any normal human being.
But that is exactly what Jane Austen attempts and, quite often, achieves in guiding the reader’s perception of her titular character, Emma Woodhouse. This young woman, we are told, “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In spite of all these gifts given her by her creator, Emma acts in an extremely self-centered and, at times, insensitive manner. Yet, at the conclusion of the novel, it seems that it should be against our better judgment that we find ourselves won-over by Emma’s charm and desiring her happiness with Mr. Knightley.
On the other hand, we are not very different from Emma Woodhouse. We have received life from God, who has created us and holds us in existence. On top of that, He bestows us with countless other gifts and blessings, and all of this He does out of love for us. Despite this love, we act out through sin and turn away from Him for the sake of our own self-interests. Still, God reaches out to us calling us to conversion, to turn back to Him and live.
In the case of Emma Woodhouse, this conversion is rather late in coming. Throughout the novel she makes mistake after mistake, yet she continues to hold a high opinion of her own powers of observation and estimation. Further, the reader is given the rather intimate knowledge of these traits, as Austen subtly and cleverly tinges the narration with Emma’s thoughts and impressions. We see her repeatedly misread situations as she willingly interprets them according to her own fanciful conjectures of reality. The interesting and somewhat disturbing effect of Austen’s craft coaxes the reader into falling in love with this patently flawed heroine.
Perhaps Austen is successful because, at her core, Emma is a good person. In the midst of some of Mr. Knightley’s unflattering criticisms in the very first chapter, he admires the warmness and sincerity of Emma’s friendship for Mrs. Weston; without such qualities, he observes, “we should not like her so well as we do.” To a certain extent, the same is true for us. Part of God’s creation, we possess vestiges of His goodness. Made in His image, we reflect His goodness in an even greater way than the run-of-the-mill creature. However, with these greater blessings comes greater responsibility. The inherent goodness we possess and whatever good deeds we may accomplish are as straw if they lack the vivifying force of charity, which does not share an abode with sin. Therefore, we must look to God, who gives us the help of grace which disposes us to embrace the love He extends to us and to order our lives accordingly.
Similarly, while it is clear that Emma has a good heart, she must ultimately undergo a conversion. She must take heed of the deficiencies of her former deeds and amend her future behavior accordingly; however, this is not simply a cold, rational process of measuring her actions. It is also a matter of love. Emma dramatically, though perhaps characteristically, realizes her love for Mr. Knightley when her friend, Harriet, confesses her own love for him. Yet it is not jealousy that ultimately reveals Emma’s own heart to herself, for no such epiphany had occurred when she had feared he was in love with yet a third woman, Jane Fairfax (not an uncomplicated thing, this human heart!). Rather, Emma now feels and recognizes her love for Mr. Knightley because of his admonition to amend her ways, disposing her for this conversion. No longer simply the friend who often scolds her for her faults, he becomes the central part of Emma’s hopes for connubial bliss.
Finally, I should devote a few words to Mr. Knightley, lest I cause too much uneasiness in drawing an analogy between God and a man. Mr. Knightley is by no means a man without fault, but even his foibles point to features of God. He admits to taking liberties in openly reproaching Emma, but so does God reprimand his people through his prophets (e.g., Amos 2:6-16). Mr. Knightley cannot be free from the accusation of jealousy, but “the Lord – ‘Jealous’ his name – is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). He is jealous because He desires our undivided affection, despite our faults and imperfections. Though we may stray, He remains faithful and calls to us, waiting for us to turn our faces towards Him and be saved.
As in the case of Emma Woodhouse, the conversion of our hearts is not simply a matter of obedience or mortification. God desires our happiness and our love. Out of love, He created us and blessed us with His Son so that, one day, we might hear Him say, “Come, beloved of my Father.” On that day, may we sing with blessed Augustine his hymn of love to the Beauty who is ever ancient and ever new.
Take a pagan city, throw in a reluctant preacher, and give him three days to spread the word. Nineveh, a city long accustomed to despoiling others, is herself threatened with ruin. The king does not wait out the forty days; instead, he leaps into action. By his order, all subjects—even the animals—will forego food. We can’t explain how, but the king could see that something was afoot. There may have been no natural indication—had there been, would the Lord have fished out Jonah for the task? The irony of the account is palpable: the pagan king recognized the gravity of the message more deeply, and more quickly, than had Jonah the Israelite.
Sometimes, however, it is up to the messenger to supply the zeal. On this day, in 1429, St. Joan of Arc knelt before the dauphin in the midst of his court. Granted, peasants generally knelt before royalty anyway, but this case was unique. Prince Charles had gone to great lengths to hide his position, disguising his dress and entering the crowd of courtiers before her entrance. Whether to win peace with the British or to test this would-be prophetess, he was content to suffer others to sit on his throne. In all likelihood, he was as reluctant to embrace Joan’s confident predictions as the king of Assyria was eager to accept Jonah’s condemnation. After hearing of so many French defeats, how could he handle such resolve? Would she speak as confidently before barons and counts as she did before peasants?
Had we not the documentation to prove it, the encounter that ensued would read like a fairy tale. St. Joan saw through the Prince’s disguise, and, compelled by her voices to do him homage, quickly corrected his dissimulations. Given that there was no natural explanation for this (photographs were still four centuries off), cynicism and disappointment melted into awe and docility. Perhaps she really was who she claimed to be: a peasant girl tasked by Another with a mission.
And docile he was. Within forty days, he had issued a commission to her to command the French army. A city fell three weeks later. Not into ruin, as Jonah warned, but under the fleur-de-lis, as Joan promised. Routed by the French, the British handed back the second largest city in the kingdom.
Charles had to be reminded of his royal dignity, and (it bears repeating) so do we. The message he received was particular to his time and place, but it was nothing new. Having been welcomed into the family of God at our Baptism, each of us, along with every Christian, has been invested with an even nobler dignity than any secular ruler could claim. A millennium before the Siege of Orleans, St. Leo the Great provided his flock with the context for their own royal dignity:
Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member. Recollect that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom.
We have been given forty days and an invitation of our own. When Christ rides into Jerusalem in a matter of weeks, will we march with Him? Through the triumph of His grace, will we be able to lay our garments on the road, and lift up our hearts in welcome and exultation? Or will He weep over us who have not recognized the time of our visitation, unable (or unwilling) to respond to the call of One greater than Jonah or Joan?
Image: El Greco, View of Toledo
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Wowzers, it’s cold. My Yahoo weather app thing read 7 degrees this morning. Of course winters are always cold. This one just seems exceptionally so, at least here on the East Coast. This persistent chill is reminding me of the movie Groundhog Day. Remember the immortal words of D.J. #1, right after Bob Dylan starts singing and the clock strikes (or clicks, as it were) 6:00 a.m.: “Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today!”
There are other great lines from that movie, like when Phil (Bill Murray’s impeccably portrayed apathetic weather prognosticator) reports glumly into the camera, “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” One of Phil’s more poignant observations though, and one that captures the essence of the tragicomedy, is one of despair, when he realizes he’s living the same day over and over again: “I’ll give you a winter prediction: it’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”
We know winter will break, and the cold along with it. Spring’s really not that far away. But there’s an existential reason why Phil’s character is equally scary and inspiring to so many. Many feel all year round the despair he felt, and they want to break out of it just like he did. Actually, there’s a scene in the movie where Phil is explaining his predicament at a bar and one of the patrons just thinks he’s speaking about real life. For that barfly, for whatever reason, life had become permanently cold and gray. In a nutshell, Phil despairs because he is ungrateful and cannot love. Thus, in the end, it is gratitude and love that break him out of the solipsistic cycle.
In the fictitious world of Groundhog Day, Phil quite literally had forever to learn love and gratitude. Once he did, he was free. Unfortunately we don’t have forever. It is in the home, the family, the job, and the relationships in which we find ourselves where we must learn these virtues. So how might we learn this? I think we can find some answers to this question in what the Church proposes to the faithful for Lent.
Lent is a penitential season. We are charged to fast, pray, and give alms. But why go through all of this? What’s the purpose? One response is that we may better the self. Say I want to lose some pounds? Lent provides a good opportunity to stop eating desserts. So there are beneficial physical effects to the practice of fasting. But this is actually a self-centered way to view the season. Lent is not ultimately about bettering the self on a natural level. Sure, that may happen, but it’s an accidental effect. Lent is really a call to move outside the self – to learn self-giving for the good of one’s soul and the universal Church. And we learn this self-giving in order to love God and neighbor better. So Lent then is really about love. It’s an occasion to do things for others. And in the process of moving out of ourselves we also become grateful for the gifts in our life. We can see the gifts of God more clearly and for what they are when we stop clutching at them.
We may feel something like Phil felt, going through the motions day after day. We may even be in the throes of despair. But we know the cold monotony that Phil felt was a result of being obsessed with himself and his own interests. In Lent we have an opportunity to serve God for the right reason — because he gave us life and redeemed us. If we give ourselves to this holy project we can break the cold within. We can start living love and gratitude.
Image: John Atkinson Grimshaw, Snow and Mist
Let’s begin with one of the biggest buzzwords in Catholic circles: discernment. What vocation is God calling me to in life? A healthy way of looking at how to discern starts with another healthy buzzword: organic.
Vocation grows out of everyday Christian living. We can often make it a project of its own, taking it as the “theme” of our prayer life or our social life, bringing it into every conversation. But looking for God in some far-off plan can mean that we miss Him speaking in our given circumstances—as it is God, after all, who gives us our circumstances.
Nowhere in Scripture did Jesus call men or women and say, “Go out to the desert and wait for a message! Your directive should arrive soon, brought to you by a Holy Dove!” He said, “Follow Me.” Come and be with Me. Listen to My teaching. Wrestle with it in your heart and your mind. So they followed Him, but only in the hope of wanting to find out who He was. As the story progressed, it became clearer who they were called to be. Their place and role in the community took shape with time.
So why doesn’t God just tell us His plan for us in prayer? As essential as silence is, listening for God to reveal His plan can be frustrating, because He usually doesn’t work this way. If we do hear His voice, it’s often very real, but very simple: “Be with me. I made you. I love you.” God is not withholding His plan for us. We just forget that roughly 99% of His “will” for us in this life is growing in love and knowledge of Him, more and more. God’s will for us is Jesus! The remaining 1% is what role will we play, and so forth.
We can also tend to think of vocation in career terms, like: what kind of person will I end up being, which will define my life and give me meaning? One day I was riding a bike home from morning Mass, and the thought popped into my head, “I forgot the other half. I’ve been discerning what I might do, but not where I’ll be fed and kept faithful and made holy.” Vocation is as much about finding what life will offer us support and keep us growing, as it is what kind of work we can do for God.
There’s also the somewhat controversial topic of “discerning marriage.” Some argue that everyone’s vocation is marriage, unless God intervenes and does something, well, strange to a person’s heart. This just means that God made us all for relationships, and He does guide us to them and blesses them when they arrive in our lives—unless He chooses you only for Himself. When that happens, you definitely have to “step out” of normal life and “discern” what this new activity is. With marriage, though, you don’t find a spouse by discerning in prayer that you were finally “ready.” Usually, you meet someone at work one day, or at a party, or have a moment when you realize a friend is becoming more than a friend… Then you talk and fall in love and there’s your vocation.
For years I was frustrated by how many conflicting pieces of advice I’d get on discernment. I thought to myself, “I don’t think anybody really knows, but no one will admit it.” While there is, of course, some good advice out there, it’s liberating nonetheless to admit that there is still no textbook for making a single life decision. That’s the burden of being created free, of being a protagonist. Every author admits that their characters take on a life of their own and determine some of the story, even though the author guides them to the end he has in mind. We are those characters, and our lives are admittedly full of guesswork—but also full of grace. If we remain faithful to Christ, we can trust our desires, our heart, our “gut,” in making choices. We overcomplicate our lives by thinking of them in future terms, instead of the present moment. When we dream about who we’ll be and what we’ll do, we dream big, when in reality we’ve been given one small life, one small part to play in a wide world.
Without a doubt, God has a plan for each of our lives. Yet much of the time we don’t fully understand it—before or even after receiving our vocation. Hopefully our lives, whatever shape they take, will amount to one thing: getting to know Him. Friendship with Christ is the vocation before and beneath every vocation. Because vocation isn’t the meaning of our life. Christ is. Vocation is what grows out of our relationship with Him. He is not the spiritual director of our life, for whom we wait to tell us exactly what to do. He is our life. There is no waiting. He is the one who loves us now, and who guides us as we love Him in return. The focus of anyone in love, if he wants to stay in love, is the other person. Not himself.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Christ and the Catch of Fish
In the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson makes a startling discovery about his new friend: Sherlock Holmes is blithely unaware that the earth revolves around the sun. When Watson expresses shock at Sherlock’s ignorance, the consulting detective is nonplussed:
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Sherlock Holmes has resolved to let nothing “useless” take up space in his memory:
[T]he skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it: there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
At first glance, there appears to be a sort of evangelical purity about Sherlock’s preferential option for the practical. In the religious sphere, the words of Paul to the Corinthians come to mind: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Like Sherlock, Paul proclaims a hierarchy of knowledge: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). Paul even appears to support Sherlock’s recognition of the importance of forgetting some things in order to acquire only useful knowledge: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13–14).
When it comes to sharing the joy of the Gospel with those who have not yet been captivated by the Word (and even those who have!), it is necessary to speak in a way that will allow others to see the attractive force of the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul strove to be all things to all men, so that he might save some (see 1 Cor 9:22). As he wrote to the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it” (1 Cor 3:2). Although we must preach the Word in season and out of season, our proclamation should not become strident or shrill, but should respond to the concrete circumstances of others’ lives and their modes of thought and expression. This means that we must actually know the people whom we are talking to and be able to converse in the language and concepts with which they are familiar. We should strive to give a reason for the faith that is in us, using stories and images that will help our audiences to pay attention and relate our experience and ideas to their own lives.
In doing so, we follow the example of the sacred authors of the Holy Scriptures, who “put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (see St. Thomas on metaphors in Scripture). By using images of nature—including the earth, sun, and moon as they appear to us, rather than Watson’s theories of the planetary system—the Scriptures allow us to come to know God by means of things we know more immediately through our five senses. Ultimately, this imagery reaches its culmination in coming to understand the love of God through the love of our fellow men and women—”for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:1, 14, 18).
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Image: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (as Holmes and Watson, 1939 film series)
Yesterday we entered once again into the holy season of Lent, received our ashes, and were reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or more explicitly, were exhorted to “repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Despite fluctuations in various Catholic practices between generations, Lent has remained very popular. We probably noticed that the number of people present to receive their ashes at yesterday’s Mass was significantly higher than the number of people during most regular weekdays and perhaps even some Sundays.
Some people have explained this increased participation by noting that people are more likely to come to Mass when they “get something,” like ashes on Ash Wednesday or palms on Palm Sunday. Sadly these rituals can draw more of a crowd than the opportunities we’re given every Sunday, like hearing the Word of God read and preached to us or receiving Jesus Christ in the Eucharist—body, blood, soul, and divinity. This explanation, however, is challenged by one of the largest US Catholic surveys, which found that even more people are willing to give something up—meat on every Friday during the season of Lent.
The traditional Friday abstinence from meat during Lent remains by far the most popular Lenten practice, and perhaps the most popular Catholic practice during the whole year. Among all generations, this has remained constant despite how consistently (or not) people practice their Catholic faith. So what is it that makes the Friday abstinence from meat so popular? Is the Friday Fish Fry really that enticing? While I myself do love a good fish fry, I think there must be a deeper attraction.
Many of us tend to overindulge in calories in our eating, luxury in our spending, curiosity in our web surfing, and laziness in our work, family or religious responsibilities throughout the year. Despite our best efforts to change or to uphold our New Year’s resolutions, we find ourselves slipping into those old habits again. But something tells us that we were made for more, and we recognize that to change we need some sort of sacrifice.
Perhaps being reminded of our mortality on Ash Wednesday is what puts us in touch with this desire to transcend our short number of days here on earth. Maybe the knowledge that we will soon come face to face with Christ’s Passion on Good Friday helps to remind us of our usual ingratitude for so many things, stirring in us the desire to be grateful in at least some small way during these 40 days.
Though we may understand that only sacrifice can lead to change, are going to Fish Fridays enough? What is the real purpose of these sacrifices of ours?
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:16-17).
Any sacrifice, any penance that we undertake this Lent only has value as part of a deeper repentance. As Pope Francis exhorted us in his Lenten message, we need conversion of the heart. God takes no delight in us simply changing our diet. He wants more from us and desires to give us more than Fish Fridays. He wants our whole heart, so that he can give himself to us that we may enjoy him forever in eternity.
Perhaps we are still stuck in some habitual sins, or have already found new ones this year. We may find ourselves weary, doubting, and skeptical of our ability for conversion. “Indeed, for man this impossible,” but fortunately for us “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
While it surely is good news that all things are possible with God, why do I still need to sacrifice? Why can’t God just perform a “mystical heart transplant” to achieve this conversion?
As St. Augustine, a converted sinner and proclaimer of God’s grace, reminds us,
God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.
Jesus Christ, by his supreme sacrifice, has already won for us the grace for conversion. As he continues to work in our lives, he invites us to cooperate with this grace. May we respond to his invitation to conversion of heart this Lent, through our sacrifices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Then may our hearts be transformed to love as he loves, drawing us ever closer to him, the source of everlasting joy.
Image: Kristi Decourcy, Red Snapper
“You have to carry the fire.”
“I don’t know how to.”
“Yes you do.”
“Is it real? The fire?”
“Yes it is.”
“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”
This conversation between a father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road reveals an essential truth about perseverance and survival: there has to be something within us that moves us onward, something beyond sheer willpower and effort. This conversation comes near the end of the story where the father and son have crossed an ash-covered post-apocalyptic world, in search of shelter, food, and security from the perils of darkened nature all around them, both of man and earth. The father’s dying words are meant to encourage his son who must continue down the road on his own, carrying only the fire.
Ash Wednesday issues in a rather darkened sentiment to the Lenten season. No other liturgical season focuses on penitential practices and the journey motif as much as Lent does. Drawing us back to the Israelites’ forty-year journey through the desert toward the Promised Land, Lent brings us down the road of our own journey to our own Promised Land. Cast into the world of ash, we are to travel our own road, facing the perils of our own selves—sin, ignorance, weakness—searching in hope and looking down the road for the Resurrection of the Lord.
Like the son in the story, we don’t always see the fire and what it does for us. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize how God is working in us and guiding our lives. Often times it is only when the wind kicks up and the ash is thrown in our face do we recognize whether we are carrying the fire or not. When suffering occurs in our lives, we are able to test whether we can move onward or whether we will stall languidly in the road. Suffering makes us stop in the road and forces us to look ahead. “Where is my God amidst this ashen world?” This is the question Ash Wednesday asks us.
God does not send us down any road without His grace. No matter whatever road He chooses for us, and no matter the turns we take, as long as we remain with Him we trust that His grace is with us. The fire is with us. Covered in ash, we set out during Lent to find God again, to turn toward Him more fully, and to open ourselves more perfectly to His work in our lives. None of this is accomplished by our own efforts, but He gives us the fire to carry it out along the way.
Looking down the road can be dark. We don’t always see the end or even the next step in front of us. That is why God gives us the fire to carry. When we hold it up we can see the road illumined in a new way. We can see Christ suffering. We can see His Passion. We can see His Cross. We can see all these things, and we can look through them and see at the end of the ash-covered road, the Resurrection of the Lord.
Image: Christian Haugen, Lighting the Torches
Those familiar with the Lord of the Rings may be surprised at the suggestion that Denethor, the Steward of Gondor who sends his son Faramir to his certain death and attempts to burn himself along with his son because of his despair, can have something in common with Moses, the like of whom was not found among any of the other prophets of Israel (Deut 34:10). Rather than slipping into the endless debate of whether Tolkien’s masterpiece is an allegory, it is important to focus on the task at hand, which is to demonstrate the similarity between two persons. Some background information about Tolkien’s character is necessary.
Denethor assumes the Stewardship of Gondor in the year 2984 of the Third Age of Middle-earth. His wife, Finduilas, a “lady of great beauty and gentle heart,” dies four years later after she gradually “withers” in Gondor because of the growing “shadow in the east,” which fills her with “horror.” Denethor’s love for his wife is matched only by his love for the elder of his two sons, Boromir. The death of his wife proves too great an ordeal for Denethor to bear, and subsequently he becomes “more grim and silent than before.” Occupied with the imminent attack from Mordor, he spends his time alone in the White Tower with a stone known as the palantir.
The palantir is a seeing stone, meant to be used as a communication tool. Alternatively, it can be used to see events in other parts of Middle Earth. Sauron, the Dark Lord, also possesses a palantir. This communication device puts Denethor in contact with Sauron and his evil kingdom. Tolkien describes Denethor as a man of pride, “trusting in his own strength of will.” His endless grief over his wife and his incessant desire to know the enemy impel Denethor to do something that none of the Stewards or Kings have dared to do before: he peers into the stone, not just once, but he would often “wrestle in thought with the enemy.” The following is a clip of Gandalf the White visiting Denethor, whose features clearly resemble those of a tyrant in full despair, grieving his dead son Boromir as the orcs are preparing to attack Gondor.
The reader may ask, “What is wrong with knowing the enemy?” The problem with gazing into the enemy is that eventually we “are transformed into the same image” as that which we gaze upon (see 2 Cor 3:18 for the salutary opposite). Although Denethor is transformed by using the palantir, which produces external visual effects to display the powers of Sauron, it is also possible to be transformed into the likeness of the enemy by conjuring mental images and thoughts that portray an aspect of the dark kingdom of the devil. Thoughts or images of this kind instil restlessness, fear, doubt and despair. Given the opportunity, the enemy will show us “only those things,” which he permits us to see, thereby convincing us of his seemingly unconquerable strength. Eventually Denethor surrenders without a fight and burns himself.
What is the antidote to this tendency that we all have? What do we do when we are confronted with a sinful mental image or thought? Gandalf, who can safely be taken as a figure of Christ, suggests that “in his days of wisdom,” Denethor would never “presume” to use the palantir, “knowing the limits of his strength.” Unfortunately his pride makes him blind to these limits, and his wisdom “fail[s]” him. Therefore, two virtues are needed to combat our tendency of peering into the realm of the Enemy: humility and wisdom. Humility keeps us from tinkering with harmful images and thoughts since we are aware of the limits of our strength, while wisdom urges us to occupy our minds with the Divine presence. Wisdom is where Moses comes in.
Like Denethor, Moses becomes similar to that upon which he gazes. But, unlike Denethor, Moses gazes upon something—Someone—very good. After the two original tablets of the Ten Commandments are destroyed, Moses goes up Mount Sinai a second time to receive a new pair of tablets. He spends “forty days and night” with God, and when he comes down the mountain, his face is “radiant,” so much so that he has to wear a “veil over his face” (Ex 34:33). Moses’ face shines because he speaks “face to face” with God, whose glory imprints itself on his face (Num 12:8).
There is a Christian version of this experience. For instance, St. John teaches us that, “when Christ appears, we will be like Him for we will see Him face to face” (1 Jn 3:2). The virtue of wisdom, lived in its Christian fullness, involves us gazing upon Wisdom Incarnate, Jesus Christ Himself. Such a virtuous vision is transformative. The virtue of wisdom helps us avert our mind’s eye from the kingdom of the devil and direct it towards God’s glory and beauty. Wisdom helps us supplant the negative images of the devil with divine beauty, by immersing ourselves in Scriptures and in prayer. God can be encountered and gazed upon through His word; he can be contacted and spoken to through prayer. These form a two-way street wherein we speak to God and hear His response, thereby embracing His presence and avoiding any contact with the devil.
Image: Moses With Radiant Face; Denethor
After Cain kills his brother, God pronounces a curse:
You shall become a constant wanderer on the earth (Gen 4:12).
This plight of Cain is of course the plight of each of us. As a people, we are “strangers in a strange land” like Moses. Augustine said to God that “our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” But that said, our hearts do not completely rest in the Lord on this side of heaven, even when we know that the Lord alone is our rest. They are usually divided and conflicted. With each new step in our lives, we think, “This is what will bring me the peace I seek.” But then before long we find ourselves still wanderers. Even when our hearts do rest in the Lord, they become all the more restless with being in this world, as they wait to see His face.
Cain said to the Lord: “My punishment is too great to bear” (Gen 4:13).
When I was visiting inmates at the D.C. Jail recently, I spoke with a young man who was considered a suicide risk. A plastic jump-suit and a roll of toilet-paper were the only items in his one-man cell. He was weeping forcefully as he spoke: “People always tell you that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But this is more than I can handle. This is more than I can handle!” He was speaking the words of Cain. He was also speaking the words of the Psalmist and the words of Christ: My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (I responded with the most powerful words I know: “God is with you. God loves you.”)
So the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him at sight. Cain then left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Gen 4:15-16).
A “mark” is God’s parting gift to Cain. (Many biblical scholars understand the human author of Genesis to be thinking here of a tattoo, common among ancient Near Eastern tribes.) The Lord in His fullness will be hidden from Cain, but He has given to Cain a sign as a reminder of His protection.
I like to think of Cain the wanderer, journeying through the land of Nod (nud means to wander), resting for a moment in the shadows, and looking at his mark, at the tattooed sign, perhaps inscribed on his breast. It was a sign of the Lord’s protection, of the Lord’s enduring love. But it was also a reminder of that terrible moment in his life when he killed Abel the Just. Therefore, it was a sign of love and of sorrow, of mercy and of guilt. It was like the sign of the cross!
Of course, I have also been marked, as has every Christian. I have been told that Baptism imprinted on my soul an “indelible mark.” I have been forever inscribed by the Spirit of the Lord, placed under the Lord’s protection.
And as I journey with Cain through the land of Nod, a land which is decidedly east of Eden, where the Lord is present and yet very hidden, I sometimes happen to see the Lord’s mark on my heart: a reminder that although I am, like Cain, a killer of the Just One, the Lord has nevertheless claimed me for His own.
Image: Daniel Brock, Shadow Walk
Blessed Jordan of Saxony was the first successor of St. Dominic as Master of the Order of Preachers. He wrote the first work about the Order, his Libellus on the Beginnings of the Order of Preachers. He was renowned for his prudence in administration, as well as his ability to attract and receive vocations to the Dominicans. As a result, he is the patron of vocations for the Dominican Order. Here are five examples from Bl. Jordan on finding one’s vocation and leading others to theirs. Please pray for the men currently on a vocation weekend at the Dominican House of Studies.
- Bring a friend.
Bl. Jordan recounts in his Libellus how the preaching of Bl. Reginald of Orleans inspired him and many men to join the Order of Preachers. Although little known in our time, Reginald was a well-known and well-educated cleric who joined the Dominican friars—our first “big catch.” His dynamic and fiery preaching brought the first great wave of vocations into Dominic’s fledging Order. Jordan, and his dear friend Henry, were among these.
Jordan recounts how Reginald’s preaching moved him to recognize the Dominican Order as a “sure road to salvation.” His friend Henry, though, was dragging his feet. Jordan remained determined to enter with his best friend and companion in holiness. But Henry resisted. Then one night, they searched out a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and as he and Henry were praying there after Matins, Henry received a vision and the grace to enter the Order. Finally, on Ash Wednesday, they went together to the Dominican priory in Paris, and entered the Order. They may have been the first pair of friends to enter the Order together, but they certainly were not the last.
- Have good timing.
As Jordan and Henry arrived at the Dominican priory, they listened to the friars chanting the Ash Wednesday chant Immutemus habitu, which begins, “let us change our garments for ashes…” Of course, they couldn’t help but hear the fuller sense of the chant, which states literally, “let us change our habit.” Jordan comments, “we presented ourselves before [the friars], much to their surprise, and, putting off the old man, we put on the new, thus suiting our actions to what they were singing.”
- Make extra habits.
One early collection of stories about Bl. Jordan compares the Dominican priories to beehives. That’s how quickly vocations boomed in the early Order. Jordan, as Master of the Order, had such confidence in God’s Providence that, before he visited Paris, “he had many tunics made, trusting in God that he would receive new brothers.”
One year, on the feast of the Purification, twenty-one students from Paris received the habit— and despite Jordan’s foresight, they still ran one short. Finally, the friars each had to lend a part of his own habit: the tunic, the scapular, and so on, so that the final brother could be clothed.
- Pray for perseverance.
The other important part of getting vocations is keeping them. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that God wants to give some things to us, only at our asking Him. When Bl. Jordan was Master of the Order, he met a novice who wanted to leave the Order. After resolving to do so, he asked and received Bl. Jordan’s permission. After giving the brother permission to go, he decided to ask him to stay. But this didn’t work. And since it happened to be Pentecost, Bl. Jordan led the friars in the hymn to the Holy Spirit Veni Creator. As this brother was leaving, he suddenly received the grace of conversion. The friars obtained his perseverance through these prayers—and this friar became a good and holy teacher and preacher.
- Pawn stuff.
Some new problems are old problems. Repaying debts is a matter of justice. Then, as now, men were held back from entering the Dominicans because of their student debt. Jordan, with his limited means, tried to find a solution to this problem. The same early collection of stories notes that “Jordan often pawned his Bible to pay the debts of students who entered.”
Would you like to read more about Bl. Jordan of Saxony? You can read his book, the Libellus on the Beginnings of the Order of Preachers, and you can read collections of stories about him here.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Untitled
It’s 5:00am. I’m snuggled in my dinosaur comforter as huge snowflakes careen with a purpose towards the already well-covered roads. I dream of Power Rangers. Life is good and it’s about to get better.
Then it comes. The phone rings in my parents’ room, and, though I have slept through every nocturnal phone call of the past, this one is different. I hear my mother reach for what could either be good or exceptionally good news. She exchanges a few words in her dulcet telephone voice and gets out of bed to come to my door. The moment of truth. Zero hour.
“The woman from the phone-chain just called. School’s cancelled today, so you can sleep in.”
“OK, Honey. Love you.”
If my body didn’t require eleven hours of sleep a night to grow at its alarmingly rapid rate, I would get out of bed just to dance or zoom one of my LEGO space ships around the room. But alas, I require much rest, and I can express my joy with a smile as I roll over to sleep for a few more hours before the red-nose, hot-chocolate filled, toboggan-launching day really begins.
Growing up, snow days were unparalleled delight. I had done my homework. I had brushed my teeth. I had packed my lunch. And then I didn’t have to go to school. Instead, I just got to play, and then drink hot chocolate, and then play some more. I needed no explaining what the day was for. God had covered my whole neighborhood with a substance that: 1) could be slid on at high speeds, 2) could be fashioned into projectiles, and 3) didn’t even get my clothes dirty (not that I needed too much encouragement). Snow days were a Godsend. They were days of freedom and joy.
At a certain point in my life though, my feelings towards snow days began to evolve. With winter track, I became concerned about my workout schedule. Snow days were an interruption, and you could bet that there were other runners who weren’t taking the day off. I had to compensate and run regardless of the conditions. The long-term project also had its role to play. All of a sudden, snow days were opportunities to make progress on a research report or Mrs. Hall’s I-search paper. Pretty soon, what had been a veritable jubilee, a day acceptable to the Lord, became an extended working lunch. Snow days were no longer a day to enjoy, but one on which to capitalize until the routine resumed.
In retrospect, I begin to think that the transformation has not been altogether salutary. Undoubtedly, we are busier now than we once were—we certainly have more responsibilities. Perhaps those days were simply a time when we “spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child” and now we have “put aside childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11). And yet, I fear that the new attitude may reveal something of our relationship toward gratuity in general. By treating time as a thing to be used, it begins to lose the ambience of abandon in which we were once free to make snow angels and put chocolate topping on bowls of snow. Instead, it becomes our greedily-guarded asset.
In the Screwtape Letters of C. S. Lewis, the eponymous demon encourages his understudy Wormwood to cultivate in man just this atmosphere of possession:
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differences that run from ‘my boots’ through ‘my dog’, ‘my servant’, ‘my wife’, ‘my father’, ‘my master’ and ‘my country’, to ‘my God’. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of ‘my boots’, the ‘my’ of ownership.
For the greedy, here lies the peril of the windfall. No longer does it announce to us God’s time wherein to play with reckless abandon. Rather, it announces more of my time, to suck dry with efficiency. The weather report no longer announces to us a space of play and leisure, but rather an unforeseen possession which we can now use to our own weatherworn ends. But in so doing, we risk a fundamental ingratitude that imperils our reception of God’s blessings. As mature Christians, yes, we are prudent in the use of time, recognizing its limits. Yet we know those limits precisely because time is a gift from God, a gift for hard work but also for joyful fun.
As St. Augustine reminds us, some things are to be used, and some things are simply to be enjoyed. For him, the division corresponds to the divide between creatures and Creator. God is eminently unpossessable, unusable, unmanipulatable. Any attempt to subject Him to such treatment ends in disaster. Rather, God and His gifts (perhaps even snow days included) are to be enjoyed. The children at the sledding hill understand that. For us to rediscover that freedom, we must accept the accompanying terms: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). So let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
Image: Snugg LePup, Day 20: Blizzard
The Immaculate Conception follows me wherever I go. The school I attended as a boy was under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. So too was my home parish, the Cathedral of the diocese. Now I live in the Priory of the Immaculate Conception and attend classes at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception. Every couple of weeks or so I cross the street and visit the largest Catholic church in America, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Like I said, she’s everywhere.
Apparently, from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth, when all the aforementioned institutions were founded, people were especially excited about this new title for the Mother of God. Not long before, in 1854, after consultation with the world’s bishops, Bl. Pope Pius IX issued the encyclical Ineffabilis Deus, in which he defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the following terms: “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” As the titles of schools and Churches indicate, the dogma was well promoted among the Christian faithful. In fact, it was promoted in a marvelous way by the Immaculate Conception herself.
On February 11, 1858, the Blessed Mother began appearing to a poor, fourteen-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous in a small town in southwestern France called Lourdes. Over a span of about six months, she appeared to Bernadette eighteen times. A miraculous spring of water gushed forth from the place of the apparitions, and a young mother was healed of paralysis in one of her hands. The vision asked for prayer and penance and that a chapel be built on the spot. The number of onlookers that accompanied the girl to the site steadily grew from eight to eight thousand.
Initially Bernadette identified the apparition only as the Lady in White or Aquéro (“that one,” in the local dialect), though almost from the beginning townspeople and even the local newspaper reported that the supposed visions were of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It wasn’t until the third-to-last apparition that Bernadette received an answer to her requests for the woman’s name, and even then she seems not to have understood the meaning of the response: “I am the Immaculate Conception”—or, in the dialect that Mary used, “Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou.”
Born without original sin, Mary is the new Eve. But while Eve was deceived by the serpent to believe that God did not have her best interest in mind, Mary had the right idea about the divine goodness and saw that obedience to God was conducive to her complete happiness. Kept free from sin, she shows that human beings are not unavoidably destined for evil, that God did not rig the game against Adam and Eve. In Mary, through the grace of Christ, the human person, made in the image of God, is brought to perfection, and God’s goodness is put on display. As Fr. Peter John Cameron puts it, “Mary the Immaculate Conception is the means by which God communicates how he conceives of his own holiness.”
For St. Bernadette, it was easy to see the goodness of God in the luminous smile of Our Lady of Lourdes. Today, the town of Lourdes receives about 5 million pilgrims each year. They come to seek cures, to do penance, and mainly to encounter the goodness of God in the beautiful smile of the Immaculate Conception.
As I write this post, a sister of one of the Brothers has announced that she’s going to Lourdes and has offered to bring petitions to be placed under the patronage of Our Lady. So I wrote down a few things. Like I said, the Immaculate Conception follows me everywhere—even from France! Sure, we are the ones who go on pilgrimage, but only because she appeared at Lourdes first, coming to us through St. Bernadette, through the Pope and the Bishops, through religious institutions, through books and movies, pilgrims that we know, blogs that we read, rosaries that we pray. Through the goodness of God, she follows us everywhere.
Image: Vincenzo Patricolo, Lourdes – preghiera di luce
One of my favorite pastimes is to ponder a good brain teaser—some of the best are here. I’ve never been particularly successful solving them; in fact, it’s rare that I figure one out on my own. But I do enjoy the solutions. There is often a certain elegance to them, as apparent contradictions are resolved and impossibilities are neatly avoided. While most teasers are solved by an ingenious stratagem or a clever point of view, occasionally the apparent contradictions that started the puzzle won’t quite disappear. Instead, they coalesce into a single paradox, something that can’t possibly be and yet is.
Even among kinds of paradoxes, not all are equal. Some exist because they lack any real content. Taken in isolation, the statement “This statement is false” is paradoxical—if true, it must be false and, if false, true. But ultimately it is a meaningless self-reference, empty of any substance. Some other, more unique paradoxes exist not because they lack meaning, but because they point to more meaning that we can wholly comprehend. Light is both a wave and a particle, and yet not fully either. We want the best for those we love, and yet we hurt those we love the most. Such paradoxes are not empty, but too full; they point to a reality beyond our natural understanding.
The Christian Faith itself sometimes looks more like a brain teaser than a concrete system of belief, and the paradoxes of its doctrines don’t ever disappear. We believe, as Ross Douthat puts it, that
Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. We assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament’s God of love and mercy.
These signs of contradiction might seem to leave us in the dark, yet they are the light to the nations. The Divine absurdities of Love are so full of the wisdom of God that they are beyond the wisdom of men. And so we give them a special name: we call them Mysteries.
Mysteries, because they are hidden from our sight and yet fundamental. The Christian creed is not self-contained and closed but has at its heart a paradox—that of the God-Man who died and yet lives—which distinguishes it from any other creed. In this, the Cross is the perfect image. “Though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction,” G.K. Chesterton writes, “it can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing.”
The Church in Her wisdom constantly draws us back to the secret of these mysteries, never allowing us to forget them. The rhythms of the liturgical year echo the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection. They find a reflection in the life of each saint we celebrate. And in a particularly profound manner, the prayer of the Rosary focuses our vision upon these mysteries through the eyes of the woman closest to them.
These mysteries are greater than us, because they are God’s revelation of Himself to us. As the Psalmist says they are “too wonderful for me … too high, beyond my reach” (Ps 139:6), and we can never hope to fully embrace their meaning; instead, we can hope to be embraced by them. Left to our own devices it is not we who reach God, but God who reaches us. To contemplate the mysteries of God, to direct our gaze toward the light of His ineffable goodness, is both the work of a lifetime here on earth and the eternal reward awaiting us in heaven.
Image: Odilon Redon, Stained Glass Window (The Mysterious Garden)
Last May saw the first fruits of a little-known but compellingly ambitious project of the Netherlands Bach Society. The project, called All of Bach, is exactly what it sounds like: they are performing and recording videos of every single piece Bach ever composed, from cantatas to sonatas to concertos to motets to organ and keyboard works of all kinds, and they are posting a new one online each week until they finish. To date, they’ve completed forty-six of Bach’s works, with 1,034 to go. (If you’re interested, the audio and video quality is superb and the performances even more superb: here are the Passacaglia in C minor [BWV 582] and the famous Cello suite no. 1 in G Major [BWV 1007], to pick just two.)
To my mind, Bach’s genius is unparalleled in the history of music, so I think this project is a fantastic treasure; even the mere idea of it is exciting. To perform and record all of Bach’s works is something similar to examining all of a master artist’s paintings or studying all of a prolific author’s books: the totality of these projects is what impresses, because in a way it connotes a sort of complete knowledge of the composer, painter, or author—or, at the very least, of his work. Could someone truly be called an expert on Flannery O’Connor without having become familiar with her complete works?
Still, even if such projects are completed, as the All of Bach project presumably will be in twenty years or so, truly comprehensive knowledge nonetheless remains out of reach. For one thing, not every piece Bach wrote saw the light of day—probably some were abandoned or simply lost to time. But there was more to Bach than his music anyway; even if one were to memorize every note of every piece he ever wrote and could give an astute explanation of why he composed how he did, there would be still more to know about him. And if we can’t hope to understand everything about even one man, how much less can we hope to exhaust the infinite intelligibility of God!
I’ve always loved the last verse of St. John’s Gospel: But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (21:25). Even the deeds of the God-Man are only partially available to our intellects, at least here and now. We know many of the things that he said and did, because they are recorded in the Gospels, which are the “principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior” (Dei Verbum 18). All of Jesus’ words and actions are salvific, but there are some we don’t know about. Even if they were written down, St. John tells us, someone who spent his whole life learning about them wouldn’t finish! Far from inciting us to doubt and despair, this vast inexhaustibility not just of Jesus’ deeds on earth but even of God’s very essence instead inspires in us faith and hope—and love.
While it’s true that we can know something about Bach from his music and that we can know something about God from his effects, in both cases our knowledge remains imperfect and incomplete. We can never attain comprehensive knowledge of God; we can only plunge further and further into his infinite intelligibility, and as a result we come to love him more and more truly. But God’s knowledge of us is comprehensive; he does know every single thing there is to know about us. He is, as St. Augustine said, “more inward than the most inward place of my heart and loftier than the highest.” Just as no one could ever know more about Bach’s music than did the composer himself, so no one can know us more deeply than can the Creator himself. We’re not just knowers, we’re known knowers. We’re not mere musicologists, outside observers examining these things from afar—we’re the music! This consoling truth is voiced sublimely in Psalm 139, which begins:
O LORD, you search me and you know me.
You yourself know my resting and my rising,
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down;
you know all my ways through and through.
Before ever a word is on my tongue,
you know it, O LORD, through and through.
Behind and before, you besiege me,
your hand ever laid upon me.
Too wonderful for me, this knowledge;
too high, beyond my reach.
Our very knowledge of God’s exhaustive knowledge of us takes us beyond our reach—wonderfully so—and straight into the unfathomable mystery, in whom we hope to remain, knowing and being known by the Divine Composer for all eternity.
Image: J. S. Bach, Autograph Manuscript
Thanks to secularization, modern people easily forget the true meaning of Christian words. Take, for instance, the saints we celebrate today: St. Paul Miki and his companions were martyred in 1597 on the outskirts of Nagasaki, Japan. A witness to the execution records St. Paul Miki’s final sermon:
As I come to this supreme moment of my life, I am sure none of you would suppose I want to deceive you. And so I tell you plainly: there is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.
St. Paul Miki, a martyr for the faith; and yet I find many people don’t understand what martyrdom is about. Perhaps you have had this experience, but on a number of occasions people have asked me why Christian martyrdom is okay but Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombing is not. “They are both about dying for faith,” one hears. Leaving aside for now the issue of Islamic fundamentalists, this is a good time to reflect on why Christian martyrdom is not really about death.
St. Thomas follows the classical tradition in classifying actions according to their object, or end. So the act of eating is about food, the act of reading is about words on a page, the act of shooting is about hitting a target. Ends are essential in the definition of the act. Now, this doesn’t mean that circumstances are unimportant; it just means they are extrinsic to the act itself. So, for instance, the act of reading is essentially the same whether one reads a book, magazine, computer screen, billboard, etc. The circumstances can add moral qualifications to the action (shooting skeet with a bazooka is morally different when it is done in the middle of a country field rather than at a busy airport), but the essence of the act remains the same. Make sense? Good.
What is the essential act of martyrdom? What is its end? Here’s the point: it is not death. The martyr does not seek death as the end or object of his or her act. That is called suicide, no matter how noble the cause. The martyr would be just as happy not dying because of a confession of faith. Witness Peter and John in Acts 5, first being let out of prison by an angel and then rejoicing after only a slight beating upon recapture. They were ready to die for the faith (and Peter eventually would), but they didn’t stay in jail in the hopes of death, nor did they leave the Sadducees downcast because they only received a good drubbing. They had preached and witnessed to Christ; that was the essential part.
St. Thomas highlights this aspect in his discussion of martyrdom in the Summa Theologiae: “Martyrdom consists essentially in standing firmly to truth and justice against the assaults of persecution” (ST II-II, q. 124, a. 1, corpus). Martyrdom, for St. Thomas, is a special act of fortitude, a “standing firm” in the face of death. But death is not the goal. St. Thomas explains: “endurance of death is not praiseworthy in itself, but only in so far as it is directed to some good consisting in an act of virtue, such as faith or the love of God” (ST II-II, q. 124, a. 3, corpus). Now, of course, death is rightly associated with martyrdom, wherein the Christian’s virtuous “endurance” is rendered in the most perfect fashion. St. Thomas explains: “A martyr is so called as being a witness to the Christian faith, which teaches us to despise things visible for the sake of things invisible… therefore the perfect notion of martyrdom requires that a man suffer death for Christ’s sake” (ST II-II, q. 124, a. 4, corpus).
A martyr is one who dies not for death’s sake, but for Christ’s sake, which makes all the difference in the world. Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P., explains: “Theological faith provides the specific adherence that distinguishes Christian martyrdom from political assassination or dying for an ideological cause.” There is a certain passivity in the martyr, which is absent in the suicide bomber: something akin to the passivity of Christ on the cross. The martyr suffers death; he does not seek it.
This understanding of martyrdom raises two important points. First, every Christian should have a bit of martyr in him or her, at least by way of similitude. Whenever we are called to witness to the difference Christ makes in our lives – in word or deed, and in the face of opposition – we can, like St. Paul Miki and his Companions, ask for the gift of fortitude, in whatever dose we need for the situation. Second, this brings a new seriousness to any act of witness. One of the crucial theological debates of the early Church was what to do with Christians who failed to witness to the faith during persecution. The early Church took witnessing to Christ seriously, even if it did not always end in death. Do you?
Image: Christian Martyrs of Nagasaki
Do I not hate those who hate you,
abhor those who rise against you?
I hate them with a perfect hate,
and they are foes to me.
With the anniversary of the martyrdom of the second-century Roman priest St. Valentine coming up, we hear a lot of talk about love. But what about hate?
The Psalmist, in one of several passages excised from the Liturgy of the Hours, shows forth his utter contempt for the enemies of God. At the time, when the kingdom of Israel was fighting to survive among several hostile nations and even factions within itself, the people who rose up against God were seeking to take the life of this psalm’s composer. Today, however, the word “hate” is often employed to undermine the Gospel: Christians, because of violence in the Bible, are continually accused of hate-mongering; preaching the truth about love, marriage, and human nature is often denounced or even prosecuted as “hate speech”; and Fundamentalist protesters bearing signs that read “God hates [insert group here]” only add to the charges. With this in mind, how can hatred be justified, and what can make the Psalmist’s “perfect hate” actually a form of love?
When we consider the nature of hatred, as one of the passions within the body and the soul, we see that it is directly opposed to love, but also that it cannot exist without love. For example, it is impossible to love and hate the same movie. I can say I hated the recent Hobbit films because I loved the book and found the movies to be lacking in the book’s goodness. Love and hate often come together with regard to a limited good, so that willing that good for someone is also willing that someone else be deprived of it: thus if I wish for Ohio State to win the Big Ten championship, I necessarily also wish that Michigan may not win it. (Nothing personal against the team up north, but there can only be one winner.)
However, the salvation of our souls is not a zero-sum game, for eternal life is an unlimited good. In fact, if we love God and wish our own salvation, then we necessarily wish for our neighbors to be saved, for “if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Even those who turn against God and oppose us demand our love, as Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you: love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:43-44).
To love our enemies, then, means to love who they are (namely, persons made in the image and likeness of God). It means to wish them well and, on a heroic level, to do good for them. Yet with this love comes a concomitant hatred, namely, for the obstacles to our enemies’ true flourishing, that is, their sins, by which they love some lesser good more than God. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains:
Consequently it is lawful to hate the sin in one’s brother, and whatever pertains to the defect of Divine justice, but we cannot hate our brother’s nature and grace without sin. Now it is part of our love for our brother that we hate the fault and the lack of good in him, since desire for another’s good is equivalent to hatred of his evil (ST II-II.34.3).
Moreover, advising our neighbors to cease from sin and return to friendship with God, that is, fraternal correction, is an act of charity and mercy. St. Thomas, following Cicero, even classifies vengeance as a virtue in this circumstance, “with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done” (ST II-II.108.2). As we Dominicans read in the Rule of St. Augustine, when admonishing our brothers in community, we should always “let love of the sinner be united to hatred for his sin.”
Thus we should not hate our enemies (and the enemies of God) in themselves, but hate what it is that makes them enemies. This is the “perfect hate” of which the Psalmist speaks, perfect because it goes hand in hand with love of neighbor, hating whatever prevents him or her from achieving the ultimate goal of eternal life with God. Let us not fall prey to hating those who oppose us, but rather, as Pope Francis exhorts,
At least let us say to the Lord: “Lord, I am angry with this person, with that person. I pray to you for him and for her.” To pray for a person with whom I am irritated is a beautiful step forward in love, and an act of evangelization. Let us do it today! Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the ideal of fraternal love! (Evangelii Gaudium 101)
Image: John Everett Millais, Victory O Lord! (Moses, Aaron, and Hur at the Battle of Rephidim)
Today the Dominican Order celebrates the feast of St. Catherine de Ricci. She’s known for her mysticism and her devotion, as found in her Canticum de Passione Domini. The studentate has translated and recorded the chant for you.
The Canticum de Passione Domini consists of two-line verses from Scripture, both from the Old and New Testaments, which a solo cantor chants in Gregorian mode II while kneeling before the crucifix. The solemn, sorrowful melody pulses like the heavy breathing of the dying Christ, and the silence between verses hangs with the gravity of Calvary. The span of time that passes between the verses communicates the reality that God inspired the words of David, always knowing that Christ’s crucifixion would fulfill them. As God was granting the Israelites their kingdom and building the temple, He was also announcing that He, the true King and Temple, would be torn down.
Yet, Christians know that what was torn down was rebuilt in three days. Friday is perfected by Sunday. Those who die with Christ also rise with Him. From the moment of Baptism we are taken up into the Body of Christ. We begin to live like St. Paul who says, “And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me” (Gal 2:20).
Christ’s presence within St. Paul was so profound that Paul bear[s] the marks of the Lord Jesus in [his] body (Gal 6:17). He is possibly the first saint of the Church to bear the stigmata. Another popular account of the stigmata is that of the Dominican St. Catherine of Siena, but less known are the wounds of her religious sister St. Catherine de Ricci.
There’s an interesting relationship between the two Dominican saints. They share the same name, the same mystical visions, and the same wounds. Look for a painting of St. Catherine de Ricci and try to distinguish her from St. Catherine of Siena. They almost seem to be the same person. This is because both women had a devotion to Christ crucified. Just as Christ was joined to the cross with His wounds, so too these saintly women were joined to Jesus by His wounds. It was de Ricci’s love and union with Christ Crucified that led her to compose the devotion we shared above.
The divine favors that both Catherines received announce the presence of Christ, suffering in His Body the Church. While you or I will likely never encounter such miracles, the reality of Christ’s presence within His faithful people should not be overlooked. It should be seen through the eyes of faith. The baptized are taken up into Christ and adjured to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice. By this, the sufferings of this world are no longer meaningless. God has taken on our sufferings and transformed them into the bridge that connects man to God.
Those who mocked Christ on the Cross, beckoning Him to come down, were ignorant of what was being accomplished – His life was not being taken, but He was laying it down for His friends. What kept Jesus on the Cross was not the nails, but His love. No one else possesses the power to choose his or her own afflictions; we are passive in suffering. Yet, the baptized can join St. Catherine’s example. She meditated on the Passion of Our Lord not because it was something that happened in the past, but it was an event that pervaded time, up to her present and up to our present. Christ continues to suffer in His members. Those in the Church, who unite their sufferings to His wounds, are brought up into something greater than themselves.
Pope Benedict explains,
This liberation of our “I”… means finding oneself within the vastness of God and being drawn into a life. . . . [By the Resurrection] we are associated with a new dimension of life into which, amid the tribulations of our day, we are already in some way introduced. . . . This is the meaning of being baptized, of being Christian.
St. Paul’s own words, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me,” were taken up again by St. Catherine of Siena and St. Catherine de Ricci, marking their own lives. Their similarity of life, their union in the wounds of Christ, bear great witness to the living reality of Jesus in His mystical Body, the Church. They also beckon us all to look to the Passion in prayer. Then, seeing what Christ did two thousand years ago, we can see what Jesus continues to do within us.
Image: Sr. Mary of the Compassion, O.P., St. Dominic and Saints
There is a scene early in Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses in which young John Grady, about to set off for Mexico, runs into the girl who has recently jilted him. She feelingly, and perhaps foolishly, expresses the vague hope that they might still be friends.
He shook his head. It’s just talk, Mary Catherine. I got to get on.
What if it is just talk? Everything’s talk isn’t it?
An ordinary, even trivial conversation becomes, under McCarthy’s pen, charged with profound significance. I think John Grady’s quiet “not everything” stands in stark, monumental defiance of an unglamorous, garden-variety nihilism lurking under the surface of Mary Catherine’s question, “Everything’s talk, isn’t it?” She is giving voice to a question that haunts a culture adrift among the flotsam and jetsam of postmodernity: is there some ground of meaning that can bear the weight of our words and beliefs? The worry of our age is that Mary Catherine is right – it’s all just talk.
At least part of what drives this worry, I suspect, are the two attitudes or aspects dominant in our (millennial) culture, namely, irony and sincerity. Popular culture seems to be a function of the interplay of these two rival attitudes.
When irony is elevated to the level of a cultural norm, it tends to erode confidence in words, and consequently also in belief. As David Foster Wallace observes in his brilliant essay E Unibus Pluram, if pressed for a reply to the pursuit of meaning, it resorts to mockery: “How very banal to ask what I mean.” In its toxic form, irony either denies outright that there is meaning, or it makes meaning a matter of knowledge, held by an elite few. These are the cognoscenti, who see through the mere symbols and appearances of words to their hidden meaning, which they can control and manipulate.
As a backlash to the corrosive, nihilistic “age of irony,” there sprang up flag-bearers for a “New Sincerity,” which promoted the virtues of (you guessed it) sincerity, honesty, and the sort of studied naivete that declares, “The most punk-rock thing you can do in the age of laugh-at-everything is cry at a movie.” The New Sincerity, by contrast to irony’s “existential poker-face,” makes sincerity or earnestness a value in its own right. The content of belief is not as important as the sincerity of the one holding the belief. What matters is not what you’re earnest about, but that you’re earnest about it.
As cultural norms, both irony and sincerity bank on the colossal presupposition that the fabled terra firma–if indeed it exists–is something we have to construct ourselves. This attempt to make meaning, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out, is a Gnostic notion. At the core of all forms of Gnosticism, he declares, is a rejection of created meaning in favor of a meaning that is constructed and controlled. In contrast to the Christian model, Gnosticism fears and so rejects the dependence and vulnerability of receiving meaning. “Gnosticism,” Benedict remarks, “will not entrust itself to a world already created, but only to a world still to be created.”
The Christian vision of reality is the exact opposite. “Meaning,” Ratzinger declares in Introduction to Christianity, “cannot be made but only received.” He elaborates:
For to believe as a Christian means entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world; taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly.
As he writes elsewhere, it belongs to the Christian faith to “accept love, creation as love, and to make that love the foundation of one’s life.” The creative love of God: here is the terra firma our culture is in search of. Rather than something we ourselves construct, it is something we entrust ourselves to. It is a gift we discover.
For a culture that is deeply ambivalent towards words, the Christian response is characteristically direct: the Word. Jesus Christ is the ultimate guarantor of meaning. At the center of the hierarchy between the Creator and the created, the Word become flesh is the rock supporting the weight of our words. He is the ground on which we can stand fearlessly, and from which we can invite others to believe. If He is the antidote, the treatment (to my mind) is summed up in Wallace Stevens’ observation:
To speak simply of good is like to love.
Implicit in this line is a tremendous trust in language, in words. We should, as Wendell Berry says, “stand by words.” Human words have the power to convey meaning, though at times they may be misunderstood. Yet words can do even more; the Christian is strengthened in his faith through words, which have power not from purely human strength but from the Word Himself. When we speak simply of the good, we speak of the only one who is Good (Mt. 19:17). To speak simply means putting weight on words, trusting that they reveal the thing spoken of. To speak simply means letting the good, the desirable, do the talking. To speak simply of good is an act akin to love.
To return to Ratzinger, belief for the Christian is to understand “our existence as a response to the Word, the Logos, that upholds and maintains all things.” Only on these grounds can we dare to speak simply of good and affirm, like John Grady, that it’s not just talk. On this foundation of love, we have the grounds to believe and the impudence to be earnest.
Image: Horses (Chauvet Cave)
During his recent trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis gave some advice to families. Speaking candidly, he told them:
Every mother and every father dreamed about their children for nine months. Am I right? You dreamed about how your child would be. You can’t have a family without dreaming! When a family loses the ability to dream, children don’t grow, love doesn’t grow, life turns weak and eventually shuts off.
His emphasis on dreaming is striking. At first, it almost seems out of place. Where does the Bible exhort families to keep dreaming? But Pope Francis has something important to say here, and today’s feast provides an avenue into this idea of dreaming.
Today we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord, when Mary and Joseph took their forty-day-old child to the Temple. In the Gospel, we hear of Simeon taking the Christ Child in his arms and speaking these prophetic words to Mary:
Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Lk 2:34-35).
Surely, Mary and Joseph had dreamed about who their child was, but Simeon’s words may have come as a surprise. Most parents don’t dream of their child being a sign of contradiction. Simeon’s words can sound rather harsh, and yet, they are the Good News. They tell us of a different kind of dreaming, a particularly Christian way of dreaming—if you will—a cross-shaped dreaming.
Mary held Simeon’s words in her heart, pondering them. As she nurtured Jesus from his infant years into adulthood, these words remained in her heart. In Pope Francis’ language, Mary kept dreaming about her Son’s life, and her dreaming made room for the Cross.
This cross-shaped dreaming is part of every Christian’s vocation. We are called to contemplate God’s action in our life, and to do so with an openness to the Cross.
We can see a prime example of cross-shaped dreaming in the sacrament of baptism, though this may not be understood consciously by many people. To the untrained eye, baptism seems like a nice cultural ceremony, full of nice symbolic gestures, and effecting a nice acceptance into a community of nice people. But this is more pastel-colored daydreaming than cross-shaped dreaming.
Baptism, whether for adults or infants, effects a real dying of self by uniting us to the Cross. St. Paul writes to the Romans:
Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life (Rom 6:3-4).
Now that’s cross-shaped dreaming! St. Paul’s words should hold a place in the heart of all Christians, especially parents and godparents.
Recall Pope Francis’ words: “When a family loses the ability to dream, children don’t grow, love doesn’t grow, life turns weak and eventually shuts off.” Now compare these words to Jesus’ saying: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:35-36). If our dreaming is to give life, our dreams must include self-denial, taking up the Cross, and following Jesus.
But how do we go about this cross-shaped dreaming? A reliable answer is the Rosary. In this prayer we first contemplate the life of Jesus through the intercession of Mary, and then we gradually begin to contemplate Jesus’ life in ourselves and others, again, through Mary’s intercession. She, who pondered Simeon’s words and accepted her Son’s Cross, helps us to dream of what God will make of us and our loved ones, even helping us to embrace the Cross of our salvation. Mary does this with her motherly tenderness, lending her sweetness to the Cross of Love.
In the Liturgy of the Hours, there is a closing prayer that nicely brings together this idea of cross-shaped dreaming. May this be our prayer today as we welcome the working of God into our lives, the working of the Father who welcomed the sacrificial love of His Crucified Son. This comes from Week II, Friday, Evening Prayer:
God our Father,
the contradiction of the cross
proclaims your infinite wisdom.
Help us to see that the glory of your Son
is revealed in the suffering he freely accepted.
Give us faith to claim as our only glory
the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Image: Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Detail)
In the NFC Divisional thriller between Green Bay and Dallas, the player of the game wasn’t #12 of the Packers, Aaron Rodgers, who valiantly fought through injury, nor was it #9 of the Cowboys, Tony Romo, who battled doubters about his ability to win the big game. Rather, it was Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 of the NFL Rulebook. This incredibly complex definition of a catch, situated in the labyrinthine code of NFL law, overturned a miraculous 4th-down reception by the Cowboys, and sealed their fate as playoff losers.
Gone are the days of the boys hitting the gridiron and battling it out with body and soul to determine the champion. Instead, every great play now must have a 5-minute session in the judge’s chambers so Judge Judy can arbitrate between Ben Matlock and Perry Mason. These arguments have caused the major networks to enlist former referees full-time to let the fans in on the case and provide their commentary, often the most valuable of the game. The athletic drama is now replaced by legal drama.
The game cited above is not a unique case, not even close. In fact the previous Dallas Cowboys game was decided, much to the chagrin of self-loathing Detroit Lions fans, by not one but three governing rules, all applied in controversial fashion on one single play: rules Rule 12, Section 2, Article 14; Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(a); and Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(j).
Almost every game there are multiple plays where, for all intents and purposes, the player scores a touchdown, but thanks to instant review, they discover the ball was 9 inches away from the (invisible) plane of the front-most portion of the goal line. Thus, they have to review it, have a commercial or 5, then overturn it, run another play from the (invisible) 9-inch line, and achieve the same result (touchdown) 5 minutes later.
I won’t even get into “Deflategate,” the top sports story these days before the Super Bowl: were the Patriots’ footballs between the required 12.5-13.5 psi? Oh, the humanity!
All this leaves fans like me feeling like the game isn’t as fun as it used to be. There can be a similar phenomenon in the spiritual life. Many people think of the final judgment as a sort of official booth review of one’s life, where all one’s life choices are set up on the screen, and Jesus has his headset on and phones in with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and determines whether or not you kept two feet in on all your actions. And heaven forbid if your pinky toe stepped out of bounds: looks like it could be a very long offseason for you! After review, we find that John Jones was a good husband for 63 years and was a Knight of Columbus, but on the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, when he was 71-years-old, his knee failed to contact the ground on his genuflection upon entering church. As a result of the play, he will be sent into the everlasting lake of fire. His children will be charged a timeout.
Well, friends, I’m happy to say that this is not the case at all. Our individual actions do indeed have consequences, and seriously damaging acts separate us from God and each other. However, someone may be tormented by obsessively and often erroneously analyzing the minutiae of his actions, and this over-thinking has a name in the Catholic spiritual tradition: scrupulosity. Human beings face difficult moral decisions all the time. There is the deliberation before the act, the experience of carrying out the act, and the inevitable “Monday-morning-quarterback” analysis of our past actions. Given the fact that we all are imperfect and have imperfect powers of evaluation, these three stages of fact-checking can be stressful and lead to self-doubt, and in severe cases, crippling self-analysis. Once someone has reached the more advanced stages of scrupulosity, either they become afraid to act and despair of their salvation, or they realize this is no way to live and cast out all doubts by abandoning the project of self-examination altogether. So how can one live a self-examined life without turning into a basket case?
We are not isolated. We must internalize the Word of God, appropriate the teachings of the Church, live in a relationship with God, and—maybe the most difficult—seek the advice of others. But in all of this, we have the theological virtue of Hope, which gives us assurance when we think we have committed a good act, with good intentions, in good circumstances. This Hope is a gift from God himself, and through it, we can be confident that God does want to bring us to live with him, not to trip us up at the last second. This confidence does not excuse sinful actions, but it does give us the ability to be assured that salvation is possible and desired for us by God himself.
The glory of God is man fully alive. Man fully alive is not destined to be a limp, navel-gazing, self-paralyzed blob. Christian men and women are meant to be confident and vivacious, rushing to the goal of life with panache and vibrancy, not worried about some NFL-like “official review,” but confident in the providence and mercy of God. The game of life is rigged: Jesus has already won. All we have to do is remain on his team.
Image: The early days of NFL instant replay