Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.
Thus writes John Ames, the main character in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. The novel takes the form of a lengthy letter written by Ames, an elderly Iowa pastor who married late in life and, struck with a terminal illness, faces the prospect of leaving behind his wife and young son. In the letter – intended to be read by the son long after his father’s demise – Ames writes the many things he would have liked to impart to his son had illness not intervened.
Among the many themes in Robinson’s novel, the sense of awe at the wonder of existence that pervades Ames’s thoughts stands out. At one point he declares, “I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.” What sparks this admiration? A lunar eclipse? A glorious thunderstorm? Nothing of the sort; rather, it is ordinary, everyday objects that move Ames: “I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me. I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.” Ames is a character who feels the weight of one of the great philosophical questions: Why is there something rather than nothing?
In a meditation on the commandment to honor father and mother, Ames reflects on how the Lord gives everyone somebody to honor: the child the parent, and the parent the child. He then describes his wife’s love for their son as an embodiment of that honor, in that it reflects the love of God, and from this he concludes: “You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.” This godlike quality is firmly rooted in the first creation account of Genesis: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
The wonder of existence also lies at the heart of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. The German philosopher Josef Pieper notes that, whereas St. Augustine emphasizes the essence of God (what God is), for St. Thomas God’s mere existence is fundamental. St. Augustine interprets the divine name of Exodus 3:14 (“I am Who am”) in terms of God’s unchangeable nature; St. Thomas takes the words to signify, “I am the pure act-of-being.” At first glance, this interpretation might seem dry and uninteresting. But if one ponders it more carefully, one can’t help but be struck by a sense of awe. As Pieper notes, “What makes things truly ‘real’ is the act of existing.” But, he adds, only God can call things from non-existence into being, a point St. Thomas illustrates with vivid language:
Because God by virtue of His essence is existence itself, therefore the existence of what he has created is necessarily a producing peculiar to His essence; just as flaming up is the effect peculiar to the essence of fire. (ST I q. 8 a. 1)
Pieper draws out the implications of this teaching: “Wherever we encounter anything real, anything existent in any way whatsoever, we encounter something that has ‘flamed up’ directly from God.” In other words, in encountering everyday, run-of-the-mill things – a line of oak trees, an ordinary son – we in some sense meet the living God. In light of this Pieper offers a modification of the classical philosophical dictum “Everything that is, is good”: “Because the being of the world participates in the divine being which pervades it to its innermost core, the world is not only a good world; it is in a very precise sense holy.”
It is this holiness that drives a character like John Ames to wonder at the sheer fact of existence. That anything other than God should exist is a miracle of sorts. And yet the wonder of St. Thomas and of Robinson’s character does not end in this life – it points to the next. But rather than detracting from the significance of the present world, the prospect of the world to come imbues this world with a far deeper significance. Reflecting on the passing nature of the world and the prospect of the resurrection, Ames writes:
In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
Christ’s resurrection is the ultimate testament to the goodness of creation, the surest sign of God’s love for a world marked by his holiness. And so, the octave of Easter we observe this week is not just a celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and death; it is also a reminder that, in the words of John Ames, “Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing.”
Image: Ivan Shishkin, Oak Forest
“Excuse me, sir. You’re not going to be able to pay for that.” His words flew like a dart. I was startled. My thoughts raced: “Is he talking to me?” I stood paralyzed. “It must be me.” My heart sunk.
“Sir, I don’t think you make enough money to purchase that.” The second time was harsher. Embarrassed blood flushed my face. I lowered my gaze and mumbled something apologetic as my feet carried me away to anywhere else.
A few moments earlier, I had been enraptured by beauty. My friend and I had just entered the art gallery, and the first painting captivated me: Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross. I delighted in its mastery and especially its use of light, and I wanted to share this wonder with my friend. But as I began to point out Rembrandt’s technique, my finger went too far. I triggered the security guard sitting behind me, and he intervened swiftly and bluntly.
As we hurried away from the scene of my embarrassment, a part of me became defensive. My finger wasn’t that close. If he only knew me, he would know that I’m not the type of person who goes around touching paintings. What kind of person did he think I was? I’m a respectable art gallery-goer.
But something more disturbed me. I had felt a certain familiarity with the painting—that wasn’t a painting of just anything or anyone; that was my Savior, my brother, that was the moment of my redemption. Yet the guard’s words paid no regard to this. It was as if I were a stranger looking at an antique artifact. Sure, some might see a priceless, untouchable masterpiece, but I saw a family portrait.
Then my thoughts came to a compromise. On one hand, I’ll grant to the guard that I could never pay for that: whether the painting or its subject. In fact, the painting shows just how much He paid for me, for all of us. I can’t explain why Jesus would make such a down payment for us, but I’m glad He did.
But on the other hand, I will not apologize for getting too close to Jesus. Sure, keep your fancy painting in mint condition, but I’ll take my Jesus, who for our sake, took on our brokenness. He handed himself over to us, and we scourged and crucified him. He who knew no sin became sin—and even now he bears the glorious marks of his sorrowful passion.
My Jesus is touchable. Just recall the dinner-party with the Pharisee and the sinful woman. The Pharisee murmured to himself: “does not Jesus know who is touching him? If he were a prophet, he would know that she is a sinner.” Yes, Jesus knows who touches him. He knows my unfaithfulness, my brokenness, my slowness to love, my insecurities, my sins.
But he is more than a prophet—he is a savior. He not only knows my sins, but takes them on himself, nailing them to the cross. And now he lavishes us with forgiveness and healing, pouring out mercy in the confessional.
This is a Savior who comes to us even today in a piece of once-bread and a sip of once-wine, inviting us not just to touch, but to taste, to take and eat, to be united to his very Body and Blood.
So next time I go to the art museum, I will mind the boundaries with refined etiquette. But the next time Jesus comes to me in the Eucharist, may my soul forget all its boundaries. O gates, lift high your heads; grow higher, ancient door. Let him enter, the king of glory!
Image: Rembrandt Workshop (Probably Constantijn van Renesse), The Descent from the Cross, 1650/1652
We climbed out of the bus, and immediately someone said, And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem (Ps 122:2); a few steps later, through the Damascus Gate, it was true. I had been the ninth student to respond to my theology professor’s email which had said something like, “My wife and I are going to the Holy Land during fall break and the first ten students to write back expressing serious interest can come with us.” So it was that I went up to Jerusalem that morning, praying the Song of Ascents—Psalms 120–134—just as Jews of old did, generation after generation, as they traveled to the Temple for the three pilgrim feasts (although they didn’t pray them on a crowded Palestinian bus).
A few days later, on the last day of our pilgrimage, my companions and I made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the third time that week. We had already had the thrill of stepping inside the Aedicule—the large structure built over our Lord’s tomb and directly under the main dome of the church—and of venerating the tomb which has remained empty since the day death was destroyed there on that very stone. But on this third and final visit to the church, we met one Fr. Fergus, the guardian for the Franciscan community at the Holy Sepulchre, who gave us a tour. As he walked us around, he frequently paused to muse on the reason the church is there, the reason so many people come to visit it, the reason he became a Franciscan, the reason he and his community are so solicitous to take good care of that church, the reason they wake up at two o’clock each morning to pray there, the reason we pray at all, the reason for our faith: “It’s the Resurrection!”
It was a moving thing, to be in that ancient church, listening to that holy and wholly friendly friar as he told us, hardly able to contain his excitement, “This was the most important event in human history!—it was an actual event, which actually happened, and it happened here. It happened right here.” And this refrain which he kept repeating, “It’s the Resurrection!”, as if simply beside himself with the sheer joy of it, was a powerful reminder that belief in the Resurrection is something constant and all-encompassing. And he was right, of course: the Resurrection is the reason for our faith, for our hope, for our praying, for our joy. This is straight from St. Paul: if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14). In vain. Not worth a single thing. Utterly useless. If Christ has not been raised, what have we to hope for, what have we to live for?
But in fact Christ has been raised (1 Cor 15:20). He has passed from death to life, and through this unfathomable miracle of mercy we ourselves have been born anew to a living hope and thus rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy (1 Pet 1:3, 8).
In St. John Chrysostom’s famous Easter homily, which is so beautiful that Orthodox and Eastern Rite Churches read it aloud on the morning of Pascha (Easter) every year, he exhorts all the faithful—and the unfaithful too—to rejoice in the Resurrection of the Lord:
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honor the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
and you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
for pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
for the Savior’s death has set us free.
Yes, the feast of faith has arrived, and our joy is unutterable; for with the Psalmist—and with Christ himself—we may now say, I shall not die, I shall live (Ps 118:17). We will of course die; but the Resurrection transforms death, destroys death, makes of it not an end but a beginning of life.
And as today I rejoice that Christ is truly risen, that death has lost its sting, that Life reigns, I can almost hear good Fr. Fergus saying, in a voice soft yet full of jubilant faith, “It’s the Resurrection!”
Image: Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
On Good Friday 1940, the Nazi SS Guards of Dachau Concentration Camp found pretext to punish sixty-some priest-prisoners with an hour on “the tree.” One former Dachau prisoner describes the torture saying, “They tie a man’s hands together behind his back, palms facing out and fingers pointing backward. Then they turn his hands inwards, tie a chain around his wrists and hoist him up by it. His own weight twists his joints and pulls them apart.” The barbaric aptitude of the guards of Dachau incarnated the demonic for the some 2500 priests condemned to incarceration in the camp during the years 1933–1945. Priests were crowned with crowns of barbed wire while groups of Jewish prisoners were forced to hail them as kings. Guards mocked, spat upon, and forced priests to carry railroad ties, all in imitation of the crucified Lord.
Every passing day in that camp must have made all-too-real the wickedness and cruelty of Good Friday for those seemingly forsaken prisoners. Good Friday is the only calendar day during which priests do not offer the sacrifice of the Mass. Intermittently denied the ability to celebrate the sacraments, the priest-prisoners found themselves scrounging for scraps of bread to consecrate in clandestine Masses, often going long periods without the sacraments. The few luxuries they were allowed (extra helpings of food, permission to gather for prayer, etc.) evoke the comforts offered Christ during his passion, such as Veronica wiping his face or Simon helping to carry his cross. Even these comforts though were used against the priests, as the rest of the camp’s prisoners envied the liberties occasionally accorded them, making the priests despised even by the other prisoners: not unlike the rejection Christ endured from the angry mob.
To be sure, not all of the priest-prisoners of Dachau were saintly men—some were actually notorious criminals—but some of Dachau’s resident clergy have been held up as model Christians by the Church, worthy of public veneration. One such priest is the relatively obscure Italian Dominican friar Giuseppe Girotti.
Fr. Giuseppe—a former student of the Servant of God Père Marie-Joseph Lagrange, OP—taught scripture and theology at the Dominican school of theology in Turin (S. Maria della Rose). He was universally beloved by his students. Fr. Giuseppe’s chef d’oeuvre, on the book of Isaiah, includes a detailed study of the beautiful passages on the Suffering Servant, passages applied in the New Testament to Christ in order to interpret his suffering and death on the Cross. After Italy changed course to collaborate with the Allies in 1943, Fr. Giuseppe dedicated himself to aiding the Jews of Italy. Having studied in Jerusalem, he had a great respect for the Jewish people, whom he fondly called “elder brothers” and “carriers of the word.” When asked once about his work, he candidly said, “Everything I do is for charity.” Nevertheless, his illegal work on behalf of the persecuted Jews was eventually discovered. Fr. Giuseppe’s own via crucis (way of the cross) began on August 29, 1944, when he was betrayed, like his Master, and handed over to the police.
From the prison in Turin, Fr. Giuseppe was transferred to Milan, then to Gries, finally arriving at Dachau. As Isaiah says, “Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth. Seized and condemned, he was taken away. Who would have thought any more of his destiny?” (Isa. 53:7-8). In the midst of the horrific conditions of the camp, during the cold of the winter of 1944–1945 Fr. Giuseppe often said, “We have to prepare to die, but peacefully, with lighted lamps and the happiness of the saints.” On Christmas he gave two lectures on the theological virtues, and was known for regularly teaching his fellow inmates about Sacred Scripture. Fr. Giuseppe fell ill from the camp’s inhumane state, and was transferred to the infirmary. He died there on Easter Sunday, 1945. It is assumed his life was extinguished by a lethal injection of gasoline, as was the common practice of the Nazi prison camps. “Because of his anguish he shall see the light; because of his knowledge he shall be content” (Isa. 53:11). When word spread through the camp that he had died, a fellow prisoner carved into his empty bed the words, “Here slept Saint Giuseppe Girotti.”
Fr. Giuseppe will be formally beatified on April 26, the day before Bl. John XIII and Bl. John Paul II will be canonized saints. Fr. Giuseppe’s remarkable, humble witness of charity stands in stark contrast to the forces of evil which tormented him. This is the self-effacing embrace of the passion we memorialize on Good Friday, the day of the death of Christ, the Suffering Servant. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed” (Isa. 53:4-5). Through his own passion, Fr. Giuseppe participated in Christ’s redemptive suffering for the sake of the Church (see Col 1:24). His entrance into eternal life on the glorious day of the Resurrection sheds a ray of hope in a dark world that one day will be transformed through the saving promise of Christ’s sacred Paschal Mystery.
It was a Saturday afternoon in early July 2008. My uncle was walking around the house when a call came through on his cell. He answered to hear his friend’s voice speaking with a frightening tone, “Mark, I’m calling to say goodbye. You’ve always been a good friend to me…”
Paul Furey had been been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for more than a year. After chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, his doctors at the Mayo Clinic told him he had a few months to live.
It was then that a group of his best friends made the trip to Minnesota for one last weekend with Paul. My uncle said they didn’t talk about death that weekend. They knew how brutal his cancer had been, but at the time there was still hope in one last experimental treatment Paul was about to begin. So they lived it up! They went out on the town; they relived the college memories they had shared together; they visited the sites of Paul’s childhood, to celebrate his life together. At one point during their festivities, Paul took a sharp turn onto a dirt road, then out onto a frozen lake. His friends lost their heads and clung to their seats in fear. Then Paul spun the car around in the middle of the lake, and turning to them and smiling he said, “I just thought you should know what imminent death feels like.”
Back home, my Uncle Mark called Paul about once a week to check in, but there was still a hope he’d make it through. Then came that Saturday phone call. From his first words, Mark knew the end was close. He sat there in shock, listening silently to the farewell.
Then Paul began to say, “I guess I should be going.”
Mark didn’t know what to say, but didn’t want to hang up.
He burst out, “Paul… how are you?”
After a pause, Paul said back, “…I know whose I am.”
He was talking about Jesus. And that was the last conversation in this life that those two friends had. Paul Furey, a philosopher and faithful friend, died a few days later at 43 years old.
Why do last words mean so much to us? What sense can we make of that whole “environment” that surrounds farewells? It can be something sober like death or joyous like a wedding, but every word has a new weight. Everything that happens matters. And often love is warmed and flares up to make us act in ways we wouldn’t normally act, or say things we wouldn’t normally say. One part of the puzzle is that we don’t like change. We even feel funny watching old home videos, let alone dealing with death. The moment we realize a great change or loss is coming about, we strangely undergo two opposite reactions at once: we step back and consider our life, and we engage and try to take in every word and detail. It is during farewells that we are most awake!
Today, of course, is Holy Thursday. It is the night Jesus says farewell to his friends, the night he leaves them with his last words. But he leaves them with more than words: he leaves them the Eucharist. We often think of the Eucharist in terms of what it is, or what it does. Less often do we consider the Eucharist in context: “With great desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you before I suffer” (Lk 22:15). The Eucharist is his parting gift before going away.
Yet if he gave this gift when they knew he was leaving, when he had their full attention and he knew they would not miss its importance, why have so many missed its importance? The true presence of the Eucharist is denied by other religions and even by fellow Christians. Even among Catholics who do receive communion, we often struggle to feel or see any real change it has in our lives.
If we consider the context of this event, it can help us begin to better understand. Although the Eucharist is the last act of Jesus’ mission (as it is one event with his death and resurrection), for the apostles it is just the beginning. The apostles that night had their whole lives ahead of them. The Eucharist is a “long distance” medicine, helping us all through this life and into eternity. Jesus gave the Eucharist as a way of saying “farewell.” And it is literally just that. It is the bread that ensures that our “faring” goes “well.” It is bread for the journey home to the Father’s house. In his last words, Paul Furey said that he knew who he belonged to! Our reception of the Eucharist may not immediately sort out our every emotion or heal us from every temptation, but it does give us confidence that we belong to God.
To borrow a line from a great poet, Juliet says to Romeo, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” And so it is in our lives. Jesus knows tonight that his apostles and his Church still have a ways to go. In him they have found the only real joy in life, and in him death will be destroyed. But they will have to journey on while no longer seeing his face. This is the sorrow carried by every person who has ever loved Jesus. So in our sorrow, he gives us bread from heaven, “having all sweetness within it,” as one common prayer says. The Eucharist is Jesus. We carry him in us, and he quietly guides us on our way.
But how do we know it all to be true? We know the Eucharist is real because Christ said so. To have faith isn’t to evaluate whether what the person says is likely or beautiful or even makes perfect sense. Faith is to believe what a person says because of the one speaking! All throughout the gospels the crowds react to Jesus’ teaching not with, “That’s easy! It makes perfect sense!” Rather, the evangelists tell us many times, “They marveled that he taught them with authority.” St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Eucharistic hymn Adoro te devote:
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing, that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.
Come Lord Jesus, and in the Eucharist give us strength along the way.
Image: El Greco, The Last Supper
Today is Spy Wednesday, the day when Judas contracts with the chief priests to hand over his Master for thirty pieces of silver. It’s also the day when the Church holds the service of Tenebrae—Latin for “darkness”—in which she contemplates the various darknesses that will envelop her Lord in the coming three days.
One of the greatest musical settings of the service—Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories—begins with a prolonged meditation on “the mystery of the betrayal.” The liturgy portrays the treachery from three different angles, each time slightly recasting words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper in the presence of his betrayer:
It had been well for that man, had he never been born.
The focus on Judas is not intended to make us feel better about ourselves by contrast with that “most miserable merchant.” We are meant rather to consider the folly of the exchange, the immense injustice that Jesus suffered, and in what ways we too have betrayed him. In explaining Christ’s words, St. Jerome indicates their wider applicability: “It is better not to be than to be in evil.”
By the severity of his words, Christ cautions us against presumption, the attitude that everything will be alright, whether or not we repent of our sins. This attitude fails to appreciate the seriousness of our situation. Though presumption seems to involve a high estimate of God’s goodness, the presumptuous person actually underestimates the distance between the divine goodness and sin, while overestimating the goodness of his own sinful self. St. Thomas writes, “Presumption seems to arise directly from pride, as though a man thought so much of himself as to esteem that God would not punish him or exclude him from glory, however much he might be a sinner” (ST II-II q. 21, a. 4).
It would have been better for him, had he not been born.
But these words are not a sanction of suicide (if only because to die is not to cease to exist). Despair has its own way of depreciating the divine goodness. For the desperate person, forgiveness is out of the question. His sin is too disgusting, too heinous, too cowardly, too small-minded, too prolonged. In his case, pardon is too much to ask from God’s infinite bounty. Or, conversion is too arduous. God is not strong enough to help someone so attached to sin.
Yet the desperate person strives to retain a certain pseudo dignity. He clings to his self-possession. Judas took justice into his own hands, and went to “his own place.”
It had been better for him, if he had not been born.
And yet here we are. What else can we do but beg for pardon and hope in God’s mercy? In the very moment of betrayal God discloses the depths of his love. Who more than Christians have reason to own up to their impotence and give praise to the immensity of God’s goodness? Goodness without end, lacking in nothing. Goodness abundantly satisfying and fully capable of moving us to its permanent possession. Even now the good God gives himself by giving us the virtue of hope—which, as St. Thomas says, “makes us adhere to God, as the source whence we derive perfect goodness,” and by which “we trust to the divine assistance for obtaining happiness” (ST II-II q. 17, a. 6).
Yes, Jesus. Without the mercy in which we hope, it would have been better for us if we had never been born. And it would have been worse for us than if we had to confess our sins and humble ourselves before forgiveness. Worse than if we could not be our own final judge. Worse than if you had told us to take up our cross and follow you into the darkness.
Baseball in the spring is full of hope. As the weather has, at long last, turned warmer, and a new season has begun, millions of fans of every team look forward with excitement and anticipation. While the players have not yet reached their mid-season form, the early games show a glimpse of the joy to come. Will the Red Sox repeat as champions, or will teams who finished in last place last year battle for the World Series title? The spring, and the prospect of a new chance for every team to taste the glory of victory, lead many to proclaim, at the start of each new baseball season, that “hope springs eternal.”
The phrase originates in a poem from eighteenth-century British satirist Alexander Pope:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
This longing in the recesses of the human soul for a “life to come” tugs at something deeper than the thrill of victory, but Pope’s phrase has been associated with baseball ever since 1888, when Ernest Lawrence Thayer quoted it in his iconic poem, “Casey at the Bat”:
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that -
They’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.
With their team down by two runs in their last at-bat, with two outs and nobody on base, and two weak hitters due to come to the plate before their hometown hero, the die-hard fans know that while the odds seem insurmountable, they are yet not impossible. Their hopes are, of course, dashed, as the man in whom they placed their trust, Casey, strikes out when a single would have tied the game. This hope, unrealized on the baseball diamond, does, however, point to something more.
For Holy Week also always coincides with the springtime, and this year’s later occurrence is fitting for a year that saw a longer, harsher winter. The appearance of new life, as flowers bloom, birds return with their songs, and the last of the snow melts, signals, along with the rebirth of America’s pastime, the new life longed for in the depths of our hearts, made possible by the events we commemorate this week.
In these days between Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his crucifixion on Good Friday, we can reflect on this prediction of his:
Then he took the Twelve aside and said to them,“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and everything written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon; and after they have scourged him they will kill him, but on the third day he will rise.” But they understood nothing of this; the word remained hidden from them and they failed to comprehend what he said (Luke 18:31-34).
When things look bleakest, whether for our baseball team, for society, or even for the Apostles, who could not yet understand the promise of the life of the world to come, let us look to our Savior, much mightier than Casey, and trust in him who triumphed over the extreme agony of his most bitter Passion and death and opened the door to eternal happiness. Despite the torments and insults that Jesus underwent, and which caused all the Apostles but one to flee, and in spite of the many hardships we suffer in body, mind, and spirit in this life, Jesus gives us something to hope for when all earthly hope is lost. We may experience the Passion now, but we know that the Resurrection is sure to follow.
For as St. Paul reminds us, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom 8:18). Even the century-long suffering of the Cubs fan pales in comparison to eternity in the company of God. So as we follow Jesus, who rose from the dead and ascended in glory, and as we await our own resurrection, let us remember that this glory is the realization of all our greatest hopes.
Image: Statue and Plaque Dedicated to Casey at the Bat in Holliston, MA
In various ways, the Scriptures foreshadow the forty days of Lent. After the Exodus, the Israelites wandered forty years in the desert. For forty days they waited in the desert, while spies reconnoitered the Promised Land. And Jesus himself fasted in the desert “forty days and forty nights” before his temptation by the Devil. For us, the season of Lent is like a sojourn in the desert. In our penances, we take Jesus as our model and as more than our model. He is also our companion is the desert, and the reason for our self-denial. In the desert, he discloses himself and helps us to deny ourselves out of love for him.
This Lent the Brothers at the House of Studies presented a series of four conferences on the topic of being “in the desert with Jesus.” The first conference is a meditation on the temptation of Christ. The final three conferences consider how we can imitate Christ’s love of the Father, by making reparation for our sins and reordering ourselves to God. Specifically, these conferences treat what the Catechism notes are three eminent forms of penance: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (CCC 1434).
Listen to all the Dominican Lenten Conferences here.
Image: Vasily Polenov, Has Been in Desert
The Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was one of the first Catholic Churches built in Russia. It is an old and large church located on Nevsky Prospect in the heart of St. Petersburg. Founded in 1710, the current building was completed in 1783.
The parish is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of the then-reigning Russian Empress, Catherine II “the Great.” The patronage of St. Catherine of Alexandria would become very important. Just as this virgin was tortured and broken on the wheel by the Romans rather than give up the faith, so, too, would many Catholics in the early Soviet Union suffer for the faith. A book cataloguing the Catholic martyrs under the Soviet Union runs over 750 pages, listing all those priests, religious, and lay faithful, known to have been killed, suffered imprisonment, and/or sent into exile on account of the faith. The actual number of lay faithful that suffered under the Soviet regime is most likely higher, because religion may not have been the primary reason they were arrested.
The building itself suffered two fires during the Soviet period, which were actually a blessing in disguise, as the fires prevented the building from being turned into a museum or a concert hall. When the building was returned to the Church after the fall of the Soviet Union in early 1992, daily Mass was reinstituted almost immediately, and the long process of restoration began (a restoration still in progress today). Early on, the decision was made not to restore or remove the damaged side-altars, but to keep them as a monument to the sufferings of the faithful during the Soviet period.
Hanging above the damaged altar in the east transept is the original high altar crucifix. After the French priests who cared for the parish from 1923 were expelled in 1938 and the building closed, 19-year Sophia Stepulkowska entered the ransacked church and took this crucifix home. The crucifix is quite large (at least 6 feet tall) and the personal risk that Sophia took by storing it in her own home for almost two years cannot be underestimated. It is a miracle that no harm came to Sophia and her family, and that they were spared imprisonment. In 1940 the crucifix was handed over to the single remaining open Catholic church in the city, which preserved it from destruction during the Siege of Leningrad. In 1992 it was finally returned to the newly reopened St. Catherine’s.
Looking at this ruined altar and crucifix, one sees most of the masonry bricks, with only some pieces of marble remaining. And yet even with its run-down state, it is beautiful, and outside of Lent there are always green plants and flowers on and around the altar. Despite the destruction and persecution, new life continues to rise up. Our faith can flourish and grow today because of the work and sufferings of those who came before us, those who lived their faith in spite of opposition and challenges, even to the point of imitating Christ completely by surrendering one’s life rather than one’s faith. But the Martyrology listed above is not limited merely to those who died – all who suffered for the faith are included. They are examples to us to live our faith despite challenges and oppositions so that the flame of faith might remain alive for future generations.
As we journey through Holy Week, we are reminded more fully how the Church is built on the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us. He is the cornerstone of our faith. We are all called to be martyrs, to be witnesses to the faith, and to build our lives upon that sure foundation of Jesus Christ so that we too may have life.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us.
Image: Caravaggio, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
The fifth in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore Thee to quicken our sense of thy Mercy in the redemption of the World, of the Value of that Holy Religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name.
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers
One of the characteristic aspects of all of Austen’s novels is that they end in happy marriages for the heroines. Several modern literary critics have wondered at the motivation behind this feature of her novels, given that Austen herself never married. Is it the case that she was vicariously living through her characters? Was she simply giving the readers what she knew they wanted? Or is there perhaps something more profound motivating her use of the marriage construct? Some critics have speculated as much. For example, one can find traces of a critique of the French Revolution in Pride and Prejudice, complete with an ‘English’ solution: a marriage between the middle and upper classes.
Here, I would like to offer quite a different allegorical interpretation of the marriage plot as used by Austen. It is easy to consider the marriages simply as the reward for the virtuous efforts of her heroines, especially considering that each one is brought about through a Deus ex machina. They all have struggled through the challenges of life and have come out on the other side as women possessing and growing in virtue. From this perspective, then, marriage is the end towards which the virtuous lives of her heroines are directed. Turning Henry Crawford’s allusion to Milton on its head, for Austen’s heroines, marriage is heaven’s last best gift.
Such a notion of a final end that rewards all the trials of a virtuous life is by no means foreign to virtue ethics. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies the end of the virtuous life as contemplation; it is this state of rest to which every act of virtue is directed and in which true happiness consists. Like true friendship, contemplation is sought for its own sake; it is the most self-sustaining form of life and the most pleasant of activities. Building upon Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas identifies the final end of contemplation with the beatific vision. For St. Thomas, the virtuous life is framed as a way of perfection which finds its consummation in the last end: beatitude. It is the greatest good to which all other goods are ordered, and, holding that human actions are ordered to the good, St. Thomas concludes that the beatific vision, final happiness, is the fulfillment of all of human action. Ultimately, it is a rest that is given by God, that perfects all our potential, and that satiates all desire: heaven’s last best gift.
One of the virtues closely associated with man’s final end is hope. According to St. Thomas, it is hope of the final end that gives way to charity, which is the perfect love of God. So in a way, hope is one of the final virtues that must be acquired before the end can be attained. In Persuasion, it is precisely this virtue that Anne Elliot acquires throughout the course of the novel. She, who had been “forced into prudence in her youth [and] learned romance as she grew older,” must now learn to hope in order that she may know happiness once more.
As the novel begins, Anne is surrounded by harbingers of fading life: the time of year is autumn, her father’s line is in danger of extinction, and her family must let Kellynch Hall in order to make financial ends meet. On top of all this, she is oppressed by the prospect of her former lover once again being near her, and when he does arrive, she is made miserable in his presence. Mistakenly, she prepares herself to meet him with as much indifference as possible and to “teach herself to be insensible on such points” as meeting him and hearing others speak of him. In short, she harbors no hope for happiness and looks only to avoid as much pain as she can manage.
In the closing chapters of the first volume, there are such exquisite descriptions of the fading year that one cannot help but imagine that their narration is tinged by Anne’s despondency as she struggles to endure the affliction of a renewed, yet torturously more distant acquaintance with Captain Wentworth. Anne struggles to derive pleasure from “the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges,” mining the reserves of the contemporary poets for an “apt analogy of the declining year with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together.” She is withering in spirit, as she has done already in beauty, and she does not become fully aware of her closeness to despondency and despair until her discussions with the unfortunate Captain Benwick, in which she counsels him in “moral and religious endurance” in the face of the temptation to mourn ruefully over lost love.
And yet, in these last chapters, the reader finds the faintest glimmer of hope for new life and happiness in Anne’s reflections and experiences. After her conversation with Captain Benwick, she realizes just how close she had come to despairing of happiness, having sought to console another in his own loss and instill hope for the future. The morning after this conversation, Anne’s outlook begins to change for the better. She looks on nature with a more positive outlook than her November walk, praising the morning, glorying in the sea, and delighting in the fresh-feeling breeze. This internal change is mirrored by her external appearance, as she, along with Mr. Eliot and Captain Wentworth, finds herself coming into a second bloom of softened beauty.
Once she arrives in Bath, Anne begins to hope more consciously for greater happiness in life, freed from remorseful recollections of her actions in the past. Aided by the exemplary behavior of an old, poor school-fellow and the news of Louisa’s engagement to someone other than Captain Wentworth, Anne fully embraces this newfound virtue and lives in hopeful expectation of a life of happiness that is yet to come.
Of course, she is rewarded with marriage to the man she loves, but in comparison to the rest of Austen’s heroines, Anne stands out as living the most independent life of virtue; even the paragon of all things good, Fanny Price, does not quite learn to expect happiness apart from marriage with Edmund before providence intervenes. Anne’s is a more mature hope for happiness, which is not too surprising considering her superiority in age (Anne is, by far, the oldest of Austen’s heroines). Such a development is in line with Aristotle’s conviction that complete virtue took time to perfect and mature and, consequently, was rarely found in the young. The difference can also be seen in Anne’s ability to instruct others in virtue and Fanny’s conviction that she would be ill-suited for such a task.
As a result of her more solid foundation in virtue, Anne begins to develop a more independent sense of virtue. Impressed by the upbeat disposition of her poor and ailing friend, Mrs. Smith, Anne begins to contemplate a more stable and permanent source of happiness than that which the goods of this passing world can provide. Even before she begins to seriously hope for a life of happiness in a marriage to Captain Wentworth, Anne has proved herself capable of sharing in the happiness of others with little concern for any of her own selfish desires, as the many episodes at Uppercross and Lyme illustrate. More importantly, in the midst of her concern for the happiness of others, she does not compromise her own standard of happiness (“her feelings were still adverse to any man save one”). While it does not entirely depend upon the fulfillment of any single desire, Anne’s happiness does rest on a hope that finds its eventual fulfillment, its final rest, in love. Likewise, in this life, the gift of hope points us to our final rest: the vision and love of God.
Image: John Atkinson Grimshaw, In Peril (The Harbor Flare)
The fourth in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
For all whom we love and value, for every friend and connection, we equally pray; however divided and far asunder, we know that we are alike before Thee and under Thine eye. May we be equally united in Thy faith and fear, in fervent devotion towards Thee, and in Thy merciful protection this night.
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”
Such are the thoughts of Charlotte Lucas concerning the nature of the relationship enjoyed by husband and wife. In her mind, the happiness that accompanies true friendship is not a necessity for a good marriage but is, rather, a blessing that is a bonus in cases of good fortune. Given her outlook, there is no surprise that Charlotte agrees to marry a man for whom she has little or no esteem. In so doing, she provides a sharp contrast with her friend, Elizabeth, who—though not a complete romantic in her own notions of matrimony—has a higher estimation of the relationship that ought to be shared by spouses.
Throughout each of Austen’s novels, friendship plays a prominent role. Catherine Morland learns the distinction between true and false friends by comparing the fickleness of Isabella Thorpe to the constancy of Elinor Tilney. Isabella seeks Catherine’s friendship only for the sake of furthering her own prospects, whereas Elinor continually shows an earnest interest in Catherine and seeks to comfort her in her trials. In Emma, Mr. Knightley expresses great concern over the heroine’s lack of a proper friend from whom she can derive true benefit. Even among Austen’s men, in Persuasion, Captain Wentworth receives support from his friend, Captain Harville, in weathering the storm of his passions and his reason after Anne breaks off their first engagement.
While he does not delve much into spousal relationships, Aristotle does consider friendship to be one of the chief fruits and aids to the virtuous life. Aristotle identifies three kinds of friendship which, though distinct, are not necessarily exclusive. First, there is the friendship of utility, which is based upon the usefulness each party derives from the other. A second kind of friendship is that which is based upon pleasure, which lasts only as long as one derives enjoyment from the other. Finally, there is true and perfect friendship, which is sought for the sake of the other. This last friendship proves to be the most lasting because it is based upon goodness of character, which has an enduring quality, whereas the other two kinds pass away once utility and pleasure can no longer be derived from the match.
Reflecting on the nature of virtuous friendship, Aristotle notes that true friendship does not readily exist where there is great inequality. Primarily, this observation applies to the varying levels of virtue in people. Where there is a perceived lack of virtue and understanding, there will be a lack of respect, thus precluding any possibility of a mutual appreciation of the other for her sake. This mutual relationship, built on an appreciation for the other, implies that the true friend will rejoice over the other’s happiness and mourn over her misfortunes. When he does briefly consider the relationship between a husband and wife, Aristotle notes that it can be founded upon any of the three kinds of friendship but that the best marriage will be the one rooted in true friendship.
In Pride and Prejudice, all three types of friendship are on display. Of the two imperfect kinds of friendship, the marriages of Lydia and Charlotte provide good illustrations. The marriage between Lydia and Mr. Wickham proves to have no other foundation than that of the pleasure one can gain from the other, and, as it turns out, there is no intention on the man’s side to fully pursue the marriage until he receives financial incentives to do so. In the case of Charlotte, she is well aware of her position in society and that her future economic security depends greatly upon her marriage, but she is also aware of the silliness and shallowness of Mr. Collins and the little hope she has of ever esteeming him. Nevertheless, she not only welcomes his overtures, but even seeks them. In these marriages, there is no proper foundation of mutual care and respect for the other. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet provide a prime illustration of the risk that such couples run if they do not base their marriage upon a solid relationship. Mr. Bennet has found that he cannot esteem his wife, while Mrs. Bennet does not care for that esteem and respect. As a result, their household crumbles beneath them, to which Lydia’s unrestrained, unprincipled behavior testifies.
Determined not to follow in the footsteps of her parents, Elizabeth approaches the question of marriage with a steady reasonableness, avoiding the potential advances of Mr. Wickham even before she fully knew his character due to the imprudent nature of a match with little money on either side and hints of inconstancy on his side already beginning to show. The reader is also assured of her own resolve not to marry for mercenary motives either, as she scorns her sister Jane’s attempts to defend Charlotte’s marriage. On this occasion, Elizabeth emphatically asserts that “[y]ou shall not for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness.” And while she eventually learns to think of Charlotte’s decision in a less critical light, she still recognizes that the level of mutual trust and friendship could never be the same between Charlotte and herself, due to such a fundamental difference in principles.
Of course, Elizabeth does find the man she can love and respect in Mr. Darcy. Though one might suspect she harbors a trace of the mercenary motive given that her affection began once she had been to Pemberly, the narrator provides enough insight into her thoughts to assure the reader that Elizabeth’s affection is founded upon her growing respect for Mr. Darcy’s taste and true, generous character. Likewise, while Darcy’s love may have initially begun as a sort of infatuation with her unorthodox beauty and playful character, he grows to truly appreciate and esteem her character.
Ultimately, Austen proposes a model for relationships that may appear rather unsatisfactory to a modern reader’s notion of romance. Elizabeth’s attraction to Mr. Darcy may very well be described as rational, founded first of all upon an appreciation for his taste and judgment rather than an attraction to his appearance or behavior. Nevertheless, with such a foundation, Austen assures the reader that Elizabeth and Darcy will have an enduring marriage. Confident in her expectations of happiness, Elizabeth compares her felicity to Jane, who “only smiles,” whereas she laughs.
Image: Sir Thomas Lawrence, A Double Portrait of the Fullerton Sisters
The third in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Teach us almighty father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past.
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers
Northanger Abbey is quite often the most difficult book for the Austen reader to enjoy, as it appears to lack the gravitas that underlies her other novels. Apart from a satirical reflection on the value of the Gothic genre, the novel seems to lack consideration of any serious issue. The language of the novel is replete with playful banter, pointing to the author’s youthful age when she penned the work, and the heroine is extremely naïve. Finally, there is the seeming mismatch of hero and heroine; Catherine Morland is a young and rather silly girl whose only purported source of attraction for the more mature Henry Tilney was “a persuasion of her partiality for him,” suggesting a certain shallowness in the hero. Given such a match, how could the narration of their history be gratifying for the demanding expectations of the avid Jane Austen reader?
In light of the theme of virtue and the stark contrast that Northanger Abbey presents with regard to her other novels, I suspect that the key to getting over many of these concerns lies in a careful consideration of the importance Austen gives to moral education as a source for plot development. From the beginning, the narrator informs the reader that Catherine Morland is a heroine in training and that the course of the novel will follow her education as a heroine. Though playfully framed as the adventures of a Gothic novel, these chronicled episodes of Catherine’s life outline a genuine and sober education in prudence, or practical wisdom. Ironically, by the end of the novel, when Catherine is thrown into truly dire and dramatic circumstances, she acts with such discretion and presence of mind that it hardly even occurs to her, or the reader, that she has finally been thrown into the midst of circumstances that properly befit the stuff of a Gothic novel.
In the four novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey) in which her heroines lack in virtue in some significant way, Austen uses shame as the impetus for the moral reform that in large part leads to the resolution of the novel. Marianne is ashamed of her carefree openness to Willoughby; Elizabeth regrets her prideful disdain for Mr. Darcy and imprudent trust in Mr. Wickham; Emma rues her callous treatment of Miss Bates and meaningless flirtation with Frank Churchill; and, of course, Catherine cries and laments over her naïve and unfounded suspicion of General Tilney’s character and her bold liberty in snooping about a house in which she is a guest. Each of these heroines experiences proper shame in seriously reflecting on her behavior, and each subsequently resolves to amend her character by acquiring the habits that would counteract the foolhardy inclinations that had previously led her into such folly. In contrast, the absence of shame tints the behavior of many of Austen’s antagonists; it is her shameless that shocks and disgusts Lydia Bennet’s sisters, who observe that “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.”
Such a role for shame in the moral education of a young person can be found in Aristotle, as well. Shame holds an interesting position within Aristotle’s theory of human action. As he describes it, it is more like a pseudo-virtue because it is not fitting for the virtuous person to experience fear of disgrace due to incorrect actions, since the virtuous person would have behaved in a proper fashion. He observes that shame “is not becoming to persons of every age but only to the young…because, living according to their emotions, many of them would fall into sin but are restrained by shame.” In other words, shame is conducive to the end of a young person’s growth in virtue and belongs to the virtuous person hypothetically; that is, if she were to commit an unvirtuous act, then she would experience shame. Aristotle maintains that it is ultimately a matter of practice and repeated experience of shame due to failure that a young person manages to grow in virtue. Thus, shame and activity are indispensable features of a moral education.
On this last point, it is interesting that in each of Austen’s novels, the critical moments of each heroine’s development occur in the midst of activity, particularly travel. Even Emma Woodhouse, who has rarely ever left her father’s side, receives Mr. Knightley’s chiding remarks during an outing to Box Hill. It seems that at least implicitly, Austen agrees that an active life is conducive to the development of virtue. So there is more than just a semblance of truth to the narrator’s ironic claim in Northanger Abbey that adventure is a necessary component in the education of a young woman. Through her adventures in Bath and at Northanger Abbey, Catherine learns how to apply the good principles she has already learned and how to properly esteem the variety of characters and behaviors in the world.
Normally in Austen’s novels the heroines are not the only students of virtue, but each of their heroes is, as well. For example, Mr. Darcy must learn to temper his pride with amiability before he can gain the respect and love of Elizabeth as he ought. On the other hand, Henry Tilney appears to be rewarded for merely feeling a sense of gratification at receiving the attentions of a pretty young woman. Nevertheless, Henry does not get the satisfaction of marrying Catherine directly after he expresses his intention. Catherine’s parents insist upon waiting for his father’s approval, which he did not receive until the end of a rather anxious series of months. Moreover, the narrator intimates that such a period did a great deal of good for Henry, as well as Catherine, by “adding strength to their attachment,” hence the rather enigmatic closing of the novel: “I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.” Catherine is not the only one who must grow more mature in order to ensure her happiness, but Henry must also establish firmer foundations in his regard for Catherine, which can only be done through a more thorough knowledge of her character. With this prolonged period of engagement, Catherine gains more time to grow in virtue and Henry receives the opportunity to become better acquainted with Catherine’s character. In this way, they become more suited for the type of virtuous friendship that will enrich and sustain their marriage.
Image: John Atkinson Grimshaw, November Moonlight
The second in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls.
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers
“Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name.” In so few words, the narrator of Mansfield Park identifies the foundation for the remarkable attachment of the charming and playful Henry Crawford for the demure and boring Fanny Price. Henry’s doomed attraction to Fanny and his unsuccessful endeavor to win her regard comprise, perhaps, one of the greatest tragedies in all of Austen’s work. While many may lay the blame for Henry’s downfall at the feet of Fanny, at the end of the day, the readers of Austen must come to grips with the fact that, while his motives may have been admirable, his past behavior had done the greater harm by fixing in his character the bad habits that would eventually push him over the precipice. While Henry Crawford possessed the good sense to recognize the value of good principles in Fanny, he fails to acquire those values for himself.
Fundamentally, Henry Crawford, along with his sister, possesses principles that are opposed to those of Fanny. While Fanny follows a Christian morality founded upon goodness and truth, Henry ascribes to what Austen describes in him as a “school of luxury and epicurism.” Though they had very different teachers, Henry and his sister, Mary, have been brought up to seek primarily to fulfill their own desires, caring for others only insofar as it furthers their own interests. Under the influence of his philandering uncle, Henry undervalues the feelings of women, and, following the example of her jilted aunt, Mary acts with a “prudence” of a remarkably jaded nature, assuming that everyone must and does act for their material self-interest. Fanny, of course, perceives all of this and wisely resists a marriage to Henry on the grounds that they hold such divergent principles, and that she is not suited to effecting the reform of Henry’s character that would be necessary to overcome these differences.
These principles to which Fanny refers when she rejects Henry Crawford are none other than the virtues. Henry discovers as much when Fanny conspicuously sighs over his express aversion to the value of constancy, a virtue characteristic more of Austen’s era than Aristotle’s or Thomas’, but a virtue nonetheless. Moreover, Fanny’s objection to Henry’s behavior is not merely concerning his inconstancy. She is more generally concerned with his blatant disregard for the feelings of others. Fanny’s behavior and preferences accord with the fundamental precepts of St. Thomas’ natural law theory, specifically to do good and avoid evil and to avoid offending those among whom one has to live. Fanny, in accord with the classical tradition, understands that a person’s good is not simply a subjective pursuit. She must take into account the ramifications of her actions on the lives of those around her.
Another important principle that is on display in this novel is that of personal freedom. According to Aristotle and Aquinas, in order for an action to take on a virtuous or vicious character, it must be knowingly willed by the individual. Any interference with this voluntariness, whether due to an external force or legitimate ignorance, limits the actor’s moral responsibility, whether for praise or blame. Austen affirms the importance of this principle, as each of her heroines eventually claims the responsibility for her actions. Not only do these women claim their actions, they also claim the responsibility for the judgments leading up to the actions. Such a position would have been quite revolutionary, as women were expected to defer to the judgment of their male protectors. Fanny’s situation illustrates this tension, as she endures pressure to yield to the judgments of others. Nevertheless, she perseveres in the face of this struggle and asserts her right and ability to judge for herself.
This freedom of the individual to choose his course of action also implies that individuals are able to improve in character. Nevertheless, such a reform is extremely difficult, as poor choices quite often lead to more bad actions and make it difficult to ever choose the virtuous option as the habit becomes stronger. Interestingly, Austen suggests that there was a possibility that Henry Crawford could reform his character. During his visit to Portsmouth, Henry does show some initial signs of reform. While Fanny notices this improvement, she is well aware that a complete reform would require yet more time and effort. In an intriguing series of paragraphs in the final chapter of the novel, the narrator offers the readers a glimpse into what could have been if Henry had persevered. He could have been happy with Fanny had he chosen to act on what he knew was right in just one moment, but he gave into temptation and sealed his own fate.
Henry’s failure provides a good illustration of the effect that vice has on one’s moral judgment. The motives out of which he acts are good, namely humbling Maria so that she would learn to properly value the virtue of Fanny. However, Henry chooses an unsuitable means to achieve this end, as he had previously been habituated to believe that the proper way to put a young woman in her place was through breaking her heart. The real tragedy of Henry’s situation is not that he loses Fanny, but that he actually does perceive the good and falls away from it due to the disorder arising from his false principles.
Not giving up on the possibility of moral reform, Austen shows elsewhere that such a transformation is possible, as the heroine of Emma shows us. Emma Woodhouse resembles Mary Crawford in many aspects of her character, though Emma eventually is shown to possess the resolution and inclination to correct her poor behavior. The impropriety and even callousness of her own behavior weighs down upon Emma Woodhouse after she is duly scolded by Mr. Knightley. “In the warmth of true contrition,” Emma seeks to make amends for her actions and to acquire better habits that avoid offending those others in whose society she lives, unlike the willful defiance espoused by Mary Crawford when she is reprimanded by the man she loves. Ultimately, without the proper moral principles, an education in moral virtue is not possible.
Image: Engraving of Broadlands House
The first in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
Give us grace to endeavor after a truly Christian spirit to seek to attain that temper of forbearance and patience of which our blessed savior has set us the highest example; and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this world can give.
—from Jane Austen’s Prayers
Describing them as “the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues,” Alasdair MacIntyre identifies in the works of Jane Austen a marriage of Christian and classical themes. Many elements of a systematic virtue ethic shine through the entire body of Austen’s work, as the search for happiness undergirds the actions of each character that appears in the novels. Whether it entails discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets with a charming young man or accepting the proposals of a very silly clergyman, each action is directed to what the character perceives to be the good, ultimately for the sake of attaining “the best enjoyment of what this world can give,” or happiness of the pre-heaven variety. That being said, Jane Austen does not merely relate amusing vignettes describing various ways in which people go about seeking their own happiness. In the resolution of each of her novels, it is clear that only some characters achieve stable and respectable forms of happiness, while others still seek it or fail to achieve it. So, clearly some characters act in a more efficacious fashion than their counterparts, and at the heart of every instance of greater success, one finds virtue.
In his theory of the virtues, Aristotle regards happiness as the goal of all human action, including the most mundane tasks, such as eating and sleeping. Following in the tradition of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that even evil actions which reject the good and, therefore, true happiness are actually done for the sake of what the person (mistakenly) perceives to be a source of happiness. Ultimately, both Aristotle and St. Thomas contend that only those who seek the true good achieve happiness, whereas those who reject it in favor of an inferior good remain ever discontent. In order to regularly distinguish and subsequently choose good actions from less good ones, individuals need certain habits. Otherwise, the attainment of happiness would be nothing but a matter of chance, as Charlotte Lucas argues is the case in marital felicity. Habits that dispose us to choose the good are called the virtues.
It is exactly in this way that the protagonists of Austen’s novels distinguish themselves from the rest of her characters. Her heroines do not simply ask themselves the question, how do I want to live my life, for presumably even Lydia Bennet has asked herself this question and replied, to eat, drink, and be merry! Rather, the heroines and heroes of Austen’s novels ask themselves, how do I lead a good and happy life? The reader finds evidence of this dynamic throughout the novels, as the omniscient narrator often gives glimpses into their introspective thoughts, as the characters examine their actions and question whether their deeds were truly conducive to their happiness.
Even more to the point of illustrating examinations of conscience are the episodes in which the heroines experience moments of conversion, seeking to measure the true worth of their previous deeds. Such is the case of Elizabeth Bennet when, upon careful consideration of Darcy’s letter concerning his relation to Wickham, she painfully acknowledges the rashness of her actions regarding these two men exclaiming, “till this moment, I never knew myself.” Similar experiences can be found in the accounts of Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, and Catherine Morland in which the heroines find their actions sorely wanting in goodness and subsequently seek to reform their lives by choosing better actions, or acting more virtuously.
Another critical aspect of Aristotelian virtue ethics is the importance given to the individual, moral person in her totality. It is not a question of mind over body, but rather of an integral whole, mind and body, making decisions in the face of challenges that come up in life. This dynamic is the primary focus of Sense and Sensibility, as the title declares forthrightly. A rather poor reading of this novel would suggest that Austen favors a rational approach to romance to one based upon feeling or that Elinor, as well as Marianne, must learn something from her counterpart. However, when the narrator introduces Elinor to the reader, she is described as having “an excellent heart” and that “her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them.” Mind is not given a monopoly in virtuous action, and Elinor is by no means a stranger to emotion. It is through the union of the intellectual and the sensible that Elinor is able to weather her troubled course throughout the novel much more composedly than her overly affectionate sister, Marianne.
Austen also stresses the importance of the individual in making her own decisions concerning her happiness and how best to achieve it. Voluntariness is a necessary component of moral action, and the presence of an overriding external influence limits the act’s identifiability with the morally good or bad. This individual accountability is well displayed in Mansfield Park when Fanny perseveres in resisting the unjust persuasions of her uncle, Sir Thomas, to accept the morally suspect Mr. Crawford. Sir Thomas believes it her duty to set aside her own sense of moral uprightness in favor of his own. However, Fanny properly maintains her conviction that she is the best judge of the situation, as it concerns her own happiness and as she has had more opportunities for observing and judging the behavior of Mr. Crawford. In line with the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas, Austen empowers her heroines to assert their individual prerogative in their own decisions.
Throughout all of Austen’s novels, the reader does not only find illustrations of the presence and absence of virtue, but also depictions of its acquisition and accompaniments, such as friendship. As I proceed in this series of posts, my discussions will follow the general progression of this life of virtue, from its foundation in moral principles through its growth by the development of wisdom and finally to the attainment of the final end of happiness. Also, since friendship plays a central role in Austen’s novels and in the virtue theories of Aristotle and his followers, I will consider it, as well, as a critical component to the life of virtue. In the end, I hope to instill the conviction that there is something more than romance and drama in the novels of Jane Austen, namely a systematic approach to leading the good and happy life.
Image: James Andrews, Portrait of Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen novels are full of silliness and romance. However little known the merits of these works upon a first perusal, this truth is so well fixed in the mind of the reader, that they are considered as the rightful property of young women fixated upon a bygone era of balls and dresses with hardly any serious merit to recommend them to the reader of more practical and serious taste.
While the truthiness of such a claim may, in fact, be unassailable, the truth of this statement can hardly be considered as such. When Lionel Trilling offered a seminar on the works of Jane Austen at Columbia in 1973, he had to sit through two-and-a-half days of interviews in order to whittle a field of 150 interested students down to a more manageable maximum of 40. You very well may ask how many of those prospective students were young men, but, as a professor of mine once responded to such a question, this was Columbia in the 1970s; they were, most probably, nearly all men! Trilling himself relates that the ranks of these prospective students included more than one graduate student who ardently made his case to be allowed in the class.
So, what’s the big deal about Jane Austen? Why would anyone with half a brain, let alone someone seriously dedicated to the study of divine truth, care two straws about such novels? Unlike Trilling who concluded that the moral values portrayed in Austen’s novels were invariably a product of her era, I am convinced that these values have a timeless character, just as the novels have a transcendent appeal.
As the title of this introduction and the Dominican authorship of these posts suggest, Aquinas and Aristotle play no small part in my appreciation of the works of Jane Austen. Throughout this series, I hope to illustrate how many of the values found in Austen’s works belong just as much to the medieval and classical periods as her own. By showing how the virtues espoused by Austen’s heroines conform to a much earlier tradition, I hope to lead the reader to suspect that these values are just as applicable today. These works are not simply food for romantic fantasies. They provide us with serious and thoughtful reflections on how virtue ought to be lived out, particularly in regard to our relationships with others.
Read the whole series on Dominicana, April 7-11.
In Pursuit of Happiness: An Aristotelian Appreciation of Jane Austen—April 7
Foundations Once Destroyed: The Importance of Principle in Mansfield Park—April 8
The Way of Shame: Moral Education in Northanger Abbey—April 9
Love and Friendship: Virtue and the Varieties of Relationship in Pride and Prejudice—April 10
Heaven’s Last Best Gift: Marriage as the Final End in Persuasion—April 11
Image: The Novels of Jane Austen
It’s a common enough question: “What do you mean by the real presence?” Or, if the inquirer is more theologically astute: “What do you mean by transubstantiation?” Basically: “What is the Eucharist?” And I, in typical Dominican fashion, tend to answer such a question by delving into the intricacies of a Thomistic account (“Christ is present by real concomitance, his whole dimensive quantity of body and all its accidents present by way of substance while the accidents of bread and wine remain…” see ST III, 76, 4).
Now I don’t know about you, but upon reflection this way of answering the question doesn’t always strike me as the best way of explaining what the Church means by the real presence. Most people are not converted by way of theological or metaphysical discourse. But many are converted by being in the presence of the Eucharist at Mass or especially at adoration. They learn about the Eucharist be seeing it. Is this kind of “explanation” of the Eucharist — a showing rather than a saying — less intellectual or sophisticated than the theological definition? If you don’t think there is anything anti-intellectual about it you are in good company: one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century would be there by your side.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) should be no stranger to a cultured Catholic. He was the teacher of Catholic philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach; the philosophical guide for many English Dominicans (Frs. Herbert McCabe, Conrad Pepler, Cornelius Ernst, and Fergus Kerr, among others), and one of the leading inspirations for an entire school of theology called “Analytical Thomism.” Of interest to us is his philosophy of language, most famously laid out in the aphorisms of the Philosophical Investigations. One of his main claims: Meaning is about use.
“For a large class of the employment of the word ‘meaning’ — though not for all — this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language… And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer” (PI 43).
Wittgenstein was keen to point out that the meaning of a particular word is often found not in abstract reasoning but in pragmatic deployment. Take one of his favourite examples, the color red. If someone asks you what red is, what would you say? “The color associated with wavelengths of light from approximately 620–740 nm on the electromagnetic spectrum.” Would you say that? Why not? Isn’t it a correct definition of red? Well, in a specific scientific concept it might be, but red means more than that, right? In fact, this technical definition is actually the second given by wikipedia; the first being: “Red is the color of blood, rubies and strawberries.” That’s a much better answer to the question about what red is. It is one dealing with the use of the color, actual examples from lived experience, what Wittgenstein would call Lebensform (“forms of life”). Apparently his influence has not gone unnoticed by wiki-writers…
Returning to our real presence question, we can note that a theological answer is not by any means incorrect (just as the scientific answer to a color question is not incorrect) but it is not the whole answer. And in many cases it may not be the best answer to such a question. If someone asks what you mean by red, show them a ruby; if someone asks you what you mean by the real presence, show them the Eucharist. It is not an intellectual dodge to do so; one is simply explaining the word’s meaning by its use, showing rather than saying. (Incidentally, Wittgenstein’s greatest student, Elizabeth Anscombe, advocates just such an approach for teaching children about transubstantiation.)
I had a “meaningful experience” with the Eucharist along these lines during the novitiate. I was once asked by a priest to get a host for a sick parishioner from the tabernacle in our little chapel where a few of the brothers were praying. As I opened the tabernacle door I heard some commotion. Upon turning I saw the source: the brothers had taken to their knees. This was new and it offered a fuller meaning of the eucharistic presence of Christ and our concomitant reverence for him. The Eucharist means more to me because of that experience, but I would be remiss in trying to tease it out by words or definitions. What happened helped show what it means.
I think Wittgenstein’s linguistic pragmatism rings true in everyday Catholic experience: most people at adoration are simply not running through Aristotle’s categories and checking off which are present in the sacred host. They are worshipping and adoring the body and blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Catholics need not always have a handle on scholastic terminology to understand the meaning of Christ’s eucharistic presence; otherwise the sacrament would be unavailable for the simple, the young, the mentally handicapped, and probably all of us at one time or another when we are lost in wonder before a monstrance. Christ is the Word made Flesh. His dwelling among us continues to be explained not merely by our true theological words, but also in the use we put them to or even the experience of reality beyond them.
Image: On the Hochreit, Summer 1920 (Wittgenstein is the second from the right)
I’m scared of heights. When I have to climb a ladder, I prefer not to go past the seventh or eighth step. Some of my most dreadful nightmares have been of clinging to a way too small surface that’s way too high off the ground. And even though it was more a matter of coercive peer pressure than personal courage, taking the elevator up the fifty-two stories of the Prudential Tower in Boston remains one of my greater feats of valour.
But this all changes when it comes to mountaintops. I’m actually quite excited to be really high up when there’s a mountain under my feet.
And I’m not the only one to feel this way. To some degree, we’re all drawn to mountains. When we see them, our eyes strain forward, taking them in, instinctively searching out their top. The higher they go, the more they interest us. Whether we summit them or not, we all wonder what it would be like to stand upon their peak. We hike them, cable-car them, build paths and roads and even cog railways on them, construct monasteries on top of them.
But why exactly do they attract us?
Some might say that we seek to conquer them, that we see in them a challenge which man feels obliged to answer. But if indeed mountains extend to us a sort of challenge, it is surely a benign challenge, an invitational one. For, when we arrive at their tops, we never look down on them, gloating over the mound we have scaled. We always look out. We extend our gaze out from the mountain so that we might see what it sees. We climb them to share in their view, and they beckon us to participate in the wonder they behold.
When we behold this view, we always find something of what we were looking for. Perched upon them, we cannot help but feel tiny, and we discover the world around us is vast. It is in this state that we are most at home, where we begin to become what we are. For we are indeed tiny creatures, held in existence by our Creator’s Word. And when we really know this littleness, all of our selfish worries and gripings become lost in the splendor of God’s reality. It then becomes possible to surrender to that reality, to lose ourselves in God’s grandeur—and this is our delight.
Meanwhile, the bigger we make ourselves, the more wretched we become. This is what happens when we seek to scale mountains of our own making. And indeed, we are always constructing towers of Babel, where our respective selves become our only reference points, where we strive to conquer the reality within which we find ourselves. It is in this sense that Satan leads us up the mountain of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, inviting us to ascend not for the sake of discovering our finitude, but to seek domination.
But we only find ourselves by losing ourselves, and we most readily lose ourselves by coming to the Lord’s mountain. This is the mountain of which Isaiah spoke, and it is indeed the “highest of the mountains” (Is 2:2), and all nations will indeed stream towards it. For like the mountains here on earth, God beckons to us, that we might see what he sees. And when we see what he sees, we will rejoice in being “little ones” who have been raised to such heights. For what he sees is nothing less than the Word, through whom and in whom all things are.
Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word
and believes in the one who sent me
has eternal life and will not come to condemnation,
but has passed from death to life. (Jn. 5:24)
This passage from the Gospel at Mass today reveals the importance of listening. To pass to eternal life we must hear and believe in the word of Christ. Doing this, though, requires that we listen to Him. Listening is an underdeveloped talent among many, quite possibly most, people today. Our ordinary relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, for example, often suffer from our poor listening. It can be even more difficult to listen to Christ, considering the manner in which His word comes to us. He speaks to us in the Scriptures, in the Mass, in silent prayer. But to be able to listen to Him in these forms we need interior calm and quiet.
Listening is a skill best developed – as many skills are – when young. With more difficulty it can be developed later in life. Educators John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Franklyn Nelick emphasized listening in their Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. They forbade note taking because they wanted their students to listen to their conversations in class. Through listening, the students were drawn into these conversations and imbibed the enthusiasm of the professors for what the professors called the poetic mode of knowledge. Poetic knowledge is the fundamental way in which we know the world. It comes through the development and training of the senses and emotions by contact with the concrete objects around us. The images and intuitions that constitute this way of knowing serve as the basis for higher reasoning.
In some recorded talks, Senior and Quinn discuss listening at some length. They note that in modern industrialized society we are not often taught to “listen” to nature. This listening is key, however, to the development of poetic knowledge. By “listening” Senior and Quinn mean not just using our ears, but rather a sharpened attentiveness to nature that engages all our senses. Through the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that our exterior senses drink in, our memory, imagination, and other interior senses are developed. Thus we come to know the physical reality around us. From the habit of listening to nature, natural piety develops. In other words, the intimate experience of natural things engenders in us a sort of reverence, deep wonder, and appreciation for them. By this, Senior and Quinn don’t mean an idealization of nature, but rather a closeness to it that leads us to respect its ways and marvel at its beauty and order. This, in turn leads us to God.
Natural piety, according to the two professors, is necessary for supernatural piety. For, without natural piety, supernatural piety loses an important support and can descend into pietism – an artificial or affected devotion. Such pietism tends toward pure sentimentality. Grace perfects and elevates nature. Grace supernaturalizes natural responses such that a created goal can be obtained more perfectly. It also creates the capacity to achieve the infinitely higher good of God, a supernatural capacity that mirrors our natural capacity. An example is provided by the human affection that exists in good familial relationships. The natural response of a child to his father is love. When we think of God as Father, our natural filial love for a father is inadequate, and God moves us to a higher, supernatural form of love. If our natural responses, that is, our passions and emotions, are shallow and poorly developed, then it is possible that our supernatural responses will also be shallow. For the natural, then, would not be at the service of the supernatural. St. John says it well: “Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20).
Love follows knowledge. You cannot love what you don’t know. To get to know your brother, listen to him. To get to know Christ, listen to Him too.
Image: Camille Corot, Goatherd Charming His Goat With a Flute
Editor’s Note: On April 1, 2014, Dominicana ventured where no friar has gone before: the pages of The Jesuit Post. Of course, what goes around comes around, and the Jesuits soon began making themselves at home here. Special thanks to Eric Sundrup, SJ, the editor-in-chief of TJP, and all our Jesuit brothers for their generosity and willingness to go along with the scheme. Below, you’ll find links to all of the special April 1st posts at both sites, as well as screenshots of the homepages as they appeared that morning. —Br. Henry Stephan, O.P., Editor, Dominicana BlogThe Dominican Post (works by Dominican Friars on “The Jesuit Post”)
Dominicans Take Over “The Jesuit Post” by Br. Henry Stephan, O.P.
Whether the Society of Jesus is Greater Than the Order of Preachers? by Br. Dominic Verner, O.P., with Bros. Raymund Snyder, O.P., and Isaac Morales, O.P.
St. Ignatius and Other Great Dominicans by Br. Innocent Smith, O.P.
The Francis Effect: A Dominican Moment by Br. Gabriel Torretta, O.P.
Discerning a Religious Vocation by Br. Isaac Morales, O.P.
Screenshots from the morning of April 1, 2014—click each image to see a larger version.
This article is from our special April 1st edition of Dominicana Blog. Read “Jesuitica and The Dominican Post” for more details.
Editor’s note: Following a lengthy and ancient tradition of taking Jesuits prisoner, the Friars Preachers from Dominicana Blog have seized The Jesuit Post until further notice. We’ve begun negotiations, but seriously, have you ever tried to argue with a Dominican? Point, sub-point, sub-sub-point. As the philosopher said, “This could take a long time!” We’re pretty sure we’ll eventually get TJP back (we think we finally have some serious pull in Rome). But until then, turnabout is fair play, so we hacked our way into Dominicana (hint: “angelicdoctor” is a really obvious password). In the meantime, and if the friars haven’t pulled them down for theological censorship, here’s a top ten list of our best posts. — Eric Sundrup, SJ, Editor-in-Chief of The Jesuit Post
Image: Anonymous, Vision of St. Ignatius of Loyola