Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
Over the course of the summer, one of the brothers and I took turns labeling each other “liberal” or “conservative.” It was always in jest and the sides constantly shifted based on absurd rationales such as: “You poured weiss beer in an ordinary glass! How liberal!” or “You pray the rosary every day? You’re very conservative,” or “You don’t have a problem with eating meat on a Friday [outside of Lent], because you’re a liberal,” or “White wine with pork? How conservative!” By themselves, these actions do not signify being liberal or conservative. Selecting wine or following precise fasting protocol is not a political statement.
As the absurdity of our mutual jabbing illustrates, the relative terms “liberal” and “conservative” are things that everyone thinks he understands, but the list of ideas that one associates with each side can be unique to each person. Why, for instance, should it be “very conservative” to pray the rosary every day? We use these comparative terms as shortcuts to dismiss complex issues with a throwaway phrase.
What would one make of a priest who substitutes an arbitrary hymn for the responsorial psalm and Sanctus, but wears a Roman (“fiddleback”) chasuble and prays the Eucharistic Prayer ad orientem (that is, with the priest and the people facing the same direction)? Or another who grows his hair really long so that people question their stereotype of a priest, but who uses incense every Sunday? Or a congregation where most people sit during the Eucharistic Prayer, but receive Communion on the tongue, kneeling at the altar rail? Such juxtapositions are, admittedly, not typical. Yet, the labels we apply to theological positions and practices can sometimes reveal more about our own prejudices than they meaningfully communicate about the issues themselves.
We have already seen that attempts to apply a quick label to Pope Francis led to frequent mistakes. While the Pontiff has sent some conservatives into a panic and has had some liberals call him one of their own, he calls himself a “son of the Church,” and there is plenty of reason to believe that these previous claims are wishful thinking. But he is not the first pope to undergo such media misunderstanding. Pope Pius IX was widely reported to be a reformer and liberal when he was elected, but when he refused to support a united Italy, people began to see him as a conservative. Many today want to label Pope John Paul II as a conservative, but liturgical traditionalists see him as anything but. These simple labels applied to the Church just don’t work.
While it may be silly to apply political labels to modern popes, it is down right foolish to do so with Christ. Yet that doesn’t stop people from publishing books like Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All, or God is a Conservative.
The plain fact of the matter is that Jesus and Christianity as a whole do not fit easily into our categories and labels. Christ preaches hard moral truths, together with the offer of salvation. The Kingdom of God is open to tax collectors (Matthew 9:9–13, Luke 15:1–7), but money changers need to be run out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–17, Luke 19:45–46, John 2:14–16). Divorce is forbidden (Matthew 5:32, 19:9; Luke 16:18), but adultery can be forgiven (John 8:1–11). So is Jesus a liberal or a conservative, a reactionary or a progressive?
Any vision of Christianity that forgets that Christ is the one Savior of all and that we all need saving, is missing something. We cannot reduce the Gospel to mere side taking. We are one Church united in the one Christ, not an assembly with warring factions trying to take control.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Blackfriars, Oxford
One of the reasons that many Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of human evolution is that it seems to suggest that the fact we are here is an accident, and there is nothing stopping us from evolving into something else down the road. There are many ways to address the question of why humanity evolved, but the one I want to focus on looks at the end of evolution. Specifically, is there some stopping point to evolution, and can that stopping point be considered the goal it was ordered to in the first place?
In looking for an end of evolution, we must first ask whether evolution has actually come to rest anywhere. For any plant or animal we find in nature, the answer is in part, yes. Evolution has finished, has done its job and contributed to the production of an organism properly adapted to its environment. Of course, this assumes that the environment is stable, which brings us to the “no” part. Any stable population that is placed in a new environment, assuming it can survive at all, will begin to adapt to the new surroundings. Like so many natural processes, evolution does not come with a determined endpoint, but its operation depends on many factors. Gravity may bring a boulder to rest on the edge of a cliff, but an additional push, whether by wind, earthquake, or human hand, will start the process of falling again until gravity finds the boulder a new place of rest. Arguing for an absolute endpoint intrinsic to evolution would seem to require that all evolution is pushing life to the same state of rest which, if the diversity of life is any indication, seems unlikely.
If there is no absolute endpoint of evolution, we can still ask about the particular states of rest we find. In particular, is man still evolving? This is a complicated and much debated question. For instance, many cultural variations, ranging from skin color, to lactose intolerance, to the ability to breathe at higher altitudes, have been traced to particular populations of humans settling in particular geographies. Further, there is strong evidence for relatively recent adaptation among humans in genetic resistance to various diseases. It is clear that evolution is at work on small scales, adapting man to changes in his environment. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that any part of the human population is diverging so much as to become a new species. Some argue that our ability to change our environment, as with the rise of agriculture, and the fact that humanity is no longer geographically isolated have largely slowed some of the effects of evolution that might lead towards a divergence of man into new species. Is there some conceivable situation in which our intellects would not be able to properly adjust the environment and evolution would drastically change some population of human beings to the point of evolving a new species? Perhaps, but that situation seems to be thoroughly in the realm of science fiction.
What then of the second sense of end, of the goal towards which evolution tends? Naturally speaking, because there is no absolute endpoint for evolution there cannot be an absolute goal, only relative endpoints and relative goals, adapting this population to better survive in this environment. One of the relative goals, and a particularly stable one at that, seems to have been the human body, but man is not simply another animal. We are an animal that has an immaterial rational soul, something no natural process could produce. So while it seems evolution has helped produce the human body, this was in no way its intrinsic goal, and, furthermore, it has no part in the production of the soul.
Still, this is not the only level on which we can ask these questions, since evolution, like all natural processes, is an instrument of God, caused and maintained in all of its working by His divine providence. Like all instruments, the process of evolution can be given a power beyond its natural capacities and ordered to some end higher than it could attain alone. Evolution is not intrinsically ordered to the production of an animal materially capable of being informed by an immaterial intellectual soul, but this is, in fact, what it has achieved. This is exactly how it was ordered by the providential hand of God. The claim is not that evolution was somehow tweaked or changed to create the animal that would become the human person, but that in His providence over the whole of creation, it was the process God used to achieve this end.
Given that God has used evolution for the production of the human body, we can ask whether this particular goal of the divine plan is absolute, or a stepping stone to something higher. Once again, the answer must be yes and no. In the Incarnation, Christ took upon himself our human nature in order to save us, but if some part of humanity evolved into a new species, some new nature, it is unclear how they could share in that salvation. As St. Paul says “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28), and we can see how evolution prepared the way for our good, our very existence, in producing the human body. It seems unlikely that God would allow evolution to produce some branch of humanity incapable of attaining beatitude, our true good, meaning that in the divine plan the human body is a goal of evolution – arguably the goal. Nevertheless, we also believe that this earthly human life is a stepping stone to something higher, namely “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This new life will not be achieved by evolution or any natural process, but by the salvation won for us by Christ, “True God and True Man.”
Image: John La Farge, Nocturne
The student brothers are on retreat the week of August 11-15. Rather than leave the blog dormant, we offer you reflections by and about various Dominican saints for your meditation. Regular blogging will resume on August 18. In the meantime, please remember us in your prayers and be assured of our prayers for you.
From an apostolic letter motu proprio of Pope Saint John Paul II on October 3, 1982
“Whoever does the work of Christ, ought always to stay close to Christ.” This was a motto constantly repeated by Brother John of Fiesole, who was called Beato Angelico because of the highest integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of his paintings, particularly those of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
While he was still a youth, he was attracted to the religious life, and asked to be received into a stricter discipline in the Order of Friars Preachers (called the Observance), which had been established in the convent at Fiesole. He diligently took up all of the duties imposed by the brethren or superiors. It was the fame of his outstanding art work, particularly his painting, that spread far and wide. Therefore, commissions for his work became more frequent and urgent.
Pope Eugenius IV called him to Rome. While brother John was painting the Basilica of Saint Peter’s and the Vatican palace, Eugenius IV took the most opportunity not only to admire the virtue of this outstanding artist, but even more than that, the piety of this religious, his observance of the Rule, his humility, and his memorable spirit that made many people his own.
Nicholas V had an exceptional opinion about brother John. For “he honored and reverenced this man alone, because of the integrity of his life and the excellence of his morals.” Therefore, he commissioned him to decorate his private chapel. When brother John had finished it, it almost seemed a prayer expressed with painted color.
At Rome, in the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, he closed his eyes in death after a life that produced famous art, but even more exemplified religious and benevolent virtues. For the opinion of all was that he was a “man of complete modesty and religious life.” Furthermore, “he also blossomed with many virtues. He was meek, and honorable for his religious genius.” Beyond these things, “he was a man distinguished for his sanctity.” Even more, Vasarius, who collected many stories about his unblemished life in the city of Florence, was persuaded of that graceful and heavenly character which one can see even in his sacred paintings. He did not paint on any other subjects and were the products of that greatest harmony between his holy life and his creative virtue.
Brother John, therefore, by placing his rare natural gifts at the service of art, stands both to acquire and to confer on the people of God an immense spiritual and pastoral benefit, by which they might travel more easily to God. According to the Second Vatican Council, this is particularly fitting for sacred art, as we read in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest expressions of human genius. This judgment applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. By their very nature both of the latter are related to God’s boundless beauty, for this is the reality that these human efforts are trying to express in some way. To the extent that these works aim exclusively at turning our thoughts to God persuasively and devoutly, they are dedicated to God and to the cause of His greater honor and glory.”
Truly, Brother John, a man altogether exceptional for his spiritual life and art, has always attracted our attention. We, therefore, believe that the time has come when he should be given the particular attention of the Church of God, although his heavenly art has not ceased speaking to us even now.
Image: Fra Angelico, Dormition of the Virgin
The student brothers are on retreat the week of August 11-15. Rather than leave the blog dormant, we offer you reflections by and about various Dominican saints for your meditation. Regular blogging will resume on August 18. In the meantime, please remember us in your prayers and be assured of our prayers for you.
From a Letter of Saint Catherine of Siena, virgin, to Christophora, Prioress of the Monastery of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano
In the name of Jesus Christ crucified, and of sweet Mary:
To my very dear daughter in Christ, the sweet Jesus, I, Catherine, minister and servant of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious Blood. I desire to see you and your sisters follow in the footsteps of our holy mother Agnes.
I implore you and I wish you to follow her teaching and her character. For you know that she always gave you the teaching and example of true humility. This was her chief virtue. I am not surprised by this in the least, for she had what a bride must have who wishes to follow the humility of her spouse. She had that uncreated charity that continually burned and consumed her heart. She had the taste and hunger for souls, and always applied herself to keeping vigil in prayer. There is no other way of acquiring the virtue of humility, because there is no humility without charity, and the one nourishes the other.
Do you know what made her arrive at a perfect and authentic virtue? It was free and voluntary self-denial, which made her renounce herself and the goods of this world, not wishing to possess anything. This glorious virgin realized that the possession of temporal good leads one to pride. One loses the sweet virtue of true humility, falls into self-love, loses the warmth of charity and abandons the habit of watching and praying. A heart and senses full of this world and of self-love are unable to be filled with Christ crucified and cannot taste true and sweet prayer. Seeing this, Agnes put off herself and put on the crucified Christ. This was not only for herself, but also for us. Her example obliges you to it, and you must follow it.
You know well, consecrated brides of Christ, that it is not what comes from your father that you are supposed to possess. Since you have a spouse, you have to guard and possess what comes from your eternal spouse. What you have from your father is your sensuality, which we have to abandon when the moment has come to follow Christ and to possess his treasure. What was the treasure of Christ crucified? The Cross, disgrace, pain, torment, torture, mockery and reproaches, voluntary poverty, hunger for the Father’s honor and for our salvation.
If you possess this treasure with the force of your reason, moved by the fire of charity, you will arrive at that virtue of which we have spoken. You will be true daughters of your mother, and eager and watchful brides. You will merit to be received by Christ crucified. By his grace, he will open to you the door of a life that does not end. I will not say any more. Wash yourselves in the blood of Christ crucified. Arise, full of zeal and love. If you are united and not divided, there will be no demon, no creature, that can harm you or hinder your perfection. Abide in the sweet and holy love of God. Sweet Jesus, Jesus my love.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Good Shepherd
The student brothers are on retreat the week of August 11-15. Rather than leave the blog dormant, we offer you reflections by and about various Dominican saints for your meditation. Regular blogging will resume on August 18. In the meantime, please remember us in your prayers and be assured of our prayers for you.
From a sermon of Saint Antoninus, bishop
John says in the Book of Revelation: The Lord showed me the Tree of Life on both sides of the river, bearing fruit. Christ crucified is that Tree of Life, which is said to be on both sides of the river, because the Fathers of both the Old and the New Testament were saved through Him. God Himself on the Cross brought forth universal fruits for the salvation of the human race, produced by the wood of the Cross, as we have in a figure. Let us consider four of these fruits as they regard the human race. The first fruit is the price of our redemption. As Ambrose says, Our sin was so great that we could not be redeemed unless the Only Begotten Son of God should die for us debtors. The reason is that the offence of the human race was infinite because of the one who was offended, of the good of which it was deprived, and of the nature that it darkened. Therefore it was necessary that this offence be purged by the passion of Our Lord. So Peter says: You know that you were ransomed not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish.
The second fruit is the privilege of divine love. Things given as gifts usually have the effect of inspiring us to love. The greater gifts inspire greater love, as it is written: He who is forgiven more, loves the more. This is the greater gift, and it is loved the more. Among all the things that are lovable, there is one that is more lovable than the rest, and that most lovable of all things is life. Whoever gives his life for his friend has given the greatest possible gift. As Saint Bernard writes, the cup that you have drunk, O sweet Jesus, that work of our redemption, has made me more lovable to you than anything else.
The third fruit is the shield for our defense. Before the suffering of Christ, many people were laboring in idolatry and were unable to resist the devil. After the passion of Christ, the enemy was made powerless, so that none can be conquered or overcome unless that person wills it. As Gregory writes, the enemy is feeble, which conquers nothing except by the will of another. We attained this through his death, as Scripture says: They conquered through the blood of the Lamb. This ought to be the blood recognized by faith in the eyes of the faithful by which they are strengthened for battle, as it is written: Recall him, who suffered such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you may not tire when you are weary in your souls.
The fourth fruit is the summit of our exaltation. Someone is called the highest exaltation of any city, if he is chosen to rule the whole world as Emperor, or as Supreme Pontiff to govern the whole church. Accordingly, great is the dignity of human nature, because Christ, through the death that he suffered in his human nature, received a name that is above every other, as it is written: Therefore God also exalted him, and gave him a name that is above every other name. In this nature in which he suffered he judges all creation, as it is written: He was appointed by God as a judge of the living and the dead. To this all the Prophets give testimony that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his Name.
Image: Domenico Passignano, Translation of St. Antoninus
From a Letter of Saint Catherine de’ Ricci, written on Palm Sunday, April 18, 1554
Rivalry has a place as a good. It is not envy, as if someone were to keep his neighbor from the good, lest that person gets there first. Holy rivalry is a thirst for the heavenly spring to which we must hasten with great vigor. We must strive to advance without an obstacle in anyone’s way. If this rivalry were in Christian hearts, how many people would come to that desired reward, which now only a few people are able to reach. My dearest children, let us so strive that we may run and obtain it. In this contest you will not be considered indifferent. The thief crucified with Jesus, though he was unprepared, was not judged to be unhappy, but rather happy. Does he not seem to you to have struggled far better than that great crowd of holy fathers who waited for their redemption for ages? For the thief, in an instant, ran swiftly to beat all the others and was worthy to be the first one at the victory, which he took away from none of those who were called to it.
We live at a time in which running and taking a stand is more than we are used to doing. Considering the greatness of the mystery of our redemption presented to us in these days, how much more should we stand firm and persevere!
We see the mercy that overcomes justice is made the mediator with the eternal Father. His immortal gift is that he sent his only Son to take on human flesh for the salvation of our souls. God reaches down from heaven to earth, and he whom the heavens are unable to contain is confined in the Virgin’s womb. By taking our human nature, he who is immortal and unable to suffer became mortal and capable of suffering. He who is divine became man. He who is the wisest of all became like a fool in the sight of all. The Lord whom angels serve became our servant.
What sort of mind, when considering these things, does not marvel that all of this was done so that human nature might pay the debt owed to the Divine Being? Our nature was unable to pay the debt and was unable to open the gate of heaven which disobedience had shut. Therefore, the Savior came, rich with such treasure, ready and able to pay off the debt for us and to restore us as heirs of the heavenly estate. This consideration ought to temper us in all of our activities, and keep us from those activities that are earthly and futile.
It is necessary that we run this course, inspire by the example of the great love of the Son of God for his creatures. He ran his race swiftly with our nature to endure the passion.
We must run this race, and we must push ahead with strength toward that great open sea by which we are washed and cleansed. He did all this for our sake. He signed our foreheads with his sacred blood, so that we may approach the eternal Father with this sign and tell him that his only-begotten Son payed our debt. We have competed and found the red and ruddy trophy, which is Jesus on the Cross, sprinkled with blood and deathly pale in the cause of love.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., The Fountain of Grace
From the Treatise of Brother Henri-Dominique Lacordaire on the re-establishment of the Order of Preachers in France
In the Thirteenth Century faith was deep. The church still held sway over the society that she had conquered. However, the European mind, which had been slowly worked upon by time and by Christianity, was nearing the crisis of adolescence. What Innocent III had seen from his bed in a dream – a church that was tottering – Saint Dominic revealed to the whole world. When the whole world believed that the Church was Queen and Mother, he declared that nothing less than a resurrection of the primitive apostolate was required to save her. Men responded to Saint Dominic as they had to Peter the Hermit – they became crusaders.
All the universities of Europe contributed their quota of masters and students. Brother Jordan of Saxony, the second Master of the Order, gave the habit to more than a thousand men whom he had won for this new kind of life. People said of him, “Do not go to Brother Jordan’s sermons, for he is a courtesan who catches men.” In an instant, or, to speak literally – for here truth surpasses metaphor – in five years, Saint Dominic who, before Honorius’ Bull had only sixteen collaborators, eight Frenchmen, seven Spaniards and one Englishman, founded sixty convents filled with exceptional men and a flourishing younger generation.
All of them, like their master, wanted to be poor at a time when the Church was rich, poor even to the extent of being beggars. All of them, like him, at a time when the Church was supremely powerful, wanted to exercise only one kind of influence: The voluntary surrender of men’s minds to their virtues. They did not say, like the heretics, “The Church must be stripped bare.” Instead they stripped her in their own persons and showed her to the people bare as she was at first.
In a word, they loved God, they loved him truly, they loved him above all else, and they loved their neighbor as themselves and more than themselves. They had received in their hearts the ample wound that has made all the saints eloquent. In addition to this asset of a passionate soul, without which no orator has ever existed, the Friars Preachers also had great skill in grasping the kind of preaching which was suited to the time.
All the same, I shall mention some of the names that are best remembered. Saint Hyacinth, apostle of the North in the thirteenth century, preached Jesus Christ in Poland, Bohemia, Great and Little Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Livonia, on the banks of the Black Sea, in the islands of Greece, and all down the coastline of Asia Minor. His progress could be followed by means of the convents established as he went. Saint Peter of Verona was felled by the assassin’s sword after a long apostolic career, with the blood that flowed from his wounds he wrote the first words of the Apostles’ Creed in the sand: “I believe in God.” Henry Suzo, that lovable man from Swabia in the Fourteenth Century, preached with such success that a price was put on his head. During the same period, brother John Tauler was much acclaimed in Cologne and throughout Germany.
Let me also mention Saint Vincent Ferrer who, in the Fifteenth Century, evangelized Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He achieved such a high reputation that he was chosen to be one of the arbitrators to decide the succession to the throne of Aragon. The Council of Constance sent a deputation to implore him to come and take his seat at it. Girolamo Savonarola was the constant friend of the French in Italy and the idol of Florence, whose liberties he defended and morals he wanted to reform. He was burned alive in the midst of an ungrateful people, but to no effect, because his virtue and his glory rose higher than the flames at the stake. Pope Paul III declared that he would regard as a heretic anyone who dared to accuse Savonarola of heresy.
I also add Thomas Aquinas, who became in a short time the Catholic church’s most famous doctor. There is also Brother Angelico – when Michelangelo saw the picture of the Annunciation that our Friar had painted in the church of Saint Dominic in Fiesole, he said that no one could paint figures like this unless he had first seen them in heaven. There is also Bartolomé de Las Casas and many others.
Let us leave these revered names in the safekeeping of those who know them and call upon them. Let us end our brief sketch of this great Order with the words of the Fourteenth Century poet and one of the greatest of Christian poets, in which the most celebrated singer of the Divine Comedy, sang the Order’s praises: He was called ‘Dominic,’ and it is to him that I refer as the gardener chosen by Christ to help him in his garden. He poured forth, like a stream from a lofty spring, his teaching, and will, and apostolic life. From that stream flow many brooks, by which the garden of the Catholic faith is watered.
Image: Fra Angelico, Fiesole Altarpiece
“Et quicumque hanc regulam secuti fuerint pax super illos et misericordia . . .”
In one corner of the cloister of our house of studies in Washington, D.C., there stands a statue of St. Dominic holding a lily in his right hand and an open book in his left. The lily–a traditional symbol of virginal purity–draws Dominican minds to a line from the O Lumen that calls our founder the “ivory of chastity.” Since we sing this chant nearly every night, the import of the efflorescent article in the statue’s right hand is unmistakable: Dominic was a man of stalwart purity.
The point of the open book, however, is less clear. They say that St. Dominic always carried St. Paul’s letters with him, so it isn’t surprising to find a Pauline verse scrawled across the book’s exposed pages. The verse, written in Latin, is Galatians 6:16, “peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule,” and you can’t help but wonder: why that verse? What rule is the statuary patriarch of preachers commending to his contemporary children? The early constitutions of the Order (often referred to as the “rule of St. Dominic”)? The rule of St. Augustine (unanimously adopted by Dominic and his brethren)?
Though reasonable, such answers strike me as only partial responses to the question. Dominic once threatened that, if he should ever find out that the brothers were imposing the rule (i.e., the constitutions) so strongly as to insist that breaking the rule was inherently sinful, he would go to that community and personally destroy their copy of the rule. Similarly, the whole reason he wrote the constitutions in the first place was because he acknowledged that the rule of St. Augustine didn’t perfectly fit the form of religious life he wanted to live, and so it needed a complementary set of norms. Dominic’s flexible approach to Augustine’s rule and the Order’s constitutions (i.e., subordinating these things to the Order’s ultimate purpose–preaching for the salvation of souls) makes us wonder if the deepest identity of the “rule” in question doesn’t lie elsewhere.
This doubt only grows stronger when we consider the context of the scripture passage in question. Recall that the passage comes at the very end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And what is the central focus of Galatians? Paul’s visceral invective against judaizing gentiles. The whole point of that letter is that gentile Christians should not be bound to follow the letter of the Jewish law, but rather should rejoice in their newfound freedom in Christ. If Dominic’s book bears a quote from Galatians, then the “rule” it refers to must be more than a mere code of conduct written on scraps of paper. It must be a way of life joined inseparably to Jesus Christ. It must be a way of life leading to peace and mercy. And it must be a way of life that Dominic himself walked.
So what is Dominic’s “rule”? I would suggest it is the following: “behave as gospel men, following in the footsteps of the Saviour, speaking to God or of God, among yourselves or with your neighbours.”
In the primitive constitutions of the Order, St. Dominic began his discussion of preachers with these words. The same words now stand at the beginning of our constitutions today. They form, as it were, the heart of the heart of Dominican life, for these words were themselves formed from Dominic’s own heart.
When we, like him, speak only to God or of God, we become conformed to Jesus Christ, who alone among men is perfectly united to and perfectly revelatory of God the Father. This union with Christ in prayer and preaching leads to total transparency of life. Truly evangelical men are such in private and in public, in the chapel and on the road. And that transparency translates into authentic Christian freedom. Dominic was everything Paul exhorted the Galatians to be–a man motivated by love and thus bound by no law but that of charity. All that he did, he did freely and for the sake of Christ.
Dominic was a vir evangelicus, a gospel man, and he calls his sons to be the same. His is a path of joy and freedom, a task that is easy and a burden that is light; for it is nothing else than the following of Christ the Preacher–speaking to God or of God, among ourselves or with our neighbors.
Peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule.
Image: Leandro Bassano, Honorius III Approving the Rule of St. Dominic in 1216
Since 1997 public television viewers everywhere have enjoyed the delights and dismays of antiques owners from cities all across the nation that have dragged old items before the camera and appraisers to see if what has been in the family for centuries or was found last week at a yard sale is treasure or trash. Personally, I always enjoy the times when an appraiser’s body language is giving away what they know the item’s worth is while they listen to “Peggy from Tulsa” drone on about how the antique came into her possession. The best of these moments however is when the high value of the antique is revealed to the unsuspecting owner and they in turn reveal that the item has been used for something utterly mundane, such as holding gun ammo for the past twenty years, and the appraiser’s countenance goes from delight to disgust just before the camera cuts away to a close up of the antique with accompanying graphic of the roadshow trunk, item value, and the “magic pot of gold” sound effect.
This brings me to one of the greatest analogies I have ever heard about a lapsed Catholic returning to their faith. A few years back I was waiting on table during our main community meal in Washington, D.C. when I overheard a guest say to the friars dining with her that she was raised Catholic but became lapsed in the faith. Now after returning it felt like she was on Antiques Roadshow, only instead of some material object, she had dragged her immortal soul out of the back of the attic and discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) that it was priceless. The joy and delight of her recent invaluable appraisal was something that had to be shared, like the parable of the woman who loses a coin and then upon finding it invites her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her (Lk 15:8-10).
Months later at one of our special events held at the priory I spotted this woman and introduced myself, breaking the ice by recalling how impressed I was by what I had overheard her say at the table that night. I mentioned that I would love to use her story and analogy down the road, and she readily gave me permission. I also went on to find out a few more details about her background and experience growing up as a typical Gen- Xer now in her early forties. The story is basically the same as millions of women from New York to San Francisco: raised nominally Catholic, practiced maybe up until college at best, got a great education, moved to a city, landed a well-paid high-performance job with flexibility and international travel mixed in — most likely with a score of hard-to-get reservations, being a bridesmaid at a few destination weddings, and the purchase of Apple products and Tori Burch shoes. A belief in God was still present, sure, but the reality of the immortality of her soul was not on her radar.
What material goods from our current age will we look back on and value like the items on Antiques Roadshow? Will it be the Kindle or DVD collection? The Ikea bookshelf or the fixtures for the sink bought at Restoration Hardware? No, very few of our goods are built to last nowadays. Even the chair made by Quakers in New England in 1783 that has survived at Grandma’s lake house is going to break one day. Our immortal soul will not. The soul animates the body, indeed, is the form of body, and because of its intimate connection with the body, even our bodies will one day be reunited with the soul and endure for all eternity.
The greatest news is that if this priceless value of one’s soul has been neglected in the attics of our life and covered over with the dust of sin, Jesus Christ can and wants to personally come and restore it, most especially in the sacrament of confession. Moreover, to keep the soul in almost brand new condition (though some debt of temporal punishment for sin might remain), He will even give us His very self in the Eucharist, offered at every sacrifice of the Mass. The sacramental life of grace and our prayers and good works add value to our soul in a way similar to how material objects gain value with time and safe keeping.
As we live in the age of the new evangelization with the task of representing the Gospel to so many again for the first time, perhaps this analogy of Antiques Roadshow might help you help someone see the priceless value of their soul in the eyes of the divine appraiser.
Image: Antiques Roadshow
How do we talk about homosexuality? Christians are caught on the horns of a dilemma: if we do talk about homosexuality we are told that we’re sex-obsessed and irrelevant; but if we don’t talk about it at all, the sex-obsessed culture takes silence as approval–consider the 59 percent of American Catholics who support same-sex marriage. So how do we escape the horns of the dilemma? A filmmaker working with Courage has proposed a stunning new answer: it’s called Desire of the Everlasting Hills.
The basic drama of this sixty-four-minute documentary is simple: three people with same-sex attraction talk about their lives, the choices they’ve made, the paths they’ve wandered, and the desire that brought them to God. Dan, Rilene, and Paul spend much of the film speaking directly to the camera, simply telling their stories. They don’t theorize, generalize, or abstract. They just reveal themselves, the mystery of who they are, the life they live, what God has done in them. Rilene sums up her intent for the film in her first speech:
For me, this is my journey. Nobody else is going to have the identical experience. And so you can choose to believe or not to believe that my experiences are true and valid. That’s okay. I just ask you to keep an open mind and consider that it might be possible that this is a genuine, authentic experience, and that it’s possible for more than just me.
That disarming humility resonates throughout the film, as the three narratives course and eddy through the events that have defined their lives. This film is not an ideological tool or a political vehicle; it is a true work of art, taking up the challenging proposal from Benedict XVI that opens the film: “Look at the face of the other… discover that he has a soul, a history, a life, that he is a person, and that God loves this person.”
So what happens when we look at three individuals who have lived openly as homosexuals, who still experience same-sex attraction, and who have left everything to follow Christ? We get what Pope Francis called for in his interview last year for various Jesuit magazines: “When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” We get the whole context, the pain, the joy, the loss, the friendship, the yearning, the desire: we get the person. And we see how God loves him.
Erik Van Noorden, the director, did a superb job selecting his interviewees. Dan, Rilene, and Paul are each lovable, personable, and powerful storytellers, comfortable and emotional in front of the camera as if seated before a close friend. Beyond that, each lived a very different kind of life, sexual and otherwise: Paul lived in high glamor as an international male model, cruising through New York, San Francisco, and all over the world in the ’70s and ’80s; Rilene discovered her attractions somewhat gradually and lived monogamously with a woman for twenty-five years; and Dan struggled to hide his desires with pornography and the Internet, eventually finding a year-long relationship with a man, followed by a slightly longer relationship with a woman. By hearing all three voices simultaneously, we hear a polyphonic perspective on the complex reality of same-sex attraction, unified in its most exalted and desolate moments by the same low thrum: a half-heard longing for something more.
In the end, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is not really a film about homosexuality–the word itself only appears once, as far as I remember. It is a film about desire. About discovering that the opposite of love is not hatred, but loneliness. About discovering that the way out of lust is not indulgence or frigidity, but chastity. About discovering that man is his own worst slavedriver. About discovering freedom in the desire for God. Dan puts it best in his last comment:
We’re made for better stuff than what we settle for. I realized my whole life I’ve settled. I don’t want to settle anymore. And even if that means living a life that’s single, I can do that. I don’t want to go back. But I wouldn’t rewrite the past either.
So how do we talk about homosexuality? I think it might look something like this film. We talk without fear, without anger, without reproach. We speak of courage, of love, of happiness, of companionship, of loneliness, of sorrow, of desire. We speak as a person, to a person. And we never lose hope that, however late we have loved him, Christ is the Beauty ever ancient, ever new.
Image: Paul Delvaux, Loneliness
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again?” (Mt 5:13)
We are nourished when we come to church, listen to God’s Word, and receive the sacraments. But after being nourished, we leave the temple to sanctify the temporal order. This is the mission the laity are specifically charged with by the Church. In Lumen Gentium, we read that given their secular character, and that the Church has an authentic secular dimension, the laity must be “present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth” (LG 4).
What does it mean to become the salt of the earth? There are the familiar uses of salt: preservation and seasoning. Being salt in the world means we preserve what is good in it, and by seasoning it we make it better. There are other uses of salt. It’s used as a sacramental to protect from sickness and evil, so by being salt we guard what we have preserved and seasoned. Salt can also be a means of destroying. Cities and fields used to be salted as a sign of their defeat and so that nothing would grow there. This means not only guarding what we preserve and season, but also fighting against that which threatens it.
This mission to become salt of the earth has implications for civil society, which is comprised of church, family, charitable institutions, and community organizations. Edmund Burke referred to these institutions as “little platoons” within which the individual flourishes and learns virtue. The laity’s mission of salting will take place here. Of course it will also take place in the economic and political sectors of society, but these sectors flourish when civil society does. A healthy society grows from the bottom up. For it is in church, in the family, in working with charitable societies that carry out the corporal works of mercy, and in community organizations that individuals become virtuous, learn civic virtue and spirit, and become responsible members of society, ordering it to God, its source and end.
So how should the laity sanctify the temporal order? How exactly do we salt civil society? We must preserve those institutions that have been handed down to us so that we can hand them on to those who will come after us. There are many voluntary charitable institutions that need to be preserved: the Knights of Columbus and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example. These help perform the corporal works of mercy. The family is also obviously in need of preserving. It is within the family, the domestic church, that individuals first encounter the faith and virtue lived out on a daily basis. Civil society must also be seasoned, that is, it must be improved where possible. We are not called merely to preserve, to watch, as these institutions grow old. We attend to them and make them better ordered to God and the truths he has established. We also guard such institutions against forces that would attack them. We especially see how there are certain forces, cultural and political, working against the family and religious institutions. And lastly, we don’t only play defense by guarding. We salt the fields of the enemy by fighting where and when necessary. An obvious Christian way to fight against forces that work against civil society is through prayer. But we can also do this through protesting unjust laws and organizations and through establishing new institutions that promote charity, justice, and peace in society.
Christ charges us to be salt of the earth, but He also intimates the possibility of our losing this salty character. We must remain salty if we are to sanctify the world. But if the faithful, especially the laity, are to order society to its Creator we must learn from Him how to do so. We must always return to prayer, the sacraments, and Scripture. But we can also look back at the Scripture quoted above when Jesus urges us to become salt of the earth and remain that way. Christ says this in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. And immediately prior to the verse above he gives us the Beatitudes. This too, given the context, is a way to remain salty. Be meek. Hunger for righteousness. Be pure. Be merciful. Work for peace. Turn the other cheek when insulted for the sake of the Gospel. The Beatitudes give us a program for staying salty. We have the charge (be salt), the place where it takes place (civil society), and the way to stay salty (prayer, sacraments, the Beatitudes).
Image: Pahudson, St. Patrick’s Cathedral Complex
“I’m ready for a change – I want to [surrender my life to God] like you. . . how do I start?”
The man who spoke these words couldn’t have reached his 40s yet, but his searching gaze looked as if those eyes had seen a lifetime of futility. “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain does the builder labor. If the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain do the watchmen keep vigil. In vain is your earlier rising; your going later to rest when the Lord pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber.” So runs psalm 127, whose words immediately came to mind. The man was lacking not human effort or will, but the grace of God and an openness to receive it to allow it to change his life. As for his question, “how do I start,” St. John Vianney can point out the answer: prayer.
“Prayer is to our soul what rain is to the soil. Fertilize the soil ever so richly, it will remain barren unless fed by frequent rains.” St. John Vianney knew first hand of long-term struggles in life and the importance of prayer as the means of lifting to God his personal problems along with all his efforts to overcome them. Not a natural scholar, he struggled with the studies needed to become ordained. When these were interrupted by Napoleonic wars and being drafted into the army (at least twice), it only became harder to return and complete them. Yet it was surely his constancy in prayer that transformed all his hardships into sources of sanctity.
Prayer – lifting the heart to God and entering into communion with Him – is meant for every one of us. Regular prayer was Jesus’ own habit, as we see in today’s gospel: “[Jesus] went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Mt 14:23). We can see also the role that an area of calm solitude plays – Jesus deliberately dismisses everyone, even His disciples, and goes off by Himself. In the midst of our very interconnected lives, such a place of peace and quiet may seem impossible to achieve. This atmosphere of quiet reverence is readily found closer than we think – churches, chapels, and even a small corner of our living quarters can easily lend themselves to this holy silence in which to pray. Once we climb away from the busy-ness of life, particularly from information traffic flow – shutting off our cell phone and computers – once we deliberately suspend our concerns for whatever work or projects clamor for attention on our to-do list, then we are ready to communicate with God.
Once we begin to speak with (and especially listen to) God, we can directly share with Him all that we are struggling with and all that we find joy and gratitude in. St. John Vianney reminds us that in prayer we receive what we need to strengthen us as well as the joy of knowing that we are united with God: “Man has a beautiful office, that of praying and loving. You pray, you love – that is the happiness of man upon the earth. Prayer is nothing else than union with God. When our heart is pure and united to God, we feel within ourselves a joy, a sweetness that inebriates, a light that dazzles us.” Connecting to God in prayer establishes a lifeline through which His grace can reach us, sooth our fears, and divinely supplement our own human nature so as to turn our lives completely towards God.
Image: Andrea Marchetti, Pray
Imagine you’ve discovered the cure for cancer. Just you. So of course every news agency is begging to meet with you. On a given Monday evening you agree to a sit-down with a journalist from the New York Times. She’s arranged to meet you at, say, the Boathouse restaurant in San Diego. Or maybe she’ll meet you at your apartment. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter who she is. She can be a well-mannered British intern, or instead a fidgety brunette, with thick-rimmed glasses, a gray blazer, and a tart attitude. What does matter is that whatever you say to her will be published everywhere. It will be printed and published to the ends of the earth, then frozen in the archives of the internet forever. She may ask you technical questions about your lab experiments, or she may grow poetic and pose questions like, “So what does this mean for us?” And all that you say will be heard by all. When you invite that one person over, you’re inviting the world.
If journalism is a modern phenomenon, where words with one person are published to the world, the exact opposite is true of Jesus: “Whatever you did to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Instead of one to many, now we have many to one. Whatever we say or do to anyone at all, we do to Christ.
In many of her letters, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta would remind her followers, “Remember the five fingers.” What she meant by this is explained well by a Dominican priest of the Irish province. In a memoir he recounts how on many occasions she asked him to hold his hand, and touching each finger one-by-one, she said, “You did it to me.” This was the secret of her whole spirituality. It’s a simple and sustainable model lifted from the pages of Scripture, and lived out by perhaps the greatest saint of our times. Mother Teresa knew that in loving the most unlovable in our midst – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger – we love Christ himself.
This immediately strikes us in two ways: It’s beautiful. It also seems entirely too vague and mystical to apply practically in our lives. Why should I go outside of my circle of friends and family to love strange and difficult people? Why does Jesus want to make me uncomfortable?
Because that’s just how it is. Take the Church, for instance. The Church is a rather large and diverse Body of people, and if we were baptized into it, we must deal with it.
This is the classic teaching of the Mystical Body. It simply means that all those baptized into Christ are connected together in one common life. We asked, why is it that the way we treat anyone else is also the way we treat Christ? Because all of us Christians belong in some way to Christ now. We have received the Holy Spirit and now share life together “in” him. Even all unbaptized people are called to the Church and must be shown similar love. The sacrifices I make affect the lives of other people – ones I know and ones I will never meet in this life. The joys I have may be the fruit of my own good decision making, or they may be a gift won for me by the sacrifice of another brother or sister across the world. That’s why praying for each other never gets old, because we don’t do it to just see quick results or only to beg for miracles. We do it also to stay connected and help win grace and strength for each other. The whole image of the Church as a “body” is a grasping sort of analogy for a much greater thing – the reality of a network of grace connecting our lives together!
It may sound like an elaborate fairy tale, but it’s not. It’s grace. Ask anyone, and they can tell stories of how God connects our lives together. Here’s one from my own life: Years back my older brother was working a job in Virginia and got into a late-night car accident. He was cut off by a drunk driver at high speeds, and hit the median wall. All passengers walked away without injury. The next day our elderly neighbor in Ohio called my parents to say she’d been woken up in mid-sleep (about an hour before the accident), filled with a strong sense that she had to “pray for one of the Danaher boys.” So she did. And it worked. What does this mean? Nothing more than that God includes us in the lives of those around us. He could easily save us all alone, but He doesn’t want to. Instead, He wants us to pray for one another, to build one another up, to help each other grow.
So the saying remains true: In spending time with anyone at all – your same old parents, or brothers and sisters, or classmates, the poor or homeless, the depressed, the lonely, simply everyone – what you say to them, you say to more than just the whole world. You say it to Christ. And any good act He receives from us, He in turn can share its merit with others in need. In this life we won’t see where much of our prayers and good deeds go, or who they support and help. But we know that they all go to Christ, and for now that’s enough for us.
Image: Lawrence Lew, O.P., The Good Samaritan (Pusey Church, Oxford)
Flannery O’Connor had an ear for the vacuous in popular wisdom. The saying “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” appears in two of her stories and, I suspect, particularly rankled her. But sometimes she also heard in the hollows of popular dicta the echo of real wisdom.
In “Good Country People,” the saying “It takes all kinds to make the world” expresses not only the complacent relativism of Mrs. Hopewell but also a notion found in St. Thomas Aquinas (whom O’Connor famously read): “Because God’s goodness could not be represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one . . . might be supplied by another” (ST I, 47, 1). And in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” Julian’s oblivious mother solemnly insists on the importance of self-knowledge—like some kind of absurd Delphic Oracle.
What is maybe the best of these profound bromides O’Connor took for the title of one of her most famous stories: “A good man is hard to find.” She thought enough of the statement, too, to make it the title of her first collection of stories.
In the titular story, a group of people complain, “A good man is hard to find.” The initial irony is that the complaint issues from parties consisting largely of moral pygmies. So the state of affairs is worse than they know. The second irony concerns original sin. Everyone comes into the world estranged from God and, baptized or not, remains attracted to evil. St. John addresses the justified: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 Jn 1:8). That a good man is rare perhaps ought to be less surprising.
Having expanded the meaning of the statement, O’Connor goes on to follow its poetic logic. If a good man is hard to find, then a bad man must be easy to find. The plot corroborates the conclusion. It’s so easy to find a bad man that one can do it without even trying. It’s as easy as getting into a wreck.
Satan drew Adam and Eve into death by drawing them into sin. Posterity has followed the pattern ever since. This is why Jesus calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). And this is why O’Connor makes it clear that the moral failures of the story’s characters conspire to place them in their final predicament.
But even prior to personal sin, the sons of Adam are condemned to die and so can expect with certainty to meet one day the worst of “men,” Satan, by way of his proxy, Death. And what could be easier than dying?
Irony in extremis is typical of O’Connor’s satire, so one might wonder whether the lament, “a good man is hard to find,” is not only shallow but backward. In what sense is a good man easy to find?
To get straight to the point: it has never been easier to find Jesus. If the human race is 100,000 years old, 98% of human history qualifies as B.C. The Gospel has been preached to every continent, and it’s commonly estimated that nearly a third of the world’s population is Christian. In her first novel, Wise Blood, O’Connor suggests the ubiquity of Christ by noticing the frequency with which people who rarely think about Jesus use his name for a curse. Even the Misfit (“A Good Man”’s bad guy) feels haunted by Christ: “Jesus thrown everything off balance,” he complains.
Plus, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10). If Satan is easy to encounter by way of death, then Jesus is even easier. The saved are spared direct contact with the evil one, but everyone gets his interview with the Judge. It turns out to be impossible for us not to find this good man.
Image: Odilon Redon, Day appears at last … and in the very disk of the sun shines face of Jesus Christ (plate 24)
To depart from evil is understanding (Job 28:28).
Sin is something altogether mysterious and awful: a turning away from God and a turning to the changeable good. As broken human persons, we create for ourselves a myriad of excuses for the sins we commit. It seems that our changeable and too easily distracted mind can hardly conceive of the idea of the Supreme Good (God) and still less hold It as the object of its preference over and above all else. In every sin, therefore, there is some element of error, a mistaken judgment.
The very possibility of sin even remains a mystery. We can point to our free will in the face of good and evil, but if God is the Supreme Good, why are we so little attracted? And for those of us who have been graced with even a little bit of the knowledge of the goodness of God, should not that little bit be enough to captivate our hearts and convince us of the absurdity of sin? We outrage the Supreme Good, we offend God, we sin against God – these are terrifying and awful thoughts; but why and how such actions are really possible is beyond our power of explanation.
This painful problem deepens into a darker mystery when viewed in light of the Incarnation and Redemption. How is it that the Word-of-God-made-man should have died upon the cross to destroy sin, and yet that sin should be so little destroyed – that sin should be still so much alive within us: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19)? This is a profound mystery. Yet as incomprehensible as it is, the fact remains that sin is really an outrage against God and we must strive to convince our minds of the awful reality of that outrage.
For those, however, who cannot see their moral failings within the context of God – those who only see shortcomings within their own little bubble of reality – the concept of an offense before God makes no sense whatsoever. Recognition of sin presupposes a recognition of God. The sad case of those who pursue the nothingness of sin, as if it were their highest good in our broken world, walk their own via crucis. None here on earth can escape suffering and sin – our own or the effects of others – but the pursuit of nothingness brings its own bitterness for the soul, exasperating the problem of sin all the more. As Sigrid Undset states in her biography of Catherine of Siena: “Those who follow the devil have to bear his cross, and there are many who become martyrs for the devil too” (pg. 267).
This is all too common in the world today. In everything from intense greed, to rampant and addictive pornography and masturbation, the devil has his followers. And even if we are striving to follow God but fall out of weakness, when we sin we are taking steps on the road to being one of the devil’s martyrs, because the very definition of sin is to turn from God: “If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom. 7:20).
These reflections lead us to the inevitable conclusion that we must hold fast to the simple truth that contrition – true sorrow for sin – is supernatural. Through the revelation of God, we attain to the idea of the Supreme Good. Faith teaches us that it profits us nothing to gain the whole world if we lose the Supreme Good. What can heal this sickness is recourse to the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, as the source and motivation of contrition. We cannot have contrition if we separate from the Passion the idea of sin which is its cause, and if, in the Person of the suffering Christ, we do not see the God whom sin offends and the Supreme Good from which sin turns us away.
Contrition, therefore, involves a proper knowledge of the goodness of God. The good news is that Goodness itself is always calling us. The very first line of the Catechism assures us of this: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man.” Even when we fall and it seems like the devil is taking us down his dark road, the God of the universe beckons us to him. True contrition acknowledges the mistaken judgment made in sin, and with a firmness of will, we can turn back to God who is always drawing us. In the end it matters not so much that we sin; that is a rather typical outcome of our fallen human nature. What matters more is what we do with this new understanding of our sin: Will we depart from evil?
To conclude here are a few helpful tips:
- In times outside of temptation, pray for a deeper knowledge of your own sinfulness, always in light of the mercy of God, and pray for a strengthening of your will to choose what is truly good. Remember, sin is in the will and even when we know what is right we often sin due to weakness. Ask God to give you a resolute and stalwart will in the face of temptation!
- Frequent the sacrament of confession with a searching zeal. We are all called to be saints, and if you go to confession frequently and find little room for improvement in your life or you are simply confessing the same sins time and time again, consider that sanctity is a call to perfection! The fruits of contrition and sanctifying grace in the sacrament of confession will follow if we keep our mind’s eye on the main purpose of our vocations: sainthood!
- There is power in the Name of Jesus to break every chain that shackles us. Go before our Lord and offer every one of your chains to His Holy Name. A beautiful way to do this is to bring these hurts to Jesus in Eucharistic Adoration. Spend a short while with the Eucharistic Lord repeating the name of Jesus, asking for His healing.
Image: Lawrence Lew, Tympanum Detail (Notre Dame, Paris)
A couple of weeks ago, I went with a few brothers to the first installment of the Metropolitan Opera’s Summer Recital Series. Gathered around the SummerStage venue in Central Park, we listened—to something. Given the language barrier and the scarcity of bodily expression, I was relegated to the mere appreciation of vocal virtuosity and what touches of style I could detect. Something beautiful was happening, but I felt a touch barbarous, for I was unable to access the meaning. I was like a child at the grown-ups’ table.
That inability to understand the singer’s words brought home just how powerful language is. Words are positively potent. To think that I can cause the immaterial existence of a thing in the mind of another by a vocal enunciation is truly marvelous. Words permit us to clutch reality. And so, it should come as no surprise, as documented in a recent article, that exposure to words is a crucial factor in early childhood brain development:
Reading, as well as talking and singing, is viewed as important in increasing the number of words that children hear in the earliest years of their lives. Nearly two decades ago, an oft-cited study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than have those of less educated, low-income parents, giving the children who have heard more words a distinct advantage in school. New research shows that these gaps emerge as early as 18 months.
The article focuses on the benefits of introducing a child to more words, and its conclusions stay at the level of literacy. Familiarity with more words gives the child a larger lexicon, a greater familiarity with the language, its properties, and its rules, and (one might extend the logic) an advantage when learning to read—a general leg up on literacy. While this is true, I think we can extend its logic.
Words are important not only for the sheer fact that they are proven to increase a child’s scores on standardized tests later in life. Rather, words are important because they mediate things. By introducing the child to words, the parents also help them to forge the links between name and reality. “That’s a doggy,” says mom as she points to the picture of the Dalmatian. “What sound does it make?” By reading to their children, parents cultivate the more general appreciation for the world around us. Books extend the reach of a child’s imagination to the barnyard, the moon, neighboring countries, and (for some chosen few born during the glory days of Transformers) the planet Cybertron. By experiencing the world as a discovery and by growing sensitive to its varied colors, textures, sights, and characters, children begin their lives deeply immersed in an environment of realism. In this adventure, the parent holds the privileged place in this “art of accompaniment.”
Parents, beyond being mere contributors to the burgeoning child’s mental cache, are responsible for the most gigantic of tasks. For whereas the educational specialist is tasked with the remediation of a particular fault or the introduction of a particular skill, the parent is entrusted with the care of children who “require to be taught not so much anything as everything.” Chesterton once marveled at the fact that, “Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world . . . in a time when [they] ask all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t.”
So, though the article may consign itself to the recounting of facts, in calling for a renewal of story time, the author implicitly calls for a reinvigoration of the family. When the author innocently observes that “The pediatricians’ group hopes that by encouraging parents to read often and early, they may help reduce academic disparities between wealthier and low-income children as well as between racial groups,” she has stumbled into a greater question about hearth and home. For until the home is healed, made safe for leisure, and kindled with the flame of discovery, her injunction is a dead letter. In this pursuit, it is perhaps best to keep in mind that, though difficult, the task is worthy, for what greater calling is there for a parent than to be the custodian of all reality?
Image: Ludwig Bemelmans, Bedtime Story
On a sweltering Saturday earlier this summer, sixteen young men and women set out on foot on a fourteen-mile pilgrimage through the shale oil-rich countryside of Perry County, Ohio. The sizable band formed a cast of characters worthy of Chaucer: the Doctor, the Eagle Scout, the Farm Girl, and many more, along with a half-dozen Dominican student brothers. The destination: the small town of Somerset, home of two Dominican parishes, and the former site of the Province of St. Joseph’s novitiate, house of studies, provincial headquarters, and even a short-lived college. Yet the eponymous church of St. Joseph bears significance not only for the friars, for it is also the oldest Catholic parish in the Buckeye State, earning the nickname “The Cradle of the Faith in Ohio.” One may wonder why the Catholic faith was first nurtured, by an order known for ministry in the cities and university towns, in such an unlikely place as this…
While some Catholics had settled along the Ohio River back when the “Heart of it All” was part of the Northwest Territory, and traveling priests had then offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass, it was not until the first decade of statehood that a cluster of Catholic families had settled in one location. The homesteaders’ patriarch, Jacob Dittoe, had requested of John Carroll of Baltimore, then the only bishop in the fledgling nation, a priest to serve the spiritual and sacramental needs of this new Catholic settlement. Bishop Carroll, recalling that he had sent Fr. Edward Dominic Fenwick to the frontier of Kentucky to found the first Dominican province in the United States, wrote to the friar to lend his assistance, seeing that he was only 250 miles away. Fenwick journeyed on horseback, meeting Dittoe one afternoon while the latter was chopping wood, and offered Mass for the grateful settlers the next morning. The two stayed in correspondence, and ten years later, in 1818, after the town of Somerset was founded nearby, Fenwick and his nephew, Nicholas Dominic Young, also a Dominican priest, built a log cabin church on the half-square mile of land that Dittoe had graciously donated to the friars. The first Catholic parish in Ohio was born.
Fenwick and Young soon made St. Joseph’s the hub of their apostolic activity in Ohio, which other friars continued after Fenwick became the first bishop of Cincinnati. The Dominicans ran several mission parishes in the county, including St. Rose in New Lexington, St. Patrick in Junction City, and Holy Trinity on “Piety Hill” within the town of Somerset, as the Church at large spread throughout the state.
Yet, in 1864, a fire destroyed the large priory at St. Joseph’s and severely damaged the church, toppling the steeple and gutting the interior. The Province, seeing a growing need to minister to Catholic immigrants in the cities of the East Coast, used the accident to shift their focus eastward and even considered abandoning the rural Ohio ministry altogether–until the Master of the Order, Vincent Jandel, commanded them to stay, as an act of gratitude to the original benefactors, who to this day are buried in a plot next to the church. The friars turned over all the Perry County parishes, except the two in Somerset, to the newly-formed Diocese of Columbus, and built a new priory at St. Joseph’s, which served as a house of formation in various stages until 1968. The church acquired several striking works of art, such as a series of stained-glass windows from Germany depicting the mysteries of the Rosary (except for the Crucifixion, which appears as a life-sized wooden crucifix from Cuba), and its bell tower continues to provide the province’s novices with a place to make their mark on history, as they inscribe their names on its walls and staircases. While the priory is gone today, as the lone pastor of both parishes dwells in a rectory across the street, a museum in the sacristy, which once connected the priory to the church, chronicles the events of St. Joseph’s in photographs and memorabilia, from ordinations to parish picnics and studentate baseball games, throughout the decades…
As the road-weary and hungry pilgrims, who stopped to pray in the aforementioned churches, made the final push up Piety Hill to join Holy Trinity’s annual festival, and I myself (like Fenwick and Dittoe, an East Coast native who settled in Ohio) wished there truly were a patron saint of quality footwear as my boots continued to disintegrate, this trip through the early history of the Province merged with the active life of the present day. The pilgrims encountered several Somerset parishioners who have fond memories of the brothers who were formed there, and who are working on refurbishing St. Joseph’s Church in time for the parish’s upcoming bicentennial, thus keeping alive the tradition that Fenwick started. Therefore, as the intrepid young pilgrims who made the trek through the rural landscape found, and as any visitor to Somerset can see, in the Cradle of the Faith in Ohio, the Faith is still going strong.
Image: St. Joseph’s Catholic Church near Somerset
“The celebrant for today’s Mass is Father _________. Please stand and greet your neighbor.”
These can be words of controversy. Proponents emphasize the importance of community and hospitality. Their opponents claim that it shouldn’t take place during the Sacred Liturgy.
Previous generations boasted of ethnic parishes and parish-sponsored dances. Today, we still find parish festivals. The parish has been and continues to be a source of friendship and fellowship. But what exactly is the relationship between community amongst ourselves and the Mass? After all, as some are right to point out – our attention at Mass focuses on the liturgy, the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, in a way that transcends us Mass participants and centers us on Christ.
Mass isn’t for socializing and shaking hands, but the desire for belonging often drives us to choose a specific parish. Yes, many people choose a parish based on liturgy, but people also desire a good community. I have a hard time imagining someone desiring to attend a parish where they don’t feel welcome. It’s the rare person who enjoys being a mere number in the crowd of faces. As Catholics, we want both liturgy and community.
These desires to both feel at home and have a strong community aren’t entirely out of place. In fact, the Mass is a communal event: it’s the public work of the universal Church. You don’t worship God alone as an individual at Mass – it’s the one Church, the one community that worships God. Thus, desires for belonging to a community aren’t impediments to entering into the liturgy. In fact, they can help us understand the liturgy. They remind us that we aren’t a number in the sea of Mass attendees – we are a part of the one Church that offers fitting worship.
Cardinal Ratzinger comments on this in his Introduction to Christianity:
Communion with the Lord in the Eucharist leads necessarily to the communion of the converted, who all eat one and the same bread, to become in it ‘one body’ (1 Cor 10:17) and, indeed, ‘one single new man’ (cf Eph 2:15).
Parish festivals and dances aren’t the foundations of our community. Instead, by being united to the Lord we are united to one another. The liturgy turns the we into a one. It prompts the faithful to live together and help each other live the Christian life in the present day. And we assist one another by forming relationships in a healthy environment. The coffee and donuts, as good as they are, aren’t the source of our unity – they are simply the living out of our unity.
The liturgy and social activities don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they must be placed in their proper order. Without the liturgy, the church becomes a community center. With the liturgy, the faces in the crowd become a community. Parish events, welcoming others, and feeling at home remind us that we are a communion, not because of these events but because of Christ.
Image: The Catholic Mass, Fyodor Bronnikov
There is a sort of triumphalism over death that the Gospel inspires. Christ’s victory, his resurrection to the right hand of the Father, has put something of a swagger in the Christian step. To those unfamiliar, it may seem rash; to those uncomfortable with medieval hagiography, it can seem downright morbid at times.
At heart though, it represents the flower and fruit of belief in the immortality of the soul, the perfection of faith, the universality of Christ’s mediation, and the resurrection of the dead. And yet, while we saunter on with tales of St. Lawrence and the musical styling of Matt Maher, there are still times when it can get to be too much.
A few days back, the New York Times ran a piece on a new type of funeral arrangements: “The Rite of the Sitting Dead”. The article documents how in recent years, it has become increasingly popular for families to request that their deceased loved ones assume familiar poses at their funeral. Most interesting are individuals who have appeared “standing” over a cooking pot, “seated” at a table with a can of Busch beer and a menthol cigarette, and propped up in the corner of a boxing ring. I do not mean to poke fun at the dead. I simply want to know what drives this tendency of dictating the terms of life to such an extent that the dictation overflows the very bounds of earthly days. Is this a case of the democracy of the dead, or the throes of a life hell-bent on control?
For a semester, I studied abroad at a campus in Austria that had functioned for about four centuries as a Carthusian charterhouse. Though the iconography was sparse, the Church and cloister included some beautiful art. One image in particular has stayed with me. On the western wall of the cloister, there was a sundial, dominated by the figure of a skeleton with sickle in hand.
For the monks who lived at the Kartause, the conceit was plain. Death and the judgment to come dictate the terms of life. Death, in a sense, overflows into the present: Frater, memento mori. Death’s inexorable claim on our earthly lives is a rich source of Christian reflection. Fr. Ed Oakes said, “There is no point in being a Christian unless we regard death as God’s greatest gift to us.” This may seem strange, as Br. Bonaventure Chapman recently pointed out. But by entering into the final crucible with Jesus, who endured it in his own flesh, and with hope for what lies in store, the final pilgrimage can become desirable.
In preparation for the final poverty, death, the Christian tradition invites us to live in poverty of spirit so as to cling more closely to Christ. This poverty of spirit is visible in the witness of some of the Church’s greatest saints. St. Dominic died in another friar’s cell clothed in another friar’s habit. St. Francis, with his classic one-upmanship, died blind and naked on the bare earth. In these prophetic gestures, we see in icon the purpose of this life—to prepare for the unmediated vision of the Most High. The story is one of friendship. The folly is one of lovers.
With this recent trend of posturing corpses, it seems that we observe just the opposite trajectory. Rather than countenancing the thought of death in life and shaping the terms of terrestrial existence by the terminal standard, the funeral rite is overwhelmed by an earthly anxiety. The vice president of one funeral home gives clear testimony to the fear at work:
“This is not a fun or funny event; the family is going through a lot of pain.” With these kinds of arrangements, “the family literally suffers less, because they see their loved one in a way that would have made them happy — they see them in a way in which they still look alive.”
The reasoning is a bit discomfiting and markedly therapeutic. Because many cannot bear the loss of a loved one, we make believe. But beyond shirking the responsibility of suffering graciously what eventually befalls every man, these mock mourners have traded their hope in the future resurrection (with all of the prayers, masses, and suffrages that go with it) for a contemptible resuscitation, and “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette
Ashlyn Blocker is in many respects a normal American teenage girl. She lives with her family, has fun with her friends, watches TV and sings pop music. But there is something different about her, something very different. After she was born she hardly ever cried. For instance, once she nearly chewed off her tongue while her teeth were coming in, but she didn’t cry or complain. It turns out she has a genetic disorder which blocks the electrical transmissions of painful events from reaching her brain. She has a congenital insensitivity to pain.
On the surface, that sounds like a problem that we would all like to have. Imagine the amazing things we would be able to do, and yet, not feel the painful consequences. It seems that congenital insensitivity to pain is a lot like a superpower. In reality though, it is really a super-disability.
In an article in the New York Times Magazine about Ashlyn and her situation, Dr. Geoffrey Woods, the geneticist who discovered the mutation, says about pain:
It is an extraordinary disorder. It’s quite interesting, because it makes you realize pain is there for a number of reasons, and one of them is to use your body correctly without damaging it and modulating what you do.
For Ashlyn, what comes as second nature to us, like pulling a hand away when it is getting burned, has been acquired through a lifetime of damaging trial and error. All those who share her condition know the benefits of pain and the danger of not experiencing pain.
It doesn’t take much searching to encounter someone who decries “Catholic Guilt.” It is portrayed as the experience of feeling bad for doing things that should be natural to us. It prevents us from being fully alive. It is a prison which rational adults should cast off as soon as they realize they suffer from it. I concede that many times, people feel guilty when they shouldn’t. This should indeed be cast off. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
As people of faith, we believe that each person is composed of body and soul. Just as dangerous things cause our bodies to feel healthy pain, so too does healthy guilt alert us to the fact that we are endangering our soul.
If we experience pain in our bodies, we ought to cease doing the action which causes that pain. If we set our hand on a burner, we pull it off. We are free to decide not to, but then our hand will be destroyed. If we experience guilt in an action we commit, then most likely we should stop doing it. Otherwise our soul will suffer.
Recall Dr. Woods’ finding, and substitute “guilt” for “pain” and “soul” for “body”:
It’s quite interesting, because it makes you realize guilt is there for a number of reasons, and one of them is to use your soul correctly without damaging it and modulating what you do.
Minor pains from cuts and bruises can be healed easily at home, just as minor venial sins simply need to be taken care of by an act of charity, devotion, or a simple expression of sorrow. But big pains—lost limbs, cancer, heart attacks—these need to be taken care of by a professional physician. So too, grave sins need to be taken care of by a spiritual physician. This physician is Jesus Christ himself, acting through the priest as his sacramental representative.
Often the healing regimens in the spiritual life are difficult, and they may involve cutting off activities and relationships that are dangerous. But we can have confidence that the Divine Physician knows exactly what he is doing, even if we don’t. His healing is our salvation. The prescriptions he gives out are remedies of love. They heal us and those around us. If we don’t take the medicine the doctor prescribes, then our health will get worse. If we don’t live out the life that Jesus Christ has shown to us through the Church, our soul will feel worse. The pain will still be there, but how will we treat it? Most forms of self-medication just mask the pain: alcoholism, careerism, living a double life, etc.
Often we can think of the life of sin vs. the life of the spirit as a legal drama. We want to do certain things, but there are laws that we try to avoid breaking because of various punishments that are imposed on us as a result. This is a poor way of looking at our lives.
On the contrary, in the life of the soul (and in the life of the body) our goal is to be happy. That is how we are made. We commit sin, though, when we search for happiness in the wrong places. We try to be happy, yet we hurt ourselves, and we hurt others. Just think, when we are not feeling our best–a cold, a stomach-ache–we can be crabby, we can want our alone time. When we are sick in our soul we suffer from similarly isolating behaviors. However, we can recognize the pain that we feel, be healed, and learn more about what activities cause us pain. All we have to do is make an appointment.
Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan, after Delcroix