Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
The difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut is three days. My long-time barber explained his philosophy noting that three days is the time that it takes to get adjusted to something. While I would make an exception for a horrible or really uneven haircut, I agree with his general sentiment that we get accustomed to new things very quickly.
Our ability as humans to quickly adapt to new situations is a wonderful skill, but I wonder how much we lose in the adjustment. This is especially pertinent in the religious life of a monk, cloistered nun, or even a friar where we come together to pray four or five (or more) times each day in the same chapel, chanting the same sets of psalms, week after week. This routine has its dangers as it is so easy to sing on auto-pilot and not pay attention to what we are doing or saying.
I was recently reminded of just how much I have become acclimated to the routine when the new student brothers, fresh from novitiate and simple profession, joined us. At the Dominican House of Studies we have regular processions after Vespers or Compline, singing some of the great Dominican chants including the Salve Regina and the O Lumen. Finishing a procession that first weekend, one of the new brothers next to me in line turned to me and said, “That is so cool.” And indeed it is – cool and also incredibly beautiful, and I get to do it several times a week! I remember experiencing the beauty and solemnity of these processions while visiting the House of Studies before becoming a friar myself. Now, I am part of that same procession with all its beauty, and yet I do not often see the beauty. Instead, I can list all of the singing mistakes, the homework that still needs to be done, the brothers who are particularly annoying me today, besides wondering what is for dinner, or focussing on a thousand other issues. I may be physically present, but mentally, I am often far, far away.
The saints have learned to keep their attention on the beautiful little things. There is a story of Mother Teresa riding with a car-full of her sisters down a busy highway when she suddenly ordered them to stop and turn around. She alone of all the sisters had seen a very sick man lying on the other side of the road. The sisters were surprised that Mother saw the man across several lanes of heavy traffic, but Mother Teresa was attuned to see the little things which God was pointing out to her.
So too Elijah, fleeing to Mount Horeb to seek God, knew that God was not the big and great things: neither the strong and violent wind nor the earthquake nor the fire. It was only with the arrival of the soft, whispering voice that Elijah buried his head in his cloak, knowing that he was now in the presence of God.
In the parables, Jesus himself tells us that the Kingdom of God is found in small things of daily life – a mustard seed, a single sheep or coin, little children, faithfulness in small deeds. All of these are things that we can easily overlook in our own life because we are acclimated to them, and we will always have them, because they appear so ordinary and plentiful. We need to slow down and enjoy these little things of life, especially those we know very well, to see the great beauty of God’s creation that surrounds us all the time.
God is always present to us, but are we always present to him?
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Compline at the Dominican House of Studies
Recently, I encountered a young woman struggling with many difficulties who turned all the bitterness in her heart against her faith. She launched into a diatribe about “not getting anything out of” her affiliation with the Church. The raw effusion of her anguish, as well as her conception of Jesus, brought to mind two of the characters from today’s Gospel.
Simon is a Pharisee who decides to invite Jesus to a banquet – no doubt well-respected and socially quite accomplished. The other character might be called a party crasher – an unnamed, sinful woman, who invites herself over, sneaks up behind Jesus, and proceeds to lose all control of her emotions – “bathing his feet with her tears,” wiping them with her hair, kissing them, and anointing them with perfumed ointment. St. Luke tells us twice that the woman is a sinner, probably because we’d have no idea otherwise. However by the time that the passage is over (if we haven’t already pre-judged him based on the label “Pharisee”), we’re pretty sure that Simon himself isn’t as sin-free as he thinks he is – smug in his own superiority over not only the sinful woman, but also over Jesus, whom Simon assumes is ignorant of the woman’s background.
Though both characters found themselves at a meal with Christ, Simon’s approach was that he was “doing Jesus a favor” by the meal, whereas the woman approached with faith, sure of Jesus’ power to heal her sinfulness. Certainly the woman had not casually decided to approach Him, but only after an honest self-examination, her tears motivated by grief at her own sorry sinfulness. Simon, on the other hand, never questions his own righteousness, and thus brings blindness to bear on two accounts: his own identity as a sinner, and Jesus’s identity as God.
This Gospel passage helps us understand how we can or should approach that meal with Jesus that is the Mass. Before the priest begins the Eucharistic Prayer, he invites us to “lift up [our] hearts.” When we attend Mass, what is burning within our hearts? What problem, what crisis darkens our hearts, or who or what fills them with joy? Do we keep either our doubts, anguish, or our gratitude to ourselves, like Simon? Like him, are we so sure that Jesus is not “God enough” to be able to handle it? Or do we recognize that no one but Him can do anything about it?
Who better than the woman in today’s Gospel shows us how this is to be done! She has begun with a hard and honest look at her heart – and found it full of sin. Yes, acknowledging this brings on great sorrow, but also the desperate need to seek out Jesus in order to be healed. The heart she lifts up is her own, though earlier in this chapter, St. Luke speaks of many others who have others “on their heart”: A widow wails for her dead son, a centurion calls out on behalf of his slave, and John the Baptist’s heart burns with questions of faith – Jesus satisfies them all. This is why, by the end of the passage, the woman – now forgiven – is known no longer as the “sinful” one, but as the “one who loved much.”
When we encounter Jesus this Sunday, let us ask for the grace to lift up our hearts to Him as freely and completely as the woman in today’s Gospel.
Image: Dieric Bouts, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee (Detail)
I knew it was going to be one of those conversations. Maybe it was the way he eagerly, yet nonchalantly, edged over to the conversation as I was explaining to some teenagers on the Metro what a Dominican was. Maybe it was the subtle sort of smile that implied recognition of, not an oddity or a friend, but a challenge. Maybe it was the business card he handed me that said in big bold letters: “YOU CAN BE 100% SURE OF HEAVEN.”
On second thought, yes, it was definitely the business card.
After a brief introduction and assurance that he had written a book on Catholicism, thus proving he knew what he was talking about, this new acquaintance of mine launched into an interrogative form of the big bold sentence on his business card. When I displayed some hesitance about whether I would go straight to heaven if I died tonight, he assured me that the dozen or so priests he interviewed for his book all answered the same way, with the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory as the culprit for such a pause. I’d like to say that my Thomistic disputation training kicked in and that in the course of four or five stops I had managed to assuage all of his concerns about the Catholic understanding of death and judgment and anything else that came to mind… but I didn’t. We had a lively yet cordial conversation over a range of Christian topics, without either one of us giving much ground. I’d like to think that I may have given him some things to ponder on, or that I at least gave a charitable witness to those around us in the train, but all I do know is that I left the train thanking God for Purgatory.
There is a whole host of ways to argue for the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, and plenty of misconceptions about it that often need to be corrected. As always, the discussion is rooted in Scripture with its allusions to “cleansing fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15 and 1 Pet 1:6-7), of forgiveness “in the age to come” (Mt 12:31-32), as well as references to praying for the deceased (2 Macc 12:46), which only seems sensible if our prayers can still improve their lot. These themes are taken up by the Church Fathers and confirmed both by the Church’s official statements and by the lived experience of the faithful over the millennia. While I brought as much of this as I could remember to bear in my subway conversation, I couldn’t help but think that his conception of purgatory – as an impediment – was wrongheaded, and I tried my best to convey that message.
It’s not that I’m looking forward to actually being in Purgatory, or that I’m trying to avoid the beatific vision for a while. Rather, I’m thankful that God has provided a way to help me finish the job I have consistently proved so incompetent at, namely, being perfect. Purgatory is both an assurance that God desires that we attain to our true end, our true perfection, and a means by which to get there. Of course, if we can, by his grace and mercy, attain to that perfection in this present life, all the better, but it is encouraging to know that while God will neither lower his standards nor turn a blind eye for us to be with him, He still gives us every opportunity to finish the job or, more accurately, allow Him to finish the job.
As usual these gut reactions and inchoate musings have been expressed so much more beautifully and coherently, in this case by C.S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer:
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?
Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”
“It may hurt, you know.”
“Even so, sir.”
The idea that we could not stand to be before the face of God knowing that we were less than what he planned for us to be is what makes me so thankful for the doctrine of Purgatory. The added beauty of being able to unite ourselves to our deceased loved ones in prayer is a bonus almost as wonderful as the original gift itself. I hope I was able to express some glimpse of that beauty to my companion on the train, although I’m not convinced that I did. Nevertheless our conversation reaffirmed the very convictions he wanted me to question. While I plan to spend the rest of my life trying to cooperate with God’s grace in order to get to heaven as directly as I can, I will continue to thank God for Purgatory.
Anyone who has grown up with siblings likely knows the truth of the saying that those who are closest to us are oftentimes the ones who can hurt us the most. For some reason, people can be incredibly cruel in the way they treat those closest to them, and sometimes this is most clearly illustrated with young siblings. Children can get quite upset when their siblings or friends do something to hurt them, often rendered inconsolable. How many times have parents heard the phrase “I’m never going to speak to her again!” Often in the midst of these small (or sometimes considerable) crises, the call to love our neighbors becomes a point beyond consideration. Yet, it is precisely situations like these that can help us learn to love even those who commit unspeakable deeds of evil against us.
Why might siblings be the prime example for illustrating this perverse human tendency to injure those closest to us? Well, for one, siblings grow up with each other, spending the greater part of their days in each other’s company. Because they are in such close proximity, the one very easily gets to know what makes the other tick or, possibly, tip over the edge of sanity. I personally remember my parents often scolding my siblings and me for “pushing each other’s buttons.” I also have vivid memories of becoming incredibly perturbed when one of my brothers or sisters would proceed to do the exact thing that I had oh so kindly asked him not to do anymore. Of course, an even graver, more poignant example might be the case of betrayal. This is perhaps the ultimate way in which one sibling can use his knowledge to injure another. It is not exactly uncommon to hear of siblings who refuse to speak to each other for significant periods of time because of such traumatic experiences.
This more distressing aspect of our paradox touches on another reason why our siblings can often hurt us the most: we are brought up loving our siblings, and yet they can (and sometimes do) betray our love and trust by deliberately hurting us. Once that gift of love is rejected, we are easily led to believe that we carry little value in the eyes of one we love. As a result, such a sense of rejection can give rise to anger and resentment at the actions of our siblings, ultimately leading to hatred. What happens to the love then? If we cannot trust our siblings not to hurt us, how are we supposed to love them? Moreover, wouldn’t our love, in some way, condone the wrong they have done to us?
Of course it is counterproductive to withhold punishment from someone who needs to learn a lesson. In fact, sometimes love requires that we seek the correction of another’s faults, even to the point of extreme measures. Saint Augustine provides some useful insight in his rule for religious life. In the event that a brother discovers the grave misdeed of a confrere, Augustine urges the discovering brother to turn the other over for proper correction, or punishment, even if that means expulsion from the community. He observes that “even this [extreme measure] is not an act of cruelty but of mercy: to prevent the contagion of his life from infecting more people.” But even in such action, he advises “love for the person and hatred for the sin.” So, our concern in these matters is not just for the wellbeing of the community but also for the particular moral health and wellbeing of the offender. Thus, just and fitting punishment can be as much a work of love as it is a correction, and Augustine urges that love of the sinner and hatred for the crime should not part.
Of course, it remains quite a challenge to love our brothers and sisters whenever they harm us and as we cry out for vengeance, as did the blood of Abel against the crime of his brother. Love in such circumstances is not the easiest habit to acquire. Yet, Jesus Christ calls us to rise above doing what is easy and to pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps the best we can do is to pray, in the midst of this warfare, for those who harm us; pray that God, who heals us as he wounds (Job 5:17–18), may ultimately work out the salvation of even our most bitter rivals.
Image: Norman Rockwell, The Bully
An old man’s cold prediction of a sword thrust through her heart; a rough journey to Egypt with her newborn; losing her boy on the road from Jerusalem to Nazareth; meeting her bloodied son on the road to Calvary; watching him die; a gratuitous lance in his side; the laying of his lifeless body in a tomb: Mary’s sorrows – at least the seven ones traditionally associated with her which the Church remembers today as the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. There were – no doubt – other sorrows. From the moment Simeon prophesied the sword, it must have lingered in her imagination. Sometimes she felt the blade pierce her, which is why these sorrows are often portrayed as seven daggers in her heart. Other times her eye caught its flash, reminding her that she would not escape unscathed from her son’s destiny. She was playing a part. This sense of looming danger must have been a source of distress for Mary.
In his book called The Lord, Romano Guardini has a chapter called “The Mother” in which he explores another sorrow: that chasm which began to yawn between mother and son upon Jesus responding to his worried parents in the temple: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). We read that Mary does not understand this response, and with good reason. A typical twelve-year-old child would run to his parents’ arms upon being lost for three days. Jesus, even at that age, is already setting out on the path his Father has for him. Despite their closeness, there is a growing gap between Mary and her son. This too must have been a source of sorrow for Mary.
But what does Mary do with these sorrows? How does she respond to pain? She does not lash out at circumstances. Nor does she run away from hardship. The encounter in the Temple is one of the occasions for Mary to ponder in her heart some experience she has. She contemplates the sorrow, just as she ponders joy in other moments in her life (Luke 2:19).
But above all Mary responds to her sorrows as a faithful disciple. She is a disciple of her Son regardless of the circumstances. In fact, Mary is the model disciple. Throughout her life she is with Christ. And she is not merely journeying with Christ because she is his natural mother. Jesus preaches that those who hear and do the word of God are blessed (Luke 8:21). No doubt Jesus had natural affection for his mother and relatives. But to be a true disciple is another order of blessedness. And Mary becomes the exemplar disciple, for, hearing and doing the Word of God, she bears the Word within her. The temporal scope of the seven sorrows reveals this fidelity. The sorrows begin with Jesus as an infant, and end with his burial. And the sorrows are always related to Jesus. They are not disconnected from his mission. They are uniquely caught up with it. And they serve to show a response to sorrow – one of fidelity and discipleship.
We also see that Mary went through human emotions just like anyone. Some pretty heavy emotions too. “Emotional rollercoaster” comes to mind. We can see this by looking at Mary’s sorrows in the context of the Rosary. One of the Joyful Mysteries is the Presentation. This liturgical dedication of Jesus must have been a joy to Mary, and we meditate on it as such. But this joy is tinged with sorrow, for it is here Mary also hears Simeon’s prophecy that she too will suffer. Another joyful mystery is the finding of the Christ child in the temple. But directly before finding Jesus, Mary was in sorrow because she had lost him. And then as Guardini proposes, there was also sorrow in Jesus’ response to Mary. So Mary experienced the full range of emotions. Of course this range exceeds the typical experience: Mary had the joy of bearing Christ and the sorrow of burying him. It’s hard to imagine greater extremes. But still, we have a model in Mary not only for saying yes to God, but in how we respond to sorrow and pain.
No one is exempt from sorrow. By faith and following Christ as a disciple our pain can be redemptive for ourselves and for others. We follow Christ through sorrow just like Mary did because we know ultimately how the story ends. That’s why we can definitively sing at Easter: “Be joyful Mary!” And that’s why we can pray to her in this vale of tears. She has known sorrow like us. And now she knows the joy that comes with Christ’s redemption. She accepted God’s plan for her life, followed Christ on earth, and now lives with him among the Blessed. So then, Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Fresco of the Seven Sorrows (S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome)
Today the Church celebrates the Holy Name of Mary, yet another Marian feast day. At times it might seem that the Church goes overboard with all these days dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. After all, the memorial of the Holy Name of Mary is only an optional memorial. Why even celebrate these little Marian feast days? Don’t the great Marian feasts like the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception provide sufficient Marian devotion in the liturgy?
Before you accuse me of being impious, let me affirm that there’s a lesson we can learn in celebrating the little days of Mary, which can teach us something about prayer and the forthright nature of Mary’s intercession for us.
Partaking in the minor Marian feasts throughout the year is much like the repeated utterances of the Hail Mary. Many of us pray multiple Hail Marys each day, sometimes with more or less attention and devotion. If we resort to simply rattling off the words of the Hail Mary, only paying attention on occasion to the mysteries latent beneath the prayer, we lose focus of its true purpose: orienting us to God through Mary’s mediation. Like the one Hail Mary amidst dozens, if we gloss over these other Marian feast days with little attention we can miss out on the unique mediating way the Blessed Virgin Mary wishes to bring us directly to her Son.
It is the directness of Mary’s mediation that is highlighted on this optional day. Giving veneration to the Name of Mary is simple; it is a direct and straightforward invocation of the Name of the Mother of God. A powerful name, indeed! The candor of this devotion mirrors exactly how Mary intercedes for us. Recall the Wedding Feast at Cana: “they have no wine.” Without any flowery language or lofty introduction to her Divine Son, Mary cuts to the chase. Punctured by Veritas, she goes to the heart of the matter, to what is most pressing and in need of remedy, and she gets the job done.
To translate Mary’s intercession into our daily struggles and needs can take on a variety of forms: “My marriage is in shambles!” “Why can’t I be merciful?” “My sin controls me!” “Why does mom have to suffer like that?,” “Why is my family dysfunctional?” “I’m lonely!” “Why can’t I find work?” “Why do I feel unworthy of love?” etc. The Holy Name of Mary aids us in being immediate and direct in prayer. Prayer is not so much reading the back of a holy card as it is an honest and real lifting of the heart to God above. We don’t need eloquent sentences but genuine hearts. With the simple and direct invocation of the Name of Mary, we are able to bring the simple and direct invocation of our most distressing needs to Jesus.
So we come to another Marian feast day. Not just a day to skip over as a minor celebration but an opportunity to go to Jesus with confidence in the straightforward Name of Mary. Perhaps, that is the point of all the minor Marian feast days, and this one in particular. The Church in her wisdom punctures the liturgical year with the Veritas of Mary’s intercession. It’s a wonderful gift and offer of grace, not just another day.
Image: Igor Stoyanov, Icon of the Wedding Feast at Cana
Man and woman are made in the image of God, and yet one constant temptation is to see in others not an image crafted by God but an idol crafted by ourselves. What do I mean by this? It is dangerously easy to harbor misapprehensions and faulty judgments concerning other people we interact with—or, at times more perilously, other people we don’t interact with. In either case, whether through an awkward half-awareness or through a notional familiarity which leaves unquestioned unflattering impressions, we can go on for tremendous lengths of time without taking or having the opportunity to correct our misunderstandings of another person. When this happens, we have made a sort of idol of our fellow—we have developed a habitual mode of conceiving of this person that does not respect his or her true identity and authentic image.
The Dominican historian and spiritual writer Vladimír Koudelka captures this phenomenon in a series of letters written to a young Dominican nun named Sister Růžena:
People have a bad habit of trying to form others after the image they hold of them (you may not create any image of God nor of others). Thus copies are created. Weak characters accept it, carry masks and play games—even their whole lives long. Strong characters fìght against it—then they are said to be disobedient. We must respect the individuality of the other, even in monasteries—we should accompany them but not put them into straitjackets. (7 August 1994)
In contrast to this temptation to create and enforce our own images or expectations of others, Fr. Vladimír emphasizes the healing possibilities of the image of God that we bear in our souls:
I believe in the communion of saints, I believe in the community of saints. This communion is a prolongation of the communion among the three divine persons; God is love and is One. In love there is unity. We humans make everything so complicated; we make our life complicated, too. Love should simplify it. After all, we carry the image of God, of his love, in us; we are capable of the Infinite. (1 November 1994)
For Fr. Vladimír, a recognition of the Infinite possibility offered by the image of God that we bear leads to a recognition of the image of God in others:
If we are the children of God, and are created in God’s image, our neighbours also are the same. But all we can see of them is the exterior—we are repelled by it. However, every person has a human history and a history of salvation. The human history often causes deep wounds in the person. The person is suffering, and that shows up in behaviour. Mercy and compassion can heal these wounds. It depends also on us. … God normally acts through people. The condition of love of neighbour is the love of ourselves. To love oneself as the image of God. (10 October 1995)
Although love of self can easily become disordered and self-centered, Fr. Vladimír insists that love of self is properly ordered when it flows from the recognition of God’s love for oneself. An ordered love of self flowing from a recognition of God’s love impels us to allow the love of God which has been poured into our hearts to overflow into love of our brothers and sisters:
Our yielding to God whom we cannot see shows in our yielding to our neighbour who is near to us. Love of God will change our viewpoint. God is also their father and they are our brothers and sisters. I can love myself because God loves me, because I mean something to him. But God also loves our neighbours. When I do not love my neighbour, I do not love myself but only an illusion I make of myself. (20 October 2002)
Instead, the love of God allows us to love others not only insofar as they are good, but even despite their weaknesses:
I may like some good quality about others. I must love them despite their bad qualities. I love the image of God in the person. Because in our communities we only like the others, there is so much human coldness and suffering and loneliness in them. As I know from my own experience, others will not become better if we throw abstract pious words at their heads but if they feel we accept them as they are and show them our real love. That is what Jesus Christ did, although it scandalized the Pharisees. (10 November 1995)
The fundamental difference between human love and divine love is that while human love can only respond to what is already good, true, and beautiful, the love of God creates, restores, and sustains the Good, the True and the Beautiful in persons that are flawed, fallible, and flailing. Our love responds, whereas God’s love initiates. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us, however, we can be lifted up from merely human love to a sharing in God’s mode of loving, however limited and provisional our experience of this mode of loving might seem in this present life.
God’s love has shown itself most of all in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that we might have eternal life. Christ loved me, and gave himself for me—and he loved us, and gave his life as a ransom for many.
Let us love, because he loved us first.
Image: Google Street View, 1728 Lanier Pl NW (April 2014)
Note: Fr. Vladimír Josef Koudelka (1919-2003) was a Czech Dominican friar and a historian who spent most of his Dominican life in Rome and Switzerland. The letters quoted in this essay come from the volume Dear Little Sister… : Letters from Father Vladimír to Sister Růžena (Kostelní Vydří: Karmelitánské nakladatelství, 2005), a selection of letters which has now appeared in Czech, English, French, and German. In the Spring 2013 issue of the Dominicana journal, a translation appeared of Fr. Vladimír’s meditations on the nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic.
Riding the metro this summer, I saw some young men with t-shirts that proclaim: “Obey.” Presumably (and here I speculate), it’s a sarcastic jab at supposedly traditional and conservative values, a statement just as likely to come from someone who would proclaim, “question authority!”
This leads me to wonder: what do these young men think when they pass someone– like myself– in garb which symbolizes a very traditional kind of obedience? As all the world knows, we practice a very particular kind of authority to a very crusty, old institution. “I, Brother John, make profession and promise obedience…”
Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) recently inquired about women’s attitudes on joining religious life. One of the personal comments exemplifies an attitude which, I think, sums up this negative view of obedience. When a woman was asked why she was not interested in being a sister, she replied, “I’m not willing to be totally submissive to the rules and obligations of the order’s leader.” Now, there’s an objection! Perhaps this could be the heart of their possible objection. Obedience, described as a repression of individuality and abandonment of responsibility, hardly seems virtuous.
The Scriptures, though, speak of obedience and disobedience in the context of the fall of man. Our first parents, in an act of disobedience, tried to seize what was proper to God. The Catechism summarizes and explains the Church’s teaching on the fall:
He [i.e., Adam] chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully ‘divinized’ by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to ‘be like God,’ but ‘without God, before God, and not in accordance with God.’ (CCC 398)
From the beginning God destined man to share in the gift of divine life, to be “divinized.” The fault of our first parents lies not in wanting the fullness of life and goodness, but in wanting it apart from God — a metaphysical and moral absurdity. God, although all-powerful, cannot make a creature that is not totally and utterly dependent on Him.
It is ironic: seeking the fullness of life apart from God, they grasped as fruit only death. St. Paul, that inspired interpreter of salvation history, sums up the fall of Adam and Christ’s redemption in this way: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). And he offers us a corresponding irony: Christ, submitting Himself obediently to death (cf. Phil 2:8), won life and salvation for all men.
I suspect that many resent obedience because they see it as a restriction of what is good in life. There is a sense in which the initial objection is true: there is a necessity of true death to self in order to live to Christ. This is why Christ says, “enter by the narrow gate… for the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14). But for those who do enter by the narrow gate, Christ also tells us that “if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” where we will “have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10: 9-10). Our obedience takes the pattern of Christ’s, which bears fruit only in death and leads to true freedom in eternal life, for “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).
Image: Ben Mortimer, obey
Today in the reading at Mass, in the course of chastising the Corinthians for bringing their petty disputes before the judgment of nonbelievers, St. Paul suddenly averts to the end of time and asks, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3).
“No, St. Paul, I did not know that,” is a response, I imagine, many Christians today would give. As for the Corinthians, the prerogative seems to have slipped their minds. But Paul had not forgotten. He saw mundane matters in light of the angels—in this case, in light of the angels dwelling in darkness. St. John Chrysostom teaches that the angels Paul is referring to are the angels that are also called demons, the fallen angels, about whom St. Peter said, “God . . . cast them into hell and committed them to pits of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment” (2 Pet 2:4).
When thinking about the greatness of the angels, I often recall St. Ignatius of Loyola’s notion of the two standards, from The Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius instructs his audience,
Consider how Christ calls and desires all persons to come under his standard, and how Lucifer in opposition calls them under his . . . . [I]magine a great plain in the region of Jerusalem, where the supreme commander of the good people is Christ our Lord; then another plain in the region of Babylon, where the leader of the enemy is Lucifer. . . . He is seated on a throne of fire and smoke, in aspect horrible and terrifying. . . . Consider how he summons uncountable devils, disperses some to one city and others to another, and thus reaches the whole world.
The passage resembles an ancient anecdote about a monk named Moses who struggled with temptations to fornication. Moses ran for help to an elder monk named Abba Isidore, who took him up to the roof of his house, hoping that the younger monk might gain some perspective on his problem. Looking east, Moses spied a vast multitude of holy angels “resounding with glory,” and to the west he saw an uproarious horde of demons without number.
According to Chrysostom, it’s precisely these demons without number, Loyola’s “uncountable devils,” that Christians can expect to judge. But do we think of ourselves as set to pass sentence on these terrible spirits? Do we see ourselves, as St. Paul did, reigning with Christ, mastering these mighty and hateful hordes?
Going to heaven is a greater thing than a mere interview with special people or a reunion with a dead dog. It’s greater than the things we usually think are great—greater than anything we have ever known or could even imagine. To think that Christians will judge the angels is to be reminded that God has prepared things that are quite beyond our native capacity and come only with added endowments.
And yet we can participate in heaven before heaven — in fact, we have to if we ever want to get there. But how do we do so? A learned nun once told me that we judge the angels even now by our acts of charity. No wonder they make it their aim to destroy the charity in our hearts.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Fending off the Angels
Today on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary we conclude our series on the monastic life of Dominican nuns.
St. Dominic in 1206,brought together a group of women in Prouille, France to take up a life of prayer, penance, and silence ten years before the official founding of the Order of Preachers. These, the first nuns of the Order, followed St. Dominic’s guidance and spent their lives praying for the success of his apostolate, as they still do for the sons of St. Dominic throughout the world. As part of its 800th anniversary celebration between 2006 and 2016, the Dominican Order has reflected on the theme “Mary: Contemplation and the Preaching of the Word.” In 2013 we launched the project of profiling all 18 Dominican Monasteries (including daughter houses) under the Master of the Dominican Order found in the United States. We also ran a feature on our Canadian nuns.
With over 125 years of Dominican nuns in the USA, a vocation that is not far from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been lived by hundreds of women in a variety of geographic and cultural settings. From the hills of Hollywood to the mean streets of the South Bronx to the quiet escape of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the contemplative life of prayer of the cloistered Dominican nun has flourished throughout our country.
In both traditions of American Dominican Monasteries — those nuns who perpetually adore the Blessed Sacrament and those who perpetually pray the Rosary — the nuns have the sublime calling of being consecrated radically to God and of interceding for the Friars and indeed for the whole world, just as Mary was consecrated to God and continues to intercede for us now in heaven. Without Mary, and her yes to God’s will by the message of the angel Gabriel, the Word would not have become flesh. Mary was the vessel to carry the Savior of the World. In a similar way, the Dominican nun, by her yes to God’s call to the vocation of contemplative monastic life, also becomes a vessel in which the Word made flesh is carried in her heart day in and day out; by her prayer she supports her Dominican brothers, who travel the world preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls. But the vocation of these nuns is not just for the Dominican Order. Pope St. John Paul II remarked beautifully that the enclosed life of nuns paradoxically is not just for themselves — it is for the entire Church and beyond:
I remember once saying to the enclosed nuns, ‘May this grille join you to the world and not separate you from it. Embrace the whole world with your mantle of prayer!’ I am convinced that these dear sisters all over the world are always conscious that they exist for the world and never cease to serve the universal Church through their self-giving, silence, and fervent prayer.
Sadly many women do not know that such a deeply mystical and rewarding life exists in the Church in our day and age. For a culture like ours — a digitally distracted society with strong narcissistic and materialistic leanings — the idea of a life of silence, prayer, and vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience is often thought of as a life of unhappiness, if it is considered at all. But in this series we have seen that dozens of nuns describe their life with words like joy, happiness, and peace, and anyone who has met them in person can see it as plain as day by the countenance of their faces.
One such nun we encountered in our series was the prioress of the Monastery of the Angels in Los Angeles, CA, Sr. Mary St. Pius, who describes her six decades as a Dominican nun in glowing terms:
The specialness of the cloistered life God has called us to, this sublime thing we are so grateful for and the obligations that come with it . . . it is a tremendous thing. As the Little Flower said, it is the heart that keeps everything going to pump the body . . . and we in our life are the heart of the Church.
As the Dominican Order moves closer to celebrating its 800 hundredth anniversary, today let us ask Mary to ask her Son to continue to call women to live this life, that they, like Mary, may “treasure all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:19).
If you or a woman you know is considering a contemplative religious vocation, please use this series as a way to encounter the beauty of the life of a Dominican nun and further explore the calling.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Birth of the Virgin Mary
Today is Mother Teresa’s feast day. While her writings and her example continue to inspire many, a far greater fact is that her work continues today, in the lives of her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity. With every smile they give and every person they take in, they carry out God’s plan for the poor of the world which only began with Mother, but which continues in the same work and same spirit to this day.
They were her great joy in this life, while she waited for Jesus in the darkness, until she finally went home. In the Rule for the new community (which, of course, Mother Teresa hand wrote on some spare sheets of paper) the very first line reads: “The General End of the Missionaries of Charity is to satiate the thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross for love and souls by the Sisters.” The poor of the world needed help, but first off, Jesus wanted these sisters to come to Him. Because He loved them, like he loved Mother Teresa, and He wanted them to share that with the world. The sisters remain today the greatest tribute to Mother Teresa’s life, and to her joy and her spirit, which they preserve in their own communities.
A much lesser tribute is a brief poem, which I’ve written for them on this special day. For the sisters in saris:
“For the Missionaries of Charity”
Signs in the sky have ended
Do not look in the firmament
For God hides in broken lives
Whose lot is permanent
Glory to God in the lowest
In the poorest of the poor
In knotted hair and broken teeth
The face of Christ endures
And withered hands are left that way
That we might stretch our own
And be like God, adopting them
And giving them a home
God’s dwelling is on the streets with men
And all the mad things they think
Their shortened breath and muddy feet
I was thirsty and you gave me drink
They’ll fall asleep on your couch
Or laugh at their fellow neighbors
Even when gratitude is gone
There’s no hiccup to the labors
By the hands under the white linen
God has caressed all wounded things
From eyes beneath that blue hem
They drink from eternal springs
People are changed by being looked at
And being asked their name
These few essential things
Earn these sisters their fame
Image: Michele Gautsch, Mother Teresa
If there is one thing that it would be safe to say that everyone desires, other than his or her own happiness, it would be the goal of world peace. From people who express their hope for peace on their bumper stickers, to an NBA basketball player who incorporates it into his name, to contestants striving for the lofty title of Miss America, many delight in expressing their hopes for universal harmony. Those who support a particular war usually do so because they see it as the means of establishing a future peace, and even the most twisted mind thinks that his tyrannical actions will bring about some warped view of concord and order. In some way or another, every human being has some wish for world peace.
Yet this is a wish that often goes unfulfilled, and seems unlikely ever to be realized in the world. A glance at the newspaper these days shows war and conflict on a global scale: between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, and ISIS and anyone with whom they come into contact. Even our own nation is not free from civil unrest, as seen in the recent riots and protests in Missouri. With all the violence on display throughout the world, one may wonder: how is the universally desired goal of peace attainable?
Pope St. John XXIII, at the beginning of his social encyclical Pacem in Terris, written months before he died, offered this answer:
Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.
A bold claim indeed—yet not a strange one. We may try to make peace on our own efforts, such as by withdrawing troops from a war-torn region. Yet the peace that we all seek does not come from ourselves alone, as the Second Vatican Council fleshed out a couple of years later:
Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder . . . That earthly peace which arises from love of neighbor symbolizes and results from the peace of Christ which radiates from God the Father. For by the cross the incarnate Son, the prince of peace reconciled all men with God. By thus restoring all men to the unity of one people and one body, He slew hatred in His own flesh; and, after being lifted on high by His resurrection, He poured forth the spirit of love into the hearts of men (Gaudium et Spes, 78).
This promise of peace comes from Jesus himself: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (Jn 14:27). For even when the long-expected Prince of Peace (Is 9:6) first came into the world, the peace that the world could give proved to fall short. The Roman Empire, which encompassed the known world, entered an extended period of stability, called the Pax Romana, under the reign of its first emperor, Caesar Augustus, who rose to power through victory in a series of internecine conflicts and styled himself a Son of God (Divi Filius). After he established his rule, Augustus closed the gates of the Roman temple of Janus, thus declaring world peace. The Christmas liturgy evokes this setting: “…the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ… was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah.”
But even during this Pax Romana, which continued for several decades after Augustus’ death, the Empire still struggled with the peoples it conquered. Regional governor Pontius Pilate consented to the execution of the true Son of God, hoping it would prevent a rebellion in Judea, whose leaders found it “better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (Jn 11:50). The Romans would, however, take Jerusalem by siege and destroy the Temple decades later. So much for Roman peace!
Yet the death of Jesus Christ did bring forth a peace that no emperor could have foreseen: peace with God, as St. Paul describes, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). The death of Christ on the cross satisfied for our sins and restored the human race to friendship with God, or charity, whose proper effect is the true peace that the world cannot give.
Moreover, Jesus invites us all to take part in his work of spreading this peace throughout the world: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9). Only through acknowledging the fatherhood of God and the order that follows from Him can we build a true brotherhood of men, and become God’s children much more so than Caesar Augustus, with his imperfect peace, ever was. For as recent Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers states:
Peacemakers are not the sons of a world torn by unending human dissension and war. They win the name of sons of God because they bring to the world the peace and reconciliation which can only come from Him—we can even say, the peace which is God.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Buckland Organ Pipes (St. Mary the Virgin)
When technologically illiterate types speak about computers, tablets, and smartphones, the results can be hilarious. Definite articles are interspersed liberally (The Google, The Facebook, etc.), virtual realities are given locative characteristics (“The files are inside the computer.”), and jokes fall flat (Note: Memes are not universally appreciated). With the candid admission that I can probably be grouped among such a caricatured class of old souls, here are some thoughts on why computers may be unintelligible.
Most artifacts come with a stated aim. A house key is a clear example. The key is made for a single task: It opens your front door. Now it may happen that other uses arise accidentally (opening boxes, scratching lottery tickets [today will be the day . . . ], or defacing public property), but the tool itself is manufactured and purchased to open your front door, and we evaluate it based on how expediently it achieves that goal.
Now, in the case of a computer, tablet, or smartphone, there are a potentially infinite number of tasks you can perform, touching on practically every aspect of life: work, leisure, finances, friendship, networking, etc. With such a vast array of possible uses, the prospect of implementing and upgrading can be overwhelming for an older generation. These devices stand no more readily disposed to one task than to another. To use words which Aristotle applied to the mind, they are potentially all things. But, unlike our minds, which have a set goal (the contemplation of truth) inscribed in their nature, computers, tablets, and smartphones do not have a set goal. They have no inbuilt trajectory except in the vaguest of terms. Rather, they are whatever you desire them to be based on your current needs.
And so, when dealing with computers, tablets, and smartphones, the tools at hand defy the limited scope of our material analogues. These devices are not like the house key. Whereas we might describe more concrete tools as having a “pro-existence” (an existence geared to some end, that is, “for” something), the tools listed above might more aptly be described as having a “per-existence.” They exist only that other services can exist “through” them.
Thus, for the individual accustomed to comprehending an object in terms of its purpose, the task of learning all the different aspects of a new phone, for instance, is frustrating. What’s more, the array of uses is constantly expanding. Just when you think you’ve mastered one medium, the technology has shifted, and the principles you learned in one program have been supplanted by those of another.
The website has undergone a redesign. What happened to my highly functional and helpful toolbar?
This new picture-sharing app makes the photos disappear. Wait. But I really liked that one . . . are they saved somewhere?
The video can only be six seconds long? Seriously? But what if it takes at least that long to introduce my quip?
And so, while it may be frustrating to explain to grandma how all of this works, it should come as no surprise that the concept can be difficult to grasp. The need to repeat the same instructions doesn’t necessarily signal the obduracy of a superannuated mind, but may in fact be the adequate response to an unintelligible tool. If we’re made for the contemplation of truth which is had from things, and if things are contemplate-able insofar as they have an intelligible nature, perhaps there is just a touch of incomprehensibility in these new technological gadgets themselves.
That’s not to say that computers, tablets, and smartphones are brain-rotters and should be excised from personal usage for the salvation of your mind. (General Ludd and Captain Swing had no part in the writing of this piece.) Rather, it is only to say that in these devices there is a lot of what Aristotle would refer to as matter, a principle impenetrable to the human mind. And for that reason, there is little there to contemplate, to understand, but rather things that exist merely to be used. It remains to be seen whether use-driven cognition (rather than meditative, or delight-based cognition) is not found to be at some level destructive for the long-term cultivation of contemplation.
Image: Star Trek Command Center
“For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out” (Luke 4:36). Jesus stupefies the people of Capernaum in the Gospel today by the authority with which He speaks, an authority that even drives out demons by a simple command. It’s interesting to consider that the response of the people to Jesus’ authority was one of wonder and respect. It’s questionable whether He would get the same response today.
Our reaction to authority is often one of opposition. The reluctance to accept authority has long been embedded deep in man’s soul. However, in the last few hundred years with the advent of liberalism and its stress on individual autonomy, this reluctance has come to be embraced by society at large as something good. A cruel and bloody manifestation of this occurred on this day in 1792 in Paris when over 200 Catholic priests were executed in the course of the September Massacres of the French Revolution. While there are not any executions of clergy going on in the West today, people, even many of those professing to be Catholic, still ignore the authority of the teachings of Christ’s Church. When they think of the Church, they often think of an institution seeking to control the lives of its members by imposing lots of arbitrary rules on them. “Why doesn’t the Church mind its own business?” they ask. Docility can be fostered, I think, by getting an accurate understanding of the nature of authority.
The basis of God’s authority – and hence of the Church to whom He has delegated some of this authority – is that He created the universe and sustains it in existence at every moment. All things participate in His existence. He is the source of all and has made each thing, including human nature, according to some plan or idea that He has of that thing. “In wisdom you have made them all,” the Psalm says. God has instilled a marvelous order in creation, and He knows every one of His creatures better and more intimately than we know ourselves. Just as an engineer can explain how to use a design of his in a way that will achieve the purpose for which he made it, so in a far more magnificent way, God explains to man through the teaching of the Church how to achieve the purpose for which man is made – everlasting happiness with God in heaven. It is out of concern for the flourishing of her children that the Church teaches us to avoid sin and grow in virtue. The power of Christ’s grace, dispensed through the sacraments that He instituted, makes this possible. Christ vested the Church with His authority. It is only by entrusting ourselves to her care that our struggles with our own demons can be won.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Christ the Universal King (St. Michael’s basilica, Hildesheim)
The world we live in is a land of sweat and toil. Indeed, right from the start of the Scriptures, right after the Fall, God says that our life here will be a bit of a grind (By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread!).
This is often seen as an indication that mankind’s life before the Fall would have been one of just loafing around (like in a shady glen, a sleeping tiger for a pillow, nibbling on pomegranates…).
But this isn’t the case. Genesis describes man’s life before the Fall as pretty active too. God’s instructions in 1:28 are basically, Have babies! Take charge of the world! Care for all the crazy creatures I just made! There’s a sense of joyful industry here, the kind of excitement that Home Depot tries to instill in proud homeowners with its slogan, Let’s do this!
So, with or without the Fall, God had always invited man to participate in the great work which he began in Creation, and which will be complete in the last day. Work is not a punishment. The job got a little harder after the Fall. But either way, our time here on earth was always going to be one of labor, where we join God in bringing his creation to perfection.
The amazing thing is, God didn’t have to do it this way. In fact, it would have been a lot more efficient for him not to do it this way.
That he has invited our help in the job is kind of like when a parent invites a child to help out with some task. In these instances, it’s often not for the sake of getting the job done more quickly. I can recall my sister giving her four-year-old son Micah the responsibility of flipping the pancakes she was frying on the griddle. She could easily have done it herself, and by giving the task to her son, she was risking the pancakes being cooked a little beyond or under perfection, not to mention simply being flipped onto the floor.
But efficiency wasn’t the point. The point was to invite Micah into her life of wondrous responsibility. He knew he had been given a critical duty. Sure, he could have been left to his own devices, having a relaxing morning teasing his little sister. But instead, he had been invited to share in a Big Person’s Job. And by virtue of this task, Micah was himself ennobled, raised to a joy that was higher than whatever else he would have been doing. And this joy was visible on his face.
God has done something similar with us. And as it happens, we have quite often flipped the pancake straight onto the floor, and sometimes just for the heck of it.
But by inviting us to help in his Big Person’s Job, he has raised us up, giving us the opportunity to share in his life as caretaker of the Universe.
So, this world may indeed be a place of sweat and toil. But the opportunity to sweat and toil is itself a gift. It is a gift that we can say with Jesus, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17).
Image: Making Pancakes
The thought crossed my mind the other day: What if the apostles tweeted? You can just imagine what the message looked like when Andrew was on his way to bring Peter to meet the Lord. Filled with the joy of discovering no one less than the Messiah the God of Israel had been promising to send to the people chosen to be God’s own, Andrew surely would not have thrown up from his iPhone® a message any less majestic than:
@SimonCalledCephas – Ur not gonna believe who I found #messiah
To which Simon Peter probably would have replied in a Spirit-filled moment of assent to God’s plan, intended for him from before time began:
@AndrewHisBrother – Srsly could not care less…btw it’s been a blast mending these nets by myself #srynotsry
Or what about the moment when Matthew’s Gospel records the incredible revelation of who Jesus is, coming from the very lips of Simon Peter. In that moment Peter announces, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus promptly then bestows to Peter the power to bind and loose. I wonder if Peter could have resisted the temptation to tweet something like:
@Beloved Disciple – Did you hear that? I’m the cornerstone #likearock
Later the Beloved Disciple, St. John, might well have had his own words for Peter:
@SimonCalledCephas – I’m at the cross—where ru? #didthecockcrow
It’s certainly a temptation sometimes to wish the Gospels gave us more information. Often I ask myself—especially after one of Jesus’ miracles—I wonder what the disciples were feeling? It seems like we only get occasional hints from the Evangelists about fear or astonishment, often in moments we would expect. They were afraid when Jesus calms the storm and at the Transfiguration. The apostles were astonished at his teaching, for no one had ever taught with the authority he possessed. But what about those moments of exasperation? What about the little pokes and pricks the all-too-porcupine-like group of friends must have given themselves? Where’s that in the Gospel? Why don’t we know more?
The fact of the matter is that Scripture contains everything God meant for the evangelist to include necessary for our salvation. Liberties of style could have been taken by a book’s human author, but it would be impossible to think that the Holy Spirit was incapable of ensuring that everything we needed to know would be handed down to us.
Moreover, we might think God the Father could have set things up so that we could have more “access” to Jesus. If Jesus, or even the Apostles, had Twitter accounts, it seems like more people would be able to follow them than the technology of first-century Palestine allows. Thomas Aquinas thought about this question in his own way, in the terms of his time, when he asks, “Why didn’t Jesus just write a book?” Amazingly enough, Aquinas’ answer continues to inspire, even with us asking our Twitter version. Among the reasons he gives arguing it would have been unsuitable for Jesus to have written a book, the most poignant he offers says that because of Christ’s dignity, his teaching should be implanted on hearts, rather than on pages.
Even today, that’s still the point, isn’t it? Blogging friars, pastors on Pinterest, tweeting apostles—none of these would exist to communicate just facts or information about Jesus. Hearts are only converted by encountering Christ. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest are useful tools to be conscripted into Gospel service, but in the end there is only Friendship with Christ. He’s the only one we can follow.
Image Source: memebase.com
What shall I render unto the Lord, that I can recall these things and yet not be afraid! I shall love Thee, Lord, and shall give thanks to Thee and confess Thy name, because thou hast forgiven me such great sins and evil deeds. (St. Augustine, Confessions II.7)
Memory is a peculiar thing. It can be the source of joy and nostalgia, a reliving of some of the happiest times in our lives. But it can also be a source of pain and grief, a testament to our failures and to the various trials that make this world a “vale of tears.” Each of us can recall events in our lives that we might wish had not happened: a harsh word spoken to a loved one; an ordeal that has scarred us physically, mentally, or both; a humiliation that put our brokenness on full display. How should we consider those aspects of our life that bring us the most shame and pain? In St. Augustine’s Confessions we see a profound reflection on memory as a witness to the mystery of providence. By seeing our past sins in the light of God’s care for us, they can become opportunities for growth in the spiritual life.
Written in the form of a prayer, the Confessions recounts Augustine’s upbringing in northern Africa and the winding path that led him to embrace the Christian faith after years of searching. Early on in the work he explains his aim in writing:
Not to Thee, O my God, but in Thy presence I am telling [this account] to my own kind… to that small part of the human race that may come upon these writings. And to what purpose do I tell it? Simply that I and any other who may read may realize out of what depths we must cry to Thee. (II.3)
St. Augustine here articulates one of the fundamental principles of the spiritual life: self-knowledge. In reviewing his past, Augustine sees in his sins not merely objects of disdain (though they are that); he also sees in them reminders of his frailty and his need for God’s mercy. Painful though the memories of our failures can be, these memories also can serve as an antidote to pride. When we recall how often we have fallen, we come to realize our utter dependence on God. Indeed, considering our failures from this perspective can transform them into occasions of gratitude, even of joy. Later on Augustine prays:
Grant me, I beseech Thee, to retraverse now in memory the past ways of my error and to offer Thee a sacrifice of rejoicing. For without Thee, what am I but a guide to my own destruction? Or at my best what am I but an infant suckled on Thy milk and feeding upon Thee, O Food incorruptible? (IV.1)
Rather than simply wallowing in his misery, St. Augustine sees in the more unsavory episodes of his life the mystery of divine providence: God comes to us in our weakness and uses even our mistakes to draw us to Himself, our true end – and this is cause for rejoicing.
How did St. Augustine come to this conviction? His initial conversion, famously recounted in Book VIII of the Confessions, was sparked by a child’s sing-song chant, “Take and read, take and read.” This chant drove him to open up the Scriptures and to entrust himself to Christ. But for Augustine the seal of this conviction came through the sacraments. Describing his reception of baptism (together with the son he had conceived out of wedlock), he remarks, “We took him along with us, the same age as ourselves in Your grace, to be brought up in Your discipline: and we were baptized, and all anxiety as to our past life fled away” (IX.6). There they stood, the father and his son, a living reminder of his sinful past, together washed clean in the waters of baptism.
Like many of us, even after receiving this newfound freedom, St. Augustine harbored doubts about his own weakness. What sustained him through these misgivings was the Eucharist. At the end of Book X of the Confessions, Augustine prays:
He Thy only One, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, has redeemed me with His blood. Let not the proud speak evil of me, for I think upon the price of my redemption, I eat it and drink it and give it to others to eat and drink; and being poor I desire to be filled with it among those that eat and are filled: and they shall praise the Lord that seek Him. (X.42)
At the heart of Christian worship are the words, “Do this in memory of me.” By regularly recalling and participating in Christ’s great sacrifice and seeing our own past in its healing light, we, too, can recognize God’s love for us and face our failures with confidence that “in all things, God works for the good for those who love Him” (Rom 8:28).
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Augustine (Sta Maria Minerva, Rome)
It happened more often than I would have imagined: an elderly Catholic with whom I was speaking would break down in tears. Why were they weeping? Because his or her children or grandchildren had not been to Church in who knew how many years. Their beloved progeny had lost the faith; and the grandchildren did not even have it yet to lose!
I don’t think this is unusual today. Many, many veteran Catholics have seen and are seeing their children drift away from the faith. Sometimes aggressively, but more often apathetically. Matthew Arnold’s hauntingly beautiful lines in “Dover Beach” come to mind:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
What went wrong? What did these presently dolorous parents neglect in their child-rearing? The question of responsibility is easily answered: tears of parents tend to mean they did all they could to raise their children as Catholics. But what is to be done now? Well, pray, obviously. Pray to a mother who knows all about this situation, one who won her son back through intercession and tears: St. Monica.
Monica is one of Christianity’s most famous mothers. Her son, St. Augustine of Hippo, left the world one of its finest masterpieces, his Confessions. This autobiographical story of a wayward youth and his return to the Catholic faith is also the story of a mother’s love, a love that provides an example for those struggling with wayward sons and daughters today.
Monica brought Augustine up in the faith:
When I was still a boy, I had heard about eternal life promised to us through the humility of our Lord God, coming down to our pride, and I was already signed with the sign of the cross and seasoned with salt from the time I came from my mother’s womb. (Confessions, I.xi.17)
During Augustine’s time baptism was often delayed until late in life, yet he was signed and sealed as a Christian. Monica undoubtedly spoke about her faith in Christ to her boy. But it didn’t stick, or didn’t seem to; Augustine wandered away from the faith he was raised in and fell among numerous bands and fashionable circles, intellectual and otherwise. But Monica did not account this wandering to her own neglect; she did not spend time wondering what she had or hadn’t done. She, like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:1-8), prayed and cried out to God for her son’s return to the faith. Monica also bothered a bishop, badgering him to speak with her son; but he declined, telling her of his own return from wandering away as a boy. But, as Augustine relates it, Monica was not deterred:
She pressed him with more begging and with floods of tears, asking him to see me and debate with me. He was now irritated and a little vexed and said: ‘Go away from me: as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.’ (Confessions, III.xii.21)
The bishop was correct. Augustine returned to the faith through his garden reading of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. And who did he go to first following conversion? Monica, of course, who “saw that [God] had granted her far more than she had long been praying for in her unhappy and tearful groans (Confessions, VIII.xii.30).”
St. Monica is an exemplar: one need not descend into despair over the waywardness of one’s children or grandchildren; God is in control. Sometimes talking with the fallen away is helpful, but often, like certain strong demons, only prayer and fasting can conquer spiritual rebellion. And many, many tears, for as a medieval Irish poem has it: “Great are the claims of tears on cheeks.” Did not Jesus weep bitterly before he raised Lazarus from the tomb? So too the Psalmist sings: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Ps. 30:5).”
St. Monica is ready to intercede for fallen away sons and daughters today. Catholics instinctively call upon St. Anthony to find lost things; perhaps they will learn to call upon St. Monica to find their lost children and bring them home. But, as the old saying goes: Be careful what you wish for… “I only wanted him to practice the faith again, not to become a priest!” God’s providence means He decides not only when a son or daughter returns, but also what he or she returns for. Monica herself had to modify her grandmotherly expectations; as Augustine writes: “You ‘changed her grief into joy’ (Ps. 29:12) far more abundantly than she desired, far dearer and more chaste than she expected when she looked for grandchildren begotten of my body (Confessions, VIII.xii.30).” Through her intercession, may other parents likewise experience abundant joy in whatever purposes God has in store for their children upon their return to the faith.
Image: Benozzo Gozzoli, Death of St. Monica
“It was like I got hit by a love truck,” she replied. I had asked about the moment when the doctors first placed her newborn son into her arms.
She sighed, though. She hadn’t seen her son for decades, not since he was taken away. I didn’t dare ask why, how, or who.
We were standing on the porch of a soup kitchen. I could guess the possibilities: drugs, alcohol, homelessness. I couldn’t blame the authority that had intervened on behalf of the child. But my heart broke with hers. She got hit by a love truck and never recovered.
My friend’s story was not unique. At the soup kitchen, many guests shared a similar anguish of their children’s absence. One mother showed me pictures of her son’s high school graduation. She didn’t attend. She wasn’t invited. All she got was a text message—and yet she still beamed with motherly pride.
Another showed me her children’s names tattooed on her arm. She confessed that of all her pains, missing her children was the worst. This was the pain that nothing could erase: no amount of money, no high from heroin, nothing. Her children’s absence carved a chasm in her heart.
I had come to the soup kitchen to serve Jesus, to feed Him in the least of His brethren. And in these mothers, He was revealing Himself to me. In their broken hearts, He showed me His Sacred Heart, pierced by our sins and for our salvation. Their pain confused me, but Jesus knew it through and through. He knew the pain of their children’s absence and the pain of all their guilt. He had already made their pain His own.
And in these mothers, Jesus was revealing the Father. They had lost their children because of some shortcoming, but it is our sins that separate us from the Father. These mothers grieved for their children, and even more so, the Father longs for His children: for you and me. He calls to us:
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.
See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name. (Is 49:15-16a)
These mothers were bonded to their children as if by super-glue, even amid such anguish. And yet God tells us that He is bonded to us even more intensely. No matter what is in our past, present, or future, God will not forget His love for us. Even our crafty schemes to allude Him cannot foil His mercy.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
My Father, how many times have I turned away from You! How easily I forget Your tender goodness and instead cling to ugliness. Yet in these moments, when I feel utterly unlovable, You search for me as Your lost sheep. You reveal Your unfailing love, Your intimate mercy, Your abiding peace. Though unworthy to be called Your servant, You name me Your child—and so I am. Have mercy, my Father. Hold me and never let go.
Image: Giovanni Bellini, Presentation at the Temple
Most people’s answer to the question in the title of this article would simply be, “In most cases, it’s not.” The typical modern American reaction to a woman bearing either a child conceived by means of in vitro fertilization from two other parents, or receiving the sperm of the father and bearing a child related to her for another couple, suggests that this is all “common sense.” The argument probably would go like this: “As long as the surrogate mother is willing and compensated for her pregnancy, and the parents are fit for child-rearing and have a compelling reason to enlist a surrogate, then I guess not only do I not see the problem — I am edified by this service to help another family.” This common position would be bolstered by countless photographs and stories of the children conceived in surrogacy. Presumably, just like “test-tube babies,” many will turn out to be fine citizens, happy, healthy, and kind.
And so, what could be the problem? Surrogacy has been getting some headlines recently, including a front-page headline story about two Portuguese men who came to the US to have a child through surrogacy.Although the article seems to favor the practice, it does acknowledge some drawbacks, especially abortion. It turns out that if either party gets cold feet, abortion or abandonment seems to present the easiest way out of the deal. Just read of the recent controversies in Thailand here.
But if you grant me that there are stories that support the down side of surrogacy, but also other cases that seemingly show more uplifting endings, I would like to present the case for the Church’s understanding, namely that the child must be conceived in a union of his or her mother and father, without a third party and without methods that separate the marital act from the conception of a child (see CCC 2376-2377).
Catholic teaching offers at least three reasons why surrogacy is not morally feasible, even with otherwise good results. Catholic teaching always affirms that one may not do something that is immoral for the sake of a good end. In our culture, we often look only at the consequences, but our vision is so limited, we can’t possibly see them all, nor are we always good at arranging their importance.
- Commodification of the mother
Of course there are cases where a woman becomes a surrogate purely to help a couple who couldn’t otherwise conceive and bring to term a healthy child. Conversely, there are many cases where a woman needs money and enters into surrogacy for monetary reasons. However, even if a woman is willing to carry the burden, the act of bearing another couple’s child denies the importance of the gestational process of a mother bonding with her child in the womb. It removes the loving act of intercourse from the creation of new life, and forces a parting of the child–who grows “under her heart,” as Kristin Lavransdatter says in Sigrid Undset’s classic novel–from the birth mother for the rest of their lives. Even more complicated would it be if, like the kind of surrogacy arrangement that ended so disastrously between Hagar and Sarah (Gen. 16:1–16; 21:9–21), the two mothers have some on-going connection to one another.
- Commodification of the child
For the child, we can see two basic outcomes as well. There are cases of abandoned or aborted children for a variety of reasons, and there are cases of healthy, thriving children. In both cases, it seems today that the most common source of surrogacy is IVF. This method is also not approved by Catholic moral teaching for the reason mentioned above: in IVF the act of conception is removed from the marital act. Moreover, it makes the child a commodity because the successful embryo is usually selected from a group of embryos on account of certain attractive characteristics that it has; the remaining embryos are either discarded, frozen, or used in research. As a former embryo, that is challenging to think about. Nowadays, toward the goal of ranking the best embryos and eliminating the poor and the lame, steps are taken by both fertility clinics and paying customers. Read the first article cited above (from The New York Times) to see this trend toward keeping only “the pick of the litter.”
No matter the good intentions of those who engage in surrogacy, the process itself industrializes human reproduction. There is a slippery slope argument that could be made, but in this case, the action has already gone too far. The artificial production of a child is an extreme form of consumerism that should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it should go without saying that, despite the moral problems with surrogacy, children conceived through such means are endowed by God with the dignity of all human persons, and they should be treated as such.
- There is no “right to a child”
Lastly, even though infertility is unimaginably difficult for affected couples, no one is owed the life of another person. The desire to have a child is one of the most basic and beautiful realities there are. But a child is a gift, and nature does not like to be coerced. It is surprising that in this age of returning to nature, especially in the area of food and animals, the general public does not seem to be concerned with the synthetic ways that human beings treat their own bodies and the bodies of their children.
The trials faced by infertile couples are certainly no small thing. However, the moral teaching of the Church offers guidance precisely for those in such difficult situations, not to legislate, but to let truth shine in times of darkness (as recent writing by those who have suffered infertility attests). These couples should be respected and assisted through means that respect their dignity and the dignity of any future children.
Image: Bob Walker, Human cell-line colony being cloned in vitro through use of cloning rings