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Dominican Students of the St. Joseph Province
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Are Jesus’ Looks Deceiving?

10/17/2014 - 7:30am

From the earliest days, the Church has faced the perennial temptation to deny the goodness of material creation in general and of the human body in particular. The Platonic notion of the body as a “prison” from which the soul must escape has cropped up repeatedly throughout the Church’s history, only to be condemned every time someone proposed it.

We see one particular form of this error, the denial that Jesus really took on flesh and blood, reflected in the New Testament, and it is condemned in no uncertain terms: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 Jn 7). What is it that drives this temptation? And what makes the idea derived from it so pernicious that St. John calls those who embrace it “antichrist”?

The answer to the first question stems from two factors: the majesty of God and the messiness of creation. In the early centuries, God was seen as totally other than creation, in the words of 1 Timothy, “immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Tim 1:17). God transcends the world and, unlike us, is not subject to change, to corruption, to pain and suffering, to anything that belongs to this world. Contrast this picture of an ineffable God with creation, particularly after the fall: we are born, we grow old, we suffer, we die. To many it seemed unfitting for God to experience birth and to have his diapers changed, much less to endure the shame and torture of one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised by men. This is one aspect of the scandal of the Incarnation: that the God who transcends creation has joined himself so fully to it that he knows first-hand our challenges and our trials.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, whom the Church commemorates today, meditated on this mystery as he was being led to Rome for his own execution, and he condemns the denial of Christ’s real flesh and blood as forcefully as the Second Letter of John. In one of his letters Ignatius explains the importance of Christ’s actual flesh and blood:

But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? Why do I long to be exposed to the wild beasts? Do I therefore die in vain? Am I not then guilty of falsehood against [the cross of] the Lord?

There are at least two dangers in this denial of Christ’s real humanity and suffering: it empties Christian suffering of its purpose, and it implies deception on God’s part. To take the latter point first, if Jesus only appeared to be human and to suffer – if his looks are deceiving – then the Gospels lie to us. Jesus has nothing in common with us, and his life was a mere show – and a fraudulent one at that.

Closer to home for Ignatius, Jesus’ actual suffering in the flesh was closely bound up with his own impending martyrdom. In some mysterious way, Christ’s suffering takes up and incorporates the suffering of the members of his body:

By [the cross] He calls you through His passion, as being His members. The head, therefore, cannot be born by itself, without its members; God, who is [the Savior] Himself, having promised their union.

In his suffering and death, Christ manifests his solidarity with the human race, showing himself to be a God who knows our trials not in some distant, indifferent way, but personally and experientially.

If the sole purpose of the Incarnation were Christ’s solidarity with us in our suffering, then Christianity would be little more than divinely sanctioned masochism. But for Ignatius, suffering – both Christ’s and ours – is not an end in itself, but rather a bridge to eternal life. It is by our suffering that we participate in Christ’s own sacrifice and through it come to the glory of his resurrection. This is why one can rightly call a death at the jaws of lions a happy and peaceful one. The peace comes from the sure hope that death does not have the final victory – Christ has conquered it through the resurrection.

Most of us are probably not ready to offer our bodies to the lions as Ignatius did, but we must remember that it was not on the basis of his own strength that he faced his death. He drew strength from feeding on Christ’s own Eucharistic flesh and blood, which he called the “medicine of immortality.” By feeding on this medicine we too can be strengthened to face our own trials and, God willing, pass through a happy death to the glory of the resurrection.

Image: Ignatius of Antioch (from the Menologion of Basil II)

Categories: Dominican Vocations

De-Baptism? Really?

10/16/2014 - 7:30am

When I arrived at the Dominican novitiate, one of the older priests in the community preached a challenging homily: despite our large class of 21 young men aiming to join the Order of Preachers, so many more people our age are leaving the Church and abandoning any semblance of religion altogether, as the Western civilization which the Church herself built up becomes ever more secular.  A tell-tale sign of this phenomenon is the trend among many atheists who were raised in the Christian faith to obtain “Certificates of De-Baptism.”

Claiming that they were forced into a liturgical rite “before the age of consent,” tens of thousands of Americans, Britons, and Western Europeans renounce the faith of their upbringing and cultural patrimony, aiming to undo their initiation into the Church and negate their baptismal certificate with another official document—which you can get from the Web sites of certain secularist organizations for the low, low price of only $5.  Some have even gone as far as to request to be removed from their native parishes’ baptismal registries.  Yet this business deal—which looks surprisingly like an act of organized religion—raises the question: Do these de-baptismal certificates actually do anything?

To answer this, we can examine the nature of the sacrament of Baptism.  The Church’s Code of Canon Law describes it (CIC 849): “Through Baptism men and women are freed from sin, are reborn as children of God, and, configured to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church.”  This ritual of initiation is thus not only a washing of the body, but a cleansing of the soul that raises people into a relationship with the Divine.  Yet those who wish to leave this relationship, holding that the ideas of original sin and damnation are repulsive, still face the reality of the “indelible character” of Baptism.

The term “character” has taken on many uses these days: from a letter of text, to a costumed cast member at a Disney park, to the eccentric guy at the coffee shop. But here it means an invisible mark on the soul of a baptized person.  This mark is the reality and sign of Baptism, or in medieval scholastic terms, the res et sacramentum.  Each of the Church’s sacraments has an abiding reality that remains when the visible rite is finished, a reality that points to a greater mystery: thus, the Real Presence of Christ remains in the Blessed Sacrament after the Mass has ended and the people have gone in peace; the bond of marriage remains even if the husband and wife no longer live together; and the baptismal mark remains even on the soul of one who bought a de-baptismal certificate.

Along with Confirmation and Holy Orders, Baptism imprints on the soul of the person who receives it a character, which, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “signifies a certain spiritual power ordained unto things pertaining to the Divine worship” (ST III.63.3).  As the first act of initiation into the Church, Baptism equips us for participating in God’s life, through the Church’s worship; this life is everlasting, and so is the power that brings us into it.  Thus even if some people decide not to use this ability to worship God through the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, the fact remains that they still can.  Any attempt to change the fact that one’s baptism happened, through trying to remove oneself from a baptismal register, is as futile as denying a historical event: just as having a football team vacate a win does not change the fact that people made money (or were injured) as a result of the game, for example.

Of course, original sin and damnation are repulsive.  That is precisely what Baptism liberates us from: it conforms us to the greater mystery of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, and removes the obstacles that prevent us from living out the fellowship for which God that we were born to live, in the freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:14ff.).  Far from an act of coercion, what could be better than to start this life, which continues into eternity, from as early an age as possible?

Most importantly, the permanence of baptismal character means that the certificate of de-baptism, which marks a person’s public repudiation of Christianity, is not binding; rather, one who rejects the Christian faith is free to return to the divine fellowship without having to be baptized again.  Saint Augustine illustrates this with an analogy to the Roman military, which branded its soldiers for identification:

If a deserter from the battle, through dread of the mark of enlistment on his body, throws himself on the emperor’s clemency, and having besought and received mercy, return to the fight; is that character renewed, when the man has been set free and reprimanded?  Is it not rather acknowledged and approved?  Are the Christian sacraments, by any chance, of a nature less lasting than this bodily mark?

Thus, while many attempt to negate the fact that they have ever been initiated into the Church, the sacramental character—a gift that lasts forever—reminds us all of this Good News, entrusted to a new generation of preachers in this time of the New Evangelization: No matter how far one has drifted away from the Christian faith, it is not too late to come back.

Photo Credit: Jeffery Scism, The Great Texola Oklahoma Revival 1927

Categories: Dominican Vocations

St. Teresa’s Logical Ecstasy

10/15/2014 - 7:30am

I saw in [the angel’s] hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. [The] angel plunged the dart several times into my heart . . . . When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away (Teresa of Ávila, Autobiography).

In 1976, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate (’87-’88) Richard Wilbur published a short poem entitled “Teresa.” The first stanza describes the famous mystical encounter between St. Teresa and an angel with a spear:

After the sun’s eclipse,
The brighter angel and the spear which drew
A bridal outcry from her open lips,
She could not prove it true,
Nor think at first of any means to test
By what she had been wedded or possessed.

Though now we can see that Teresa was “wedded” to God, at the time even she who enjoyed such divine intimacy did not rule out the possibility that she had been “possessed” by some lower power. In case of supposed mystical experiences, St. Teresa writes, “The safest thing, as the Lord told me, is to make known to my confessor the whole state of my soul and the favors God grants me, that he be learned, and that I obey him. The Lord has often told me this.”

The second stanza of Wilbur’s poem contrasts the ecstasy of St. Teresa with the experience of Odysseus’ comrades on the island of Aeaea. In Homer’s Odyssey, the witch-goddess Circe gave the men a drugged draft and changed them into swine: “She struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties . . . with grunts, snouts . . . off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing . . . (X, 260-70).” The first line of the stanza understates the contrast with Teresa’s “outcry”:

Not all cries were the same;
There was an island in mythology
Called by the very vowels of her name
Where vagrants of the sea,
Changed by a wand, were made to squeal and cry
As heavy captives in a witch’s sty.

So the poem distinguishes two kinds of ecstasy. The swine in Circe’s sty symbolize the irrational fits and shouts of human animality in revolt. When reason loses control to the emotions and sensuality, the rational animal turns wild. Man becomes a pig.

The second kind of ecstasy results from a knowledge of God. Catholics use the phrase “faith and reason,” but it would be a mistake to infer that some things are reasonable and that faith is not one of them. By faith, we transcend human reason and come to share in the knowledge of God, who is Wisdom itself. When St. John calls Jesus the Word, the Greek word is Logos (from which we derive “logic” and all those names of knowledge ending in “-ology”). If faith is experienced as darkness, it is not because faith is irrational but because it is supra-rational. What Teresa saw was beyond her, but still her encounter with the Word was a real illumination.

A consummate wordsmith, Wilbur develops the theme by noting the similarity between “Teresa” and “Aeaea” (“the very vowels of her name”: e-e-a). Aristotle once remarked that among the animals only man possesses speech (logos), while the others have only the mere voice (phonē). Think of the cow’s “moooo” or the sheep’s “baaaahh,” or even the less reflective of human utterances: “ooooh,” “aaaah,” or “uuuuh.” By using consonants to shape the voice in numerous and various ways, the logical animal (the human being) turns a handful of vowels into a language of hundreds of thousands of words (to say nothing of poems). Likewise, inspired by the Logos, Teresa went on to write profound and detailed books on prayer. The Grecian vagrants, struck by the witch, could only grunt and squeal.

In fact, the wisdom of her teaching and the greatness of her deeds give eloquent witness to the authenticity of her visions. The last stanza of Wilbur’s poem gives voice to that witness.

The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.

The bulk of those “barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain” went toward the reform of the Carmelites—work that called for extraordinary discipline and uncommon vision. For Teresa, there was ultimately no contradiction between mysticism and intense concentration on the business of daily life, between the delights of prayer and the labors of reviving a late-medieval religious order. In fact, it was her mysticism, or better, her deep friendship with Jesus the Logos, that sharpened her mind and inspired her self-possession.

Nor did Teresa make “spirituality” a pretense for despising “organized religion.” She knew that the Logos had become flesh and established a visible, tangible Church, and that he had wedded the Church to himself and so become one flesh with her. Teresa understood herself as both organized in that body and commissioned to organize the religion of a part of that body, the Carmelite Order. And it is in and through that organized body that the Logos recommends her sanctity to us today.

Image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Transverberation of St. Teresa (Santa Maria della Victoria, Rome)

Categories: Dominican Vocations

The Maniac and the Witness

10/14/2014 - 7:30am

The New Evangelization is tough to pin down. Typically we think of it as re-proposing the Gospel to formerly Christian peoples. Lay involvement is also more central than in previous ages. But apart from a new object and new agents, there isn’t much to distinguish the New Evangelization from the Old. Though I once wrote an article arguing for its novelty based upon a heightened emphasis on witness, I recently realized that martyrs have always stood at the heart of the Church’s evangelical efforts. And yet, while there is nothing new under the sun, an inquiry about Christian witness remains worthy of pursuit and, hence, this shall serve as my second attempt to elaborate the New Evangelization.

So first, who are we witnessing to? The current American culture evades a neat description. Contemporary debates about sexual and marital liberty have become increasingly shrill, and the language of morality is in a state of terrible disarray. As Alasdair MacIntyre recognized over thirty years ago, without universally acceptable standards of morality, public discourse continues to erode. Many in positions of power employ emotivist reasoning (in MacIntyre’s words, “the doctrine that all . . .  moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling . . . ”) to self-justify an equality masquerade. Oftentimes, there is no arguing these points with our interlocutors. Driven by a commitment to freedoms and rights, which conflict with a Christian or even natural law–based understanding of the human person, policy makers and pundits alike advocate a push further and further from what we know to be true, and yet there is a certain logic to their claims. Their reasoning is like the perfect circle that G. K. Chesterton so aptly described in Orthodoxy:

[The madman’s] mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large . . . the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.

As interlocutors depart from largely different premises, each claiming some rationality for their assertions, we are incapable of securing a “victory” for one morality over the other in the public square. As one Macintyre scholar summarizes:

If no one can persuade anyone else to do what they want, then only coercion . . . remains. This is why, MacIntyre says, political arguments are not just interminable but extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics is simply a form of civil war.

Into this tumult of superficial and ultimately manipulative reasoning wades the witness. He has options. One avenue is that of despair and manipulation. The same scholar goes on: “Because I cannot persuade people, and because we cannot have any common good that is not purely temporary and based on our separate individual desires, there is no kind of social relationship left except for each of us trying to use the others to achieve our own selfish goals.” But this option is not available to the Christian. For, he believes that the good life is not based on social expediency or power, but on a comprehensive vision of human happiness and flourishing revealed in Christ.

So then with hope for rational discourse enfeebled by the current state of affairs, how can a Christian witness hope to gain a hearing? The witness offers an invitation, the invitation into a bigger, a brighter, and a more beautiful world. Chesterton goes on:

I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument . . . A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.

As our contemporaries grow weary of truth claims, Christian witness in the New Evangelization can begin with beauty, particularly the beauty of art, culture, and community. As Fr. Robert Barron once remarked about the evangelical power of beauty:

I’ve always found something winsome and unthreatening about the beautiful. You can say, ‘Look at that! Look at how beautiful that is—that painting, that sculpture, that building!’ In Jesus, and the saints who cluster around him, you see the beauty of a life, the beauty of a commitment. And this beauty can often be a less threatening way in. Once you are through the door of the beautiful, you can share the good and the true.

The doors of our communities must not only remain open to the world, but also represent the threshold to the beautiful, for if what lies within is not sufficient to attract, what point is there in leaving them ajar?

Photo Credit: Joseph Chen, O.P.



Categories: Dominican Vocations

The Lord is in This Place

10/13/2014 - 7:30am

I have never been to Israel, but I think it must be a curious place. Because, sometimes when I walk through a place, I feel as if, no matter how alert I am to my surroundings, layers upon layers of meaning and being are surely escaping me. And I suspect that journeying through Israel would be like that on a grand scale.

Take one spot, Mount Tabor. On one level, you have a spectacular monadnock, rearing up from the surrounding countryside. It’s a full-time job just taking in this heap of earth and the view from its top. But in addition to the basic scenery, there’s the fact that you’re in Israel. There’s some serious history here. And then, Israel is the Holy Land. There’s some serious salvation history here. This very mountain is mentioned in the Book of Judges:

Deborah then said to Barak, ‘Up! This is the day on which the Lord has delivered Sisera into your power. The Lord marches before you.’ So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by his ten thousand men” (4:14).

Later in the Bible, it’s the presumed site of a vital Gospel scene:

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:1-2).

And then there would I be, in the midst of all this deafening significance, trudging up a trail of switchbacks, wearing Nike socks and munching on a Cliff bar. The whole land would be like that. Whether you’re taking a dip in the Sea of Galilee or buying a candy bar at an Israeli convenience store, you’re walking on hallowed ground.

Which raises a question. Our God is the God of all heaven and all earth and is present everywhere. God can hear me just as clearly whether I am on Mount Tabor or Mount Rushmore. So why would God make himself out to be closer to Israel than to Philistia or Egypt or Washington, D.C.?

God may indeed be everywhere, but as corporeal beings, we are not. We associate certain places with certain things. Because of this, if we do not have particular places and things and times to associate with God, we begin to feel distant from him, and more readily forget him. In the oft-quoted line from Pixar’s The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.” We could adjust that saying to apply here: if God is specially everywhere, he is especially nowhere. But when God does claim certain places as peculiarly his own, far from diminishing his omnipresence, it in fact gives us a greater sense of the intimacy of his presence.

Genesis recounts an anecdote of the patriarch Jacob journeying through Israel as a young man, stopping for the night in Bethel, in the northern Judean hills. That night, the Lord visits him in a dream, and when he wakes, he exclaims, “Truly, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).

Many years later, the Holy Land remains a reminder to the peoples of the world. For us Christians, we know it to be a place hallowed by the footsteps of our Savior. Turning to the Holy Land, whether in thought or in person, we can again and again say like Jacob, “Truly, the Lord is in this place! Truly, the Lord is with us!”

Image: Ilan Sharif, Mount Tabor

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Counting Memories

10/10/2014 - 7:30am

The rosary is a prayer of memories, Mary’s memories of her Son’s life. As a mother remembers her child’s first word and first steps, Mary remembers Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. She holds all of these things in her heart, and now she shares them with us. As her children, we grasp the rosary as if to tug on our Mother’s hand. Remember when you visited your cousin Elizabeth?  Tell us that story again.

Every October, the Church celebrates the gift of the rosary. To understand this gift better, I turned to a woman in my life with many treasured memories: my grandmother, Louise. Through a series of phone calls, I asked about her 80-something years of praying the rosary. Here are some highlights.

The Prayer of the Family

My grandmother received her first rosary for her First Holy Communion. In the depths of the Great Depression, her family gave her a simple rosary with blue beads and a gold cross. “I was pleased to get it,” she told me. “I thought it was beautiful.”

But her family gave her more than just beads—they taught her how to pray. Each day of Lent, the whole family—father, mother, and eight children—would kneel down in the living room to pray the rosary. As a girl, she felt it was an “awfully long prayer,” and midway through, her younger siblings would be running around the room. “We were all happy to get up,” she said; but still, this yearly tradition always stuck with her.

In a special way, her mother, Alice, was a great example to her. “She was very religious in a quiet way.” Throughout her daily routine, “she always kept a rosary close by.”

My grandmother, in her turn, passed on what she had received. She gave rosaries to her children on their First Holy Communions, and each Lent, they prayed as a family. “It was tough to get the whole family together to pray—there are so many different schedules.” Still, she gathered whoever was home and they prayed as her family had.

Now, my grandmother pulls out the beads every now and then. As a girl she thought about the words of the prayers: “Our Father…” and “Hail Mary…”. Now, as she prays, she thinks about the mystery, about how Mary would have felt.  Remembering what it was like to raise a family, she meditates on Mary raising her family.

The Prayer of Miracles

My grandmother normally shies away from fantastic tales, but she shared with me one of her treasured stories.

She married my grandfather, Peter, when he was still in the service, and a few months after their wedding, they had to transfer from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, towing a 30-foot trailer home.

They made the drive on a rainy November day. As they drove through the Appalachians in Pennsylvania, my grandfather thought something was wrong with one of the tires, and so he pulled to the side of the road to check. The tire turned out to be fine, but when he tried to pull back onto the highway, the trailer started slipping sideways in the mud.

Next to the road, there was a steep drop with no guard rail. So my grandfather put the car back in park. The trailer rested in an uneasy equilibrium, still threatening to take a serious tumble. Miles from any garage, there was little hope of human assistance, and so my grandparents began to pray the rosary.

After finishing two rosaries, a truck pulled up, the driver offered his assistance, and he easily pulled their car and trailer back onto the highway. My grandfather went to pay the man, but he replied, “just do a good deed for someone else.” To this day, my grandmother is certain that “the good Lord was helping us out.”

My grandmother cautioned me though. We should not just pray when things go wrong. We need to pray on good days too! “Just tell God about your day and say thank you. Carry on a normal conversation with him.”

The Prayer of Memory and Hope

Today, my grandmother’s favorite mystery is the Assumption. She imagines that when Mary got up to heaven, “Jesus threw a party for her.” Yet she wonders: “how did Mary see her relatives? Did they just appear? Are they always around? Or do they have jobs to get back to?”

She admitted that she thinks more and more about the Assumption as she gets older and approaches her end. She has similar questions for herself about heaven. “What’s it going to be like? How many people will be up there? How am I going to find my mother and father and my husband? Will they just appear?”

This is a special grace of the rosary. We look into Mary’s heart to contemplate Christ, but we find that Christ returns our gaze. He stirs our hearts to understand that these moments are not simply past events, but eternal realities that replay themselves in our own lives. This is my grandmother’s intuition.

The Assumption is both about Mary’s entrance into heaven and—God willing—my grandmother’s own entrance. That’s just part of having Mary as our mother. The boundary between her life and our life is blurred by boundless love. Her memories are our hope. For her memories are of Jesus, and He alone is our hope.

Image: In the arms of my Grandma

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Lessons in Growing Up

10/09/2014 - 7:30am

When I was little, there was a man named Bob Costello who visited our family. He’s a childhood friend of my dad, and one afternoon when he was playing baseball with my brothers and me in the front yard, it started to rain. We began to pout and walk towards the door, when Costello threw out his arms and told us to hold on. “I will stop the rains!” he said. Then right in front of us, he shouted at the sky, “Stooooop!” And in just a few seconds it did. As we stood there together wide-eyed in the driveway, I marveled to myself that here was a miracle man. Then I grew up, and realized that he was a jokester, and could tell the weather was passing over, and simply chose the right moment to try out his luck.

When I was little, I was convinced that the world was made up of two types of people: good guys and bad guys. Our paper boy was a bad guy. His name was Adam, and by the mere fact that he was older and didn’t smile often and threw the newspaper onto the lawn without walking up to the porch, I knew he was a bad guy. I was confirmed in this belief many times, as when he threw snowballs at us in winter (even though we instigated the skirmish), or when he and his teenage friends rode dirt bikes right through our yard to scare us. I projected these feelings onto everything else he did. When he wore shorts outside in winter, I looked out the window and said, “Look at that bad guy wearing shorts in the cold…” When his friend Anthony legally changed his last name (because of his parents’ divorce), I thought, “I can’t believe that bad guy would change his name…” Then I grew up, and realized that the world wasn’t made up of people strictly good or bad, but most were somewhere in the middle. Adults spend most of their time trying to make it through their own routine, not building up a bully persona.

When I was little, I believed in Santa Claus. Months before Christmas I would spend hours browsing the Sears catalogue, then put in great effort (especially during class time) drawing up a long wish list of presents. Christmas morning would be the only day of the year when I would spring out of bed, to see what arrived under the tree. Then I grew up, and now I don’t even know what to ask for. Much of the earlier magic of that day has been preserved and transferred to the mystery of the Nativity, but I no longer spring out of bed like I used to.

Some may argue that childhood dreams stay in childhood. This is half true. Some things do in fact change when we grow up, and we realize we were wrong about certain details. But I would argue that many more of our childhood convictions about life end up being true, rather than innocent deceptions which we soon grow out of.

When I was little, I believed that God was real. Then I grew up, and I’ve become even more convinced that He is.

When I was little, I believed God could work miracles. Then I grew up, and I have seen them.

When I was little, I believed that life was an adventure. Then I grew up, and I found out that it really is, although some of the great adventures are not in new places, but in new people; they are not waiting for us out there in the wide world, but they happen within our own homes, or our same circle of friends, or within our souls.

When I was little, I believed that love is real. Above all, I believed that my family loved me. Then I grew up, and I found out that despite the years of growing used to each other and the years of adolescent withdrawal, they still loved me. Better even than I first thought.

When I was little, I believed the best way to spend your time was playing games. Then I grew up, and I still believe they’re important. Leisure is the “basis of culture,” as Josef Pieper once said. I still love to tell stories, and swim, and see friends, just like I always have. Even God likes playing games, as He spends our life playing hide-and-seek with us: We know all of his favorite hiding places (the tabernacle, or the scriptures, or silence, or our neighbor), but we don’t always find him when we look, so He keeps us searching and coming back to the same places.

When I was little, I knew that life had many problems, and that we should pray for those people who are struggling – for brothers and sisters who we fight with, or for my friend’s parents who got divorced, or for my favorite aunt to stop smoking. Then I grew up, and after all the philosophical explanations of suffering, the answer remains the same: Jesus didn’t give us an explanation for it all in words. Instead, he gave us a response. He taught us to pray, which is still the most profound response we’ve got, even though we were taught this since we were little.

Some may think that childhood is a time of ignorance – a sort of incomplete stage before we find out what life is really all about. Others can see it differently – that after the fall of man, God purposefully left children the way they are now. Children are an icon for the rest of us of what really matters in life. Their approach to life has many of the right instincts, which we would forget in growing up, unless they were there to remind us.

Of course, there are always a few amendments we make as we go along, for growing up is a lifelong education, and we’re constantly learning and re-learning the art of living. Yet the dreams of my childhood remain. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery… The things I believed then [are] the things I believe most now.”

Image: Danaher Baseball, ca. 1994

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Eternally Missing the Point

10/08/2014 - 7:30am

I often find myself in dialogue and discussion with atheists about the existence of God, the nature of human persons, the knowability and viability of the natural law, among other Catholic philosophical and theological loci. Generally it is a stimulating and educative experience for me, and hopefully for my friendly interlocutors. But sometimes, after an hour or more of conversation, I start to feel that something is missing, that we are not really talking about the real issue or the most fundamental point. This experience brings to mind one of my favourite passages from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. In the passage, Prince Myshkin, the hero of the story, is relating to his friend Parfyon his own experience of conversing with an atheist:

One morning I was traveling on a new railway line and spent four hours talking on the train with a certain S., having only just made his acquaintance. I had heard a good deal about him before and, among other things, that he was an atheist. He’s really a very learned man, and I was glad to be talking with a true scholar. Moreover, he’s a man of rare courtesy, and he talked with me as if I were perfectly equal to him in knowledge and ideas. He doesn’t believe in God. Only one thing struck me: it was as if that was not at all what he was talking about all the while, and it struck me precisely because before, too, however many unbelievers I’ve met, however many books I’ve read on the subject, it has always seemed to me that they were talking or writing books that were not at all about that, though it looked as if it was about that.

After telling three more stories about belief and unbelief, the Prince offers his conclusion:

Listen, Parfyon, you asked me earlier [about belief], here is my answer: the essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit in with any reasoning, with any crimes and trespasses, or with any atheisms; there’s something else here that’s not that, and it will eternally be not that; there’s something in it that atheisms will eternally glance off, and they will eternally be talking not about that.

Let’s be clear: the Prince is no Thomist (nor is Dostoyevsky). The notion of God’s existence, the natural law, theological claims, etc., do fit in with reasoning, as St. Thomas makes so powerfully and eloquently clear in his voluminous works. It is good and right to engage atheists in conversation, dialogue, and debate. Nevertheless, I think Dostoyevsky is at least partially right: these conversations, if they turn only on intellectual questions and knowledge claims, remain eternally unsatisfying, and perhaps for Thomistic reasons. For we are not just embodied intellects, but rational beings with a rational desire for ultimate happiness that goes beyond mere knowledge acquisition. For St. Thomas, following St. Augustine, we are made not just in the image of any god, but in the image of the Triune God. This means that just as God is a knower and a lover, so too are we knowers and lovers. And for us to be satisfied, for those infinite desires we find enshrined in our finite flesh, we need both our intellects and our wills to be fulfilled. The intellect alone, no matter how important, is not enough! Listen to St. Thomas on the beatific vision, our true and only end, from his Compendium theologiae:

The beatific vision entails immutability in the intellect and will. As regards the intellect, its question ceases when at last it comes to the first cause, in which all truth can be known. The will’s variability ceases, too; for, when it reaches its last end, in which is contained the fullness of all goodness, it finds nothing further to be desired. The will is subject to change because it craves what it does not possess. Clearly, therefore, the final consummation of man consists in perfect repose or unchangeableness as regards both intellect and will.

Both intellect and will, this is where St. Thomas and Dostoyevsky can help us in reflecting on conversations with atheists, or anyone for that matter, regarding truths of the faith. If we are speaking merely of the truth of Christianity and not the loveliness of it, we are offering only part of the story. At the risk of mawkish sentimentality, Christianity is not just about knowing the truth; it is also and crucially about being in love. The debating of Christianity as merely an intellectual exercise will remain unsatisfying to us and, I suspect deep down, to our interlocutors as well, although they may be unwilling to openly admit it.

All this is to say that defeating the Knight of Error with the Sword of Truth is of no real significance unless one goes on to attain the Lady of Charity. Which, I suppose, is also to say, with St. Paul, that “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Cor 13:2).”

St. John, at the end of his Gospel, recounts a very important conversation: Jesus reconciling Peter and restoring him to head of the Church. And Jesus’ question is as relevant today as it was then: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Image: V. Porfiryev, Dostoyevsky’s Funeral

Categories: Dominican Vocations

The Best Prayer for Men

10/07/2014 - 7:30am

Devotion to Our Lady may not seem an intuitive thing for some Catholic men.  Growing up, I’d occasionally catch my father as he finished praying the Rosary early on Saturday mornings (begun in peace when the rest of us were asleep), or notice he’d left his handsome set of beads lying out on a coffee table.  I had the blessing of his example.  Other men know their fathers have placed a Rosary in their locker at work (try and find a Catholic firefighter who doesn’t have either a Rosary or a saint’s medal) or even just keep one in their pocket, where from time to time they’ll pause and touch the beads.  But for those men who haven’t “seen” or “heard,” how do we make sense of the Rosary as a manly devotion?

1.     The Rosary is covert. A fierce point of intimidation of being a man of faith in our culture is the fear that we will amount to being hypocrites (and we know how much Jesus loved that…).  In the face of our own weakness, we want to be authentic about who we are, what we’re capable of, and what we believe.  Rather than broadcasting or projecting a false image of ourselves as mighty saints, men prefer to keep things on the down low.  The problem is this principle of authenticity—which is truly noble—can be our undoing.  When we’re not grounded in something solid, we’ll drift away.  We’re not all called to some kind of grandiose witness, like martyrdom or preaching, but we do need to be faithful.  The Rosary offers a structured program for building up the foundation of faith in our souls in secret, so that when the storms come our hearts will be strong enough to be true.

2.     The Rosary arms us for spiritual warfare.  The fact of the matter is that spiritual life is war (cf. CCC 2725).  St. Paul puts it this way, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). To contend in the battle, we must put on the armor of Light (Rom. 13:12)!  Dominican friars wear the Rosary on the left side, the side which bore the sword for knights of old.  In the battle of the spiritual life, prayer is the only weapon, and it must be used.  Frequently.  Unceasingly.  Devotion to the Rosary reclaimed the life of the 19th-century Italian lawyer Bartolo Longo (who had become entrapped in the world of the occult and often dreamt of taking his own life), and without a doubt, devotion to the Rosary will help us overcome the evils which plague us.  The temptations and cycles of sin of the 21st century do not own us, for the Rosary narrates the greatest conquest of all time: the victory of life and light over sin and death.

3.     The Rosary sanctifies our contemplative side. Like fixing things around the house, solving crises at work or otherwise designing and building, men love to muse over problems.  I’ve heard it said before that during time set aside for prayer people should clear their minds, so that they can be totally focused on God.  That seems unnatural to me.  It’s been my experience that God wants us to set before Him the mess and mud of our lives, not hide it from Him.  This is the very glory of Christianity—the Incarnational principle—that God would condescend to our world and sanctify it, lift it up to Him.  The mysteries of the Rosary lead us to think and reflect on the stuff of our lives, while simultaneously giving us an opportunity to hand our struggles over to the Lord.  When we reflect on the mysteries of the Rosary, we join our lives to Christ’s.  By praying the Rosary, God pierces the hardened shell of our hearts and opens up a place for Him.  He will speak to us, to the problems of our own lives, through the Rosary.

4.     Jesus says so.   Ever since second-grade religion class, Jesus is usually the right answer.  Without getting all theological, we can simply say: men should pray the Rosary because He told us to.  From the Cross Jesus tells St. John, “Behold your Mother!” (Jn. 19:27).  That command to “behold” is not St. John’s alone—it’s ours, too.  To behold, to take in, to bask in, to be attentive to, to delight in: this is the command.  Through Mary’s intercession at the Cross and in the Rosary, Jesus arranges that the treasury of graces associated with His Immaculate Mother may be opened to us and poured out on us. But we’re left to seek her, to behold her.

Image: Barthel Bruyn the Elder, Diptych with portraits of the Pilgrum couple

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Save the world! (Be a plumber.)

10/06/2014 - 7:30am

I am sure you’ve heard of the two Catholic Italian brothers who ran a plumbing business, starting around the 1980’s. Unsuspecting, humble, and congenial, they were unexpectedly called upon to save a princess, using their knowledge of pipes to accomplish that task. Amazingly, they continue that work of saving princesses and plumbing to this day.

Something that impresses me about their work is that they set their mind to a trade and mastered it. Though it’s possible, I’m guessing they didn’t go to a 4-year liberal arts school or gigantic research university to accomplish their task of pipe work and royal redemption. They, of course, may have gone to a trade school for 2 years or so. But whatever they did, I’m sure they didn’t come out with a diploma and $29,400 (or more) of debt.

They probably learned their trade from a family member (perhaps their father?) or another master plumber, intending simply to earn an honest living, and perhaps to support a family. It is this kind of honest living that the Church holds up as a task for the laity even greater than saving princesses: through seemingly humble professions, lay people can grow in holiness and bring the light of Christ to the world.

How beautiful it is that so many young Catholic people today are excited to transform the world! They are smart, savvy, and spiritually strong. But so many go to universities and colleges and end up with a degree that qualifies them only to teach. And how wonderful it is, too, that the Catholic and secular academic world is being populated with people who are on fire for the faith. Yet, I think the time has come to diversify.

There is a strange myth in this country that a 4-year-degree is a prerequisite for self-fulfillment and success. This is buoyed by a bubble of infinite loans from sources which are all too eager to collect on a lifetime of interest and ironclad contractual obligation. Part of this is the myth of the “college experience.” This is the nebulous time between escaping parental authority and the responsibility of setting out on your own. Here you can spread your wings without any repercussions. At least that’s the idea.

Those who are alive in the faith see college as a time to learn more deeply about the truth and the possibility of transmitting it to others. In the context of massive departures of college kids from the Church, they seek to stem the tide by being an active faith-filled presence on campus. This is wonderful! Converting campuses, then teaching at high schools, colleges, parishes etc., makes up a nice slice of the pie. But it’s only one slice.  If we take the teachings of the Church seriously, then “on-fire” Catholics need to take on the whole world, not just the academic sphere. Permit me a huge but important quotation from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature… the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer. (LG 31)

The world needs a leaven “in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations.” That means plumbers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. It means web designers, photographers, bankers, farmers, and welders. A hero of many young Catholics, G.K. Chesterton, received no university degree. Neither did secular hero Bill Gates.

If you already have a 4-year-degree, or find it necessary to get one because of the age we live in, there should be no shame in using that knowledge in a job which requires technical skill. Bl. John Henry Newman stated that University was to teach the unity of knowledge and to form gentlemen and ladies. This refinement can be brought to the trade one engages in and provide a cultural leaven as well.

The strong trade-based Catholic can then enter into new social spheres and evangelize whole swaths of society that are kindling, just waiting for the fire of the Holy Spirit. They have families, they send their kids to school. In all they do, they teach the dignity of work; they may even teach CCD. You don’t need a degree to know your faith inside and out.

Dare to be different! Encourage trades! Leaven the whole society! Save the world! Do I need to mention the day job of the true Savior of the World?

Image: Mario and Luigi

Categories: Dominican Vocations


10/03/2014 - 7:30am

The voice of my coworkers rose over the drone of the computer’s fan and the intermittent whines of the copy machine on a gray Monday morning. Brian, an agnostic, was explaining to Jeff that he was considering becoming a Christian, and not just any Christian, but a Catholic. I stood up, poked my head over the taupe fabric walls of the cubicle and with a touch of snark exclaimed, “Brian, why are you talking to Jeff about joining the Church, he’s Jewish? Don’t you know that I’m the Catholic?” We all laughed at the irony, but after the bellows quieted and a hush fell on the room, Brian said, “Well… I know you like to keep that sort of thing private.”

This is my friend’s work story, and you can probably sense it was a pivotal moment in his life. Brian’s explanation cut him to the quick. He felt nauseous and had a knot of guilt in his stomach knowing that he had compartmentalized his faith. That cubicle which was void of any humanity had allowed him to hide the source of his humanity, faith in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, his story didn’t end there; he went to RCIA with his coworker. My friend grew in the Faith, and his coworker joined the Church. He’s happy with how things turned out, and has a strong friendship with Brian now. Yet, when speaking about all that happened, he couldn’t help but notice how easy it was (and is) to keep our lives with God to ourselves.

Perhaps one of the reasons we hide, segregate, or neglect to share our faith is that we’ve seen the Faith rejected. Chances are, if you have opened your mouth to share the Faith you’ve met resistance. Scroll down to the comments section on the Washington Post’s religious forum (please don’t), where hyperbole and belligerence are there in full glory. Interjections predominate sentences that are written with the caps lock left firmly in place. Family dinners, too, or outings with friends can devolve into bickering if God and the Church enter conversation. I know families who are thankful on Thanksgiving Day because dinner finished without argument. It is all too clear the world hated Christ, and it certainly hates those who are of Christ.

It’s discouraging and disheartening to see loved ones turn deaf ears to the very Word that will save them. We can become fixated on what was said, questioning its efficacy or appropriateness. If our words don’t lead to conversion should we even speak about God with our friends and family?

St. Francis, who the Church celebrates tomorrow, is often misquoted as saying, “Preach the gospel and when necessary use words.” Put into practice, this quote often leads Catholics to presume the answer to the question above is no – we shouldn’t speak about Christ openly. Yet, if we look at St. Francis as a case study, we find a man of surpassing holiness who found words very necessary, because “faith comes from what is heard” (Rm 10:17)”  During the Crusades, he went before the Sultan and his hordes of tormentors in Damietta to persuade their conversion. If we treat evangelization as do-gooding and avoiding sin, it becomes all too easy to shrink away from opportune moments with loved ones. We should also mind that the current society honors and admires service to the poor and neglected, but society does not understand the reason for that service. We must make known the difference between social work and a contemplative life rooted in the love of God which produces love of neighbor.

Regarding the gospel today, St. Gregory the Great states,

Every true preacher then ought not so to preach, that he may receive a reward at the present time, but so to receive a reward that he may have strength to preach. For whoever so preaches that here he may receive the reward of praise, or riches, deprives himself of an eternal reward.

Now, we’re all familiar with the second point, namely, seek your treasure in heaven. But, in addition to that, St. Gregory makes another point in the first sentence of the quote, that is, the preacher ought to preach so that he may have strength to preach. It seems the very act of sharing the faith leads one to greater facility in sharing the faith. Grace builds upon nature and, indeed, upon previous grace. Iron sharpens iron. So, in allowing the grace that we’ve received in the sacraments to become visible and audible in our deeds and words and to combat against the hostility of the world, we will be strengthened. As our courage and fortitude increase, we will become less hesitant and more hopeful in conversion.That is why the Church prays the following:

Preach the word, persevere in this task,
both when convenient and inconvenient;
Correct, reprove, summon to obedience,
but do all with patience and sound doctrine.
–For speech makes wisdom known,
and all a man has learned appears in his words.

So, if we carry out our mission given to us in the sacrament of confirmation, we can rest assured that God is with us, even when our words do not seem to have success. We are called to be faithful not successful, and always visible to those who have yet to see the Light of Christ.

Image: Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Trial by Fire, St. Francis Before the Sultan of Egypt

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Why do people still love angels?

10/02/2014 - 7:30am

People love guardian angels. These seraphic characters have captivated the imaginations of men since before the birth of Christ. From the earliest centuries of the Church, angels have appeared in various forms of art. This fascination with celestial creatures continues to this day. There are a host of examples of our angelic intercessors playing important roles in modern books and movies. From symbols of a right-ordered conscience, to flying baseball outfielders, to, arguably, Gandalf himself, angels have played a variety of roles in the modern imagination. In an age with much disdain for that which is not physically calculable, angels have maintained a remarkable place in modernity.

So why are we fascinated by angels? Or even, why do we love angels? Besides the fact that we simply desire to know, we also like to believe that someone is always looking out for us who is more capable than we. We often recognize our inability to control every outcome in our lives. We rely on the assistance of those who do have control. Guardian angels take on this role, both in reality and the modern imagination.

Angels are often seen as the creatures we wish we could be. In an odd way, the adjective “angelic” has come to mean that which is the best of humanity. The kind deed, the sublime piece of art, the holy individual are described in terms that are non-human. However, that which is most in accord with our ends should be considered to be the most human. But, as fallen individuals, we seek to describe the perfect as wholly different from us. Angelic describes that which possesses the most ability or the most virtue. This is how we tend to view angels. They are the virtuous and able creatures who guide and protect us in our weakness. They are the heroes we wish we could be.

The modern imagination is not far off the mark. While they may not help the (undefeated) Dominican Friars softball team track down more fly balls, they do help us in countless ways. Although angels find their own fulfillment in God alone, they do participate in the lives of us here below. God has given to higher creatures the governance of those beneath them. Angels are above us and thus, in some sense, help govern us here below. They are the messengers and intercessors who can act on our behalf in ways that we cannot. When we turn to them, we are reminded of God’s Providence and we are assisted in our need.

In the end, mankind is fascinated by angels because we want them to exist. We love angels because they do what we cannot. We recognize our insufficiency and our need for the help of our angelic intercessors. Thankfully, God has provided for us by giving us guardian angels to always be with us “to light, to guard, to rule, to guide.”

Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Rood Angel (Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair in London)

Categories: Dominican Vocations

St. Therese’s Manly Virtues

10/01/2014 - 7:30am

Let me offer a caveat at the outset: I will be offering what is a characteristically masculine appreciation of St. Therese of Lisieux, not an exclusively masculine appreciation. I’m sure many women admire the virtues commented on here.

Speaking of feminist eco-theology, an English Dominican once remarked, “There’s not much in that for a man.” Should we say the same about the theology of St. Therese? We might think her approach to God is fine for women, especially cloistered women, but certainly not for the average man of the 21st century. Her preferred images are generally of flowers, Jesus the Husband of her soul, and smallness. These images tend to be repugnant to men. So how, among great men of the 20th century like Pius XI, Padre Pio, or John Paul II, might we account for all the devotion to her?

Effectiveness. She didn’t waste time on the way to holiness. Her teaching was short and lucid. She was reliable both before and after death.

St. Therese died at 24. She understood that God’s grace makes giant saints. Neither terrible suffering nor spiritual brilliance guarantee sanctity, but only God’s action in us. She fulfilled the American maxim well: “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” But she needed neither guns nor Porsches to accomplish this.

She kept it simple. When Therese’s sister Celine complained about “how much [virtue] she had to acquire,” Therese retorted that “she didn’t have much to acquire, but rather she had much to lose.” Therese had stripped off self-love, emotional fragility, and pride. Like David leaving Saul’s armor in the creek bed, she realized she didn’t need all that weight. She took no gear with her into the war for souls.

St. Therese succeeded as an intercessor. Her vocation as a Carmelite was to pray for the sinners in the world and for priests. She took a special interest in hard cases, e.g., Pranzini the murderer, who repented on the scaffold. Men respect someone who comes through in a tight situation. She promised that she would continue this after her death: “I want to spend my eternity doing good on earth.” Her help was especially implored in the trenches of the Great War seventeen years after her death.

On 4th June, while on reconnaissance between French and German lines, we came under rather heavy fire, and there I had proof that I benefit from a limitless protection. A bullet from a revolver pierced my jacket, squadron diary and wallet, and also my vest, over my heart. But the bullet deviated from its path without reaching my shirt thanks to Sister Therese’s little medallion, which was there like a shield. It was only the next morning, in daylight, that I realized. On this occasion I simply made a very deep bow to my little Therese. And I thank her with all my heart, and remain confident that she will always be my support in times of trouble (Henri Bellois, Corporal).

It seems that many male French atheists on their way to war begrudgingly accepted holy cards and medals from their worried wives and mothers, only to come back devout Catholics. They prayed to her during Ypres and the Somme, and she came through. Not to mention all the little miracles she is known for in daily Catholic life, like the tell-tale roses given to young people deciding whether or not to marry, or enter an order.

And now a word to the unconvinced, or those who can’t stand nineteenth-century French writing. I tried to read Story of a Soul in college, but was disgusted by what I thought was sugary piety. It took a two year wait and some secondary literature to convince me to approach the book again. A tough Irish priest gave me Everything is Grace by Joseph F. Schmidt, F.S.C. That provided a decryption key for some of her more saccharine turns of phrase. I recommend Story of a Life by Fr. Guy Gaucher for the same reason.

The truth is, we all could use her intercession. Even us Catholic males today. She deserves to be loved, although of course she doesn’t need it, as she’s now enjoying the Beatific Vision. Even on earth, she valued the good of those under her charge, over any concern for her own popularity:

If I’m not loved, that’s just too bad!  I tell the whole truth, and if anyone doesn’t wish to know the truth, let her not come looking for me. We should never allow kindness to degenerate into weakness. When we have scolded someone with just reason, we must leave the matter there, without allowing ourselves to be touched to the point of tormenting ourselves for having caused pain or at seeing one suffer and cry. To run after the afflicted one, to console her, does more harm than good.  Leaving her to herself forces her to have recourse to God, in order to see her faults and humble herself.

A more virile sentiment, one can hardly find anywhere.

Image: Saint Jacques de Montebourg (Normandy, 1944)

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Fight for Fraternity

09/30/2014 - 7:30am

St. Jerome was a fighter.

Popes, soldiers, widows, monks, archdeacons – it didn’t matter – none were safe from the sharp and nimble pen of this 4th-century resident of Bethlehem. He wrote against many who had distanced themselves from the Church by error or faulty preaching, and so he got a name for not pulling punches. His letters link phrases together like opposing storms and unshaken faith, errors and eternal bondage, heretics and doomed to perish. Granted he was fighting to defend the Faith, but did he have to be so combative?

St. Jerome was such a fighter because he believed there was something worth fighting for: brotherhood.

If you read some of his letters, you’ll notice that St. Jerome covers a variety of themes (Scripture, schism, vows of virginity, poetry, bathing habits), but in all of these he always finds a way to mention brotherhood. He is constantly mentioning his brothers, sisters, and spiritual sons and daughters as he critiques this bishop’s preaching or consoles that widow’s mourning; counsels this Roman soldier, or teases that prelate’s hygiene. Whether he spoke in jest, irritation, or anger, all he did was for the sake of fraternity.

Brotherhood for Jerome was a teaching of Christ, who called his disciples brothers (Mt 23:8). A helpful way to look at how St. Jerome thought of brotherhood is to view it in light of another teaching of Christ: chastity, poverty, and obedience.

St. Jerome thought that brotherhood is chaste, because it’s about an undivided love. Chastity is a virtue that keeps the heart set on a real and authentic love, and real love is undeterred by false forms of friendship that lack depth in the love of God. St. Jerome spoke of brotherhood as a kind of chastity because his authentic love for others was rooted in a love for God. Chastity unites us to God with an undivided heart. So too we undividedly love our brothers by this love we have for God:

The links which bind spirit to spirit are stronger than any physical bond. For you, my reverend friend, cling to me with all your soul, and I am united to you by the love of Christ (Letter 62).

St. Jerome was the first to recognize a real love between himself and another. But if that love was lacking, he was quick to call his brother back into friendship. Even in harsh words Jerome pursued the friendship of his brother by being close to Christ: “Our only gain is that we are thus knit together in the love of Christ” (Letter 60).

Brotherhood for Jerome is also poor because it gives up everything for another. In emptying himself Christ gave everything to become our brother, and we, in our poverty, give up everything for the sake of our brothers in Christ. St. Jerome cared not a thing for his reputation or position in the world, provided that his words and gestures had the chance of calling a brother back from a straying path. Such a friendship that divests itself of all extras is a true friendship, and this is why it is priceless:

Love is not to be purchased, and affection has no price. The friendship which can cease has never been real (Letter 3).

True brotherhood is also obedient. To be obedient is to delight in another’s will, and so have a true and lasting unity with that person. Christ gives us the grace and example to be obedient to our heavenly Father. Brothers who dwell in unity first have an obedience to God that then outpours into a harmony in the Church.  It’s in the heart of the Church that we strive to live in Christ with one heart and soul (Acts 4:32).

But such harmony is only possible when there is openness to truth between friends. St. Jerome held to this standard of truth when relating to others. “True friendship ought never to conceal what it thinks,” and real brotherhood will leave enough room to hear the truth, even when it is difficult (Letter 81).

While his words were at times harsh, nothing St. Jerome said was without a further purpose of drawing others close to Christ in real brotherhood. Jerome’s life gives us the example of how to knock at the door of others and offer them friendship – even to those who would consider us enemies. Christ has knocked at the door of our hearts and by grace we have consented to a divine friendship with him. He now uses us to knock on the hearts of others to offer that same friendship:

I have now knocked at the door of friendship: if you open it to me you will find me a frequent visitor (Letter 145).

Image: George Bellows, Stage Night at Sharkey’s

Categories: Dominican Vocations

St. Michael Asks a Question

09/29/2014 - 7:30am

St. Michael is an imposing figure. His image throughout history commands strength, power, prestige, and victory. For centuries Christians have turned to his intercession as a direct line – a 9-1-1 call if you will – in their struggles with sin. His angelic person imposes an immediate threat to temptation and all its nastiness. It’s no wonder he’s popular.

But perhaps a more important aspect of St. Michael’s lineage is the question he asks us; it’s enclosed within his very name. Translated from the Hebrew, Michael means “Who is like God?” or “Who can compare with God?” Therefore, every time we utter the name of this Archangel, we ask ourselves, or we ask others, “Who do you stand for?”

In praying to St. Michael we don’t often think in this way. It would be much easier for us in moments of temptation if we could call upon St. Michael and have him immediately fix our issues and problems. It would keep us perfectly safe; we would just rattle off a few prayers to this robust intercessor and sweep the dust under the rug. The angels in heaven would rejoice to see how quickly we become saints! The problem, however, is that this attitude – this false piety – doesn’t actually engage reality. It ignores our real maladies as we hide behind a kind of facade of religiosity. Within this mindset we would actually be dishonest with ourselves and false to what St. Michael wants to do for us.

In the Christian life God gives us many opportunities, which are a sign of His great mercy for us. Our way back to the Father, through our Savior Jesus Christ, is usually a long one, involving many deliberate good decisions along the way. These good decisions begin with the impetus of God’s grace, but they remain truly our free decisions nonetheless.

This is exactly what St. Michael does for us today. At every choice between virtue and vice, between the true good and evil, Michael’s name ought to ring in our spiritual ears. In other words, how does this decision, in this moment, accord with my Christian vocation for holiness? At every moment St. Michael is there reminding us that no matter what may seem “good” now, it fails in comparison to the love God has in store for His faithful ones. Think of St. Paul’s use of Isaiah 64:3: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart… God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). We love God not by mere sentimentality, but through our conscious deliberate choices. “Whoever says ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar,” says St. John (1 Jn. 2:4).

Yes, St. Michael asks us a question, and his special intercession helps to remind us of that question in moments of trial. Remember, it is St. Michael, strengthened by God, who casts out Satan, our “accuser” (Rev. 12: 7-12). Satan seeks to accuse us before God, to accuse us of failing to make good decisions. The grace of St. Michael is not only a reminder of God’s greatness, but also a reminder of Satan’s defeat. In the end, it is always God who wins.

Rather than use St. Michael as a crutch of piety – hiding behind outward religious practice – we can seek his intercession as the one who challenges us to live for God in every moment. That’s what true piety will get for us, and that’s what engages reality. St. Michael asks a question, which calls upon us to make a choice: Who do you stand for?

Image: Peter Anton von Verschaffelt, St. Michael (Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome)

Categories: Dominican Vocations

King Solomon, Flower Children, and Abandoning Our Wills

09/26/2014 - 7:30am

A little over nine centuries before the birth of Christ, King Solomon is said by tradition to have written the Book of Ecclesiastes. It took Pete Seeger almost three millennia to compose a song out of a snippet of the third chapter. A decade later, after The Byrds covered it, King Solomon could be credited for a hit song ringing from the hippie subculture (or just Forest Gump enthusiasts) and now able to be stuck in the heads of all. The song is mind-numbing at this point, and I’m ashamed to say it, but when I was an altar boy at various funerals I couldn’t help but hearing Turn! Turn! Turn!  in my ears as the lector got up.

There’s certainly a difference in the intent of the era that composed this tune and the intent of King Solomon. The former proposed an idea that the entirety of existence is under a giant pendulum, that all events, joyful and sorrowful alike, come to equilibrium in relative haste. This idea gave us phrases like “what goes around comes around,” “everything is circular,” or whatever other faux-far-eastern wisdom a long haired blond living in his grandmother’s basement can conjure up in a given afternoon.

The hippie trend is long gone, of course, but certain ideas have evolved from it. Let’s think, for a moment, about the generally accepted practice of moving along with the times. Whatever is fashionable to practice (or ‘tolerate’ others who practice it), we’re pressured to submit to, as if choosing a lifestyle is equivalent to choosing which pair of jeans you’ll wear today. As certain fads go in and out, society wants all to join the general motion of the times, and Dawkins-forbid that the ‘intolerant’ do anything to stifle or condemn this beloved current.

Man desires to have a balance in life. Whether pagan or Christian, we all want to know that the bad times will get better, the mourners will rejoice, and the down-hearted will find consolation. This is no significant discovery, of course, as Our Lord gives us many similar promises in St. Matthew 5. This does not mean, however, that the joyous day will come immediately after the sorrowful, or that we will be comfortable immediately after any rough time in life. St. Paul had a terrible track record of living the ‘good old days.’ He was jailed, scorned, flogged, stripped, starved, stoned, beaten, shipwrecked, snake-bitten, tortured, chased out of town, and ultimately beheaded. Mother Teresa, famous during her life for the love she had for God’s children, is now famous after her death for the almost constant spiritual darkness that enveloped her during her ministry! This gives us the striking notion that, as the prophet Isaiah says, his ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8). What did these two saints, so separated by time, have in common? They had a firm faith in Christ, and abandoned themselves to the Lord’s will in their lives.

Looking over the famous passage from Ecclesiastes again, we can see that these ‘times’ mentioned are between references to God’s appointed times. Abandonment to God’s providence is nothing like abandonment to secular culture’s influence. Abandoning our own wills to his will allows us to see all events in our lives for his ultimate purpose, even when we don’t understand it. We do not rely on consolations, feelings, our personal understanding, or — perhaps most importantly — on ourselves. If ever there is a lesson learned by a Christian attempting to live a holy life by his own efforts, it’s that he can’t do it. It’s only by coming to the point when we break and say “Lord, I can’t…” that he says, “I know,” and begins to live in us.

Image: Album Cover, The Byrds, Turn! Turn! Turn!

Categories: Dominican Vocations

The Wounded Surgeon

09/25/2014 - 7:30am

When a friar is sick, local house custom dictates that during Office he sit, not in his usual place in the choir, but in a dark back corner of the chapel so as to avoid infecting his healthier brethren. So it was that I found myself one recent morning in a dark back corner of the chapel. As I sat slumped in that creaky chair with sore throat and wandering mind, the thought hit me like a sudden coughing fit (which may in fact have accompanied it) that my bodily illness, more than a mere nuisance, was a sign of the sickness of my soul: that our occasional physical maladies point to our far more harmful spiritual ones. For some reason I found this hysterically funny—my pathetic head cold is an image of my dire need for God’s mercy!—and I began to quake with laughter in my little corner, doing my best to stifle my chortles as I delighted in the sheer surprise of the thing.

This is not of course a new idea; it’s one of the oldest spiritual insights there is. But even the oldest and oftenest repeated truths can at times strike us in new ways, like hearing the Goldberg Variations for the hundredth time and being inexplicably seized anew by their brilliant beauty. The image of our sinfulness as an illness and of Christ as the physician—a theme we can see in the thought of theologians of every age and even of Jesus himself (Mt 9:10-13)—finds its perduring power in its simple familiarity: we know well that we are susceptible to sickness and even more so to sin and that it’s not in our best interest to let either one of them stick around long.

But the Divine Physician is not like other doctors, not just because he’s divine but because he himself became sick for the sake of our salvation. This is the meaning of the Incarnation—and its mystery. The Word became flesh: the only-begotten Son of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself and became a man, born of a woman.

But his lowliness became lowlier still: as a man he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross—and it is precisely in this that we are healed. The Son of God was not just born as a man but died as a man, and one despised and rejected at that. Christ became afflicted to heal our affliction; the Physician has taken the burden of the disease on himself to save us who are utterly unable to save ourselves; with his stripes we are healed. As T. S. Eliot wrote:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

The remedy for our sin is found only in Jesus, the wounded surgeon, whose love for us is bound up inseparably with his mercy; and his mercy endures forever. In a Lenten homily he gave in Munich in 1981, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger preached beautifully about the relationship between the humiliation of sin and the humiliation of the crucified Christ, who precisely in his humiliation reveals the inexpressible love of God:

In the humiliated Jesus we can see how tragic, how little, how abased the human being can be. In him we can discern the whole history of human hate and sin. But in him and in his suffering love for us we can still more clearly discern God’s response: Yes, that is the man who is loved by God to the very dust, who is so loved by God that he pursues him to the uttermost toils of death. And even in our own greatest humiliation we are still called by God to be the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and so to share in God’s eternal love.

God’s mercy also features heavily in the writings of St. Catherine of Siena (who was herself well acquainted with sickness and disease, having devoted herself to caring for the victims of the plague which ravaged Siena in 1374). Of this inexhaustible font of love she writes:

O mad lover! It was not enough for you to take on our humanity: You had to die as well! . . . I see your mercy pressing you to give us even more when you leave yourself with us as food to strengthen our weakness, so that we forgetful fools should be forever reminded of your goodness. Every day you give us this food, showing us yourself in the sacrament of the altar within the mystic body of holy Church. And what has done this? Your mercy. O mercy! My heart is engulfed with the thought of you! For wherever I turn my thoughts I find nothing but mercy!

Yes, the same mercy that led Christ to the cross has also left us the Eucharist, the consummate reminder of God’s goodness toward us forgetful fools who so often spurn him and find ourselves sick with sin. And when we are thus enfeebled we throw ourselves yet again on the love and mercy of God, which cast dazzling light even into our darkest corners—such majestic mercy is enough to make us laugh for joy.

Image: Dominican House of Studies Chapel

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Ales and Anamnesis

09/24/2014 - 7:30am

How can craft beer help us appreciate the Eucharist?

I don’t mean having a pint before Mass. Rather, I am thinking about one of the craft beer industry’s most creative endeavors: “ancient ales,” as one brewery calls them. These unique beers are made using recipes and methods from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. For instance, ever wonder what they drank at King Midas’ burial feast? After archeologists unearthed drinking vessels left in his tomb (apparently the guests had too much fun to care about cleanup), a biomolecular specialist analyzed traces of residue found in the goblets. A craft brewer seized upon these findings, which indicated the use of Muscat grapes, honey, and saffron in the brew, to create a modern version of the superannuated suds.

Another craft brewery strives to even more literally “re-brew” particular ales, in this case from the pre-Prohibition era. Taking the detailed, hand-written records that original brewers kept for specific batches, these artful technicians mimic the results their predecessors achieved some hundred or two hundred years ago. Thus contemporaries can, according to the head brewer, “reach through the mists of time and pick up exactly where they left off.” Whereas the ancient philosopher Heraclitus asserted that one cannot step twice into the same river, this effort would suggest one can brew the same beer twice.

What do these elixirs have to do with the Eucharist? In surprising ways, what motivates the brewing of these ales corresponds with Catholic understandings of the sacrament. Specifically, we can find a shared interest in memorializing. These craft brewers go to extraordinary lengths to remember the past. They seek to challenge those drinking down these “liquid time capsules” to imagine the history of beer in new ways and with newfound respect. A passion to confirm who and what has come before also drives these brewers. They wish to pay homage and celebrate their indebtedness to various brewing traditions. (The Catholic Church operates according to a similar principle, known as the hermeneutic of continuity). Similarly, the celebration of the Eucharist involves memorializing and making the past present—but in an even bolder way than could be attempted on any brewery floor.

When the Church identifies the Eucharist as a memorial of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, she specifies that it is anamnesis (“remembrance”; CCC 1354). This Greek term differs drastically from our common notion of remembering. It suggests a living memory. A remembering that actually “makes present.” At every Mass, Catholics remember the saving events of Christ’s Passion, which began on the evening of Holy Thursday and continued from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, and this paschal mystery is made present in and through the celebration of the Eucharist. This is the power of the sacrament, as instituted by Christ Himself and celebrated by His consecrated ministers ever since. In his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope Saint John Paul II emphasizes this absorption of past into present: “The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to that sacrifice nor does it multiply it. What is repeated is its memorial celebration… which makes Christ’s one, definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time” (§12). With ancient ales, craft brewers seek a kind of secular anamnesis. But this does not get at the fullness of the concept in the sacred context. Brewing an imitation of a beer from the historical past—no matter how accurate an imitation it may be—still does not mean I’m drinking what they drank at King Midas’ funeral. With the Eucharist it is a different story. Or rather, it is the same story. In the sacrament, we are consuming the Body and Blood Christ offered up. What He did for our salvation He is still doing (cf. Heb 7:25), and we become participants in it. In this participation lies our hope to share in His eternal glory.

Nor does the making present of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist require historically-specific ingredients the way historical brews do. Importing unleavened bread made from ancient strains of Middle Eastern wheat, or wine from grapevines hugging the trunks of olive trees in Jerusalem, would not draw us into closer proximity with the Last Supper. We have the most authentic Ingredients possible: the power of Christ’s words—the instructions He left at the Last Supper to “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19)—and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood (CCC 1353). The more we try to remember, and be attentive to the mystery of this encounter, the more we will thirst for it and for Him.

Image: E. Michael Smith Chiefio, “EMS-89615-Rosecrucian-Egyptian-BeerMaking”

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Padre Pio in the Age of Shortwave and Space Monkeys

09/23/2014 - 7:30am

As Zeppelins began to course the Deutschland skies and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shone on American picture screens, somewhere in Italy a young man, robed in Franciscan brown, grasped his hands in pain. It was 1910 when this friar first felt the wounds of God. Eight years later, praying before an image of the one who bore them nineteen centuries prior, his hands, his side, and his feet began to bleed.

Strange, you might say. Sure seems like odd timing.

You’d expect this kind of thing in the Middle Ages, but in the twentieth century? Isn’t it a bit incongruous to know that somewhere in Italy there is a friar bearing the wounds of Christ while “Good Morning Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip” is playing on your transistor radio? It kinda takes the fun out of taunting Russians over the shortwave, knowing that there is a holy man speaking with angels and battling demons across the pond. We just sent a man into orbit? Yeah, well that’s cool I guess, but this guy bi-locates. Johnny Larson has invented the Polygraph — Padre Pio can read souls.

There is something a bit awkward about being a believer today. Maybe you’ve never felt it. Maybe I’m just projecting. But, gee, sometimes it just feels like the world has moved on. How would our Lord fit into our modern life? Sure he went to weddings, worked with his hands, traversed land and sea, but can you imagine the Son of God having a Facebook page? Perhaps I’m making something out of nothing, but at times the feeling of incongruity can be overwhelming. Caravaggio painted Christ calling the Apostle Matthew right into 16th-century Italy, complete with 16th-century puffy sleeves, feather hats, and all. Somehow it worked. Some artists have attempted to do the same today, with blue jeans and t-shirts. Somehow it doesn’t work. It just comes across as irony.

Then comes Padre Pio. Here is a holy man who bore the wounds of Christ, just yesterday, in the twentieth century, while the mad men were revolutionizing advertising in Manhattan skyscrapers and a rhesus monkey named Albert was howling jubilant weightless screams in an American space capsule. Somehow all of this falls under God’s providence. In the ineffable mystery of God’s plan, he gives St. Padre Pio to bear anew that most striking sign of his love, the wounds of Christ’s body nailed upon the cross.

Those miraculous wounds unsettle the course of things. Time wavers, centuries collapse. The crucified is near.

Maybe our age isn’t so different after all. Maybe behind all our gizmos and gadgets, our networks and knowledge, our subjective turns and Copernican revolutions, underneath it all, maybe we are all just naked sons of Adam, naked daughters of Eve. Maybe our age too is loved. Maybe, even today, we are carried by the Savior.

Image: Thierry Ehrmann, Padre Pio de Pietrelcina

Categories: Dominican Vocations

Histories and Mysteries

09/22/2014 - 7:30am

At first sight, Ronald Knox is not a likely candidate for an author of mystery novels. Other, more well-known facts about the humble English monsignor wouldn’t exactly point in that direction: convert, priest, one-man translator of the whole Bible, scholar of religious history, apologist, preacher, and subject of one of Evelyn Waugh’s two literary biographies (the other being St. Helena, Constantine’s mother). Yet in addition to all that, Knox wrote six of the twentieth century’s best mystery novels. So what are we to make of that?

Perhaps the first and most logical reaction is to assume that Knox dabbled in detective fiction as a way of relaxing the little grey cells after all his priestly and scholarly labors, easing himself to sleep or whiling away quiet days on holiday by puttering around with missing bodies, impossible alibis, and the cool logic of deduction. Other great brains have had recourse to such harmless forms of entertainment — just take the late Thomistic thinker, Ralph McInerny, who provided Ignatius Press with a steady stream of ecclesiastical novels composed after his day’s labor of munching through Thomas’ Opera Omnia was done.

Yet for Knox, this simple explanation doesn’t quite fit the bill, as his mysteries sail too close to his major theological themes to be mere intellectual diversions. In fact, it’s not too much to say that Knox’s detective fiction is actually part of his theological enterprise; he simply found that there were some theological ideas that were so important and so complex that they had to be expressed in novel form.

Now happily I don’t mean that Knox sat at his desk grimly churning out thinly veiled novelistic accounts of the processions and missions of the Trinity, or didactic moral fables about Johnny Virtue triumphing over that dastardly Billy Vice. The particular concern that drove his mystery novels was an understanding of history — how it is discovered, and how its truths are told. In other words, he fittingly realized that the best way to explore how historical narrative works is through narrative.

Let me explain. Knox was greatly concerned by certain contemporary developments in the study of the Bible and the Christian past, most especially a naive and reductionistic belief in the power of modern-day scholars to “get behind” Scripture and tradition to reveal a pure science of history, that explains everything and leaves no loose ends to be tied up by the unprofessional expedient of faith. History, of course, is a tremendously important field of human knowledge, and ought to be applied rigorously to aspects of our Incarnate faith, including the Scriptures, the life of the Church, and the practice of theology through time.

But the great danger about history is that — to use an image that Knox masterfully incorporates into his first novel, The Viaduct Murders – in writing history, contemporary people talk to their ancestors, but their ancestors can’t talk back. History is necessarily a one-sided conversation, where those writing the books have all the say and so are free to draw this figure in villainous lines and that figure in heroic colors, or to narrate chains of causal events that seem utterly irrefutable until set alongside an equally irrefutable but mutually contradictory narrative of the same events. We just don’t have all the pieces to tell perfect histories; some have been lost, some intentionally destroyed, and many others are simply hidden in plain sight to a modern gaze.

These truths about history and its narration are exactly why the mystery novel is the perfect place to explore them; the problems of history are the problems of detective fiction. The detective is dropped into a scene about which he has only fractured and partial evidence, often the most vital witnesses can no longer speak, not every telling document can be trusted, and above all the detective’s own self-awareness of being a detective detecting can blind him to the true course of events, causing him, for instance, to see vast conspiracies where in fact mere accident reigned supreme.

This is why Knox’s mysteries are so much fun, and so tremendously helpful for shaping a healthy historical consciousness. His characters (usually the indefatigable Miles Bredon and whoever else happens to be around) spend a few hundred pages passing around the meager handful of facts they’ve gleaned, stopping occasionally to spin wild and grand narratives that tie everything together and are proven on the next page to be utterly false, settling finally on a truth that is arrived at only by real hard work and thoughtful reflection.

There are no tricks to Knox’s novels; the secret to his mysteries is not to find the priest or hunt for hidden Church doctrine. The only way to figure out his mysteries is to pay attention to reality, to refuse to be beguiled by the latest theory, to stick close to how people actually act, and above all not to be intoxicated by one’s own brilliance. There is a solution — just as history is real and really important for how we live our lives — but the only way to find the truth is through humility: humility to the past, humility before God, and humility before ourselves and others. And it’s no mystery why that’s such a joy to read about: it’s also how we live our lives.

Image: Nemo, Crime Scene

Categories: Dominican Vocations