Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
In the NFC Divisional thriller between Green Bay and Dallas, the player of the game wasn’t #12 of the Packers, Aaron Rodgers, who valiantly fought through injury, nor was it #9 of the Cowboys, Tony Romo, who battled doubters about his ability to win the big game. Rather, it was Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 of the NFL Rulebook. This incredibly complex definition of a catch, situated in the labyrinthine code of NFL law, overturned a miraculous 4th-down reception by the Cowboys, and sealed their fate as playoff losers.
Gone are the days of the boys hitting the gridiron and battling it out with body and soul to determine the champion. Instead, every great play now must have a 5-minute session in the judge’s chambers so Judge Judy can arbitrate between Ben Matlock and Perry Mason. These arguments have caused the major networks to enlist former referees full-time to let the fans in on the case and provide their commentary, often the most valuable of the game. The athletic drama is now replaced by legal drama.
The game cited above is not a unique case, not even close. In fact the previous Dallas Cowboys game was decided, much to the chagrin of self-loathing Detroit Lions fans, by not one but three governing rules, all applied in controversial fashion on one single play: rules Rule 12, Section 2, Article 14; Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(a); and Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(j).
Almost every game there are multiple plays where, for all intents and purposes, the player scores a touchdown, but thanks to instant review, they discover the ball was 9 inches away from the (invisible) plane of the front-most portion of the goal line. Thus, they have to review it, have a commercial or 5, then overturn it, run another play from the (invisible) 9-inch line, and achieve the same result (touchdown) 5 minutes later.
I won’t even get into “Deflategate,” the top sports story these days before the Super Bowl: were the Patriots’ footballs between the required 12.5-13.5 psi? Oh, the humanity!
All this leaves fans like me feeling like the game isn’t as fun as it used to be. There can be a similar phenomenon in the spiritual life. Many people think of the final judgment as a sort of official booth review of one’s life, where all one’s life choices are set up on the screen, and Jesus has his headset on and phones in with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and determines whether or not you kept two feet in on all your actions. And heaven forbid if your pinky toe stepped out of bounds: looks like it could be a very long offseason for you! After review, we find that John Jones was a good husband for 63 years and was a Knight of Columbus, but on the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, when he was 71-years-old, his knee failed to contact the ground on his genuflection upon entering church. As a result of the play, he will be sent into the everlasting lake of fire. His children will be charged a timeout.
Well, friends, I’m happy to say that this is not the case at all. Our individual actions do indeed have consequences, and seriously damaging acts separate us from God and each other. However, someone may be tormented by obsessively and often erroneously analyzing the minutiae of his actions, and this over-thinking has a name in the Catholic spiritual tradition: scrupulosity. Human beings face difficult moral decisions all the time. There is the deliberation before the act, the experience of carrying out the act, and the inevitable “Monday-morning-quarterback” analysis of our past actions. Given the fact that we all are imperfect and have imperfect powers of evaluation, these three stages of fact-checking can be stressful and lead to self-doubt, and in severe cases, crippling self-analysis. Once someone has reached the more advanced stages of scrupulosity, either they become afraid to act and despair of their salvation, or they realize this is no way to live and cast out all doubts by abandoning the project of self-examination altogether. So how can one live a self-examined life without turning into a basket case?
We are not isolated. We must internalize the Word of God, appropriate the teachings of the Church, live in a relationship with God, and—maybe the most difficult—seek the advice of others. But in all of this, we have the theological virtue of Hope, which gives us assurance when we think we have committed a good act, with good intentions, in good circumstances. This Hope is a gift from God himself, and through it, we can be confident that God does want to bring us to live with him, not to trip us up at the last second. This confidence does not excuse sinful actions, but it does give us the ability to be assured that salvation is possible and desired for us by God himself.
The glory of God is man fully alive. Man fully alive is not destined to be a limp, navel-gazing, self-paralyzed blob. Christian men and women are meant to be confident and vivacious, rushing to the goal of life with panache and vibrancy, not worried about some NFL-like “official review,” but confident in the providence and mercy of God. The game of life is rigged: Jesus has already won. All we have to do is remain on his team.
Image: The early days of NFL instant replay
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs [and expressions] too deep for words. -Rom 8:26
I like this Scripture verse because it is so accurate about our prayer life. Take any night of the week. It’s late. You’re tired. Hours of busy-work still stand between you and bedtime. At this hour you hardly remember the New Year’s prayer routine you resolved to keep a few weeks ago. Because of fatigue, frustration, or boredom, there may be literally no words to express how you can or ought to pray right now.
Sometimes we don’t know how to pray as we ought. And other times we just don’t want to pray as we ought. Maybe we thought we’d pray a lot more and watch a lot less Netflix, and now we’re disappointed that we don’t see the changes that we want in our life.
And when prayer is difficult, it’s easy to think God is distant. If God is as close as he feels, then he can seem pretty distant when we are frustrated or tired. Plus, the fact that God both transcends all our knowledge of him and our ability to imagine him doesn’t make prayer seem any easier on our end.
But prayer is only this difficult if it’s a one-way street. Maybe we don’t know how to pray, or maybe we lack the perfect desire to pray. The good news is that this doesn’t mean we’re alone in our reaching out for God. Prior to any desire on our part to pray, God’s already given us an advocate. We have the one who searches everything. We have the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words—who searches even the depths of God (1 Cor 2:10).
The Spirit goes to the depths that we cannot get to on our own. He is the Divine Counselor that brings us to divine things. The Holy Spirit helps us recognize our place before God and moves us to ask for the divine help of grace. God’s gift of love goes deep, and the Spirit who is love itself reaches us in our depths. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication” (Ps 130:1-2). This is the prayer of one who recognizes his lowly place and his need for divine mercy.
Prayer in the Spirit opens us up to an awareness of God’s infinite grace. Jesus tells us “He who believes in me, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (Jn 7:39). Take him up on this offer and pray to receive the Holy Spirit who flows in and out of your heart in prayer.
When we pray in the Spirit we live what it means to be sons and daughters of God. Those led by the Spirit of God are called sons of God (Rom 8:14). Because we are sons and daughters and not servants we don’t need to be afraid. We can approach God in our fatigue, frustration, or boredom and speak honestly with him. That’s actually what God is hoping you’ll do. He wants to talk to you just as you are. This is why we rightly call God “Our Father” when we pray. So speak to God as the loving Father he is, who wants to bring you closer to him than you can ever realize.
In praying to Jesus our words don’t have to be perfect, nor are they really even necessary. In church or at home, in fatigue or boredom, in words or silence, pray to Jesus. Ask him for the Holy Spirit who speaks on your behalf for what you need, with sighs and expressions too deep for words.
Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Sunset at Sea
It was twice a week at the elementary school I attended for a few years, and occasionally in high school—though almost daily by senior year. In college, it was more spotty but I made a special effort during Lent. By graduate school it was daily and, of course, that has continued as a Dominican. All told, when you add all these weekday Masses to Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, I’d guess I’ve been present for the coming of the Incarnate Lord under the species of bread and wine almost six thousand times. I’d like to say that I was caught up in contemplation of the “source and summit of the Christian life” each time, but that is patently absurd. Honestly, I’d settle for claiming I was simply paying attention most of those times; I probably can’t even do that.
Too often the memorial acclamation was not a culmination of devotion following that glorious transformation, but rather a slap in the face snapping me out of some banal distraction. Over the years, I developed habits and cultivated devotions to help stay attentive and prayerful during the Eucharistic Prayer, but I can’t say they have worked perfectly.
I think this struggle is what made the discussion of the Adoro Te Devote by Fr. Paul Murray, O.P., in his book Aquinas at Prayer, so inspiring. In his comments on the prayer, he references recent scholarship that clarifies the place the poem might have had in Aquinas’ own prayer life. First and foremost, there is the recognition that William of Tocco included the full text of the prayer in later editions of his biography of St. Thomas (the first biography of the Common Doctor), strengthening the traditional attribution of the prayer to Aquinas. Further, Murray points out that, despite our experience of the prayer as a liturgical hymn, no evidence of a musical setting for it exists before the seventeenth century. It seems that the Adoro Te Devote was originally a simple private prayer. Some have even argued that it was composed by Aquinas as a personal devotion that he used when attending a second daily Mass where he was not celebrating. It was composed to draw his attention to the great mystery that he was witnessing and to spur his love and devotion as the celebrant silently continued the Canon of the Mass.
This context makes even more poignant some of the unique characteristics of the prayer, even in comparison to other prayers of Aquinas. While his Eucharistic hymns are beautiful reflections about the Blessed Sacrament, the Adoro Te Devote is addressed directly to Christ, present in the Eucharist. This inspires a beautiful image of Thomas devotedly beginning to whisper this poem as the celebrant elevates the newly consecrated host, continuing to call out most personally to “You,” to Christ himself present before him, body, blood, soul, and divinity.
And what exactly does he say to his Savior and his God? The first half of the poem expresses the great devotion and love that Aquinas has for Christ who he knows, by faith, to be present before him. In the second, he turns to beg his present Savior for an increase of that faith, hope, and love which give him the confidence to address his Lord in the first place and for that final gift of living permanently in the presence of Christ in the Beatific Vision.
By pointing out these insights into the Adoro Te Devote I do not mean to implicate St. Thomas in my own personal struggles during Mass, but to draw attention to one more way that Aquinas displays deep insight into human nature. That great mystery of the Eucharist seems mundane if we simply leave it to our senses. Since it is only by faith that we can recognize our Lord in the Eucharist, it is essential to both affirm that faith in that great moment and take advantage of the precious time we have with him to beg for an increase in the gifts that make that faith possible.
✠Adoro te devote, latens veritas,
te que sub his formis vere latitas.
You, I devoutly adore, hidden Truth, you
who under these forms, are truly hidden.
Tibi se cor meum totum subicit,
quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
sed auditu solo tute creditur,
credo quicquid dixit dei filius,
nihil veritatis verbo verius.
My whole heart submits itself to you for,
in contemplating you, I am at a complete loss.
Sight, touch, taste, in you are deceived;
hearing alone can be completely believed.
I believe all the son of God has said; nothing
can be more true than the Word of truth.
In cruce latebat sola deitas,
sed hic latet simul et humanitas.
Upon the cross the Godhead alone was
hidden, but here the humanity is also hidden.
Ambo vere credens atque confitens,
peto quod petivit latro poenitens.
Plagas sicut Thomas non intueor,
Deum tamen meum te confiteor.
Truly believing and confessing both,
I beg what the penitent thief begged.
I do not see wounds, as Thomas did,
but I confess you as my God.
Fac me tibi semper magis credere,
in te spem habere, te diligere.
Make me believe ever more in you,
having hope in you, and loving you.
O memoriale mortis domini,
panis vivus vitam prestans homini.
Presta michi semper de te vivere,
et te michi semper dulce sapere.
O memorial of the death of the Lord,
living bread that gives life to man,
Allow me always to live for you, and allow
me to taste your sweetness always.
Pie pelicane, Ihesu domine,
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine.
O kind pelican, Lord Jesus, cleanse me,
who am unclean, in your blood,
Cuius una stilla salvum facere,
totum mundum posset omni scelere.
One drop of which would be enough to save
the whole world of all its defilement.
Ihesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
quando fiet illud quod tam sicio?
Vt te revelata cernens facie,
visu sim beatus tue glorie.
Jesus, whom I now gave at veiled, when
shall that which I so desire come to pass?
So that seeing you, your face revealed, I may
be blessed with the vision of your glory.
Latin critical text from Robert Wielockx. English translation by Paul Murray, O.P.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Adoro Te devote
brunch – noun \ˈbrənch\ : the midday-ish meal of Sunday morning (“brunch” being a portmanteau made of the words “breakfast” and “lunch”), accompanied by coffee, etc., wherein the events of Saturday evening are recapped among friends, and which typically concludes with a slice of cantaloupe or some such.
There’s just something religious about brunch, not only at the Dominican House of Studies, where brunch is a regular part of the community’s Sunday schedule, but more generally speaking. I’m not talking merely about the transcendent experience of consuming bacon—although that may well play into the analogy, pace vegetarians—I’m thinking more the “ceremonial” aspects of brunch. For example, people become very attached to their favorite brunching establishment, much like they are to their own parish church. They have a favorite server (she may even know your drink!), like a priest whose preaching they prefer, and the fiercest brunchers often occupy the same table—like that one family who always sits in the exact same pew. Brunch could take place on Saturday, but everyone knows that’s only a poor imitation of actual Sunday brunch. Brunch has a certain observance about it, a kind of ritual.
Before the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Sunday meant nothing. It wasn’t until the official (that is, legal) and cultural innovations of Emperor Constantine that judges were ordered to cease hearing cases on Sundays and citizens were instructed not to work. Sunday, the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, took on new meaning, a meaning which transformed Roman society with a weekly day of rest. Brunch, inasmuch as it remains a Sunday phenomena, redounds with the echo of the introduction of Christianity to a pagan world.
Brunch is also a communal affair. In my family, because of the fast before Mass, we would return home from St. Charles starving (okay, well we weren’t starving, but it sure felt like it). Brunch meant that we gathered for some family time, for Dad’s biscuits and gravy, Mom’s amazing sour cream waffles or the like…the point is we were together. Insofar as brunch requires the assembly of a community (i.e., yo’ friends!), brunch recalls the meeting of the Christian community, which assembles to offer songs of praise and thanksgiving and the worship that is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Conversation is another key part of brunch. Whatever took place over the course of the weekend simply must be rehashed and otherwise revisited. In the family setting, it’s when we catch up on what the cousins or others have been up to. At some point though, the conversation fades. There comes a moment when it feels like everything has been discussed (this usually coincides with the comatose feeling of having consumed an enormous breakfast). As often as I’ve felt totally sated after a fantastic brunch, the fact remains that several hours later I’ll be hungry again (and even if I’m not, I’ll snack while watching football).
Brunch then can be seen as one of those little signs that opens our finite perspective to the infinity of God. Not to be overly dramatic, but, in heaven we won’t run out of things to talk about. There will be no need to wait for tables or refills, and unlike those days when your family and friends can’t all make it, there won’t be anyone missing. Not only does brunch point us to the Christian calling of these present days (that is, the glories of the graces of the Mass and Sunday observance) but brunch can be considered a pledge—if only a tiny one—of the future glories of the beatific vision.
Photo credit: Memphis CVB, All the brunch. Cropped from original.
In this throw-away culture, what has staying power? What can truly last without growing stale, wearing out, or being rendered obsolete? One thing seems pretty permanent in our lives: our names. They arrive before we do (usually concluded upon by parents before we’re born), and they remain on earth after us (carved onto gravestones). They don’t come off like a necktie at quitting time, and they can’t be scraped like skin against the pavement. They’re more stable than that because, in a sense, our names go deeper than clothes or even our skin.
If names gives us a sense of stability, they’re also meaningful because they help us know ourselves, as well as others, in a way no other words can. For a guy developing a crush on the young woman across from him in a college lecture hall, his first hope is to somehow find out her name. Learning that fact begins to ground his affection in reality. She becomes more real. Similarly, I’ll grant Juliet’s argument to Romeo: a rose by any other name would indeed smell as sweet. However, if you had no idea what that flower is called, whatever the name may be, your ability to enjoy it and communicate that enjoyment to others would be diminished. “Here, dear. A dozen… flowers I don’t know the name of, just for you.” Nice try.
Names can come to possess an ineffable power over us, as well as a dignity that corresponds to our inherent human dignity. There are many Judys in the world, but only one Judy is my mom. So Judy means something unique to me, even though it’s common enough. That name is also shorthand for a lifetime of particular memories, associations, and sentiments for me, ones that will never be the same as any other person’s for the Judy in his or her life. W.H. Auden gets at this idea when he asserts, “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”
Names may not be translatable, but they can be transformed. Not by us, but by God’s prompting. We do not refer to Abram as our father in faith. Simon is not the rock upon which Christ built the Church. Like Abraham and St. Peter, we who encounter the Lord do not return the same person we were before. We are made new, and for some, so are our names.
But the process is more personal, more involved than submitting a change-of-name petition to a judge. In my case, before entering the Dominican Order I was very attached to my baptismal name. When my mom was pregnant with me, my parents had decided on Timothy for a boy’s name. And then I just so happened to be born on the feast of St. Timothy, which the Church celebrates today (in lieu of gifts, by the way, send prayers please!). This coincidence strengthened my devotion to St. Timothy and always left me with the sense that God had something special in mind for me in my “Timothy-ness.” And so even though I wanted to take a religious name upon entering the Dominican novitiate (indeed, the revered Dominican, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, chose me as much as I chose him. Another story for another post), it was a little bittersweet to hear the prior declare at the vestition ceremony:
In the world you were known as Timothy. In the Order you will be called Brother Jordan.
Then I reflected more on the verbs in this statement. Indeed, in the world I had been known, and I liked being known. Nevertheless, now I had been called. Furthermore, I realized my “Jordanicity” was actually the fulfillment—not the diminishment—of my “Timothy-ness.” The Church asks for and acknowledges our name at our Baptism. The sacrament seals us with an indelible spiritual mark; once baptised, always baptised (CCC 1272). So, in that way, once Timothy, always Timothy. But Baptism only initiates us into the life of the Church. We have a specific vocation that springs from Baptism: to matrimony, the priesthood, consecrated religious life, or consecrated single life. Therefore, I could not become Br. Jordan (a vowed religious) without first being Timothy (a baptised Catholic). And I could not be fully Timothy without becoming Br. Jordan.
Such a process begins in the saving name of Jesus. His coming in the flesh is “the definitive translation of the meaning of God… and he does this without losing anything of the fullness of the Original,” writes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (who also happens to go by a new name now as a Trappist monk, Fr. Simeon). Jesus translates God in a way we can understand because God becomes human in Him, like us in all things but sin. Because Jesus is fully divine, however, He can perform a translation more perfect than Auden or anyone else could imagine possible.
Jesus not only translates the Father’s inexhaustible love with the words of His teachings, but also, through the Crucifixion, transcribes that love onto His Body for all to read. It is inked with His Blood, upon the parchment of His Body, the nails and a lance doing the writing. In this case, Divine Love by any other name would not—could not—appear so profound. Because this Word spells out our redemption, and enables us to be named the Father’s adopted sons and daughters, sharers in His Son’s glory.
Image: Gustav Klimt, Roses Under the Tree
In his book called Reality, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains in simple detail the difference between acquired and infused virtue. Acquired virtue is that which we practice and obtain insofar as men practice anything and perfect a skill, art, etc. Infused virtue comes from God’s grace, primarily through the sacraments. Acquired virtues facilitate the use of the infused ones, as finger exercises facilitate playing a piano. For example, though abstaining from alcohol is part of acquired temperance, the alcoholic may receive infused temperance in confession. Even if he altogether lacks acquired virtue in this area, he may still receive sanctifying grace from a valid confession.
I say all this because I’m convinced that there is a group of people in society, so used to practicing a variety of virtues and full of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, that they may be the best example of patience we have today: school bus drivers.
When my friends and I took the bus and were lucky enough to get a seat in the back of the bus over the wheel, we’d prepare ourselves for a daily sensation of a proto-bounce-house. Sitting on our feet and bracing ourselves just right would allow every hillcrest or bump in the road to send us flying up to the roof and crash back down in our seats, cackling and convulsing in pure, six-year-old demoniacal laughter. These moments were sandwiched in between shouting to the kid next to us – our idea of conversation – and yelling out the window every time we caught a glimpse of the native wildlife, namely, squirrels or deer.
In short, we were absolutely obnoxious.
Yet each day, that sweet old bus-driving lady would give each kid a hug and well wishes for a good afternoon, waiting patiently until the little terrors would totter off into their houses before she peeled away to the next stop. I’m amazed she didn’t just slow down a little and throw us out the door as we passed by the neighborhood. Most likely she is now at Our Lord’s right hand, pleading for the salvation of all the knuckleheads she drove around Easley, South Carolina.
People like this teach us how to receive the other. They understand that little kids are no more self-aware than a Jack Russell and can’t be totally blamed for how they act. Kids have to learn what behavior is appropriate and what isn’t. No one could get annoyed at a crying baby, because that’s what babies do – they cry. Years later, they learn to talk, then learn how loud or soft to talk, or what’s ok to say to whom, or when it’s a suitable time to speak. Most of us, in fact, spend a lifetime still learning these cues. Crying babies and screaming kids may be one thing, yet grown-up babies and kids are another.
The examples of people who bother us, though, could run on and on. Simply put, all people deserve to be thought of in a better light than what their spectators’ initial agitated temperament would permit. Yes, someone may be more quirky than others, and they might be harder to get along with than a bull with a head cold, but I’d be fooling myself if I thought that only others were in the wrong and that my own less-than-saintly traits didn’t step on someone else’s toes more often than I’d like to admit. Just as it’s unrealistic for the bus driver to wish her kids sit still and be quiet, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to behave as we see fit.
Our Lord desires us to be of one heart and mind. This implies an authentic charity that binds us together as children of God. The sacraments are not magic. We must follow the grace that comes from them to the virtue they give. We can’t receive daily Communion and make a weekly confession but put no effort into our lives outside of the church building, and then expect to be perfect angels when out and about with our neighbors. To look past petty frustrations takes a certain resolve to do so. Aided by grace, we make a choice to love and do it, because a love that doesn’t show itself is a love that doesn’t exist.
Imagine what the Church would look like if her members were as patient with each other as they were with themselves. Since we don’t stay mad at those we love best, I doubt there would be much animosity to be found. In fact, the charity that would be made manifest would be so apparent, attractive and compelling, no one would doubt there is something different.
This, I guess, is the point: the true Christian life does have something different. It calls us to die to our sick self, to forsake the fallen nature and put on a new one. It’s not natural. Nature is severely weakened by original sin, supernatural life is filled with sanctifying grace and infused virtue. Nature gets irritated every chance it gets, but virtue sees each soul as made and loved by God. Nature yells at children; virtue waits in the driveway.
Image: From the film Forrest Gump
I was not selling loose cigarettes. I did not reach for Wilson’s gun. I did not blaspheme your God.
If I had been killed for any of these things—if I had suffered disproportionately for crime, aggression, or imprudence—I may have had our nation’s pity. But as I am, I can do nothing so public to earn American attention. If I was identified with an ethnicity victimized by prejudice and injustice, I might have had your sympathy. But I am not so special. I belong to all peoples—black and white, rich and poor—so I merit few American tears.
I am not Charlie. I am not Eric Garner or Michael Brown—though all three once were me. I am the legally unprotected, disrespected unborn infant in the womb.
When a convenience store robber was tragically shot, Ferguson rioted. When a cigarette pusher was tragically killed, FDR traffic was halted. When a satirical magazine staff was tragically murdered, millions marched on Paris. After their tragic deaths, many stood up for life—for the justice that protects it, before the God who grants it dignity. The victims were not villains, but if we are honest, they were not exactly heroes either. If we stood up for grown men and women, like us, stained by sin, will we now stand with unborn children, unlike us, innocent of every crime?
Tragedy has a way of becoming banal. So many mothers and so many children have been victimized by the abortion industry, the magnitude of the damage is almost too large to wrap our minds and our hearts around. Our passions are stirred by the blood of twelve journalists, but frankly we are overwhelmed by the thought that 57 million children have been terminated since 1973 in the US, and somewhere over 1 billion worldwide in the same period. If even two hundred of us shed a tear for each child and each mother victimized by abortion in the past three decades, we would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool with our weeping. The twelve were gunned down in Paris for the world to see; the millions were terminated, never to see the world. The tragedy is too great, the horror too hidden—that is why we march.
We march, that the world may see that life is sacred even when it is hidden, inconvenient, and unloved.
We march, that all mothers might be spared the tragic decision to terminate unborn life, and that all who have suffered from an abortion might discover the infinite mercy of God who takes away our sins and gives us new life.
We march, that the God who became an unborn child might hear our cries for mercy, grant our nation the grace of conversion, and spare us when he comes to judge the living and the dead.
Last year there was weeping in Ferguson. Last month mourning in NYC. Last week millions marched on Paris. Today, we stand for life in DC.
Image: Unborn child at fifteen weeks
God loves you more than you love yourself—after all, he created you! Many are blessed to receive this knowledge as children. Perhaps it came through a special openness to wonder at the “big questions” of the universe, or the affection of a doting grandparent. For Christians, God’s unconditional love for every person is the bread and butter (or peanut butter and jelly, if that was what fueled you as a tot!) of teaching children about who they are. But unfortunately, the lesson of God’s love and other childhood convictions can fade over time. Our perception of the world changes. Lessons like this one seem less real and applicable measured against the busy-ness and complexities of adulthood. We grow away from that little kid who always seemed to know right from wrong and who his friends should be. As a result of the mistakes we or others have made, we may even feel estranged from God or at least far removed from his caring gaze.
Fr. Peter John Cameron’s Made for Love, Loved by God is good medicine for anyone in this post-lapsarian, grown-up predicament. If you are ever anxious about how you appear from God’s point of view, or if you realize how little you know about loving others (including God), then I hope to offer you a few reasons why this book would be really good for you.
- Identify the natural desire for love that we all possess from birth. Some have said that to be human is to need to be loved. In colorful case studies, such as the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair or Flannery O’Connor’s protagonist Joy Hopewell in “Good Country People,” Cameron probes the combined intellectual and emotional evidence regarding the desire for love in the human heart. Do people want deep affirmation and relationship connections in vain? Or does this innate longing evidence something—or someone—who can actually complete us?
- Learn what we mean (and don’t mean) in saying “God is love” and “God loves you.” Faith will play an important part in any experience of love—with God or with other people. Learn why life becomes absurd when we forget about faith in the One who loves us into existence. What is it about God’s love that we must understand if we are to reconcile the experience of frail human love with the heroic and other-worldly love of Jesus? Discover the key to responding to the divine invitation to love and be loved.
- Reflect on the meaning of friendship, especially Christian friendship. Part of what makes Christianity revolutionary is the level of intimacy which God calls us to. Jesus issues the invitation, “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). Fr. Cameron invokes a number of witnesses to the significance of this friendship, from Aquinas to Robert Hugh Benson to Benedict XVI. Laymen, like C. S. Lewis and even the famous impressionist Vincent Van Gogh, are tapped for their thoughts on how a true friendship brings you out of yourself and rescues you from things you should not face alone. Discover what it is about our human friendships that prepare us to be friends of God. Finally, discover what friendship with Christ actually looks like.
- Take courage knowing that no sin of ours can withstand God’s love. We all fall into self-destructive tendencies and wrongdoing towards others—even those we love most. So what do we do? Made for Love will direct you to the example of St. Peter who, despite his talk of faithfulness to Jesus, denied him three times when it really mattered. Yet God extends to Peter—and to us—a deeper truth than our guilt: mercy. Will we turn away in shame and self-conceit? Or will we choose to allow our hearts to be re-shaped and expanded by a divine gift?
- Plan how you will respond to the suffering that comes with any experience of real love. The author tells us about his personal encounters with someone whose love has suffered the most pungent of modern evils—Jenny Hubbard, whose daughter was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. How do parents like Jenny process such horrors and come away stricken yet stronger in faith than ever before? There is a great secret here to be learned from the likes of St. Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: they experienced the mystery of the Cross and somehow were transformed in their knowledge of God and his love for them. Fr. Cameron guides his readers through seven steps that help us not only to cope with the evils we face, but to find in our crosses the same Cross of Christ, in which we find hope and salvation.
Made for Love is a treasure trove of insight and inspiration to help us in our daily efforts to be truer lovers and more authentic believers. Fr. Cameron provides deep and varied meditations on the above points which make for good day-to-day spiritual reading. He ends this volume by reflecting on prayer and love of neighbor. This nicely reflects Jesus’ twofold “Law of Love.” Reading this book will grant new insights into the nature of God’s love. I can see the challenge opened up before me and every believer: God’s love is real, free, and abundant for those who accept it. Men and women will find themselves happiest when they imitate God and when, learning to relish his love, they in turn seek to give it away to others.
Image: Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda
Bl. Jordan of Saxony, the successor of St. Dominic, in his Libellus on the Beginnings of the Order of Preachers singles out the Conferences of John Cassian as a book loved by St. Dominic and critical for developing his spiritual life. There is also a tradition in the Order that throughout his life St. Dominic carried around three books with him: St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Epistles of St. Paul, and the Conferences. This latter spiritual masterpiece, also a major source for the Rule of St. Benedict and thus influencing most of Western monasticism, remains relevant for us today.
John Cassian was born around 360 A.D. in modern-day Romania, and he joined a monastery in Bethlehem. He traveled with his friend Germanus to the monasteries in Egypt on at least two different occasions and was ordained by St. John Chrysostom. Cassian eventually travelled to Rome where he was asked to open a monastery based on the Egyptian model near Montpellier in modern-day France. His two major works – the Institutes and the Conferences – were designed to assist the monastery and others like it. His feast day is celebrated on July 23.
The Institutes is a short work of twelve chapters and can be ideal for a short retreat. It first presents the monastic routine and clothing, before moving on to a systematic discussion of eight vices. Cassian obtains the eight vices from Evagrius Ponticus, a monk of the 4th century, whose list would be slightly modified in subsequent ages to become the seven deadly sins. Cassian first attacks the vices of gluttony and fornication. Only after the body is trained is it able to counter the more spiritual vices like avarice, acedia, and pride. One should not gloss too quickly over the first chapters, however, as the manner in which a person lives and acts greatly impacts on their ability to live a virtuous life.
The Conferences is a much longer work, containing twenty-four extended dialogues between Cassian, Germanus, and the desert fathers of Egypt. These conversations deal primarily with the interior struggle of a person coming closer to God. Less systematic than the Institutes, the Conferences explore the interrelation of virtues and vices within our lives. The conference on friendship deals with the vice of anger, while the conference on the different types of monks discusses the virtues of patience and humility at great length. Furthermore, the desert fathers regularly emphasize that as one grows in the spiritual life, hospitality and charity always trump the ascetical discipline. Cassian’s works do not stand solely on their own authority, but like all the sayings of the desert fathers whom he studied, they are infused with Scripture.
The spirituality of Cassian is a path of renunciation that is infinitely austere, as Fr. Guy Bedouelle, O.P., emphasizes in his book St. Dominic: The Grace of the Word. The following of Jesus Christ means emptying oneself, renouncing more and more of what we have been so that God can fill us more and more with Himself. Cassian stresses complete reliance on God, and one example of this is the regular praying of the verse “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me,” which St. Benedict integrated into the praying of the psalms. Today, we pray this verse at the start of each office in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Bl. Jordan tells us that by using the Conferences, St. Dominic “strove to explore the ways of salvation and to follow them with all the power of his mind.” The end result, as we see in St. Dominic, is one of great joy and overflowing charity, weeping for sinners, praying for the salvation of their souls. It is not an easy or a simple path, but St. Dominic prepared for his great preaching mission to the world by more than a decade of silent prayer and growth in the spiritual life. It is the life of steady virtue that preaches loudest, emphasizing the reality of the great hope and joy of the words which we proclaim: Jesus Christ is risen, truly He is risen!
St. John Cassian, pray for us.
Image: Matthias Grünewald, St. Anthony Visiting St. Paul the Hermit in the Desert (detail)
A friend from another country once came up to me and ceremoniously handed me a folded-up piece of paper. Bemused and somewhat trepidatious, I opened it to find a five-verse hymn that he had translated from his native language, which began:
Welcome nutrition in which immeasurable
Maker of heaven and earth is enclosed/confined
Welcome beverage totally adipsous
mind panting after
Well, I thought, so this is what it feels like to be nonplussed.
I hope I never forget the feeling of looking at my friend’s eager face—“Isn’t it beautiful?” he was asking—and my own total incomprehension of what I was holding. From his excited seriousness I could tell that I was supposed to be deeply moved by the words on the page, but all I could see was the world’s strangest piece of refrigerator-magnet poetry. I guess it’s true what they say: one man’s trash is another man’s welcome nutrition.
Looking back on the verse later, I realized that this was nothing less than a hymn about the Eucharist. “Welcome nutrition” was surely some sort of reference to the life-giving food of the Lord’s Body, in which Christ himself is “enclosed/confined.” “Welcome beverage” must be a reference to the Precious Blood—an insight I later confirmed by discovering via the Oxford English Dictionary that “adipsous” is in fact an obsolete medical term meaning “thirst-quenching.” And, sure, the mind could pant after a totally adipsous beverage, if that beverage is the Blood of the God-man.
Now translation is hard in the best of circumstances, and translating poetry is even harder, so I don’t just want to make fun of my friend’s valiant effort to hand on to me a hymn that he found moving. The reason “Welcome Nutrition” stands out in my mind—beyond the sheer delightfulness of the phrase—is that this little encounter between my friend and me is a distressingly apt image of the way many of our contemporaries hear the Word of God when it is preached to them.
Even in our more or less secular age, Americans can’t avoid hearing people talk about God every now and then. Street corner preachers talk about judgment, billboards inform passers-by that Jesus loves them, televangelists and late-night radiomen work out their salvation in fear and tax-deductible donations, and earnest co-workers talk about the power of prayer. The problem is that the audience sees enthusiasm and hears gibberish. All this God stuff is obviously something very important to the speaker, but to the listener it’s just, well, unwelcome nutrition.
So how, then, are we to speak to our brothers and sisters about God, we who have fallen in love with God and come to believe that “it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to” (Evangelii Gaudium, 266), if the very words we use to communicate our experience no longer make sense to those around us?
The first step is interior: allowing ourselves to be more fully converted each day, to be set free from the temptation to settle for a superficial knowledge of the comfortable catch-phrases we learned in catechism class, to be drawn more deeply into who God is. The words that define the Christian life—the Gospels, the Creed, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and all the rest—are perpetual sources of rejuvenation, places where our own lives with Christ can be renewed and made more real. For these words to speak most effectively to others, we have to be willing to let ourselves be changed by them. We ourselves need to be transformed by the awe-inspiring experience of “how good it is to stand before a crucifix, or on our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and simply to be in his presence!” (EG 264).
When we allow Christ to be our teacher in this way, we allow him to give us a new language to speak with. We begin to share in “how accessible he is” (EG 269), and are made more able to reveal Christ’s transforming love to people who don’t speak God’s language. Jesus’ Precious Blood is totally adipsous; but until we let him quench our thirst, we will not have much luck inviting others to drink from that life-giving stream.
Ultimately, this is the secret to evangelization: knowing that we are not going to save our friends by our own power or through our own eloquence. Salvation is from Jesus Christ, and him alone. That means we don’t have to be afraid of our own weaknesses, of the frailty of our language. Jesus Christ draws men and women to himself because he is true, good, and beautiful. If we give ourselves to him, and allow him to speak through us, trusting in his mercy, our contemporaries may discover that the Body and Blood of Christ are rather welcome nutrition after all.
Image: Rembrandt, A Scholar
Thinking back on childhood wishes and dreams, it seems that recollection of those innocent desires always occurs in conjunction with the warning, careful what you wish for! Perhaps these words of caution were repeated so many times by parents and teachers that I automatically associate them with idle dreams and thoughtless desires. Regardless of the weight I gave to such authorities in my youth, my relatively brief experience as an adult has taught me that the grass does always appear to be greener on the other side. No matter how hard I strive to achieve and attain the objects of my desires, I don’t always feel as happy and content as I had planned that I would.
In their (dis)enchanting musical, Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine explore that curiously unfulfilling dimension of attaining the objects of our desires. The opening number, “I Wish,” cleverly parallels the restlessness we experience in the state of desire. Several characters join in the song, each opening with the phrase I wish. This restlessness and, in some cases, desperation evokes the longing and yearning of the soul for its fulfillment. After these characters’ wishes are fulfilled at the conclusion of Act One, they begin to realize that perfect happiness has not been attained, and each of their situations begins to unravel as the Second Act unfolds. Interestingly, Sondheim chooses to conclude the musical not with a warning to take care of what we wish for; rather, he offers a warning to parents about how they present fairy tales to children, for they will listen.
Into the Woods presents a very sober, yet compelling illustration of disappointment in the midst of fulfillment for a “grown-up” audience of individuals who are familiar with this nagging sense of non-fulfillment. It is, perhaps, most telling that the finale is addressed to parents: “Careful the things you say / children will listen.” On the one hand, we should not become the witch who locks the child away in a tower in a misguided effort at protection from the evils of the world, but we should also take care not to give the impression that we can find absolute fulfillment and happiness in this life. We can tell children fairy tales and encourage dreams, but we should make sure we do not lead them to live apart from reality.
From this cautionary tale about life and all its complications, we can glean lessons that harmonize well with Catholic teaching on the human person and ultimate fulfillment. We all have many hopes and desires, but the ultimate fulfillment of any person is none other than the beatific vision of God. As a consequence, no matter how many of our goals we reach, we will always desire something more, until we arrive at our final homeland. This does not mean that our desires are inherently evil or problematic; they only become so when we misconstrue them for what they are not, namely God.
It seems that today so many people struggle with finding the proper balance of soaring dreams and grounded expectations. Whether they entail finding an ideal spouse, starting the perfect family, landing the six-figure job, or satisfying idle curiosity, these goals represent fleeting goods that can never give us absolute happiness. Once we get our hands on them, we will find ourselves wanting something more. If we misconstrue any of these as the ultimate good, then we are bound to realize that same perplexing sense of disappointment that Sondheim’s characters experience. So the problem is not so much that we wish, but how we construct—or misconstruct—our wishes.
We can and should hope for good things in this life, but we should not expect them to completely satisfy us. Likewise, we can tell children fairy tales and encourage them to have dreams, but we should not abandon them with only these fairy tales and dreams to guide them. Life is complicated, and eventually children grow up and can appreciate this fact. At such a point, they are ready to be taught that the longing for a happily-ever after does, indeed, point to a real ending: to dwell in the house of the Lord, all the days of our lives.
Image: James Sant, The Fairy Tale
In the early twentieth century, Catholic theologians in France were in the midst of a long and drawn-out battle. One key component to the ongoing debates was the nature of theology itself. There were new movements encouraging a return to the writings of the Fathers of the Church, as well as a new engagement with modern philosophical systems. As Jacques Maritain put it, such movements were “reinventing the Fathers of the Church to the music of Hegel.” Many Thomists, led by the Dominican Fr. Marie-Michel Labourdette, saw this as a growing problem. Theology is a sacred science built upon revelation and aided by metaphysical principles, not an eclectic engagement with popular ideas.
The ensuing debates often became public. Concerned about the deleterious nature of such arguments on the faithful, several influential figures sought to close the debates cordially. However, Fr. Labourdette disagreed with such attempts. He responded that “fortunately for the faith, such public-relations considerations had not been the primary preoccupation of St. Athanasius.” This raises an interesting question. What should the relationship be between theological inquiry and the concern to avoid scandal? If theological disputes can confuse the faithful, is it still worth disputing them?
Yes it is, although always rightly governed under prudence. Truth is important. But it is also hard. To come to true knowledge takes much work and may involve many missteps along the way. Yet it is always worth pursuing for its own sake. The speculative sciences are important. Theology in particular has serious consequences and meaning for us. While we will always know God imperfectly here on Earth, whatever knowledge we do gain is important. However, this work never takes place in a vacuum. Oftentimes this work spills out from the academies and into the public sphere.
It is said that in the disputes regarding the natures and wills of Christ in the early Church, you could not go to the market without someone giving you his opinion on whether Christ had one or two wills. While these arguments at the time divided Christians from each other, they were certainly worth having. Knowing properly who Christ is has wide-ranging consequences. To get it wrong would have negative effects which would reverberate through the centuries. The same is true for all forms of knowledge.
What we believe to be true is always important, no matter how inconsequential it may at first seem. Firstly, because the truth is always worth pursuing. We, by nature, desire to know, and the pursuit of truth is an end undertaken for its own sake. Furthermore, what we believe also changes us. True knowledge has consequences. While disputes must always be undertaken under the guidance of prudence, the goal of achieving true knowledge must always remain before us. Despite the fact that disputes may produce confusion for a time, achieving truth is a good of far too much importance to simply ignore.
Image: Edward Armitage, Julian the Apostate Presiding at a Conference of Sectarians
Pope Francis recently gave an address on the importance and the value of motherhood. In one of his concluding statements he noted, “It is they, mothers, who often give the first roots of the faith, the ones that permeate deepest; without them not only would the faithful be lost, but also a good part of the deepest fire of our faith.” One of the saints celebrated today, St. Macrina the Elder, was a mother and grandmother who epitomized what the Holy Father was talking about.
We do not know much about St. Macrina’s life, but she was the mother of at least one and the grandmother of at least four saints. Her son, St. Basil the Elder, fathered a large family and his sons included Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the Cappadocian Fathers who were prominent in the early Church during the Arian controversy. Another son, Peter of Sebaste, and a daughter, Macrina the Younger, also became saints. St. Macrina the Elder is thought to have studied the faith under St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (or perhaps his close disciples), who converted his native Neocaesarea to Christianity. She persevered in the faith and suffered for it during one of the early persecutions of the Church under Emperor Diocletian.
St. Macrina was well equipped, then, to educate her children and grandchildren in the faith, imparting to them its “deepest fire.” St. Basil the Elder died when his children were still young and so Macrina helped raise her grandchildren. She insisted on a solid intellectual formation for them. This of course became a great boon to the Church, as Basil and Gregory used their brilliance and subtlety to help articulate the true doctrine of who Christ is. St. Basil honored his grandmother with these words in defending himself against the slander of certain citizens of Neocaesarea:
What clearer evidence can there be of my faith, than that I was brought up by my grandmother, blessed woman, who came from you? I mean the celebrated Macrina who taught me the words of the blessed Gregory; which, as far as memory had preserved down to her day, she cherished herself, while she fashioned and formed me, while yet a child, upon the doctrines of piety. And when I gained the capacity of thought, my reason being matured by full age, I travelled over much sea and land, and whomsoever I found walking in the rule of godliness… those I set down as fathers, and made them my soul’s guides in my journey to God. And up to this day, by the grace of Him who has called me in His holy calling to the knowledge of Himself, I know of no doctrine opposed to the sound teaching having sunk into my heart; nor was my soul ever polluted by the ill-famed blasphemy of Arius.
As Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” May St. Macrina and all holy mothers pray for us!
Image: Joseph Highmore, Pamela Teaching Her Children
It’s hard to believe in something that happened so long ago. We might romantically dream of being there in the pages of the Gospel ourselves: witnessing Jesus’ miracles, following him through the countryside, hearing the tenor of his voice. These are not only the thoughts of saints, but also of sinners, like the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, A Good Man Is Hard To Find. On an abandoned road in rural Georgia he holds the grandmother at gunpoint; she pleads with him to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and not kill her like he did her family. But the Misfit replies: “If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.”
But even for the people who were there, who did follow him, it wasn’t easy. All throughout the Gospels Jesus has a knack for stressing people out.
Take the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes. The first time five thousand people gather to hear his teaching, and they’re hungry as evening draws near. His disciples tell him to dismiss them to the villages, and he says, “You give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37). Awesome. Now they’re really feeling relaxed and confident about their next move. Soon enough he wows them all with the miraculous feeding, then, “He made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side” (6:45). No explanation, he just sends them off rowing. Then there’s a storm, and he decides to walk across the sea, no problem. Seeing him “they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they… were terrified” (6:49). Weeks later he feeds another crowd of four thousand, and they spend the boat ride home arguing about forgetting to bring bread, forgetting that he will always provide. He lays into them pretty bad, and finishes with saying, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21). Cliffhanger. End of scene.
Then there are times when it’s Jesus who’s stressed. After his Transfiguration, he is approached by the desperate father of a demon-possessed boy: “He foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (Mk 8:18). Jesus cries out, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me” (8:19). Who is he angry with? The disciples, or the man, or the whole situation?
I’d guess it’s the last option. Jesus’ whole ministry just reached a major turning point with his Transfiguration, and now he sets his eyes on the approaching Passover, where he will perform the great work – dying and rising again. God’s kingdom isn’t meant to stay at the level of a traveling preacher who can cure the sick. Jesus is stressed because he yearns to establish God’s kingdom inside men’s hearts. Even the Incarnate One shows signs of impatience for something more than Incarnation for his people; he yearns for Pentecostal fire, when the Spirit will rush into men’s hearts and remain with them (Acts 2). Only then will his disciples minister in power and authority. Only then will the crowds no longer worship at the Temple, but worship as temples themselves “in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23). So on his way to Jerusalem, he says to his disciples in this spirit of holy stress, “How much longer must I be with you in this way? For I came to cast fire on the earth.”
Holy stress, then, comes in two forms. The first is that of the disciples, who are stressed by the demands of following the Lord. Following the Lord entails a continuous demand to change – which causes stress, but stress that’s worth something. Then there is the more perfect stress of Jesus – the anxiety to see God’s kingdom arrive. Disciples who persevere through the first stages also arrive here themselves, to share in Jesus’ own yearning for God’s glory on earth, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
All stress — even ordinary, everyday kinds of stress — can be given to God. And even God can give stress as a part of following him, to try to help us grow. In her poem “Broken Cisterns,” Mother Mary Francis (of the Poor Clares in Roswell, New Mexico) says it best. She writes of the trials of being wed to Christ, the divine physician who wounds us in order to heal us:
They spoke with sighs of flowery cloister ways
And of His smile
Like satin songs of evening.
But not a word was ever said of how
His gentle eyes would flog away repose,
And no one mentioned how His voice would thunder
Down my cool-scented caverns of compromise…
No, no one even hinted at the swords of His demand
That part the flesh from bone, and leave the heart
Riven with a wild and white desire.
And no one knows except he once has heard
That loud, imperious call in his own heart
And left all padded satisfaction for the climb
That knows no peak. But this is all of joy.
Image: Edvard Munch, The Scream
Eating organic, dining at farm-to-table restaurants, drinking coffee made from shade-grown beans (freely traded), farmers markets, shopping at Whole Foods or other organic grocery stores – organic’s all the rage. Many factors have contributed to this popular support for whole food (as opposed to the hormone injected and chemically altered variety). Recall the documentaries in the early aughts exposing the darker side of the food industry: “Super Size Me,” “Fast Food Nation,” and “Food, Inc.” I’ll never forget the weird pink mystery meat paste portrayed in “Food, Inc.” that apparently makes up Chicken McNuggets. Yuckers. There are also thinkers like Wendell Berry that have offered good arguments why eating organic and supporting local growers (even becoming one) are good for individuals and communities. But how and why is eating more natural food, as opposed to the more processed variety, good for a person?
Certainly eating healthy is good for a person’s physical health, but there’s a certain trend in the natural food subculture that attributes more than physical health to organic food. According to this trend, good food also helps the soul, and the path to total human wellness must involve a natural food diet. Most Holistic Nutritionists (a type of wellness specialist) would think this way. Check out these names of some popular cookbooks that accord with this worldview: Earthly and Divine: Whole Recipes for a Healthy World, Enlightened Eating: Nourishment for Body and Soul, Supernatural Cooking, The Sacred Kitchen: Higher Consciousness Cooking for Health and Wellness. According to the authors of these books, there is a link between the health of our food and of our soul.
One way to begin answering this question of why eating organic food is good for the human person is by asking what is best for a person in general – that is, what leads to human flourishing? Proponents of the virtue tradition would reply that happiness is achieved through a virtuous life. The virtuous man is disposed to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right amount, for the right end. This is a good start. In light of revelation Catholic Christians add to this answer the grace received from God, particularly through the sacraments. For we know by experience that this world, even in its happiest moments, is tinged with sorrow. We desire happiness to the full, but never seem to attain it. Yet that incompleteness does not squelch our desire. Through revelation we know that this complete happiness consists in beatitude, the vision of God. Our Source is our End. And the divine life offered through the free grace of Christ is how we can begin living a life with God on earth so that we can be eternally happy with him in Heaven. So real-quick-like, that’s the typical Catholic proposal for what is best for man.
So where does food fit in? It’s certainly part of flourishing: no food, no life. Simple enough. Moreover we are to be virtuous stewards of our bodies and our environment. We should eat and grow/hunt food responsibly. In order to be virtuous we must also practice temperance, that virtue which governs our consumption of foodstuffs. The temperate eater consumes the right kind of food, the right amount, at the right time, for the right end. An extreme example of intemperance which can lead to health problems is the guy in “Super Size Me” who eats Mickey Dee’s for a month. Not a good idea. Another obvious example is an alcoholic. If one consumes an inordinate amount of alcohol he may actually become enslaved to the substance, which will have deleterious effects not only on his health, but on the rest of his life: job, relationships, finances, etc.
However, there’s a danger in overemphasizing the effects of an organic diet if it neglects the spiritual component to total human well being. Such an overemphasis can crowd out the true source of spiritual health, namely, grace. And grace comes from Christ. The holistic worldview mentioned above has the right intuition – that humans are psychosomatic. The state of the body impacts the soul and vice versa. But the ultimate source of psychosomatic health is grace, especially the grace that comes by way of the sacraments. And this grace is ultimately important because it leads to complete human flourishing. This grace doesn’t exclude a good healthy diet, but it must take priority. Grace is essential. Organic food isn’t.
There are many great elements to the popular organic movement. Often supporters of this movement champion eating home-cooked meals around a table with one’s family. Additionally, the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity frequently plays out in how this movement encourages interaction between small farms and local restaurants and markets. And there are no doubt health benefits to eating well. But we must make the distinction between natural and supernatural food. One of the books listed above is entitled Sacred Kitchen. Pardon the obvious (and yes, cheesy) metaphor, but there already is a sacred kitchen. There is a place where our souls and bodies can be fed with supersubstantial food. That is the altar of Christ where he feeds us with the Eucharist. This is truly whole food. It heals and elevates our nature. As Catholics we can really have it all – good organic food and supernatural food. By eating well we are being virtuous stewards of our health. And by receiving the grace offered in the sacraments we begin the divine life that will lead to ultimate wellness in the next.
Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon
Oprah’s book list and mine rarely overlap. But last week I decided to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Maybe I tend to enjoy reading about long journeys on foot, but I decided to give this book a chance, despite Oprah’s endorsement. Since it was popular enough to be made into a movie, perhaps it would be worth reading.
Cheryl Strayed lost her mother in 1991 and then hiked the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail four years later to sort out the spiral of suffering that followed her mother’s death. Her descriptions of topography, the physical toll of the journey, and her own motivations are written in a rough and clear style – as is the “finding yourself in nature” notion popularized by Thoreau over a century ago and which lives on in our own time, as in the quest and tragic death of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild.
But Strayed relates her most piercing insight at the start of the narrative. Her non-smoker mother is dying of lung cancer at 45, and she prays that her life be spared:
I prayed and I prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn’t find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was… ruthless.
She has stumbled upon God, but God as Brute Fact, not as Tri-personal Love. With very little religious upbringing, she meets God the way our toes meet furniture in a dark room. It’s there, it hurts, and it doesn’t care what you want. She shares a grievance with illustrious predecessors: Job from the Bible, Orual from C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, and Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.
Impersonal imagery recurs throughout the hike narrative. There is the vast sky, the foreboding mountain range, the trail-concealing snow, and many other elements and creatures that simply don’t evidence a divine concern for human well-being. Despite her aversion to the contact of God’s impersonal presence (she thinks) in the death of her mother, she spends this time on the Pacific Crest Trail and impersonally harsh nature in an attempt to find herself.
To put it another way, she’s seeking self-knowledge. And that can only be acquired, Strayed asserts, by venturing beyond normal civilized conditions. Which is frequently the case: In long periods of silence or in adverse conditions, we learn about ourselves, the world, and God. We can often manipulate situations in everyday life. You can’t manipulate the Sierra Nevada.
In the end, she does seem to come to a healing, a new self-knowledge. But there is a knot that still needs to be untied, and I’m not convinced she unties it in the course of her story. She set the goal herself. She drew a line from here to there on a map of the trail and set out for a definite span of time, energized by her considerable will-power. She fed that will-power with literature, repeated phrases, and memories of family members. All of her motivations seem to come from the inside, instead of something drawing her by its own power or significance. There’s a bit too much self in this self-knowledge.
Let me explain. Religious shrines, as opposed to wilderness locations, tend to draw people toward a goal as a magnet draws filings. Hilaire Belloc walked to Rome because Ss. Peter and Paul died there. Pilgrims to Jerusalem brave suicide bombers and checkpoints to see the empty tomb. The place draws you or pulls you. The difficulty with “salvation by wilderness” is that there’s no destination except what you make it. The hiker knows she cooked up this idea herself. These ventures leave one feeling stronger and more confident, yet one never meets anyone except the Self. There’s a missing piece in that uber-frau solitary perfection of Strayed’s story.
That missing piece is another Person who sets the agenda. I can’t heal me. When Charlie Sheen tells us he is going to get better on his own, we are understandably unconvinced. I am my biggest problem. Charlie Sheen is Charlie Sheen’s. We need something outside of us to fix us. If we plan the whole business ourselves, the same problems we’ve always had will continue in one form or another. There is indeed something noble and purifying in the trek that Ms. Strayed undertook, but I think it ought to lead to more enduring relationships with those close by, especially with the One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. The pain of self-knowledge should lead to God, whose “ruthlessness” can now be seen in a clearer providential light.
Image: Round Top, Pacific Crest Trail
We have just begun a new year and hopes are high that 2015 will bring with it new opportunities, new blessings, and new happiness. New Year’s resolutions have been made, and as I observed with my cousin while out on a run this past week, they are so far being implemented successfully. As we passed one of the New Year’s faithful (of 2 days and counting) running the opposite direction, my cousin commented, “I love this time of year,” noting that she sees an increase of runners outside each January despite the below-freezing Wisconsin weather. Why?
It seems that the idea of beginning a new year helps people realize that they can stop doing things they have been doing the previous year and start doing new things now.
For those of us in school this happens every semester. Each semester begins with optimism and resolutions. Oh yes, I will study Greek for 30 minutes every day! That final paper is due the end of the semester so I’ll write a draft a full month in advance. Oh, extra-additional-supplementary-optional-bonus readings, how interesting! Less than a month ago, exhausted, I was seeking out paths of least resistance to the finish line of last semester. Suggestions on further improving my work (meaning more work) were likely met with Pilate’s dismissive comment, “What I have written, I have written!” But now, in the glow of a new semester, learning is fun and exciting, and I endeavor once again to be the noble scholar motivated by a love for truth. That was last semester. This is a NEW semester!
While watching college bowls and the NFL wild card games this past week, I was reminded how frequently coaches and players draw upon this same idea. I can’t count the number of times the announcers repeated, “Nothing you have done up till now matters. All that matters is now.” I imagine this is a phrase they heard from their coaches, repeated to themselves as players, and even said to their players when they became coaches. Whether talking about a bowl game or playoff run, or starting the second half, finishing a drive, or playing the final down in the fourth quarter, the message conveys the same sense of urgency and immediacy.
This same message also applies to the Christian life, albeit with some important qualifications. Just as a team cannot make a bowl game, playoff, or championship independent from what they have done previously, so also our current state of life is based on what we (and others) have done previously. (Thanks for the baptism, mom and dad!) Also, just as those previous wins, losses, yards, sacks, injuries, and drills in practice were all real and form better habits for the future, so our sins and our acts of repentance and love are real – they too affect our lives and build habits that form who we are.
However, this sports statement can also mean something like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re undefeated so far this season. It doesn’t guarantee you the championship. You must win today. Likewise, if you barely made the playoffs and were previously crushed by this same opponent, you can leave that behind. Step up now, and be champions!” St. Paul similarly coaches the faithful in Corinth against presumption, even if they have been faithful in the past: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). This is the same man who had earlier grasped the urgency of the present moment in his own conversion. Though he had been guilty of persecuting the Church and had even looked on with approval when St. Stephen was martyred, he came to respond openly to Ananias’ words, “Why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lam 3:22-23). The Lord’s mercy is not only available at the start of every new year, but it is new every morning and every moment. While it is helpful to be reminded at certain times each year, such as New Year’s and Lent, that we can leave behind old ways and have a new start and fresh beginning, this opportunity is present to us at every moment, even if we are not always aware of it.
God has given us a lifetime of moments to receive his mercy and forgiveness and to start anew. At any and every moment, no matter how grave our mistakes, we can approach the Lord in confession and say with the contrite tax collector, “Have mercy on me a sinner” (Lk 18:13). And if we should find at the end of our lives that we have wasted it on sin – and if we get a last chance to repent – there is some comfort now in knowing that the Good Shepherd has in fact rescued many into his fold late in the fourth quarter of life. The likes of Oscar Wilde, King Charles II, and Buffalo Bill Cody, along with many less famous persons, have received baptism or confession shortly before death, being received like the Good Thief into God’s mercy and new life.
Let us thank God for his abundant generosity and ask Jesus through the intercession of Mary for the grace to receive God’s mercy at the two most important moments of our life: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Image: Alex Grichenko, Morning After (Blue Ridge Mountains)
It is not often that parents get to perform official liturgical blessings. One example occurs during the Rite of Baptism. One of the first actions in the Rite of Baptism for infants is the blessing of the child. It is a simple blessing where the minister, parents, and optionally godparents trace the sign of the cross on the head of the child. It is a sign that welcomes the child into the Christian community and claims the child for Christ Himself. And in Her wisdom, the Church incorporates parents into this liturgical act.
Fortunately, I have been a beneficiary of many other parental blessings throughout my life. At every arrival or departure, and every commencement of an important event, from baseball games to entering religious life, I have received a similar blessing from my mother. She would trace the sign of the cross on my forehead and utter the blessing, “God Bless, Be Safe, Have Fun.” Perhaps mom learned it from the liturgy itself or received it as a traditional family practice handed down from her parents. Whatever the origin, all of my activities, whether I realized it or not, were marked by parental love and God’s blessing with the sign of the cross.
During the Christmas season we rightly meditate on the blessing of the Incarnation, especially the Word made Flesh in the Baby Jesus. What a wonder it must have been for Mary to hold her Divine Son in her arms and offer her parental love through a motherly blessing. Not that Baby Jesus was in need of a blessing – after all, He is Divine! – but the special character of the Incarnation was such that the Word made Flesh had a mother, a most Blessed Mother. Undoubtedly, this Blessed Mother imparted a kind of parental blessing to her most beloved Son throughout His life.
Perhaps, this is one of the joys of the Christmas season: a reawakened recognition of parental love. We can give thanks to God for sending His Son to us by receiving the blessings of our own parents with love and acceptance, just like the Christ-Child did. As children we do not often understand the sacrifices parents make on our behalf. We are often too caught up in our own selfish interests to notice, or we simply ignore the little things they do behind the scenes. As adults we come to recognize how that parental love – those parental blessings – decisively helped to form us into the Christians we are today. It is worth taking a few minutes to tell them that. Even those of us who may be estranged from our parents due to so many unfortunate circumstances can still honor them through prayer on their behalf.
The joy of the Christmas blessing some 2,000 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem began all the great blessings that parents have given throughout history in the name of Christ. Blessings, safety, and a little bit of fun. Remember, the Word was not brought into the world without them.
Image: Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller, Children Singing and Praying
Pope Francis has designated this year as the “Year of Consecrated Life,” inviting the Church to come to a deeper understanding of the gift of the consecrated life in the midst of the contemporary world. What is consecrated life? To be “consecrated” means to be set apart, made holy to the Lord. Each of us in consecrated to the Lord in Baptism, and yet some individuals in the Church are called to a different sort of consecration, one that submits them entirely to God through the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Through the consecrated life, men and women are called to devote themselves to God, offering all that they are in a life of imitation of Christ.
One way of reflecting further on the consecrated life is to consider the meaning of obedience. Through obedience, the religious makes a gift of himself or herself, a sacrifice to the Lord. But this is not a sacrifice that leads to death, it is rather a living sacrifice that burns without being consumed, like the burning bush in which Moses encounters the Lord. For the Fathers of the Church, Mary is understood to be like the burning bush, a Virgin in the midst of childbirth, aflame but never burned. Through the vow of obedience, each consecrated person becomes like that burning bush, lighting up the world and serving as a pillar of flame in the midst of the darkness of this world. All Christians are meant to be the light of the world, reflecting the light of Christ who is the light of the nations, and yet consecrated persons are called to burn with a special brightness. Through obedience, the consecrated person is devoted for God, becoming free to serve the Lord with all his or her powers. This obedience relies on the theological virtue of hope, which entails the conviction that the Lord will be able to make something of this living sacrifice, that the Lord will make something beautiful from our own paltry efforts.
There are many modes of living the consecrated life within the Church: monks and cloistered nuns lead lives of seclusion from the world, focused on the praise of the Lord; active sisters and brothers care for the needs of the sick, the poor, and the ignorant through ministries of service, teaching, and evangelization; others combine the contemplative and the active life through a mixture that aims at a contemplative mode of preaching. Others live consecrated to the Lord in the midst of the world without special distinction of dress or custom, as consecrated virgins and consecrated lay persons. In each of these ways, men and women respond to the call of the Holy Spirit to devote themselves to the Lord, to hear his voice, and to do his will.
One form of consecrated life that has often received less attention than others is that of the religious brother: a man who is consecrated to the Lord in a particular religious institute, but who does not receive holy orders. Different religious Orders have different terms for this way of life: some emphasize the non-clerical character of these men by naming them “lay brothers”; others emphasize their role of service within the wider Church by describing them as “cooperator brothers”; others draw attention to their conversion of life by describing them as “converse brothers.”
Today, the Church celebrates the feast of St. André Bessette, a Holy Cross Brother who devoted his life to prayer, serving the Lord in the sick and afflicted, and drawing men and women to a greater devotion to St. Joseph. In the midst of his duties as porter (or door keeper) at his community in Montreal, St. André was led by his devotion to St. Joseph to build a shrine to the foster father of Jesus. Although he had few resources at his disposal, St. André trusted in the Lord—and St. Joseph himself—putting a statue of St. Joseph on the property he had acquired for the shrine and asking him to build a roof for himself! In 1904, St. André began construction of a modest wooden chapel. In 1917, a larger church was constructed to accommodate the growing crowds, and in 1924 the construction of a basilica to St. Joseph was commenced. At the time of St. André’s death on January 6, 1937, the construction of the new basilica was still incomplete—and it would not be finished for another thirty years. Despite these delays, St. André did not despair of his project, for he knew that if the Lord does not build the house the builder labors in vain. It mattered little that St. André did not live to see the completion of the new basilica, because he entrusted his hope to the Lord.
In his recent apostolic letter on the year of consecrated life, Pope Francis stresses the importance of hope in the midst of uncertainty:
But it is precisely amid these uncertainties, which we share with so many of our contemporaries, that we are called to practice the virtue of hope, the fruit of our faith in the Lord of history, who continues to tell us: “Be not afraid… for I am with you” (Jer 1:8). This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future. It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us. So do not yield to the temptation to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength.
St. André Bessette, teach us to hope in the midst of our own difficulties; teach us to hope in the Lord, for whom nothing is impossible.
Photo Credit: Alexis Birkill, Oratory of St. Joseph (Montreal)
St. Thomas Aquinas explains the fittingness of the Incarnation in several reasons, including how it raises our minds and hearts to an increase in faith, hope, and charity. Here I highlight a few of these reasons with respect to the Nativity of Christ and its manifestation.
Faith, as St. Thomas defines it, is the habit of the mind whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the will assent to what is non-apparent. Faith rests in God as First Truth Speaking. St. Thomas says that faith “is made more certain by believing God Himself Who speaks.” In Jesus Christ, we literally hear God’s own words, from His own mouth. St. Augustine says that, “In order that man might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded faith.”
But note that Jesus became an object of faith before He began His public ministry. Indeed, Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms and proclaims Him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32). St. Thomas says that “the Magi were the ‘first-fruits of the Gentiles,’ who were to believe in Christ.” Simeon’s prophecy was already fulfilled in the Magi, who sought Him in response to the sign of the star and who did Him homage.
Consider what hope is. The theological virtue of hope relies firmly on God for what is necessary for eternal life. In hope, our human will clings to the goodness of God for us. Augustine says, “Nothing was so necessary for raising our hope as to show us how deeply God loved us. And what could afford us a stronger proof of this than that the Son of God should become a partner with us of human nature?” Why should the Incarnation correspond to hope, as St. Augustine suggests? In hope, we formally depend on God’s merciful omnipotence: that He is omnipotent shows us that He can save us, and that He is merciful—as shown by the Incarnation—shows us that He wants to.
In the Incarnation, God pulls out all the stops. One Dominican commentator has noted that “no greater way is intelligible by which God could communicate Himself to the creature” than by uniting human nature to His Person. Seeing the Christ child in the manger, we know that God took the most extreme means to save us from sin, and we have confidence that He will continue to offer us the means to be rescued from our sin and given sanctifying grace.
While hope clings to God as good for us, charity clings to God as good in Himself. The divine goodness is what primarily motivates us to charity. But secondarily, St. Thomas explains, it is aimed at “other reasons that inspire us with love for Him, or which make it our duty to love Him,” and these “are secondary and result from the first.” The Incarnation is the greatest of these secondary reasons. The history of Christ’s Nativity and infancy counts powerfully towards this. Seeing that Christ became a weak and helpless infant becomes, for us, a motive to love in return. As Augustine said, “If we have been slow to love, at least let us hasten to love in return.”
Love breaks forth in acts of joy and peace. We experience joy in the possession of the good and peace when we are at concord, even within ourselves. At the Nativity the angels announce good news of a “great joy” (Lk 2:10), and their hymn of praise wishes “peace” among men of good will (Lk 2:14). All of this is because the Savior is born in the city of David, whose Nativity incites us to the acts and effects of love.
Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Theological Virtues