Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
With the fear of Ebola’s hemorrhagic fevers, the dread of post-Soviet invasions, the horror of Islamic State beheadings, the scourge of marital abuse and collegiate rapes, the world has a lot of people scratching their heads. What got us into this mess?
Our secular storytellers provide us an etiology: we are animals with a savage, evolutionary prehistory, inclined to engage in direct intraspecific competition for limited resources, exhibiting forms of physical and sexual aggression which increase reproductive success.
I suppose that’s part of it, but it sure seems a bit superficial.
The soul that suffers with the suffering seeks a greater narrative arc than the secular story provides, for what is being called into question by such suffering is the goodness of existence itself. Here I doubt if even an atheist evolutionary psychologist can withhold judgment—need you believe in God to “return your ticket” with Ivan Karamazov?
The question confronts each of us: Is existence good? Why does anything exist at all? Whence the suffering? Whence its end? And such an existential story as this could be told by only one—the Author of it all. Only the one to whom time belongs can truly say “in the beginning“ and “in the end.”
Thanks be to Him, this Author has spoken. He reassures us that in the beginning everything was good, indeed very good. Man and woman were placed at the pinnacle of his visible creation, initially endowed with preternatural gifts of immortality and self-mastery. Above us embodied spirits, he created the angels, pure spirits who like us image the Author in his knowing and loving.
The Author goes on to tell us how sin and death entered the world by “the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world” (Rev 12:9), the drama of whose downfall is captured so poetically by Milton:
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High
Satan’s specter, the shadow of his primordial pride, hangs over all our ills. Before anyone faced the fear of death or the choice to debase or ennoble, to heal or destroy, there stood an angel, Lucifer, unparalleled in angelic splendor, who received a divine invitation and the choice to either accept or reject it. The nature of that gift and the possibility of its rejection illuminate the drama at the heart of the cosmos.
The gift was nothing less than an invitation to enter into the beatific communion of God’s own inner life, a gift offered to Lucifer along with all of the angels and later all mankind. The angels already enjoyed the finite happiness proper to their nature, for they were created without defect, but God offered them something infinitely beyond their natural power, a share in his own infinite beatitude. Even for the angels, this gift could not be fully understood; it could only be received in a trusting act of faith, one graced act of charity, abandoning oneself to the love of God.
Lucifer refused the gift: he grasped at the dignity of being the source of his own happiness, a dignity that belongs only to God. As St. Thomas puts it, “He desired resemblance with God in this respect . . . He sought to have final beatitude of his own power, whereas this is proper to God alone.”
St. Anselm observes that there is a terrible irony in Lucifer’s fall: “He sought that to which he would have come had he stood fast.” If only he had trusted God, Lucifer would have received the divine life he grasped. Instead, in rejecting submission to God’s love, he turned away from the source of all happiness, and “hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie” he and his angel followers fell from grace.
Lucifer, now Satan, then whispers his familiar lie in our parents’ ear, “The moment you eat of it . . . you will be like gods,” and the terrible irony is again repeated: they, too, sought that to which they would have come had they but stood fast.
Of course, this is only the beginning of the story. The hope of that first promise—the promise rejected by Lucifer, Adam, and Eve—has indeed been renewed. God became man. Where Adam disobeyed, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, was obedient, was crucified, died, and was buried, rising on the third day, breaking the bonds of sin and death.
This was once the story that defined Western Civilization. Many men have died in its telling, and in the end, they too shall rise.
The Womans seed, obscurely then foretold,
Now amplier known thy Saviour and thy Lord,
Last in the Clouds from Heav’n to be reveald
In glory of the Father, to dissolve
Satan with his perverted World, then raise
From the conflagrant mass, purg’d and refin’d,
New Heav’ns, new Earth, Ages of endless date
Founded in righteousness and peace and love
To bring forth fruits Joy and eternal Bliss.
Image: Ricardo Bellver, Fuente del Ángel Caído
It is with great sadness that I read about your diagnosis with glioblastoma multiforme, a most deadly form of brain cancer. I am even more dismayed by your intention to commit suicide on November 1, and I am writing to ask that you reconsider your decision. You emphasized in your interview, “There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die.” And yet, you want to do just that – commit suicide. Your defense is that this is not suicide because the “glioblastoma is going to kill me” anyway.
Instead of suicide, you speak of dying “with dignity.” Unfortunately, this concept in our contemporary society has become a euphemism for committing suicide – deliberately choosing to kill ourselves when we decide it is most expedient. Mother Teresa of Calcutta uses the term in its proper sense, when she described the work she started at the Kalighat Nirmal Hriday in India. Dying with dignity in this proper sense means caring for those who are dying, especially the destitute poor, so that they may see love and know they are not alone. Some of the dying persons whom the sisters pick up from the street or the gutters only live a few hours, but they experience a love and tender compassion given with human hands that mirror the great love and overwhelming compassion that our God has for each one of us.
True dying with dignity is not short-circuiting that great gift of life, a freely given gift from God, but rather continuing to love in all circumstances, even those of great pain and suffering. We are stewards, not owners, of this gift of life. Thus, are we not responsible if we should abuse this gift or encourage others to do so? Clearly you have an understanding of an afterlife. Otherwise, you would not have asked your mother to travel to Machu Picchu, telling her that you would meet her there. But I would ask you to consider that since an afterlife exists, do not the actions we take here on earth impact that afterlife? Would not a callous shortsightedness with respect to this life on earth lead to a comparable restriction of any possible fulfillment in the afterlife – whether through our self-understanding of the afterlife or God’s?
In watching your video, one of your most telling comments was about the medicine: “[I] know that it’s there when I need it,” and thus I know that I can “pass peacefully” when I am ready. Death is not our friend to relieve the pain and suffering. Death, St. Paul writes, is the last enemy to be overcome (1 Cor 15:26). We must persevere in our faith and in our life, even in great suffering. This means not trusting in medicines that are designed to kill us, but instead holding tightly to the wood of the Cross that Christ Himself used in His own triumph over death.
You may not realize what a great gift you have been given because it comes with so much pain and tragic suffering. In the opening of the video you speak very beautifully about what it means to be told at 29 years old that you only have a few years left to live, let alone only six months once the further diagnosis came. You note how little time there is and how important it is to let your loved ones know how much you love them. This is a great reminder for us all. Every day in the United States, on average 100 people die in car crashes. Only two weeks ago two sisters were killed in a car crash just outside of Washington, DC, leaving a combined 10 children without a mother. Your gift of being able to say goodbye and to focus on what is truly important here on earth during your last months is a wonderful blessing – and a reminder to us all of how fragile and precious life is. We should never waste a day or a moment in telling everyone how much we love them.
You mention that the date for your intended suicide was carefully chosen so that you could celebrate your husband’s birthday in late October. I am not sure if you realize the full import of the chosen day – November 1st is the Feast of All Saints. This is a feast day that celebrates all of the saints in heaven, especially those who have not been formally canonized by the Church. We celebrate these people for the holiness of their lives, those who day after day lived out the greatness of God in little and unknown ways. These are persons of our families and our neighbors, some of whom, in spite of great tragedy and suffering, did not give up on life. They lived to the end as faithful witnesses to the great love, mercy, and compassion of our God.
Invoking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Bl. Theresa of Calcutta, and all the angels and saints, I beseech you to reconsider your decision to commit suicide on November 1st and instead to embrace the cross with all its suffering, remaining forever in the hands of God.
I pray that God may always grant you His peace,
Photo Credit: Joseph Chen, O.P.
Even though St. Columbanus or St. Frances of Rome are the patron saints of motorcyclists, you’re far more likely to see St. Jude riding a Harley – generally on a biker’s bicep. With the exception of Jesus himself and his Blessed Mother, St. Jude is the saint most likely to appear on tattoos. Maybe this has to do with St. Jude’s penchant for bling – he is usually depicted wearing or holding a huge medal bearing the image of Jesus. As the patron of “hopeless cases,” of lost causes, of the impossible, many of us embrace devotion to St. Jude when we are most desperate, when we cannot outrun or out-ride reality’s most dreadful grief. St. Jude offers hope to the hopeless, a ray of light to those most beset with darkness – he offers nothing less than Jesus himself.
Yet why should only St. Jude be shown holding the image of Christ? Holding a medallion recalls the question he asked Jesus in the gospel: “Lord, what has happened that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22). Essentially, St. Jude asks Jesus why he is not manifesting himself to everyone in the world at once; why Jesus is choosing to allow the relatively small number of apostles to get to know him, and then rely on them to spread the word about who Jesus is. Indeed, it would seem that a simple media blitz, broadcast to everyone in the world would be the most efficient way to let everyone on earth know Jesus. Why shouldn’t Jesus have come in the current millennium, at a time when he could broadcast the Beatitudes over Twitter or post a photo of his Transfiguration to Instagram so that everyone would get the point already?
Because this could never suffice. Jesus’ answer makes it clear why this could never be enough to save actual souls. He clearly states that what is necessary is love, and that he will in fact manifest himself to any and all who love him. Mass media can have an image blanket millions of screens in a matter of seconds, but only a person can give and receive love. Only personal witness can reach hearts and present Jesus in a way that inspires love. Only the Incarnate Word, who speaks with love in a heart-to-heart dialogue, could begin to put a creature in touch with the Creator.
Our heart must be touched, and touching requires a personal contact. Touching reaches a particular person, in a particular place and circumstance – it is perfect for the way God loves an individual sinner. Like a tattoo, God’s touch considers the contours of our individual person – His grace comes tailor-made to our individual weaknesses, strengths, needs, and gifts. Yet all the while calling us to something more: inviting us to find our final end in himself. As with tattoos, his grace penetrates below the surface and leaves his image under our skin. And like St. Jude with his mega-medallion, we must bear the image of Jesus to others – they should recognize us when they see us showing off Christ. Let us pray that we embrace the call to “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27), that through the imitation of Jesus we might “keep [our]selves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 1:21).
Photo Credit: Darío López Mills
Last week Dominicana passed a significant milestone: 1,000,000 views! Thank you to our readers for being the aliis to whom we are privileged to pass on our contemplata. Below are some highlights from our first three years. We hope you enjoy them, and we hope you keep coming back – and while you’re at it, invite your friends!
Upon this Volcano
“Our perspective here on earth is intrinsically shortsighted and shallow. God’s perspective is perfect and timeless. He will not abandon his people nor allow the ship of his Church to sink because of human weakness. On the contrary, the Church exists for the very reason of shipping us sinners to safe harbor.”
How to Talk About Homosexuality
“In the end, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is not really a film about homosexuality–the word itself only appears once, as far as I remember. It is a film about desire. About discovering that the opposite of love is not hatred, but loneliness. About discovering that the way out of lust is not indulgence or frigidity, but chastity.”
The Genius of Ritual
“Ritual is not only a remedy for despair or destruction. We cannot survive daily life without it, and we fill our days with all sorts of practical rituals: brushing our teeth, showering, eating meals, checking our e-mail, paying our bills, calling our parents, and so on.”
Marilynne Robinson, St. Thomas, and the Wonder of Existence
“That anything other than God should exist is a miracle of sorts. And yet the wonder of St. Thomas and of Robinson’s character does not end in this life – it points to the next. But rather than detracting from the significance of the present world, the prospect of the world to come imbues this world with a far deeper significance.”
You Don’t Have to Like Your Priest
“We don’t have to like every priest we meet. Nevertheless, despite the challenges we may face with the priests we encounter throughout our lives, we should remember the difficulty of the task with which they have been entrusted, as well as that they are made of the same stuff as all human beings.”
Beauty That Makes You Want to Believe
“At its heart, the Mass should be a foretaste of heaven, but on this side of paradise, the human element will always be present. Ideally, this should remind us of the Incarnation, as yet another example of how God accomplishes the most sublime and wondrous things through the instrument of fallen mankind.”
Friday Fish and the Poor
“Catholic rules and regulations are less about prohibition and more about direction: the negative injunctions are always in the context of a positive vision of life aimed at virtue and happiness. Because Jesus became poor for us in this life, we too are called to identify with the poor to remind ourselves of our dependence on him.”
Whether St. Thomas is Boring
“A man is only called boring who tries one’s patience excessively and to no great purpose. However, the works of Thomas are ordered towards producing knowledge and wisdom in the reader concerning the greatest realities, namely God and the things of God. As the Philosopher observes in the De Animalibus XI, the least knowledge of the highest realities produces the greatest joy.”
Let me share with you his pain
From one of our very first posts: “This powerful prayer offers us a precious glimpse into the spiritual power of empathy and compassion. However, as moving as this prayer is, it is important to note that the liturgy is not engaging in cheap emotional antics in order to manipulate us into a fleeting sense of our own guilt and a gelatinous purpose of amendment.”
Jesuitica and the Dominican Post
A recap of our mischievous endeavors on April Fool’s Day, 2014
Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Mulberry Tree in Autumn
If there is one thing that science fiction has taught us, it’s that time travel is hard. Sure, there are the technical difficulties related to the design of flux capacitors, the manipulation of the space time continuum, and the fact that it always seems to require dealing with shady figures and dangerous materials. Even more difficult is figuring out how not to completely ruin the present by your galavanting around in the past. The noble desire to make up for some past mistake, yours or someone else’s, always seems to end up in mind-boggling conundrums of self-annihilation. The simple task of keeping track of whether or not you have destroyed your future self, or, worse, that you need to, is enough to give one a headache—not to mention the physical toll of dealing with whatever crazy materials and processes that got you to the past in the first place. It seems that, as far as dealing with our regrets over the past, time travel has to be considered off the table.
Dealing with our past, even simply from the safety of the present, can be both troubling and engrossing. It is undeniable that our past actions have had and continue to have real consequences, both for us and for others. The collective weight of past actions have built up the habits that form a sort of “second nature,” that first impulse towards acting or reacting to whatever present situation we face. Our previous encounters with others are constitutive of our current relationships and cannot simply be ignored when we meet them again. While these residues of the past could and, ideally, should be tools for greater happiness, often they fall short in at least some respects, and become occasions for frustration and misery. If we are honest with ourselves we can’t help but acknowledge our sinfulness and the myriad mistakes we have made that, at the very least, seem to leave us with bad habits and injured relationships.
This, of course, is part of the great consolation that is the redemption won for us by Jesus Christ, namely, the possibility of true reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of our sins, most especially through the sacraments of confession. God is generous enough not to bind us to our past and offers us a future that depends wholly on a present act of love for Him. This is not to say that our past is somehow erased, but that it need not define our future. We still feel the effects of our past actions, and much of the Christian life is an effort to persist in a present act of love for God. By his grace we go about healing those we have harmed, ourselves first and our neighbors as well.
By the grace of forgiveness, our view of the past changes and the tautological fact that every one of our past actions led us to our present moment becomes an opportunity to see the way that God’s grace has been effective in our lives, even in spite of our sinfulness. The wonder of God’s providence, not only in general, but also in the particularities of our own lives, can be astounding. Nevertheless, we can still be tempted by that sort of wishful thinking that makes the idea of time travel so tantalizing. “If only I had reacted differently here, if only I had resisted there, if only, just that one time, I had cooperated with God’s grace, everything after would have been so much better…”
Perhaps these sorts of reflections are what make a passage from the writings of St. Teresa of Avila that I recently encountered so striking. In an effort to counter the tendency towards unhealthy regret I had, at times, been so bold as to thank God for having offered me graces that I myself ended up resisting or that I failed to put to good use. I was far from confident in the theological grounding of such a prayer. But I could recognize God’s hand reaching out to me and supporting me in those bad times, even as I was choosing sin. I knew that I had fallen short, but it was not for lack of support on God’s part.
As bold as my prayer seems—recognizing in the present God’s mercy in the past—St. Teresa is bolder still. Reflecting on time wasted in her past, she laments,
Oh, how late have my desires been enkindled and how early, Lord, were You seeking and calling that I might be totally taken up with You!
Recognizing the apparent foolishness of the request, she places her trust in God’s power and asks for the lost time back.
Recover, my God, the lost time by giving me grace in the present and future, so that I may appear before You with wedding garments; for if You want to, You can do so.
Time travel—even simply the mental time travel involved in regret—is a risky business. God does not ask of us the impossible task of changing the past, he simply asks for our love in the present. When our minds turn to days gone by and our many imperfections enshrined there, rather than dwell on the past we should first and foremost thank God for his forgiveness. What is more, we can, with St. Teresa, boldly ask for a greater outpouring of His grace to make up for the time we wasted, that we might love him all the more in the present and look forward to a future of eternal happiness with him in heaven.
Image: Back to the Future II (Marty McFly and Doc Brown)
“CRY what shall I cry?” In Eliot’s Coriolan II – Difficulties of A Statesman, the statesman repeatedly asks this question. He begins to get an answer as the allusion to Isaiah is confirmed: “All flesh is grass.” But the Word is cut short by the difficulties of the statesman. There are committees to be formed, military orders to be recognized, secretaries to be appointed, and salaries to be paid. He dreams of serenity and stillness, even calls for his mother, but his duties continue to barge in, disturbing this dream.
The full Scriptural reference is: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, “What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass” (Isa 40:6). And a few verses later the section is completed: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever” (Isa 40:8). John the Baptist will later identify himself as this crying voice (Jn 1:23). He cries to prepare the way of the Lord – the Word that speaks forever. But there are those who didn’t hear John, or didn’t want to. And there are those who cannot hear the Word, like Eliot’s statesman. The life of this latter statesman is one of distraction, drowning out the Voice of his calling.
Distraction seems to be one of Eliot’s major themes. We have our unfortunate Mr. Prufrock who wanders the streets of Boston, feebly pursuing a disinterested woman, perfecting the art of wasting hours. But he’s too bothered and enervated by these pursuits to force the moment – to ask the question – The Big Question that might reveal these empty pursuits for what they are.
There’s the broken attempt at communication in the Wasteland between two lovers:
“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
But no connection is established between the two, which sheds light on the emptiness of the physical love shared between them.
We find this theme most clearly in the Four Quartets where Eliot directs our gaze to those faces:
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Distracted from distraction by distraction. Here Eliot is most explicit and also pins the problem down. We’re many levels removed from focus. We have so many fanciful pursuits: projects, patterns, people, and places; and we find new ones as we go through life (here I’m referring to empty, trifling pursuits – there are of course plenty of meaningful ones). We find we need them. We need distraction. Why? Because it keeps us from noticing we’re distracted in the first place. And if we came to terms with our distraction then we would have to find out what lies beneath it. We have a hunch there’s something there, and if we uncovered it, we might not like what we find.
I don’t need to rehearse the distractions we find in contemporary life. They’re obvious and everywhere. And in some sense we will always have them. The goal of life is not to annihilate distraction. But we should be on guard against those kinds which block God’s voice. Eliot’s Prufrock, Coriolanus, and wasteland lovers are examples of what can happen when we get distracted from what’s important in life. And we can really only discover what’s most important when we’re listening. So yes, it can be hard to discover what’s underneath all the noise in our life. But once we recover stillness, we also recover (or find for the first time) an ear for God’s voice – the Word that speaks forever.
Image: Soma Orlai Petrich, Coriolanus
When I was a child, and was told something or another about heaven, the way I chose to imagine it was as an infinite freedom to play GameBoy. Now that I am a man, I think this might be a better description of the other destination. Nevertheless, our present conceptions of what would make us happy can be a helpful tool for discerning where our heart lies, what we really long for, and whether or not these longings are properly ordered to our happiness.
Another angle for addressing the same question is to consider our frustrations. What is getting in the way of my happiness? What longings do I have that are unfulfilled? What can possibly satisfy me? One beautiful meditation on this theme comes from a source that might at first appear surprising as a locus theologicus: YouTube.
Several years ago, The Gregory Brothers released a music video which offers a poignant meditation on themes of longing and desire titled “Can’t Hug Every Cat.” In the video, a young woman named Debbie relates the frustration she feels in loving cats so much that she longs to hug every cat, a desire which she knows (deep down) to be unattainable in this life. Debbie is well aware of the predicament that many cats in this harsh world find themselves in: many don’t have a home, others do not experience the love and affection which help them to flourish and fulfill their cat destiny, and still more lack the smart look that would come from wearing little bow ties. But even more than her concern for the cats themselves, Debbie is stuck between her infinite desire to hug every cat, and her sober realization that this end is not attainable in this life.
How should a Thomist respond to Debbie’s dilemma? There is an old adage which goes something like “Seldom affirm, never deny, and always distinguish.” What this means is that we should always try to discern the truth which may lie hidden in whatever idea or human experience we encounter. This does not mean rushing to affirm every idea as being necessarily true and good, but it does mean casting a thoughtful gaze upon the world and the marvels which it contains, so as to find the ray of Truth that may enlighten a particular concept. Finally, it means that we should always distinguish between this ray of Truth and the fullness of the light that Christ has cast upon our darkness.
According to Thomas Aquinas, “there is this difference between animals and other natural things, that when these latter are established in the state becoming their nature, they do not perceive it, whereas animals do. And from this perception there arises a certain movement of the soul in the sensitive appetite; which movement is called delight.”
In other words, cats can truly experience delight in perceiving that they are established in the state becoming their nature, an ability they lose once they have shuffled off this mortal coil. Unlike their human minions, cats do not struggle with existential angst. So long as a cat’s basic needs are fulfilled, it will be able to take delight in life. Nevertheless, the ability of cats to perceive their fitting state and take delight in it entails a certain responsibility on the part of human beings to avoid causing unnecessary pain to cats, and, when appropriate, to contribute to their flourishing by proportionate means.
In concrete terms, this means that it is good to desire to undertake affectionate actions such as hugging cats or clothing them with little bow ties. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to allow our affectionate actions towards our furry friends to distract us from our higher duties or from caring for our fellow human beings, who, despite occasionally appearing to be less attractive than their feline counterparts, possess an infinitely higher dignity due to their immortal and rational souls. As Debbie implicitly realizes, if we were to leave everything behind so that we could devote ourselves exclusively to hugging cats, our lives would thereby be lacking something of the balance that is fitting to true human flourishing—and we wouldn’t even be able to hug every cat anyway.
This consideration leads us to a second point: according to St. Thomas, we are not able to desire natural finite things infinitely (for instance infinite food or infinite drink), although we can desire them in an infinite succession. In other words, although we can imagine spending eternity hugging cats in an infinite succession, deep down we know that we will never be fulfilled in this way, because whenever we are hugging one particular cat we are of necessity prevented from hugging every cat. When we desire non-physical things as objects of our desire, however, we are not so limited: as Thomas states, “He that desires riches, may desire to be rich, not up to a certain limit, but to be simply as rich as possible.”
What then are we to long for? In whom shall rest our hope? My help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth—for no one can love God as much as he should be loved, because his goodness is infinite. Only he can satisfy the longings he has put into our hearts.
Image: Carl, I can has prom date?
Today, for the first time, we celebrate the memorial of St. John Paul II.
We remember this great man, canonized saint, and third-longest reigning pope in the history of the Church for his love, his joy, his wisdom, his leadership, and his holiness. While weathering many difficult storms, both personal and in his capacity as pope, St. John Paul found one solution to his problems and one answer to his questions: Jesus Christ.
From his first encyclical letter as pope, St. John Paul proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life for man, for the Church, and for the world. In his preaching, his teaching, his writings, and his worldwide missionary travels, he pointed us again and again to Jesus Christ. Jesus was the message of his life.
Pope Francis and bishops from around the world were recently gathered in Rome for the Synod on the Family, and the Church and the world will ponder what the Synod has to say about the family and a range of related hot-button issues. Many people and media outlets desire to make their voices and opinions heard and desire that the Church listen to them.
The Church is certainly committed to dialogue with people of all backgrounds and viewpoints. Indeed, not only does the Church listen to the men and women of today; she also listens to the voices of men and women throughout history (see Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”). Most importantly, she considers what the Holy Spirit has guided her to understand about men, women, marriage, and family in the teaching of her leaders and in her most outstanding examples of the Christian life, the saints.
However, today St. John Paul reminds us of the one voice we must listen to above all (Luke 10:42): the voice of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News, while many persons acknowledge that Jesus is a “good teacher” and one who “teaches with authority,” the apostles—who affirm with Peter that Jesus is the Christ (Mt 16:16)—are often shocked, amazed, and confused by Christ. We see this same reaction in people today, and sometimes in ourselves, when we hear the voice of Jesus propose to us what seems impossible.
In Matthew 19 Jesus himself explains God’s plan for marriage, the foundation of the family, but his own hand-picked disciples find it so challenging that they consider that it may be better not to marry at all! Later in the same chapter, after teaching about the difficulty that wealth can pose to giving one’s life to God (“it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…”), his disciples are again “greatly astonished” and wonder “who then can be saved?” Jesus’ reply is compassionate and understanding to the challenge we face when listening to him. “Indeed, for human beings this is impossible…” He acknowledges that our instinct, perhaps supported by the experience of our failure, is correct.
By ourselves, we face great difficulties in living God’s plan for marriage and cannot hope to obtain salvation. But then Jesus gives the key to the Good News: “But for God all things are possible.” We are called to a life beyond what we ourselves are capable of; but God himself makes it possible. The difficult becomes manageable or, sometimes, even easy; the impossible becomes possible.
Should we be surprised, then, that when the fullness of Jesus’ teachings are proclaimed by the Church today people, unaware that the God who calls us to the fullness of life is also the God who provides the necessary help, react with cries of “impossible,” “unrealistic,” and “out of touch with reality”? Jesus himself concedes that, by our own natural power, all too often, various aspects of his teaching are impossible and beyond us. In fact, while philosophical arguments can demonstrate by natural reason God’s existence and the truth of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, this does not guarantee that a given person’s intellect, dimmed by original sin, will grasp these truths (see ST I q. 1 a. 1). Even more significantly, such arguments do nothing to remedy the challenging and discouraging situation of people who grasp these truths and recognize the way they are made to act according to their nature and yet who, try as they might, find that they are unable to live this way by their own power.
As St. John Paul reminds us, the only solution is Jesus Christ. We absolutely need him. It is only in the light of Christ that we can know the full truth of our humanity, of marriage, and of the family. It is only by the power of his grace that we can live completely in accord with God’s plan, fulfilling our vocation to love. Any truth apart from Jesus is only partial, any way other than Christ is impotent, and without him no one enjoys the fullness of life on earth or the perfect happiness of eternal life (John 14:6).
May the Church, the Bride of Christ, continue to listen attentively to the voice of Jesus as she seeks to understand, live, and courageously proclaim the truth of God’s plan for the family and to help families throughout the world do the same, reminding them that with God, and only with God, all things are possible. Like St. Peter, who struggled with a “hard teaching” and even witnessed a number of Christ’s followers depart yet remained with Jesus, may we always listen to Jesus and confess in the midst of many competing voices, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
St. John Paul II, pray for us!
Image: Fra Angelico, The Sermon on the Mount
October is the month of devotion to Mary in the Rosary. As we come toward the end of the month of October, I outline here five other ways in growing to devotion to Mary.
- The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Do you have trouble praying? If you’re like me, or anyone else who prays, the answer is: yes! The “Little Office” is helpful for those who pray, because it combines the objective structure of the Church’s prayer with the warmth of Marian devotion. The “Little Office” is an imitation of the Church’s official prayer, called the Liturgy of the Hours, and is composed primarily from the Psalms. Like the divine office, it is divided into different ‘hours’ meant to sanctify different times of day. It is “little,” because it is greatly shortened and simplified, and adapted in a devotional mode by using prayers and antiphons about the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ‘objectivity’ of this structure is great for those of us who recognize that we don’t always know how or what to pray, because we can let the words of the Scriptures speak for us.
- The Litany of Loreto.
Our names, especially nicknames, express something of who we are and what we can do. The Litany of Loreto seems like a compendium of names of Mary. We can contemplate the work of God in Mary under each of these names which express different facets of her fullness of grace, and we can also beg for graces which correspond to these names. As a student and preacher-to-be, I like to pray to Mary Seat of Wisdom, and I think of how Mary lives her life completely in light of God as the highest cause of all things, which is true ‘wisdom.’ We might be led to awe in what it means for her to be Mother of God when we contemplate how God has also placed her as Queen of Angels. Or again, when we pray to her as Mother of divine grace, I think of how her willing and worthy motherhood of God overflows spiritually to all of us, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that she “mothers each new grace/ that now does reach our race.” In this sense, this ‘compendium’ is a catechism.
- The Angelus.
This prayer is named from the first word of the prayer, “The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.” It is a simple and brief set of prayers, easy to memorize, typically prayed at the beginning, middle and end of the day. (I know some people who have set a “bell” to ring on their cellphones at the proper times for the Angelus.) It lays the mystery of the Annunciation before our eyes in the midst of the worries and occupations of our life. What graces can we seek here? The mystery is multi-faceted. Mary receives the Incarnate Son in her womb by her fiat. Looking upwards from the Incarnation, we contemplate the mystery of the Trinity, the Father who sends the Son, and the Virgin overshadowed by the Spirit. Looking sideways from the mystery of the Incarnation, we see the passion, death and resurrection for which Jesus was made man. It is also the mystery of God’s prevenient grace to us, which is both unmerited and unbidden. On the moral level, we can contemplate our own need to be attentive and obedient to the voice of God in the unexpected times and ways He speaks– which we live out when we punctuate our days with the Angelus.
- The Scapular.
The scapular devotion, in its postage-stamp-sized variety, is a sort of symbolic sharing in the mission and prayers of a religious order. The most famous version is probably the Brown Scapular, which was given to the Carmelite friar St. Simon Stock. It has a rather hefty promise with it: preservation from the fires of hell. As the Church teaches, sacramentals exist to dispose us to receive the effects of the sacraments (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1667). This sacramental, then, does not entail making an end run on the need for the sacraments, especially the sacrament of penance. Mary promises us her intercession to be inserted in — and remain inserted in — this divinely revealed order, if we are faithful in devotion to her. The physical aspect of the scapular– it is worn– makes it a tangible reminder of Mary’s power to intercede for us.
- Consecration to Jesus through Mary.
St. Louis de Montfort, a French priest who was a Dominican tertiary, popularized this project in his book True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In a certain sense, this isn’t a single devotion but the culmination of a fullness of devotion to Mary. As he says, “we consecrate ourselves at one and the same time to Mary and to Jesus. We give ourselves to Mary because Jesus chose her as the perfect means to unite himself to us and unite us to him.”
One favorite image which St. Louis de Montfort uses to describe Mary is the “mold of God”– that is to say, the form which molds us into the image of the Image who is her Son. As one Dominican friar wrote, the consecration “is a practical form of recognition of her universal mediation and a guarantee of her special protection.”
Image: Jean-François Millet, L’Angélus
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. (Mt 11:12)
This somewhat puzzling verse reminds me of a biography I once read about Br. Mary Joachim, a Trappist monk from the monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky. The Man Who Got Even with God tells the story of how this once wild and hot-tempered son of a Kentucky farmer was gradually tamed through the rigors of monastic life. John Green Hanning’s early life was characterized by his motto “I always get even.”
Once as a very young man, he got into a heated argument with his father and, true to form, settled it by burning down a barn full of his father’s freshly cut tobacco. He then ran away to lead the life of a wandering cowboy for several years. He eventually returned home and reconciled with his family. His conversion to God, however, was delayed until the death of his mother a few years later. Reflecting on the love the Lord had shown him through his mother, John decided to “get even with God” by following a desire he had had many years earlier. He asked to be received into the Trappist monastery a few miles from his home. When Hanning asked his fiancée to be released from their engagement she provided him with extra motivation by laughing to his face at the prospect of his settling down to become a quiet, docile monk.
The biography goes on to chronicle the years of Br. Mary Joachim’s slow and painful growth in the spiritual life by the gentling of his fiery temper. One time he received a stiff penance for hunting up a pitchfork to use on one of his brother novices for some perceived offense. On another occasion he had to spend months angrily eating a large portion of meat intended for some guests, but which he had burnt to charcoal. In yet another instance he came within a hair’s breadth of apoplectically slitting his infirm abbot’s throat while shaving him because the abbot, aiming to discover how far his young monk’s patience had developed, began pointing out the brother’s faults. His motivation to persevere through all this, as well as to be stubbornly faithful to his daily prayers and meditations, remained constant: to get even by learning obedience and charity. And get even Br. Mary Joachim did, as he ever so slowly grew into a tractable monk renowned for his gentleness and holiness.
It seems to me that this story exemplifies what Christ meant in saying that violent men take the kingdom of heaven by force. Such men direct all the power of their passions to holy purposes and so merit their salvation. A number of years ago, in a conversation with his colleague John Senior, Professor Dennis Quinn cited a theory that one of the chief causes of neuroses in our time is the suppression of anger. Well intentioned people sometimes try to curb violence by simply suppressing this emotion. Quinn indicated that this is a mistake. Anger, he pointed out, is an emotion that is not bad in itself. It is a passion which provides us with a great energy or force in overcoming things we apprehend as evil. If bottled up, this energy will eventually manifest itself in unhealthy ways. It should instead be fostered, trained, and put to good use in developing the virtues. In other words, it is a strong impetus that we should take advantage of.
St. Paul of the Cross, whose feast is celebrated today (in the USA), was another man who wisely employed his great energy. The founder of the Congregation of the Passion did not have the wayward early life of Br. Mary Joachim, but he likewise dedicated himself to serving God, doing so by spreading devotion to the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He meditated on, imitated, and preached about the love and mercy of God as revealed to us by the violence Christ endured during his Passion. St. Paul realized that he and his men first needed to be sanctified themselves before they could help save others. Therefore, he established a rigorously ascetic monastic way of life in which they could do violence to their sinful dispositions. He punctuated this life by months of going out to preach to the people of God. St. Paul epitomized an explanation that St. Cyril of Alexandria gave of the Scripture: “Whosoever therefore is a hearer and lover of the sacred message takes it by force: by which is meant, that he uses all his earnestness and all his strength in his desire to enter within the hope.”
Image: Charles M. Russell, Cowboys from the Quarter Circle Box
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)
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
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)
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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