instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Mystery of Suffering

 In one of her letters, St. Catherine of Siena said -- well, she said basically the same thing in more than one letter, but I'm quoting Letter T5/G225 to Francesco da Montalcino:

And whatever [God] gives or permits us, whether pain or illness, in whatever way, he gives and permits it with great mystery, to make us holy and to give us what we need to be saved.

The translator, Suzanne Noffke, OP, adds this note after the word "mystery":

This is the concept of "mystery" (mistero) which is so dear to Catherine, always carrying a sense of the sacramental, of the intimate interaction of God with humanity.

Of course "mystery" and "sacrament" are two different terms for the same thing:

The Greek word mysterion was translated into Latin by two terms: mysterium and sacramentum. In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: "For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ." The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church's sacraments (which the Eastern Churches also call "the holy mysteries"). The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a "sacrament." - CCC 774

 I don't think there's a sense analogical enough for me call pain or illness a "sacrament." But if pain or illness is something physical in which I find God present, and in that experience He gives me what I need to be saved....

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A Very Certain Pharisee

A certain Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.

Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

Isn't that last bit strange? A sinful woman crashes a Pharisee's party, then cries, wipes, kisses, and anoints all over the feet of his out-of-town guest, and what does the Pharisee say to himself?

"Now here's something you don't see every day."? No.

"Note to self: In future, prevent guests from being assaulted by notorious sinners."? No.

"What the heck is she doing?"? No.

All he manages is, "She's a sinner, so he's no prophet."

That's heavy duty interpretive bias. That's some kind of certainty about what's happening, even though what's happening is surely nothing he has ever seen before.

In Simon the Pharisee's mind, this sinful woman is securely categorized as "sinner," and nothing and nobody is going to earn her a reconsideration. He looks at her and sees nothing but SINNER. He doesn't see her penitence. He doesn't see her adoration. In fact, that SINNER is so strong it blinds him to everything it touches, including Simon's guest. (Though apparently Simon's house, to say nothing of himself, remains pure.)

St. Luke doesn't tell us how Simon responded to Jesus' rebuke, so we might hope that he himself wound up penitent and adoring. As we might hope for ourselves, if and when we happen to be too certain of our own righteousness and the sinfulness of another.

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Friday, July 31, 2020

On an unrelated note

I am always surprised when people don’t care whether something they say is true. Often enough, it doesn’t even seem to occur to people to ask themselves whether  something they say is true, as though the fact they find a  thought in their head establishes its truth. Though I suppose being oblivious to the question is better, in some ways, than being indifferent.

As a people myself, I may well do what I criticize here. If and when I do, I’d like to think it’s only because I’m oblivious.

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

What price the Kingdom?

I noticed this morning the man who found buried treasure happened to have just enough wealth to buy the field, and the merchant happened to have just enough wealth to buy the pearl.

That’s the thing about “all that you have.” It sounds like a lot— but it’s not more than you have. Even if all you have is two mites.

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Free gifts!

“On the part of the things proposed to faith for belief, two things are requisite on our part: first that they be penetrated or grasped by the intellect, and this belongs to the gift of understanding. Secondly, it is necessary that man should judge these things aright, that he should esteem that he ought to adhere to these things, and to withdraw from their opposites: and this judgment, with regard to Divine things belong to the gift of wisdom, but with regard to created things, belongs to the gift of knowledge, and as to its application to individual actions, belongs to the gift of counsel.”

— ST II-II, 8, vi

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Monday, July 13, 2020

The Christian Two-Step

I think I almost figured something out today.

As St. Paul teaches:

If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.

"Dead to sin and living for God." Stealing from Bl. Columba Marmion, this is the linchpin of my lesson on Baptism when I've taught that session in RCIA. To become a Christian has two essential dimensions: Die to sin. Live for God.

I got that part. Death/Life. Descent/Ascent. Exitus/Reditus. Into the Jordan/Up from the Jordan. The movement of the Christian, imitating the movement of Christ.

And I am not unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.

But I'm still working on the dying part.

Being dead to sin is easy. Being dead is no effort at all. It's becoming dead that stings. And the death-to-sin of the Christian isn't an easy, peacefully in the night kind of death. It's a crucifixion. The old man doesn't go quietly, he kicks and screams and pleads and hangs on longer than most executioners are willing to wait.

St. Paul says we must think of ourselves as dead to sin, but of course that's not enough. We must really be dead to sin, and you don't get to be dead to sin just by thinking it, or saying it. You have to actually do it. As St. Paul goes on to say:

Therefore, sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires.

You overthrow sin by dying to sin. You do that by taking up your cross every day and following your Master.

"Die to sin" is Christian ascesis. "Live for God" is Christian apotheosis. It's the daily, the constant movement of the Christian; one step, then the other, along the road to Golgotha and eternal life.

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

To You I have entrusted my cause

Today's first reading from Jeremiah includes this plea:

O LORD of hosts, you who test the just,
who probe mind and heart,
let me witness the vengeance you take on them,
for to you I have entrusted my cause.

That might seem inconsistent with the idea of taking up your cross and following the Lamb of God without resisting your enemies.

What I heard, though, is not about the suffering of Jeremiah's enemies, it's about the justice of God. Jeremiah doesn't know when his persecutors "will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion," but he knows it will certainly happen. He doesn't want to witness it for his personal triumph over all those who were his friends -- well, maybe a little, but the real point is, for Jeremiah to witness it means he's still alive when it happens, which means it happens relatively soon. When you're praying to a God for Whom a thousand years are like yesterday, no more than a watch in the night, it doesn't hurt to ask that He not wait a thousand years to effect His justice in the world.

Moreover, Jeremiah has entrusted his cause to the LORD Who tests the just. He's sure he's aced the test, but it's not official until the test results are posted. When the wicked lose their power, the poor will not only be rescued, they can be certain that they themselves are just before the LORD if they follow Jeremiah's example.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Where was I?

I was talking with God last night, and it seemed what I was looking for was the Broadway Prayer, about which I first wrote seventeen years ago (!) and haven't given a lot of thought to since.

In case the details have slipped your mind as well, let me quote myself:
Fr. Clement Burns, OP, preaches something he calls "the Broadway Prayer," for use when a person or situation in your life weighs heavily on your heart.

The steps of the Broadway Prayer are:
  1. Thank God for the person. Put his name up in lights (hence "Broadway") and celebrate the good that God has placed in him. It doesn't matter whether you feel particularly thankful. "Dear God, thank you for my neighbor. Thank you for the love she has for your creation [which she shows by keeping two dozen cats]. Thank you for her enthusiasm [which keeps her up till 2 a.m. on weekends] and her sense of humor [marked by that braying laugh]."
  2. Ask God to change the person in some observable way. Of course, the way you think the person should change may not be the way God thinks he should. You just pray for what you think is best, and leave the rest to God. The important point, for this prayer, is that the change be something you will be able to detect. "I pray that my mother may stop spitting tobacco juice on the rugs and shooting at squirrels from my porch."
  3. Thank God for changing the person. Take a moment to imagine the person changed in the way you have asked, then thank God for it. "Thank you, Lord, for helping him to stop insulting Norwegians in my presence."

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

The handle of his wrong

I came across Epictetus a couple of times this week, which is unexpected since he's been dead for a while now. First was a link to an old Existential Comic that explains why there are so few First World Stoics these days. Second was a reference, in a Joseph Bottum Weekly Standard column, to Epictetus's "two handles" metaphor, which I quote from an online translation:
Everything has two handles, one by which you can carry it, the other by which you cannot. If your brother wrongs you, do not take it by that handle, the handle of his wrong, for you cannot carry it by that, but rather by the other handle—that he is a brother, brought up with you, and then you will take it by the handle that you can carry by.
Bottum was writing about American political discourse, but Catholic discourse is also rife with taking the handle of your brother's wrong. The fact that he is wrong is often treated as more relevant, more fundamental, even more certain than the fact that he is your brother.

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