instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, March 12, 2004

A note on A Key, ii

On page 15, Abbot Vonier quotes the O sacrum convivium [which happens to be indulgenced]:
O sacred Banquet, wherein Christ is received, the memory of His passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and there is given to us a pledge of future glory.
We are (or should be) used to the idea of the Eucharist as a "re-presentation" of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, that it makes present in our churches the one sacrifice offered once and for all outside Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago. We understand, indeed many of us can testify, that receiving the Eucharist confers graces upon the receiver. We might even occasionally think of the future glory pledged by the Eucharist -- the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father.

But Abbot Vonier quotes this prayer in the context of discussing how, as he writes a page before, every sacrament
recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future.
A sacrament can do these things because it is a sign.

Being a sign of something else might be thought of as an imperfection, as though what really counts is the thing signified and the sign itself is ephemeral, passing from the mind as soon as what is signified is recognized. This isn't the case with a sacrament, though; the fact that it is a sign is what makes it capable of containing the past, the present, and the future all at once.

As St. Thomas writes (and Abbott Vonier quotes), when discussing whether a sacrament is a sign of one thing only:
...a sacrament properly speaking is that which is ordained to signify our sanctification. In which three things may be considered; viz.
  • the very cause of our sanctification, which is Christ's passion;
  • the form of our sanctification, which is grace and the virtues;
  • and the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life.
As I suggested, thinking of the Eucharist in these terms comes more or less readily to Catholics. Baptism, too, if we are aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death, and that if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united with Him in the resurrection.

But what about the other sacraments? Do we ever think about how marriage recalls the past, or holy orders reveals the future?

I know that I tend to collapse the idea of a sacrament into an outward sign of an inward grace given by the sacrament. That's certainly true, but it's inadequate. If the graces received are all there is to it, then what's the point of the sign? To tell us particular graces are being received? Then why not just pray for those particular graces and skip all the fuss with the oil and the water and so forth?

Because, as Abbot Vonier explains, you need a sign if you want to tie the past, present, and future all together, and
to limit the sacramental power of signification to the present moment, to the transformation of soul which takes place when the sacrament is received, would be an unwarranted minimizing of the sacramental doctrine, and would leave much of our scriptural language unintelligible. (p. 16)

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Serviam

Apparently, my bishop mines the Disputations archives when he's short on ideas for his weekly newspaper column. (The Eucharistic angle seems to have been his own, though.)

No need to thank me, your Eminence. That's what I'm here for. Semper opifer!

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My week for meek

In his homily this morning, my associate pastor mentioned that the verse from Matthew I quoted below is the only record we have of Jesus laying claim to a virtue. The full saying is:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
Meekness and humility are curious virtues for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but just the thing for the Lamb of God.

And yet, Jesus is not presenting Himself here as the Lamb of God. He's presenting Himself as the source of an easy burden and light yoke, as an easer of burdens and a giver of rest. He is the fulfillment of the Law, which through the centuries had become a burden to those who followed it, rather than the source of comfort and joy of the psalmist.

So what does meekness and humility of heart have to do with giving easy yokes?

Here's my guessexegesis: When God gave the Law to Moses, He concealed Himself on Mount Sinai where only Moses could approach. Later, God spoke to Israel through His prophets, and of course He had His priests to offer sacrifices in the Temple.

But the coming of Christ is the coming of the Lord among His people, all of whom are now invited, even commanded, to an intimate and loving life with Him. For a people raised on stories like Uzzah the Smited and a Law that even the just man stumbles against seven times a day, the presence of the Lord might well be as much a source of fear as joy.

So Jesus reassures them, claiming for Himself meekness and humility not for his own honor -- far from it -- but out of love and compassion for His people: "I come in meekness, not in wrath. I come in humility, not in the glory that is death to the sinner."

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Thursday, March 11, 2004

Love your enemies

Camassia, revisiting the mystery of the Atonement, writes of her dissatisfaction with the Substitutional Atonement theory:
There are a number of things, it seems to me, that this leaves out.... Why love your enemies? According to this line of thought, the suffering on earth are only getting their just deserts ahead of schedule.
And of the "Christus Victor" theory:
One of the few things it has in common with SA is that it remains myterious why you should love your enemies. Especially since your enemies also seem to be enemies of God.
I thought we are to love our enemies that we may be children of our heavenly Father, who loves our enemies. That, at least, is the context for Jesus' teaching to love our enemies in Matthew 5.

I'm told that, to the Jewish way of thinking in Jesus' day, what you do is who you are, which is why for instance His saying "your sins are forgiven" was such a scandal. It wasn't just that only God can forgive sins, but, put the other way, that whoever forgives sins is God.

The extension of the commandment to love from one's neighbor (necessary for the survival of Israel) to one's enemy occurs in Matthew as Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount, the Good News which in its fullness tells us we are intended to become true children of God. As Camassia quotes, "God became man that man might become God." And a child does as his father does.

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The greatest of these is charity

Just a few scattered thoughts prompted by the talk given Tuesday night by Fr. Reginald Whitt, OP, from the text:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. [Col. 3:12-14]
First, I learned that it is markedly unsatisfying to listen to an exhortation on the Christian virtue of patience while your children are climbing on top of you in the front pew and asking if they can go back to the vestibule and have another cookie. Talk of forbearing suffered wrongs really takes the spice out of plotting dreadful punishments.

Fr. Whitt also spoke of meekness, the virtue that moderates anger. Note that it moderates anger. It doesn't smother anger, or replace anger, or ignore anger, or uproot the capacity for anger; all of these things are immoderate, probably impossible, and certainly not Christian virtues.

When Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart," He didn't add, "except when I'm arguing with Pharisees or driving out moneychangers." Even then He was meek, moderating the anger that the Messiah of the Lord felt toward those who would distort the Lord's teaching and defile His Temple.

Obviously, Christian meekness isn't the secular meekness of passivity and inoffensiveness. To be meek is to be gentle, not limp, in the face of provocation. In fact, it can (and probably should) cause us to be provocative ourselves, perhaps even to give offense. Again, meekness only moderates our anger, and if our anger is justified it is not alway virtuous to fail to act on that anger.

Fr. Whitt used a notable turn-of-phrase along these lines: Kindness and humility together compose a Christian temperament by which we live together as Christians. I thought that was interesting: if you are kind and humble, you have the right temperament to put on true Christian love, the bond of perfection; if not, not. We say it takes all kinds to make the Kingdom; maybe we should say the Kingdom takes from all kinds and makes their temperaments suitable.

Finally (for this post, not in the talk), Fr. Whitt argued against a carrot-and-stick understanding of the prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Forgiveness that is conditional, he said, isn't forgiveness. God doesn't say, "I'll forgive you if you forgive these others," which is more of a taunt than an expression of mercy. Rather, our failure to forgive is one of the things we need to be forgiven, and only the forgiving can receive the forgiveness God bestows on everyone.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Triumph all ye Cherubim

Ever wonder what order of angel you are?

Of course not. That's silly. You aren't an angel, you're a human.

Still, I took the quiz, and felt myself being inexorably drawn toward an order that turned out to be... the Cherubim.

Of course, thanks to that oaf Raphael (the painter, not the archangel), I can't say, "I'm a cherub," and impress many people. But it seems to make sense, granting the absurdity of the question, as does Steven Riddle's answer of Seraph.

St. Thomas, in what is not his most rigorous treatment of a subject, writes on the various properties of the angelic orders:
..."Cherubim" ... is interpreted "fulness of knowledge," which Dionysius expounds in regard to four things: the perfect vision of God; the full reception of the Divine Light; their contemplation in God of the beauty of the Divine order; and in regard to the fact that possessing this knowledge fully, they pour it forth copiously upon others.
And those last two things have more than an echo of the Dominican motto "to contemplate and give to others the fruits of contemplation."

Meanwhile,
Dionysius expounds the name "Seraphim" according to the properties of fire....

[Seraphim] are borne inflexibly towards God.

...the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rous[e] them to a like fervor, and cleans[e] them wholly by their heat.

...these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others.
And finally,
the "Cherubim" have the excellence of knowledge and the "Seraphim" the excellence of ardor.
So I'd allow as that the Seraphim are to Carmelite spirituality as the Cherubim are to Dominican spirituality, while noting that "in the angelic orders all spiritual perfections are common to all the angels."

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Teachers and artists

I was struck by this, from yesterday's Evening Prayer's intercessions:
Inspire all teachers and artists to prepare mankind for your kingdom.
It seems a strange pairing, teachers and artists. In fact, it seems strange to mention artists at all in the course of the liturgy for a Tuesday in Lent.

But if all things are to be ordered in and for Christ, then art too must be ordered in and for Christ. This prayer mentions one order for art to carry out: preparing mankind for the Lord's kingdom.

In itself, art is making a thing well. The purpose for making a thing may be good or bad; often enough there's no real purpose at all. But all that is Christian has a good purpose, and Christian art can serve the purpose of preparing for the Kingdom, of plowing the soil where the seeds of the Gospel are to be planted.

That's a high purpose, one perhaps not considered as often as the purpose of instructing or delighting those who already have the Word growing within them. If our art is not directed toward preparing as well as nurturing, our world will be the poorer for it.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Worthy is the Lamb

Peter Nixon writes about what the life of St. John of God suggests about our sense of worthiness:
I may be stretching this a bit, but I think that what ended up happening with John of God is that he moved from a sense of his unworthiness based on his own failings to a sense of his unworthiness based on his understanding of God’s love for him....

To pray that we might be "worthy of the promises of Christ" is not, like John before his spiritual breakthrough, to pray for our own moral perfection. It is to pray that we might be fully opened to the stunning, overwhelming, inexplicable and entirely gracious love that God pours out on us and that we may be able to love like that in return.
Worthiness is a quality of a person or thing that in some way justifies the bestowal of a certain honor. Scripture often refers to God's praiseworthiness and trustworthiness. Of the Evangelists, Luke seems most concerned with the idea of being worthy -- or rather, with not being worthy: John the Baptist is not worthy to untie the thongs of Jesus' sandals; the centurion is not worthy to receive Jesus under his roof; the prodigal son is not worthy to be called his father's son; Jesus warns His disciples that who is not trustworthy will not be given more and better, and that merely following commandments is the action of a unworthy servant. Luke does record a few examples of worthiness: the faithful servants who are worthy of five or ten cities (tempered by the example of the wicked servant worthy of nothing); those "deemed worthy to attain to the coming age."

In the Gospel of Luke, then, worthiness is almost always expressed in the context of servitude: a servant recognizes he is unworthy of reward; a master acknowledges a servant as worthy.

One of the great hymns in Scripture refers to the worthiness of the Lamb:
Worthy are you to receive the scroll and to break open its seals, for you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth....

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.
The Lamb did more than turn ten coins into twenty coins. He was slain, and with His blood purchased a kingdom for God. In so doing, He becomes worthy to receive honor and glory and blessing.

This is the worthiness of the Christian disciple, by resemblance to the Father's Son, the Lamb that was slain. It's not simply the worthiness of servitude writ large, though. That worthiness is based on justice; the worthiness of the Christian disciple is based entirely on an unmerited grace given out of God's love for us.

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A blinding flash of insight

In a comment on the post below, Rob writes:
I think that many Christians, be they Catholic, or generic, honestly believe that all they have to do is go through the motions--be in the right place at the right time and say the right words--in order to make it Home. I don't see how it can be that easy.
I toyed for a moment with replying along the lines of, "It is that easy, and it isn't," before commending Rob to the Carmelites on this matter.

And then it struck me: Words like "easy" and "hard" are simply improper terms with which to speak of salvation. Asking "Is salvation easy?" is like asking "Is salvation taupe?" or "Is salvation minty?"

Flip a coin. Is it easy to see that heads came up? Well, yes, assuming heads came up. If tails came up, seeing that heads came up is not easy. It's not hard, either. It's impossible.

You remember the story of the rich man who asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" When he goes away sad (for he had many possessions), Jesus amazes His disciples with the words
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, "Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God."
If a thing is impossible to do, that doesn't mean the thing is hard to do. It doesn't even mean the thing is really, really, really hard to do. It means it's infinitely hard to do, and "infinitely hard" is not a level of hardness, any more than infinity is a positive integer simply because it's the upper limit of the positive integers.

There is difficulty, there is work involved on our part regarding our own salvation. It takes effort to learn what God has revealed, to know God, to resist the tempations of the flesh, the world, and the devil. But it is God Who saves us, the Good Shepherd Who leads us. The way may indeed be a narrow gate, but as long as it's wider than we are we have no difficulty in passing through it.

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Monday, March 08, 2004

A note on A Key, i

On p. 9 of the Zaccheus Press edition of A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Abbot Vonier writes:
For the Puritain, faith is not in need of any help or adjuncts. Yet the reason given by Catholic theologians for the presence in the Christian dispensation of these external signs of internal faith [i.e., the sacraments] are chiefly psychological; man's nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensible to a full life of faith.
There are many arguments against the Catholic faith that, in one way or another, boil down to rejecting the claim, "Man's nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensible to a full life of faith."

Abbot Vonier points out one argument, that of the Puritain: "Faith needs no help." That may be true, but it isn't faith that is to be saved, it's man, and man can use all the help he can get.

Another argument pivots on the word "indispensible." God is not bound by the sacraments, so they aren't indispensible in the literal sense that salvation is strictly impossible without them (setting aside the question of how sacramental baptism by desire actually is). But they are indispensible given that man's nature is as it is:
Saint Thomas gives a threefold reason for the institution of the sacraments; but this threefold reason is really one -- man's psychology. However, the three factors are firstly, the condition of man's nature, being a composite of spirit and sense; secondly, man's estate, which is slavedom to material things and only to be remedied by the spiritual power inside the material thing; thirdly, man's activities, so prone to go astray in external interests, finding in the sacraments a true bodily exercise which works out for salvation.
As St. Thomas writes in answer to an objection in the same article Abbot Vonier references:
God's grace is a sufficient cause of man's salvation. But God gives grace to man in a way which is suitable to him. Hence it is that man needs the sacraments that he may obtain grace.
Some would object that the sacraments are suitable to man. Various strains of Manichaeism are still around, even within Christianity, that in effect deny that the spiritual can be expressed or signified by the material. There is something of a passive Cartesian dualism that forgets, if it ever knew, that we really are souls and bodies, not souls temporarily stuck in bodies; have you ever met anyone who thinks we become angels after we die? A healthy faith in the Incarnation and the Resurrection resist this error.

Then there are those who deny there is such a thing as human nature. Their difficulties with the Faith neither start nor finish with the sacraments, and so discussions with them shouldn't either.

It's those Protestants, or even those poorly catechized Catholics, who regard the sacraments as something somehow extra, and so extraneous, whom I would most like to exhort. Jesus tells us He came that we might have life in abundance. To prune back that life to the barest minimum, to keep it at subsistence level lest we be guilty of some sort of excess, is, in a word, un-Biblical.

A full life of faith is what Jesus preached, what the Apostles wrote of. It is a participation, even now, in the life of the Holy Trinity. Half-measures and bare subsistence are not God's ways, nor should they be ours. And because they are available in the Christian dispensation, a full life of faith requires, demands, yearns for, and embraces the sacraments.

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March 9 Lenten prayer and talk in Silver Spring, MD

At St. Andrew Apostle Church, Arcola Drive and Kemp Mill Road. Program Begins at 7:30 pm and Closes With Salve Regina and Blessing.

The Very Reverend Reginald Whitt, OP, will be speaking on, "And the Greatest of These is Charity."
Reginald Whitt was raised in Baltimore. While a student at Loyola College in Maryland, he made the Profession of Faith and was received into the Catholic Church from the Baptist fellowship. He entered the Order of Preachers, and studied at the Dominican House of Studies, from whose Pontifical Faculty he received the S.T.B. in 1974. After ordination, Fr. Whitt served in Louisville, and ­received his J.D. from Duke Law School in 1982. Following canon law studies at the Angelicum in Rome, he enrolled in the Department of Can­on Law at the Catholic University of America, from which he received the J.C.L. in 1993, and the J.C.D. in 1995. Fr. Whitt taught on the law school faculties of Villanova University, the University of Kentucky, Duke University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota. Known for his research in African American Catholic concerns, his writing won first prize among original works from the Catholic Press Association. He is a participant in the United Methodist-Catholic Dialogue, and is a member of the Canon Law Society of America and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. Fr. Whitt was appointed President of the Pontifical Faculty of the College of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in September 2003.

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Divine amnesia

T.S. O'Rama mentions that his adorable wife "has an amnesiac memory that is God-like, since He utterly forgives and forgets our sins and failings."

Ezekiel 18:22 is one place in Scripture where this Divine amnesia is mentioned:
But if the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.
The natural response to this is, of course, "Woo hoo!"

But I think there's a deeper significance here. This verse doesn't say our crimes won't be held against us, it says our crimes won't be remembered. Our sins won't be simply forgiven, they'll be forgotten.

And it's God Who is doing the forgetting. What does it mean for God to forget something? Doesn't it mean that the thing passes out of His mind? Can something that doesn't exist in God's mind, even in His memory, be said to exist anywhere?

I don't think so. I read such passages as Ezekiel 18:22 as meaning that, in a real sense, our sins not only cease to count against us, but cease to be, in fact cease to have been. Now, I can't really say what that "real sense" in which this is true is. It's not literally true, since the past can't be changes, and in any case God can't forget anything. But I do think it's true in some sense such that, properly speaking, there aren't any former sinners in heaven. In being raised up to share in the Divine Life, we are perfected, and that perfection includes the perfection of our histories in a way that leaves no shadow in the presence of God.

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Sunday, March 07, 2004

That will fix the Manichees!

Last Friday, I spoke to my children's Catholic school classes (one third grade, one first grade) about being a Lay Dominican. The teachers at our parochial school love to have parents come in and speak to the kids, and the kids like the break from learning.

Now, I've been trying to explain what a Lay Dominican is to my wife for about six years, so I didn't have much hope in getting too much across to the eight- and six-year-olds. But I figured that if, after twenty minutes, I left them with the impression that there was some guy named St. Dominic and I am a Dominican which has something to do with prayer and I am not a priest, I would have been successful.

Well, I'm not sure what impression I left them with, but I didn't leave either class in anywhere near twenty minutes. Which, I suppose, says something about being a Lay Dominican in itself. I mentioned in passing to the third grade teacher that, since Dominicans love the Rosary, I'd be happy to come back and talk to her class about the Rosary for two or three hours; she thought that sounded great, but maybe in fifteen minute blocks. After what I'd done to her daily lesson plan, which had me slotted for fifteen minutes, I bet she was picturing me keeping the kids after school just to finish the introduction to the history of meditative Christian prayer.

What I wasn't really expecting was for the kids to apply what I was saying to... well, to anything, honestly, but in particular to their schoolwork. But the third graders are studying saints in the Church, so most of their questions were about saints (and had I given that fact much thought, I wouldn't have handed out the holy cards with twenty-three unidentified Dominican saints on them before I asked if there were any questions). The first graders are studying personal responsibility, so most of their questions were about what happens if you don't follow all the rules in the Rule.

And although what I said was mostly about the history of the Order and the four pillars of Dominican Life (prayer, study, community, and preaching), I did slip in a few traces of preaching. Mostly against Catharism, because you can never be too careful, but also a bit about the efficacy of prayer. ("No, Timmy, not 'iffixy.' Eff ic a cy. 'Efficacy.' It means possessing the power to produce an effect. What do they teach you here?")

I mention all this primarily because I think children can stand to see more examples of people who care about their faith who don't have to. Priests and Catholic school teachers more or less have to talk about faith and prayer and Jesus. The sight of a grown-up who isn't a priest or a teacher or your own parent talking about Who Jesus is and what difference He makes is not something Catholic kids -- or their teachers and parents, for that matter -- see every day. Planting a seed that a living faith can be something we seek out rather than something imposed on us just might bear abundant fruit one day.

You would know better than I whether you have anything to say to kids at a nearby Catholic school, and how to go about arranging the chance to say it. But don't think you can't do it just because you never have. I'd certainly never chanted a Latin hymn to a room full of eight year olds before Friday.

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Thursday, March 04, 2004

Spiritual alms

So you're almost a fifth of the way through Lent, and things are going well. You've remembered to read the daily reflections in that booklet you picked up at church on Ash Wednesday, and you've learned that it is possible to survive a week without tasting Mountain Dew.

So prayer: check. Fasting: check. But almsgiving?

Sure, you've been putting your daily change into the little cardboard Rice Bowl, but you haven't actually given it to anyone yet, and besides, come Easter Monday you'll just write a check to Catholic Relief Services you'd have written anyway, and then you'll have six weeks worth of change you have to do something with. The spirit is willing, but it's hard to see what all that has to do with any Lenten journey.

Well, first, you might try pratying the Operation Rice Bowl Prayer when you put your coins in the box, since even symbolic almsgiving is empty when it's not tied to prayer:
O Lord --
In my prayer, make me a hungry child - that I may know solidarity with the poor.
In my fast, make me an empty bowl - that you may fill the hollow space in me with love.
In my almsgiving, make me a grain of rice - that in the company of others, my gifts may feed a starving world.
We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ.
Amen.
But there is a simple way you can give alms every day during Lent. I have in mind not financial alms -- although they are necessary -- but spiritual alms.

As Neil Dhingra pointed out last week, St. Thomas enumerated almsdeeds -- which he classified as acts of the theological virtue of charity -- according to what we call the spiritual and corporal works of mercy:
[W]e reckon seven corporal almsdeeds, namely, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, to bury the dead...
Again we reckon seven spiritual alms, namely, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to reprove the sinner, to forgive injuries, to bear with those who trouble and annoy us, and to pray for all....
Take a look at those seven spiritual alms. Even if the first six require opportunities that might not always present themselves, everyone can always pray for all every day.

As you might expect, St. Thomas believed spiritual almsdeeds are better than corporal almsdeeds, except "with regard to some particular case, when some corporal alms excels some spiritual alms: for instance, a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed."

In discussing whether almsgiving is a matter of precept -- that is, whether we are bound to do it -- he uses a turn of phrase with a happy English translation:
Now the love of our neighbor requires that not only should we be our neighbor's well-wishers, but also his well-doers, according to 1 Jn. 3:18: "Let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed, and in truth." And in order to be a person's well-wisher and well-doer, we ought to succor his needs: this is done by almsgiving.
("Well-doer" sounds better than "do-gooder," wouldn't you say?) If we are bound to give alms, though, to whom are we bound to give them?
[S]ince it is not possible for one individual to relieve the needs of all, we are not bound to relieve all who are in need, but only those who could not be succored if we not did succor them... otherwise almsgiving, like any other greater good, is a matter of counsel.
So an excellent daily spiritual almsdeed for Lent is to pray for people who would not be prayed for otherwise -- or, more practically, who are probably not praying for themselves.

Is this really almsgiving? If you like, you can think of it as giving of your surplus time with God to someone who spends no time with God. How much are a few minutes a day spent with God worth?

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A Dominican, a Carmelite, and a Jesuit...
come across an old manuscript in a library that reads, "The Secrets of Contemplation are: first, pray; second, keep at it."

The Dominican says, "Right-o!"

The Carmelite says, "Why make it so complicated?"

The Jesuit says, "Got it, now what's number three?"
I find jokes to be a good way to describe the differences between Christian spiritualities. If you want another example, take a look at the discussion between Steven Riddle and me in the comments of the post below, then see Fr. Tucker's fine set of Ignatian reflections.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2004

A simple conversation

What do you do if you want to talk over something with someone? Depending on where they are, you might call them on the phone, or walk down the hall to their office, or sit next to them in the cafeteria, or clear your throat at the breakfast table. You say, "There's something I want to talk over with you," then you describe whatever it is, say, "What do you think?", and listen to their answer.

It's a natural conversational pattern that applies as much to God as to your spouse or co-worker. As enumerated by Fr. Barranger last night (and paraphrased by me today), the steps of a simple but effective form of conversational prayer are:
  1. Invoke God's presence. By, for example, saying, "I am in the presence of God."
  2. Clear your mind. You can count on God's attention; your own attention to what you're doing can take a little work.
  3. Tell God what's going on in your life. Be frank, be honest, be as forthcoming as you have time to be. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God. Sarah tried to pretend she didn't laugh at the idea of having a baby. God isn't the one fooled or hurt by hiding and pretense.
  4. Invite Him in to your whole life. Your whole life. Including the parts you'd prefer left as they are, and the parts you'd prefer not think about at all.
  5. Shut up and listen. This can be the hardest part, but it's the point of the earlier steps.
Prayer isn't magic, and inviting God into your life isn't like inviting an indulgent uncle over. God doesn't give you everything you ask for as soon as you ask for it.

But we do have the promises of Christ that God will listen and will answer. The answer may resolve an issue; it may tell you the issue will be before you for a long while yet. God does enter where we invite Him, though, and He does open when we knock.

What struck me about this when Fr. Barranger mentioned it -- and again, I'm not good at listening to what I've already heard, and I've already heard plenty of other variations on such conversational prayer -- is that it can be done in five minutes. When I've tried something like this in the past, I've tended first to take several minutes to move from liturgical-style words to common or garden speech (e.g., from sentences beginning "Eternal Father" to those beginning "Well, of course You know"), and then to meander through twenty minutes worth of nattering about the things I think I should mention ("Right, and then her aunt is having her gall bladder removed, so don't forget her, please.").

In terms of the above list, I do 1 and 2 okay, but then 3 mutates into a stream-of-consciousness monologue, and I'm tired of the whole thing before I even consider 4 and 5.

But of course stream-of-consciousness monologues are not conversations. A few seconds to center myself, two minutes of headline news, three minutes of listening to God's silent whispers. That sounds like a schedule I could stick to.

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Temperate remarks

Kairos awakes from a long winter's nap with several posts, including one on the enduring value of giving things up for Lent in the face of single-minded emphasis on doing "something positive."

This ties in with what I wrote below about fasting being a movement toward God, not simply a non-movement toward non-God. Giving something up is doing something positive.

And I think we can say it's not merely positive in its end -- viz., drawing one closer to God -- but in its direct object: Mortification of the appetite is an exercise in the virtue of temperance, which St. Thomas regards as the habit of "withholding the appetite from those things which are most seductive to man."

Interestingly, St. Thomas goes on to argue that
temperance is properly about pleasures of meat and drink and sexual pleasures. Now these pleasures result from the sense of touch. Wherefore it follows that temperance is about pleasures of touch.
So, generalizing temperance to withholding the appetite from those things which seduce the sense of touch, when Kairos Guy withholds his appetite from hot showers, his deacon should praise him for cultivating temperance.

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Notes from Evening Prayer

Fr. Joseph Barringer, OP, presided at a sung Vespers service at St. Andrew Apostle Church in Silver Spring, MD, last night. Here are a few things that struck me from the liturgy:
  • Churches and chant go very well together. My Lay Dominican chapter has been chanting Evening Prayer together off and on for five years, and we've never sounded particularly good. But put us in a church, add a few dozen voices, and most of the mistakes cancel each other out to produce something that, by golly, sounds like prayer.

    Try it in your parish!

  • One story Fr. Barringer told: A young boy was asked whether he prayed. He answered, "Sometimes I pray, sometimes I just say my prayers."

    Catholics probably do a lot of "just saying my prayers." This, understandably, gets a bad rap. You might just say your prayers out of habit, or out of duty. But just saying your prayers can also be an act of love, the "prayer of showing up," of telling God, "I've got nothing to give you in my head or in my heart, but I will give you the next two/five/ten minutes." I've read a bit about praying when you seem to get nothing out of it, but there's also praying when you seem to put nothing into it.

  • A quotation for Steven: "The heart is the home of God, not the head."

  • A quotation for Gerard: "The heart is the home of God, not the head."

  • "Lent is a journey." I'm not good at listening to things I've heard before, but when Fr. Barringer said ths, it struck me that I tend to think of Lent as more a preparation for a journey than a journey itself, as though the first thirty-six days are a matter of packing the things needed for going from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. But Lent is, or should be, a time of action. Fasting and penance are actions, they're a kind of movement toward God, not merely inaction or statis while we watch, unblinking, as the calendar moves to Easter. Ash Wednesday is not a day to yell, "Freeze!" regarding the minutiae and distractions of the world, but a time to say, "Keep moving, but change direction."

  • Last night was one of the very few times I've participated in the Liturgy of the Hours in a parish setting, possibly the only time when it wasn't paired with Benediction or some similar rite. The manifestation of community was striking.

    We chanted the psalms and canticles in choir, each side of the church alternating pairs of lines(signifying the cycle of preaching and listening). There is of course no Sign of Peace or filing up to Communion in Vespers. The Liturgy of the Hours is not fundamentally one featuring priest and congregation; the presence of a priest doesn't create the community out of the congregation the way it does at Mass.

    The act that was our source of community last night was, quite simply, praying together. Yes, the Eucharist is the source and summit of Evening Prayer as of everything else in the Christian life, and yes, we prayed in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. But on our part, on the human level, we expressed our communion, not by shaking hands or receiving Communion or making explicit reference to our coming together, but simply by praying the same thing at (very close to) the same time. It was something of an "ex opere operato communion," that happened whether we really thought of it or not.

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Happy St. Kate's Day!

Today is the Feast of St. Katharine Drexel. (Or the Memorial, if you want to be liturgically persnickity.)

She wasn't very keen about the idea of founding a religious congregation -- the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament -- but she trusted in God and in the spiritual director He gave her, and things worked out pretty well.

St. Katharine is, as I've written elsewhere, a very American saint. A keen businesswoman, a hands-on administrator who worked herself almost to death (though God granted her twenty years of contemplation after forty years of activity), she dedicated her life to serving the spiritual and temporal needs of the black and Indian peoples in the United States.

St. Katharine, friend of the poor, pray for us.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2004

DC area Lenten series

My Lay Dominican chapter is again sponsoring a series of Lenten reflections this year. The programs for the first four Tuesdays of March feature chanted Evening Song (using Murray tone 6, if you're interested), with a reflection by a Dominican friar following the reading. The last Tuesday of March will feature a concert, and the first Tuesday of April is a penance service.

The schedule is as follows:
March 2 - Rev. Joseph Barringer, OP, Prior of the House of Studies, "Lent - 40 day Makeover Plan"
March 9 - Very Rev. Reginald Whitt, OP, President of the Pontifical Faculty
March 16 - Rev. John Langlois, OP, Student Master of the House of Studies, "Penance"
March 23 - Rev. James M. Sullivan, OP, Provincial Promoter for the Third Order
March 30 - Rev. Bill Garrott, OP, Vocation Director for the Province, "We Sing to the Lord" Fr. Garrott recently released a CD titled Preacher of Grace; he will be performing excerpts after his talk.
April 6 - Penance Service with Dominican Confessors

All events start at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew Apostle Church, 11600 Kemp Mill Rd., Silver Spring, MD.
Sorry about the short notice, but even if you can't make it tonight there's plenty of time to plan for the rest of the series.

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This week's unprovable hypothesis

I've heard, so often that I assumed it had to be true, that kids today (by which I mean men and women between the ages of 18 and 24) don't believe in objective truth, that they believe rather that what is true for one person need not be true for another.

But now I wonder whether that's really true. That is, I wonder whether "I don't believe in objective truth" is the same as "What's true for you doesn't need to be true for me."

I suspect the second statement is best understood as saying that one thing, call it truforu, isn't in every circumstance the same as another thing, call it truformi. But it says nothing about how either truforu or truformi might relate to a third thing, objective truth as traditionally understood.

In fact, I doubt the statement "Truforu need not be truformi" even functions as a statement most of the times it's asserted. Someone who says this is not concerned with epistemology, but with rhetoric. He's saying, "I don't need to convince you of my position, and you don't need to convince me of your position." He's saying, "Whatever."

My fundamental suspicion, from which all the above suspicions stem, is that most people do believe in objective truth, for the simple reason that in their experience there is an objective reality which can be observed. (Shins and toes are particularly good instruments for conveying such experiences, even to a mind trained to regard everything as socially constructed.)

That there is an objective reality means that there is something outside of the perceiver that can be perceived. But as we all know, "Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the one receiving it." So here's my hypothesis, combining my fundamental suspicion that pretty much everyone believes in an objective reality with the observation that a lot of people assert that truforu need not be truformi:
Most of us, most of the time, assume that our mode is the "right" mode to receive something.
In other words: Most of us assume what is truformi is objectively true, and if someone else doesn't agree, they're wrong. The corollary: What kids today mean when they say there is no right and wrong is that, although they are right, they don't have to bother to correct those who are wrong.

(This needs to be nuanced a bit, since the concept of truformi encompasses more than what is true from a strictly objective perspective, e.g., "Cocoanut tastes like rancid wood shavings." Still, the hypothesis suggests there are many truth claims people might say are subjective but really believe are objective, and only a fool or a liar would deny them.)

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For me, to live is Christ

A common question asked of those in the Dominican Family is, "What's the difference between a Dominican nun and a Dominican sister?"

The Dominican nuns are cloistered, and would be considered the "Second Order" of Dominicans, with the friars the "First Order" and secular layfolk and diocesan priests in various communities of the "Third Order." (The "First," "Second," and "Third" terminology has been deprecated in recent decades, for reasons with which I have no sympathy.)

The Dominican sisters aren't cloistered. They belong to congregations that have historical ties to, but are canonically separate from, the Order of Preachers. There was a time when Dominican sisters were also professed members of the Third Order, but I don't know of any congregation of sisters for which that's still true (not that I necessarily would know).

Since Vatican II, the Dominican Order has been trying to align its various parts to more effectively and cohesively attend to its mission of preaching and the salvation of souls. A side-effect (which I trust was unintended) has been a certain confusion of terms. We speak of the "branches" of the "Dominican Family," including the friars, the nuns, the laity, the sisters, the sisters' associates, the secular institutes, the Dominican Youth movements, and so on. Sometimes, we even remember the priestly fraternities, the diocesan priests who would once have been called "Third Order Regular."

It's all very confusing, of course, a bit shamefully so, you might say, considering the care and precision that illuminates the thought of our great doctor, Br. Thomas.

In practice, though, the key distinctions are often not difficult to make.

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Monday, March 01, 2004

Dominicanamania

If you are a Lay Dominican, or simply dig their charism, you might enjoy a subscription to The Dominican Torch, the quarterly journal of the Dominican Laity of the Province of St. Joseph.

The theme of the latest issue is St. Thomas Aquinas and what he has to say to the Dominican Laity. Articles include "St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominican Vocation," by fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.; "Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Battle for Chastity," by Theo Stearns, T.O.P.; "A Brief Look at St. Thomas Aquinas's Poetry and Hymns," by Michael Ryman, T.O.P.; "The Saint Petersburg Dominicans," Joseph Lake, T.O.P.; "Charisms of One Dominican Family," by Gail Waterman, T.O.P.; "From Faust to Frankenstein: 'Mad' Science vs. Human Life," by David W. Witter, T.O.P.; "Dominican Friars and the Infant of Prague," by fr. Albert Caprio, O.P.; and "Who is the Religious Promoter?," by fr. Jacob Restrick, O.P. (This last is first in a series of articles on the different roles in a Lay Dominican chapter.)

Themes for upcoming issues include St. Catherine of Siena, St. Dominic, and Our Lady of the Rosary.

A one-year subscription (four issues) is $15 (for domestic U.S. addresses). The magazine is published on glossy paper, 48 pp. an issue (give or take), with a very nice design (and, of course, a typeface by Eric Gill). If you're interested, contact
The Dominican Torch Subscription Dept.
St. Martin de Porres Third Order Dominican Community
3050 Gap Knobb Road
New Hope, KY 40052

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Friday, February 27, 2004

Abba, Abba, lema sabachthani?

Father Dowd offers an intriguing suggestion for praying the Psalms "with the mindset of Jesus."

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In all the world the most beloved

Steven Riddle has mentioned the on-line collection of unpublished poems by Marie Ely. I don't know from poetry, but I do like the idea of the "Sacred Paintings" cycle, a set of twelve poems inspired by a collection of 18th Century paintings done by Franciscan missionaries in what is now the American Southwest. (The images on the site are silkscreen reproductions of the now-faded originals.)

Saying the first poem in the cycle, "The Passion," is timely is something of an understatement. It reminds me of Psalm 22, which also begins in abandonment and concludes in celebration. The opening lines are
Betrayed and tortured, there upon the cross
Christ hung: His tired head with a crown of thorns
Bowed to one side; his desperate, aching arms,
His pain emblazoned hands, outstretched.

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According to the mode of the one receiving it

I don't think it takes much subtlety of thought to resolve the historical accounts of Pontius Pilate as a ruthless (and ultimately failed) procurator in Judea with the Gospel accounts of his disinclination to crucify Jesus. There are any number of psychological and sociological explanations for why he might truly have been generally inclined to brutality but specifically inclined to leniency, and not all of them require much of Pilate in the way of virtue.

The 1988 document "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion" states:
Certain of the gospels, especially the two latest ones, Matthew and John, seem on the surface to portray Pilate as a vacillating administrator who himself found "no fault" with Jesus and sought, though in a weak way, to free him. Other data from the gospels and secular sources contemporary with the events portray Pilate as a ruthless tyrant.... There is, then, room for more than one dramatic style of portraying the character of Pilate while still being faithful to the biblical record. Again, it is suggested here that the hermeneutical insight of Nostra Aetate and the use of the best available biblical scholarship cannot be ignored in the creative process and provide the most prudent and secure criterion for contemporary dramatic reconstructions.
Well and good. If there is room for more than one dramatic style of portraying the character of Pilate while still being faithful to the Biblical record, perhaps one of those styles is as a vacillating administrator who himself found "no fault" with Jesus and sought, though in a weak way, to free Him.

I have observed, though, that portraying Pilate in this way is seen by many as tantamount to excusing him.

If, for a moment, we can set aside the history of Christian anti-Semitism, which is inextricably related to all this, I think we still have a phenomenon worth ruminating on. Presented with a man (or character, if you prefer) who, knowing the man before him is innocent, orders his execution for political reasons, some see a man all but free of guilt.

This is astonishing. It is as though they believe washing his hands actually removes Pilate's guilt. As though they believe Pilate's attempt to deny responsibility for Jesus' death actually transferred responsibility elsewhere. As though they believe not wanting to do evil makes doing evil acceptable. As though they believe violating one's conscience is okay, as long as one's conscience was right. As though they believe being less evil than another makes one good.

Do they believe this? Do they believe others believe this?

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The Vatican does not officially comment on works of art

Really?
[A]t the Feb. 18 general audience on the feast of Blessed Fra Angelico[...] John Paul II urged young people to look to the example of Fra Angelico, patron of artists, as "encouragement to live faithfully your Christian vocation."

... Fra Angelico died in 1454 while carrying out a commission for Pope Nicholas V, the tiny private chapel dedicated to Sts. Lawrence and Stephen in the tower of Innocent III. Today, Raphael's fresco tour de force in the neighboring apartments of Julius II eclipses these works, so that many Vatican visitors walk by without even a peek, but John Paul II described the room in his letter of beatification "authentic prayer expressed in colors."

... On Feb. 18, 1984, in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva where the friar is buried, John Paul II declared Blessed Angelico the patron of artists.

In his homily, the Holy Father lauded Fra Angelico as "a model of life in which art is revealed as a path which can lead to Christian perfection: He was an exemplary religious and a great artist."
I emphasized what the Pope said about Beato Angelico, because of course I would, but perhaps more interesting to those not devoted to the blessed friar is the idea of "art...as a path which can lead to Christian perfection."

Most of us make things, even if it's only the occasional slice of toast. Benedictine wisdom sees toasting bread as a form of prayer, or at least a forum for prayer. More directly, it's the making of a thing, and if the making of a religious painting can lead to Christian perfection, who's to say the making of a slice of toast can't as well, if it's seen as a forum for prayer, for being present to God?

One of Chesterton's most popular aphorisms is, "A thing worth doing is worth doing poorly." It's an idea that brings welcome relief to the imperfect among us (Chesterton said it while discussing housewives who have to work at a thousand trades while their husbands are off working at one). Relief, but not excuses.

Making toast well is art. (Not an exalted art, but let's not be snobs.) For those who don't work in a commercial kitchen, making toast well may not constitute a complete path leading to Christian perfection, but it can be a step. Everything we do, everything we make, is a step in some direction. It might as well be a step toward Christ.

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Thursday, February 26, 2004

"Oh, I wish I could live like that."

"Oh, no, you don't."

fr Don Goergen, OP, founded the Friends of God Dominican Ashram several years ago, and recently came in for some criticism at A Saintly Salmagundi for his article "Regular Observance: Reflections of a Dominican Yogi."

I think a certain amount of criticism is warranted. I've noticed there's a tendency among some Westerners to prefer Eastern religious and philosophical terms to their Western counterparts, even when there's a substantial difference in the meaning of the terms. I think Fr. Goergen overindulged in this in "Regular Observance." The point of calling St. Dominic a yogi is too small for an angel to balance on it, much less dance.

That's not to say he's gone all syncretic at the ashram, though, and in fact his new Lenten reflection proves (for those who doubt) Fr. Goergen's experiences are entirely within the Catholic tradition:
Faith is the human act and divine gift to which we keep coming back. To be sure this is a faith formed by love, as love of God and love of neighbor are integral to each other, but it is not as if there is some higher knowledge to which our experience leads us. Contemplative experience leads one more and more deeply into faith in the face of mystery, a trusting faith in a trustworthy God.
Now, how they relate to the Dominican tradition, that's another question.

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After the fast

There now, that wasn't so hard, was it?

After a few hours, the nausea passes and you can almost convince yourself you feel okay.

My personal experience: Fasting made me grouchy. And irritable and snappish and crabby. (By "fasting," I of course mean to imply "according to Roman Catholic guidelines," as opposed to actual fasting.)

Then one day, I didn't eat breakfast or lunch. Not through any higher motive, I just didn't get around to it. (Though I have no great love for good, tilled earth, I am hobbit-like in my appreciation of the standard six square meals a day.)

And I noticed that I didn't get grouchy. Or irritable or snappish or crabby.

I learned that my attitude was not physiologically determined. I was grouchy because I wanted to eat and I couldn't. I had been fasting from food as an act, but not abstaining from food as an idea. I'd have been better off -- and truer to the ideal of fasting -- if I were chewing caramels all day, rather than chewing over the idea that I wasn't eating even though I was hungry and no one around me seemed to care.

So now I know: I can go without eating and without getting grouchy, both at the same time. If I choose to. As with anything, it gets easier with practice. Just as I don't spend much time thinking about standing and kneeling during Mass, I'm spending less and less time thinking about eating and not eating during fasts.

This is my experience. Another of my experiences is that fasting is a very personal thing, and people take great offense when they feel they're being told what they should do or should experience while doing it. So I'll finish by saying I'm not telling anyone what they should do or what they should experience while doing it.

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In pulverem reverteris

Is there any thought more liberating than, "I will die one day"?

Think about all the things you want to do, all the books you want to read, all the plays and movies and concerts you want to enjoy, all the places you want to visit, all the people you want to meet, all the dishes you want to taste, all the wines you want to sample, all the problems you want to solve, all the questions you want to answer.

You can't do them.

It's not that circumstance and fortune conspire against you doing all you desire. It's time.

If you read a book a day for a hundred years, you could make your way through one third of all books published. In the U.K. In 2001.

Once you realize you will die one day (I'm getting closer to that realization all the time), you realize you can't do everything you want to do. From which it follows that you don't have to try.

Ah, sweet freedom! That Library of America volume of Zora Neale Hurston that showed up in the mail years ago: am I ever going to read it? Don't count on it. I have nothing against Zora Neale Hurston, and I'm sure reading her works would improve me, but there are more things that would improve me than I have time to be improved by.

Death is an evil, yes, but it does serve to guarantee that there are more goods in the world than we can ever obtain. (Which means, incidentally, that "wanting it all" is a mug's game.)

So though we must wait until after death to obtain an infinitude of good (while now participating in that infinitude in an imperfect way through Baptism), we are now faced with an overabundance of good. There are more goods in the grocery store of this world than will fit in our mortal-sized shopping carts.

Is that fact liberating? Well, it should free you from indiscriminate desire. "Yes, Rocky Road, I would have enjoyed you had I chosen you. But today, I freely choose Mint Chocolate Chip, and I release you, Rocky Road, from my will."

It should also free you from the "witchery of paltry things." Too often, we complain about having only evil choices, but in fact our lives are bombarded with choices between good things. And too often, we choose the lesser good over the greater good.

Why? Because we're concupiscent, and not very good at figuring out which good is the greater and which is the lesser. But also, perhaps, because we don't stop to think that, since we only make a finite number of choices in this life, choosing one good really does mean refusing another. Life is not like a box of chocolates, where I can choose the maple creme now because I know I'll be getting around to the cherry liqueur in a minute.

So if you can't do everything, you shouldn't even try. But if you shouldn't try to do everything, you should always try to do the best things. Read the best books (and blogs); see the best movies; drink the best wines (how's that for Lenten exhortation?). What "best" means is not entirely objective; I think it does depend on you and the circumstances. (So the best wine for you, for example, may not be the finest wine. It may be the cheapest drinkable wine. It may even be water. Sorry.)

If you're doing something, you can ask yourself, "Is this the best I could be doing?" If it isn't, when were you planning on doing the best?

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Metareviews

WashingtonPost.com lets readers post their own reviews of movies, using a 4-star rating system.

Of the 18 reader reviews of The Passion of the Christ (with an "average reader rating" of 3 stars) posted as of this writing, six give it 1 star and 12 give it 4 stars. (One reviewer would have given it 0 stars if possible.)

Not a lot of middle ground.

In an on-line chat on the movie yesterday, Catholic University of America president Fr. David O'Connell recalled a scholastic maxim that I think explains a lot of the commentary I've read: "Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the one receiving it."

Speaking of which, here is one anonymous reader review:
As a Muslim, I think this is a great movie. It makes the pain that the Arabs are suffering today even more of a reality
Might this movie be like a peanut? For some, it is appealing. For some, it is distasteful. For some, it triggers a toxic reaction.

"Who do you say that I am?"

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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

More Lenten reading

Other suggestions for Lenten reading:
  • Isaiah
  • Lamentations
  • Wisdom
  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 1 John
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude
If you don't know these, why fool with those?

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A Lenten program

I'm going to attempt a series of posts on A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Zaccheus Press's reprint of Abbot Vonier's excellent book. I think the writing is clear enough to be understood by pretty much everyone who would pick up a book with such a title and author, but what Abbot Vonier writes is profound enough to yield a deeper meaning each time it is pondered.

I'll try to start on or about the Second Sunday of Lent, which should give you enough time to get the book yourself (from Amazon UPDATE: It's not available from Amazon; try All Catholic Books, Aquinas and More, or your favorite independent bookstore (that's still legal!)) if you want to read along at home.

I don't usually post about what I'm going to post about because a) who cares?, and b) what if I don't get around to it? I'm doing it this time because a) I've been marking about every other page in the book for comment anyway, and b) this seems like a good way to get people to buy a book I think is great stuff on the source and summit of our faith.

[Disclaimer: I should mention that I myself didn't buy the book. Zacchaeus Press sent me a free copy in the hope that I would talk it up if I liked it. I liked it. I'm talking it up.]

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This joyful season
Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, Who for our sake endured temptation and suffering.
With these words, the Church invites us to begin another season of Lent, a time of penance and conversion. "By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert."

During the day, though, millions of rosaries will be picked up, the words "the first glorious mystery, the Resurrection of Our Lord" recited.

Or perhaps the words will be "the first sorrowful mystery, the Agony in the Garden." There's nothing wrong with, and much to be said for, adjusting the mysteries of the Rosary to the liturgical calendar. "Wednesdays are Glorious" is a custom of convenience.

And yet, there's also something to be said for letting the Rosary march along to its own rhythym. Meditating on the Resurrection on Ash Wednesday may seem discordant at first thought, but I think in reality they're in harmony. The purpose of Jesus' retreat to the desert was preparation for His mission, which led to His Resurrection and Ascension. The end of our penance and self-denial is not penance and self-denial, but union with God through Jesus Christ, as most perfectly experienced by His mother Mary.

The gem of great price is not a faceted crystal, but a smooth pearl. Although we incarnate creatures can only touch one part of it at any given moment, there is no division to it. Jesus' fasting, His teaching, His passion, His exaltation: they are not separate pieces, they are the temporal extension of the one act of love between the Father and the Son.

So even this early in a season of repentance, it makes sense to anticipate briefly the end for which we repent, and the end for which He Whose title we bear came among us. It did not end in the desert. It did not end on Calvary. It has not yet ended, and it never shall end.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Jocose Tuesday

There sure are a lot of names for today, the day before Ash Wednesday. Most of them are now purely historical, no more relevant to how we live than the old god whose name gives us "Tuesday." Not many people get shriven today. If someone has pancakes, it usually doesn't mean he won't have pancakes till Easter.

Okay, "Fat" Tuesday is still relevant. For some of us more than others.

For Lent, I want Disputations to stress enlightenment, downplaying instruction (a.k.a., fraternal correction) and pretty much nixing entertaining. So today is the last day to post humorless criticism of the views of others on current events. And yet, today of all days, I can find nothing to dispute.

All I've got is an old, blurry picture of a bighorn glider (technically, a Cornutumated Flying Squirrel), an animal thought to be extinct, as a symbol of that most unlikely of creatures, the Catholic whose good intentions last him from Ash Wednesday through to Easter Sunday.

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Prayer

Lent is a time when Catholics traditionally try to develop or strengthen their discipline of prayer, by adding something to, or returning to, or creating from nothing, their daily prayers.

There aren't many principles governing this that apply to everyone. Maybe just, "Try to do an act of prayer every day during Lent that you didn't do every day in the forty days prior to Lent." But then you've got the people whose prayers are already numerous -- the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, lectio divina, the Angelus, a personalized set of litanies and standard prayers -- who are better off simply trying to say their prayers better.

It occurs to me, though, that beyond this work on one's discipline of prayer lies the goal of a habit of prayer.

If prayer, broadly speaking, is a facing toward God, then although prayer at regular intervals during the day is a great good, it seems to imply that, during the longer intervals between prayers one isn't facing toward God. You just know that's no good, even without calling to mind St. Paul's exhortation, "Pray without ceasing."

I get the sense that St. Thomas took the "Pray without ceasing" command too literally, and therefore not literally enough: since he didn't think it's literally possible to pray without ceasing (prayer being, for him, an act of reason), he sort of explains the verse away:
The cause of prayer is the desire of charity, from which prayer ought to arise: and this desire ought to be in us continually, either actually or virtually, for the virtue of this desire remains in whatever we do out of charity; and we ought to "do all things to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). From this point of view prayer ought to be continual: wherefore Augustine says (ad Probam, Ep. cxxx, 9): "Faith, hope and charity are by themselves a prayer of continual longing." But prayer, considered in itself, cannot be continual, because we have to be busy about other works....

One may pray continually, either through having a continual desire, as stated above; or through praying at certain fixed times, though interruptedly; or by reason of the effect, whether in the person who prays--because he remains more devout even after praying, or in some other person--as when by his kindness a man incites another to pray for him, even after he himself has ceased praying.
What St. Thomas does think we can do continually is have the desire of charity, whether we're acting on it or not.

As far as I know, St. Thomas wasn't aware of the Eastern custom of praying the Jesus Prayer continually, or at least regularly enough that your body begins to pray it even in your sleep. (Or so The Way of the Pilgrim teaches; I wouldn't know from personal experience. In any case, according to this page, people who don't have a spiritual guide should only recite the Jesus Prayer for short periods of time.)

But the Roman Catholic Church does have the custom of (and even a plenary indulgence for) ejaculatory prayer:
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, while performing their duties and enduring the difficulties of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation.
Someone with the habit of prayer will raise his mind to God over and over throughout the day, as will a young man turn to look at his beloved or a mother to look at her child. God becomes always present -- or rather, the awareness of God's presence is always present.

My awareness of God's presence waxes and wanes with my habit of prayer, which in turn depends on my discipline of prayer. The better I pray my regular prayers -- the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary -- the more likely I am to raise my mind to God betweentimes, and the more likely my mind is to raise itself to God (in the same way I find myself whistling a song I'd been singing earlier). And the more aware I am of God's presence, the fewer bad things happen, and the more good things.

(As a very simple and unremarkable example, I have found the simple habit of saying, "Bless the LORD through the night," from Psalm 134, whenever I wake during the night to be a great way to carry the prayerfulness of Night Prayer through to Morning Prayer. (I think I sleep better, too.))

Being aware of God's presence is the special and supreme case of being aware of the present, and a habit of being aware of the present supports the habit of being aware of God's presence. Both acts are forms of contemplation, that word of countless meanings. There's an old St. Anthony Messenger article on "How to Pray Always" that looks
at how to discover the contemplative dimension of everyday life, in other words, how to do the things we do each and every day with contemplative ease. The sun rising in the kitchen window, the walk to the post office, the church bell ringing on Sunday morning, the little niece's kiss on her uncle's cheek, the bright red tomato in the salad: They are all an opportunity to breathe deeply and "be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19).

We will look at five dimensions of daily life: seeing, breathing, walking, eating and speaking.
The article discusses a different route to the habit of prayer, not directly based on a daily prayer regimen. There are no doubt many other routes as well.

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Fasting

It's time for my annual "Television doesn't count" post.

Lent is a season for repentance and conversion. Fasting has always played a role in repentance and conversion. Not just because of the symbolism that man does not live by bread alone, but because fasting works. Maybe not for everyone every time, but on the whole the evidence is that human nature is such that fasting as a means to draw closer to God draws us closer to God.

Now, the act of fasting is not a very complicated concept. It means this: Don't eat.

For some reason, people don't think "Don't eat" is good enough. And we get junk like this:
Lenten fasts have a tendency to be oriented toward things like giving up food or television. But there are many other creative ways we can welcome Jesus’ healing touch this Lent. Below are some suggestions you may want to consider.
  1. Fast from anger and hatred.
  2. Fast from judging others.
  3. Fast from discouragement.
  4. Fast from complaining.
  5. Fast from resentment or bitterness.
  6. Fast from spending too much money.
I don't know why anyone who gave it any thought -- which, presumably, includes anyone who writes advice to others on Lenten fasting -- would think "fasting" means "not doing something you shouldn't do." I mean, I'm not fasting from throwing rocks at children and dogs, I'm just not throwing them.

Imagine someone waking up on Easter Sunday thinking, "I made it! Now I can stop fasting from anger, hatred, judging others, discouragement, complaining, resentment, bitterness, and spending too much money!" Alleluia, He is Risen!

The author of this article slips a mention of the traditional Lenten fast of "giving up...television" into the first sentence. It's certainly true that giving up some minor comfort or pleasure is a Lenten custom, and in recent decades television has become a minor comfort or pleasure of choice.

This is fine; this is good. As a form of mild mortification, giving up television is well-suited to us soft-bellied Americans. In fact, it's even indulgenced:
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a spirit of penitence, voluntarily abstain from something which is licit for and pleasing to them.
What it isn't, though, is fasting.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. But the relation between a human and food is fundamentally different than the relation between a human and entertainment. Eating has physical, biological, physiological, psychological, familial, sociological, cultural, and anthropological dimensions. The central Christian ritual is a meal, itself derived from the meal that is the central Jewish ritual. Simply put, eating is not just one of many licit and pleasing things people do. We should not expect it to be just one of many licit and pleasing things people give up.

When he heard Jonah's prophecy, the King of Nineveh did not proclaim, "Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall watch television." Jesus did not go into the desert to fast from chocolate and Starbucks. We should not begin building a tower we can't complete, but neither should we call the hut we do build a tower.

As with almsgiving, the concept of fasting has been diluted. As with almsgiving, as a consequence of this dilution, people aren't fasting but think they are. As with almsgiving, people are missing out on the graces available through fasting.

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Almsgiving

No one gives alms any more. We give "to charity."

This substitution of "charity" for "almsgiving" suggests an impoverished understanding of both charity and almsgiving.

Charity can be defined as the habit, infused into the human soul by God, of desiring the glory of God and the salvation of men. There's a big drop-off from that to "giving money to a tax-exempt organization."

If the idea of charity has dwindled, the idea of almsgiving has been diluted. We may give to the poor, but we also give to the parish, and to the school, and to any number of "charitable organizations." To the IRS:
The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erection or maintenance of public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening of neighborhood tensions; elimination of prejudice and discrimination; defense of human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
These may all be noble goals, but they aren't all matter for almsgiving.

There is a sort of sophisticated thinking that says, "Material poverty is just one form of poverty. We can be rich in material goods yet poor in [civil rights/education/the arts]." I see such thought as tending toward a form of stealing from the poor: taking the prescriptions, commandments, and exhortations to give to the poor -- the literally poor, the underfed, underhoused, underclothed poor -- that have been given to us in Scripture and tradition, and directing them, by means of semantic and analogical tricks, at people who are not poor.

This isn't to say working to enrich the civil rights, education, and artistic experience of people who may not be materially poor has no basis in Scripture and tradition, much less that it's a bad idea. But it is not almsgiving.

"Almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin," Tobit told his son. We have no such guarantee about giving money to the local orchestra.

Note, by the way, this distinction made in Canon 222 of the Code of Canon Law, a distinction the IRS is not concerned with:
§1. The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers.

§2. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.
Assisting with the needs of the Church is a precept of the Church. Assisting the poor from our own resources is a precept of the Lord. Catholics must do both, but we shouldn't confuse them. That weekly check to the parish, while morally required, is not almsgiving.

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Monday, February 23, 2004

Necessary words reconsidered

Christine comments below on the "Use words if necessary" aphorism:
I come from a Protestant background in which--in my own experience--too much emphasis was placed on preaching and not enough on living out the Gospel. That's why when I became a Catholic, I found the aphorism (which you find so irritating) so refreshing. The fact is, people in this country have heard the gospel to death--they know that Jesus died for them, and sadly, they do not care. There is such a thing as talking too much, i.e., preaching without discernment to anything that will move, when it is clear the recipient of your communication will not be moved by words but rather by witnessing your actions. In my own experience I have seen more repentance and conversion through love lived out consistently in my life rather than through preaching news these people have already heard a thousand times.
Christine's experience has been in what could be called a "Franciscan environment," where everyone knows the truth and no one acts on it. This is what St. Francis saw in 13th Century Italy.

But there's also a "Dominican environment," in which people don't even know the truth. This is what St. Dominic saw in 13th Century France.

I think most places where the Gospel has been preached have a mixed environment. Even those familiar with the Gospel don't know the fullness of truth contained, and most of us don't fully live the truth we do know.

The end for which a preacher acts is the salvation of those to whom he preaches. Working backwards from this end, the preacher should give them a reason to live the truth that leads to salvation, by his own example of living it; he should give them the truth that leads to salvation, by his preaching; and he should give them a reason to listen to him preach, by his own example as someone worth listening to.

(What makes someone worth listening to depends on what the people who would listen value. St. Dominic used to practice what I've heard called "holy hypocrisy," quenching his thirst and removing his shoes before entering an Albigensian town, since the Albigensians valued the asceticism of their own leaders. Nowadays, equanimity and joy are in short enough supply to be highly valued, while asceticism is so rare as to be suspect.)

Since the Church is a union of persons, in practice the person who is worth listening to doesn't have to be the one who does the [explicit] preaching. My enthusiasm might be enough to bring someone to listen to a preacher he's never met. The Body of Christ is corporate; most of us don't need to be evangelizer, godparent, confirmation sponsor, and spiritual advisor to everyone we meet.

Being personally inclined to sloth, I can't help but hear the "use words if necessary" saying as an excuse for not preaching, an aggrandizement of social manners, as though being polite amounts to preaching Christ and Him Crucified. Christine, though, has put her finger on its real value, as a check to those who would preach without concern for the other things necessary for that preaching to bear fruit.

I find that idea more congenially, if less Franciscanly, expressed in the words, "Shut up and love."

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No good deed

So of course, at Mass yesterday, the priest begins his homily by reading from a list of Christian aphorisms making the email rounds -- you know, "What part of 'Thou shalt not' don't you understand?" and, "Prevent truth decay; brush up on your Bible" -- and singles out as particularly profound, "Preach the Gospel always. Use words only when absolutely necessary."

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Sunday, February 22, 2004

Chesterton comes to Washington

I received a letter the other day -- an actual, genuine, material letter, delivered by the United States Postal Service -- from a fellow who wants to get a chapter of the American Chesterton Soceity started in Washington, DC.

On the whole, I'm not much of a joiner. I first heard of the ACS when I was a member of the Wodehouse Society. I figured if I joined societies for both P. G. Wodehouse and G. K. Chesterton, next I'd be joining the C. S. Lewis Society, then the I. F. Stone Society, then the C. P. Snow Society. Where would it end? "Sorry, dear, Thursday is the executive committee meeting for the E. T. A. Hoffman Society. Can we reschedule our anniversary?"

However, this fellow who wants to get a chapter of the American Chesterton Society started in Washington, DC, has thrown in a new wrinkle: he suggests the first meeting be at an Irish pub.

His idea interests strangely.

The scheduled meeting is at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 6, at Kelly's Ellis Island Restaurant and Pub, 3908 12th St. NE. I believe I shall try to make it. If there are other DC area folks interested, send me an email and I'll have the fellow who wants to get a chapter of the American Chesterton Society started in Washington, DC, contact you.

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Friday, February 20, 2004

We believe in the communion of sinners

Because, whether we like it or not, that's what we've got.

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Preaching to myself

Of those pithy Christian sayings, which seem the distillation of pure life-changing wisdom on the first hearing and the tritest set of syllables ever collected on the hundredth, my least favorite is probably, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words."

Mostly it's a matter of personal taste. My preferred version, as I've mentioned before, is, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use pie charts."

But sometimes I think the saying is used reflexively, as though the fact that words aren't being used somehow proves the Gospel is being preached.

As I wrote earlier this week, the pluralistic American society has adopted an interfaith set of public virtues. A Christian's social concern may be rooted in the Gospel, but it can be expressed in a "mere humanistic" way. Jews who are concerned for the poor are not necessarily demonstrating Christian charity. There are even rumors of people with no religious faith who believe in helping the less fortunate.

It's not just a matter of distinguishing Christian charity from good citizenship, though. If we want to preach the Gospel, before we get to the matter of how, we have to look at the matter of what: What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is not, "Love your neighbor as yourself." That's a commandment. The Gospel is news, and news is telling someone something he doesn't already know, not telling him to do something he doesn't already do.

The first three words of the good news Christians have for the world are, "God loves you." As mind-blowing as those words are (God loves you, God loves you, God loves you!), it gets better: "And God's Son was born, died, rose, and returned to Him so that we can love Him back."

Now, however briefly you want to express this good news, there remain significant facets that cannot be conveyed by smiling at the cashier in the grocery store. Do not the Gentiles do as much?

Let me suggest that the Franciscan ideal behind the "if necessary, use words" saying assumes a society in which Christianity has been found difficult and left untried. A bad Christian is far more likely to understand the good example of a good Christian to be an example of Christianity than is a bad non-Christian; for that matter, a good Muslim, say, might understand it to be an example of Islam!

So what am I saying? Only that showing love for another, even if it can be an expression of the Gospel, is not necessarily preaching the Gospel. As a lay member of the Order of Preachers, that's something I need to remind myself of from time to time.

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Thursday, February 19, 2004

A thought experiment

Through the centuries, a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to prove a lot of peculiar things about Jesus of Nazareth (albeit few things as peculiar as the dogma of the Incarnation). It's probably not complete coincidence that a lot of these people would be able to say, as a corollary to the truth of their peculiar thing about Jesus, "That means I am better than you think I am."

In short, the peculiar things people want to prove about Jesus tend to be self-serving. (Of course, saying anything peculiar about Jesus is self-serving, to a certain extent, for a college professor, academic neophilia being what it is.)

I'm wondering whether we can learn anything useful from an attempt to prove something peculiar about Jesus that isn't self-serving.

Suppose I wanted to write a book called Jesus, Fisherman of Galilee, which advanced the thesis that Jesus was not, in fact, a carpenter, but a fisherman. (I'm guessing, though now I'm by no means sure, that no one else has written in support of this thesis yet.) What evidence could I bring of this from the Gospels? Off the top of my head:
  1. "He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea...." And what does a man do for a living in a city by the sea but fish?
  2. Just look at the passage where Jesus meets Simon and Andrew: "As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, 'Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.'" It makes no sense to think Jesus was simply walking by the sea. Obviously, He was working on it. Notice how He even speaks in fisherman terms. Need I even point out that the text says, "He said..."? If He weren't working in the same boat with them, He would have had to shout.
  3. Jesus knows fish. He knows where to catch fish, He knows which fish to catch, He knows how to cook fish. (and where do you suppose He got that fish, anyway? He caught it Himself, of course!)
  4. Jesus also knows the Sea of Galilee. He knows how to sail on it, He knows where to sail on it, He knows how to calm it. Heck, He even knows how to walk on it! Can anyone really believe He could learn all this in a carpenter's shop in Nazareth?
  5. And what evidence do we have that Jesus was a carpenter any way? Mark 6:3a -- "Is he not the carpenter?" -- is hardly enough to support the thesis, especially when we notice that the parallel in Matthew calls Him "the carpenter's son." That's an absurdly convoluted expression if Jesus Himself were a carpenter. Obviously, He moved to Capernaum to become a fisherman, possibly after His father's death. Could envy and resentment play into His rejection in Nazareth?
I think I'd better stop here; I'm starting to convince myself. Still, I'm pretty sure that with generous margins and a few chapters lifted from Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, there's enough to pad out into a book.

What lessons can be drawn from this little exercise? For one thing, the length and complexity of the defense of a thesis is no sure guide to the truth of the thesis. Another might be a generalized test all alleged proofs of peculiar things about Jesus should be able to pass: Being able to answer "No" to the question, "You're just making this up, aren't you?"

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Brace yourselves


Disputations finished first in the "Most Intellectual Blog" and "Most Theological Blog" polls of the optimistically ordinalled 1st Annual St. Blog's Awards.

(Most intellectual and theological. I guess Disputations would be the opening favorite if they ever add a "Too Dull For Words" category.)

While recognizing these results are only what they are (e.g., hugely dependent on simple familiarity) and aren't what they don't pretend to be (e.g., a reliable indicator of which blogs actually are most intellectual and most theological), I also note the distinction between blog and blogger. A great deal of whatever value Disputations offers readers comes from the many fine commenters here; these awards are as much for them as for me. (So help yourselves to the images and wear them proudly.)

Of course, I am naturally pleased for myself, in the unsought-but-welcome way one is, for example, when the subject turns to ugly babies and one's acquaintance says, "Of course, your baby is just the cutest ever." And the next time some Jesuit-trained blogger gets all uppity, I can simply put the intellectually theological smackdown-by-authority on him, saving us all a great deal of time and grief.

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