instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Perpetual virginity as Divine revelation of the eschaton

Here is a diagram that shows how the perpetual virginity of Mary the Mother of God functions as part of the Divine Revelation of the Incarnation of Christ, specifically as a realization in time of the eschatological dispensation toward which Christ calls us all:

Color State
    fallenness + virginity
    renewal + virginity
    fallenness + childbirth
    renewal + virginity + childbirth

A few words of elaboration may be in order.

The diagram shows the relationships among four possible states, shown as overlapping, color-coded polygonal regions: fallenness, the state into which we are all born; renewal, the state to which we are all called by Christ; virginity; and childbirth. Where regions overlap, the colors are combined (as triplets, if that means anything to you). The boundaries of the regions representing virginity and childbirth are highlighted by yellow and orange lines, respectively.

The eschatological message that goes with this diagram is this: that, since the fall, all childbirth occurs within the state of fallenness -- except for the birth of the Son of God. To effect this exception, the Theotokos was granted the unique privilege of being conceived in a state of renewal, and preserved in that state even through the Nativity of our Lord.

Since in heaven there is no marriage, there is no childbirth either. It follows, then, that the small gray square in the middle of the diagram -- the state of virgin birth, which lies wholly within the state of renewal -- is occupied now and forever only by the Blessed Virgin.

Were she to have given birth to other children after Jesus, she would have necessarily moved into the state represented by the green rectangle, accepting a state of fallenness without necessarily having ever fallen. But that is unthinkable. (Note that this should be understood as an explanation of the doctrine, not an argument for it.)


"Our Lady in the Middle Ages"

I looked upon the earth; it was a floor
For noisy pageant and rude bravery --
Wassail, and arms, and chase, among the high,
And burning hearts uncheered among the poor;
And gentleness from every land withdrew.
Methought that beds of whitest lilies grew
All suddenly upon the earth, in bowers;
And gentleness, that wandered like a wind,
And nowhere could meet sanctuary find,
Passed like a dewy breath into the flowers.
Earth heeded not; she still was tributary
To kings and knights, and man's heart well-nigh failed;
Then were the natural charities exhaled
Afresh, from out the blessed love of Mary.
Frederick William Faber


Friday, May 27, 2005

My Manichee senses are tingling

The following comes from Barbara Nicolosi's notes for a recent speech to the Catholic Press Association, on Christian imagination and the media:
There is a beauty that is good for us, and there is a kind of beauty that is bad for us.
a) Spiritual Beauty Â? reveals that man has a spirit; leads totranscendentt; leads to wonder; begs to be shared
b) Sensual Beauty Â? revels in manÂ?s physical nature; "Eve saw that the apple was attractive to the eye and GOOD FOR FOOD." Sensual beauty stimulates the desire to eat; to possess; to consume; to dominate; to collect; to have sex with; it is the opposite of sharing.
That struck my "man is a union of spirit and body" chord, and I commented:
Sensual beauty is not "a kind of beauty that is bad for us." Humans are sensual creatures by nature; we know the good of creation in part through its beauty. Nor is it necessarily opposed to sharing; nobody owns a sunset.

Also, man is perfectly capable of sinning under the influence of spiritual beauty as well as sensual beauty, even if for a lot of important reasons the latter is much more common than the former.
Barb replied that her distinction comes from Cardinal Ratzinger, and referred me to his 2002 speech, "The Beauty and the Truth of Christ."

Well, it's always awkward to have to correct the Pope, but isn't that why God made Dominicans?

Fortunately, in this case it won't be necessary to correct the Pope, who spoke of this stratagem of falsehood:
A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was "beautiful" to eat and was "delightful to the eyes". The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself...

So it is that Christian art today ... has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.
I think I can agree with all three -- the Pope, Barb, and myself -- with the following caveats:

First, in place of Barb's terms of "spiritual" and "sensual" beauty, I would use the Pope's "true" and "deceptive" beauty, to avoid any implications of angelism.

Second, I would emphasize that, properly speaking, the two categories refer to experiences of beauty, and not to beauty as such. The tree really was "good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom;" in that, Eve was not deceived. But she experienced this beauty apart from the truth of God's commandment, and so failed to experience it as it was truly intended to be: if the fruit is as beautiful as it is, how much more beautiful must God's commandment not to eat it be!

It's the perversion of beauty, the use of that which is good in itself for evil, that gives rise to the category of "deceptive beauty." Beauty itself cannot deceive, but it can be used to deceive -- and in fact, when it is used for any purpose other than to direct one toward his fulfillment in Christ, that's exactly what is going on. And you can't get too much worse than to use the truth to lie.


Heroes and villains

"All men by nature desire to know," wrote Aristotle, and he was right (more or less).

But fallen human nature is a weird thing. Our desire to know often conflicts with other desires -- even, oddly enough, our desire to be right.

The desire to be right can lead to shortcuts. And as you know if you've ever been with an adventurous driver, shortcuts aren't necessarily shortcuts.

In this case, wanting to be right can lead you to put faith in someone else, faith that (for all you (quite literally) know) may be misplaced. Faith is a participation in the knowledge of another, so if we place our faith in someone who is right, then presto, we too are right.

Conversely, if we place no faith in someone who is wrong, we are also right.

The problem is that, as a practical matter, no one is always right -- not even my personal heroes -- and no one is always wrong -- not even my personal villains.


Metablogging: New Commenting Policy

As of today, Disputations is a Non Sequitur Allusion to the Invalidity of Just War Theory-Free Zone.

Any comment that unnaturally introduces the topics of just war or pacifism, and any comment that subsequently takes up that topic, may and likely will be deleted on sight.


Thursday, May 26, 2005

So what?

So the neophilia, the hankering for the new, the devotion of the month disease apparent in the Church may, in some instances, be symptomatic of good old-fashioned sloth.

Throwing off your sins, becoming a servant of God, becoming a child of God, becoming united to God: these are what the Good News calls us to. They should be a source of joy. We escape punishment! We get good things from God! We please God! We love God!

Ah, but it hurts. We mortify ourselves, deny our own wills, to become as God would have us be. And then it gets hard.

The call of the Gospel is one of perfection. Wherever we are, we aren't where we should be. If we aren't moving forward, we're moving backward. But sometimes, the next leg of the journey doesn't look like very much fun at all.

So rather than strike out on that next leg, we head off in another direction. Maybe an enneagram class? Meditative yoga? A pilgrimage someplace far away? A women mystics study group? A new sodality or confraternity or chaplet or saint or cause or movement or retreat center or spiritual director or daily regimen or author or CD?

When is restlessness caused by a lack of something needed, and when is it caused by a lack of desire to face up to what needs to be done?

I should add that although I am most suspicious of neophilia among the "journal your experience of Reiki in Celtic songs, then dance to them through the labyrinth" fads that slosh back and forth across the continent, the distinguishing feature for a neophiliac is that a thing be new to him. It's entirely possible to try to escape the sorrow of the Good News by immersing oneself in rogation days and the Little Office of the BVM and the Yuletide customs of medieval Bavaria, until those start to wear thin and it's on to devotion to the Five Wounds or mastering all the Gregorian psalm tones or learning Koine Greek.

Of course, there's nothing wrong per se with learning Koine Greek. There's nothing wrong with journaling, either. But the measure with which we will be measured is not hours per week doing religious-type stuff we wouldn't do if we weren't so darn religious. The measure is sanctity, and it's measured in love of God and neighbor. If you aren't doing it before attending that next workshop, how long are you going to be doing it after?


Whether neophilia is a daughter of sloth

Objection 1. It would seem that neophilia is not a daughter of sloth. For neophilia is "The trait of being excited and pleased by novelty," as the Jargon File says. But sloth is a kind of sorrow, according to Damascene (De Fide Orth., ii, 14). Now love does not come from sorrow. Therefore, neophilia does not come from sloth.

Objection 2. Further, Gregory accounts sloth a capital sin (Moral. xxxi, 45). But to be excited by new things is not always sinful, as Isaiah writes, "From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you." (Is. 48:6). Therefore, neophilia cannot be a daughter of sloth.

Objection 3. Further, Gregory assigns six daughters to sloth, viz. "malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things." Now, none of these is neophilia. Therefore, neophilia is not a daughter of sloth.

Objection 4. Further, neophilia is the love of what is new, which is a kind of curiosity, and curiosity is a vice opposed to temperance. But sloth is opposed to charity. Therefore, sloth cannot give birth to neophilia.

Objection 5. Further, sloth implies a "certain weariness of work." But neophilia implies an eagerness of action. Since weariness does not give birth to eagerness of action, sloth does not give birth to neophilia.

On the contrary, the Apostle warns that "the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity." (2 Tim. 4:3) Now, not tolerating sound doctrine is sloth, and following insatiable curiosity is neophilia.

I answer that, Neophilia can refer to a temperamental disposition toward excitement when presented with something new and unknown, and in this sense, neophilia is not necessarily related to sloth. But in the sense understood here, neophilia is the habitual movement of the will toward that which is new and unknown. But the will does not move toward a thing if it is satisfied with what it already possesses. Therefore, neophilia implies a certain dissatisfaction with the old and known.

But dissatisfaction is a kind of sorrow. A neophiliac is sorrowful that he does not possess the new and unknown, having only the old and known. Sorrow over the things of God, however, is what we call sloth. It follows, then, that the habitual movement of the will toward those things of God that are new and unknown -- which we call neophilia -- is a kind of sloth.

Reply to Objection 1. The form of neophilia that is a child of sloth is marked by a desire for the new caused by a dissatisfaction with the old. Sorrow causes a desire to alleviate that sorrow, which can be considered a love of what alleviates it.

Reply to Objection 2. The new things of God that are good to know do not replace the things of God already known, but fulfill it, as the Gospel says, "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (Mt. 5:17)

Reply to Objection 3. Neophilia is a "wandering of the mind" after things that are unlawful if pursued by discarding other things that are to be held fast.

Reply to Objection 4. As referred to its object, neophilia is a kind of sorrow, which in turn causes an intemperate curiosity.

Reply to Objection 5. The weariness of sloth is not an absolute weariness, but one relative to the good things of God. This weariness can be eased by turning the mind to new things, as in other ways a mind weary from study can be eased by engaging in play.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Trees of love

In the course of St. Catherine of Siena's Dialogue, the question is asked, what fruit do the tears of those in the various spiritual stages produce? (She takes for granted that all stages produce tears, and she means actual, physical crying (though not only that).)

When writing about the fruit of the tears of the wicked (those who, in the figure of the Bridge, are splashing about in the river), she returns to an arboreal image:
All of you are trees of love: You cannot live without love because I made you for love.
The branches of the wicked are the deadly sins; their flowers, leaves, and fruit are their evil thoughts, words, and deeds, respectively.

She goes on to suggest that God send four winds to blow against the trees of the wicked, in order to bring them to salvation: prosperity; adversity; fear; and conscience.

The last three make sense, but prosperity? How can prosperity make the wicked turn to God? Isn't it more likely to make the good turn away?

St. Catherine's explanation begins with the human soul's infinite capacity for desire:
So your desire is an infinite thing. Were it not, could I be served by any finite thing, no virtue would have value or life. For I who am infinite God want you to serve me with what is infinite, and you have nothing infinite except your soul’s love and desire.
That's important to those already on the Bridge, since it tells them how to serve God. For the wicked, however, it implies something else:
This is why [the wicked] can never be satisfied: They are always hankering after what is finite. But they are infinite in the sense that they will never cease to be… there is nothing greater than they except I myself, God eternal, and therefore only I can satisfy them.
Humans are made for love -- in fact, for infinite love. The wicked man who prospers, then, will find that his prosperity, even if he gain the whole world, does not satisfy his infinite desire. He will then weep for sorrow, and God willing come to see that, while nothing in the world can satisfy him, there is One Who can.

If not, if he resists the wind of prosperity, and the other winds, and remains steadfast in his sins, then he gains the true fruit of the tears that come from a corrupt heart:
…suffering in this finite life, and in the end… the never-ending company of the devils.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

We like the chase better than the quarry

A common objection to praying the Rosary is that it is frustrating. The mind begins to wander as soon as the mystery is spoken; you find yourself at the end of the decade without having formed one single thought related to Christianity, much less to the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple; and you think you blew it. You tried an act of devotion, and you failed miserably. You can't do it, it's not for you, and if that isn't bad enough, the local Rosarianut is sure to ask you how it went and beaddevil you into trying it again.

Now, I am not one to argue (as some do) that the Rosary is the best of all possible devotions, always and for everyone. If the Rosary isn't for you, it's not for you. But I wonder whether the restlessness some feel when they pray the Rosary might indicate that something really is wrong with them -- not regarding the Rosary, but regarding their restlessness.

Blaise Pascal wrote, "When I have occasionally set myself to consider the
different distractions of men... I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber." (Pensees 139) Pascal had in mind "the pains and perils" of politics, war, seafaring and the like, and he might have been pleased at the thought of a widely available means of enabling men "to stay with pleasure at home" -- at least until he watched a few hours of television.

Our society today is one in which people can and generally do stay in their own chambers, but they don't do it quietly. We are habituated to visual and aural stimulation and become restless when confronted with stillness and silence. No wonder, then, that a meditative prayer like the Rosary isn't more popular.

If we aren't psychologically able to be still and silent, it isn't just the Rosary that we will find frustrating. But while I don't insist everyone pray the Rosary, I think God does tell each of us to be still and know He is God.

If we don't already know how to be still, I think we can learn how. And my guess is we really ought to.

A lot of people have found the practice of Centering Prayer to be a good way to develop the habit of stillness. I understand there is even evidence that a method like Centering Prayer develops the habit in a physiological sense.

If it's a question of cultivating a habit of stillness to draw closer to God, though, I would recommend lectio divina. Take five minutes -- three minutes, if that's all you can spare -- in the morning to read a paragraph or two of Scripture, to reread it, to draw the words into your mind and heart for the day, to chew over in the fleeting moments of rest that come and go during the day.

That in itself will not develop a habit of stillness and recollection, but it's a start, and there's no telling where the habit of reaching for the Bible every morning might lead you.

Who knows, you might even wind up with a set of beads in your hands every evening.



Monday, May 23, 2005

We make our home in meanwhile

In a chaff-filled discussion at open book on caring for the homeless, one aside caught my attention:
But meanwhile...and there is a lot of meanwhile...
There is indeed a lot of meanwhile. One day, Christ will return. The Day of the Parousia, the Day that has no evening, and every tear will be wiped away.


One day I shall breathe my last and face my particular judgment.


One day, I'll have the strength and wisdom and grace to break free of all attachments and distractions that keep me from loving God and neighbor as I should.



Saturday, May 21, 2005

How do you join?

After my habesne veritatem post the other day, inviting people to consider joining the Dominican Third Order, someone pointed out that I didn't say how to go about joining.

That depends on where you live. If you're in the U.S., you're in one of four provinces:
The Eastern Province of St. Joseph
Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia

The Central Province of St. Albert the Great
Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Wyoming

The Southern Province of St. Martin de Porres
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas

The Western Province of the Holy Name of Jesus
Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Washington
The above links take you to the best pages I can find to put you in contact with people who can tell you where to find the closest Third Order (a.k.a. Lay Dominican) chapter.

There's a list of Canadian chapters here. If you live elsewhere in the world, you might try starting here or here. Good luck.

Wherever you live, you can send me an email and I'll try to help you contact your friendly neighborhood Dominican for further information.

And if anyone has any better links, please let me know.


1. I ripped off the idea for the habesne veritatem ("got truth?") image from a promotional brochure for the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

2.'s spell checker recommends "Hoboken perditions" in place of "habesne veritatem."


Friday, May 20, 2005

Why the tremendous focus on Mary?

Because devotion to Mary makes bad Christians better.

It makes good Christians better, too, but I only know that from what I've read.


A note to the reader

Reginald the Tiger Quoll says:

By which he means that I don't do apologetics. In large part because I'm no good at it; as I say, if you ever catch me not thinking with the mind of the Church, it surely won't be because I'm thinking with the mind of a Protestant.

When I do discuss Catholicism with non-Catholics, I generally try to keep it at the level of explanation rather than justification. I haven't really worked out justifications for much of what I believe that don't ultimately rest on my faith that Christ founded a Church that subsists in the Catholic Church.

So if your question is, "Why should I accept this or that Catholic doctrine?", I probably don't have a very satisfying answer for you. What I try to do instead is consider the question, "What does this or that Catholic doctrine mean, in itself and for me?"

I probably don't have a very satisfying answer to that question, either, but I do what I can.



Closing in on 200 comments on the post below, and the wisest of all may be Albertus M's, "It looks to me as if this additional explanation may not have been all that helpful."


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Perpetual virginity and the brothers of the Lord

A priest very kindly forwarded a few Patristic quotations he has found useful in discussing our Lady's perpetual virginity with skeptics:
Some dare to claim that Mary became fully Joseph's wife after the Savior's birth. How could she who was the dwelling-place of the Spirit, who was overshadowed by the divine power, ever become the wife of a mortal and bear children in pain, according to the ancient curse? It is through Mary, "blessed among women," that the curses uttered in the beginning have been removed, according to which a child is born in pain and shame. A woman who bears a child in such torments cannot be called blessed. Just as the Lord entered through all closed doors, so he came out of a virginal womb, for this virgin bore him truly and really but without pain.
-- St. Ephrem, Commentary on the Diatessaron

And just as it was through a virgin who disobeyed that man was stricken and fell and died, so too it was through the Virgin, who obeyed the word of God, that man resuscitated by life received life. For the Lord came to seek back the lost sheep, and it was man who was lost; and therefore he did not become some other formation, but He likewise, of her that was descended from Adam, preserved the likeness of formation; for Adam had necessarily to be restored in Christ, that mortality be absorbed in immortality, and Eve in Mary, that a virgin became the advocate of a virgin, should undo and destroy virginal disobedience by virginal obedience.
-- St. Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 33

That the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled -- was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the later, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness [advocata] of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it was rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way the sin of the first created man receives amendment by the correction of the First-begotten, and the coming of the serpent is conquered by the harmlessness of the dove, those bonds being unloosed by which we had been fast bound to death.
-- St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haeresies V. 19. 1
In short, Mary as the New Eve enters a new dispensation -- a recapitulation, a re-heading, a new beginning -- free of the curse of childbirth laid on Eve in Genesis 3:16. To have more children after Jesus would be to surrender to the old dispensation, to accept the curse that, by her fiat, Mary had already overcome.

Since the Second Century at the very latest, the Church has understood Mary's perpetual virginity in a profound way, one thoroughly based in Scripture. It is not a dull biological fact, still less a hatred of women or marriage or sex. It is an eschatological revelation of God's plan -- which, not entirely incidentally, means those who say the doctrine makes no difference to their lives ought to rethink their position.

There are those for whom the New Testament references to Jesus' brothers and sisters suffices to prove the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity false. For them to understand what the Church believes, they must be willing to unclench these verses, not to write them off but to set them down while they listen to what we say. Afterward, if they choose to pick them back up and insist again that they contradict the doctrine, so be it, but it requires an act of listening on their part to know what the doctrine they're rejecting actually is.

At the same time, Catholic apologists must be willing to listen to what the skeptics have to say. "Oh pish, 'brother' means 'cousin'" is didacticism, not conversation, and unless a person has come to you as your student you aren't likely to get very far with didacticism. Even if someone happens to see that "brother" does mean "cousin," you've only brought them one verse closer to the fullness of the Faith, leaving untouched the faults of the method by which they interpret the rest of Scripture.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

We're looking for a few good men

Over the weekend, I attended a regional meeting of the Dominican Third Order. There were about twenty women and four men in attendance. Two of the men were Dominican friars, one was a Knight of Columbus whose wife is a tertiary, and I was the fourth.

Last night, I got an email from someone who has noticed that most of the younger people he knows (which group he prudently extends to age 45) who are involved in lay associations belong to the various newer groups, and wonders whether the Third Orders are thought to be too stodgy.


I can only speak for myself and from my own experience on this blog. It seems to me that what distinguishes the Dominican Third Order from the newer associations, in terms of demographic causes, is the sense of clear purpose the newer associations offer. Their founders have expressed their visions for the associations within living memory, and these visions have an intentionally lay orientation. They know what they want to do, and they know how to do it.

The purpose of the Dominican Third Order, on the other hand, is harder to express in terms that can be acted upon. We share in the charism of preaching for the salvation of souls, but what does preaching in accord with a secular state in life involve?

Time was when it involved a penitential rule of life and suffrages for the dead. You knew whether you were doing a good job of being a Dominican tertiary if you followed the Rule.

Then the Second Vatican Council changed the rules, almost literally. Our Rule was rewritten, replacing specifics with generalities -- in accord, I should add, with the intent of the Council, but at the cost of an explicitly penitential nature. You can read the new Rule (in principle; the latest version is currently stuck in Rome awaiting translation) for spiritual guidance, but not for a yes-or-no answer to the question, "Am I doing this tertiary thing correctly?"

Meanwhile, other associations were not standing still. There was a collapse of various traditional parish-based associations like the Holy Name Society and the various sodalities, and there was an explosion of new associations that are less parish-based and more outward-focused. Lay Catholics looking for a challenge can pick up the gauntlet tossed down by the new movements and ecclesial communities.

What I believe the Dominican Third Order, on the whole, failed to do was to toss down a gauntlet of our own. If penitence and prayer is how we live the charism of preaching, it suffices for the Order to comprise little old ladies of both sexes who gather once a month to listen to Father preach on the Rosary.

If, however, the Third Order is to live the charism of preaching by bringing the Truth Who is Christ into the world along avenues the friars cannot travel, then the little old ladies are going to have to get off their duffs and preach.

And, lest you think I am being patronizing, a word of warning: Don't get between little old lady Dominican tertiaries who are off their duffs and the pulpits from which they preach. (You shouldn't get between Dominicans of any sort and the dessert tray, either, but that's a different post.)

The long and the short of it, then, is that the Dominican Third Order offers a way of life that is largely what each tertiary, chapter, and province makes of it. There is a tremendous push under way in the Eastern U.S. Province to make the whole province thoroughly formed in the Dominican tradition and vibrantly apostolic, in particular through sponsoring Scripture study circles. We have a great deal to offer -- St. Dominic, St. Thomas, St. Catherine, St. Martin de Porres, St. Rose, just for starters -- to our tertiaries, our Church, and our world. But, ironically enough for preachers, we need to get the word out.

So you, dear Reader who is not already a member of a Third Order or ecclesial community: Are you up to the challenge of saving souls by preaching the Truth?


Monday, May 16, 2005

Episode VII: Pretence of the Geeks

Amy Welborn links to part 1 of an over-the-top look at the alleged spirituality of the Star Wars movies:
Clearly, Lucas intends to pose hard questions about the foundation of knowledge, metaphysical reality, and personal human destiny—questions of fate or providence.

These questions and other important ones become more insistent as the series progresses; indeed, they become the matters on which the outcome of the whole story hinges.
Because, you know, a lot of us were worried that the Emperor might win.

The spiritual insights of George Lucas can be expressed in one brief sentence:

Light sabers are cool!


A problem for the reader

Rob poses a question:
Suppose that the Church was 100% successful in bringing about, through the grace of God, the living of perfect Christian lives on the part of the entire laity. Would that perfected laity consist of a billion happy, productive and moderately prosperous tithers? Or would it consist of a billion penitents, who had given all they possessed to the poor to devote their lives to prayer and fasting in detachment from worldly concerns?
Or what?


Two ways of thought separated by a single Revelation

A post at the Dawn Patrol referred to Mary's virginity, which as might be expected led to a couple of Protestants wondering what the big deal is:
Now, here we open up a very good question: is Mary any less than a holy Mother of our Lord Jesus, or less deserving that all will "call her blessed" if we accept what the Bible says more obviously, i.e., that she did not have sex with her husband until after Jesus was born, and that Jesus had brothers and sisters, which are named in the Bible?


... asking forgiveness in advance if I offend, I believe Mary might be bemused and maybe even amused with how many people who claim to follow her Son fight with each other about what did or didn't happen in her uterus after He left.
Well. When instruction is requested, instruction is offered. I offered the following:
I don't think anyone can understand the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary if he understands it to be purely a matter of uteruses and the like, any more than one could understand the significance of the Ark of the Covenant (with which Mary is traditionally identified) if he understands it to be purely a matter of luggage.

Virginity represents purity, in particular the purity of heart of one wholly devoted to God. In Mary's case, one might almost say her virginity is a "sacrament" -- a sign that effects what it signifies -- of her purity of heart. Honoring her as Ever-Virgin recalls for us in this moment that perfect purity of heart, and also brings to us the hope of our own such purity in the life to come.

Mary is the Virgin Mother. As Virgin, she perfectly loves Jesus in His Divinity. As Mother, she perfectly loves Him in His humanity.
Which goes to show that I am not an apologist, since the reply came swiftly:
Redefining "virginity" to mean "purity of heart" doesn't answer the question of the basis for believing such a doctrine, regardless of its definition (or redefinition).

To say "virginity" means purity of heart not only evades the question, but would seem to do so ineffectively, for doesn't such a definition run afoul of the view of marriage as a holy and worthy gift of God? My heart is no less "pure" from having sex with my wife than were I to have become a eunich long ago.
The concepts of sacrament and sign are invisible to people who think like this; they hear "definition" where I say "representation."

For my part, I simply do not think in terms of the specific verses to be cited as the basis for belief, and find it a great bore to be asked for them. I don't want people to be forced by argument to accept Mary's perpetual virginity. I want them to understand what it means, and I don't know how to get them to understand what it means if they take a secondary implication -- that "what the Bible says more obviously" is untrue -- for the primary meaning.


Friday, May 13, 2005

The call

They say if you've met one Dominican, you've met one Dominican.

Servant of God Rose Hawthorne was a writer well known in the world of letters when, at the age of forty-five, she began nursing poor people who had incurable cancer. It was four more years before she became a Dominican tertiary and turned her growing apostolate into a religious congregation. She died twenty-six years later, her congregation firmly established.

Blessed Jane of Portugal was a Fifteenth Century princess who wanted nothing more, and would settle for nothing less, than the life of a Dominican nun. Due to the opposition of her father and brother, not to mention numerous nobles and bishops who could think of better uses for her than making altar cloths, it wasn't until she was thirty-three that she was able to enter the cloister. Even then, she was frequently called back to court, where, five years after becoming a nun, she was poisoned, dying "with the detachment of a religious and the dignity of a queen" after several months of agony. Her feast day was yesterday.

Blessed Imelda Lambertini, whose feast day on the Dominican calendar is today, was the daughter of a count who sent her to a Dominican convent school. There she lived as much of the convent life as she could, longing especially for the Eucharist, but she was a year or two short of the requisite age of twelve. One day, while she praying after Mass, a brilliant light was seen shining above her head, with a Host within the light. The priest understood this to be a sign from heaven, and he gave the girl Communion. The joy of receiving her Eucharistic Lord was too intense for her body, and Bl. Imelda died in rapture there in the chapel. She is a patroness of First Communicants.

Three paths to sanctity.

Most Catholic hagiography seems to feature the "fasted from mother's milk on vigils" type path, where a serene glow seems to follow a saint from childhood. Another type of path is the "road to Damascus," where a great sinner is converted.

For those of us who aren't particularly great, one way or another -- or even, for that matter, particularly young -- Rose Hawthorne suggests a quite different path. A quite fearful one, too, one that hounds us with the disquieting thought that it's never too late to get started.


Thursday, May 12, 2005

The response to our preaching

The recent national convocation of the Federation of Dominican Sisters has been talked about some in St. Blogs, in the fish-in-a-barrel way you'd expect if you know anything about the Federation and about St. Blogs. Barb Nicolosi offers a fortuitous peek at the convocation which does not contrast jarringly with the summaries of discussions posted on the federation's website.

Setting all that aside, I'll just quote from a talk given by Fr. Chrys McVey, OP,
Socius for Apostolic Life for the Dominican Order:
I was told a story by a family who had gone on a picnic. A summer storm had come up and they sought shelter under a huge tree. When the storm passed, there was the most beautiful rainbow filling the whole sky. The mother roused her young daughter, who had been
sleeping in her lap, and said, "Look!"

The little girl looked, was quiet, then looked up at her mother and said, "Take me to it!"

That should be the response to our preaching: not a mumbled "Amen," but the cry, "Take me to it!"


The immigration reflex

It's odd how the mere observation of a sentence containing the words "bishops" and "immigration" sends some American Catholics into fits of indignation.

I don't pretend to understand the issues involved in forming immigration policy. I do note, though, the categorical rejection of everything our bishops say on the matter as outside their competence and beyond their understanding. To quote a bishop saying, "We can no longer tolerate the death of human beings in the desert" -- which, to me, sounds like a matter entirely appropriate for a Catholic bishop to pronounce upon -- is to invite the response, "See? The bishops favor illegal immigration!"

The logic of that response escapes me, but more striking is the absence of an acknowledgment of our Christian duty toward others that is not pro forma and immediately followed by a "but." It is the same attitude as that expressed by the anti-war organizations who are unable to admit without caveat that Saddam Hussein was an evil despot. Of course, in this case, the attitude toward the bishops is the same as it was among pro-war folks: "We have nothing to learn from them."

It may be that the bishops and I happen to be the only Catholics in the United States who aren't fully versed in every social, political, economic, cultural, and religious aspect of immigration policy. Based on the attitudes and arguments advanced by those who refuse to learn from their bishops, though, I doubt it.

And under cover of the position of one person who certainly knows more than I about the economic and political aspects, at the very least -- and who also is not given to peace-n-justice vacuity -- I will boldly assert that, when Cardinal McCarrick says "we must change attitudes, including those of many of our own flock,"
he is speaking from a more sound position than that of those Catholics he is referring to.

But but but: Sovereign nations. Rights. Own borders. Primary obligations. Those people.

Yeah yeah yeah: Tell it to the crucifix. Go kneel before the utter self-abnegation of the Eucharist and say, "What about me!" When you've received your answer, then you can ignore the bishops.


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Framing the question

I received a whacking great package of material from the Rose Hawthorne Guild today. And now I see to my shame that it's been nearly two years since I mentioned the Servant of God, Rose Hawthorne, who founded a congregation of Dominican sisters whose apostolate was and remains "to nurse and shelter incurable cancer patients who cannot afford care elsewhere."

Rose Hawthorne was received into the Catholic Church on St. Joseph's Day in 1891. Less than ten years later, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1900, she received the Dominican habit and made public profession as Sister Mary Alphonsa.

Midway between these two events, she began to dedicate her life to the care of the sick and dying poor of New York City. At the time, cancer carried a great social stigma, and once a patient's cancer was declared incurable, the hospitals of the city would no longer treat him.

A biographical article on Rose Hawthorne expresses the effect of this reality on her this way:
"How can anyone... how can we treat suffering people like that?" she thought. "How many of these sufferers there must be! Why doesn't someone do...?" The question soon became, "Why don't I do something about it?" Framing the question took more courage than answering it.
She was to spend the remaining thirty years of her life living the answer.

What questions in our own lives do we lack the courage to frame?



Once, when my father was in the Navy ROTC, an officer told him to polish a brass bell. My father said, "Okay," and the officer immediately corrected him:

"You don't say, 'Okay,' you say, 'Yes, sir.' You aren't agreeing with me, you're obeying my order."

My father said, "Yes, sir," and polished the bell.

The distinction between agreement and obedience is an important one for the Church these days. It is, at times, blurred, as when someone argues from etymology that obedience consists, not in doing what is commanded, but in listening with an open mind to what is commanded.

It may also be inverted, for example when obedience to a superior is regarded as contrary to the personal autonomy of a rational being. Since obedience is implicit in the very notion of the role of superior, such a repudiation of obedience amounts to a repudiation of the authority to command.

To say a lot of Catholics are okay with that is to understate the case. In fact, a lot of Catholics insist on the repudiation of the authority to command, a repudiation that goes hand in hand with, if not the repudiation, then at least the drastic downgrading of any authority to discern.

If no one is my superior, then I am not obligated to do or believe anything based on what anyone else tells me. I may, if I choose, listen to what they say with an open mind -- or rather, with as open a mind as I can manage, given the biases, habits, and convictions I bring to every act of reason.

When the Church tells me that something is so, however, I am in the unfortunate position of being unable to believe the Church. The best I can do is agree with her. "I find the Church's position the most reasonable of all those I have evaluated," I might say; or, more briefly, "Okay."

But if I feel free to accept any position that is solidly probable, and I regard any position I happen to hold as solidly probable by virtue of the fact that I happen to hold it, it will be deucedly difficult for me to even muster agreement with any Church position contrary to my own.

I wind up holding, not the fullness of the Faith, but the patchwork of the Concurrence. But hey, at least no one is my superior.


Monday, May 09, 2005

Preach what

Bl. Humbert of Romans, the fifth Master General of the Dominicans, wrote of Mary as the "special Mother" of the Order of Preachers, an Order "whose purpose is to praise, to bless, and to preach her Son."

Now, Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare -- "to praise, to bless, to preach" -- is a motto of the Dominican Order. In tying the Order more tightly to Mary, Bl. Humbert makes a critical point: the purpose of the Dominicans is to preach Christ Jesus.

If you ever catch a Dominican preaching, but not preaching Jesus, you should ask him why.


Friday, May 06, 2005

Be a ________

In a post on the term "neoconservative," Zippy observes that
the way to plant the flag of victory into our public conversation is to stop being an adjective and start being a noun.
"Catholic" is, as is fitting, both an adjective and a noun. But, "Stop being an adjective and start being a noun," sounds like a good rejoinder to anyone who begins a sentence with something like, "As a progressive Catholic," or, "As an orthodox Catholic."


Authority qua authority

Have you ever found yourself saying something like, "As a coroner, I prefer Shemp to Curly"? Of course you have. Who hasn't?

But what does that "As a coroner" qualifier really mean? Too often, I think, it means, "Speaking on behalf of all coroners living and dead, who think as one mind on this matter." I say "too often," because it should only mean that when it is actually true that coroners think as one mind on the matter, and we all know the old joke about how any two coroners will have three opinions between them.

It might be a good idea, when you find yourself about to say, "As a coroner, I...," to ask yourself whether you mean to speak for all coroners, or merely point out the coincidence within your person of your profession and your opinion. If it's the latter, there might be a better way to phrase your thought; perhaps something along the lines of, "I happen to be a coroner, and I...."

The same would still be true, of course, if your profession happens to be Roman Catholic.


Thursday, May 05, 2005

"We should spend on virtue what we take away from our pleasures"

The third general grant from the Enchiridion of Indulgences uses perfect language for yesterday's posts:
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.
Christian perfection presupposes and is distinct from "faithful" obedience to God's commandments. Those seeking perfection regard everything "which is licit for and pleasing to them" with detachment; they do not pursue these goods, they may in fact avoid them. But they do so "in a spirit of penitence," or more generally in a spirit of charity, not a spirit of obligation (as might those on the First Stair) or vainglory (as might those on the Second).

What does that mean for us?
"You going to eat that donut?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Well, if you wanted to, you could abstain from eating it, in a spirit of penitence, and apply the indulgence to the dead as suffrages. If, you know, you loved the dead as your suffering brothers and sisters in Christ."
"See, this is exactly why no one likes you."


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

For example

St. Catherine of Siena distinguished between "more perfect" souls, who love God because of the good things He gives them, and "most perfect" souls, who love God for Himself.

Now, let me suggest an example of "more perfect" and "most perfect" acts that will annoy a lot of readers. It would certainly annoy me if someone else suggested it.

I'll start with a "more perfect" act, meaning only that it, like the rich young man, follows all the Commandments: Drinking a glass of wine with dinner.

Note that there's nothing at all objectively wrong with drinking a glass of wine with dinner (assuming ordinary circumstances: it's not stolen, there isn't someone dying of thirst watching you, you're not drinking from the skull of your enemy, and so on). In fact, done with the intention of conviviality or hospitality or joy in God's bounty, it can be positively virtuous.

Now consider the act of drinking only lukewarm water with dinner. Is this a "most perfect" act?

Objectively speaking, I don't see much to choose between the two acts. In themselves, a glass of wine is about as good as a glass of water; if anything, I suppose, the wine is a modestly superior good.

It is the actor's intention that seems to make the real difference. To drink a glass of wine for pleasure is permissible, I'm pleased to say. To drink water instead with the intention of offering the trivial sacrifice in reparation for sin is positively meritorious; if done with the intention of succoring the souls in purgatory, it's actually indulgenced. If for such a reason you pass on wine, then yes, your act is "most perfect" -- or at least, more perfect than drinking the wine for pleasure.

On the other hand, if the choice is between drinking a glass of wine with the intention of making a guest feel welcome in your home and drinking a glass of water with the intention of proving that some killjoy blogger's notions of Christian perfection don't leave you any more perfect, then the wine would seem the better choice.

For completeness, the circumstances should be considered as well. Drinking water with dinner guests present may well be more of a display of fasting than of fasting itself.

From all of which, we conclude what? Perhaps that perfection lies more in the interior disposition than in the outward act, and that the first rule of becoming perfect must be "charity before all rules."


One thing lacking

Since the days of Ananias and Sapphira, Christians have been asking themselves, "When Jesus said, 'Sell all you have and give the money to the poor,' He didn't mean me, did He?"

On one side, people use Scripture, Tradition, and reason to develop arguments of varying quality to the effect that no, Jesus did not intend that as a universal commandment.

On the other side are those who see in these arguments little more than attempts to squirm out from under the clear words of Jesus to avoid doing something most people would rather not do (for that matter, absolutely won't do).

I think, though, that a far stronger argument can be made that the true challenge of that verse lies in the first half:
Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect,...."
Yes, Christians in general cling too stubbornly to our material goods, but I suggest more of us cling more tightly still to our imperfections.

How many Christians are minimalists, whose question to Jesus would be, "Good teacher, what may I do and still inherit eternal life?"

And how many are imperfectionists, who feel superior to the minimalists (you can judge your own reaction to the above paragraph) while refusing the more perfect choices each day offers?

Suppose you are deciding to do something, to perform some act. Let's say it, like the rich young man, follows all the Commandments: it's truthful, does not harm others, it isn't blasphemous, doesn't reflect or engender lust or envy, it violates no precept of God or Church.

That, I suspect, is the ideal most Christians would at least admit they probably ought to aim for.

But Jesus is not waiting for them in this ideal. To follow Him, we must go beyond the Law and approach perfection. Is the act you're deciding to do perfect?

Well, first, yikes!; and second, so what if it's not?

Perfection does seem like a tall order. But then, so does printing your name, if you've never tried to learn to write. Of course people who have never tried to be perfect will find trying to be perfect hard to do. What is Jesus' answer to His disciples dismay after the rich young man leaves? "For man this is impossible, but for God all things are possible."

And so what if an act isn't the best of all possible acts, as long as it's permissible? Obviously, if it's permissible no one can tell you not to do it, but ask yourself: Do I want to do what I am allowed to do, or what best proves and strengthens my love for God and neighbor? Do I really want to be perfect, or do I rather want to insist on my rights before God and man? And since you can't intend the end without intending the means, there's an even tougher question all Christians answer by their lives even if they never explicitly ask it of themselves:

Do I want to become perfect?


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Speaking of poetry

There is a new effort underway to foster the use of poetry in the preaching mission of the Dominican Family, launched with the OPrize for Poetry contest. The winning poems are on-line, as well as other submissions and poems by the judges, too. There's even a planned on-line poetry seminar (apparently open only to Dominicans).


..., Manny, Moe (called Sparky), and Jack

There sure are a lot of Apostles, aren't there?

I mean, yes, twelve tribes of Israel and all that. Symbolism and meaning in numbers.

But in more practical terms, how many Apostles do we need? Peter, James, and John are the big three; Thomas gets his one big scene on Mercy Sunday; Matthew has his Gospel; you might have your own favorite. But for the rest? If today were the feast of Sts. Zeppo and Sneezy, would it make any difference?

O, ungrateful thought! As if the Faith I have inherited is naturally mine. As if the Christians of the Apostolic Age, who scattered the seeds given them by Christ, were a mass of undifferentiated individuals. As if the very Sacraments, by which we are raised to life in Christ, and sustained in that life, come to the Church through Peter alone. As if the community of the Twelve, which Jesus formed and confirmed, was an accident, or merely there to sustain the one Apostle who really counted.

The Church invites us to enjoy today. Lets!

Sts. Philip and James, pray for us!


Free Verse

From Acadamia's Stranglehold!

Join the rebellion at Flos Carmelli.


Monday, May 02, 2005

A four-letter word

My suggestion that what makes St. Catherine of Siena so foreign to us is her zeal for God and for the souls of others (that's her language, by the way; I could call it her zeal for the salvation of others, but that would be to step back from someone who wrote of getting fat on eating the souls of others) has received some resistance. The idea of zeal isn't merely unappealing, it's one people actively dislike.

I think the reason is the obvious one: someone with zeal is a zealot, a zealot wants to kill you or at least send you to a re-education camp, and you don't want that to happen. Zeal is like nitroglycerine; no one really trusts other people to handle it properly in large doses. Aristotle says virtue lies in the mean between extremes, and nothing says extreme like zeal.

Or does it? St. Thomas teaches that zeal is an effect of love:
In this respect, a man is said to be zealous on behalf of his friend, when he makes a point of repelling whatever may be said or done against the friend's good. In this way, too, a man is said to be zealous on God's behalf, when he endeavors, to the best of his means, to repel whatever is contrary to the honor or will of God....
Love is the desire for another's good, and zeal is acting on that desire to prevent what hinders the other's good. But love of God is a virtue that does not lie between extremes; there's no such thing as being too charitable. As love increases, zeal increases. Can we be too zealous for God?

It's certainly true that I can endeavor to repel something contrary to the honor of God in a way that does more harm than good. In this sense, zeal can outstrip prudence. The problem, though, isn't too much zeal; it's too little prudence. And that means it isn't solved by reducing zeal, but by increasing prudence -- by, for example, learning to ask whether the action taken will in fact achieve the end of preserving God's honor.

It was zeal that caused Jesus to drive out the moneychangers, bringing to His disciples mind the words of the Psalm, "Zeal for Your house consumes me." But look at those words in a larger context:
For Your sake I bear insult, shame covers my face.
I have become an outcast to my kin, a stranger to my mother's children.
Because zeal for your house consumes me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.
I have wept and fasted, but this led only to scorn.
I clothed myself in sackcloth; I became a byword for them.
They who sit at the gate gossip about me; drunkards make me the butt of their songs.
This -- in the psalmist's day, in Jesus' day, in our day -- is the price of zeal.

We talk in terms of what effect another's zeal might have on us, how it will disturb our peace, but neglect to face up to what effects our own zeal for God would have.

There is, to be sure, an internal effect of zeal; I give up the choice to not act, which means I give up the choice to go uneventfully home to a restful evening.

But there is also an external effect. I am not in a position to send anyone to a re-education camp; others have no need to fear any zeal for God I might have. But me? Insult, shame, scorn, gossip, jokes: that's the life of a saint among the indifferent. When my love for God is greater than my fear of these things, then I too will be consumed by zeal, and others will say, if they're feeling charitable, "He's really going overboard with all this."