instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 25, 2005

There are worse things than being wrong

Being uncharitable, for one.

As St. Thomas puts it:
He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.
St. Thomas goes on to distinguish being wrong about things and being wrong about people. The former is worse for you than the latter, since being wrong about an evil person reflects more on the person than on your own intellect.


A word of understanding

I love Matthew 13:51:
[Jesus asked His disciples,] "Do you understand all these things?" They answered, "Yes."
Finally, the disciples managed the correct answer.

Chapter 13 begins with the parable of the sower, which Jesus tells the crowd then explains to the disciples. Next is the parable of the weeds, which, once behind closed doors, the disciples ask to be explained. After His explanation, Jesus tells them the parables of the buried treasure, the pearl of great price, and the net thrown into the sea.

So, after having to have explained two longer parables to them, the disciples are told three short ones and asked if they understand them.


Jesus takes them at their word (an uncomfortable thought, perhaps, for Christians who pray liturgically; "Didn't you say you wanted My Father's will done on earth as it is in heaven?") instead of pressing the point. I wonder, though, how deep their understanding -- an echo of Solomon's request for "an understanding heart" -- at that time went. A pearl of great price? Understandable. A pearl beyond price, bought at a price beyond price? Not so much.

We can think in terms of a treasure worth a bajillion dollars, obtained at the cost of a thousand dollars. But if we truly understand the kingdom of heaven, we understand that it is not worth a bajillion dollars; it's worth more than everything.

Being a disciple of Christ isn't simply worth more than what must be given up. If that were the case, the economics could in principle shift around and something else wind up worth more than the kingdom of heaven. Pearls have no intrinsic value; if the market collapses after the merchant buys the pearl of great price, he's out of luck. And if someone just doesn't care for pearls, he won't be convinced to buy it, no matter what it's worth.

This is what we need to understand about the kingdom of heaven. It isn't simply the greatest good according to some accidental ordering of goods; it isn't the good you get to by moving from lesser good to greater good until you reach a global maximum; it's not the limit of all created goods. The kingdom of heaven is the sharing in the Divine Life of the Trinity, and that is a good beyond all goods, a good so good calling it "good" is almost a lie.

Do we understand this? "Yes," we say. But how do we live?


Trick questions

If the LORD appeared to me in a dream at night and said, "Ask something of Me and I will give it to you," I'm not sure what I would say. A hundred million dollars, maybe, or telekinesis.

If I were feeling particularly pious, though, I'd probably say something like, "Whatever is Your will to give me," and feel mighty proud at my humility.

Solomon, as you know, didn't ask for superpowers, or even the life of his enemies. But neither did he try to pull an Ahaz and say, "I will not ask. I will not tempt the LORD." He succumbed to neither false modesty nor false ignorance; he knew he needed an understanding heart to judge God's people and to distinguish right from wrong, and he asked for it.

Notice how Solomon begins his request: "O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David." Solomon has enough understanding to know that it was God Who made him, "a mere youth," king. God wants him to be king, so it follows that asking for something to help him be a good king is not presumption, but a cooperation in God's plan. Faith and reason come together to make Solomon a co-creator of the history of God's people.

It's a pattern repeated again and again in Scripture, and throughout the history of the Church. We are God's servants, but not His inert and passive tools. There is no virtue in refusing to will anything on our own out of a misguided fear of willing something contrary to God's will. His designs are deeper than ours, but they are not wholly opaque. God has revealed more to us than that He cannot be fully known.

We might compare Solomon's answer to that of St. Thomas, who, according to legend, responded to Jesus' question of, "What should be your reward?," with, "Nothing but You, Lord." Such nonisity would seem to be in contradiction to Solomon's request for a particular useful good. In Solomon's case, though, he was just beginning to serve as king of God's people. St. Thomas, on the other hand, was a few months from death; he was asked, not what gift he wanted, but what reward.

The example of Solomon suggests that we aren't necessarily wholly blind about God's will for us personally, and that we shouldn't be reluctant to ask for what we need to carry it out. At the same time, the example of St. Thomas reminds us of the final end God wills for us, an end which we ought to prefer over all the useful goods we might use on the way.


Friday, July 22, 2005

Not to be dogmatic or anything

But it remains true that "Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason; ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."

I suppose you could argue that the consideration of created things can lead to certain knowledge of God as source and end of all things without discerning any design in creation. I don't think I'd want to have to argue that, but it beats arguing that Holy Mother Church is wrong.


Argument by design

For two weeks, I've been trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. The closest I can come is this Q&A:
When Cardinal Schönborn says that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, would you agree?

Not scientifically. As a scientist, I cannot draw this conclusion.
But Cardinal Schönborn isn't a scientist; he's a theologian. And I think the lesson to be drawn from this fact is, not that he doesn't know what he's talking about, but that he's probably not talking scientifically.

Talking non-scientifically is not per se bad.

And to me, Cardinal Schönborn seems to be saying that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, and that to deny this is ideology, not science.

What he does not seem to me to be saying is that purpose and design can be clearly demonstrated scientifically. But the distinction between clear discernment and scientific demonstration is only irrelevant if science is the only means of discernment, and the claim that science is the only means of discernment is ideology, not science.

So to me, the question becomes, can purpose and design be clearly discerned in the natural world? The only way I can understand the terms "purpose," "design," "clearly," and "discerned" leads me to agree with the Cardinal that the answer is yes.


The Illustrated Life

This is one picture that absolutely requires a caption. And, along with the rest of them, it gets a bookmark. A gift to the Web from the Estimabilissime Cyntra.


Home-grown politicians

From the Maryland Catholic Conference:
In the fall, The Maryland Catholic Conference will sponsor a series of candidate-training workshops for Maryland Catholics considering involvement in electoral politics. We're looking for women and men who might consider elective office as a kind of ministry, an opportunity to merge an interest in politics with Gospel-driven, faith-illuminated values. We're also looking for Catholics who'd like to work for candidates who exhibit those values. Please consider joining us at one of the workshops.

In the past several years, Catholics who've been involved in our Legislative Advocacy Network have shared with us their interest in running for office. While many of them appear eminently qualified for elective public service, scarce few have campaign experience. Happily for us, persons with extensive, high-level experience in the two major parities offered their training services.

Training will be strictly non-partisan -- party affiliation doesn't matter. What does matter is that workshop participants abide Church teaching and see the connection between that teaching and the issues being considered in the debate of public-policy issues.

As I expect you know, we do not (we cannot) directly or indirectly endorse candidates for public office. And so we will insist that prospective candidates agree not to advertise their workshop involvement in any campaign materials.
This strikes me as a fabulous idea with the potential to go very, very wrong.


Thursday, July 21, 2005

The unnamed vice

I was poking about, trying to find hints for something constructive to say about Genesis 6:7 -- "So the LORD said: 'I will wipe out from the earth the men whom I have created... for I am sorry that I made them." -- when I came across this objection and reply to the Summa Theologica article, "Whether drunkenness is a sin":
Objection 1. It would seem that drunkenness is not a sin. For every sin has a corresponding contrary sin, thus timidity is opposed to daring, and presumption to pusillanimity. But no sin is opposed to drunkenness. Therefore drunkenness is not a sin.

Reply to Objection 1. As the Philosopher says (Ethic. iii, 11), insensibility which is opposed to temperance "is not very common," so that like its species which are opposed to the species of intemperance it has no name. Hence the vice opposed to drunkenness is unnamed; and yet if a man were knowingly to abstain from wine to the extent of molesting nature grievously, he would not be free from sin.
I mean, come on. Knowingly to abstain from wine to the extent of molesting nature grievously.

Would such a concept ever so much as cross the mind of a Carmelite? Doubtful. Is this what Legionnaires of Christ talk about amongst themselves? I don't think so. Do Sulpicians hash such matters over with Vincentians? Nuh-uh.

Now all I need is to come up with a name for this vice and a pretence for mentioning it at the next Dominican Third Order Chapter meeting. (Which is next Tuesday evening, by the way, if you're interested and within driving range of Silver Spring, MD.)



Since all I can say about this article's implication that private devotions are presumptively anti-Christian is that the author has a profoundly un-Catholic "either/or" perspective, I direct you to Fr. Tucker's reasoned response.

Of the many errors of the piece, the one I will correct here is this: When you see a Eucharistic procession, the proper response is not to wonder why people would want to return to a time when the Church was neatly divided between the ordained and the merely baptized, and whether they could possibly be as fully, consciously, and actively Christian as you are. The proper response is to kneel.


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

What did God flood, and when did He flood it?

I'm afraid I have a particularly squishy position on the historicity of the Great Flood of Genesis 6-8. I'm basically okay with most every proposal, from retroactive interpretation of a particular bad flood in a single valley as God's judgment upon the evils of men all the way up to the full fifteen cubits over the tallest mountain and the waters prevailing upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

I mean, I wasn't there, was I?

To understand -- or even, astonishing thought, pray -- the Scriptural story, though, we need to take it on its own terms, apart from speculation about the historical basis and textual evolution through which is may have passed.

The question is, what are its own terms?

Answering the question literally, and using the NAB, the terms include (leaving out the engineering and meteorological details):
"no desire that [man's] heart conceived was ever anything but evil"

God said of man, "I am sorry that I made them"

"But Noah found favor with the LORD... Noah, a good man and blameless in that age,
... walked with God...."

the flood would "destroy everywhere all creatures in which there is the breath of life"

Noah "carried out all the commands that God gave him"; he "alone in this age" was "found to be truly just"
And, perhaps most importantly, God's covenant with Noah:
God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: "... Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants...
"For your own lifeblood, too, I will demand an accounting: from every animal I will demand it, and from man in regard to his fellow man I will demand an accounting for human life. If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the image of God has man been made.
"Be fertile, then, and multiply; abound on earth and subdue it."
God said to Noah and to his sons with him: "See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of the ark. I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth."
At a minimum, I suppose, the Christian ought to affirm as a matter of objective fact that all humans have a share in the covenant recorded in Genesis 9, a "blessing of fruitfulness despite man's sin."


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Flood of questions

I recently scored a review copy of The Preservationist, a novel by David Maine. It's what you might call an imaginative retelling of the story of Noe and the Flood. Surprisingly, for a book not published via iUniverse's FastTrack option, it actually takes the Biblical account seriously.

Well, "seriously" may not be the mot juste; there's a lot of humor in the book. You might say "faithfully," but there's also a lot of irreverence. But it's irreverence from some of the characters, not the author. Maybe the way to put it is that the novel treats the story of as though it were actually true.

So there really is a Noe, who really is six hundred years old; he really does speak with God; he really does build an ark (his son Cham designs and maintains it); he (or rather, his daughters-in-law) really do get all the animals of the world on-board; there really is a world-wide flood, and a dove with an olive twig, and a rainbow, and a shameful incidence of drunkenness, and a plan to repopulate the world. And all along the way, coincidences and miracles occur that prove God is with Noe and his family in their work.

It's refreshing, really.

Of course, it's also a novel written in the early 21st Century, so what gets added to the Douay Rheims version (hence "Noe" rather than "Noah") is a certain male feminist sensibility. The daughters-in-law are all smarter and wiser than the men in the book; they philosophize and theologize in more or less modern ways, and so come off as more sympathetic characters than the what-you-see-is-what-you-get men. Even Noe, God's ever-faithful servant, is content to know and do God's will without going too far down the path of why.

Unless we bleach the story of the Flood of all meaning beyond the kindergarten Sunday School level, it raises a lot of questions I suspect most of us have never bothered to ask. Principally: why would God destroy His creation in this way? There's one passage in which Bera, Sem's wife, reports the answers of all those on the ark:
Father:-Because He wishes to cleanse the world of sin and punish the unbelievers.
Mother:-Because He can.
Sem:-Because He wants to encourage us to do better.
Cham:-Because He's got no respect for His own creation.
Ilya [Cham's wife]:- Because, like most males, He loves destruction for its own sake.
Japheth...:-Because He's the boss and don't you forget it.
Mirn [Japheth's wife]:-Because He wants to see what we'll do.
None of these answers is satisfactory, but my own (because there is no limit to the suffering He makes available to us, for reasons only He understands) is no more so.
I don't know why David Maine chose the story of the Flood, of all the mysteries of God proposed to man through the Douay Rheims Bible, as the basis for a novel. (I also don't know why he chose that translation, unless it was simply to use the archaic "Noe.") But I'm all for raising theological questions in entertaining ways, and I suppose the Flood Story is universal enough that it can ask the questions without being rejected up front. And if you read the answers the character give to, "Why did He do it?", you see that they are pretty much as relevant when the "it" is what happens on any given day as when it's the end of all flesh.

As it happens, the publisher has put together a reading group guide to the novel, which is basically a set of nine discussion questions. Most of them look at the literary aspects of the novel -- e.g., "How does the book's structure contribute to its pacing and emotional resonance?" -- which I'd bring up if this were a full-blown book review. But it does include this question, the answers to which in reading groups around the country (pardon my parochialism, but other countries would have other publishers) might be very interesting:
According to Father James Martin, a Catholic priest quoted in USA Today, the current trend of Bible-oriented books is "theology lite... some is nourishing, most of it isn't. But it's easily digested and makes few demands." Is that a fair criticism?



Friday, July 15, 2005

Springtime in the New Evangelization

When the Great Wheel of Online Discourse stopped once again on "Harry Potter," I thought to myself that this must be the least edifying debate St. Blogs conducts with itself. I soon realized, though, that we can distinguish between "least edifying" and "least fruitful to revisit."


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

If you are going to choose the bucket of water....

Here's a better way of expressing my point about us being no quicker on the uptake than the Apostles were about what Jesus means:
We had said "everything" and we had meant everything, but we had no idea that everything could possibly include so much.
That's said in the context of a Carmelite vocation, but it generalizes to all who hear their Master's call to be His disciple.

So, too, does the distinction between givers and getters:
To begin with, among a great many different motives for entering the monastery, most of them beside the point, there are two which can be roughly distinguished almost from the beginning. They separate the getters from the givers, if you understand what I mean. We are all of us either one or the other in life anyway, wherever we live.
The getters -- those content to live on the second stair of servile love -- may have an easier time of it outside the cloister, but will they pick up their cross in time?

In one of her prayers, St. Catherine of Siena speaks of Jesus held to the Cross, not by nails, but by love. If we don't understand that discipleship makes givers of us all, will we love enough to stay on our crosses?


Monday, July 11, 2005

The parable of the parable

In a homily yesterday, it was suggested that what is generally called the Parable of the Sower may also be called the Parable of the Soil, and the four kinds of soil can be said to represent closed minds, shallow minds, selfish minds, and sincere minds.

I think it can be easier, at times, to judge how closed, shallow, or selfish our minds are than to judge how sincere they are. This gives us three points of reference to move away from, and if we manage to do that it's a good bet we're moving toward the fourth point, where fruit is produced a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

What if (as was also suggested yesterday) we call this the Parable of the Seed? In Luke's telling, Jesus says, "The seed is the word of God." We can say that the parable tells of four different kinds of men Jesus visits. The first refuse Him entrance; the second welcome Him, but then turn Him out when He begins to disquiet their lives; the third invite Him in, then forget He is there; the fourth receive Him as their honored guest, and give Him a place to do His Father's will.

And recall yesterday's first reading from Isaiah:
Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
The Father's will will be done. Good soil, sincere minds, dutiful hosts will accept Christ, and in them He will bring forth fruit abundantly.

One interesting thing about this parable is that, although Jesus goes to the trouble of explaining it to His disciples, He doesn't say just what this "word of God" is. I'm cheating by bringing in the opening verse of St. John's Gospel, but the synoptic Evangelists all leave this discernment as an exercise to the reader. Jesus says He uses parables so that those to whom "knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven... has not been granted" may "'hear but ... not listen or understand.'" But even His disciples do not yet realize that Jesus Himself is the seed Who must be sown in their hearts, sent by the Father to die for our sins.

Again and again, the Gospels show us that Jesus' disciples were not the quickest rabbits in the warren when it came to understanding what He was trying to tell them. But then, aren't we Jesus' disciples, too? Are we any quicker than that first batch of Galileans to truly listen to, to truly understand what we've heard since infancy?


Friday, July 08, 2005


Judging by the Catena Aurea, the consensus among the Church Fathers was that "the childlike" referred to in Matthew 11:25 are those who are humble:
Augustine: That the wise and understanding are to be taken as the proud, Himself opens to us when He says, "and hast revealed them unto babes;" for who are "babes" but the humble?
Gregory: He says not "to the foolish," but to babes, showing that He condemns pride, not understanding.
Chrysostom: Or when He says, "the wise," He does not speak of true wisdom, but of that which the Scribes and Pharisees seemed to have by their speech. Wherefore he said not, "and has revealed them to the foolish," but "to babes," that is, uneducated or simple; teaching us in all things to keep ourselves from pride and to seek humility.
Hilary: The hidden things of heavenly words and their power are hid from the wise, and revealed to the babes; babes, that is, in malice, not in understanding; hid from the wise because of their presumption of their own wisdom, not because of their wisdom... they who disdain to be made babes in God should become fools in their own wisdom....
Chrysostom: And wherefore were they hid from them? Hear Paul speaking, "Seeking to set up their own righteousness, they were not subject to the righteousness of God."
The Greek word is an inflected form of ne^pios; it is used when Jesus quotes Psalm 8, "Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise." St. Paul uses the word when referring to a "teacher of the simple," as well as to "infants in Christ," and repeatedly in the famous verse, "When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things." (For completeness, he uses it in these verses as well, and Hebrews 5:13 says that the child "lacks experience of the word of righteousness.")

In the Epistles, childhood is primarily a matter of immaturity, of lacking what an adult disciple ought to possess. This is not to suggest an incompatibility between the Epistles and the Gospels; it is to suggest that if we want to understand why the thought that God has revealed things to the childlike that were hidden from the wise, we shouldn't go with the simple notion that childhood=good, adulthood=bad.

And, as always, whenever I write something like "the Greek word used in that verse," it's based entirely on what I find by poking about this site. I myself have less Greeke than a plate of lutefisk.


Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Such a gracious will

We all know (and most of us recently heard proclaimed) these words of Jesus from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:
"I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will."
It's a saying that, properly defanged, offers to everyone the comfort of knowing that they are better than the people who are wiser and more learned than they.

But what strikes me now is not the fact that such has been God's gracious will to have hidden things from the wise and the learned and revealed them to the childlike. Rather, it's the fact that Jesus makes this observation as a prayer of praise (or thanksgiving, or confession, or acknowledgement, depending on the translation) to the Father. The parallel in Luke even says Jesus spoke these words in a moment of rejoicing in the Holy Spirit.

What is it about this aspect of God's gracious will that caused Jesus to break into joyful prayer at the thought of it?

I don't know. But what do you think of this:

In hiding things from the wise and the learned -- understood in terms of human wisdom and learning -- the Father gives glory to His Son. No one can reason his way to the Father; as Jesus goes on to say, "no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." Thus, every name "written in heaven" is written because of Jesus.

Set aside for the moment all notions of an anthrocentric soteriology. ("Um, okay," you say.) There's a tendency to think that the Christian faith is entirely about us: Adam sinned; mankind has been foundering ever since; the Father came up with the idea of the Incarnation to save us; the Son became man, was crucified, and rose on the third day to save us.

That's all fine, as far as it goes, but can we try a more theocentric perspective? The Father gives everything to the Son, Who returns it to the Father. This includes those creatures chosen before creation to share in their Divine Life. How does the Father give the elect to the Son? By willing that the elect share in their Divine Life only through faith in the Son-made-man. From this point of view, the Incarnation is an expression of Trinitarian love; by assuming our humanity in fulfillment of the Father's will, the Son accepts the gift of the elect from, and returns it to, the Father.

So, when Jesus "began to reproach the towns where most of His mighty deeds had been done, since they had not repented," the train of thought led Him right to the Father's love for Him, and in true filial fashion, He was moved to glorify in speech the Father Who was glorifying Him in His mission to those whom the Father gave Him.


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

You can't handle the truth without handling the love

There's been plenty written about the dangers of knowledge without love and of love without knowledge; to pick two dangers, according to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the former puffs up and the latter goes astray.

But I think we can say something stronger: That, when speaking of God and the things of God, knowledge without love and love without knowledge are essentially immoral. Thus the abyssmal evil of the demons, which have an angelic knowledge of God yet do not love Him.

Thus also, albeit on a much different scale, the wickedness of those who habitually use their knowledge of Catholicism -- the Faith itself, or canon law, or current or past discipline or custom -- not to build up the Body of Christ, or even to build up Christ within themselves, but to forge weapons with which to attack, belittle, ridicule, and otherwise effect their hatred of others.

There's a paradox of sorts here. The union of knowledge and love is so close and inseparable, since they both come from and return to the One God, that those who have knowledge of Catholicism but don't have love don't in truth have knowledge of Catholicism. They know facts, but they don't know the Faith.

Anyone who speaks the truth without love is not speaking the truth of God, just as anyone who speaks of love without truth is not speaking of the love of God.


Friday, July 01, 2005

A loving vision

In the first chapter of The Sources of Christian Ethics, Servais Pinckaers, OP, defines moral theology as
"the branch of theology
that studies human acts
so as to direct them to a loving vision of God
seen as our true complete happiness
and our final end.
This vision is attained by means of grace, the virtues, and the gifts,
in the light of revelation and reason."
Each of the above phrases has implications for what he sees as the work of moral theologians and teachers of moral theology. Right now, though, I just want to write a few words on the term "loving vision."

By "loving vision," Fr. Pinckaers intends to unite two historically distinct concepts of beatitude, that of vision or knowledge and that of love. The distinction arose only in the Thirteenth Century, when the Dominicans started emphasizing knowledge and the Franciscans love. The vision of God that Scripture states is the destiny of Christ's disciples -- "we shall see Him as He is" -- is not mere intellectual knowledge, but a profound interpenetration that necessarily entails love.

Well, that's good. An obscure theological debate will be resolved to all parties' satisfaction in the world to come.

But the loving vision of God isn't something to leave till Christ's return. We who are baptized are already participants in the life of the Trinity. We see through a glass darkly, but we do see. We love God imperfectly, with whatever we have left over from loving ourselves and our possessions, but we do love Him.

And, by Fr. Pinckaers's definition of moral theology, this loving vision of God is precisely the end to which our acts are to be directed. If we don't see this as our final end, then what are we using to guide our acts?


The language of the Church

Why is it that whenever anyone writes more than four words of Latin in a row, someone else points out that the ablative stultudidium should be the diminutive stultudidissimus, or the infinitive nominal isn't peccacavitativitimmus, but peccacavitativitimus?
With Latinists, observe that they
Hath smaller Latinists that on them prey;
And these have smaller Latinists to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
(Or ought one rather say,
Ad infinitiae?)


Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Dominicans are also looking for a few good women

A three-part post on "Those Mysterious Nuns."


God's doormat

Bl. Henry Suso, OP, was one of the major figures in the Rhineland mysticism of the Fourtheenth Century, perhaps the only leading figure whose cult is recognized by the Church.

The Rhineland of the Fourteenth Century, though, was not a place where wandering mystics were universally welcomed. In his travels, Bl. Henry found himself falsely accused of theft, of faking miracles, of poisoning wells, of fathering a child. He seems to have become adept at fleeing from mobs.

One day, when he was safely in his priory, he noticed the house dog had gotten hold of an old doormat and was playfully chewing holes in it. Bl. Henry saw this as an ideal illustration of his own life: he was a doormat, whose purpose was to be useful to others, but who was in no position to complain about ill-use by anyone, even a dog.

The actual doormat became one of his prized possessions, and the metaphor one of his favorite pieces of spiritual advice. In a letter he sent to a Dominican nun (which was later included in his Little Book of Letters), he wrote:
Act in your own interest and bow down to the feet of all men as though you were a doormat. A doormat does not get angry with anyone, no matter what is done, because it is a doormat.
In another letter, he mentions he was thinking of sending her the doormat as a reminder, but he couldn't bear to part with it. Perfect detachment is hard even for the saints.

Despite the closeness to God he achieved in this life, Bl. Henry did not regard himself as particularly exalted. He once wrote that he did not feel like he was God's lover:
It seems to me I am His cart driver and drive through puddles with my clothes tucked up, as I pull people out of the deep mire of their sinful lives and bring them to what is beautiful. And so it is enough for me if He puts a loaf of rye bread in my hands.
Rye being the bread of the poor.

I think "pulling people out of the deep mire of their sinful lives and bringing them to what is beautiful" is a good metaphor for the Dominican vocation, which is usually expressed in the more antiseptic terms of "preaching and the salvation of souls." The salvation of souls is dirty work, souls in need of salvation being as dirty as they are.

At a Third Order Chapter meeting the other night, when I suggested Dominicans might see themselves as God's cart drivers, I was brought up short when someone pointed out that St. Catherine of Siena saw herself as not merely God's lover but as Christ's mystical spouse. On reflection, though, I remembered that, after St. Catherine experienced her mystical espousal to Christ, He commanded that she leave the privacy of her cell to go out into the world and serve His people. And I think we can speak in terms of "both/and" for someone who regarded herself as Christ's bride yet prayed in these words:
I am a weak sinner who has never loved you. You are purest beauty and I am the filthiest of creatures....
I have one body, and to you I offer and return it. Here is my flesh; here is my blood; let me be slain, reduced to nothing; let my bones be split apart for those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.
Reduced to nothing... like a doormat.

I don't think I'm the only one who prefers to think of the Dominican vocation as one of sitting in an air conditioned room talking about stuff we've read.


You can handle the Truth?

The Dominicans are looking for a few good men.

Like him.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

St. Peter's Shadow

An epigram by Richard Crashaw.
Under thy shadow may I lurk awhile,
Death's busy search I'll easily beguile;
Thy shadow, Peter, must show me the Sun,
My light's thy shadow's shadow, or 'tis done.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Who do I say that I am?

Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute does a nice bit about how Blessed Teresa of Calcutta didn't know she was "Mother Teresa" -- and how her bishop for sure didn't know -- when she decided to found her own religious order in her late 30s.

I don't know whether she ever did realize she was Mother Teresa, though the rest of the world did when it saw how she loved the poor.

The Gospels make it clear that a lot of people didn't know Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus, and once we get over the anachronistic romanticism that assumes His halo was visible at noon on a clear day, it's not hard to understand their doubt. Even people who had become His disciples found, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him," to be too hard to accept, and who can blame them?

And yet, Jesus seems to. Well, not blame, exactly, but He does hold people culpable for their failure to believe in Him. Something in what He said and did sufficed to establish the authority by which He said and did them. "My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me." And just as His sheep knew that, in seeing Jesus, they weren't seeing just another wonderworker, they know that, in seeing Mother Teresa, they weren't seeing just another do-gooder.

Which raises the question: When those whom the Father has given to Christ see us, what do they see? Do they see Christ and His passion endured for their salvation, or do they see us and our own passions pursued for selfish reasons? If we dress up our own wills in the clothes of Christian surrender -- okay, yeah, that metaphor got away from me -- we may convince ourselves that we are making Christ present to the world, but we won't convince the world.

My will does not speak with the authority by which Christ's sheep know His voice. So when people don't follow me, I can conclude either that I am not speaking with Christ's voice, or that the people not following me do not belong to Him. The safe bet is obvious.


Monday, June 27, 2005


One of the risks of being known to family and friends as a religious fanatic is that they might shop for your present in a Christian gift store. Or worse, a Catholic gift store.

But... surely no one would ever buy someone this on purpose. I mean, I wouldn't even want to pick one up on the way home for a homebound neighbor. What if it came to life in the car?


Again with the forgiveness

Monsignor Peter Magee, who used to work for the Vatican Diplomatic Corps and will start a teaching gig at Georgetown (I think) this fall, spent the past year as a priest-in-residence in my parish. He's an outstanding homilist, so as soon as I heard he had a book coming out this month, I planned on ordering it.

It's called God's Mercy Revealed: Healing for a Broken World, and is based on homilies he has given at St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington. I'm six pages into it, and it's already worth the price. In those six pages, he offers a new (to me) understanding on the question that comes up over and over again in St. Blog's regarding the concept of unconditional forgiveness. Here is my riff on his take:

Before it is an act we experience, God's forgiveness is part of Who He is. When He forgives us, then, it is not fundamentally a juridical act whereby the party of the first part waives all rights and claims against the party of the second part appertaining to all injuries, fiducial and otherwise, directly or indirectly incurred as a result of the following actions of the party of the second part, &c. &c. &c.

Rather, God's act of forgiveness is an invitation to share in His life of forgiveness. It is God saying, "I AM Forgiveness, and you may join Me."

This perspective has many profound implications.

First, it makes forgiveness all of a piece with God's love. It's not something extra or optional. If God is love, if God is God, then God is forgiveness, and He will forgive all of us everything. It makes each individual act of forgiveness, for each individual sin each individual commits, of a piece with the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, the preeminent expression of God's love (and mercy, and forgiveness) within creation. It [all but] dissolves the old "mercy v. justice" paradox (which I've never seen as all that great to begin with).

Forgiveness as an aspect of Divine life also means that to be forgiven is to have the Trinity living within you. A richer notion, wouldn't you say, than the status quo ante notion of merely canceling a debt.

It further converts the idea of asking forgiveness into the idea of allowing God to live within you. If "to forgive" is to offer to have God live in you, then "to be forgiven" is to actually have God live in you. Logically, between these two comes "to ask forgiveness," meaning to let God live in you. In juridical terms, "to ask forgiveness" is prior to "to forgive," a chicken-and-egg problem if, as orthodox Christians, we want to insist all the good we do comes from God.

The "God is forgiveness" perspective also illuminates the fact that, for a Christian, to forgive someone else is to invite them to share in God's life. Under what circumstances ought a Christian choose not to invite someone to share in God's life? Under what circumstances, then, ought a Christian to not forgive someone?

When the topic of unconditional forgiveness comes up, people always insist that you can't forgive unless you were first harmed. Better to say that you can't forgive unless you were first forgiven. You can't give what you don't have; you can't offer a share in God's life if you don't have God's life within you.

Still more, for a Christian to forgive is not for him to say, "I forgive you your offenses against me," but, "God forgives you your offences against Him." Christian forgiveness is no more a juridical act, fundamentally, than is Christ's forgiveness. It is an act of evangelism, a proclamation of the Gospel, and to whom are we not to evangelize?


As we were saying

1. The virtues. Goodness, truth, and beauty. This fellow sounds like a Dominican.

2. A "foreigner to worry and quite a close friend of gaiety." This fellow sounds like a Dominican, too.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

Semper OPifer

Brad Haas at Defensor Veritatis has a question: How can a perfectly happy God care about what we do? Please go tell him the answer.

Also, someone is looking for the music to the hymn "Mother of Grace." The lyrics are:
O glorious Lady, throned in light,
Sublime above the starry height,
Thine arms thy great Creator pressed,
A suckling at thy sacred breast.

Through the dear Blossom of thy womb
Thou changest hapless Eva's doom:
Through thee to contrite souls is given
An opening to their home in heaven.

Thou art the great King's portal bright
With pearls and stones of living light;
Come, then, ye ransomed nations, sing
Thy life divine 'twas hers to bring.

Author of grace, sweet Saviour mine,
Remember that Thy flesh divine
From the unsullied Virgin came,
Made like unto our mortal frame.

O Mary, Mother of all Grace,
Mother of Mercy to our race,
Protect us now from Satan's power,
And own us at life's closing hour.

All glory be to Thee, O Lord,
The Virgin’s Son, by all adored,
And equal praise forever greet
The Father and the Paraclete. Amen.
Rumor has it it's an old Dominican hymn. Does anyone know where the music for this might be?