instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, March 17, 2006

St. Patrick's Day Trivia

If you tell a child who attends a Catholic elementary school that, whenever St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday, the celebration of St. Joseph's Day is transferred to the following Monday, which makes it like a four day weekend, except he has school on two of the days, the child will not be impressed.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Helpful distinctions

Recent discussions call to mind two distinctions that are sometimes helpful.

One is the distinction between distinction and separability. That two things are not separable -- that you can't have one without the other -- does not mean that they cannot be distinguished. The two sides of a coin, for example, cannot be separated1, but they can certainly be distinguished.

The other is the distinction between two meanings of the question, "What does this mean?" One meaning, which you might call the proximate meaning, is simply the literal sense of whatever the "this" is; the second (remote) meaning is what follows from the truth of the literal sense. You've seen, perhaps, the "Far Side" cartoon of the two fishermen on a lake, with mushroom clouds rising from beyond the mountains. The proximate meaning of those clouds is that a nuclear war has destroyed civilization. The remote meaning is expressed by one of the fishermen: "I'll tell you what this means, Norm -- no size restrictions and screw the limit!"

The first distinction would apply when discussing the names of God. In His simplicity, God is His essence and His existence (on a good day, I can make some sense out of that). Not only are God's justice and mercy inseparable, God is both His justice and His mercy. Nonetheless, we can distinguish between His justice and His mercy2, and still more between justice and mercy as creation participates in them.

The second distinction would apply in the ongoing look at the question, "What does 'God is love' mean?" The proximate metaphysical and theological meaning of the statement, "God is love," is definitely one worth exploring. But it's perhaps noteworthy that in the encyclical called "God is Love," Pope Benedict XVI is not much concerned with this proximate meaning. The letter is really about what follows from what follows from the fact that God is love, which is to say, it's about what follows from the fact that God loves.

Certainly our understanding of the remote meaning reflects back on our understanding of the proximate meaning, but love more than any other matter for reflection is something that must end in action. In bumper sticker terms, love is act, not fact.

1. Yes, you could get a precision saw and cut the coin in half, but that effectively destroys the coin, and even then you'd be left with two coins, each with two sides.

2. You can even oppose God's justice and mercy, as Pope Benedict does in Deus Caritas Est 10: "God's passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice." But such opposition is conceptual; the Pope continues, "Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God's love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love."


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Simply, love

In a comment below, Steven Riddle brings up a subject I've been sort of poking at in my own mind:
Let's talk about the implications of St. Thomas's assertion (which I believe to be true) that God is simple, not composed of parts, and unite that to the concept that God is Love, without making love simplicity and without reducing God merely to the human notion of love, because although God is simple and God is Love, God is uniate and a lot more things than love. As with a diamond, we can choose to view the whole or look at a single facet and call that the whole.

I've been intrigued by the implications of the encyclical and aspects of Thomistic philosophy since the encyclical came out.
By "poking at it," I mean "telling myself there's are some implications I have no clue at all about." That said:

Brandon Field replied to Steven:
When I read what St. Thomas wrote about God's simplicity, I recalled a reflection that you wrote a while ago about the fractaline nature of the Eucharist: any part contains the whole. This is what I understand St. Thomas' concept of simplicity to mean. So, could it follow that any act of love -- no matter how "small" -- contains some sort of fullness of love? At least in as much as we mean agape love, this might be related to the Little Way of St. Therese. Perhaps any act of sacrificial love contains God, not just a part of God -- since He can not in His simplicity be subdivided -- but God.
I'll buy that, except for that verb "contains." Though we know what we mean (or at least what we mean to mean), the Eucharistic species doesn't really "contain" Christ's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the ordinary meaning of the word. Or even in an extraordinary meaning of the word.

Instead, we talk about Christ's "presence in" the Eucharist, or that the Eucharist "is" Christ's Body and Blood, for some sacramental sense of "presence" and "being."

So we might say that God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- is somehow wholly present in every act of sacrificial love, and adopt an understanding of the Scriptural formula, "if we love one another, God remains in us," that is broad (i.e., not limiting the "love" to some sort of super-refined act only bilocating saints perform), non-tautological (i.e., not defining the "love" as "the sort of love through which God remains in us"), and literal (i.e., our loving one another, in and of itself, really and for true, means that God remains in us; no conditionals or exceptions necessary).

Now, to fold it back toward Steven's point that God is a lot more things than love, we might ask whether God's presence in an act of love is somehow essentially different from God's presence in any other act. As I've been mentioning, we read that "God is light" in the same epistle that gives us "God is love," so there's reason to be cautious about making theological claims based on grammatical data. For that matter, isn't "God Is" even more fundamental than "God is love"?


Discussion Guide for Deus Caritas Est

For what it's worth, here's the outline I used for a parish discussion introducing the papal encyclical:
  1. A Surprising Theme
    • Everyone knows God is love
    • Doesn't sound very Grand Inquisitorish
    • Doesn’t sound very meaty theologically
    • Why did he choose it?

  2. "God is Love"
    • What does "God is love" mean?
    • What does it mean to you?
    • Read selections from 1 John 4:
      Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

      We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the day of judgment because as he is, so are we in this world.

      We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
    • What's the difference between "God loves" and "God is love"?

  3. St. Augustine
    • "God is Love"/"Love is God": draws a parallel between 1 John 4:7-8, "love is of God... God is love" and John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
    • Read from Homilies on the First Epistle of John, VII:
      "Love is God." What more could be said, brothers? If nothing were said in praise of love throughout the pages of this epistle, if nothing whatever throughout the other pages of the Scriptures, and this one only thing were all we were told by the voice of the Spirit of God, "For Love is God;" nothing more ought we to require.

      Now see that to act against love is to act against God. Let no man say, "I sin against man when I do not love my brother... and sin against man is a thing to be taken easily; only let me not sin against God. How do you not sin against God, when you sin against love?
    • Does "God is Love" mean "Love is God"?
    • What do you think of St. Augustine’s argument that sinning against man is sinning against God?
    • Read from Homily VIII:
      Love could not be more exceedingly commended to you than that it should be called God.
    • How is love commended to us today, and how do we commend it to others?

  4. The Catechism on "God is Love"
    • Read from the CCC:
      218 In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love. And thanks to the prophets Israel understood that it was again out of love that God never stopped saving them and pardoning their unfaithfulness and sins.

      221 But St. John goes even further when he affirms that "God is love": God's very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
    • How do we share God's "innermost secret" with each other and with the world?

  5. Pope Benedict, in a letter to Famiglia Cristiana
    • Read selections:
      Initially, in fact, the text might seem a bit difficult and theoretical. However, when one begins to read it, it becomes evident that I only wished to respond to a couple of very concrete questions for Christian life.

      The first question is the following: Is it possible to love God?; more than that: Can love be something that is obligatory? Is it not a feeling that one has or does not have? ...

      The second question is the following: Can we really love our "neighbor" when he is strange or even disagreeable? ...

      Finally, this question is also posed: With her commandments and prohibitions, does not the Church embitter the joy of "eros," of feeling ourselves loved, which pushes us toward the other and seeks to be transformed into union? ...

      In the second part there is talk of charity, in the service of the communal love of the Church toward all who suffer in body or soul and are in need of the gift of love. Two questions arise here above all: Can the Church leave this service to other philanthropic organizations?

      The second question: Would it not be better to promote an order of justice in which there are no needy, and charity would become something superfluous?
    • Do we already know the answers?

  6. The Introduction itself
    • Note backward procession of Scriptural references, from 1 John to John to Deuteronomy
    • "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person": recall the question, "Do you think of yourself as a disciple of Christ or a Catholic?"
    • Christianity is an encounter with love, so Christians must "speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others."
    • Can we speak of our own experiences in such rich terms as "lavishes"?

  7. Things to look for in the encyclical
    • The essentially "ecumenical" character of the Gospel of Love; what non-Catholics, non-Christians, and non-theists might agree with
    • Historical development in Revelation – "The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts" from the Old Testament (n. 12)
    • The twofold "response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us" that goes all the way back to the Garden


Monday, March 13, 2006

The Irish Eating Song

Fans of Whose Line is it, Anyway? will know the tune:
Ai de di de di de di de di de di de di!

This year finds St. Patrick's Day
Falling on a Friday,
Which, it being Lent in March,
Ye'd think 'twas a fish-fry day.

Are we dispensed from abstinence?
Well, here's a little clue:
Me bishop's named McCarrick.
Tell me what you guess he'd do?

Ai de di de di de di de di de di de di!
Lyrics may (but probably won't) be continued in the comments, one line at a time.


Friday, March 10, 2006

More good men and women

And while I'm on the subject of Dominican vocations, let's not forget the Third Order.

Third orders in general are something of a mystery, with "What do you do?" and "What's the point?" being two of the biggest questions people have. The prayer and study angles are fairly straightforward, but in the case of the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic, how do we handle the preaching part?

That's a question we're still asking of ourselves.

They say that, if you've met one Dominican, you've met one Dominican. There are differences between members of the same chapter, between chapters in the same province, and between provinces. With that in mind:

Lay Dominicans live out the Preaching charism in all different ways. Some do churchy things -- teach RCIA or CCD, or work directly for the Church. Others choose a personal or group apostolate; I know of one chapter that sponsors an annual winter coat drive, another that writes letters to politicians, newspapers, and so forth on the moral matters of the day.

Some Lay Dominicans have no particular activity they regard as an apostolate; instead, they go out into the marketplace, as all lay Christians are called to do, but through their formation they go out as Dominicans, offering the fruit of Dominican style contemplation (prayer (Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, Rosary, etc.) and study (particularly the thought and spirituality of the Order's great saints).

Still others serve the mission of the Order through prayer. The idea that the job of each and every Dominican is to go out and preach is both a novelty in the history of the Dominicans and (I suspect) a minority view. Preaching is the mission of the Order, of the community as a whole; it's not the aggregate of tens of thousands of individual missions.

In my chapter, we have people who serve the Province by running the Third Order bookstore (the only such bookstore in the U.S.), helping with the provincial magazine, and serving on the Provincial Council. (A word of warning: competence (or even, in my case, regular attendance) runs the risk of being elected to all sorts of offices and councils; the upside is, they all come with terms of office that do eventually expire.) One member is a DRE for a nearby parish; another is devoted to presenting the thought of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (yes, a Carmelite; the Holy Spirit blows where He wills).

As a chapter, we have sponsored various programs hosted at the parish where we meet. There is also a new initiative throughout the Province whereby each chapter is to sponsor a Bible study program; we'll be starting that up in the fall.

Do all these things really amount to preaching?

That's a subject of lively debate within the Order. There's the position that says pretty much every activity counts as preaching. There's the position that says only speaking to an audience counts. And everything in between.

My personal position is this: The charism of preaching expresses itself in many different ways. However, "preaching" properly speaking is speaking the Word to an audience that is physically present in the same room, and this preaching properly speaking is a unique and privileged means of expressing the charism, one without which the Order of Preachers ceases to be an order of preachers.

Beyond that, we don't record points or keep score. What "counts" is the salvation of souls.

Finally, anyone who's curious about the Order should be sure to ask any other Dominicans they meet or know these same sorts of questions, since they're sure to get at least a different slant, if not a diametrically opposed answer. If you've
asked one Dominican, you've asked one Dominican.


More than a few good men

I see the brothers in formation at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, have revived the vocations blog for the Province of St. Joseph. Look for an update every week or two. (The students also have their own site, and their own PDF newsletter, the Dominican Review.)

Coming soon to a pulpit near you: the novices and student brothers of the Eastern U.S. province.


Shows what I know

I figured there wouldn't be many, if any, comments on the previous post, since I didn't think it was coherent enough. Maybe the four dozen comments reflect the readiness of people to respond to love, however imperfectly expressed.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

As though we understood good

I'm beginning to believe God is love.

I've been struck by the inchoate notion that to speak of "the problem of evil" is to miss the fact that the problem we are truly facing is the problem of good. The real question isn't, "How can an all-powerful, all-good God permit bad things?," but, "How do we face the fact of an all-powerful, all-good God?" To theologize by thinking in terms of evil, as though we understood good, is like doing zoology by thinking in terms of objects that create elephant-shaped shadows, rather than in terms of elephants.

Okay, it's not very much like that at all. I said it's an inchoate notion.

But if God loves, then His love isn't just human love ramped up a million times, or even to infinity, any more than His existence is just a superduper form of our existence. It isn't just present in the things of creation as seasoning or leaven. It isn't really present in a manner similar to anything other than itself.

It's odd that something so explosive, something that simply replaces everything that is not itself, should be so easy to overlook, to ignore, and to forget. Love is weird stuff.


Monday, March 06, 2006

The way of the cross, iii

I suggested that Matthew 16:24 describes a three-step process:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must
  1. deny himself,
  2. take up his cross, and
  3. follow me."
(And before any Carmelite gets the heebie jeebies, let me explain that this is a logical process, where the subsequent steps depend on the presence of the prior steps, not a chronological process, where each step occurs in sequence in time.)

I also suggested the first step amounts to deposing one's own will as the center of one's existence.

If these suggestions are sound, then in order to take up your cross it is necessary to depose your own will as the center of your existence. Why might what follows from such denial of self be considered the taking up of a cross?

Well, what does the taking up of a cross signify? I'd say it signifies the somehow voluntary acceptance of a foreseen path of suffering. It's not merely the stoic acceptance of an instance of suffering, but of a whole route of pain and sorrow, a route whose details may be unknown but whose end, Golgotha, can be seen from the start.

If, as the old love song has it, this world is a vale of tears, then pretty much every path through it is one of pain and sorrow. What distinguishes carrying a cross is the willingness (which is not simple resignation) to suffer, and to some extent the choice of a path that does not minimize suffering.

I'd say that what denying yourself contributes to taking up your cross is this: At every moment you bear your cross, you are tempted to set it down. "Setting it down" means bucking against the suffering, or even abandoning the path for one of less suffering. If you have not denied yourself, if your own will is still the center of your existence, two things follow. First, there is nothing but your own willpower keeping you from setting down your cross, and at any moment you might change your mind. Second, the cross you are bearing is in some sense defined by your will; it is a cross you design for yourself, rather than a product of the fallenness of the world itself.

Note, finally, that in what I've written about both denying yourself and taking up your cross, there is nothing explicitly Christian. You can depose your will in favor of all sorts of things -- of the Party, of a charismatic leader, of social forces. And you can choose a path of suffering from all sorts of causes; you can suffer for your Art, or for your children, or for the sheer cussedness of it.

Thus the final step of the process: "Follow Me." If we are following Christ, the first two steps become specific. It is God's will that becomes the center of our existence. It is the suffering of a Christian that we shoulder, with its twin character of internal self-discipline and external buffeting.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Lenten Discussion Series in Silver Spring, Maryland

We have come to believe in God's love.

Is your Lent not penitential enough? Then come and listen to me lead a discussion on Deus Caritas Est at St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church in Silver Spring, MD, this Tuesday, March 7, beginning with Evening Prayer at 7:30 p.m.


Friday, March 03, 2006

On the "Statement of Principles"

I read the "Statement of Principles By Fifty-Five Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives," and without bothering to pick it apart, the overall impression I got was:

They're asking for partial credit.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

The way of the cross, ii

It might be worthwhile to take a look at the passage from Matthew that introduces the idea of "taking up your cross":
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you."

He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
I shall now demonstrate my mastery of the obvious.

The disciples are here taught three lessons: that Jesus is the Messiah; that the Messiah must suffer; and that those who would follow the Messiah must suffer likewise.

Only after His disciples confess that He is the Messiah does Jesus begins to teach them that the Messiah must suffer and die. Led by Peter, the disciples first learn who Jesus is (more or less), and only then does He go on to say what that truly implies. That He must teach them step by step is vividly illustrated by Peter's reaction to Lesson Two.

In this passage, Lesson Three follows hard on Jesus' grading of Peter's comprehension of Lesson Two. Note the repetition of "must" in these lessons: "that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly," "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself." To be a student is to imitate the master. Perhaps that thought added a little extra to Peter's emphatic, "God forbid, Lord!"

Okay, now I come to the crux (man, I slay me) of the matter:
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."
What Jesus describes is a three-step process, and I would suggest that understanding the second step requires understanding the first step.

The NAB note on this says that "to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the center of one's existence." The Catena Aurea quotes St. Gregory as writing, "He denies himself whosoever is changed for the better, and begins to be what he was not, and ceases to be what he was... He also denies himself, who having trode under foot the risings of pride, shews himself in the eyes of God to be estranged from himself." St. John Chrysostom is more expansive:
He that disowns another, whether a brother, or a servant, or whosoever it be, he may see him beaten, or suffering aught else, and neither succours nor befriends him; thus it is He would have us deny our body, and whether it be beaten or addicted in any other way, not to spare it.
To deny yourself, then, is to change, if not completely sever, your current relationship with yourself. Broadly (and figuratively) speaking, the change involves taking your will -- the satisfying of which is, for those turned away from God, the greatest good -- and trampling it underfoot.


The way of the cross, i

The periodic discussion on What is the Cross the Christian Must Take Up -- in particular Whether the Daily Trials of Life Count -- re-emerged yesterday, and continued over on Flos Carmeli.

Rob presents the objection:
But I firmly believe that it borders on blasphemy to equate the pain that comes of illness, failure of expectations, even loss of loved ones to death, as "crosses."

The only kind of affliction that rises to the level of a cross, is affliction that is endured for the sake of the Word. When one is afflicted for the sake of one's Christianity, and one accepts that affliction with praise for Our Lord at the opportunity, then, and only then, has one taken up one's Cross.
Steven answers it:
I would say that the attitude that separates suffering from the cross tends to make a mockery of human suffering. The strong implication of your words is that human suffering really doesn't have any meaning at all. I would pointedly differ with this. But if we accept that it does have mean, then it only has meaning as united to the sufferings of Christ on the cross.
Steven says it all better than I can, but I'll make what middling insights I have in the next post.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Have yourself a squishy little Ash Wednesday

Let me come out on record as 100% behind an unabashedly, unhesitatingly squishy fast.

Want to do more than the Church requires? Excellent! God will reward you in the spirit with which you fast.

Want to do no more than the Church requires? Excellent! God will reward you in the spirit with which you fast.

Want to do less, but wind up doing what the Church requires, while feeling guilty for not keeping a stricter fast? Excellent! God will reward you in the spirit with which you fast. The guilt, though, you're putting on yourself, and you should take it off yourself, too.

Keeping Lent, like keeping Christmas, can be a touchy subject. I think it helps to recognize that we can admire others without envying them, and that ideas can be shared without being prescribed.



In the comments on a post below, the discussion turned to the question, Whether it is harder for "cultural Christians" to become "true Christians" than for atheists to become "true Christians"?

Setting aside the question of defining and distinguishing "cultural Christian" and "true Christian,"* the basic idea of the Yea side is that those who are born and raised in a Christian culture tend to settle into a little well of complacency, so to speak, from which they are not easily roused. Atheists (or non-Christians in general), being less accustomed to hearing [what they are told is] the Gospel message, much less hearing they are good Christians, have a greater potential to accept Christ's call in their lives.

My take on the question is that we say which transition is easier, not only because we don't actually know, but because it's an ill-posed question to begin with. How "hard" it is for someone to become a true disciple of Christ is not determined by whether he is a cultural Christian or an atheist, and in fact the very difficulty of becoming a disciple -- an act which is, after all, utterly dependent on God's grace -- is not something that admits of being measured at all, much less between people.

The question begins by assuming a too-simple state flow:

But these are hardly the only possibilities. An atheist who becomes a Christian does not necessarily become a true Christian; giving oneself over to Christ is a process, often a long slog for the best among us. The just man falls seven times a day, and so forth. We can immediately explode the state transitions, and still not claim to have covered everything:

Does it make sense to rank these transitions categorically, according to difficulty?

If you think it does, and if you're inclined to try, then you should be sure to compare things that are comparable. For example, I don't think it's right simply to compare those atheists who became true Christians with those cultural Christians who did not, i.e., the red portion of this diagram with the green portion:

This sort of comparison neglects, not just the cultural Christians who become true Christians, but all the atheists who don't become any kind of Christian. A fairer comparison, I think, would look like this:

That is to say, don't ask what a cultural Christian would have to do to become a true Christian, ask what a former cultural Christian did have to do. And similarly with a former atheist. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise of listing the factors that keep cultural Christians complacent without listing the factors that keep atheists atheistic.

Again, though, I'm not sure it's a sensible question to begin with. And whatever else, we shouldn't lose sight of the central role of God's merciful grace in all of this.

*. For the most part, this discussion can be rephrased in terms of "cradle Catholics," "adult converts," and "Catholic disciples of Christ," with what I'll assume are obvious enough changes to not need specifying.


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It really is sweeping the nation

Or at least the Maryland-National Capital Park system.

The Potomac Curling Club had an open house over the weekend. It was well attended.

I attended an open house there when the curling rink opened shortly after the 2002 Winter Olympics. There were a respectable number of visitors, but no lines out the door and down the sidewalk.


The penitential is personal

PAT: And what will you be giving up for Lent then?

MIKE: Sure and begob, I won't drink whiskey and beer until after the Easter Vigil.

PAT: Not drink whiskey and beer? Faith and begorrah! How will you manage?

MIKE: Well, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I'll drink whiskey without beer, and the rest of the week it's beer without whiskey.


Monday, February 27, 2006

Facing a dilemma

Yesterday's homily began with a question most Catholics (particularly in places where the Church is well established) should ask themselves from time to time:

Do you think of yourself primarily as a disciple of Christ, or as a Catholic? As a follower of a Person, or as a member of an institution?

Obviously, "disciple of Christ" and "Catholic" aren't contrary labels. "Catholic" ought to imply "disciple of Christ," and "disciple of Christ" ought to imply at least "in communion with the Catholic Church."

But ten thousand oughts do not make one is. There are unquestionably people who call themselves Catholics who would never call themselves disciples of Christ. You can follow good discipline -- in terms of receiving sacraments and following precepts -- without ever asking yourself if you're practicing good discipleship.

The key word in the question, though -- the one that prevents it from being a false dilemma -- is "primarily." You can understand yourself as both a follower and as a member, but at any given time one will take priority, one will be the way by which you understand yourself as the other.

The homilist proposed that those who understand themselves primarily as Catholics will tend to understand Lent primarily as a time of special rules. They fast during Lent because Catholics are to fast during Lent. The Church says Lent is a time for reform and repentance, so they reform and repent. They follow a program of rule-based growth in virtue.

The readings point to a new way of sanctification. As St. Paul writes, "the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life." To live in the Spirit is to imitate Christ, to follow Him on His path to Golgotha and beyond. What Jesus did, the new wine He poured into new wineskins, was to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, to bring Divine Mercy to those who called out for it (including those who thought they were just calling out for a medical cure), and to pray.

Jesus prayed. He stayed up late, He got up early, He went off by Himself to pray.

He fasted as well, of course, forty days in the wilderness, an act which in the Divine Economy prepared not only Jesus for His ministry, but the Church for her ministry, refreshed each year during Lent.

A disciple imitates his master. Perhaps we can't perform miraculous medical cures (do we even try?). We might not even be prepared to volunteer as preachers. But we can pray, and we can fast, and we can give spiritual alms by testifying to God's mercy at work in our own lives. And if our testimony is stammering and vague, we might at least (as we pray for the Spirit to speak through us) be thankful that no one will take us for glib snake oil salesmen, or agree with us merely because our words tickle their ears.

And we can do these things, not because the Church tells us to, but because Christ did them first.


An observed pattern

Most every group in which membership is voluntary is susceptible to a pattern of behavior that goes like this:
  1. Someone whose attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are, by the standards of the group, iffy or fringe, joins the group.
  2. Having joined, he puts a lot of effort into demonstrating that his attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are perfectly legitimate by group standards.
  3. Having demonstrated this to his satisfaction, he goes on to insist that his attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are not merely legitimate, but positively normative.
  4. Having talked himself into believing his views are normative, he begins decrying the standards of the group as iffy or fringe.
From there, all sorts of interesting things can happen. The group might accommodate him, allowing contradictory understandings of the nature of the group to co-exist. The group might kick him out, at which point he might repeat the pattern with another group, or become a professional embittered ex-group member, or find a group more suited to him. The group might split, with those sympathetic to the fringe member joining him in a new group.

Then again, the pattern might terminate at any point in the process. The fringe member might recognize that he is fringe; he might allow that his views are not normative; he might not think contrary views are beyond the pale.

The only thing that is always a safe bet is Step 1. Any organization that people can choose to join that is not exceptionally careful about who is allowed in (assuming membership can be formally denied) is going to wind up with fringe members.


Friday, February 24, 2006


We're Number 3! We're Number 3!

A bronze medal in curling! An American Olympic team that exceeded expectations! How cool is that?


Orthodoxy is twice as nice

In a comment below, Jonathan Prejean (formerly of Crimson Catholic) refers to the Third Council of Constantinople, which condemned Monotheletism, the heresy that Jesus possessed only one will.

Monotheletism is one of those heresies -- or if you prefer, ditheletism is one of those doctrines -- that's hard to get overly worked up about. Granted that we're perfectly willing to assent to the belief that Christ possessed both a human and the Divine will, the question remains, what are we supposed to do with this belief?

The Fathers of Constantinople III saw Monotheletism, not as a dry error on an obscure matter, but as
a heresy ... intent on removing the perfection of the becoming man of the same one lord Jesus Christ our God, through a certain guileful device, leading from there to the blasphemous conclusion that his rationally animate flesh is without a will and a principle of action.
As with so many heresies, Monotheletism strikes at the Incarnation, without which we're all pretty much just Shriners. The Council defines the orthodox dogma in these words:
Believing our lord Jesus Christ, even after his incarnation, to be one of the holy Trinity and our true God, we say that he has two natures shining forth in his one subsistence in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the difference of the natures being made known in the same one subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race.
Moreover, as they explain just before this definition:
And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. For the will of the flesh had to be moved, and yet to be subjected to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius.
So Jesus' human will, even in Gethsemane, did not resist or struggle against His Divine will.

And yet: He ... began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, "My soul is sorrowful even to death... My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me...." He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.

We know, then, that having a human will perfectly subject to God's will doesn't mean never feeling distress. It doesn't even mean always desiring, of one's own volition, what God desires, though of course it does mean always choosing what He desires. We are not called to agree with God, but to obey Him. But obedience is the road to perfection, and the more we obey God, the more our human wills become, not merely subject to His, but genuinely like His. I speculate.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

On balance, more pro than con

I've never been very sure that "Crunchy Conservatism" was much more than an example of how prejudices can be wrong, with the strong emotional relief of self-described Crunchy Cons at learning that there were others like them an indication, not of a significant but inchoate subspecies of conservatism, but of how hurtful prejudice can be.

However, Rod Dreher has seen his initial observation through to a book -- and as a bibliophile and erstwhile writer, I congratulate him on that -- and provided what he calls "A Crunchy Con Manifesto". And if neither granola nor political conservatism hold much interest for me, I find enumerated sets of principles irresistible.

The italicized statements are the manifesto; the rest are my comments:
1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

Right away, it's clear he's not talking about me, since I'm not a conservative. As Amy Welborn puts it, "It's not my identification, it's not my circle, as if I even have a 'circle', and while there is a lot about modern political conservatism that just drives me batty, much of which Rod touches the end, my self-identification and loyalties are elsewhere."

But the "standing outside the mainstream implies clearer vision" is tendentious, to say the least. It may well be that Rod sees things that matter more clearly than mainstream conservatives; if so, though, it's not because he's standing outside the mainstream, but because of where, specifically, he stands.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

I suspect this is true, though I don't know whether it's a characteristic of conservatism per se, or of the fact that conservatives are human beings. It does seem fair to say that conservatism has a much more positive view of wealth and wealth creation than does liberalism.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

I'll buy that, though I'd phrase it, "Big business deserves skepticism as much as big government," since I'm not interested in figuring out exactly how much skepticism big government deserves.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.

Amen! (Recognizing that "more important than" sets the ordering of these interrelated things, and that "less important" doesn't mean "unimportant.")

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship -- especially of the natural world -- is not fundamentally conservative.

Well, okay, that's for people who debate what "conservative" means.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

While I'm sympathetic to the spirit expressed here -- it's sort of a Principle of Cultural Subsidiarity -- that "almost always" makes it an empirical statement I don't know how to even begin to determine the truth of.

I think I'd want to change it to, "to the extent that Small, Local, Old, and Particular are more personal than Big, Global, New, and Abstract, they are more human," and then kick that around some to see a) whether it's true, and b) whether it means anything.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

Absolutely, in an absolute sense. When you're trying to solve a problem -- like, say, evacuating houses as a wildfire approaches -- you might not define success in terms of aesthetics.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

I agree.

9. We share Russell Kirk's conviction that "the institution most essential to conserve is the family."

Okay (in what I take to be the political context Kirk had in mind).

10. Politics and economics won't save us; if our culture is to be saved at all, it will be by faithfully living by the Permanent Things, conserving these ancient moral truths in the choices we make in our everyday lives.

Not much to dispute there. (There might be a hint that saving our culture is a good to be sought for its own sake, but if it's saved by faithfully living by the Permanent Things, then it would be something worth saving for its own sake (though not, of course, as the final end we seek).
That makes me, though certainly not a Crunchy Con, generally sympathetic to the manifesto. Whether it represents a real movement or bloc or phenomenon -- whether, in fact, it's really any more than political conservatives who think there are more important things than politics -- is for others to hash out, but I'd say it has to be a good thing for conservatism to order itself according to the Permanent Things.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Quid est pax?

It would seem that how much at peace a man is with himself is not a necessary test of whether he possesses spiritual wisdom, since many saints in Christendom knew little peace within them (but trusted God nevertheless).

I respond, using St. Augustine's definition of peace as "the tranquility of order," we start by noting that wisdom (of the kind that comes from above, which is the only kind we're considering here) is right judgment in light of the Divine Will. To be wise is to know things as they are, and to act accordingly.

Now, to act according to the way things are is to accord each thing its proper place. In other words, it is to act so as to bring about, restore, or preserve the "order" in St. Augustine's definition of peace. It is, as I suggested before, almost literally to make peace.

There's no denying that a saint who trusts God is a peacemaker in this sense, acting to bring about, restore, or preserve the order willed by God both within his heart and between himself and others. What I guess is denied is that acting to create this order necessarily results in tranquility. Ordermakers, so to speak, aren't necessarily peacemakers; in fact, merely acting with wisdom may even fail to result in order, much less peace.

To take the last argument first, acting with wisdom does necessarily result in order: specifically, the order within one's will by which the wise thing is done and the foolish thing avoided. True, this isn't the only order the wise man seeks, but it is virtuous in itself and apart from any question of the success of his actions.

If acting with wisdom necessarily creates an order of some sort, does this order necessarily create a tranquility of some sort?

In distinguishing peace from concord, St. Thomas writes that
man's heart is not at peace, so long as he has not what he wants, or if, having what he wants, there still remains something for him to want, and which he cannot have at the same time.
Tranquility, then, can be understood as the absence of contradictory desires. (This tranquility is true peace when the complimentary desires are all ordered to the Eternal Law.)

So the question can be rephrased: If someone acts with wisdom, is he in some way necessarily free of contradictory desires?

I'll tentatively say yes in a limited sense, and no in a more general sense.

Consider Jesus in agony in Gethsemane. Was His heart at peace? I think most of us would say no. People at peace don't sweat blood. St. Matthew writes that He felt "sorrow and distress." He could not do the Father's will and have the cup passed Him by at the same time.

In a narrow sense, though, there was a kind peace in His heart. "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will." His desires were ordered to the Father's will, so much so that the desire to be spared -- which superficially conflicts with the desire to do the Father's will -- was actually conditional. His desire wasn't simply "to be spared," but "to be spared if the Father willed it."

From this perspective, then, even in His agony Jesus did not have contradictory desires, and in this sense He had peace in His heart. Not a very satisfying peace, from a natural perspective, but then, as He says in the Gospel of John (which, of course, does not record the Agony), "my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you."

Perhaps this peace of God -- which, as you know, surpasses understanding -- isn't so easy to detect in another's heart, after all. (Or maybe it takes a saint to know a saint.)

Still, Jesus immediately adds, "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid." The gift of heavenly wisdom does seem to guarantee a certain spot of peace, even in an otherwise roiled heart, just as it does in an otherwise roiled world.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

You're nobody in this town

... until you've made the Google Doodle.


The gladness of spiritual desire

Summa Minutiae quotes St. Benedict on Lent:
Let us devote ourselves to tearful prayers, to reading and compunction of heart, and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God "with the joy of the Holy Ghost" (1 Thes 1:6), of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure; namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.
Compunction of heart with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Withdrawal from merriment with gladness.

The canonical story is that the fast of Lent is followed by the feast of Easter. St. Benedict shows that Lent itself can be a time of feasting, if you do it right.


Wise are the peacemakers

St. James describes two kinds of wisdom, the first of which might better be called cunning:
Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.
St. Thomas quotes this last verse, describing the wisdom from above, as an objection to associating the gift of wisdom with the beatitude of peacemaking. If wisdom is first pure, and also gentle, compliant, and so forth, how can it be said to correspond particularly to peacemaking?

Well, first, why associate wisdom with peacemaking at all?
Now a peacemaker is one who makes peace, either in himself, or in others: and in both cases this is the result of setting in due order those things in which peace is established, for "peace is the tranquility of order," according to Augustine. Now it belongs to wisdom to set things in order, as the Philosopher declares, wherefore peaceableness is fittingly ascribed to wisdom.
According to St. Augustine's insight on the true nature of peace, "peacemaking" can pretty much be defined as "wisdom at work."

And the rest of the characteristics St. James lists? Well, Rule #1 for doing right is, "Don't do wrong":
... the first thing, to be effected in this direction of human acts [by wisdom] is the removal of evils opposed to wisdom: wherefore fear is said to be "the beginning of wisdom," because it makes us shun evil....

Hence James said with reason that "the wisdom that is from above" (and this is the gift of the Holy Ghost) "first indeed is chaste," because it avoids the corruption of sin....
The rest of the list -- "gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity" -- St. Thomas sees as "the means whereby wisdom leads to peace." Gentleness (which moderates desire) and compliance (to the true wisdom of others) "are conditions required that man may be at peace with himself." The other characteristics are, of course, requirements that man may be at peace with others; being full of mercy and good fruits brings right order to a neighbor's deficiencies.

The Biblical text St. Thomas was working with read that wisdom involves "judging without dissimulation," where the Vulgate reads "without judging, without dissimulation." He understood "judging without dissimulation" to refer to correcting a neighbor's faults in charity, which is certainly a condition of true peace between neighbors.

It seems to me that being "without inconstancy or insincerity" is also a requirement of true peace between neighbors. As long as we don't insist on James 3:17 being a unique and complete enumeration of such requirements, I think we can preserve St. Thomas's idea of the descriptions referring to conditions for peace both within and between men.

All of this suggests that one test of someone's wisdom, a test that doesn't require much soul-reading, is how much at peace he is with himself and with others. (Whether others are at peace with him is less relevant.) Passing the test doesn't suffice to prove wisdom -- fools may well be perfectly tranquil amidst great disorder -- but failing it might just disprove wisdom.


Monday, February 20, 2006

A word from Balaam's ass

The Letter of St. James is perhaps best known nowadays for verse 2:17, "So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (Odd, though perhaps a sign of hope, that verse 2:20 isn't the standard apologetical proof text.)

There's a less celebrated parallel between St. James's notions of faith and wisdom:
Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. [2:18b]

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. [3:13]
Just as faith without works is dead, so too is wisdom without works.

And wisdom is what, exactly?

I remember reading the Book of Wisdom, in particular the extended praise of Wisdom in chapters 7-10, and thinking, "It's nice that Wisdom is wonderful and all, but the fellow neglected to mention what it is." Looking again, I find that I was not quite right about that:
[Wisdom] is an aura of the might of God and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty; therefore naught that is sullied enters into her. For she is the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness.
I suspect the first time I read this I took it as more of the poetical praise of Wisdom that comes earlier in the chapter. Now, I suspect, this is about as good a definition as you're likely to get.

There is the Wisdom that is God Himself, the Wisdom that is Love that is Justice that is Truth that is Goodness that is Beauty. From the Godhead comes the divine Wisdom that is the aura of the might of God, the spotless mirror of His power. This image of God's goodness is to God as sunlight is to the sun; it's what we see when we look toward God. We might say this divine Wisdom is the sight of God at work.

When we receive this sight into our hearts, we receive the gift of wisdom; St. Thomas defines this gift in a way analogous to natural wisdom:
...wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law.
The Eternal Law is divine Wisdom; perceiving this Wisdom, the wise act according to it, like a dancer following her partner's lead.

I don't think we need to settle for the tautology that acting according to divine Wisdom is wise. Divine Wisdom itself is acting according to God's love for us. To be wise, then, to employ the gift of wisdom, is to turn to face God and receive that love, and that -- quite apart from commandments and legalities -- is always the right and good thing.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

From "The Illustrated Dictionary of Curling Terms"

sweep: v., to brush the ice in front of a stone with a broom. Sweeping melts the surface of the ice, causing moving objects to travel faster and straighter.