instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, March 02, 2007

Tell us another one, Lord

Today's Gospel reading is chock full of things Jesus said that we know He didn't really mean, like this:
If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
What Jesus neglects in this passage is the very real possibility that we're perfectly all right with being unreconciled with our brother, who is, let's face it, a fool.

Besides, isn't the whole "bring your gift to the altar" business a bit OBE? The gift we bring to the altar is Christ Himself, and He is the priest Who offers it. We're there mostly to be sort of sucked into heaven in His wake.

God wasn't exactly pleased by imperfect offerings back in the day, but if He really expected us to be perfect, He'd have told us to be perfect. Perfection is for saints (and maybe really old people).

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For a good cause

But I can't help but notice it's on Holy Thursday.

As if the foot washing at the Mass of the Lord's Supper wasn't awkward and embarrassing enough....

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

God is always changing His mind

Among the paradoxes posed by the Catholic faith is the fact that the One God, Who in Himself is perfectly happy and eternally unchanging, is often presented in the Bible as angry, and often enough as fickle.

The Classroom Answer to this is that Scripture was written by men, from whose imperfectly happy and perpetually changing perspective God's impassibility appears as anger and fickleness.

The Classroom Answer is perfectly correct and just fine, as far as it goes, which is about ten steps outside the classroom door, at which point the student stops thinking about what he'll need to write for the test and starts thinking like an imperfectly happy and perpetually changing human being. And human beings don't find the idea that something is utterly unlike what it appears to be very satisfying.

Clinging too tightly to the Classroom Answer is not only unsatisfying. It can be deafening. If, as you read Scripture, you keep telling yourself, "God isn't really like that," how can you hear what God is revealing through Scripture about what He is really like?

This seems to be a paradox best left to wisdom rather than knowledge. When thinking about God in Himself, think about God in Himself. When thinking about God's self-revelation in Scripture, think about His self-revelation in Scripture as it is actually revealed. Don't filter the words of the Bible through dogmatic theology first; take them as they are, and let them steep in your mind and heart together with the dogmas, and see what time and the Holy Spirit can do with them comingled.

Now, I suspect more people do it the other way around, ignoring dogma and assuming God in Himself is often angry and sometimes fickle, but as they say, "The preacher preaches first to himself." And the wisdom of actually listening to what the Bible actually says was brought home to me the other night, when Fr. Alobaidi -- who as a good Dominican is fully aware of the Divine perfections -- said with a smile that, in the Bible, "God is always changing His mind."

Think about the story of Exodus. Pharaoh refuses to free the Hebrews, there's a plague, he says, "Go," the plague stops, he refuses to free the Hebrews. That's what you'd call a changeable mind, right?

Well, not really. Pharaoh is consistently minding what's best for Pharaoh. As the circumstances change, the particulars of what's best change, but his mind remains fixed on the end of his own happiness (as he conceives it). (And we'll leave unmentioned the wrinkle that God is always hardening his heart.)

Similarly, the Israelites in the desert go from, "All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do," to, "Come, make us a god who will be our leader," in less than forty days. Why? They didn't know what happened to Moses. Their minds aren't merely changeable, they're downright flitty.

Except that, as with Pharaoh, the end they sought -- to have a God to worship -- didn't change. If the God they had been worshipping wasn't coming back, then they'd just have to come up with another one.

Compare that to God's reaction the the golden calf:
With that, the LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved... Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, "Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? ... Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky...."

So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.
There are no changed circumstances here; the Israelites are just as depraved after Moses' speech as before. Yet this pattern is repeated again and again, with Moses turning aside God's wrath with just a few words.

If we look a little closer at the pattern, we can put it this way, noting the pronouns the sacred writer uses:
The LORD: I will destroy your people.
Moses: Do not destroy Your people.
The LORD: I will not destroy My people.
When God changes His mind in these exchanges, it is always in the direction of His love for His people.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Head and heart

Steven Riddle has turned up an article by Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P., on the religious compositions of Dave Brubeck.

This is, of course, the same Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P., who will be giving the St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, this Sunday, March 4, at 2 p.m. His topic: "Charity's Knowledge: The Relationship Between Knowledge and Love in Aquinas' Account of Human Action."

And I'm doing my best to refrain from saying that I'm pretty jazzed about it.

For the curious, the preface and introduction to Fr. Sherwin's book, By Knowledge and by Love, can be read here.

Incidentally, anyone who is within driving distance of the House of Studies might want to keep an eye on this page for upcoming events. And start planning now to attend the priory's Tenebrae service this Holy Week!

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A few more nuggets

From last night's talk:
  • "The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame." Here, "nakedness" signifies weakness. In himself, man is weak and depends upon God's strength. Before the Fall, this was not a problem, since man's relationship with God was rightly ordered.

  • After the Fall, "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked." Till then, it hadn't occurred to them to think of themselves as weak; it hadn't occurred to them to think of themselves at all, since their eyes were upon God, not themselves. But from the first, all sin has been a matter of regarding yourself first.

  • And when what is second (man) tries to become equal with what is first (God), he winds up last (as told in Genesis 3, servant to what is third (an animal)).

  • Even so, "the LORD God made leather garments, with which he clothed them." God does not leave mankind altogether reliant on his own strength, the strength of fig leaves, but gives him the grace of a certain degree of divine protection before sending him out into the world.

  • "Then God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'": The way an empire signified that a town belonged to it, however far the town was from the capital, was by placing a statue of the emperor in the center of the town. In the Creation Stories, God places an image of Himself in the center of creation. Man, then, signifies God's dominion over all creation -- which explains the devil's interest in corrupting the image of God in man.

  • The first human words quoted in Genesis are of a man's delight at his wife. The last human words quoted in Revelation are of a woman's delight at her husband. Christ's marriage with the Church restores the unity intended from the beginning.

  • Mankind's first liturgical act produced a human victim. So does (so must, you might say) the final liturgical act. (Which is why, I suppose, the Church's liturgy cannot be other than a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice. "It is finished," as He said, and if we are doing something else or something more, then we are in some way continuing the line of insufficient liturgies offered between Abel's death and Jesus'.)

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Jesus Christ: The Accomplishment of the Old Testament

There is something thrilling about watching a preacher burning for joy at the word of the Lord. Those of us who attended the talk given last night at St. Andrew Apostle Church in Silver Spring, MD, had that experience.

The preacher was Fr. Joseph Alobaidi, O.P., who has spent thirty years or so studying the Bible, specializing in Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. So it's no surprise that his vision of the Gospel is one of fulfillment.

We all know that Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, but most of us don't know much at all about what the Law and the Prophets really mean. We start with Jesus, then look back into the Old Testament (or let the people who put together the lectionary do it for us) for interesting and noteworthy parallels.1 The fuzzier we are on the Law and the Prophets, the less meaningful we will find the claim that Jesus fulfills them.

Fr. Alobaidi, though, goes further, saying Jesus is the "accomplishment of the Old Testament," which adds Writings to the Law and the Prophets. To understand what he means, we need to know what the Old Testament is, and in what sense it can be "accomplished."

One way of looking at the Old Testament is as a simple story: God makes man (Genesis 1-2), God loses man (Genesis 3), God tries to woo man back (Genesis 4-Malachi 3).

Put this way, the old "God of the Old Testament" caricature as vindictive and judgmental, as contrasted with the beneficent and loving "God of the New Testament," is not merely theological guff, but a flat misreading of the whole story.2 The role of Just Judge is one Adam's sin forces upon God, but throughout history God continues to plead for man to turn to Him with his whole heart, so that He may again be for him his Merciful Father.

What it means, then, to "accomplish" the Old Testament is that Jesus completes the wooing. In Christ the sin of Adam is undone, and mankind is restored to a right relationship with God. Matthew 1-Revelation 22 can be summed up as, "God gets man."

As Fr. Alobaidi put it, the war that began with the serpent in the garden has been won; we're just waiting for the victory parade.



1. One interesting and noteworthy parallel: Fr. Alobaidi said there are four dozen references to Isaiah's Song of the Suffering Servant (Is. 52:13-:53:12) in the New Testament, making it the most referenced Old Testament passage. Something to think about during Lent.

2. It's like saying Boo Radley is the villain of To Kill a Mockingbird: when you hear that, you know you're hearing someone who didn't read very carefully.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Commonplace wisdom

EWTN isn't my thing. I doubt the time I've spent watching that TV channel adds up to two hours since it went on the air. Almost everything I know about Mother Angelica I learned second or third hand, and almost all of that has been in the context of the Great Catholic Culture Wars, a context I find makes almost everyone involved pettier.

So I was not thrilled to find Mother Angelica's smiling face gracing the cover of a review book I was sent. The title -- Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality -- is about as close as they could come without actually asking me for the name of a book I would never want to read.

All that said, it's a pretty good book.

Raymond Arroyo, who published a biography of Mother Angelica in 2005, has drawn short passages (ranging from a few words to a few pages) from her interviews, conversations, and broadcasts over several decades, arranging them by theme. The result is a kind of commonplace book of commonplace wisdom.

[Disclosure: As a thematically sorted collection of thoughts, it's not the sort of thing you sit down and read all the way through. And I didn't. I've read bits here and there, maybe half of it altogether.]

The value in a book of commonplace wisdom is that many or most of us live commonplace lives. We could stand to be reminded again and again of things we know, and to be told things we should know. Mother Angelica's Little Book does this, in bite-size samples, on topics ranging from "Living in the Present Moment" to "Saints and Angels" and "The Last Things."

Her style is plain and straightforward, with an occasional elegance like
The world is not starving from a lack of money. It's starving from a want of love.
There are also some insightful distinctions, such as the one between recalling the past (necessary for prudence in the present) and reliving the past (always imprudent). And her "everyday spirituality" of being present to God and accepting the call to become a saint is presented in very clear and practical terms.

Now, I don't regard this book as an instant classic of spirituality. Mother Angelica's ideas aren't particularly original -- and I should make clear that she doesn't claim they are, and that Raymond Arroyo calls attention to the sources, such as Brother Lawrence and Jean Pierre de Caussade, who have influenced her.

Neither are her words particularly deep. As I said above, most of us aren't particularly deep, either, so that's fine as far as it goes. Just don't expect to find much on the depths of the spiritual life available to the Christian, even the commonplace Christian, in this life.

I could quibble over some of the selections included, starting with the opening epigraph (Luke 10:21, "Thou has hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father, for so it hath seemed good in Thy sight."), which strikes the "just a simple nun" chord her fans are fond of a bit too hard. A fair amount of the material seems to have been chosen to play up Mother Angelica's personality, rather than her wisdom or counsel -- and, for that matter, not all of her wisdom and counsel is beyond criticism.

Overall, though, the book delivers what its title advertises, and if the editor is somewhat indulgent toward the author, chances are most of the readers will be, too. Those for whom EWTN isn't their thing may not be bowled over by the book, but it does give a flavor of the sound and simple spirituality that drives Mother Angelica and inspires her fans.

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Prove it!

Jesus... was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.
Msgr. Peter Magee, in God's Mercy Revealed: Healing for a Broken World, suggests that it is "unsuspected, unexpected, strange even," for the Holy Spirit to lead Jesus into temptation this way. As Christians, we are both to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us, and to pray, "Lead us not into temptation." So what if the Holy Spirit guides us into temptation?

St. Thomas distinguishes two kinds of temptations, corresponding to the two requirements of morality: to do good and avoid evil. First, though,
it must be known that to tempt is nothing other than to test or to prove. To tempt a man is to test or try his virtue.
"To tempt," then, isn't the altogether wicked thing we might usually consider it, although if you're going to tempt someone, you'd better have the right and authority to be testing his virtue.

That's just the sort of right and authority God has, and so sometimes
a person is tried in his readiness to do good, for example, to fast and such like... In this way does God sometimes try one's virtue, not, however, because such virtue is hidden from Him, but in order that all might know it and it would be an example to all.
Tested virtue is an example first to the one whose virtue it is; such tests make virtue stronger and more pure. Msgr. Magee goes as far as to say that "temptation is the opportunity we need to use those gifts [of nature and grace] aright." If we do good when our readiness to do good isn't tested, what good is that? Even sinners do it.

We shouldn't merely endure the trials into which the Holy Spirit leads us, we should welcome the transforming fire (as Msgr. Magee calls it) they put us in. The Greek version* of Judith 8:25 tells us that
we should be grateful to the Lord our God, for putting us to the test, as he did our forefathers.
Now, the second kind of temptation, per St. Thomas, is when
the virtue of man is tried by solicitation to evil. If he truly resists and does not give his consent, then his virtue is great. If, however, he falls before the temptation, he is devoid of virtue. God tempts no man in this way, for it is written: "God is not a tempter of evils, and He tempteth no man."
So if there's a good kind of temptation, which we need to grow in virtue, and a bad kind of temptation, by which God never tempts us, then what's the point of asking God not to lead us into temptation? St. Thomas replies
that God is said to lead a person into evil by permitting him to the extent that, because of his many sins, He withdraws His grace from man, and as a result of this withdrawal man does fall into sin.
In other words, the petition amounts to, "Do not abandon us when we are tempted to sin." It is a way of praying for the promise St. Paul records in 1 Corinthians 10:13:
God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.
By petitioning God to do what He has promised to do, we draw our own hearts, minds, and wills closer to His.



*. I point out that I'm quoting the Greek version because it's considerably different from the Latin version. The Douay Rheims translates St. Jerome's Vulgate, which he claimed to have translated in one night from the Chaldaic, "magis sensum e sensu," aiming at giving sense for sense (i.e., dynamic equivalence!). The Latin version is shorter than the Greek version (which the NAB translates), and doesn't contain the words I quote above.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Cool stuff coming up

  • Sunday, March 4, 2007, 2:00 p.m.
    Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC

    St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture
    "Charity's Knowledge: The Relationship Between Knowledge and Love in Aquinas' Account of Human Action"
    presented by Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P.
    (more information)

  • Thursday, March 8, 2007, 7:15 p.m.
    Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC

    In the Image of God: the Human Condition Today Lecture Series
    Mary and the Victory Over Evil: The Marian Role in the Restoration of the Image of God"
    presented by Fr. John Corbett, O.P.

  • March 30-31
    Providence College, Providence, RI

    Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering
    A Providence College Symposium
    The question of divine impassibility has resurfaced in theological literature in recent years, reigniting long-standing debate on classical metaphysics and Christian revelation.

    Providence College is pleased to announce an upcoming theological conference which will highlight a particular issue: the relationship among divine impassibility, human suffering, and divine providence.

    How does a doctrine of God's passibility or impassibility affect how we understand his governance of the world, particularly with regard to human suffering?

    Theologians from a diversity of Christian confessional traditions will discuss these subjects, providing impetus for reflection from a variety of theoretical standpoints.

  • April 13-15
    Belmont Abbey College, Charlotte, NC

    Catholic Family Expo
    The 17th annual Catholic Family EXPO is gathering of Catholic families, friends, professionals, speakers and exhibitors to share resources and inspirations in a conference setting. The workshops are organized into five tracks-faith, marriage, parenting, high school and young adult life, and home education-interspersed with major keynote speakers.

  • May 21-25, 2007
    Catholic University of America, Washington, DC

    Summer Catholic Social Thought Institute
    sponsored by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists
    and the CUA Department of Sociology
    A week of lectures and seminars (30 hrs.) by outstanding Catholic scholars in the social sciences, geared especially to graduate students. Teachers, professors, professionals, clergy, and others also welcome.

    Topics to Be Covered: The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church; The Social Encyclicals; A Catholic Critique of Secular Social Science; Constructing Catholic Sociologies; Social Policy Implications of Catholic Social Thought; Catholic Approaches to Each of the Social Science Disciplines.
    (more information)

  • June 28-July 1
    Baltimore Convention Center, Baltimore, MD

    Catholic Family Expo
    The 17th annual Catholic Family EXPO is gathering of Catholic families, friends, professionals, speakers and exhibitors to share resources and inspirations in a conference setting. The workshops are organized into five tracks-faith, marriage, parenting, high school and young adult life, and home education-interspersed with major keynote speakers.

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What's done for Lent is done for eternity

Maybe it's just my guilty conscience, but there seems to be a lot of Lenten kickoff messages, on St. Blog's and elsewhere, to the effect that, "You're doing it all wrong." All this giving up stuff, all this penitential spirit, I'm told, misses the point of Lent.

There is, certainly, Scriptural support for the "doing it all wrong" argument. Joel's "Rend your hearts, not your garments," from Ash Wednesday's first reading, comes to mind, and even more to the point is today's first reading from Isaiah:
Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
  • releasing those bound unjustly
  • untying the thongs of the yoke
  • setting free the oppressed
  • breaking every yoke
  • sharing your bread with the hungry
  • sheltering the oppressed and the homeless
  • clothing the naked when you see them, and
  • not turning your back on your own.
Those of us with a more literal cast of mind might be tempted to think, "Well, that's all to the good, of course, but I, ah, can't quite see how releasing those bound unjustly is exactly fasting as such."

In fact, on my reading, releasing those bound unjustly isn't fasting as such. Furthermore, fasting isn't fasting as such -- or rather, it's not fasting as wished by the LORD.

The dictionary meaning of "fasting" is "abstaining from food," but that's not the Scriptural meaning of the word. The Scriptural meaning adds the necessary motive of charity, an end achieved through abstaining from food without which the action as a whole is not the fasting God promises to reward -- and let's not treat the reward as boilerplate prophecy mumbo jumbo, either! If your fasting encompasses the above acts of mercy,
your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
When we abstain from food, we become empty. If we don't pay attention to what fills us back up, it's likely to be quarrelling and fighting, or whatever vices we carry within us. But if we become empty and then fill ourselves with love of our neighbor, our light shall break forth like the dawn.

So I suppose my Lenten kickoff message is not, "Don't waste your time with your low-carb penitence and your six-week preparation for Eastertide intemperance." It's this: By all means, go ahead with your plans. If your rule of penance happens to come from a low fat cookbook, that's fine, too. Only, please, every time you remember what you're doing for Lent, remember too why you're doing it.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Maryland Lenten Program

Another Lent, another great

Lenten Lecture Series
The Bishop Fenwick Chapter of Lay Dominicans is sponsoring a series of Tuesday night talks on the role of Scripture in the Catholic Faith.

The talks will be at St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church, Silver Spring, MD. The schedule is as follows:

Tuesday, February 27
Fr. Joseph Alobaidi, O.P.
"Jesus Christ: Fulfillment of the Promise of the Old Testament"

Tuesday, March 6
Fr. Kevin McGrath, O.P.
"The Church's Scriptural Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours"

Tuesday, March 13
Fr. John Corbett, O.P.
"Understanding the Symbolic Language of the Book of Revelation"

Tuesday, March 20
Fr. John Langlois, O.P.
"Mary's Scriptural Journey and the Rosary"

Tuesday, March 27
Fr. Peter Fegan, O.P.
"Unlocking the Scriptures: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina"


Each program will begin with Evening Prayer at 7:30 in the church.

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"As" is

I have just noticed something about the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
I'd always thought of the "as we forgive those" as something like a parenthetical reminder or doctrinal footnote, a short way of saying that the party of the first part acknowledges that the Party of the second part shall deem Himself free of all obligations in re. this petition in the event that the party of the first part fails to forgive those who trespass against the party of the first part.

But while it's true that we will be forgiven as we forgive, the statement isn't a doctrinal assertion, it's a petition. Every time we say an "Our Father," we are asking God to forgive us as we forgive others. We are declaring, "It is my will that, as I forgive, so shall I be forgiven."

We aren't simply acknowledging that forgiveness is transitive; we are praying for it to be transitive. Which is a brash thing to do if we aren't actually planning on doing much forgiving.

St. Thomas considers the question of someone saying this prayer who wants forgiveness without forgiving:
But you may think, "I shall say what goes first in the petition, namely, 'forgive us,' but that 'As we forgive those who trespass against us,' I shall not say." Would you seek to deceive Christ? You certainly do not deceive Him. For Christ who made this prayer remembers it well, and cannot be deceived. If therefore, you say it with the lips, let the heart fulfill it.
That's good advice, certainly, but what of the one who won't follow it?
But one may ask whether he who does not intend to forgive his neighbor ought to say: "As we forgive those who trespass against us." It seems not, for such is a lie. But actually it must be said that he does not lie, because he prays not in his own person, but in that of the Church which is not deceived, and, therefore the petition itself is in the plural number.
Finally, St. Thomas proposes two forms of forgiveness:
One applies to the perfect, where the one offended seeks out the offender: "Seek after peace." The other is common to all, and to it all are equally bound, that one offended grant pardon to the one who seeks it: "Forgive thy neighbor if he hath hurt thee; and then shall thy sins be forgiven to thee when thou prayest." And from this follows that other beatitude: "Blessed are the merciful." For mercy causes us to have pity on our neighbor.
This doesn't mean that only some few people, specially picked by God, have to forgive perfectly, while most of us are only called to a second-rate forgiveness.

Rather, St. Thomas is saying that even the stubborn fellow who does not intend to forgive his neighbor is perfectly capable of forgiving him anyway when his neighbor asks for forgiveness. It's not perfect, but it's a start, and enough of a one that whoever is prepared to make it isn't lying when he prays this petition.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

What does the mute spirit say to us?

Today's Gospel is the story of the boy possessed by a mute and deaf spirit whom Jesus meets as He comes down the mountain after the Transfiguration.

The story contains that wonderful prayer, "I do believe, help my unbelief!," and that great promise, "Everything is possible to one who has faith." We laugh at the blockheadedness of the disciples that drew from Jesus the rebuke, "O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?" (There's so much going on in this story that we may never get around to thinking about the rebukes our own blockheadedness draw from Him.)

In all this, the mute spirit possessing the boy comes off as something of a Macguffin. It's just there to get the plot rolling, an indifferent means to the end of revealing the many things God reveals in the passage.

It might repay the time, however, to take a closer look at this mute spirit. Here are two lines of thought:

First, courtesy of Fr. John Dear, SJ, in his book Transfiguration, note that the spirit "has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him." In the New Testament, fire and water symbolize the Holy Spirit and baptism, sources of life. The spirit, though, tries to use them as the means of death*. Jesus' word overcomes these "anti-sacraments" (as I say, this is a line of thought; you'll have to do the shading yourself), since He has come to bring life to the dead.

Second, the father says that, when the spirit seizes his son, "he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid." Do you know anyone in your own life who has a tendency -- perhaps when the subject turns to religion or politics or morality -- to foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid? Perhaps, and this is offered without the implication that there is a demonic spirit at work, perhaps the way forward in truth with this person is only through prayer (and, as a variant, through fasting).




*:It's interesting to note that, for the Jews, water readily signified death. Gentle rain and peaceful streams were all to the good, but if you have too much water in one place you can drown. Witness the disciples' terror at the storms on the Sea of Galilee. As for sailing on the Mediterranean, that was best left to the pagans. When the Psalmist felt overcome by woe, he called to the LORD "out of the depths." Yet, time and again, Jesus told His disciples, "Be not afraid," even as He told them, "Put out into the deep."

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Is evil necessary?

In a comment below, Nate sums up his position (more fully expressed here) about the Church's teaching on war:
My argument is simple - that the Church's thought has always been: "war is a necessary evil."

Now the Church's thought it, "war is an unnecessary evil."
As I replied at the time, that's a neat-- in the sense of tidy and orderly -- way of putting it. But we need to use this formula with care.

The term "necessary evil" is particularly tricky. To my mind, in common usage it connotes a certain fatalism, a degree of willing acceptance of moral evil in this vale of tears. The sort of pragmatism that doesn't look too closely at the means to a good end has no place in the Church's thought.

If we want to use "necessary evil" in a stricter sense, we immediately run into the problem Steven Riddle noted: that evil is never necessary. In fact, if by "evil" we mean "moral evil," the term "necessary evil" is an oxymoron, a logical impossibility that can be employed only if we don't really know what moral evil is.

That leaves us with the idea of "necessary material evil," where by "material evil" I mean simply a lack of something that shouldn't be lacking. Material evils are things like blindness and hunger and sickness. (They don't need to be physical; my failure to love you as I love myself produces the material evil of you lacking what my charity ought to provide.)

The Church does speak in terms of necessary material evil -- okay, not literally; I haven't seen the term "necessary material evil" used in teaching documents (or anywhere else, come to that). But, for example, the principle of double effect is basically one of necessary material evil: I take bad tasting medicine, not for the sake of the bad taste, but to be restored to health.

And of course "necessary" here means "unavoidable if the end is to be achieved," not "essential" or "required" in an absolute sense.

With that in mind, in what sense has the Church's thought always been "war is a necessary evil" and is now "war is an unnecessary evil"?

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

An example of thinking with the Church

In his weekly newspaper column, my archbishop prepares his flock for Lent (emphasis added for subliminal purposes):
This Lent we cannot make our own personal way of the cross without making every effort, like Simon of Cyrene, to help lift the cross from others who suffer from violence.

The most powerful means that we have at our disposal as followers of Christ, as those who seek peace and wish to be instruments of love, is prayer. Let us never forget or underestimate the power of prayer. It is God's grace that touches hearts, and it is enlightened and changed hearts that bring about the transformation of lives and the reformation of the world in which we live.

Many times Pope John Paul II called us to seek non-violent solutions to all problems whether individual, local, national and international. We have repeatedly associated ourselves with that call over and over again through our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and personally closer to home.

There are no easy solutions to the many complex issues we face today. Nonetheless, as true peacemakers we can always strive to make peace our first priority, the goal of our actions and the object of our constant prayer.

Returning again to the words of Benedict XVI we are reminded that "our crying out (in prayer) is, as it was for Jesus on the cross, the deepest and most radical way of affirming our faith in his sovereign power" (38).

The Prince of Peace is the Christ of Calvary. In Him and His example are both our challenge and our salvation.
I think there's a difference between seeking non-violent solutions to all problems and seeking nonviolence as the solution to all problems. Those who do the latter, though, may be signs pointing us toward the former.

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A reading lesson

According to the Rule for Dominican Laity, "study of the signs of the times" is one of the "principal sources of Dominican formation." Let's practice reading this sign, from the vocations blog for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph:
27 men attended the February 9-11, 2007 vocation weekend. Two had to bring sleeping bags for lack of beds!
Those brand new to sign reading might interpret this as meaning that next year there will be 27 novices in formation for the province. Attendance at a vocation weekend, though, does not by itself imply a vocation.

Those with more experience will find this a hopeful sign, while leaving precise numbers up to God. True enough, I think, but there's more to it than that.

The masters at reading signs know that, wherever you can't find enough beds, you can find a capital campaign.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sound distinctions

In a comment below, Steven Riddle alludes to an important phenomenon in discussions on nonviolence -- viz, that the term means different things to different people. In particular, Steven notes the
Gandhian sense of nonviolence, which perpetrates on its own a whole series of violences that are unique in their brutality. (Not giving a person an injection of a much needed anti-biotic because it represents violence to the body, so that the person, in fact, dies.)
As I suggested in a subsequent comment, Fr. John Dear, SJ, seems for the most part to intend "nonviolence" in the literal and narrow sense of avoiding physical acts of aggression against another person.

Which is fine, but then what term do we use for psychological or spiritual acts of aggression against another person? For that matter, why privilege acts of aggression against another person as the only relevant sins?

Far be it from me to criticize the categorizing of sins in illuminative ways. But if you're going to use your categories as the basis of a moral code, they have to cover all the acts you want to proscribe.

And in the case of those who want to proscribe violence, I might be more convinced of the soundness of their moral code if they were soundly nonviolent themselves. It's certainly possible, and possibly useful, to distinguish between physical violence and passive-aggressive sanctimony, for example, but I don't think it's very sensible to condemn the former in the spirit of the latter, which seems to be common among those who preach nonviolence.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The habit of joy

It looks like this.

And, in a rather understated way, it reads like this.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Non-transfigured nonviolence

When I started reading Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World, by Fr. John Dear, SJ, I was curious. As I read, I became puzzled. Then I came up with what I think is the key to the puzzle. After I finished the book, I settled on what I'd say is its major fault.

I began in curiosity, because all I really knew about the author was that he is something of a big name in the Peace & Justice Catholic movement. Being given a review copy seemed like a good opportunity to find out what he had to say.

The book is an extended reflection on the Transfiguration of Jesus and what it means for Christians today. It's divided into five parts: following Jesus before the Transfiguration; going up the mountain; on the mountaintop; going down the mountain; following Jesus to Jerusalem.

There's some good stuff here, chiefly in Fr. Dear's call to develop a relationship with Jesus through contemplative prayer and reading the Gospels. Some of his insights on the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration are helpful, as is his recognition of the value of seeking a mountaintop encounter with God in our own lives. There's a good line that, "In this age of pop stars and movie celebrities, we are, at best, fans of Jesus, not followers."

But here's the puzzle: How can a Catholic priest who recommends a schedule of prayer and reflection like that have such a peculiar idea about Jesus' life and ministry? If he's reading the same Gospels and praying the same prayers as generations of Catholics did before, and as his own and subsequent generations are, then why does he reach such different conclusions about what the Gospels say?

In Fr. Dear's mind, Jesus is a "nonviolent revolutionary" Who has come into the world to oppose the Roman Empire and its toadies within Jewish religious circles. Following the Transfiguration, Jesus has "one goal in mind: to challenge corruption in the Jerusalem Temple." Even the demon who possesses the boy whom Jesus meets at the foot of the mountain symbolizes "the imperial forces of violence, which kill the poor around the world."

For Fr. Dear, it is simply axiomatic that "creative nonviolence" against the Empire sums up the Gospel. That axiom colors the entire book: his reading of the Transfiguration story; his selection of "quintessential sayings of Jesus"; his opinion of the Church in which he serves as a priest; his choice of religious heroes. On this last point, like many Catholic pacifists, he relies heavily on Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and attributes the relative lack of Catholic pacifists to a defect of the Church.

And that, I think, is the key to the puzzle. Fr. Dear does not think with the Church. He is, if it's not too cute to say it, something of a sola Scriptura Catholic, who uses his hermeneutic of nonviolence to interpret every verse according to his own opinion, and if the Church does not share his opinion, so much the worse for the Church.

Thus we have Peter, James, and John falling asleep on Mount Tabor serving as an "image [that] helps explain today's male-dominated, institutional Church," which "must of course ordain women and married people, and include everyone in its embrace." Where that "of course" comes from, and where it's supposed to go, isn't made clear, but I suppose it follows somehow from the Church not knowing that creative nonviolence sums up the Gospel.

Which brings me to the book's major fault. Fr. Dear is so convinced of the rightness of his opinion that he does very little to convince the reader. Without denying its genuine insights, taken as a whole the book is a sermon to the converted, to those who already agree with him that the Gospel reduces to a message of nonviolence.

The result is a disservice to those who don't agree with him, because it makes it very difficult to discern areas of potential agreement. Saying that nonviolence is all there is to the Faith is a good means of preventing those who say nonviolence has nothing to do with the Faith from questioning their own position.

To a lesser extent, the book is even a disservice to Catholic pacifists, in that Fr. Dear's confidence in the justness of his own position comes off as self-righteousness, and self-righteousness won't win anyone to your side.

Transfiguration is not the book for someone looking for an apology for Catholic pacifism; the assumption of Jesus-as-nonviolent-revolutionary makes for some jarring non sequiturs for those who don't share that assumption (e.g., "If we want to live an authentic, faith-filled life, we need to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to prisoners, vision to the blind, liberation to the oppressed, the cancellation of Third World debt, and the redistribution of the world's resources from the First World nation to the poorer nations...."). It's too bad, because the Transfiguration is a wonderful mystery through which to view the Christian life, and the Christian attitude toward violence is something most of us Catholics could stand to think more about.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Filling a niche
Cooperation with evil is sometimes licit. So it just might be licit this time. So no one can say it isn't. That's the Catholic position. More or less.
Come Join

The Catholic Coalition for Material Cooperation with Evil

You Provide the Reason. We Provide the Excuse.

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Not pro-anti-Catholic, just anti-anti-anti-Catholic

Three brief thoughts on the teapot tempest around John Edwards and his staff:
  1. "Some of my best friends are Catholic" doesn't cut it as a defense. The question isn't whether people hate Catholics, it's whether they hate Catholicism. And by "Catholicism," I mean the actual Faith handed down by the Apostles, not the private treaties many of us negotiated between our consciences and our passions.
  2. Tu -- which is to say, Republicans -- quoque doesn't cut it, either. The question of whether people hate Catholicism is simply of a different order of importance than the question of whether people hate Islam or homosexuality or whatever it is Republicans are said to hate.
  3. In some way, this whole episode points to the evidential power of beauty. The intellect immediately grasps the truth of the matter, not discursively, but by apprehending the ugliness of those involved. Discursive reasoning may follow along, tidying things up, but its end is already known.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The ages of man

I have just noticed how the mysteries of the Rosary match a common pattern in life.

The Joyful Mysteries line up with the innocence of childhood, when the Faith is about Baby Jesus and being loved and taken care of.

The Sorrowful Mysteries match the doubt of adolescence, when ancient questions occur to you for the first time, and the whole structure of the Faith seems undermined. For some, the structure wobbles, for others it collapses altogether and dies.

The Glorious Mysteries correspond to the recovery of the Faith from adolescent doubt. Adult faith has undergone a transformation, perhaps similar to the transformation of the human body after resurrection.

The Luminous Mysteries ... well, in this scheme, they'd align with a more systematic catechesis, when some of the facets of the Faith that were glossed over for young children are examined. Something like that, but I'm not sure that's quite as common as the other stages. (I might say that I find the Luminous Mysteries to be a fruitful addition to the Rosary, but something of a tough fit for these sorts of Ubiquitous Rosary Program posts. It seems to be a lot more natural to think in terms of triples than quadruples.)

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Grammar lesson

As a verb, "affects" means "produces an effect upon." As a verb, "effects" means "brings about or causes." In the following sentences, should the missing verb be "affects" or "effects"?
  1. The humidity            how much flour to use in the recipe.
  2. Your signature here            the transfer of ownership.
  3. My relationship with God            my life.

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The traditions of men

With some traditions, it's hard to see how they got started, or why they endured. With others, it isn't.

(Link via Shrine of the Holy Whapping.)

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