instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, March 24, 2007

We could do it the easy way or the hard way

Drusilla makes an essential correction to my point below about the completeness of Adam and Eve's knowledge of good and evil before the Fall:
Be careful not to take a short term view of creation – a view that insists there was nothing more for A&E to learn, that they had no need to grow until after they ate of the fruit. Growth seems to be built into creation (cf. Romans 8 and elsewhere)...

Obedience is also an opportunity to choose that which has been bestowed, an opportunity to participate in that which God is doing; it makes love something more than nice, warm feelings. There is reason to believe that A&E, though in a blessed state of sinlessness, had not yet grown up into the fullness of what it means to be made in God's image.
This makes a great deal of sense to me: If Adam and Eve had never sinned, they would have continued in innocence but they wouldn't have remained unchanged in wisdom.

I don't think that directly contradicts my suggestion of the completeness of their knowledge, since it was (and, without the fall, would have continued to be) all they needed to know at the time. The "shortcut" to wisdom, as Drusilla put it, that Eve tried to take with the forbidden fruit knocks them out of this state of fullness. They suddenly have more knowledge (e.g., their nakedness) than they have wisdom (fig leaves?), and they must be expelled from Eden. We might suppose that, if they had eaten of the tree of life at that moment, theirs would be lives forever be out of balance.

This idea seems to help with a few difficulties I've had with the myth. One was the impression of the pointlessness of the whole Garden environment. From eternity, God knows Adam and Eve will disobey Him; the trees and the naming of the animals and all that seems like an awfully elaborate set-up for something that will be discarded even before their first child is born.

But if they could have continued to grow in Eden, then it becomes a fully realized place, a Paradise that could have sustained mankind forever, not just a Potempkin rest-stop between the void and our current vale of tears.

It also resolves the accusative dimension of the cry, "O happy fault!" If our state of union with the Trinity will be greater on the Last Day than was Adam's in Eden, then God could be accused of coming up with a highest and last good for us that would only be possible if Adam sinned. That's like saying, "If you play fair and win, you'll get a hundred dollars. If you cheat and are disqualified, I'll reinstate you and you'll get a thousand dollars."

This way proposes a Plan A, which would have gotten the human race to the same place we're headed for with such and so great a Redeemer.

Finally (and don't tell the Dominicans), I can't say that I'm all that happy with St. Thomas's assent to the opinion that Christ would not have become incarnate had man not sinned. Given the love God showed for us as sinners, it seems even more fitting for His Son to become one of us if we were all perfect.

Clearly, Plan A would give the Incarnation quite a different purpose. As St. Thomas writes elsewhere, "the fellowship of friends conduces to the well-being of Happiness," and Christ might become man as friend -- or better, as Bridegroom come to wed His ever-spotless Bride.

I don't know, obviously. But it does make sense to me.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

A little learning is a dangerous thing

[And this post is composed by someone with little learning, so consider yourself forewarned.]

Why did Adam and Eve have to go and eat that crummy old fruit anyway?

Genesis 3:6 tells us:
The woman saw that
  • the tree was good for food,
  • pleasing to the eyes, and
  • desirable for gaining wisdom.
So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
I once heard it pointed out that the three things Eve saw correspond to the three transcendentals of goodness, beauty, and truth, respectively.

They also correspond to three powers of the soul: to sensuality, will, and intellect, respectively. By sensuality, or sensitive appetite, we tend toward things we sense as good for us ("good for food"); by will, or rational appetite, we choose goods such as the apprehension of beauty ("pleasing to the eyes"); by intellect, we comprehend truth ("gaining wisdom").

As a temptation, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil had its bases covered.

If we look a little closer, though, we can see what fools Adam and Eve were -- and, by extension, what a rotter that serpent was. Genesis 2:9 says:
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow that were
  • delightful to look at and
  • good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.
The forbidden fruit, then, offers nothing to the sensitive and rational appetites that all the permitted fruits don't already have. And, as we all know,
The LORD God gave man this order: "You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die."
So Adam and Eve already have knowledge of good and bad! They already possess all the wisdom they need. As their postlapsarian sons and daughters, it's hard for us to see that something so simple can actually be complete. The subtlest manual of casuistry possible in Paradise could be printed on a matchbook:
WHAT'S EVIL: Eating from that tree.

WHAT'S GOOD: Everything else.
Adam and Eve knew what was good and what was evil before they fell. Claims that they didn't -- that eating the forbidden fruit represents their acquisition of moral awareness or free will, that the serpent in some manner brought them rationality -- are simply mistaken. The serpent tempts them into disobedience so that they can acquire... nothing they don't already have. Which they proceed to lose.

Yet it is written that, after eating the fruit, "the eyes of both of them were opened;" for that matter, God Himself calls the tree "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (I'll leave "good and bad" for when I'm quoting the NAB). Doesn't this mean that Adam and Eve didn't have knowledge of good and evil beforehand?

Let me propose this explanation: Through their disobedience, Adam and Eve changed the rules. In the state of innocence, the only evil available to them was disobedience. Having once disobeyed, though, great sweeping vistas of evil were opened and available to them, together with the goods opposed to them. Cruelty, for example, was impossible to Adam before the Fall -- and so was clemency as such, since there was no context in which he could act in a way that moderated the punishment of another.

Thus too, "they realized that they were naked." Nakedness connotes weakness, as Fr. Alobaidi pointed out, and before the fall the weakness of Adam had no relevance to him. He lived within the context of God's ordering of Creation, and within that ordering there was no way for him to act with weakness.

It was only when Adam disobeyed God, when he decided to live by his own rules, that he had to look to himself as guarantor of his own life. At which point he noticed something, something that would have been useful to have noticed ahead of time but which couldn't be seen from the perspective of innocence (because the perspective of innocence looks at God, not oneself):

Adam wasn't capable of guaranteeing his own life. Hence the moment he ate from the tree he was surely doomed to die.

That would be an eye-opening realization, all right.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Join the Dominicans!

Go to Argentina!

The International Congress of Lay Dominican Fraternities is going on this week just outside Buenos Aires. The self-understanding of the Lay Dominican Fraternities is undergoing rapid development, and this Congress is, if not altogether unprecedented, certainly the largest devoted specifically to the Fraternities on a world-wide scale.

There are six main issues being considered at the Congress: preaching and prayer; study and formation; government; organization and structure; finance and economy; and the presence of Lay Dominicans in the OP Family and in the Church. I'd be surprised to learn there were many of us who gave a hoot about finance or government, but these are the sorts of things that need to be considered if we want to do something tomorrow that we weren't doing yesterday.

At some point, the keynote address of the Master of the Order, fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, O.P., will be posted. The title of his address, which is also the theme of the Congress, is "Companions in Preaching." I have not seen the text, but the title alone is a challenge. People usually choose their own companions, and what the Order has been saying for some time is that a Dominican's companions are his fellow Dominicans: friars, nuns, sisters, laity.

Moreover, they are companions for something. And the something isn't prayer, it's not study, it's not community. It's preaching. Since we don't even really have a solid explanation of what "preaching according to your state in life" means for Lay Dominicans that it doesn't also mean for the laity in general, acquiring companions in preaching isn't often the goal that first attracts someone to the Fraternities.

But preaching and the salvation of souls is the purpose of the Order we join, which makes it our purpose, too.

And if you think that might be your purpose, you may want to drop us a line.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Marian math

In his talk last night, Fr. John Langlois, OP, brought out a couple of aspects of the historical development of the Rosary that were new to me.

One is that the Rosary devotion is a combination of two spiritual streams popular at the time the Rosary developed: a general devotion to Mary (think of all the cathedrals dedicated to her that were built in the high Middle Ages, or the preaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux); and meditation on the life of Christ (the medieval passion plays, the living creches of St. Francis).

So you might say that
Rosary = (Life of Christ) + (Love of Mary)
You certainly don't have the Rosary as it's been known for five hundred years without both, but I hadn't thought about the naturalness of the Rosary emerging from the combination of both. (I'm not sure a Roman Catholic can have both -- that is, meditate on the life of Christ while expressing love and honor for His mother -- without having the Rosary. At the very least, it would seem an unnatural omission.)

Another aspect is the significance of the Rosary picture books that began to be printed in the late 1400s. Rosary devotees today often say the reason many Catholics downplay the devotion is that they, the downplayers, are snobs who regard the Rosary as too common and lowbrow. However many anti-Rosary snobs there may be, it does seem to be true that the Rosary is common and lowbrow. It's in the form it is today in large part because you could print a book with three woodcuts, or commission a painting with fifteen scenes, and people could look at the pictures. If you wanted fifty different meditations, or a hundred and fifty, as a practical matter you'd have to do it with words, and at the time reading was (relatively) uncommon and highbrow.

And once picture books began to appear, standardization of the mysteries happened quickly. It was less than a hundred years between the first picture book (printed in 1483 by Conrad Dinckmut of Ulm) and Pope St. Pius V officially defining the fifteen mysteries (1569). The only change the Pope made to Dinckmut's selection was the final glorious mystery: Mary's coronation makes a more cheerful conclusion than Christ's return in glory, with the Final Judgment that entails. (People who aren't sure what to make of Mary's coronation, though, can regard it as representative of the more general reception of all the saints, body and soul, into heaven on the Last Day.)

A thorough on-line source of information on the history of the Rosary in the Catholic Church, both the prayer and the physical set of prayer beads, is "Journaling the Bead." It naturally mentions the tradition that St. Dominic received the Rosary from the Blessed Virgin in 1208, although as Fr. Langlois points out this is a tradition that cannot be traced back earlier than the preaching of Bl. Alain de la Roche (or Alanus de Rupe), beginning about 1460. I've seen some contemporary attempts to defend the tradition, but the complete silence on the matter of all surviving sources for the first 250 years after the vision reportedly occurred makes for a mighty tough burden on the defense.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Heaven and earth shall pass away

So what does happen in heaven and on earth, according to the Book of Revelation?

All sorts of crazy things. A third of the land is burned up, a third of the sea turns to blood, a third of the stars become dark. There are earthquakes, and stars that hit the earth, and smoke and locusts and plagues, and hailstorms, and disappearing mountains, and a good deal more blood.

What's up with all that?

Fr. Corbett's suggestion is this: That God's promises are so wonderful the earth as it presently exists cannot contain them.

If God's promises amounted to nothing more than literally giving a certain stretch of land to the descendants of Abraham forever, to literally granting His faithful ones long lives, prosperity, and lots of children, then the earth as we know it can pretty well suffice. But His promises, as given in their fullness by Jesus, are so outrageous, so over the top, that the very world we inhabit needs to be remade for them to be fulfilled.

The language of Revelation is the language of the very world we inhabit coming apart, from below and from above and from the sides.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
The new heaven is also required: what happens on earth happens in heaven, and who wants a heaven where a third of the stars are missing?

From this perspective, Revelation describes not just a battle where the field belongs to God's victors, but one where the very battlefield joins in the fight, passes away, and is recreated anew. The Apocalypse, expressed apocalyptically, isn't the sober separation of sheep and goats or of wheat and tares, it's a full-scale cosmic blowout.

And not (if we follow Fr. Corbett) due to how closely matched the forced of goodness and evil are. This isn't Ragnarok or Hamlet, where everybody destroys everybody else. This is the fulfillment of God's will; it's a blowout because the cosmos God intends to endure forever is far more wonderful than the cosmos that exists now.

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Self-selecting miracles

Yesterday's solemnity honored St. Joseph under the title "Husband of Mary." As many wives know, husbands can be quite literal at times:
Reminds me of the Little Sisters of the Poor, when they needed a gardener. One of the sisters found a picture in a magazine of a man with a hoe. She cut the picture out to put by the statue of St. Joseph, but in her hurry, she trimmed the man's arm right out of the image. And shortly after, a one-armed gardener came to the door, volunteering his services.
It doesn't matter how often this didn't happen, just that it did.

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Literal reflections

One feature of apocalyptic literature (according to Fr. Corbett) is that what happens in heaven happens on earth, and what happens on earth happens in heaven. ("Heaven" here obviously doesn't mean just the state of perfect happiness with God, His angels, and the Church Triumphant, but the spiritual realm generally.)

Let me run with that idea a bit, considering it not just as a literary conceit but as literal truth. What if what happens on heaven happens on earth and what happens on earth happens in heaven?

For one thing, the smallest earthly sin and the least earthly suffering are in some way present in heaven. They have a spiritual reality, a spiritual weight that we are in no position to dismiss.

It works in the other direction, too. Every evil done by Satan in his fall is realized in this world, and all the good done by St. Michael and his company can be found here as well.

This puts both the devil's temptation and our own sins in a quite different light. The serpent in Eden can be seen, not as the devil let loose on the world after his fall, but as the earthly manifestation of the devil as he falls. "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" might be earth-speak for, "Non serviam." Looked at this way, in tempting Eve he doesn't even do her the courtesy of treating her as a subject of temptation; she is merely the earthly collateral damage of his own spiritual pride.

Moreover, in each of our earthly sins we create a spiritual sin that is of a piece with Satan's fall. When I sin, I am in a certain way joining with and endorsing the devil's fall. Which is to say (if what happens in heaven happens on earth) that I am joining with and endorsing all the evil, moral and natural, that we experience in this life. War, famine, disease, death: it's all a small price to pay for me not helping my wife fold laundry.

...

Okay, that's a bit excessive, right? And I'm just playing with a literary device, not exploring a doctrine of faith.

But then, the First Letter of Saint John seems a bit excessive, too:
No one who remains in him sins; no one who sins has seen him or known him...

Whoever sins belongs to the devil, because the devil has sinned from the beginning.
Can we take this literally? Can we at least take it seriously?

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Talk on Scripture and the Rosary tonight in Silver Spring, MD

Tonight at St. Andrew Apostle Church in Silver Spring, MD, Fr. John Langlois will speak on the topic, "Mary's Scriptural Journey and the Rosary."

The event begins at 7:30 p.m. with Evening Prayer, during which several people will make their final professions in (and one person will be received into) the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

He made him the lord of his household

As traditional as the St. Joseph's Table are the expressions used when discussing the Patron of the Universal Church: "not much is known," "never speaks," "toiled in poverty and obscurity," and so forth. Let me try to shake things up a bit by proposing something non-traditional, in fact somewhat counter-traditional:

St. Joseph is a major figure in the Bible. In particular, the Old Testament is lousy with references to him.

Today's first reading is an example of one kind of reference. In the literal sense, "It is he who shall build a house for my name," refers to Solomon, who built the first Temple. Christians naturally also understand this as a prophecy of Jesus, since it goes on,
And I will make his royal throne firm forever.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
But between Solomon and Jesus, there is Joseph. He stands between them, not just chronologically, but in straddling the literal and the spiritual sense of the prophecy. Joseph, Son of David (a title acknowledged by the angel of the Lord), built a house (we would say made a home) for the Name of the LORD.

All the Biblical prophecies regarding the house of David lasting forever, which we rightly take to be fulfilled in Christ, are also prophecies of St. Joseph, who "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home."

What makes them prophecies of St. Joseph in a unique way -- a way, that is, that they aren't likewise prophecies of, say, Shealtiel, or even Joseph's own father -- is this: St. Joseph chose to be the father of Jesus.

When it came to sons, everyone else in David's line -- even David himself, much to his sorrow -- had to take what he could beget. To St. Joseph alone God came with a request to accept a son. God's own Son, of course, but a son of David only through the free choice of Joseph.

Centuries worth of promises, then, awaited their redemption in St. Joseph. His own "Yes," unrecorded in the Gospels, is recorded in prophetic terms throughout the Old Testament.

St. Joseph does speak in the Bible. We just need to be as quiet as he is to hear him.

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All in the Family

The Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic keep on growing.

A couple of weeks ago, Rosamundi made her Temporary Profession (a promise to live according to the Rule of the Laity of Saint Dominic for three years).

Yesterday, Joe Bradley of Musings of a Dominican Inquirer was received into the Order (with about a year to go before his temporary profession).

Tomorrow, three people will be making Final Profession (to live according to the Rule for life), and a fourth received, during Evening Prayer at St. Andrew Apostle Church, Silver Spring, MD. Everyone is welcome; Evening Prayer begins at 7:30 p.m.

Two of the three making profession, as well as the one being received, are from a chapter new enough that this will be the first final professions for the chapter.

The third one making Final Profession belongs to my chapter, whose birthday we take to be Pentecost 1999, when the first new members were received. Eight years isn't very old, but there are a couple of dozen Lay Dominican chapters in our Province that are younger.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Apocalypse Three-Step

Fr. Corbett proposed a simple, three-part division to the Book of Revelation: the exhortation to the Seven Churches (chapters 1-3); God's judgment against the Great City (chapters 4-18); and the establishment of the heavenly City (chapters 19-22).

From each section, he gave a key verse. If "God wins!" is too brief a summary for the entire Book, you might try this:
Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.

I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Fr. Corbett also pointed out how liturgical Revelation is. The third sentence of the book, "Blessed is the one who reads aloud and blessed are those who listen.... [1:3]," suggests it was written with the intent that it be read during Christian religious services.

John goes on to write, "I was caught up in spirit on the Lord's day [v. 10]"; this is just the sort of thing that happens at a charismatic prayer meeting. He sees "seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. [vv 12-13]" Here Christ is dressed as High Priest, standing in the midst of His churches (the lampstands; see v. 20).

The liturgical signs continue through the whole book, all the way to the final, "Come, Lord Jesus," which the NAB notes is a liturgical refrain.

(I'm not really doing justice to Fr. Corbett's ideas or presentation, but that's what you get for not coming to his talk yourself.)

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The thrill was gone

Fr. John Corbett, O.P., spoke at my parish this past Tuesday on the Book of Revelation, as part of a Lenten speaker series my Lay Dominican chapter is sponsoring.

Revelation, he said, is a pastoral letter written to address two difficulties faced by the Christians in Asia Minor. One difficulty was the persecution of Domitian. The other difficulty, perhaps more relevant to us today, is the problem of love grown cold.

The Seven Churches mentioned in Revelation were all founded at a time when the Gospel wasn't just Good News, it was current events. Great things had happened, wonderful promises had been made, mighty deeds had been worked.

And then... ten, twenty, sixty years passed.

When God has done great things for you, it's natural to ask, "What's next? What will God do today?" And what if the thing that God does next is... nothing?

You could probably use a letter of exhortation, too.

Which is what St. John provides, in apocalyptic style. According to Fr. Corbett, all apocalyptic writing is intended to answer the question, "Is God faithful to His promises?" The question isn't answered in a catechetical style (i.e., "Yes.") because it isn't being asked in a catechetical style. It's being asked in an uncomfortable, indirect, unsettled style -- which, come to think of it, may be why apocalyptic writing is itself uncomfortable, indirect, and unsettling.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Is Psalm Tone VI the one that goes rum-tum-ti-tum?

From the latest issue of the Archdiocese of Washington's Catholic Standard:
Then-Bishop Wuerl was one of four U.S. bishops to attend the synod of 225 bishops in October 2005. He was chosen as a relator, or recording secretary, for one of the 12 discussion groups.

Later, he was elected one of the 12 bishops from around the world to serve on a council that worked to prepare the draft text of the exhortation...

Archbishop Wuerl said that Sacramentum Caritatis "now becomes for our archdiocesan Church a teaching instrument that we can all use and apply in our lives." He noted that "we will be looking at ways in which this can be more fully implemented in this archdiocese."
Ooh, can I volunteer to give feedback on more fully implementing n. 46?

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Who's there?

Suppose your parish priest knocks on your door one fine morning this Spring and says, "I've come to bless your urn."

And you say, "My what?"

And he says, "Your urn. Your household urn. The one you keep on a shelf or in a niche above your bed."

And you say, "My what?"

And he says, "You're a practicing Catholic, right?"

And you say, "Yes."

And he says, "Go to Mass every Sunday, care about your faith, and all that?"

And you say, "Yes."

And he says, "You're supposed to have a household urn on a shelf or in a niche above your bed, and I'm supposed to bless it."

What would you say?




And that, I think, is about what a good number of Catholics would say when first confronted with the material in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

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My enemy's enemy

In comments below, Rob and I revisit an old disagreement about whether "enemy" means "someone you hate" (Rob's position) or "someone who hates you" (my position).

The first time this came up, I took it to be a relatively uninteresting matter of semantics; it's easy enough to figure out which meaning is intended when Rob says, "Christians have no enemies," or I say, "Christians have plenty of enemies."

But Rob's latest comment suggests there's more going on here than that.

Maybe what "enemy" meant to the people who heard Jesus preach was "someone with whom you share mutual hatred." If I am your enemy, then you are my enemy.

A <=HATES=> B

Old idea of "enemy"


If that's what "enemy" means, then the relationship "is an enemy of" has an existence distinct from the people in the relationship. It may be than only one person really chooses to hate the other; it may even be that neither person does. "Jews and Samaritans are enemies," may just be the rule you grow up with, a fact you have to accept as much as, "Gold is valuable."

In that case, Jesus' first task would be to get people to realize that there could be a difference between the people you hate and the people who hate you.

A =HATES=> B

New idea of "enemy"


Then "enemy" loses its independence. It can't exist apart from the will of the one hating. I need not hate you just because you hate me; I need not hate you just because you are a Samaritan and I am a Jew.

Only then would the idea of "loving your enemy" make sense.

A =HATES=> B

AND

B =LOVES=> A

The transition to Jesus' idea of "enemy"


If we only hate other people by free choice, then we are free to choose to never hate other people. I suppose this freedom would come as news to the Jews of Jesus' time, who had till then been required (either by religious prescript or practical necessity) to hate Gentiles, at least to the extent of remaining apart from them, in order to preserve their own identity as Israel. Jesus reveals the full identity of Israel, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, and so the old idea of "enemy" must be swept away.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The unseriousness of Catholic pacifism

Karen Marie Knapp links to what she calls "a fine essay on the witness of the White Rose Society (aka Sophie Scholl and companions)."

As it happens, the essay is written by Fr. John Dear, SJ, whose book Transfiguration I read last month.

He discusses the story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, who opposed Nazism through a campaign of anonymous leaflets distributed in Munich for several months in 1942 and 1943. The campaign ended when Sophie and two others were caught, tried, and executed over a five-day period. (Three others were executed later in 1943.)

Fr. Dear writes of a talk given by Howard Zinn, who said that the key to
Every U.S. movement for social change ... was that ordinary people kept doing ordinary acts of nonviolent resistance every day even when there was absolutely no evidence of any positive outcome...

Great breakthroughs of hope derived from this, he said. Change evolved because ordinary people kept at it. They refused to give up. They did what they could, no matter how small the act. Everyone involved made a difference.

This is the lesson of Sophie Scholl. Her life and witness, along with all the heroes of the White Rose, bore good fruit after all. Their memory urges us to stand up and do what we can to stop the evil U.S. war on Iraq, the unjust occupation of the Palestinians, the criminal bombing of Afghanistan, the lethal funding of Colombian death squads, the demonic maintenance of our nuclear arsenal, and the refusal to feed and serve the starving masses of Africa, Latin America, India and elsewhere.
The last sentence could probably have ended with the words "to stop the evil U.S." without much loss of meaning.

I consider this essay yet another example of the fundamental unseriousness -- and let's not confuse seriousness and earnestness -- of Catholic pacifism in the United States today. Sophie Scholl's life and witness were given in opposition to Nazism, and it wasn't ordinary acts of nonviolent resistance that brought Nazism down.

If anything, the White Rose is an example of a non-U.S. movement for social change that didn't evolve change and, at least at the practical level such movements speak to, didn't make a difference. What did make a difference, what effected the change Sophie Scholl desired, was that ordinary people kept doing extraordinary acts of brutal violence every day even when there was absolutely no evidence of any positive outcome. When Fr. Dear, or Catholic pacifism in general, faces up to this fact, rather than glossing over or (as in this case) flat out ignoring it, then I will say they are being serious.

I think the lesson of Sophie Scholl goes beyond, "You, too, can be a martyr to your cause, whatever it may be!" And it's ... well, I'll just call it bad manners to claim that Fr. Dear's own hope for his own cause is the "good fruit" that the White Rose bore.

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A good kind of difficult

If you're going to talk about the Book of Revelation, you pretty much have to start by saying that it's a hard read. The NAB's introduction to the Book, for example, begins this way:
The Apocalypse, or Revelation to John, the last book of the Bible, is one of the most difficult to understand because it abounds in unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism, which at best appears unusual to the modern reader.
There are different ways a book can be "a hard read" or "difficult to understand." It can use big words, convoluted syntax, or lots of footnotes. It can be poorly structured, or just organized in an unusual way. It can be about ideas too abstruse, too obscure, or too odd to be grasped by a particular reader.

In that light, Revelation is difficult to understand in an easy sense. It doesn't use big words, convoluted syntax, or footnotes. Its structure is easily discernible -- most likely, it's right there in black and white in your Bible, indicated by headings and possibly an introductory outline. The ideas are familiar to any Catholic who's been paying attention at Mass.

The difficulty of understanding Revelation -- relative to the rest of the Bible, that is; this is, after all, God's self-revelation, not instructions for using a toaster oven -- lies chiefly in the "unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism" mentioned by the NAB.

Alongside the symbolism, though -- and, whatever else you make of it, you pretty much have to know there's something up with the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes -- the book is filled with allusions to other books of the Bible. Revelation is an eschatological interpretation of human history, so it shouldn't be surprising that it refers back to other interpretations of history, including the prophetic (e.g., Ezekiel) and the, um, historic (e.g., Numbers). But you won't necessarily notice the allusions unless you're already familiar with what they allude to -- or, of course, if they're pointed out to you as you read along.

I'd say the Book of Revelation is "difficult" much the way Cockney rhyming slang is difficult. If I say, "I took the fork to the bath to get a couple of pigs," you won't (you really can't) understand what I mean unless you happen to know that "fork (and knife)" means "wife," "bath (tub)" means "pub," and "pig's (ear)" means "beer." But if you do know these things, my meaning is perfectly clear.

Not that merely knowing the symbolism of Revelation makes the book as transparent as an ordinary human conversation about ordinary human things. But it does make it accessible as Scripture to the ordinary human believer.

To say the Book of Revelation is "difficult to understand," then, is to say that you have to do some work to understand it. At the very least, you have to read a version with good notes and cross-references, and read the notes to understand the symbolism and follow the cross-references to get the allusions. In other words, take advantage of the work other people have already done.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

First thoughts on the Apostolic Exhortation

In no particular order:
  1. He had me at Footnote 1: "Cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 73, a. 3."
  2. The word "condemn" appears only once (n. 7), and not in a viscerally satisfying way.
  3. Motu proprios are way shorter.
  4. Continuing a long tradition with apostolic exhortations, there is no mention of tiger quolls.
  5. This strikes me as an unwieldy document, in the literal sense of being difficult to roll up and hit someone with.
  6. Current odds-on favorite for "first thing to be founded with the words 'Sacramentum Caritatis' in the title": an organization to teach the faithful to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.

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Let me count, average, and fit a least squares curve to the ways

Can you love God too much?

Of course not. "Too much" implies "too little" and "just right;" in other words, a measure, which in turn generates a suitably measured response. We are not to love God in a measured way; we are to love Him with all our heart, and all our mind, and all our soul, and all our strength. Our loving God too much is like a cup holding too much water; as much love as our hearts can hold is how much love they ought to hold. (Though you usually don't want water to slosh out of a cup, while you do want love for God to slosh out of your heart, as it were.)

But you can do too much as a means of loving God. Put another way, there are disproportionate means of loving God.

When we say "proportionate," we often mean something like "on the same scale as" or "about the same size as." We might say that reading thirty books is proportionate to reading thirty-four books; the time and effort involved are roughly the same.

"Proportionate means," though, aren't means that are "on the same scale as the end." If they were, then, since our love for God should be unmeasured, so should the means by which we love Him.

Instead, proportionate means are those means proportionate to achieving the end. If my end is a fine rum swizzle, the proportionate means are combining one part sour, one part sweet, three parts strong, and four parts weak. No matter how much I want a rum swizzle, filling my glass with rum won't produce one. All parts rum is a disproportionate means to a rum swizzle.

(If you prefer a more traditional example, you want all the health you can get (as an end), but that doesn't mean you want all the medicien you can get (as a means).)

To act in order to accomplish some end is necessarily an act of reason. If we want to achieve something out of our love for God, then what we do to achieve it is determined by both our love for God and our reason. And if what we do is determined by love and reason, we can (although we usually wouldn't) say that it is "measured" by them, that there is a "too much" and a "too little" and a "just right."

St. Thomas sums all this up in these words:
For the interior act of charity has the character of an end, since man's ultimate good consists in his soul cleaving to God... whereas the exterior acts are as means to the end, and so have to be measured both according to charity and according to reason.
St. Thomas identifies beneficence ("doing good to someone"), almsdeeds (giving to the needy), and fraternal correction (everyone's favorite!) as the exterior acts of charity.

The good news in all this is that, if you find yourself asking, "Am I doing too much for God and for my neighbor?," the answer may well be, "Yes."

The bad news is that the answer depends on whether what you're doing is proportionate to the end of loving God with your whole being, and through Him your neighbor, and not on whether it's proportionate to the end of loving them as much as you happen to today.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

"No particular prayers need be said for this novena."

That's my kind of novena!
Every day for nine days, turn to St. Joseph in spirit four times during the day and honor him in the following four points. (These "visits" may be made anywhere -- at home, at work, on the street, in the car or bus -- and at any time.)
  1. During the first visit, consider St. Joseph's fidelity to grace. Reflect upon the action of the Holy Ghost in his soul. At the conclusion of this brief meditation, thank God for so honoring St. Joseph, and ask, through his intercession, for a similar grace.
  2. Later in the day, consider St. Joseph's fidelity to the interior life. Study his spirit of recollection. Think, thank God, and ask.
  3. Later still, consider St. Joseph's love for Our Lady. Think, thank God, and ask.
  4. Finally, in a fourth visit, reflect upon St. Joseph's love for the Divine Child. Think, thank God, and ask.
Of course, I didn't post this in time for anyone else to see it and finish the novena on St. Joseph's Day next Monday, but if I had that much on the ball I wouldn't need novenas where all you have to do is remember you're saying one.

The website I copied the above from -- as well as the book where I first saw it -- says, "This novena has proven to be highly efficacious. It seems to be pleasing to St. Joseph and helpful to souls." I can't say for sure how pleasing to St. Joseph it is, but in its simplicity it does seem to be helpful to souls.

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What's Latin for "The Sacrament of Tough Love"?

Lots of people are excited at the thought of what the Pope's apostolic exhortation might contain. I'm just a boot-licking Vatican toady, but if past performance is an indication of future results:
  • there won't be much in the way of bullet points introduced with the words, "Effective immediately:"
  • some people will be disappointed
  • some people will be relieved
  • the media will misinterpret it as a political document
  • very few people will read it
  • very few readers will study it
  • someone will found something with "Sacramentum Caritatis" in the title

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Beware the ordinary

Only Naaman the Syrian, Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth, was healed of leprosy by Elisha.

"And him just barely," He could have added.

Naaman wanted Elisha to come forth and do something fancy and showy; instead, the prophet told him, through a servant, to take a bath. The Nazoreans likewise had their categories of "Ordinary" and "Extraordinary," and likewise reacted with anger when someone dared to mix them up.

Watch out for the ordinary. It may well contain the extraordinary, the very thing you're always saying you're looking for. And don't be angry at the idea; you may be letting the extraordinary pass right out of your life. Be thankful, in fact: there's a lot of the ordinary in your life.

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Timely demythification

Or, Distilling the Truth.
Belief: I'm Catholic, and therefore won't drink Bushmills. (Alternatively, I'm Protestant, and therefore won't drink Jameson).

Reality: The same company owns The Bushmills Distillery and Midleton Distillery (where Jameson is produced).
And more.

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If you attend only one evening talk this week

Fr. John Corbett, O.P., will be speaking tomorrow, March 13, at St. Andrew Apostle Church in Silver Spring, MD, on the topic, Understanding the Symbolic Language of the Book of Revelation.

Fr. Corbett is an absolutely outstanding preacher. Unless you're cloistered, or trapped in Ohio somewhere, you should be there. Evening Prayer at 7:30, talk to follow.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Sure and it's a problem

Veritas features a brief post on the certitude of the anti-certitudians.

Anticertitudianarianism is, or would be if it were a word, the belief that it's necessarily bad to be certain. I have run into a couple of adherents, and they did genuinely seem to believe that it is better to be wrong and think you might be wrong than to be right and not think you might be wrong.

As it happens, the two people I particularly have in mind both brought forth endless words (though in quite different styles). That may not be entirely coincidental. If you can never be certain, if there's always doubt, then there will be no end to your words. There is, literally, no conclusion to reach.

There are some problems with thinking it's necessarily bad to be certain, with preferring the process of reasoning to its purpose. One of the more subtle problems is that it sets up anti-certitudians to be duped by those who profess, "I may be wrong," but don't actually believe it. "He's my kind of people," they may find themselves saying, "no doubt about it."

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By friendship a thing is loved in two ways

There are two kinds of acts of love that charity leads us to do. One is love of God Himself (or neighbors themselves). The other is love of the good things we wish for God (or neighbors). In both cases, we can say we are loving in charity.

What happens if we do only the first kind of act? Bad things.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

"If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?"
The second kind of act, the act of love of some good thing, is an act whose object is the good thing you want God or your neighbor to have.

The key thing here is that it is an act. It's not just something you think would be nice, or something you merely wish for your friend. It's something you do. You perceive that this thing would be good for your friend, so you go about getting it for him (or at least helping him to get it).

So far so good, but who doesn't know all this?

Children, for starters.

And before you get all sentimental about that picture your budding saint drew for you when you were having a bad day, ask yourself if you've ever said something like, "If you loved me, you'd pick up your room the first time I tell you to."

The link between loving a person and acting for the good of that person is certainly there in most children old enough to say, "I love you, Mommy," but in most of them it's not terribly reliable. I don't know from child development, but my own anecdotal experience with developing children doesn't suggest they come from the womb understanding that their doing what their mother desires them to do is an act of love for her.

Children seem, not just capable of thinking, but perfectly delighted to think, "I love my parents, and I do not wish them to have the good things they want."

Okay, but they're children. What's our excuse?

UPDATE: Sorry, that was a pretty lame conclusion. Sometimes I settle for just the effect and figure the reader will supply the actual reflection. It's an old habit. I had an op-ed column in my college newspaper, and my editor once told me, "You end more articles with three words than anyone else I know."

In any case, the actual reflection would be along these lines: Mature love, true friendship, entails both affection for the loved friend and freely chosen acts for his good. It might be profitable to review our own friendships, with God and others, to ensure that both of these are present, that we aren't in fact loving others in a childish way.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Book Party in Washington, DC

I am told (by my new Bertelsmann overlords) that a book discussion on Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality, featuring the editor, Raymond Arroyo, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 15, at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC.

If you attend, you might try saying the secret password to Fr. Neuhaus; maybe he'll buy you a drink.

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Love is a many splintered thing

Among St. Thomas's advantages over the likes of us is that he wrote in Latin, so he didn't have to mess with the whole, "And by 'love,' I mean 'charity,' by which I don't mean 'giving money to the poor.'" Instead, he got to write things like this, in which he identifies the principal act of the theological habit of friendship of man for God:
Et primo, de principali actu caritatis, qui est dilectio.
Which any solecist could translate as:
And first, [here are some articles] on the principal act of charity, which is dilection.
Alas, "dilection" won't get you very far among English speakers generally, who aren't accustomed to making fine distinctions between "love [amor]," "dilection [dilectio]," "charity [caritas]," and "friendship [amicitia]." For St. Thomas,
dilectio implies, in addition to love, a choice made beforehand... and therefore dilection is not in the concupiscible power, but only in the will, and only in the rational nature.
When I say, "I love donuts," the love I mean is not one of choice. I don't elect to love donuts, I just love 'em ("from necessity and not from free-will," as the Good Doctor would say). This kind of love, of amor, is an act of my sensitive appetite; I apprehend donuts as pleasurable. (And, incidentally, I think the imprecision of the word "love" is preferable to going about saying things like, "I apprehend donuts as pleasurable.")

Of course, I also might ("might"?) dilect a particular donut, in an act of the will urged by a passion of the body. But that represents a free choice on my part (on the assumption that I can conceive of some good in doing something other than choosing the donut).

Now, the dilection St. Thomas has in mind as the principal act of charity isn't just any kind of dilection. "Charity is the friendship of man for God," so to act out of charity is to act out of friendship, and friendship is wishing the good to someone with whom we have "some sort of communication."

"Some kind of communication" is necessary for friendship. Without "a certain union of affections between the lover and the beloved," we can have goodwill for another person, but not the dilection of friendship.

And here I'll wrap up by explaining why turning on the television to see what's on ESPN is a good idea. According to Aristotle, "goodwill is ... the beginning of friendship." Since we are called to have charity toward everyone, we are called to have friendship toward everyone, and every friendship has to start somewhere.

With goodwill, for example. And, as St. Thomas points out,
goodwill sometimes arises suddenly, as happens to us if we look on at a boxing-match, and we wish one of the boxers to win.
Televised sports: a near occasion of charity.

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Classifying the Appetites

In case you were wondering:

As St. Thomas used the term, an appetite is a "tendency, inclination, or direction." There are several different classes and sub-classes:

Natural AppetiteConscious Appetites
unconscious tendency (e.g. reaction to gravity)
Sensitive AppetitesRational Appetite
tendency toward something apprehended by the sensesa.k.a, the human will
Concupiscible AppetiteIrascible Appetite
toward things sensed as good, useful, or pleasurabletoward things sensed as difficult to obtain

While I'm at it, here are the concupiscible and irascible appetites St. Thomas identifies:

Concupiscible Irascible
lovehope
hatreddespair
desirecourage
aversionfear
joyanger
sadness


There's an awful lot that can be said about all this, as you can imagine. But I'm not going to.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Those two little words

Here are some of the things Jesus says about Himself in the Gospel according to St. John:
I am the bread of life.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
I am the light of the world.
I am one who testifies for myself.
I am the one I claim to be.
Before Abraham was born, I am.
I am the gate for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the way and the truth and the life.
I am the true vine.
I am.
I am a king.
The two hyperlinked statements got particularly strong reactions. The first caused people to pick up stones to throw at Jesus, the second to turn away and fall to the ground.

I wonder if we can learn anything by taking note of the things we say about ourselves, the predicates that follow our saying, "I am...." I haven't tested it, but my hypothesis is that a lot of us would catch ourselves saying things that don't fit well with, "I am I AM's child and heir."

A more speculative hypothesis is that a lot of the things we predicate of ourselves that could fit with being I AM's child and heir we don't actually mean in that way. I might say something like, "I am the driver of this car," and mean it in a categorical and absolute sense, entirely free of both my creaturehood -- the fact that, whatever I am, I am by an existence loaned from God -- and my sonship -- the fact that I am supposed to be in all things like my heavenly Father. If I watch what I say about myself, though, I might become both more humble and more faithful.

Speaking of which, here (by some translations) is the final predicate of Jesus in St. John's Gospel:
I am thirsty.

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Pretty clever of Him to think of it first

I was thinking about the relationship between the bishop and the people of his diocese, and trying to come up with a way of saying that yes, he is their servant, but no, they aren't his masters.

After testing several analogies, all of which failed, I finally hit on one that I think works pretty well:

The Bishop is the shepherd of his Church.

A shepherd's work is to serve the sheep, but he does not work for the sheep. He works for someone else, the owner of the sheep, who has appointed the shepherd to tend his, the owner's, sheep.

Sometimes, sheep aren't particularly happy with their shepherd. (I guess. I don't know any more than you do about sheep, and even less about herding them.) They'd just as soon keep doing what they're doing, or not doing what they're not doing. The shepherd, though, serves the sheep by keeping them safe and fed and watered; if doing this requires making them do what they don't want to do, so be it. The sheep will be safe and fed and watered as they bleat their protest.

All this works reasonably well (I presume) for a reasonably competent shepherd herding ordinary sheep. It's considerably more difficult (I think I'm on safe ground here) when the sheep are baptized Catholics. And when those baptized Catholics are educated in the Faith to the point where they have strong opinions about what the bishop should do, forget about it.

And yet, the relationship remains one of shepherd and sheep, even when the sheep are smarter and wiser and holier than the shepherd. It's certainly not easy, and it can be positively lousy, for a sheep to know better than its shepherd, but the promises of Christ don't include ease in this life. And however smart and wise and holy they may be, sheep without a shepherd are lost.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

With an empty heart and a dollar ten

Mickey Jupp is a British musician who wrote a song called "Standing at the Crossroads Again," which contains one of the most heartbreaking lyrics I've heard in popular music:
I guess I'm not the man she was looking for
but just the man she found.
The song's narrator learns that, rather than being the subject of his baby's love, he was an object, and (as of this morning) he has been disposed of. Not quite "Nobody loves me but my mother" territory, but not too far off. What to my mind adds poignancy to this staple of the blues is the recognition, by both the narrator and his former baby, that there is a man she (and a woman he) is looking for, and that settling for something easier (or less, or just other) leads to heartbreak.

And so he's
Standing at the crossroads again,
With an empty heart and a dollar ten.
What does he think will happen to him there?
Maybe I'll bump into some famous names,
Robert Johnson, Elmore James.
Those two famous names, of course, each recorded a song Johnson wrote called "Cross Road Blues," the lyrics of which don't exactly offer much hope for the narrator. (And that's without getting into the whole selling-your-soul business.)

But I don't think he's particularly expecting to meet a famous name. The crossroads is, quite simply, where you find yourself standing after your baby says, "Goodbye, I don't want you no more." Standing at the crossroads is what you do until you find out what you're going to do next.

[Here's the turn-around:]

Let me suggest that, when you celebrate Mass this Easter, joining you in your church will be a number of people who are standing at the crossroads again -- with (in fact) an empty heart and (figuratively) a dollar ten.

They will be there because there is where they go on Easter. They will be variously smiled at, cursed at, and tolerated, but generally dismissed as "Christmas and Easter Catholics" who do little more than clog the parking lot and mess up poll results (remember, 70% of Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence).

Here, though, I'm not talking about the C&E Catholics too spiritually full of themselves to go to Mass on lesser feasts. I'm talking about those people, maybe not even baptized, who are too spiritually empty to go to Mass, except when it will be crowded enough that no one will notice their emptiness.

And maybe this will be the year when a word or a gesture reveals to them that the Man they were looking for is here, in this church, on this altar, with these people. Maybe the prayer that makes it so will be yours.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Scripture and the Liturgy of the Hours: Tuesday night in Silver Spring

Just a reminder: The Bishop Fenwick Lenten Speaker Series continues tomorrow night, March, 6, with a talk titled "The Church's Scriptural Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours." The speaker is Fr. Kevin McGrath, O.P., Librarian of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

The program, beginning with Evening Prayer at 7:30 pm, is at St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church, Silver Spring, MD.

As always, tell me the secret password and I'll buy you a drink.

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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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