instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

"I have come not to abolish the law"

Camassia looks at Mark 7:
This is a very vexing chapter, if you're trying to figure the relationship between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament. It defies both those who make the one to be a seamless fulfillment of the other, and those who try to completely separate them.

In the first story some Pharisees criticize Jesus and his followers for eating without ritually washing first....

The weird thing about this is that Jesus quotes Mosaic law to undermine Mosaic law. "Honor thy father and mother" is credited as the Word of God, but the food taboos of Leviticus are treated as mere human tradition. But in the Old Testament as we have it, at least, all that law appears as a lump, delivered by God from Mt. Sinai. Jesus seems to be implying, though he does not actually say so, that the true Word ends at the end of Exodus.
Revelation is a process. Since it's revelation to time-bound creatures like us, it has to be a time-spanning process if it's to be congruent with our nature.

Jesus is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law (and in fact of all Revelation, being the one Word God speaks to mankind). As such, He teaches the fulfillment of each precept of the Law, including "Honor your father and mother" as well as "The rabbit and the pig are ceremonially unclean for you."

Note that the Pharisees had their own fulfillment of these two precepts: "Honor your father and mother unless you can get around it." "The rabbit and the pig are ceremonially unclean for you so wash your hands before every meal and you will be clean before God."

Jesus, of course, fulfilled them differently.

But in saying, "Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person," was Jesus treating "the food taboos of Leviticus ... as mere human tradition"?

I don't think so. First, we need to distinguish between the food taboos of Leviticus and the mere human traditions that grew out of these taboos (the so-called fence around the Torah). It was the human traditions Jesus was particularly speaking against.

Still, it's true that Christianity does not regard the food taboos of Leviticus as binding. How can what is in effect the abrogation of a law be its fulfillment?

Some laws are what might be called "useful laws." The law in the U.S. is to drive on the right side of the road, not because driving on the right side of the road is in itself good for us, but because it makes driving safer. It is a useful law.

Similarly, the food taboos given in Leviticus 11 are given, not because eating rabbits and pigs was necessarily bad for Israelites, but because eating them made the Israelites ceremonially impure -- that is, unable to participate in the ceremonies required of them by the Law.

Again, though, Jesus is the fulfillment of the entire Law, includng the ceremonial precepts. In His fulfillment of the ceremonial precepts, Jesus tells us no one is too unclean to approach Him -- or rather, that what makes a man ceremonially unclean with respect to Jesus is what comes from his heart, not what enters him.

The food taboos, then, are the means to ceremonial purity, and just as the notion of ceremonial purity is perfected by Jesus, so are the means.


Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Devotedly yours

Though I've written about, and on the whole against, personality cults in the Church before, it's not an entirely cut-and-dried matter. After all, I warmly encourage devotions to saints, and devotion to a saint literally is a cult, and may well include devotion to the saint's personality as well. (For that matter, there are countless people on-line who seem to have a devotion to St. Jerome's personality, without any evident devotion to his sanctity.)

Still, the very word "devotion" suggests there are those who aren't devoted. Anyone who has ever known a friend to fall in love with a doubtful prospect knows the sudden lurch into incompatible frames of reference when the subject of the object of devotion comes up. To quote one of my own objects of devotion:
'I say, Bertie,' he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.
'Do you like the name Mabel?'
'You don't think there's a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?'
He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.
'Of course, you wouldn't. You always were a fatheaded worm without any soul, weren't you?'
'Just as you say. Who is she? Tell me all.'
And if Bertie Wooster knows enough to take being called a fatheaded worm without any soul without a flutter, you should be prepared to forgive me my devotion, and I your lack of same, should I corner you in the vestibule with talk of novenas to St. Soter for successful fundraising drives.


An on-going dispute

As might be expected, Fr. Kevin O'Rourke, OP, has something to say in response to statements made at the recent Life-Sustaining Treatments and the Vegetative State congress in Rome to the effect that artificial hydration and nutrition [AHN] for permanent vegetative state [PVS] patients is "simply care," and therefore cannot be discontinued. Fr. O'Rourke considers AHN to be unduly burdensome medical treatment offering no therapeutic hope to PVS patients, and therefore discontinuable.

A statement Fr. O'Rourke is circulating among U.S. Catholic healthcare ethicists asserts, "The tradition of Catholic theologians in regard to removing life support has been confirmed by Pope Pius XII (1957), the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith (1980) and Pope John Paul II (1995)," assuring "us that life support may be withdrawn if it does not offer hope of benefit or imposes an excessive burden. The decision concerning hope of benefit is to be made by the patient or the patient's proxy. A representative of the church may offer guidance, but should not preempt the right of patient or proxy."

This is not a simple ethical problem -- witness the need for a congress to discuss it -- and, to my mind, even figuring out how to solve it is not straightforward. Who gets to decide these things? "Hope of benefit" is a medical judgment, except for the part that's a moral judgment. "Undue burden" is a personal judgment, made in this case on behalf of a person who isn't giving his own current judgment, except for the part that's a moral imperative. Things change, and what was extraordinary yesterday is ordinary today; what is a medical treatment today might be considered basic care tomorrow. Medical ethicists see themselves as in the right spot for setting down principles, knowledgeable about both medicine and morality, but to what extent is hospital experience a help in judgment, and how much is it a hindrance? (Do medical ethicists even recognize the risks of familiarity to judgment? Do the rest of us even recognize the possibility of benefit from familiarity?)

(I also wonder about how much weight should be given to the fact that Fr. O'Rourke's position is one "that would be accepted by a significant majority of U.S. Catholic ethicists," or even by statements by American bishops, since I suspect that a significant majority of U.S. Catholic ethicists, and th bishops who rely upon them, have been trained, directly or indirectly, by Fr. O'Rourke.)

I haven't read enough about the recent congress or the American response to change my previous opinion that Fr. O'Rourke's position begs some essential questions, starting with, "Is a patient diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state actually in a vegetative state permanently?" But I do think he is right to take issue with mischaracterizations of his position as entailing that a PVS patient "ceases to be a person." If the matter really is as clear as some at the congress seem to have said it is, it should be explicable without invoking straw-man counterarguments or demeaning those not yet convinced.


3 Principles That Can Guide Bloggers

ROME, MARCH 28, 2004 ( Every blogger should strive to seek the truth, enhance the dignity of the individual, and work for the common good, says a Vatican official.

Sort of.

What Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, actually said was:
All forms of social communication evidence three basic principles: the priority of truth -- we are never justified in recounting lies; the dignity of the individual -- our communication should enhance and not diminish our innate human dignity; the common good -- our communication should contribute to the good of the community and not harm it morally or in any other way.

These three should be the dominant principles in our life: the truth, the dignity of the individual, and the common good. If all communicators were always guided by these three principles, our world would be a happier place.


Monday, March 29, 2004

The politics of hindsight

In casting about for better candidates than the electoral process is giving us these days, some caution may be called for:


On Fairy Stories

Nârwen provides a link to J.R.R. Tolkien's essay, "On Fairy Stories." I recommend it to anyone who cares about fairy stories, or stories, or human nature (since they're all related). (Anyone who cares about Tolkien will [have] read it without my recommendation.)

Among Tolkien's insights is the hint of enduring human wisdom, not always explicitly recognized, in the "arbitrary prohibitions" of fairy tales: that some things are simply forbidden us (though he doesn't address the question of Who does the forbidding).
Even where a prohibition in a fairy-story is guessed to be derived from some taboo once practised long ago, it has probably been preserved in the later stages of the tale's history because of the great mythical significance of prohibition. A sense of that significance may indeed have lain behind some of the taboos themselves. Thou shalt not—or else thou shall depart beggared into endless regret. The gentlest "nursery-tales" know it. Even Peter Rabbit was forbidden a garden, lost his blue coat, and took sick. The Locked Door stands as an eternal Temptation.


Friday, March 26, 2004

A word on politics

I saw a car today with four or five political bumper stickers, none of which was for a candidate I'd want to be associated with.

Then I wondered which politician I would want to be associated with.

I did come up with one, and even designed a bumper sticker for him:

Too bad he's ineligible for political office.

Update: While we're at it, and since Athanasius's suggestion of Aragorn would require a design far beyond my abilities, how about this:


When the end is getting people to do what you want them to do
"'While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.'"
So speaks the unjust judge in the parable. But so does not speak everyone on the receiving end of mail campaigns conducted by indignant Catholics.

How can this be?

My theory is that most people on the receiving end of mail campaigns conducted by indignant Catholics are, not chancery rats or weaklings who yield before all stronger forces or even unjust judges who neither fear God nor respect any human being, but people.

If the end you seek is getting people to do what you want them to do, you're in the happy situation of having a choice of means. With machines, you don't have a choice: you have to use force to get them to do what you want them to do. But with people, you can use force, or you can use persuasion. (While with cats and teenagers, to complete the possible cases, there are no effective means.)

To use force as the means to get people to do what you want them to do, however, you need leverage of some sort. Note, though, that you aren't simply applying a force to the people, you are applying a directed force. The ability to swamp someone's mailroom with letters is not necessarily leverage, since it doesn't necessarily direct them to agree to do what you want them to do.

To use persuasion as the means to get people to do what you want them to do requires, I'm afraid, that bugaboo of Internet forums, an ad hominem argument. If you are genuinely acting for the end of getting people to do what you want them to do (instead of, say, feeling good about your righteousness), then you have to give them an argument they will find persuasive. You aren't (we assume) trying to persuade yourself they should do something, or to persuade some neutral party or the court of public opinion.

How do you know what arguments people will find persuasive? Well, it certainly helps if you know the people you're trying to persuade. If you don't know the people you're trying to persuade, I suppose you have a choice: you can guess what might persuade them, or you can decide you're unlikely to guess correctly.

If you want to guess, you might first guess what sort of people they are. Are they just like you? Are they just like all the other drooling idiots who drive you nuts? Are they easily categorized?

If you decide you're unlikely to guess correctly, what do you do? You might run through a risk management exercise: If I go with the most plausibly persuasive argument, what are the chances I'll make things worse, and how much worse would I make them? And you just might conclude trying to persuade someone you don't know using an argument they aren't likely to find persuasive is, in this instance, an ill-considered disproportionate means to the end of getting them to do what you want them to do.


The patience of a saint

In a great post that opens with a Fra Angelico Annunciation, Fr. Shane Tharp writes of "the true threads of what is beginning" with the Annunciation, including:
He still waits to be born. Baptism makes us mothers of the Word, one of the early Church Fathers observed.... The Holy Eucharist rests upon our innards, weighty as an embryonic child, but waiting, waiting to spring up to life and to be manifested. Yes, we too are made pregnant bearers of the Word, our bellies swollen with his Heart's Blood. But why have we not given birth? Is it because we are not enough like the woman of the Annunciation? We have not given birth because we have not emptied enough of ourselves. We have not given birth because we love not the will of the Father before all things. We have not given birth because we selfishly clutch at the goodness of Christ poured out to us as though it were only for us. It is for all to be distributed by us.
True, and more: Mary did not give birth while Gabriel stood before her. It took months for her to prepare (or rather, for God to prepare within her) Jesus to be born.

Might one way in which we are unlike the woman of the Annunciation be our impatience? Filled with zeal, touched by God with some special consolation, we are ready to evangelize the world NOW! Yet, for whatever reason, the world is not evangelized NOW, and soon our zeal for the kingdom fades as worries over that new knocking sound in the car engine increase. Then comes the reflection: "Guess I wasn't really supposed to evangelize the world after all."

We can't give what we don't have. We can't give a viable Christ to the world until He is viable within us, and that takes some time. Time to nurture the Word, to ponder in our hearts, to contemplate the face of Jesus. What God gave Mary was not the promise she would conceive and bear a son. A promise, once given, is ready to be shared with whoever needs to know of it. What God gave Mary was her Son Himself, and He wasn't ready to be shared with the wider world until He was fully formed in her womb.


The Angelico Code

So which Annunciation painting did your favorite bloggers post yesterday?

I have to say, I became instantly fond of the one Karen Marie Knapp posted. As Peony Moss comments, "although the painter depicts Mary in modern dress, he still uses the artistic traditions of depicting the Annunciation -- the traditional depiction of Gabriel, the lilies, the columns, the house, the blue dress, the book -- so it looks like he's really thinking about the Annunciation and not just going for a cheap gimmick."

The one thing I'd add is that there's an extra degree of anachronism in the painting, in that such a girl in the culture depicted would not be prepared for marriage, as girls Mary's age were in Mary's culture. That said, no one in any culture is ever prepared for the news Gabriel had for Mary, so we might take the anachronism as a symbol of the greater shock.

Peony herself, meanwhile, posted an, um, different painting, while admitting the one she wanted was yet a third, which Eric Johnson managed to find on-line.

Then there are the bloggers of rarefied taste who turned to Fra Angelico, including Father Tharp, Gerard, and Father Johansen, to list them in order of my increasing preference for the versions posted. (Though I think the image of that last painting I swiped from somewhere has better coloring than Fr. Johansen's. Either way, it was upon looking at this painting that the though first occurred of taking Beato Angelico as my patron in the Order.)


Thursday, March 25, 2004

Happy Annunciation Day!

I was thinking this morning that it would be nice if the Annunciation were a Really Big Deal in the Church, up there with Christmas and Easter. For one thing, it would be good theology, since the Annunciation is held to be the actual moment (or at least close to it) in which God became man. For another thing, it would be good apologetics, a way of showing that Catholics really do believe that something precious comes to be at conception.

But I don't have much say on the liturgical calendar, which has had an organic growth from the earliest days of worshipping at sunrise on Sunday after observing the Sabbath the day before. Christmas has been the Feast of the Incarnation as long as there's been a need for such a feast, and so it shall remain.

It occurs to me, too, that observing the Annunciation as a Solemnity without obligation to attend Mass is in keeping with the character of the event it commemorates. It was a private moment, an intimate exchange between heaven and a single human heart, that only gradually is made known to others. The Nativity is the time when this private event literally bears public fruit, when the angels sing to men and men to each other. But today we call to mind those first delicate moments, when God is made man yet not man fully made, and with the patience and humility of every mother Mary begins the months-long process of letting her child be formed within her.

There's a nice reflection on-line on what the Feast of the Annunciation means to a convent of cloistered Dominican nuns, and to us all:
The Eternal Father invited Mary to make a home for God in her body. Without a doubt she had already made a home for Him in her soul. Today on this great feast you and I are once again invited to make a home for God in the deepest center of our being. Our Yes to the Lord's invitation is not to an idea or a project but to the three-Personed God of Love....

The feast of the Annunciation reminds us that only when our surrender to God becomes receptivity patterned on Our Lady's Yes can our hearts truly become a home for the Word of God to dwell in. This feast is appropriately celebrated during Lent because without fail such surrender will inevitably lead to the Cross, in whatever form Christ wishes for us. Often for us it is little things: weakness in our personalities that we can't seem to overcome; physical sickness or limitations; anxieties over those we love or the long days of darkness in prayer. Jesus, who loves each of us as His spouse, wants us to give Him even these things. Our "grandfather" Saint Augustine exhorts us to this total self-giving so that we will be one with Him on the Cross: "Let Him be placed in complete possession of your heart, who for you was placed upon the Cross."
[Our "grandfather" Saint Augustine: Dominican friars and nuns observe (after a fashion) the Rule of St. Augustine, who is therefore regarded as something of a "pre-founder" or "grandfather," with St. Dominic of course the founder and father.]


The best thing about blogging...

... is when someone else does it for you.

On the subject of The DaVinci Code in particular and "female rituals of sacred worship" in general, Kathy the Carmelite has done the sowing (and the plowing, and the mucking about with quite a bit of fertilizer) that we may do the reaping.


The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary

Be very careful about approaching Mary, even (especially?) out of simple curiosity. She's very likely to take your hand, look you in the eye, and say, "Do whatever He tells you," and you'll be very likely to say, "Yes, Mother," without even thinking about it, and then you'll be stuck, a disciple of the Lord, and the Lord's discipleships very rarely constitute nothing but drinking the best wine.
Ever Virgin, ever fruitful,
On that day in Nazareth,
Waiting for your humble fiat,
All of heaven held its breath.

Ever Virgin, ever fruitful,
On the day when you gave birth,
All of heaven's angels gloried:
God Himself made man on earth.

You who once brought God to sinners
Labor still, your work undone.
Ever Virgin, ever fruitful,
Ever bring men to your Son.


Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Mary in the Gospels, iv

Still, even if we resolve the "Mary of Scripture" and the "Mary of Tradition," so to speak, there remains a certain unmet and half-expressed expectation that, somehow, Mary should be different, that, if she doesn't actually glow in the dark, there should be a faint shimmer about her as she moves through the streets of Nazareth. How do we resolve this tension, this apparent ordinariness where we expect something almost magical?

It seems to me it wasn't necessary for Mary to entirely get what was going on in Jesus' life (and here I'm straying from the Catholic tradition of arguing for the fitness-nigh-unto-necessity of Mary being practically perfect in every way). Also, her not entirely getting it signifies a bunch of things to the rest of us; e.g., we can't count on entirely getting it, either, and we should always be prepared for God to surprise us, and even where to look for Jesus when we find we've lost Him.

So given a) that it wasn't necessary for Mary to have complete understanding of Jesus' mission, and b) that her incomplete understanding would teach us more about ourselves than her complete understanding would, the tension implied in a Mother of God who does not completely understand her Son seems worth it.

Mary's great (even defining) act of faith was her answer to Gabriel, at a moment when she was not yet a virgin pregnant with a child who would be called Son of the Most High, and of Whose kingdom there will be no end.

Remember, faith is "a participation in another's knowledge," not credence in one's own senses. So while the fact that she did bear a son while a virgin gave good reason to trust the further promise of the angel, that of Jesus' kingdom there will be no end was still an object of faith for Mary throughout her life, since she had no direct knowledge of eternity.

And yet, the half-expressed expectation of someone midway between human and divine can still nag at us.

Let me suggest a reason for this expectation, without implying anyone who might have this expectation does so for this reason: Maybe some of us, maybe myself included, half-think that if Gabriel appeared to us and we gave birth to the Son of God, then we would glow in the dark. Maybe we figure that a contact like that with God would raise us into a higher order of being, somewhere between man and God.

And maybe, if we half-believe this even as we know it's not true, maybe we half-believe that the fact Gabriel hasn't appeared to us explains why we don't glow in the dark. More seriously, maybe there's a half-belief that God hasn't done enough for anyone to seriously expect us to have Christ living in us. Maybe there's a half-belief that God better get cracking with the fancy stuff if He really wants us to be, you know, saints.


Mary in the Gospels, iii

Veneration of Mary does come up as a topic in Luke, though not in a way that makes it immediately plain why there are statues of Mary in most Catholic churches:
While [Jesus] was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed."

He replied, "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it."
Is this a rebuke to those who would venerate Mary? I see it, not as a rebuke, but as a correction or clarification to the woman's words of praise that serves three purposes.

First, it shows that any honor Mary might deserve from Christians is due her first and foremost because she heard the word of God and kept it. (Which, after all, is pretty much what we read Luke's infancy narrative, and in the earlier report of the visit of Jesus' relatives.)

Second, it shows that an honor similar to that of Mary is available to anyone who desires it, simply be hearing the word of God and keeping it.

Third -- and this is an idea I'm stealing from a coincidental email from Kathy the Carmelite -- it guards against veneration of Mary on purely physical grounds, or indeed on any other grounds than fidelity to the One God. Of all creatures, we value Mary the highest, but not for what she is in herself (and still less for any "sacred feminine" some claim she signifies). We value her entirely for what God has done through her, even as the ways in which we express the value we assign her necessarily adopt incarnational dimensions. Her womb is not blessed because it bore Jesus; her womb bore Jesus because God blessed her, and through her each of us.

This principle holds, even when particular Catholic practice improperly loses sight of the principle.


Mary in the Gospels, ii

The three synoptic Gospels each tell of Jesus being told His "mother and brothers" want to speak to Him. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to teach, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it."

What can we learn from these passages, besides the facts that a) Jesus made use of the teaching opportunities that came His way, and b) His mother and His brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it?

Well, one other thing is suggested by Mark 3:21, which provides the reason Jesus' relatives came to see Him:
When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."
Though all three synoptic Gospels mention their arrival, neither Matthew nor Luke (the two with infancy narratives) report that they thought Jesus was out of His mind. Is this simply a matter of leaving out a detail that makes the infancy narratives harder to understand?

Neither Matthew nor Luke put the scene of the arrival of Jesus' relatives in much context. Mark, though, mentions that His relatives "set out to seize Him" after hearing reports of Him. What reports?

Well, the verse immediately before they set out to seize Him is, "He came home. Again the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat."

So, on the natural level they've got a Relative Who is causing such a commotion, He (and those commoted) can't even eat. That might seem to call for an intervention, even from someone who knows He is the Messiah. (And we might point to the miracle at Cana as an example of Mary successfully imploring Jesus; she might have had something similar in mind here.)

On the supernatural level, Mark is comparing the doubt of Jesus' relatives -- which, for what it's worth, is not explicitly ascribed to Mary herself (though the context does seem to allow for that) -- to the doubt of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem.

Jesus' relatives think He is out of His mind. And, as Peter would later show, even one who believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, might criticize the way He was going about being the Messiah.

The scribes, on the other hand, say He is an agent of the devil, which Jesus points out is irrational (and, by implication, a worse mistake, possibly an everlasting mistake).

When, finally, His relatives arrive, Jesus completes the lesson by saying faith, not blood, makes a person His true brother, sister, or mother.

Did Mary have the faith to make her a true mother of Jesus? Scripture (to say nothing of Tradition) indicates she did -- but at the time of Jesus' ministry in Galilee her faith was not yet made complete by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

It's in the distinction between the perfect faith expressed in Mary's "Let it be done to me according to your word" at the Annunciation and the completion of that faith in the wind of Pentecost that I find the room to accomodate both her lack of understanding when Jesus was twelve and her arguable lack of understanding when He began His public ministry (always leavened by the understanding she showed at Cana).


Mary in the Gospels, i

[Most of these posts are cribbed from comments I made on the "A mother's joyful love" post below. My thanks to Rob, Jennifer, and Millinerd, non-Catholics all, for talking this stuff over with me.]

I think it's unlikely that the veneration Catholic and Orthodox pay to Mary, the Mother of God, would be predicted by someone who knew only what he read in the Gospels. Not just because so little is actually said of her, but because some of the few things that are said aren't altogether flattering.

How, for example, does a Catholic who believes Mary is the All-Holy Seat of Wisdom understand her misunderstanding when she discovered her twelve-year-old Son in the Temple?

Speaking for myself, I understand it by assuming Mary was more "normal" than a lot of the pious legends would allow. Jesus, too, for that matter.

If, say, Jesus had never (or rarely) referred to God as His Father before He remained behind at the Temple at age 12, then His play on words ("Your father and I," "My Father's business") would naturally confuse Mary, if she herself were not given to spending hours a day rapt in contemplation over the ineffable mysteries of the Incarnation.

In fact, a relatively normal Mary -- one who isn't herself an all-knowing glow-in-the-dark plaster statue with a demur half-smile and downcast eyes -- serves in part as a guarantor of the Incarnation. Even as we proclaim her the Mother of God, if she is a true-to-life woman, then we are proclaiming the Son of God is true man.


Prepare ye the way of the truth

It occurs to me that truth is one of those things that require no preparation -- for which, even, no preparation is possible. (Love is another one of those things.)

Note I wrote "truth," not "a particular truth." People certainly do need to be prepared for certain specific truths, an idea that in Christianity goes back -- well, the the Adamic Covenant, I suppose, but I was going to say "to St. Paul":
Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, for you are still of the flesh.
But the only way to prepare someone for a particular truth, I think, is with another truth. This is simply how humans learn, by moving from what we know now to something we don't already know.

If it's true that nothing but truth is a preparation for truth, though, then anything other than truth is an ill-considered disproportionate means to the end of truth. We may tell ourselves we're just getting someone ready for the truth, but if we're using some means that isn't giving him the truth, we aren't really preparing him for the truth.

These thoughts were prompted by something I read about the folks who regard, for many different reasons, Pope John Paul II to be a disaster for the Church. They look forward to his death or resignation so that they can finally get on with the business of correcting all his errors.

But the only way to work for truth is truth. Complaint, condescension, deprecation: these don't prepare anyone for the truth of anything. If one were given to unfounded speculation, one might even conjecture that complaining about the Pope is a self-serving disproportionate means, in that it gives the illusion of engaging his position without requiring any actual engagement.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to Catholics who don't like the current Pope. It occurs whenever someone perceives an obstacle to truth and settles on a plan for removing that obstacle that itself isn't the truth. "Since he'll only hold up the vote, let's not invite him to the meeting." "Ask her yourself, if you like, but everyone knows she's a liar." "You're very thoughtful and honest, unlike all those troglodytes in class. Would you please read this book and tell me what you think?"

Our disproportionate plans may or may not be sinful, but if we're really as concerned for the truth as we say we are, we should be aware of the truth of our plans to prepare for the truth.


Monday, March 22, 2004

A mother's joyful love
The scribe said to Him, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.' And 'to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
There is, in Scripture, dogma, and pious imagination, no human person who, from her conception, through her whole life, and even beyond her death to all eternity, has been closer to the kingdom of God than the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary. One might reasonably conclude, then, that Mary loved her neighbor as herself. And indeed:
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until The eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. [Lumen Gentium 62]
But what forms did her love for her neighbor take during her natural lifetime?

Setting aside pious legends, we have the story of the Visitation, following hard upon the Annunciation, when Mary rose in haste to her kinswoman Elizabeth to celebrate the natural and supernatural graces God had given them and, through them, the world. There is the wedding at Cana, where with the instinct of both a faithful daughter and a wise mother Mary knew Whom to ask, and how, for the most unlikely of Divine favors.

And... there's not much more.

We may well imagine the countless acts of charity Mary's sinlessness implies: helping other mothers with children and chores, perhaps mending rifts between friends or cooling the well-side gossip against a neighbor. But such acts are remarkable only for the purity of the one who performed them, not for the size, scope, or uniqueness of the acts themselves.

It might be said that Mary's "public ministry" as Mother of the Church began at the foot of the Cross, just as her "private ministry" as mother to Jesus was reaching its fulfillment.

The idea I'm trying to tease out of all this is that, even during her private ministry, between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, Mary was loving all others in and through her private ministry. It was God Who gave her this ministry, this means of loving others by feeding and clothing and bathing and teaching Jesus. She did not (as far as I know) prophesy to the other mothers of Nazareth, or steal the Baptist's thunder by calling on her neighbors to repent. She did not send Joseph into the synagogue to read Scripture and declare, "In just a few short years, these words will be fulfilled in your hearing."

Mary did not found hospitals, or schools, or any sort of popular movement. Her charity, her participation in God's own love for her neighbors -- in Nazareth, in Judea, in the Andes -- was expressed in her raising her Son as best she could. It was a love of neighbor wholly informed by love of God, and wholly conducted according to God's will for her life.

It was a love of neighbor of a dignity far beyond anything you or I have the opportunity to express, and yet, if we follow Mary's model, our own humble acts of charity will be worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, and we shall live, today and forever, in the kingdom of God.


Program reminder: The Luminous Mysteries

Tomorrow evening is the final Lenten reflection at St. Andrew Apostle Church in Silver Spring, MD. (Next week there's a one-friar concert; the following week is a penitential service.) As always, chanted Evening Prayer begins at 7:30 p.m.

The preacher tomorrow is Fr. James Sullivan, OP; his topic is "The Graces of the Luminous Mysteries: The Rosary and Our Life of Prayer." And I'm not just saying Fr. Sullivan is an unfailingly excellent preacher because, as the provincial promoter of the Dominican Laity, he's my boss's boss. I can guarantee this will be worth the effort required to attend, or your money back.
Fr. Sullivan studied philosophy and humanities at Providence College in RI, and then entered the Dominican Province of Saint Joseph of the Order of Preachers. He earned a Licentiate in Philosophy from Catholic University of America in 1993, a Master of Divinity in 1994, and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in 1996, both from Immaculate Conception College (The Dominican House of Studies). He was ordained in 1995. Fr. Sullivan was first assigned to Saint Gertrude Parish in Madeira, OH, where he focused primarily on Adult Edu cation. He has taught theology, written articles for journals and has served on the boards of various organizations. He is on the Preaching Board of Advisors for the Dominican Province of Saint Joseph. He is a part-time professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s Seminary - Dunwoodie, in Yonkers, NY, but currently his main assignment is as Provincial Promoter for the Laity, serving as the Order's link to the 4,000 members in the 60 Third Order Dominican Laity Chapters in the Province.


Friday, March 19, 2004

Rev. Mr. D'Assisi, call your office

Disputations doesn't get visitors from the sicko Google searches that bring some people to some other blogs (naming no names), but there have been two animal-related searches in the past day or so that stand out among the "Christianity intellectual defense" searches, or even the "budweiser AND commercial AND super bowl" searches. They're the sort of queries that make me think winter has lasted a bit too long. Summer, too, since one of them was from Google Australia.

Anyway, the searches are here and here, if you're curious.


Father of Jesus

I know Catholics often call Joseph the "foster-father of Jesus." But I prefer to follow Mary's example:
"Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety."
Of course, Jesus answers equivocally (showing, those of us who were once twelve-year-olds in trouble, no little human wisdom), "Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father's house?"

Still, St. Joseph was Jesus' father, even if a thousand years had to pass before our Christology was solid enough to begin to consider the implications. There has been a lot written about the infinite condescension shown by God to place Himself under the command of a mere human father, but if Jesus was a man like us in all things but sin I can't believe Joseph treated Him as a divine houseguest, or as a magical talisman of unsearchable power in human form.

Jesus was the son of Joseph (who himself was a son of David), and would have been treated as such, even as He would have been treated according to St. Joseph's understanding of His role in God's plan for Israel. In this is the mystery of the Incarnation. Mary was closer to the mystery and, we might suppose, saw further. But it was a mystery Joseph lived with every day, one which he could not simply contemplate but had to live with, had to adjust to.

We, too, are faced with the mystery of Jesus as God and man. But we are also faced with the reflected mystery of each other, created in God's image and likeness, created to become adopted children of the Father even as Jesus is His begotten Child. How do we contemplate, live with, adjust to this mystery, that the child we scold or praise -- and the the coworker we greet or laugh at, the person in the paper or on television -- is a creature who from eternity was to be created for eternal glory?


What profane jokes "really tell us...

" that the profane imagination seems balked by the mystery of the sacred, the human imagination falling away from the fact of the divine imagination wording things as it wills...." -- Paul Mariana, quoted below by Neil Dhingra


Husband of Mary

There is a wonderful book by St. Peter Julian Eymard called The Month of St. Joseph, in which the founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament presents St. Joseph as the model for Eucharistic adoration. You can use the book to make a month-long mini-retreat to Jesus through Joseph. (While you're at it, get the whole Eymard Library.)

But while much can be learned by the sort of soft-focus (soft, but not mushy!) devotional meditation on St. Joseph marvelling at the God-made-man in his home and his arms, much can also be learned by meditation on the harder, more practical aspects of raising a good Jewish son in the Roman Empire of the First Century, and then trying to reconcile the two visions of Joseph the Just.

We might begin with the title the Church gives St. Joseph on this, his principal feast day. His litany (which is still indulgenced!) gives him many titles:
Renowned offspring of David; Light of Patriarchs; Spouse of the Mother of God; Chaste guardian of the Virgin; Foster father of the Son of God; Diligent protector of Christ; Head of the Holy Family; Most just, most chaste, most prudent, most strong, most obedient, most faithful; Mirror of patience; Lover of poverty; Model of artisans; Glory of home life; Guardian of virgins; Pillar of families; Solace of the wretched; Hope of the sick; Patron of the dying; Terror of demons; Protector of Holy Church.
For his feast day, though, he is given a much more prosaic title: Husband of Mary.

Now, obviously "Husband of Mary" implies "Spouse of the Mother of God" and many of the other titles. But let's stick with "Husband of Mary" for a minute.

First, the word "husband" is usually understood to refer to the man in a relationship of marriage, and "marriage" these days is generally understood as a relationship between equals, line an equal partnership in a business.

But though men and women are equal in dignity before God, they do not assume equivalent roles in a marriage. Being a husband confers a certain authority that is not conferred by being a wife, which perhaps is why the angel appeared to Joseph when it was time for the Holy Family to move.

In short, the story of Joseph, Husband of Mary, is the mystery of a man made lord of the LORD's household, and ruler of His possessions. And just as Jesus was true man and Mary the true Mother of God, so was Joseph the true earthly father of Jesus and the true husband of Mary. He wasn't the confused old man fearing cuckoldry of the medieval passion plays. He wasn't a deferential host to a Madonna and Child with ethereal smiles who glowed in the dark. He had true authority over the Mother of God, of a kind none of us would dare to exercise (and rightly so, since none of us possess it), and he exercised it in a true manner.

Mary was Joseph's wife, not his mother given him by Jesus on Calvary, and he treated her as such. And genuinely so; he didn't just pretend. There was no, "Er, if that's all right with you," said or implied when he told Mary they were leaving for Egypt.


Swiety Jozef kiwnie broda, idzie zima nadol z woda

If, as the Polish saying has it, "St. Joseph shakes his beard and see: winter's disappeared!," then St. Joseph must have dandruff in his beard, because that's snow coming down. Not as much here as up north, but still.

While we're on the subject of St. Joseph and hair care, look at some of the holy cards at this site. You got your young Joseph, you got your old Joseph, you got your bearded-yet-androgynous Joseph.

You even got your "How's it going, Joe, want a Schlitz?" Joseph.

But notice that, in almost every portrait of St. Joseph, he's got short hair, or at least relatively short hair.

So how come Jesus always has hair down to his shoulders? Didn't His father ever say, "Yes, yes, in Your Father's house are many mansions, but as long as You're living in my house, you're getting a hair cut!"?

There is a true mystery here, but it can wait for another post.


Thursday, March 18, 2004

Did you give up teleology for Lent?

Did you ever eat dirt to quench your thirst? Me, too. What was I thinking?

Or did you ever tell a friend you would help her move, then when she asked why you never showed up tell her, "I did help you move! I took a nap."? Me, too. It introduced a chill in the conversation.

Okay, maybe I haven't done exactly those things, but I have done things no more likely to achieve what I said I was trying to achieve than eating dirt is likely to quench thirst. And I know I'm not the only one.

I think the examples of eating dirt and napping represent two different kinds of disproportionate means (i.e., means that, baldly considered, have no reasonable chance of achieving their stated end). The first kind are simply ill-considered. Eating dirt wont' quench thirst, going to work in a bathrobe won't lead to a promotion, glaring at someone in church won't make him more reverent.

The second kind are self-serving means. Napping may not help my friend move, but I find it refreshing. Telling my friends about my child's report card may not help them judge their children's progress, but it gives me a warm feeling. Gossipping about a neighbor may not correct her faults, but it does cement my position as the one with his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood.

The question that comes to mind when considering ill-considered disproportionate means is, not "What was I thinking?," but "Was I thinking?" I may adopt certain means reflexively or habitually, in which case I should probably make the time to reflect on whether these reflexive or habitual means make any sense. Or it may be nothing more than plain bad reasoning I need to correct (a popular fallacy is "I respond to X with Y, so if I do X everyone will respond with Y.").

The question that comes to mind when considering self-serving disproportionate means is, "What is the end I am truly seeking?" This can be a tough question, because a lot of us are pretty good at fooling ourselves, along such lines as, "I tried to help him, but it's not my fault if he wouldn't let me." (Or the old joke about the person who takes the larger of two slices of cake, then when told, "If I had chosen first, I would have picked the smaller piece," answers, "You got the smaller piece, didn't you?")

Answering the question requires self-honesty, which is a habit we will only develop if we choose to. The level of honesty the world demands of us, that we habitually develop simply by living among others, is not sufficient to uproot self-serving means. But then self-honesty is something sought first out of love for ourselves, as imperfect but perfectable children of God, and only secondarily out of love for others.


Wednesday, March 17, 2004

File under "Farce"

So the woman who mentioned The DaVinci Code to my son the other day has assured me she considers it an adventure story, not a relevatory history book. (Hence a certain amount of redaction in yesterday's "Don't Read Blogs" post.)

Which would bring this all to a comfortable and timely close, like a sitcom plot driven by a misunderstanding, except that a number of coincidences lined up in the past two days, as a result of which I've pledged to my Lay Dominican chapter to arrange a talk on that infernal book some time this Spring.

And, like Basil Fawlty, I shall try to soldier through with it, for fear that next time God won't choose farce as the genre to convey to me a suggestion.


Beannachtaí Na Féile Pádraig Oraibh!

Believing that God is the source of all truth, the Church does not hesitate to make use of truth wherever She finds it.

Believing that pleasure is the secret of all happiness, society does not hesitate to make use of pleasure wherever it finds it.

And ever the twain shall meet on March Seventeenth.

We lost the "Saint" in "Saint Valentine's Day" in my lifetime. I wonder when we'll lose it in "Saint Patrick's Day." I suppose that's up to the Catholics. We can hardly expect the Epicureans to keep track of our honorifics for us.

Still, and with due respect to the proper tenor of the liturgical season, "Tabhair dom a rud céanna mar atá ag an fhear ar an urlar!"


To know and to love

Steven Riddle wonders about the dynamics that come into play when someone takes something like The DaVinci Code seriously:
If someone accused your mother of being a slut would you run for the dictionary, to show that by definition she is not? Or would you simply let love take the lead. This is not to fault those who wish to address and correct the errors that are introduced here. It is to fault whatever mechanism gives rise to so weak a love of Jesus that some are inclined to take seriously any calumny uttered against Him.
A weak love, however, doesn't cause ignorance, nor (as far as I know) are the falsehoods in the novel particularly calamnous toward Jesus. The calumnies are (as far as I know) directed against the institutional Church, and love for the institutional Church itself does not flow immediately from love for Jesus.

There's another reason that a Catholic finding Dan Brown a credible source of history is not necessarily a sign of the weakness of that Catholic's love for Jesus: A person's beliefs are not necessarily consistent. I may well have mutually contradictory beliefs and be completely unaware of it, particularly if I formed the beliefs at points in time that are far apart. I might believe, say, that the Eucharist is an outward sign of an inward grace somehow related to Calvary (a belief formed in childhood), and that St. Athanasius invented the Sacrament of the Eucharist as a way for bishops to wrest power away from the more-popular monks (a belief formed by reading some junk history last year). Even if I would recognize the theological disconnect between those beliefs if I saw it, I wouldn't necessarily see it if no one pointed it out to me.

Now, it's true that love tends to cause a desire to know more about the beloved (to say nothing of knowing the beloved more!), so a strong love of Jesus should tend to cause a desire to know more about Him. But many lifetimes can be spent getting to know more about Jesus without touching on Church history. And much can be learned about life in the sacraments without touching on them as historical phenomena.

All in all, then, I'm inclined to assume good will and even good faith on the part of those Catholics who might believe some or all of the falsehoods and absurdities of The DaVinci Code and similar bogus works. Where that assumption is true, the love for Jesus -- and for the Church He founded -- already exists, and it really is primarily a matter of historical instruction.

American Catholics are not good on Church history; we know there are dodgy bits that don't bear much scrutiny, and we're generally willing to accept the role of whipping boy society (taking over from English Protestantism) assigns us. I don't think it takes much instruction to change from the either/or of imeccability/source of all societal ills to the both/and of the Mystical Body of Christ composed of sinners.


Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Program reminder

Tonight at 7:30 p.m., St. Andrew Apostle Church, 11600 Kemp Mill Road, Silver Spring, MD.

Chanted Evening Prayer with a reflection by Fr. John Langlois, OP, on "Penance – Weight Reduction Plan for the Human Heart."

(Yeah, I know, but never judge a Dominican sermon by its title.)

Fr. Langlois received his S.T.L. from The Dominican House of Studies in 1992 and was then assigned to Providence College, where he taught in the Theology Department and in the Development of Western Civilization Program. In 2000, he obtained the S.T.D. in Church History from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, with a special concentration in the Reformation period. While teaching at Providence College, Fr. Langlois also served as archivist for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph from 2000 to 2002. He has been a participant in OPUS, a collaborative research group of Dominican men and women whose goal is to produce a comprehensive history of the development of the Order in the United States. In June 2002, he was appointed Student Master at The Dominican House of Studies and also joined the faculty at that time.


Where weariness and sloth prevail
When He rose from prayer and returned to His disciples, He found them sleeping from grief.
Over the weekend, I read St. Thomas More's The Sadness of Christ, a meditation on Christ's agony in Gethsemane. One point St. Thomas makes is that we must not allow sorrow to make us sleepy, both literally (remember when "keeping a vigil" meant staying up all night praying rather than going to Saturday evening Mass?) and figuratively, in the sense that our prayers are said senselessly if they are said at all.

Another St. Thomas defines the vice of sloth as an oppressive sorrow that so weighs upon a man's mind, he wants to do nothing. As a special vice, sloth is sorrow in the Divine good, finding sadness in the things of God where charity finds joy. Following St. Gregory, St. Thomas lists six daughters of sloth: malice; spite; faint-heartedness; despair; sluggishness in regard to the commandments; and wandering of the mind after unlawful things.

I will admit that things like this article weary me. Even trying to summarize the paranoia, ignorance, blindness, and heresy expressed by the two religious sisters quoted wearies me. I feel a similar weariness when I read articles in my local newspaper on the inevitability (and, often enough, the gosh-darned wonderfulness) of designer babies, human cloning, gay marriage, and so forth.

Such weariness leaves me feeling spiteful, faint-hearted, despairing, and sluggish. Why? Because as a Christian I should do something about the ignorance, injustice, and evil I encounter, and there just seems to be so much of it.

However, the virtue that opposes sloth happens to be charity. Which means when I am feeling slothful regarding some perceived Christian duty, all I need to do is respond with charity, and the first and best response in charity is prayer, which is always effective.

Assuming it's done.
He said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test."


Don't read blogs

I blame Amy Welborn.

This morning at breakfast, my eight-year-old mentioned that a Catholic woman we know told him there was a book that would completely change how people thought of the Last Supper. Since she had mentioned the book to me a couple of weeks ago, I knew she was talking about The DaVinci Code.

There was a time -- some folks call that era "February 2004" -- when I would have said I benefitted from reading blogs. In particular, I would have said reading open book gave me the benefit of knowing enough to avoid The DaVinci Code as an irritating time-waster.

But now, with the scales new-fallen from my eyes, I see how wrong I was.

Because if I didn't read blogs, I wouldn't know much of anything about that book, and I would have accepted the copy offered me last Fall by a friend, and I would have set it on a shelf among two hundred other unread books, and I would have said, "Oh ah?" when the woman told me it was intriguing a couple of weeks ago, and I would have said, "Really? Huh," this morning when my son told me it would completely change how I thought about the Last Supper.

But no.

Instead of, "Really? Huh," I said, "That book is complete junk, written by a fool!" Later, I got angry at the woman for exposing my child -- however obliquely -- to an anti-Catholic conspiracy theory. Later still, I got angry at her for forcing me to plan a parish-level response to The DaVinci Code, which necessarily involves a) planning a parish-level response, something I'm neither competent at nor authorized to do; and b) reading The DaVinci Code, and the only good thing about reading The DaVinci Code I can think of is that it isn't Atlas Shrugged.

Now, I'm mad at Amy Welborn, for leading me down the "it's not 'just a novel'" path to begin with.

And I have to tell you, it's not at all satisfying that the next thing I have to do is buy Amy's book.


Monday, March 15, 2004

Love the sinner. Amen.

It occurs to me that it is critical for us Christians to separate our sinfulness from our lovableness. We need to recognize that, fundamentally, neither depends on the other. That's the only way we can make sense of the fact that we are sinners beloved by God.

Here I don't mean making intellectual sense out of God's questionable choices for the objects of His affections. I mean practical sense for ourselves to understand who we are and what we are to do.

If my sinfulness depends [inversely] on my lovableness, then if I am lovable I am not sinful. But I am lovable; in fact, I am loved, and there's a crucifix in my pocket to prove it. So, if sinfulness depends on lovableness, I must not be sinful. "I am lovable and not sinful": does that sound like a sentiment you've encountered recently?

Putting it the other way round, if my lovableness depends [inversely] on my sinfulness, then if I am sinful I am not lovable. But I am sinful, which would mean I am not lovable, and God can't love me, although if I'm careful and sufficiently craven He just might let me get away without being damned, if lovableness depends on sinfulness. This sentiment might be in the minority these days, but in various times and places it has, I think, dominated.

Now, there is a theological relation between sinfulness and lovableness. The less sinful you are, the more "you" there is to love, and in that sense the more lovable you are. As a practical matter, though, since we don't have very accurate being-meters, the state of this theological relation is hidden from us, and all we have to go on are the dual facts that God loves us no matter how sinful we are -- which preserves us from despair -- and that no matter how much God loves us, we are sinners -- which preserves us from presumption.


Friday, March 12, 2004

A note on A Key, ii

On page 15, Abbot Vonier quotes the O sacrum convivium [which happens to be indulgenced]:
O sacred Banquet, wherein Christ is received, the memory of His passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and there is given to us a pledge of future glory.
We are (or should be) used to the idea of the Eucharist as a "re-presentation" of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, that it makes present in our churches the one sacrifice offered once and for all outside Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago. We understand, indeed many of us can testify, that receiving the Eucharist confers graces upon the receiver. We might even occasionally think of the future glory pledged by the Eucharist -- the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father.

But Abbot Vonier quotes this prayer in the context of discussing how, as he writes a page before, every sacrament
recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future.
A sacrament can do these things because it is a sign.

Being a sign of something else might be thought of as an imperfection, as though what really counts is the thing signified and the sign itself is ephemeral, passing from the mind as soon as what is signified is recognized. This isn't the case with a sacrament, though; the fact that it is a sign is what makes it capable of containing the past, the present, and the future all at once.

As St. Thomas writes (and Abbott Vonier quotes), when discussing whether a sacrament is a sign of one thing only:
...a sacrament properly speaking is that which is ordained to signify our sanctification. In which three things may be considered; viz.
  • the very cause of our sanctification, which is Christ's passion;
  • the form of our sanctification, which is grace and the virtues;
  • and the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life.
As I suggested, thinking of the Eucharist in these terms comes more or less readily to Catholics. Baptism, too, if we are aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death, and that if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united with Him in the resurrection.

But what about the other sacraments? Do we ever think about how marriage recalls the past, or holy orders reveals the future?

I know that I tend to collapse the idea of a sacrament into an outward sign of an inward grace given by the sacrament. That's certainly true, but it's inadequate. If the graces received are all there is to it, then what's the point of the sign? To tell us particular graces are being received? Then why not just pray for those particular graces and skip all the fuss with the oil and the water and so forth?

Because, as Abbot Vonier explains, you need a sign if you want to tie the past, present, and future all together, and
to limit the sacramental power of signification to the present moment, to the transformation of soul which takes place when the sacrament is received, would be an unwarranted minimizing of the sacramental doctrine, and would leave much of our scriptural language unintelligible. (p. 16)



Apparently, my bishop mines the Disputations archives when he's short on ideas for his weekly newspaper column. (The Eucharistic angle seems to have been his own, though.)

No need to thank me, your Eminence. That's what I'm here for. Semper opifer!


My week for meek

In his homily this morning, my associate pastor mentioned that the verse from Matthew I quoted below is the only record we have of Jesus laying claim to a virtue. The full saying is:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
Meekness and humility are curious virtues for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but just the thing for the Lamb of God.

And yet, Jesus is not presenting Himself here as the Lamb of God. He's presenting Himself as the source of an easy burden and light yoke, as an easer of burdens and a giver of rest. He is the fulfillment of the Law, which through the centuries had become a burden to those who followed it, rather than the source of comfort and joy of the psalmist.

So what does meekness and humility of heart have to do with giving easy yokes?

Here's my guessexegesis: When God gave the Law to Moses, He concealed Himself on Mount Sinai where only Moses could approach. Later, God spoke to Israel through His prophets, and of course He had His priests to offer sacrifices in the Temple.

But the coming of Christ is the coming of the Lord among His people, all of whom are now invited, even commanded, to an intimate and loving life with Him. For a people raised on stories like Uzzah the Smited and a Law that even the just man stumbles against seven times a day, the presence of the Lord might well be as much a source of fear as joy.

So Jesus reassures them, claiming for Himself meekness and humility not for his own honor -- far from it -- but out of love and compassion for His people: "I come in meekness, not in wrath. I come in humility, not in the glory that is death to the sinner."


Thursday, March 11, 2004

Love your enemies

Camassia, revisiting the mystery of the Atonement, writes of her dissatisfaction with the Substitutional Atonement theory:
There are a number of things, it seems to me, that this leaves out.... Why love your enemies? According to this line of thought, the suffering on earth are only getting their just deserts ahead of schedule.
And of the "Christus Victor" theory:
One of the few things it has in common with SA is that it remains myterious why you should love your enemies. Especially since your enemies also seem to be enemies of God.
I thought we are to love our enemies that we may be children of our heavenly Father, who loves our enemies. That, at least, is the context for Jesus' teaching to love our enemies in Matthew 5.

I'm told that, to the Jewish way of thinking in Jesus' day, what you do is who you are, which is why for instance His saying "your sins are forgiven" was such a scandal. It wasn't just that only God can forgive sins, but, put the other way, that whoever forgives sins is God.

The extension of the commandment to love from one's neighbor (necessary for the survival of Israel) to one's enemy occurs in Matthew as Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount, the Good News which in its fullness tells us we are intended to become true children of God. As Camassia quotes, "God became man that man might become God." And a child does as his father does.


The greatest of these is charity

Just a few scattered thoughts prompted by the talk given Tuesday night by Fr. Reginald Whitt, OP, from the text:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. [Col. 3:12-14]
First, I learned that it is markedly unsatisfying to listen to an exhortation on the Christian virtue of patience while your children are climbing on top of you in the front pew and asking if they can go back to the vestibule and have another cookie. Talk of forbearing suffered wrongs really takes the spice out of plotting dreadful punishments.

Fr. Whitt also spoke of meekness, the virtue that moderates anger. Note that it moderates anger. It doesn't smother anger, or replace anger, or ignore anger, or uproot the capacity for anger; all of these things are immoderate, probably impossible, and certainly not Christian virtues.

When Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart," He didn't add, "except when I'm arguing with Pharisees or driving out moneychangers." Even then He was meek, moderating the anger that the Messiah of the Lord felt toward those who would distort the Lord's teaching and defile His Temple.

Obviously, Christian meekness isn't the secular meekness of passivity and inoffensiveness. To be meek is to be gentle, not limp, in the face of provocation. In fact, it can (and probably should) cause us to be provocative ourselves, perhaps even to give offense. Again, meekness only moderates our anger, and if our anger is justified it is not alway virtuous to fail to act on that anger.

Fr. Whitt used a notable turn-of-phrase along these lines: Kindness and humility together compose a Christian temperament by which we live together as Christians. I thought that was interesting: if you are kind and humble, you have the right temperament to put on true Christian love, the bond of perfection; if not, not. We say it takes all kinds to make the Kingdom; maybe we should say the Kingdom takes from all kinds and makes their temperaments suitable.

Finally (for this post, not in the talk), Fr. Whitt argued against a carrot-and-stick understanding of the prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Forgiveness that is conditional, he said, isn't forgiveness. God doesn't say, "I'll forgive you if you forgive these others," which is more of a taunt than an expression of mercy. Rather, our failure to forgive is one of the things we need to be forgiven, and only the forgiving can receive the forgiveness God bestows on everyone.


Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Triumph all ye Cherubim

Ever wonder what order of angel you are?

Of course not. That's silly. You aren't an angel, you're a human.

Still, I took the quiz, and felt myself being inexorably drawn toward an order that turned out to be... the Cherubim.

Of course, thanks to that oaf Raphael (the painter, not the archangel), I can't say, "I'm a cherub," and impress many people. But it seems to make sense, granting the absurdity of the question, as does Steven Riddle's answer of Seraph.

St. Thomas, in what is not his most rigorous treatment of a subject, writes on the various properties of the angelic orders:
..."Cherubim" ... is interpreted "fulness of knowledge," which Dionysius expounds in regard to four things: the perfect vision of God; the full reception of the Divine Light; their contemplation in God of the beauty of the Divine order; and in regard to the fact that possessing this knowledge fully, they pour it forth copiously upon others.
And those last two things have more than an echo of the Dominican motto "to contemplate and give to others the fruits of contemplation."

Dionysius expounds the name "Seraphim" according to the properties of fire....

[Seraphim] are borne inflexibly towards God.

...the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rous[e] them to a like fervor, and cleans[e] them wholly by their heat.

...these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others.
And finally,
the "Cherubim" have the excellence of knowledge and the "Seraphim" the excellence of ardor.
So I'd allow as that the Seraphim are to Carmelite spirituality as the Cherubim are to Dominican spirituality, while noting that "in the angelic orders all spiritual perfections are common to all the angels."


Teachers and artists

I was struck by this, from yesterday's Evening Prayer's intercessions:
Inspire all teachers and artists to prepare mankind for your kingdom.
It seems a strange pairing, teachers and artists. In fact, it seems strange to mention artists at all in the course of the liturgy for a Tuesday in Lent.

But if all things are to be ordered in and for Christ, then art too must be ordered in and for Christ. This prayer mentions one order for art to carry out: preparing mankind for the Lord's kingdom.

In itself, art is making a thing well. The purpose for making a thing may be good or bad; often enough there's no real purpose at all. But all that is Christian has a good purpose, and Christian art can serve the purpose of preparing for the Kingdom, of plowing the soil where the seeds of the Gospel are to be planted.

That's a high purpose, one perhaps not considered as often as the purpose of instructing or delighting those who already have the Word growing within them. If our art is not directed toward preparing as well as nurturing, our world will be the poorer for it.


Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Worthy is the Lamb

Peter Nixon writes about what the life of St. John of God suggests about our sense of worthiness:
I may be stretching this a bit, but I think that what ended up happening with John of God is that he moved from a sense of his unworthiness based on his own failings to a sense of his unworthiness based on his understanding of God’s love for him....

To pray that we might be "worthy of the promises of Christ" is not, like John before his spiritual breakthrough, to pray for our own moral perfection. It is to pray that we might be fully opened to the stunning, overwhelming, inexplicable and entirely gracious love that God pours out on us and that we may be able to love like that in return.
Worthiness is a quality of a person or thing that in some way justifies the bestowal of a certain honor. Scripture often refers to God's praiseworthiness and trustworthiness. Of the Evangelists, Luke seems most concerned with the idea of being worthy -- or rather, with not being worthy: John the Baptist is not worthy to untie the thongs of Jesus' sandals; the centurion is not worthy to receive Jesus under his roof; the prodigal son is not worthy to be called his father's son; Jesus warns His disciples that who is not trustworthy will not be given more and better, and that merely following commandments is the action of a unworthy servant. Luke does record a few examples of worthiness: the faithful servants who are worthy of five or ten cities (tempered by the example of the wicked servant worthy of nothing); those "deemed worthy to attain to the coming age."

In the Gospel of Luke, then, worthiness is almost always expressed in the context of servitude: a servant recognizes he is unworthy of reward; a master acknowledges a servant as worthy.

One of the great hymns in Scripture refers to the worthiness of the Lamb:
Worthy are you to receive the scroll and to break open its seals, for you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth....

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.
The Lamb did more than turn ten coins into twenty coins. He was slain, and with His blood purchased a kingdom for God. In so doing, He becomes worthy to receive honor and glory and blessing.

This is the worthiness of the Christian disciple, by resemblance to the Father's Son, the Lamb that was slain. It's not simply the worthiness of servitude writ large, though. That worthiness is based on justice; the worthiness of the Christian disciple is based entirely on an unmerited grace given out of God's love for us.


A blinding flash of insight

In a comment on the post below, Rob writes:
I think that many Christians, be they Catholic, or generic, honestly believe that all they have to do is go through the motions--be in the right place at the right time and say the right words--in order to make it Home. I don't see how it can be that easy.
I toyed for a moment with replying along the lines of, "It is that easy, and it isn't," before commending Rob to the Carmelites on this matter.

And then it struck me: Words like "easy" and "hard" are simply improper terms with which to speak of salvation. Asking "Is salvation easy?" is like asking "Is salvation taupe?" or "Is salvation minty?"

Flip a coin. Is it easy to see that heads came up? Well, yes, assuming heads came up. If tails came up, seeing that heads came up is not easy. It's not hard, either. It's impossible.

You remember the story of the rich man who asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" When he goes away sad (for he had many possessions), Jesus amazes His disciples with the words
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, "Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God."
If a thing is impossible to do, that doesn't mean the thing is hard to do. It doesn't even mean the thing is really, really, really hard to do. It means it's infinitely hard to do, and "infinitely hard" is not a level of hardness, any more than infinity is a positive integer simply because it's the upper limit of the positive integers.

There is difficulty, there is work involved on our part regarding our own salvation. It takes effort to learn what God has revealed, to know God, to resist the tempations of the flesh, the world, and the devil. But it is God Who saves us, the Good Shepherd Who leads us. The way may indeed be a narrow gate, but as long as it's wider than we are we have no difficulty in passing through it.


Monday, March 08, 2004

A note on A Key, i

On p. 9 of the Zaccheus Press edition of A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Abbot Vonier writes:
For the Puritain, faith is not in need of any help or adjuncts. Yet the reason given by Catholic theologians for the presence in the Christian dispensation of these external signs of internal faith [i.e., the sacraments] are chiefly psychological; man's nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensible to a full life of faith.
There are many arguments against the Catholic faith that, in one way or another, boil down to rejecting the claim, "Man's nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensible to a full life of faith."

Abbot Vonier points out one argument, that of the Puritain: "Faith needs no help." That may be true, but it isn't faith that is to be saved, it's man, and man can use all the help he can get.

Another argument pivots on the word "indispensible." God is not bound by the sacraments, so they aren't indispensible in the literal sense that salvation is strictly impossible without them (setting aside the question of how sacramental baptism by desire actually is). But they are indispensible given that man's nature is as it is:
Saint Thomas gives a threefold reason for the institution of the sacraments; but this threefold reason is really one -- man's psychology. However, the three factors are firstly, the condition of man's nature, being a composite of spirit and sense; secondly, man's estate, which is slavedom to material things and only to be remedied by the spiritual power inside the material thing; thirdly, man's activities, so prone to go astray in external interests, finding in the sacraments a true bodily exercise which works out for salvation.
As St. Thomas writes in answer to an objection in the same article Abbot Vonier references:
God's grace is a sufficient cause of man's salvation. But God gives grace to man in a way which is suitable to him. Hence it is that man needs the sacraments that he may obtain grace.
Some would object that the sacraments are suitable to man. Various strains of Manichaeism are still around, even within Christianity, that in effect deny that the spiritual can be expressed or signified by the material. There is something of a passive Cartesian dualism that forgets, if it ever knew, that we really are souls and bodies, not souls temporarily stuck in bodies; have you ever met anyone who thinks we become angels after we die? A healthy faith in the Incarnation and the Resurrection resist this error.

Then there are those who deny there is such a thing as human nature. Their difficulties with the Faith neither start nor finish with the sacraments, and so discussions with them shouldn't either.

It's those Protestants, or even those poorly catechized Catholics, who regard the sacraments as something somehow extra, and so extraneous, whom I would most like to exhort. Jesus tells us He came that we might have life in abundance. To prune back that life to the barest minimum, to keep it at subsistence level lest we be guilty of some sort of excess, is, in a word, un-Biblical.

A full life of faith is what Jesus preached, what the Apostles wrote of. It is a participation, even now, in the life of the Holy Trinity. Half-measures and bare subsistence are not God's ways, nor should they be ours. And because they are available in the Christian dispensation, a full life of faith requires, demands, yearns for, and embraces the sacraments.


March 9 Lenten prayer and talk in Silver Spring, MD

At St. Andrew Apostle Church, Arcola Drive and Kemp Mill Road. Program Begins at 7:30 pm and Closes With Salve Regina and Blessing.

The Very Reverend Reginald Whitt, OP, will be speaking on, "And the Greatest of These is Charity."
Reginald Whitt was raised in Baltimore. While a student at Loyola College in Maryland, he made the Profession of Faith and was received into the Catholic Church from the Baptist fellowship. He entered the Order of Preachers, and studied at the Dominican House of Studies, from whose Pontifical Faculty he received the S.T.B. in 1974. After ordination, Fr. Whitt served in Louisville, and ­received his J.D. from Duke Law School in 1982. Following canon law studies at the Angelicum in Rome, he enrolled in the Department of Can­on Law at the Catholic University of America, from which he received the J.C.L. in 1993, and the J.C.D. in 1995. Fr. Whitt taught on the law school faculties of Villanova University, the University of Kentucky, Duke University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota. Known for his research in African American Catholic concerns, his writing won first prize among original works from the Catholic Press Association. He is a participant in the United Methodist-Catholic Dialogue, and is a member of the Canon Law Society of America and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. Fr. Whitt was appointed President of the Pontifical Faculty of the College of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in September 2003.


Divine amnesia

T.S. O'Rama mentions that his adorable wife "has an amnesiac memory that is God-like, since He utterly forgives and forgets our sins and failings."

Ezekiel 18:22 is one place in Scripture where this Divine amnesia is mentioned:
But if the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.
The natural response to this is, of course, "Woo hoo!"

But I think there's a deeper significance here. This verse doesn't say our crimes won't be held against us, it says our crimes won't be remembered. Our sins won't be simply forgiven, they'll be forgotten.

And it's God Who is doing the forgetting. What does it mean for God to forget something? Doesn't it mean that the thing passes out of His mind? Can something that doesn't exist in God's mind, even in His memory, be said to exist anywhere?

I don't think so. I read such passages as Ezekiel 18:22 as meaning that, in a real sense, our sins not only cease to count against us, but cease to be, in fact cease to have been. Now, I can't really say what that "real sense" in which this is true is. It's not literally true, since the past can't be changes, and in any case God can't forget anything. But I do think it's true in some sense such that, properly speaking, there aren't any former sinners in heaven. In being raised up to share in the Divine Life, we are perfected, and that perfection includes the perfection of our histories in a way that leaves no shadow in the presence of God.


Sunday, March 07, 2004

That will fix the Manichees!

Last Friday, I spoke to my children's Catholic school classes (one third grade, one first grade) about being a Lay Dominican. The teachers at our parochial school love to have parents come in and speak to the kids, and the kids like the break from learning.

Now, I've been trying to explain what a Lay Dominican is to my wife for about six years, so I didn't have much hope in getting too much across to the eight- and six-year-olds. But I figured that if, after twenty minutes, I left them with the impression that there was some guy named St. Dominic and I am a Dominican which has something to do with prayer and I am not a priest, I would have been successful.

Well, I'm not sure what impression I left them with, but I didn't leave either class in anywhere near twenty minutes. Which, I suppose, says something about being a Lay Dominican in itself. I mentioned in passing to the third grade teacher that, since Dominicans love the Rosary, I'd be happy to come back and talk to her class about the Rosary for two or three hours; she thought that sounded great, but maybe in fifteen minute blocks. After what I'd done to her daily lesson plan, which had me slotted for fifteen minutes, I bet she was picturing me keeping the kids after school just to finish the introduction to the history of meditative Christian prayer.

What I wasn't really expecting was for the kids to apply what I was saying to... well, to anything, honestly, but in particular to their schoolwork. But the third graders are studying saints in the Church, so most of their questions were about saints (and had I given that fact much thought, I wouldn't have handed out the holy cards with twenty-three unidentified Dominican saints on them before I asked if there were any questions). The first graders are studying personal responsibility, so most of their questions were about what happens if you don't follow all the rules in the Rule.

And although what I said was mostly about the history of the Order and the four pillars of Dominican Life (prayer, study, community, and preaching), I did slip in a few traces of preaching. Mostly against Catharism, because you can never be too careful, but also a bit about the efficacy of prayer. ("No, Timmy, not 'iffixy.' Eff ic a cy. 'Efficacy.' It means possessing the power to produce an effect. What do they teach you here?")

I mention all this primarily because I think children can stand to see more examples of people who care about their faith who don't have to. Priests and Catholic school teachers more or less have to talk about faith and prayer and Jesus. The sight of a grown-up who isn't a priest or a teacher or your own parent talking about Who Jesus is and what difference He makes is not something Catholic kids -- or their teachers and parents, for that matter -- see every day. Planting a seed that a living faith can be something we seek out rather than something imposed on us just might bear abundant fruit one day.

You would know better than I whether you have anything to say to kids at a nearby Catholic school, and how to go about arranging the chance to say it. But don't think you can't do it just because you never have. I'd certainly never chanted a Latin hymn to a room full of eight year olds before Friday.


Thursday, March 04, 2004

Spiritual alms

So you're almost a fifth of the way through Lent, and things are going well. You've remembered to read the daily reflections in that booklet you picked up at church on Ash Wednesday, and you've learned that it is possible to survive a week without tasting Mountain Dew.

So prayer: check. Fasting: check. But almsgiving?

Sure, you've been putting your daily change into the little cardboard Rice Bowl, but you haven't actually given it to anyone yet, and besides, come Easter Monday you'll just write a check to Catholic Relief Services you'd have written anyway, and then you'll have six weeks worth of change you have to do something with. The spirit is willing, but it's hard to see what all that has to do with any Lenten journey.

Well, first, you might try pratying the Operation Rice Bowl Prayer when you put your coins in the box, since even symbolic almsgiving is empty when it's not tied to prayer:
O Lord --
In my prayer, make me a hungry child - that I may know solidarity with the poor.
In my fast, make me an empty bowl - that you may fill the hollow space in me with love.
In my almsgiving, make me a grain of rice - that in the company of others, my gifts may feed a starving world.
We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ.
But there is a simple way you can give alms every day during Lent. I have in mind not financial alms -- although they are necessary -- but spiritual alms.

As Neil Dhingra pointed out last week, St. Thomas enumerated almsdeeds -- which he classified as acts of the theological virtue of charity -- according to what we call the spiritual and corporal works of mercy:
[W]e reckon seven corporal almsdeeds, namely, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, to bury the dead...
Again we reckon seven spiritual alms, namely, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to reprove the sinner, to forgive injuries, to bear with those who trouble and annoy us, and to pray for all....
Take a look at those seven spiritual alms. Even if the first six require opportunities that might not always present themselves, everyone can always pray for all every day.

As you might expect, St. Thomas believed spiritual almsdeeds are better than corporal almsdeeds, except "with regard to some particular case, when some corporal alms excels some spiritual alms: for instance, a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed."

In discussing whether almsgiving is a matter of precept -- that is, whether we are bound to do it -- he uses a turn of phrase with a happy English translation:
Now the love of our neighbor requires that not only should we be our neighbor's well-wishers, but also his well-doers, according to 1 Jn. 3:18: "Let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed, and in truth." And in order to be a person's well-wisher and well-doer, we ought to succor his needs: this is done by almsgiving.
("Well-doer" sounds better than "do-gooder," wouldn't you say?) If we are bound to give alms, though, to whom are we bound to give them?
[S]ince it is not possible for one individual to relieve the needs of all, we are not bound to relieve all who are in need, but only those who could not be succored if we not did succor them... otherwise almsgiving, like any other greater good, is a matter of counsel.
So an excellent daily spiritual almsdeed for Lent is to pray for people who would not be prayed for otherwise -- or, more practically, who are probably not praying for themselves.

Is this really almsgiving? If you like, you can think of it as giving of your surplus time with God to someone who spends no time with God. How much are a few minutes a day spent with God worth?