instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, April 30, 2004

"Slowly I turned..."

Here are the rules for Black Out, a card game I invented:
Object: Get rid of all red cards from your hand.

Set-up: Dealer shuffles a normal deck of cards, deal each player 3 cards. Undealt cards are placed in the middle as a draw pile. Any player whose cards are all black shows his hand and sits out.

Play: The first remaining player to the left of the dealer draws a card from the draw pile and may either discard one card face up next to the draw pile or pass one card to the player to his left.

Play goes to the left. If a card was not passed to a player, he draws a card from the draw pile, then either discards a card or passes one to his left.

When all three cards in a player's hand are black, he shows his hand and is out.

The last remaining player is the loser.
This game is something like a dollar auction, in that the rules lead to unstable play. Players may find themselves frantically passing the same red card around, not because it helps their own hand any, but because it keeps other players from drawing a card that might be black.

I invented this game for a CCD class, with the idea that the red cards represent offenses toward us which we can choose to either pass on to someone else or simply discard.

For a long time, my primary way of thinking of the communal effects of sin has been like this. I sin against you, causing you to sin against someone else, and so on. At any link in this chain, a person may choose to end it by accepting the sin against him and refusing to sin in reaction.

But in the last day or so, I've noticed a different dynamic at work, or at least a different aspect of a dynamic I thought I understood. It's the communal nature of scandal.

As most of the fanatics who read Catholic blogs probably know, in moral theology "scandal" refers to an act that causes others to sin. A scandal isn't necessarily a sinful in itself (e.g., the "scandal of the Cross"), but it certainly can be, and when it is the fact it causes scandal increases its gravity.

I know all this; what's been brought home to me just now is how diffusive scandal can be.

When I act, I change things. The environment in which I act has more of what I act for and less of what I act against. When my act is a sin, the environment has less goodness, less of what it ought to have.

This will affect the other actors in that environment, but -- and this is what I mean by "diffusive scandal" -- each actor will be affected differently, because each actor has different virtues and vices and is susceptible to different temptations.

As a simple example, suppose a person steals office supplies, creating an environment in which office supplies are stolen. (Everyone still with me?) Two days ago, I would have said the scandal stealing office supplies causes is primarily making people think stealing office supplies isn't wrong. But only people who aren't convinced stealing office supplies is wrong would be scandalized in this way. Someone who was scrupulous about using office supplies would not suddenly think stealing them is fine just because a co-worker does it. Is it not more likely the scrupulous worker would be tempted to unrighteous anger at the thief, or even to detraction of the employer too stupid to notice what was going on?

My sin, then, doesn't only (maybe not even primarily) tempt you to that same sin. It also changes the circumstances you find yourself in, in a way that may lead you to a sin you would have resisted had I not committed mine. And there's no way, generally speaking, I could ever guess what sort of sins might be committed that can trace their causes back to include my own sin, which wasn't such a big deal and certainly is no one's business but my own.

I don't see this as a matter of moral culpability, but of the communal tragedy of sin. You bear responsibility for your own sins, but ah, if only I hadn't shifted things to expose your weakness!


You think your religion textbook was cartoonish?

Check out this one:

And you can't blame this on the spirit of Vatican II. It's an instruction on general confession from a Sixteenth Century pictorial catechism the Dominican friar Pedro de Cordoba wrote to teach the Faith to the Indians of the New World.


Come, pilgrims!

All are invited to join the
St. Blog's Marian Year Pilgrimage to the
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 23, 2004

11:00 a.m.: Meet in the cafeteria on the lower level.
11:30 a.m.: Rosary in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.
12:00 p.m.: Solemn Mass of the Ascension in the Great Upper Church.
Lunch following Mass.
Confession is offered at the Basilica from 10-12 and from 2-4.


Thursday, April 29, 2004

St. Catherine's charism of exhortation

These days, St. Catherine of Siena (as she is generally known) is widely invoked as an example of a layperson boldly giving bishops, cardinals, and even popes an earful of advice when they prove unable or unwilling to do what they ought to do. But, with the list of things bishops ought to do seemingly growing with each passing week, what sort of example is St. Catherine really, and what can the Catholic laity today learn from her?

St. Catherine was born into a large and prosperous Sienese family in 1347. She had her first reported vision of Jesus when she was six, and a year later she vowed herself to Jesus alone. This led, once she reached marriageable age, to years of struggle with her family, during which they treated her as a scullery maid in her own house. St. Catherine persevered, and eventually her father told the family to let her live as she wished.

After this, she spent several years doing little more than praying in a small, bare room in her family’s bustling house. At last, when she was twenty, she felt called to emerge from her cell and engage the world around her in service to the sick and the poor.

News of her sanctity, her wisdom, and not least her miracles quickly spread. She was also a dedicated letter writer; nearly four hundred of her letters survive. Though there were many who thought St. Catherine a fake at best, her fame grew to the point that, in 1375, she was invited to Florence to help negotiate an end to the politically and economically based hostilities between the city and the Papal States.

For seventy years, the popes had been living in Avignon rather than Rome, a fact St. Catherine was sure contributed to the stubbornness of the Florentines and the more general unrest throughout Italy. The Florentines suggested Catherine herself travel to Avignon as an intermediary, a suggestion she took up.

She met Gregory XI in the summer of 1376. During an audience with the pope a few days after her arrival, she informed him, “The truth is, even before I left my native city I was more conscious of the evil odor of the sins committed in the Roman Curia than were the persons themselves who were committing them; yes, and who continue to commit them daily.”

At these stunning words from an unlettered young woman, the Pope fell silent. Bl. Raymond of Capua, who served as St. Catherine’s interpreter for this meeting (she did not speak Latin), later wrote, “I was careful to imprint on my memory that striking picture of her as, radiating authority, she spoke to the Pope in such terms face to face.”

Within months, St. Catherine has persuaded to Pope to return to Rome. The disputed election of Pope Urban VI in the conclave following Gregory’s death in 1378, however, led to the Great Western Schism which was to divide the Church for decades. St. Catherine threw herself into Urban’s cause, writing stern letters to cardinals who supported the anti-pope: “You are flowers who shed no perfume, but stench that makes the whole world reek.”

To the autocratic Pope, meanwhile, she wrote, “I know that your holiness wants helpers who will really help you -- but you have to be patient enough to listen to them.”

These are just the sort of things many conservative Catholics would like to tell the American bishops, or even the pope. Still, there are several factors from Catherine’s own life that argue against a wholesale adoption of her methods.

To begin with, it was the inarguable holiness of her life that allowed her to radiate authority. When she told the Pope, “The honor of God compels me to speak bluntly,” she had already spent more than a dozen of her twenty-nine years wholly committed to discerning and following the will of God. This gave her advice, even her scolding, a contemplative foundation few today would claim for themselves.

Then too, there is the teaching she gave in her book The Dialogue, where she portrays God as saying: “I wish the laity to hold [priests] in due reverence, not for their own sakes… but for Mine, by reason of the authority I have given them… This reverence should never diminish in the case of priests whose virtue grows weak, any more than in the case of those virtuous ones...” This will not sit well with those Catholics who think reverence for bishops whose virtue has grown weak is itself a major contributor to the difficulties facing the Church.

Finally, there’s the practical matter that St. Catherine’s advice, however wise it may have been, was often resisted or ignored by those to whom she gave it. Pope Gregory XI’s return to Rome was a crucial step in the path that led to forty years of schism, and the schismatic cardinals could not have felt closer to Urban VI after being labeled “stench” by one of his most outspoken supporters.

But if St. Catherine’s life doesn’t provide carte blanche to excoriate bishops, it does suggest a basis for appropriate lay criticism of the bishops.

Catherinian scholar Sr. Suzanne Noffke, OP, has identified the cornerstone of St. Catherine’s sense of ecclesial obedience as an obedience to Christ, one therefore shared by bishops and laity alike, an obedience to which each member of the Church may legitimately call each other.

“There seem to have been only two ultimate questions for Catherine in matters of practical discernment,” Noffke writes. “’Is it true?’ and ‘Is it loving?’”

No doubt St. Catherine’s life of profound contemplation gave her clearer insight into what is true than most Catholics today have. Yet any Catholic might be reminded of his primary duty of obedience to Christ, Who (Catholics believe) is Truth, before and above all other duties.

The harder standard for today’s letter-writing layman may well be making sure his letters are written in love. There is much that is unlovable where the Church encounters the world, but truth separated from love would have been unthinkable for St. Catherine.

How is the letter writer sure he is acting out of love? By “remaining in the cell of self-knowledge… because knowledge must precede love,” St. Catherine teaches, “and only when [the soul] has attained love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth.”

Certainly some things to which a bishop might be exhorted don’t require three years of prayer to discern. But anyone who calls upon St. Catherine of Siena as his model in advising or instructing the American bishops should be aware of the risks involved. He just might find himself called upon him to change, too. Saints are funny that way.


"Is not not" is not "is"

In a post below, I wrote:
As a hypothetical example: Suppose we were faced with a choice between legalized abortion and unjust immigration law. What should we do?
A comment signed "goat" reads:
I'm not sure I accept the premise that "unjust immigration law" is something we would be choosing.

Is it Church doctrine that a nation cannot regulate immigration?
I'm pulling this out because I think a lot of people are still missing my point, and I think the point is very important, and I don't know whether I wasn't clear enough for goat or whether goat doesn't think the point is true.

Here's the point:
That you get to decide something doesn't mean you can't make an manifestly immoral decision.
>So the fact that it's Church doctrine that a nation can regulate immigration doesn't mean there's no such thing as an unjust immigration law.

As I say, I think a lot of people don't quite get this. "The Church teaches the death penalty isn't immoral per se" does not imply "There is no Catholic basis for objecting to a particular death penalty policy." To the contrary, there is a very pronounced Catholic basis for objecting to the vast majority of death penalty policies.

I think there's a lot of exaggeration over the practical implications of the moral distinction between "immoral per se" and "not immoral per se." The negatives in the latter expression don't cancel; "not immoral per se" does not mean "moral per se."


You know how to, and You can, and You want to

St. Catherine of Siena had a large group of devoted followers, some of whom wrote down many of the words she uttered spontaneously while deep in prayer. Several collections of these prayers were produced in the years following her death; Suzanne Noffke, OP, has edited an English translation of the complete set of 26 prayers which can be browsed on-line before purchase.

One striking feature of St. Catherine's prayers is how Trinitarian they are. Not for her a pro forma "through Christ our Lord, amen," or an "and the Holy Spirit" squeezed in toward the end. She prayed as though she knew personally the Persons to Whom she prayed.

Prayer 5, below, seems to have been offered during a time when people were accusing her of political plotting. (In a letter, she wrote of the rumor-mongers, "They are telling the truth without knowing it. They are prophesying. For there is nothing I want to do, or want those with me to do, except to plot to defeat the devil and snatch from him the control over people that he has seized because of deadly sin, and to plot to take hatred from their hearts and reconcile them with Christ crucified and with their neighbors. These are the plots we are about, and I want all who are with me to be about these plots.")
Eternal Father, Power, help me!
Son of God, Wisdom, enlighten the eye of my understanding!
Holy Spirit, tender Mercy, enflame my heart and unite it to Yourself!

I proclaim, eternal God, that Your power is powerful and strong enough to free your Church and your people, to snatch us from the devil's hand, to stop the persecution of Holy Church, and to give me strength and victory over my own enemies.
I proclaim that the wisdom of Your Son, Who is one with You, can enlighten the eye of my understanding and that of your people, and can relieve the darkness of your sweet bride.
And I proclaim, eternal gentle goodness of God, that the mercy of the Holy Spirit, Your blazing charity, wants to enflame my heart, and everyone's, and unite them with Yourself.

Eternal Father, Power, with the Wisdom that is Your only-begotten Son in His precious Blood, and the Mercy that is Your Holy Spirit, fire and deep well of charity that held this Son fixed and nailed to the cross --
You know how to, and You can, and You want to, so I plead with You:
Have mercy on the world and restore the warmth of charity and peace and unity to Holy Church.

I wish You would not delay any longer!
I beg You, let Your infinite goodness force You not to close the eye of Your mercy!
Gentle Jesus!
Jesus love!
Has there been a day since these words were first spoken when this prayer was not timely?

[In a note on the text, by the way, Noffke points out the implicit Trinitarianism of the formula, "You know how to [=wisdom=Son], and You can[=power=Father], and You want to[=will=love=HolySpirit]." Doctor of the Church, indeed!]


Wednesday, April 28, 2004

More on St. Catherine of Siena's favorite principles

From Bl. Raymond of Capua's Life, no. 100, St. Catherine speaking:
The soul which sees that itself is nothing, and which knows that all its good is in its Creator, turns its back, with all the powers of its being, on itself and every creature, and plunges totally into its Creator. From then on it directs all it does, above all and throughout all, to Him. Its whole mind is set on never going one step outside of Him in Whom it realizes it has found its whole good and its complete and perfect happiness. This union of love grows daily more intense, and eventually the soul is, in a manner, so transformed into God that all its thoughts -- its understanding and its love and its memory -- are taken up exclusively with God, and busy about God alone. Itself and other creatures it sees only in God; it thinks of them and of itself exclusively in God. It is like what happens when a person dives into the sea and swims underwater. He sees nothing and touches nothing but the water and whatever is submerged in the water. Outside the water he sees nothing, feels nothing, and touches nothing. And if the images of things outside fall in or on the water, he does not see them as they are in themselves, but only as they are or appear in the water. To envisage things in this way means that love of self and of other creatures is now brought under the rule of right order, and can no longer stray beyond its proper bounds. It is now subjected to a rule which is divine. Existing and acting only in God, it no longer lusts after anything outside of God.
Really makes you feel like St. Catherine was talking about you personally, doesn't it? Bl. Raymond goes on to comment:
...for my part, I regret to say, being without personal experience of them, I can only repeat in my own blundering way what I have been told. But do you take them in, dear Reader, and make them your own, according to the measure of the grace you have yourself received.


Her fundamental maxim

In his Life of Catherine of Siena, Bl. Raymond of Capua records what St. Catherine had often told him Christ taught her when He first began appearing to her:
"Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fulness of grace, and truth, and light."
[Life, no. 92, Conleth Hearns, OP, translator]


The lesser of two lessers

The word "evil" has several different meanings, depending on how it's used. Illness, malicious laughter, and envy are all evil, but in different ways.

So of course the expression "the lesser of two evils" also has different meanings.

As I understand it, its original use was in reference to counselling someone bent on committing evil. If you are morally certain he will commit one of two evil acts, you may (some moral theologians contend) advise him to commit the lesser evil. [Side query: If you are morally certain he intends to commit an evil act, can you suggest a lesser evil? "No, don't kill him. Make fun of his ears."]

Now, the fact that you might be able to advise someone else to commit a lesser evil doesn't mean you yourself may commit any evil at all, be it ever so lesser. Still, the expression is catchy enough to have been adopted in the case where someone feels he must choose between two evil choices.

There are at least two ways the choices can be evil. They may be evil in the direct moral sense, i.e., choosing them may constitute a sin. But they may also be evil in the non-moral sense of being markedly imperfect. "Eating out of the vending machine" and "skipping lunch altogether" might each be considered an undesirable choice; they are evil, not because it's immoral to do either, but because both fall so far short of perfection.

When you're faced with the first situation, a choice between committing one sin or another, you must refuse the choice (which of course means you never face the first situation, since there's always the third choice of "neither").

When you're faced with the second situation, though, you may and perhaps should choose the lesser evil, at least when the third choice of "neither" is a greater evil than the lesser of the two.

So when it comes to voting, if you say you're given only evil choices, do you mean immoral choices or imperfect choices?


De non gustibus est disputandum

Fr. Rob Johansen's post, "Abortion Is The Foremost Issue," is a solid rebuttal to those who say support for the death penalty is morally equivalent to support for legal abortion. I think, though, readers must be careful not to wind up giving away too much to the concept of "prudential judgment."

Fr. Johansen writes:
Once you start talking about whether the death penalty is justified in this or any case (and so must you reason, for circumstances do exist which warrant the death penalty), you have entered the realm of prudential judgment.

Who is to make that prudential judgment? As in other issues, the Church teaches that such judgments are to be made by "legitimate authority"....

Just as with the death penalty, even if George Bush was wrong in his judgment about the war, he is simply wrong, not immoral or criminal. One cannot attribute the same level of culpability to errors concerning prudential judgments on contingent matters as one can to deliberate and knowing violations of the moral law.
All very true.

At the same time, though, the fact that a decision is to be made using one's prudential judgment does not necessarily place the decision beyond moral reproach. A matter of prudential judgment can be decided in a culpably evil way.

For example, I have the right and responsibility of making prudential judgments concerning the education of my children. My judgment may prove more or less sound, depending on how prudent I am, but if I do my best there's not much others can say beyond, "A shame for those kids their father's an idiot."

However, I might also refuse my responsibility to judge prudently. If I decide my children's education will consist of watching television and dodging the truant officer, then it is not a matter of me being simply "wrong, not immoral or criminal." I would, in fact, be all three, and the fact that I would be all three would be observable to others.

Since the mere fact that something is a matter of someone's prudential judgment does not mean the person actually exercises his prudential judgment in choosing, matters of prudential judgment do come under moral analysis.

I think, then, Fr. Johansen is mistaken, or at least imprecise, when he writes:
If you say that you will not vote for George Bush because he supports the death penalty, that is your right. But if you do so, it's based on your opinion. You do so as a citizen, not as a Catholic. You cannot say that the teaching of the Church necessitates your position.
True, you can't say, "The Church teaches the death penalty is immoral per se, therefore as a Catholic I can't vote for George Bush." But you can say, "George Bush's stance on the death penalty is contrary to Catholic teaching, therefore as a Catholic I can't vote for George Bush." You'd have to defend the premise, of course, but your reasoning would most definitely be as a Catholic.

Similarly, it's invalid to argue, "Determining whether a war is just is left to the prudential judgment of the government, therefore as a Catholic I can't say the Iraq War is immoral." What you can't say as a Catholic is that there is a dogmatic Church teaching that the Iraq War is immoral.

What I'm writing is, of course, recursive. Deciding that, as a Catholic, you cannot vote for a candidate is a matter of prudential judgment, which means that decision may be wrong, and perhaps even immoral.

Near the end of his post, Fr. Johansen writes:
Even if George Bush were The Worst President Ever, that would not make voting for John Kerry, or any other pro-abort candidate, morally acceptable.
That's a strong claim, one I'm generally sympathetic to but not one universally accepted, even among pro-life Catholics. Quite often, as in "A Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics," there's a loophole allowing one to vote for the least objectionable candidate.

Still, if we accept the claim, we accept that a candidate's position on an issue may make him un-votable-for. The fact that an issue is a matter of prudential judgment does not, in itself, mean that a candidate's position on the issue cannot make him un-votable-for.


Tuesday, April 27, 2004

"The active, responsible and generous involvement of everyone"

Little Red Hen found the need for a political party.

"Who will create this?" she asked.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she created the political party.

"The party exists now," said Little Red Hen. "Who will give it a platform?"

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she wrote the party platform, based on what made good political sense to her.

Then she asked, "Who will organize the members of the party?"

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she signed up her chicks as members of the political party.

Then she put a candidate for her party on the ballot.

"Who will vote for this party?" she asked.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she voted for her party's candidate, and the candidate won.

Then she said, "Now we shall see who will run this country."

"We will," said cat, goose, and rat.

"I am quite sure you would," said Little Red Hen, "if you could get to."

Then she called her chicks, and they ran the country.

There was no political power left at all for the cat, or the goose, or the rat.

"What more could we do?" the cat, the goose, and the rat asked each other. "We voted, didn't we?"


Triumphalism of the truth

The thing about condescension isn't so much the lack of charity expressed toward those being condescended to as the lack of humility expressed toward the truth they allegedly lack.

I mean, how do you reconcile these two statements:
  1. "I possess the truth, and you do not."
  2. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
The truth isn't something you possess, it's Someone Who possesses you. And if it's really this Truth by Whom you're acting, you don't say, "Neener neener," or, "Let me know when you've finally arrived at the correct answer," you say, "Friend, rejoice with me over what I've found!"

My "Self-Directed Catherinian Mini-Retreat" was a light-hearted post, but now I think it should have come with a warning: "Not for children, invalids, or the complacently self-righteous." Meditating on the fact that God is He Who Is and you are he [or, in certain circumstances, she] who is not is a dangerous and destructive act that just might shred any sense of boastfulness or triumphalism you depend on to get through the day. It's positively vertiginous for those of us who habitually think it's us who somehow steady the Rock upon which we build our faith and hope.

Here's a rule of thumb for guarding against triumphalism of the truth: When, in your view, someone else takes a step in the right direction, don't think it's because he's stepping in your direction.

Update:Someone forwarded me an unattributed comment that led to this post. Originally, that comment was at the beginning of the post, but its writer noticed it, identified himself as its author, and objected to its use, so I have removed it.


What I like about grave evil

The one thing I like about the moral act of abortion is how straightforward it is. "Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law." Period. So moral reasoning about abortion is duck soup.

(Yes, there are wrinkles like ectopic pregnancies, but ectopic pregnanices are not what the abortion debate is about.)

And yet, the very clarity of the categorical immorality of abortion can wind up clouding moral reasoning. Just as the sun's light blinds us to the other daytime stars, the evil of abortion can blind us to other evils in our world.

As a hypothetical example: Suppose we were faced with a choice between legalized abortion and unjust immigration law. What should we do?

An argument blinded by the enormity of abortion might look like this: "Life is the one absolute, bedrock, fundamental right, without which it's meaningless to speak of other rights. What constitutes just immigration law is a matter of prudential judgment, but abortion is everywhere and always evil. We must, therefore, resist legalized abortion and choose the purportedly unjust immigration law."

The correct answer, though, is: We should do neither.

The correctness of the answer is clearer when the evils are more proportionate: Should you punch the next person you see in the face, or in the gut?

I think the difficulty many have in recognizing that as a matter of fact we shouldn't choose unjust immigration law lies in part in the fact that many think "the lesser of two evils" is a legitimate way of choosing how to act. But the lesser of two evils is evil, and evil is never legitimate. Is this a failure of reason, do you think, or of faith?


Monday, April 26, 2004

Personal charisms

From Pope Paul VI's homily when St. Catherine of Siena was declared a Doctor of the Church:
What did she mean by the renewal and reform of the Church? Certainly not the subverting of her essential structures, rebellion against the Pastors, the way freed for personal charisms, arbitrary innovations of cult and discipline, as some in our own time want. On the contrary, she affirms repeatedly that the beauty of the Spouse of Christ must be restored and reform should be brought about "not with war, but with peace and quiet, with humble and continual prayer, the sweat and tears of the servants of God." It is a question accordingly for the Saint of an interior reform first of all, then external, but always in communion with and filial obedience to the legitimate representatives of Christ. [emphasis added]
Folks who feel compelled to say with St. Catherine, "'The honor of Almighty God compels me to speak bluntly' to the bishops," would do well to first ask themselves, "How humble is my prayer? How continual is my prayer?"

But that's an old refrain here. What strikes me in this passage is the reference to "personal charisms."

According to the Catechism, "Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world."

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so more slowly, a charism is
  1. a grace
  2. of the Holy Spirit
  3. for the benefit of the Church.
Since a charism is a grace, it can't be assumed, demanded of God, or manufactured out of a person's own will. Since a charism is of the Holy Spirit, it must be "in keeping with charity," which after all is what the Holy Spirit is. Since a charism is for the benefit of the Church, it can't be something exercised apart from, much less in opposition to, one's relationship with the entire Mystical Body of Christ.

Where does this leave the idea of a "personal charism"? If it has any legitimate sense, it cannot be something that benefits the person alone, or even those on the person's "side" alone. Whatever cuts off one part of the Body of Christ from another cannot be from the Spirit Who informs the entire Body.

And so "discernment of charisms is always necessary." Which brings us back to the questions, "How humble is my prayer? How continual is my prayer?"


Friday, April 23, 2004

Another juicy bit

There are those of us who get excited when the Vatican releases a new document, and when it's a document, like today's novella-length instruction, that touches on something as gab-inducing as the celebration of the Mass... well, it's like Christmas in Easter.

I'll satisfy myself here by taking note of just one paragraph, no. 177 from the "The Diocesan Bishop" section of the "Remedies" chapter; the whole paragraph is a quotation from Canon Law (can. 392, § 1-2):
"Since he must safeguard the unity of the universal Church, the Bishop is bound to promote the discipline common to the entire Church and therefore to insist upon the observance of all ecclesiastical laws. He is to be watchful lest abuses encroach upon ecclesiastical discipline, especially as regards the ministry of the Word, the celebration of the Sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the Saints."
Note, please, the bishop "is to be watchful lest abuses encroach upon ecclesiastical discipline." It doesn't say the bishop "is to be watched."


Marian ressourcement

I recently read TAN Books' reprint of The Life and Glories of Saint Joseph, first published in 1888. It's basically a comendium of every pious thought anyone had ever had about St. Joseph. I found the book by turns inspiring and irritating: inspiring when it gave insight into the nature of the role of the spouse of the Mother of God and real (though not natural) father of God Himself; irritating when it strayed too far into what I regard as groundless exaggeration and over-reliance on reported visions.

This book, plus a few unrelated conversations I've had over the past month or so, leads me to the following thoughts:

Marian piety in the Roman Catholic Church can be thought of as a tree, whose roots are in Scripture, whose trunk is in Tradition, whose branches are in dogma, and whose leaves, flowers, and fruits are in pious imagination, devotions, and visions. (Yes, yes, a tad overwrought as metaphors go. Bear with me, please. At least it's seasonally appropriate.)

Too often, all that is passed on are the leaves, flowers and fruits. That's fine for those whose own pious imagination and devotions would produce the same results, but it's offputting for the rest of us.

What I've called the "glow-in-the-dark Mary," who before the Annunciation floated through life with her eyes demurely cast down and who after the Nativity floated through life with her eyes demurely cast upon her Son; the Mary who had more angels scurrying about helping her in her daily chores than Cinderella had mice; the Mary who had the Law and the Prophets memorized, and who could probably quote the New Testament before it was written... this is an understanding of the Mother of God that makes sense to some people but cannot simply be handed to others with the words, "Behold your mother."

Personally, I don't care for the way Nineteenth Century Catholic piety moves from "it is not contrary to dogma to believe," through "we may piously hold," to "who would dare deny," without a critical pause. I would dare to deny a lot of what may be piously held; I can imagine that this or that circumstance could be otherwise. To pick just one example from the St. Joseph book, I don't particularly require that the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of King David be a comely man with noble bearing, simply because his ancestors were kings.

What I think is needed is a Marian ressourcement, a return to the sources of devotion to Mary, which as I mentioned above lie ultimately in Scripture. From what the Bible says of her, through what the Fathers and councils say of her, we begin to get a picture of her that may not align perfectly with the holy card images of her from the 1890s. And that's fine, because the picture of her will be the one we make, and we'll understand why the elements it contains are there. Mary is Ever-Virgin, not because a bunch of women-hating priests couldn't stand her any other way, but because... well, because that's how God wanted her to be, but that's my answer and you'll have to find yours on your own.

The risk of not doing this critical pruning is that Marian piety will become more of a ghetto for those with Victorian sensibilities, and increasingly incomprehensible to those without. The benefit is that those who find Marian piety, or even Marian dogma, to be at best an eccentricity and at worst a crock will, instead, find their mother.


Thursday, April 22, 2004

From the beginning

Steven Riddle is beginning a series of posts explaining his view of the contemplative life. So far, so good.

The thing about blogging as a medium is that each post is really only good for making one point, and with something like the contemplative life, you need to make a whole bunch of points for any individual point to stand. It's like leaning four broomsticks together to make a pyramid: at any point before you're done, none of the broomsticks will stay up on its own.

So I'll try to let Steven finish his building project before pointing out all his fundamental errors. (Ha! I jest because I love.)

In other contemplative life news, Sister Christer observes that knitting has "meditative, stress relieving qualities," and Jim of Fly-fishing Galilee reflects on Jesus as fly-fishing Guide. I think knitting and fly fishing are what I would call "naturally contemplative" habits, where "natural contemplation" means simply "looking directly." If you have the habit of looking directly upon something like a trout stream, without an internal dialog intervening, then you might more easily develop the habit of looking directly upon God. (The traditional advice is to begin, not with a trout stream, but the crucified humanity of Jesus Christ, since it's in His humanity that the Divine and the created meet, so in His humanity you are already touching (if not yet looking directly upon) the Divine. But contemplating a trout stream can make contemplating the crucified humanity of Jesus Christ easier.)

And best wishes to Jim on the opening of trout season in his neck of the woods, from down here in the Old [Fly] Line State, where it's always trout season (except where there are actually trout).


Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Oh, right, the pilgrimage

Hey, it's already Easter, which means it's time for a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, for whoever happens to hear about this and wants to come.

I'm going to arbitrarily say, "Let's have it on a weekend in May! (But not May 22, when I'll be at a meeting across the street from the Basilica.)"

There's a poll in the column on the left where you can vote for a date. If you can make several dates, you can vote for each, although you can only vote once a day, because this is the Internet, where integrity is paramount and vote-stacking is not an option, unless I want to upgrade to the premium service, which I don't.

And remember: A Marian Year has been declared in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, so "a Plenary Indulgence, provided that disposition toward any sin is excluded and under the customary conditions (sacramental confession, reception of Holy Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Supreme Pontiff), is to be attained by the Christian faithful in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from December 8, 2003 to December 8, 2004, whenever they will travel there for a pious pilgrimage or in a crowd and they devoutly attend any sacred function or at least recite in common the Lord's Prayer and the Symbol of Faith and even just once, on a day freely chosen by each member of the faithful."


For all your novena needs

I refer you to The Theoscope.

You may know that, when he declared her a Doctor of the Church, Pope Paul VI spoke of St. Catherine of Siena's "charisms of exhortation, of the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge." It's her charism of exhortation that makes her popular these days. (Not that telling other people what to do isn't perennially more appealing than meditating on your own nothingness.) If there's someone you know who you think could stand a little exhorting, you might make this novena to St. Catherine on his behalf.


Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Man's work

The discussion on attracting men to the practice of Christianity has resurfaced, this time at open book. The problem: How do we get men to stop thinking of church as something for women?

My suggestion: Preach the Gospel.

I mean, you can dress Christianity up as manly man's work like saving the womenfolk from the world, the flesh, and the devil, plus a monthly beer and bowling night, but in the end the Church is about being crucified, and then being happy forever with God. That's not really a matter of psychology; it's a matter of faith. If you try to use psychology to arrive at faith, you're holding the stick on the weak end, and it's liable to snap off in your hand.

This isn't to say psychology is not important; we are, after all, incarnate beings. But the idea that being crucified will be more appealing to men if only their priests drank Scotch and cursed the Yankees suggests a rather adolescent approach to faith.

Which, come to think of it, just may meet the culture right where it is.

Still, I wish all those manly men who complain about how effeminate the Church is would quit gossipping like a bunch of old ladies.


Monday, April 19, 2004

A retreat with St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena's feast day is coming up a week from Thursday. There are books you can buy like Praying with Catherine of Siena and A Retreat with Catherine of Siena that provide programs for you to spend a few minutes a day reading some of her writings and meditating on her approach to God.

But books are non-negligible investments in money and time. For those who don't know St. Catherine's thought well enough to be able to say it would be worth buying such a book, I offer the following clip-and-save nine day mini-retreats, one for men and one for women.

No need to thank me, it's what I do.

A Nine Day, Self-Directed Catherinian Mini-Retreat for Women

Instructions: Spend fifteen minutes a day by yourself, meditating on the appropriate thought for each day.

Day 1: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 2: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 3: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 4: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 5: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 6: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 7: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 8: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

Day 9: God is He Who Is, and you are she who is not.

A Nine Day, Self-Directed Catherinian Mini-Retreat for Men

Instructions: Spend fifteen minutes a day by yourself, meditating on the appropriate thought for each day.

Day 1: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 2: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 3: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 4: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 5: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 6: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 7: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 8: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.

Day 9: God is He Who Is, and you are he who is not.


Pharisees and Herodians

You know George Carlin's joke about drivers? "Ever notice that everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac, and everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot?"

That, plus the definition of "religious fanatic" as "someone who takes their religion more seriously than you take yours," plus Pansy Moss's tale of woe about parish gossip (never a problem in St. Blog's, of course), makes me think that there might be a joke in the idea that there are three kinds of Catholics: Pharisees, who take everything too far; Herodians, who take nothing far enough; and me.

The words "Pharisees" and "Herodians" appear in the same verse twice, both in Mark:
The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against Him to put Him to death.

They sent some Pharisees and Herodians to Him to ensnare Him in His speech.
As a historical matter, Pharisees and Herodians did not have much common cause; some wonder about the historicity of the Gospels because they show the two groups working together. But who is not with Jesus is against Him, and on the most fundamental matter in creation they were on the same side.

I suspect the Pharisees and Herodians meet together in the hearts of a lot of us; we condemn laxity over things we want to be rigorist about, and rigorism over the things we want to be lax about. But Christ will ever be between, and opposed by, both camps. So maybe the three kinds of Catholics are Pharisees, Herodians, and those who remain with Christ on Golgotha.


Is contemplation for everybody

In the discussions below on lay secular contemplation, I have evidently not been clear enough that my fundamental and overriding thesis is this:
Contemplation is for everybody.
Given that, a lot of the arguments against what I've been writing are more puzzling to me than convincing.

Somehow, when I try to explain my sub-thesis --
Secular layfolk are not let's pretend vowed religious --
I wind up leaving some people thinking I'm arguing my sub-thesis against my fundamental thesis. I am not. I'm arguing it against a different claim, one that says, "If secular layfolk want to be holy, they have to pretend to be vowed religious," and its pernicious corollary, "Since secular layfolk are not let's pretend vowed religious, they don't need to be, or can't be, holy."

I have only one objection to saying, with Kathy the Carmelite, of works like On Union With God, "To be 'attached' in the way these guys consider detrimental is to place marriage and the family ahead of God." My objection is: that's not what the text says.

As objections go, it's not a showstopper. Rhetoric, complexity, context, and implicit assumptions can all contribute to a text whose literal interpretation is not the literal sense intended by the author. Still, the literal interpretation makes a great deal of sense to me for a book written explicitly for vowed religious. Why shouldn't a monk attempt to keep his mind bare of all images of physical things? it's nice work if you can get it.

The point of my sub-thesis, though, is that I can't get that nice work, and further I ought not try. To a Carmelite, apparently, "I ought not try" must sound something like "God doesn't want me to love Him." To me, though, it sounds like "I shouldn't pretend to be a vowed religious," which I infer is a point so obvious to Carmelites it doesn't occur to them to even state it.

Those of us plodding along in the valley, though, have to be more careful about where our next step takes us. So while I hear Steven and Kathy hallooing to me from up on a peak, saying what sounds like, "What was written by a vowed religious for vowed religious applies directly to secular layfolk, if only you understand it properly," I still have to pick my own way up the mountainside from where I am.


Friday, April 16, 2004

All's I'm Saying

Consider this piece of spiritual direction. It's from Chapter 6 of On Union with God, but it's like can probably be found in most every work on the via negativa:
Learn to withdraw from imaginations and the images of physical things, since what pleases God above all else is a mind bare of those sorts of forms and objects, for it is his delight to be with the sons of men, that is those who, at peace from such activities, distractions and passions, seek him with a pure and simple mind, empty themselves for him, and cleave to him. Otherwise, if your memory, imagination and thought is often involved with such things, you must needs be filled with the thought of new things or memories of old ones, or identified with other changing objects. As a result, the Holy Spirit withholds Himself from thoughts bereft of understanding.
Here, "emptying yourself for God" means to withdraw from thoughts and memories of "changing objects." To the extent you don't empty yourself, the Holy Spirit witholds Himself.

So far, so good. All this is entirely consistent with Scripture, Tradition, reason, and the lived experience of the Church.

As it stands, though, it's lousy advice for a husband and father.

Because as it stands, it's not a prayer technique, it's a rule for life. He's not saying, "First, empty your mind of all distractions." He's saying, "Always have your mind empty of all distractions," which for me would include my wife and children. Emptying my mind of my wife and children would be sinful.

As it stands, this advice is not directly applicable to those who are married. (How applicable it is to secular folks who aren't married I couldn't say.) But this advice comes bundled with statements like, "This is the only way to Christian perfection," and statements like that draw my interest, because "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect" was not an off-the-cuff suggestion for the few.

When I read, then, "Nada, nada, nada," I recognize two incompatibilities: first, I can't do nada, and I ought not even try; second, I've got algo that the via negativa doesn't even treat.

So that's all this is, really. An attempt to discern God's will, taking into account the discernment of others.


Scientific proof!

"Congratulations! You have a fine sense of pitch."

So says the cutting edge science of the finest minds at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

I can't wait to correct my wife.

(Dare I hope there is a National Institute on Clashing and Other Fashion Disorders?)


The key to the Cardinal

Occasionally, the clucking in the St. Blog's henhouse turns to the subject of my own bishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, when he commits some new outrage that offends the henhouse sensibilities. This week it's his failure to follow henhouse interpretation of canon law, but whatever the offense, there will be those who cluck, "Well of course! What else would you expect from a bishop like that?"

The meaning of "like that" varies from clucker to clucker; some mean "friendly to labor" or "politically liberal" or even "suspected of having voted for a Democrat," one of the henhouse's great sins. Others mean merely "spineless," or the ever popular "hapless." Some will hint darkly at simony and formal heresy.

As someone who tried to keep track of what Cardinal McCarrick says and does, though, rather than just the outrages he commits, I think the key to understanding him lies in his own words:
Most of all, I think I have always wanted to be a kind priest, and I would be grateful to God Who has been so kind to me if at least through His grace I have tried to be a kind bishop to those I served.
He wrote that in July 2002, a few weeks after his silver anniversary of episcopal consecration. Almost a year later, after his 45th anniversary of ordination, he went into more depth on what he sees as the three-fold challenge facing a priest:
In my own life, and in my pleas to those on whose heads I have imposed my hands at ordination, it has always been a three-fold challenge - work and pray and be kind to the people. If a priest can realize those three goals, he will be a good shepherd and a good man of God.

Of course, there is more to the priestly life than those three essential elements. The priest must study; he must recreate; he must take time for family, for friends; he must find time for exercise. These are natural virtues that every human being must cultivate - and I guess so are prayer and work and kindness, but in a priest they must be so much a part of his vocation. If we do not pray without ceasing, as the apostle urges, we become sterile. I know this because there are times when it has happened to me. If we do not work to the full extent of our capacity and if we are not kind, then we end up having lost the big picture and the great challenge of holiness and service.

As I look ahead to however many more years of service that God may give me, and I look back on the 45 exciting years that I have lived as a priest, I ask your prayers that I may finally start to pray more and better, to work "while the light lasts" and always to be kind.
See? Nothing about politics, or Mass in the vernacular, or being on television. Simply "always to be kind."

Of course, the henhouse is brimming with modern-day prophets who would spit on the idea of a bishop trying to be kind. It is not kind, they would say, in fact it is positively unkind to fail to correct people in their sins. That is true enough; charity, not kindness, is the greatest virtue, and the kindness of charity is not always felt as kindness.

But charity toward others is the desire for their salvation, not the desire for the satisfaction of telling them you doubt their salvation. I am not very perceptive spiritually, but I do not discern much desire for the salvation of others in the henhouse, compared to the desire for the satisfaction of seeing someone else get it in the chops from a stud bishop.

If, however, the "that" that Cardinal McCarrick is like is "kind," then those who think the times call for him to be more like something else would do well to pray that his kindness grow to encompass that something else, rather than that he stop being kind and start being their puppet.

(By the way, I'm inclined to think that how much and how earnestly people pray for something -- and I mean full-bore prayer, with vigils and fasts and candles and Rosaries and kneeling and maybe even some tears -- is a much better indicator of whether they truly desire it and whether the desire comes from God than how much and how earnestly they complain about it on the Internet. And that includes, naturally, complaining about complaining.)


Thursday, April 15, 2004

The fruit of the Holy Spirit
But the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity.
[Longanimity. There's a word we don't hear often enough.]

St. Thomas, in considering whether these fruits enumerated by St. Paul are human acts (as opposed to desires or habits), writes:
If then man's operation proceeds from man in virtue of his reason, it is said to be the fruit of his reason: but if it proceeds from him in respect of a higher power, which is the power of the Holy Ghost, then man's operation is said to be the fruit of the Holy Ghost....
If the operation proceding from you is not charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, or chastity, you might want to ask yourself whether it's the fruit of the Holy Spirit or the fruit of your own human reason. In particular, any hatred, outburst of fury, dissension, and faction is to be seen, if St. Paul is not mistaken, as a work of the flesh.

(It's worth noting that St. Paul opposes works of the flesh with fruit of the Spirit, the latter term suggesting, among other things, a much more careful and directed process of cultivation.)

It seems to me that, all things being equal, Easter should be a season when we reap the first fruits of what we cultivated during Lent. Where I see charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, and chastity, I should study the means of cultivation (which, from the human perspective, amounts to the means of getting out of God's way of cultivation) which produced them. Where I don't see this fruit, I should try to determine (as far as possible) and avoid whatever led to barrenness.


And the doctor said, "Don't do that."

I happened to notice a little book on a shelf this morning I'd picked up a couple of years ago called On Union with God, by (it is said) St. Albert the Great. (A different translation of this brief work is available on-line.) Since I'm in the process of trying to understand what union with God means for a lay secular person, I thought now might be a good time to read it.

It is, of course, written from the perspective of, and for those in, the religious life. My working hypothesis is that we can't simply take this perspective and, by shoehorning, shrinking, or whittling, make it fit the secular (and in particular the married) life.

So what can we draw from the one perspective to apply to the other? I'm still trying to figure that out. Generally speaking, though, I think there are some things that apply to all Christians equally; some that apply to all Christians, but in different ways according to their different states in life; and some that apply only to a particular state. Works like On Union with God can only be interpreted for married people in light of what applies particularly to the married state, and what applies particularly to the married state hasn't been the subject of the reflection and study that what applies particularly to the religious state has been.

But once you agree that perfection in this life consists in "the intellect [being] perfectly illuminated, according to its capacity, with the knowledge of God, who is perfect truth, ... the will [being] perfectly focused on the love of the perfect good, and ... the memory [being] fully absorbed in turning to and enjoying eternal happiness, and in gladly and contentedly resting in it," you can see why the religious state is a higher calling than the secular state without feeling somehow denigrated if you're not a religious.


Wednesday, April 14, 2004

What the lay secular contemplative life is not

Steven Riddle of Flos Carmeli has been posting on Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's, OP, book Christian Perfection and Contemplation. Steven notes
that the contemplative life seems to come very rapidly (to the cloistered) who have the proper disposition and desire. I think this extends to the lay life, but perhaps requires more time given that one has other repsonsibilities and vocations to attend to. Persons who are married and who have children have a primary responsibility to their spouses and children. This is their primary vocation and one better "achieves perfection" through obedience to the necessity of one's calling than through all the straining at the bit with concomittant neglect of one's spouse and child. Obedience and humility seem to be virtues very highly prized by God, possibly because they foster a greater life of charity. Thus, in the married state, one sacrifices to some extent, what one would rather do (direct ascent to God) to what one is required (and in my case, at least, privileged and overjoyed) to do.
And since this touches on some things I'm thinking through these days, I'll copy over the comments I left at Flos Carmeli:

Great care must be taken, I think (and I think Steven is careful on this), to prevent any inference that marriage interferes with the contemplative life.

What makes the inference pernicious is that it in turn implies marriage is a hindrance to union with God, when in fact it is a principal and even sacramental means to union with God for all married Catholics.

It's a tricky point, since after all marriage actually does interfere with the contemplative life, but the interference isn't a conflict to be resolved, it's a choice to be made. The actual conflict is between marriage and celibacy; the two states in life afford two different levels of "contemplativity," if you will.

A desire for more contemplativity than your state in life affords is no better (and possibly worse) than a desire for less. If a husband desires direct ascent to God, let him pursue it in the watches of the night; if he climbs the mountain instead of caring for his family, he's unlikely to find God waiting for him at the top.

The kind of contemplative rhythym that is a fact of life in monasteries and closed communities is not something someone who is married should attempt to establish for himself. Rather, he should attempt to establish the kind of contemplative rhythym that is (or can be) a fact of life in families.

Married people are not mini-religious, somehow squeezing monastic observance into their lives between the demands of work and family. As a Lay Dominican, I am not part-friar. My Rule isn't that of the First Order of Preachers, with "as best you can"s and "as far as possible"s appended throughout.

I think one of the lessons of Vatican II, which we are still in the process of learning, is that there are many ways to answer the universal call to holiness. It's not that laymen are called to follow an attenuated monastic or clerical ideal, or even an attenuated monastic or clerical ideal tacked onto the obligations of family life. We are called to follow a full-bored lay ideal, an ideal we as a Church are still in the process of discerning.

It might be helpful to distinguish between "living in the presence of God," where one's heart is lifted toward God even as one goes about daily life, and "ascending to God," where the soul is more or less captivated by God Himself and any awareness of daily life dims or fades away entirely. The former satisfies the commandment to pray always, so everyone should seek it. The latter, though, while objectively more desireable than life itself, is not always and everywhere subjectively desireable, by which I mean God does not desire it for everyone at every moment.


Moved by the spirit

So first I read Fr. Keyes asking what people are doing to observe the Easter Season, and then I read Mark of Minute Particulars yammering on about something or other till he gets to the words, "Catholics for Single-Malt Scotch." God forbid I should, like Gideon, demand more than this as a sign for how I should keep Easter.

(Sticklers who don't find drinking single malt Scotch a good way to observe the Easter season, since the Scots are Presbyterians, may rest assured that I'll actually be starting out with single malt Irish whiskey, made by (we may piously assume) good Catholics.)


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Should we all be equally lovable?

If God loves one person more than another, it can only be because the one is more lovable than the other. (Which in turn can only be because God made the one more lovable than the other, so this doesn't conflict with God's sovereignty.)

But in a perfect world, wouldn't we all be equally lovable? Isn't it just that one person responds more and better to God's grace, and so becomes more lovable? Wouldn't God love every member of an unfallen race the same? Doesn't God love all sparrows equally?

My answer to these questions is, "Not necessarily." (Okay, my answer to the sparrows question is, "I have no idea. Let me pour you a drink and we'll figure it out.")

People are different. Even perfect people are different, since they are members of the human species and images of God, and the perfections of the human species and the human images of God entail variety. As Bl. Raymond of Capua puts it in his Life of Catherine of Siena:
...the incomprehensible greatness of our God, Whose overflowing goodness can never run dry, ... pours out daily ever-varied charisms to add beauty and perfection to the souls of His saints... keep in mind that the Church herself can chant in the liturgy of each particular saint, without belittling any of the others: "His likeness has not been found." This infinite variety of individual types of sanctity flows from the infinite resources of power and benevolence possessed by the One Who sanctifies them, adorning them one by one with the special radiance of their own particular charism. [65]
One "special radiance" could, in principle, be more lovable (because its corresponding charism is of a higher order) than another, or they could be equally lovable, or, as I've suggested before, they could be simply incomparable.


"What concern is it of yours? You follow me."

Prompted by several different things, including Athanasius's recent (and unsuccessful) attempt to convince Todd and others that being a nun is better than being a wife, I've been planning on writing a post with the title, "God loves me best." The key idea of the post would be that God may well love me more than He loves you, and God may well love you more than He loves me, and if either possibility sticks in your craw you need to get over it.

Then I read a post by Rachel Watkins titled, "MOM (GOD) ALWAYS LIKED YOU BETTER...." She says a lot of sensible things about how God's love for you is not directly proportional to how easy your life is, but goes too far when she writes:
No, God loves me just as much as anyone else....
Seeing why God doesn't love everyone just as much as everyone else -- and, for that matter, understanding what it means to say, "God doesn't love everyone just as much as everyone else" -- isn't easy for egalitarian Americans, but it should be easy to set aside at least the one objection that it's non-egalitarian:
Objection. It would seem that God loves everyone just as much as everyone else, for otherwise He would love one person more than another, and that's not fair.

Reply to Objection.Trust me, chum, the last thing you want is for God to treat you fairly.
The idea that justice implies egalitarianism, or egalitarianism implies justice, doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and when I've seen it advanced it has tended to come from wounded pride rather than any theological principle.

There's a simple remedy for anyone offended by the idea that God might love someone else more than He loves them: Be holier than everyone else.


Am I an Easter people?

Easter is certainly the major liturgical event that best suits my temperament, but there are circumstances in which it doesn't suit my temperament at all to be told, "We are an Easter people." As a rule, these circumstances feature the imposition of cheeriness, which imposition someone feels is being resisted by those who don't think being an Easter people means we're always cheery.

Here I need to distinguish between cheeriness and cheerfulness. The former is a certain shared emotion -- "I'm glad you're happy"/"I'm happy you're glad." The latter is a disposition caused by the joy produced in the soul by the Holy Spirit. The former is incompatible with sorrow; the latter is not.

So if by, "We are an Easter people," someone means, "Christ is risen! And so, one day, shall we be risen!," I can only answer, "Alleluia!"

But if he means, "Christ is risen! So your sins don't matter," or, "So don't dwell on His death," or, "So stop being sad," I can only answer, "I may be an Easter people, but I also haven't quite finished my Good Friday."

There's an odd dynamic at work here. It was on Good Friday that Mary's hope in God's word was perfected, when all natural expectation that might have adulterated it was extinguished. Yet it is Easter which perfects our own hope, as a promise of our own resurrection. But our own resurrection is only promised to be desireable if we take up our crosses and follow Christ. Jesus' resurrection gives us the hope by which we embrace our own crucifixion. If we are an Easter people, we must also be a Good Friday people; that's what being an Easter people means.


Alleluia is our song

St. Augustine, I am told, said, "We are an Easter people, and 'Alleluia' is our song."

I suspect that, like a lot of other things St. Augustine said, St. Augustine didn't say that. Still, you can sort of cobble the sentiment together from things he did say, like this:
On account of these two seasons, one which now is in the temptations and tribulations of this life, the other which is to be hereafter in everlasting rest and exultation; we have established also the celebration of two seasons, that before Easter and that after Easter. That which is before Easter signifies tribulation, in which we now are; that which we are now keeping after Easter, signifies the bliss in which we shall hereafter be. The celebration then which we keep before Easter is what we do now; by that which we keep after Easter we signify what as yet we don't have. Therefore we employ that time in fastings and prayer; this present time we spend in praises, and relax our fast. This is the Alleluia which we sing, which, as you know, means "Praise the Lord." [Commentary on Psalm 148]
He adds some very sensible advice for those who dare sing "Alleluia" this Easter season:
Whenever you sing "Alleluia," give your bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger. Then not only does your voice sound, but your hand sounds in harmony with it, for your deeds agree with your words. [Commentary on Psalm 149]


Monday, April 12, 2004

The Gospel According to You

In his Easter sermon yesterday, my pastor preached along these lines: "Everyone here could take pen in hand and write their own Gospel account of dying and being brought back to life." And I think that's true, even literally true in a way that most generalizations aren't.

Of course, it's also not literally true, since there were babies in the church who couldn't hold a pen, and, more significantly, there may well have been grown-ups there who could hold a pen but who have no knowledge of the deaths and resurrections they have experienced in their lives.

Still, what is literally true is this: we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death, and just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too live in newness of life.

Now, maybe most of us don't live in newness of life in a way that causes constant wonder in ourselves and others, but that doesn't change what happened when we were baptized. That we aren't usually, or even ever, aware of Christ living in us doesn't mean He isn't, however feebly due to our preoccupations and sins.

We need to keep in mind that, though a Gospel account could be written by (or at least for) each of us, in every case it's the same Gospel. Some people object to language like "the Gospel of Mark" or "John's Gospel," because it's actually the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Mark or John -- or you or me. They do have a point, although I don't object to the language myself, since in such cases the word "Gospel" refers to a literary work rather than "the Gospel."

What makes ours all the same Gospel is that they are all retellings of the same death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Mary. "My" Gospel is the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection told from my perspective, or refracted through my own life. But if "my" Gospel isn't really Jesus' story, then it isn't really the Gospel.

It seems to me, then, that though we may all be able to write our own Gospel accounts, we aren't always the best commentators on our own accounts. I am not necessarily adept at drawing the meaning of Jesus' act death and resurrection out of the ways I've participated in it, even though I necessarily benefit from His act. For that matter, my Gospel account, such as it might be, is not necessarily intended, primarily or at all, for my own use. My account might just be a record of events, maybe just a quick story I tell someone in a parking lot, which God will inspire someone else to understand more fully than I ever will in this life.

This, I think, is one of the reasons the Church Militant is a community and not just a union of individuals. We exchange the Good News with each other, in ways intended and otherwise, showing each other over and over that the Word of God, spoken once and for all in Galilee and Judea two thousand years ago, is still sounding through the world. And the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that historical fact of the first Easter morning, is being repeated in countless marked and unmarked ways in the lives of all who believe in Him.


Saturday, April 10, 2004

So much for Lent

Now comes the real test: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving even when it's not Lent. (Though hold off on the fasting for a week or so. We have reason to celebrate, even if we weren't outstanding penitents over the past six and a half weeks.)


Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Paschal Triduum: Holy Thursday

I am remiss in not having yet read the 2001 document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. But, since I've always thought a facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought, let me quote from the document's section on Holy Thursday:
Visiting the Altar of Repose

141. Popular piety is particularly sensitive to the adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in the wake of the Mass of the Lord's supper. Because of a long historical process, whose origins are not entirely clear, the place of repose has traditionally been referred to as a "a holy sepulchre". The faithful go there to venerate Jesus who was placed in a tomb following the crucifixion and in which he remained for some forty hours.

It is necessary to instruct the faithful on the meaning of the reposition: it is an austere solemn conservation of the Body of Christ for the community of the faithful which takes part in the liturgy of Good Friday and for the viaticum of the infirmed. It is an invitation to silent and prolonged adoration of the wondrous sacrament instituted by Jesus on this day.

In reference to the altar of repose, therefore, the term "sepulchre" should be avoided, and its decoration should not have any suggestion of a tomb. The tabernacle on this altar should not be in the form of a tomb or funerary urn. The Blessed Sacrament should be conserved in a closed tabernacle and should not be exposed in a monstrance.

After midnight on Holy Thursday, the adoration should conclude without solemnity, since the day of the Lord's Passion has already begun.
What I give in the post below, then, in terms of when which day begins, the CDWDS takes back here. So it goes.


Holy Thursday is Good Friday

When did today start? There are a lot of answers to that question.

Officially, of course, a day starts at midnight local time, with local time being determined by some official clock. That's useful when we're dealing with things related to the officialdom that decides such things: in legal matters, for example, or business transactions. For scientific and technological purposes, it's helpful to have a single global time, and a single moment at which the scientific "today" starts.

Informally, when people speak of "starting your day," they usually have in mind the morning: when they wake up, or have breakfast, or finish their second cup of coffee. Sometimes we use "day" as opposed to "night," with today beginning at sunrise.

In the Church's liturgical calendar, the start of a day usually isn't fixed. The day's Office of Readings can be said any time after the previous day's Night Prayer is said, even immediately after, and Night Prayer is said before going to sleep, whenever that might be.

The Jewish calendar, of course, reckons days to begin in the evening, which is partially reflected by the Church's Sundays and solemnities, which also begin the evening before the daylight period. They are, though, "super-days," longer than twenty-four hours, lasting past the second evening until Night Prayer is prayed a second time.

The one time during the year when the Catholic Church fully observes the Jewish custom is the Paschal Triduum, which lasts from the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday to Vespers on Easter Sunday.

I think Christians would benefit by a deeper appreciation of the Jewish reckoning of days. Even among Catholics, we speak of Jesus instituting the Eucharist on "the night before He died," which to my mind at least suggests a separation between the Last Supper (which should probably be called the First Supper) and the Crucifixion. But to Jesus, the Apostles, and the first generation or two of Christians (at least), the two events would naturally be seen as having happened on the same day. It is a day that begins with Jesus telling His disciples He has longed to celebrate that paschal feast with them and ends with the women watching where Joseph of Arimathea has Jesus' body placed.

Separating the Last Supper from the Crucifixion by thinking of them as happening on different days is unfortunate. It's not how Jesus and the others involved thought of them. It enables some Christians to focus on the Eucharist at the expense of the Crucifixion; it allows others to focus on the Crucifixion at the expense of the Eucharist. But they happened on the same day; they are, in reality, the same act.


Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Stigmata are for everyone

The Church allows the possibility that some few persons are so tightly bound to the suffering Christ that the very marks of His crucifixion appear on their hands and feet, and sometimes side and head as well.

Why, though, did Christ Himself receive the stigmata, and why does He continue to bear them?

Isaiah foretold, "But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins. Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.... And he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses."

The Letter to the Hebrews teaches, "Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him, declared by God High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek."

Jesus was crucified to take away our sins, and in so doing His humanity was made perfect, making possible not merely human beatitude in Paradise, but human adoption into the Divine Life.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me." This comes immediately after He rebukes Peter as Satan, for thinking not as God does but as men do.

What is the Christian's cross? It varies from place to place, and from Christian to Christian, but a cross is promised to each of us. This means a crucifixion is promised to each of us, and there is no such thing as a crucifixion that leaves no marks.

We should all, then, bear the stigmata of Christ. They may not take the form of bloodied palms or wounds in the side, but they will be none the less real for that. They may even be physically visible: lines on the face from praying for one's children; callused hands from helping needy neighbors with outdoor chores; a tired smile from enduring the workaday humiliations of thoughtless co-workers. They may be hidden: reddened eyes from tears shed before God in private; sore knees from kneeling in prayer; cruel and cutting words left unspoken and forgotten.

We are the union of body and spirit, each reflecting the other, so even our spiritual marks of discipleship will have some physical effects. As Jesus' own wounds have been glorified in His body, eternal marks of His pefect humanity, so might our stigmata, through which we are being perfected as His disciples, be glorified forever. In a sense, they may be the brandings by which the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats.


Friday, April 02, 2004

What do you mean, "We"?

Steven Riddle has been blogging a series of reflections on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross's The Science of the Cross. In one post, he writes, "We must come to terms with our desires, slay them and remain faithful and true servants of Our Lord. Only in this is the path up Mt. Carmel and the presence of heaven on Earth.... But such is our goal...."

To which I reply, maybe such is our goal, and maybe such isn't. I would say my own goal is not the presence of heaven on Earth but the presence of me in heaven. And not just me, but you too.

I think this is another example of a persistent difference (though not an opposition) between Steven and me. Crudely put, I keep getting the sense he thinks everyone should be Carmelite -- in spirituality, that is, not in canonical status.

Now of course, Steven himself is Carmelite, in both spirituality and status. He can and should write from that perspective. Still, a lot of "only in this way"s and "such is our goal"s show up in his commentary, and they tend to be unconditional and unqualified.

I, certainly, cannot argue against St. John of the Cross that there is no other path up Mt. Carmel. But I am not at all convinced there is no other mount at the top of which God may be encountered.

To put it more graciously, I don't think God intends us all to be Carmelite, to follow the way of nada up Mt. Carmel, before our deaths. In dying, we have little choice but to abandon everything; not all of us, though, are called to abandon everything in living. The contemplative life may be a higher state than the active life, just as the celibate state is higher than the married, but as with marriage and giving in marriage, not all of us are called to perfection in contemplation in this life.

Just to keep things complicated: Note I wrote that we aren't all called to perfection in contemplation. I do believe we are all called to some level of contemplation, because contemplation is for everyone.


A book of numbers

Camassia points out that Mark 8:18-21 emphasizes certain numbers:
"Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?"
They answered Him, "Twelve."
"When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?"
They answered Him, "Seven."
He said to them, "Do you still not understand?"
Camassia reminds me of an important principle for understanding Scripture: numbers mean something.

What they mean, exactly, I may not understand, but they meant something to the people who wrote them, and they are supposed to mean something to the people who read them.

The Father of the Church offer their own interpretations of these numbers. Of the first miracle:
  • "By the five loaves are figured the Five Books of Moses, by the two fishes, the Psalms and Prophets."
  • "Or the two fishes are the discourses of fishermen, that is, their Epistles and Gospel."
  • Or "by the five thousand men are meant those who, living in the world, know how to make a good use of external things."
  • Or "by the twelve baskets, the Apostles and the following Doctors are typified, externally indeed despised by men, but inwardly full of healthful food. For all know that carrying baskets is a part of the work of slaves."
  • "Or, in the gathering of the twelve baskets full of fragments, is signified the time, when they shall sit on thrones, judging all who are left of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel, when the remnant of Israel shall be saved."
Of the second miracle:
  • "the seven loaves are spiritual discourses, for seven is the number, which points out the Holy Ghost, who perfects all things."
  • Or "the seven loaves are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the fragments of the loaves are the mystical understanding of the first week."
  • Or, the seven baskets of leftovers represent "the higher precepts of perfection, to which the multitude cannot attain...; nevertheless, the multitude is said to have been satisfied, because though they cannot leave all that they possess, nor come up to that which is spoken of virgins, yet by listening to the commands of the law of God, they attain to everlasting life."
  • Or "the seven baskets are the seven Churches. By the four thousand is meant the year of the new dispensation, with its four seasons."
  • "Or there are four thousand, that is, men perfect in the four virtues; and for this reason, as being more advanced, they ate more, and left fewer fragments. For in this miracle, seven baskets full remain, but in the miracle of the five loaves, twelve, for there were five thousand men, which means men enslaved to the five senses, and for this reason they could not eat, but were satisfied with little, and many remains of the fragments were over and above."
Take your pick, or pick 'em all, or pick something else, but don't think the numbers are just facts.


Thursday, April 01, 2004

Seven into five

Just as two friends, frequently in each other's company, tend to develop similar habits, so too, by holding familiar converse with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, by meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary and by living the same life in Holy Communion, we can become, to the extent of our lowliness, similar to them and can learn from these supreme models a life of humility, poverty, hiddenness, patience and perfection. -- Bl. Bartolo Longo, quoted in Rosarium Virginis Mariae
In a Lenten reflection last week, Fr. James Sullivan, OP, suggested a relationship between the five Luminous Mysteries, the Seven Sacraments, and the five virtues Bl. Bartolo claimed can be learned with the help of the Rosary. (Assume an "according to Fr. Sullivan" throughout the following.)

The first luminous mystery is the Baptism of the Lord, which obviously corresponds to the sacrament of Baptism. They both teach us something of humility: our Lord's baptism, because the Eternal God had become man, and was even prepared to accept baptism at the hands of a man unfit to loosen His sandal, for it was fitting to fulfill all righteousness; our own baptism, because it is an acknowledgement that we are utterly powerless to save ourselves. (Those of us who were baptized as infants must also allow the humbling fact that not even on the natural level did we choose baptism for ourselves.)

The Miracle at Cana calls to mind the sacrament of Matrimony. That particular marriage began with a great gift from God, a gift given secretly to cover the poverty of the newlyweds. All who are married are poor, dependent on God for the graces for their marriages to thrive and be a means of their salvation. Not all recognize this poverty, though, nor are rightly thankful to God for what He has done for them without their knowing.

The third luminous mystery is the Proclamation of the Kingdom. What the Pope adds in his letter proposing the luminous mysteries to the Church, which most descriptions of the new mysteries don't mention, is that Jesus' proclamation comes "with His call to conversion." [RVM 21] A call to conversion suggests the sacrament of Reconciliation, which in turn suggests hiddenness. We hear news of the Kingdom, and we ask ourselves whether it is to us a pearl of great price, and if so whether we are really willing to sell all we have to obtain it. We search the hidden recesses of our hearts to find what we will not yet part with, then go into a room, hidden from view, to confess our sins, and there, in the one sacrament protected by a seal of silence, we pronounce our intention of conversion and receive forgiveness for our sins.

Conversion may also suggest the Anointing of the Sick, where all else is set aside in the sick one's appeal to God for the grace of strenth, peace, and courage, to unite him more closely with the suffering of Christ and the fulfillment of the covenant Christ ratified by His suffering. The Catechism teaches that in receiving this sacrament a sick person "contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers." In doing so, he has accepted Christ's invitation to enter into His Father's Kingdom, taken up his cross, and begun to follow Christ.

What do the Transfiguration, Confirmation, and patience have in common? Confirmation completes Baptism, and if in Jesus' Baptism the Father announced His Son to the world, so in the Transfiguration He confirmed Jesus' Sonship, and showed to Peter, James, and John that Jesus completes the Law and the Prophets. St. Peter, as ever in the Gospels, fails his test of patience, wanting Jesus' fulfillment in time to be done with immediately -- and, by extension, his own journey to beatitude. The West has the custom of delaying confirmation, sometimes for years, after baptism; this in itself calls for patience (though I've never noticed impatience for the sacrament to be much of a problem for those children more than a year younger than the prescribed age).

The Institution of the Eucharist was, of course, the first celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist; its relevance to Holy Orders, and the centrality of offering the Eucharist in the lives of priests, are also evident. The Eucharist is the means to our own perfection in the image and likeness of the Son through Whose sacrifice we become sons and daughters of the Eternal Father. Christ Himself, in His humanity, was made perfect through the suffering signified in the Eucharist, and by participating in this sacrament we gain the graces we need to follow Him.



Laetare Thursday

Bill White's strict Lenten regime has obviously uncluttered his mind, as he has "been researching bourbon the last day or two." The result of his research: "I'll start with Maker's Mark."

The question, "Which bourbon?" is like the question, "Which Bible translation?" Both have the same answer: "The one you find in your hand."

Bourbon, like all work of human hands, can be good or bad, which is to say well-made or ill-made, which is to say artistic or not. And like all the arts, the art of bourbon produces works that are only partially ordered by "goodness" (in the artistic, not moral, sense). By that I mean, given two bourbons, it's not necessarily true that one is "better" than the other. On the other hand, though it's only partial there is an ordering, so one particular bourbon genuinely can be better than another particular bourbon.

My claim is that all the arts are partially ordered by "artistic goodness," which is one reason those "100 Greatest" lists always generate so much discussion. Such lists are an attempt to force a partial ordering to be a full ordering, which results in claims as defensible as, "Green is better than burlap."

I will even go so far as to claim that mankind, considered as a set of individual creations the artistry of God, is only partially ordered by artistic goodness. This may be heresy; it is certainly a break with the tradition of an at-least implicit full ordering in the goodness of people, with of course Mary at the top of the order and everyone else lining up single-file behind her.

But it's also a break with the current mode of thought whereby we're all equally loved by God, me for being me and you for being you. What God loves is goodness, which is to say Himself, but love is by its nature fecund, so God has created Creation, which reflects His goodness and gives Him more to love. (Well, not more, strictly speaking, since the goodness of creation is really a participation in the goodness of God; really, creation gives God creatures to love. It's like (but not very like) adding crystals to the inside of a spherical mirror to give new ways the light inside can be reflected upon itself.)

So if humans really are partially ordered by artistic goodness, then there are two humans of whom it can be said one is better made by God than the other, and therefore the one is better loved by God than the other.

I don't think American Catholics on the whole are comfortable with saying such things these days, or at least not with allowing the possibility that there might be two more or less average adults of whom God loves one more than the other. But I don't think it makes sense to say instead that we're all equal; then you run into the problem Rob brought up on Camassia's blog: "[I]f you and I are both fully redeemed and 'perfect', in what way can we differ from each other?"

Parents necessarily adopt the habit of saying, "I love all my children equally," but I think we really mean, "I don't love any one child more than any other." God, though, can and (I say) does love some of His children more than others, because some of His children are better likenesses of His Only Begotten Son.

At the same time, though, I think some of God's children are neither better, nor worse, nor equal likenesses of His Only Begotten Son. I may be wrong, obviously; the goodness of humans may be fully ordered, so that quality of singing voice and perceptivity and all other human perfections are somehow commensurate, and they can be added up, as it were, to produce a univocal "goodness rating." I suspect, though, that between the painter and the poet there is not a ranking, nor even an equivalence, but merely the perfections of both.

From which the same would follow regarding the painting and the poem. And, for that matter, between the bourbon and the scotch.