instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Dominicans are also looking for a few good women

A three-part post on "Those Mysterious Nuns."


God's doormat

Bl. Henry Suso, OP, was one of the major figures in the Rhineland mysticism of the Fourtheenth Century, perhaps the only leading figure whose cult is recognized by the Church.

The Rhineland of the Fourteenth Century, though, was not a place where wandering mystics were universally welcomed. In his travels, Bl. Henry found himself falsely accused of theft, of faking miracles, of poisoning wells, of fathering a child. He seems to have become adept at fleeing from mobs.

One day, when he was safely in his priory, he noticed the house dog had gotten hold of an old doormat and was playfully chewing holes in it. Bl. Henry saw this as an ideal illustration of his own life: he was a doormat, whose purpose was to be useful to others, but who was in no position to complain about ill-use by anyone, even a dog.

The actual doormat became one of his prized possessions, and the metaphor one of his favorite pieces of spiritual advice. In a letter he sent to a Dominican nun (which was later included in his Little Book of Letters), he wrote:
Act in your own interest and bow down to the feet of all men as though you were a doormat. A doormat does not get angry with anyone, no matter what is done, because it is a doormat.
In another letter, he mentions he was thinking of sending her the doormat as a reminder, but he couldn't bear to part with it. Perfect detachment is hard even for the saints.

Despite the closeness to God he achieved in this life, Bl. Henry did not regard himself as particularly exalted. He once wrote that he did not feel like he was God's lover:
It seems to me I am His cart driver and drive through puddles with my clothes tucked up, as I pull people out of the deep mire of their sinful lives and bring them to what is beautiful. And so it is enough for me if He puts a loaf of rye bread in my hands.
Rye being the bread of the poor.

I think "pulling people out of the deep mire of their sinful lives and bringing them to what is beautiful" is a good metaphor for the Dominican vocation, which is usually expressed in the more antiseptic terms of "preaching and the salvation of souls." The salvation of souls is dirty work, souls in need of salvation being as dirty as they are.

At a Third Order Chapter meeting the other night, when I suggested Dominicans might see themselves as God's cart drivers, I was brought up short when someone pointed out that St. Catherine of Siena saw herself as not merely God's lover but as Christ's mystical spouse. On reflection, though, I remembered that, after St. Catherine experienced her mystical espousal to Christ, He commanded that she leave the privacy of her cell to go out into the world and serve His people. And I think we can speak in terms of "both/and" for someone who regarded herself as Christ's bride yet prayed in these words:
I am a weak sinner who has never loved you. You are purest beauty and I am the filthiest of creatures....
I have one body, and to you I offer and return it. Here is my flesh; here is my blood; let me be slain, reduced to nothing; let my bones be split apart for those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.
Reduced to nothing... like a doormat.

I don't think I'm the only one who prefers to think of the Dominican vocation as one of sitting in an air conditioned room talking about stuff we've read.


You can handle the Truth?

The Dominicans are looking for a few good men.

Like him.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

St. Peter's Shadow

An epigram by Richard Crashaw.
Under thy shadow may I lurk awhile,
Death's busy search I'll easily beguile;
Thy shadow, Peter, must show me the Sun,
My light's thy shadow's shadow, or 'tis done.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Who do I say that I am?

Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute does a nice bit about how Blessed Teresa of Calcutta didn't know she was "Mother Teresa" -- and how her bishop for sure didn't know -- when she decided to found her own religious order in her late 30s.

I don't know whether she ever did realize she was Mother Teresa, though the rest of the world did when it saw how she loved the poor.

The Gospels make it clear that a lot of people didn't know Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus, and once we get over the anachronistic romanticism that assumes His halo was visible at noon on a clear day, it's not hard to understand their doubt. Even people who had become His disciples found, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him," to be too hard to accept, and who can blame them?

And yet, Jesus seems to. Well, not blame, exactly, but He does hold people culpable for their failure to believe in Him. Something in what He said and did sufficed to establish the authority by which He said and did them. "My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me." And just as His sheep knew that, in seeing Jesus, they weren't seeing just another wonderworker, they know that, in seeing Mother Teresa, they weren't seeing just another do-gooder.

Which raises the question: When those whom the Father has given to Christ see us, what do they see? Do they see Christ and His passion endured for their salvation, or do they see us and our own passions pursued for selfish reasons? If we dress up our own wills in the clothes of Christian surrender -- okay, yeah, that metaphor got away from me -- we may convince ourselves that we are making Christ present to the world, but we won't convince the world.

My will does not speak with the authority by which Christ's sheep know His voice. So when people don't follow me, I can conclude either that I am not speaking with Christ's voice, or that the people not following me do not belong to Him. The safe bet is obvious.


Monday, June 27, 2005


One of the risks of being known to family and friends as a religious fanatic is that they might shop for your present in a Christian gift store. Or worse, a Catholic gift store.

But... surely no one would ever buy someone this on purpose. I mean, I wouldn't even want to pick one up on the way home for a homebound neighbor. What if it came to life in the car?


Again with the forgiveness

Monsignor Peter Magee, who used to work for the Vatican Diplomatic Corps and will start a teaching gig at Georgetown (I think) this fall, spent the past year as a priest-in-residence in my parish. He's an outstanding homilist, so as soon as I heard he had a book coming out this month, I planned on ordering it.

It's called God's Mercy Revealed: Healing for a Broken World, and is based on homilies he has given at St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington. I'm six pages into it, and it's already worth the price. In those six pages, he offers a new (to me) understanding on the question that comes up over and over again in St. Blog's regarding the concept of unconditional forgiveness. Here is my riff on his take:

Before it is an act we experience, God's forgiveness is part of Who He is. When He forgives us, then, it is not fundamentally a juridical act whereby the party of the first part waives all rights and claims against the party of the second part appertaining to all injuries, fiducial and otherwise, directly or indirectly incurred as a result of the following actions of the party of the second part, &c. &c. &c.

Rather, God's act of forgiveness is an invitation to share in His life of forgiveness. It is God saying, "I AM Forgiveness, and you may join Me."

This perspective has many profound implications.

First, it makes forgiveness all of a piece with God's love. It's not something extra or optional. If God is love, if God is God, then God is forgiveness, and He will forgive all of us everything. It makes each individual act of forgiveness, for each individual sin each individual commits, of a piece with the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, the preeminent expression of God's love (and mercy, and forgiveness) within creation. It [all but] dissolves the old "mercy v. justice" paradox (which I've never seen as all that great to begin with).

Forgiveness as an aspect of Divine life also means that to be forgiven is to have the Trinity living within you. A richer notion, wouldn't you say, than the status quo ante notion of merely canceling a debt.

It further converts the idea of asking forgiveness into the idea of allowing God to live within you. If "to forgive" is to offer to have God live in you, then "to be forgiven" is to actually have God live in you. Logically, between these two comes "to ask forgiveness," meaning to let God live in you. In juridical terms, "to ask forgiveness" is prior to "to forgive," a chicken-and-egg problem if, as orthodox Christians, we want to insist all the good we do comes from God.

The "God is forgiveness" perspective also illuminates the fact that, for a Christian, to forgive someone else is to invite them to share in God's life. Under what circumstances ought a Christian choose not to invite someone to share in God's life? Under what circumstances, then, ought a Christian to not forgive someone?

When the topic of unconditional forgiveness comes up, people always insist that you can't forgive unless you were first harmed. Better to say that you can't forgive unless you were first forgiven. You can't give what you don't have; you can't offer a share in God's life if you don't have God's life within you.

Still more, for a Christian to forgive is not for him to say, "I forgive you your offenses against me," but, "God forgives you your offences against Him." Christian forgiveness is no more a juridical act, fundamentally, than is Christ's forgiveness. It is an act of evangelism, a proclamation of the Gospel, and to whom are we not to evangelize?


As we were saying

1. The virtues. Goodness, truth, and beauty. This fellow sounds like a Dominican.

2. A "foreigner to worry and quite a close friend of gaiety." This fellow sounds like a Dominican, too.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

Semper OPifer

Brad Haas at Defensor Veritatis has a question: How can a perfectly happy God care about what we do? Please go tell him the answer.

Also, someone is looking for the music to the hymn "Mother of Grace." The lyrics are:
O glorious Lady, throned in light,
Sublime above the starry height,
Thine arms thy great Creator pressed,
A suckling at thy sacred breast.

Through the dear Blossom of thy womb
Thou changest hapless Eva's doom:
Through thee to contrite souls is given
An opening to their home in heaven.

Thou art the great King's portal bright
With pearls and stones of living light;
Come, then, ye ransomed nations, sing
Thy life divine 'twas hers to bring.

Author of grace, sweet Saviour mine,
Remember that Thy flesh divine
From the unsullied Virgin came,
Made like unto our mortal frame.

O Mary, Mother of all Grace,
Mother of Mercy to our race,
Protect us now from Satan's power,
And own us at life's closing hour.

All glory be to Thee, O Lord,
The Virgin’s Son, by all adored,
And equal praise forever greet
The Father and the Paraclete. Amen.
Rumor has it it's an old Dominican hymn. Does anyone know where the music for this might be?


Saturday, June 25, 2005

A memoir of A Memoir of Mary Ann

Questions were raised about the degree of Flannery O'Connor's involvement in the writing of A Memoir of Mary Ann (a.k.a. Mission Fulfilled).

Following Sandra Miesel's suggestion, I looked in the letters of Flannery O'Connor (in the Library of America's Collected Works) and found the following:
To A., July 23, 1960
I was greatly impressed with the Sister Superior... She brought two old sisters, one of whom was Mary Ann's nurse, and three younger sisters, one of whom draws (very badly) and the other two write (very very badly). However, the Sister Superior is the one doing the writing on the book and she writes better than the others. She don't write like Shakespeare but she does well enough for this.

To Robert Giroux, September 29, 1960
I told [the Sister Superior] if they did happen to write it, I'd be glad to go over the manuscript and would supply a little introduction if that would help. I thought that would be the last I'd hear of her. Never underestimate them. They forthwith sat down and wrote it and they are hell bent to see it through. The Abbot is interested in it and so is the Bishop who wants it to have the imprimatur. I hear he thinks the child was a saint.

The manuscript is not very good, of course. I set about to get the obnoxious pieties out of it and that proved almost impossible. I'm still working on it, and they are expecting me to not only to turn it into decent manuscript but to get them a publisher. Would you read it when I get it edited? I know I can't make it into the kind of thing you would publish but you might be able to tell me who might or if you think it's publishable at all.

Fr. Paul thinks it's quite comic that they have lit on me to do this. He asked them which of my murder stories gave them the idea I should help them with it.

To Robert Giroux, December 8, 1960
The enclosed jolly treat is the Sister's manuscript. If you think there is any possibility at all of its getting published anywhere, I might be able to get them to improve it. After I had got the thing all typed up for them, they decided there were "a few other little things" they had forgotten to mention. So I told them to write them down and I would insert them. Today they sent me the insertions, three of them. Two I have inserted and the other I am sparing you. It had to do with Mary Ann eating some applesauce...

I... suggested the title I have put on it. They accept this reluctantly but think it is very "flat."

To Robert Giroux, January 23, 1961
The Sisters are dancing jigs all over the place. I bet them a pair of peafowl nobody would ever buy the book so I am out a pair of peafowl.

Sister Evangelist called up the Bishop at once and he was delighted. However, he wanted one thing in the manuscript out before he can give it the imprimatur. The scene where Mary Ann goes to confession and the Sisters hear her say, "Fife times, Monsignor." The Bishop says that can't be in there as you are not supposed to hear what goes on in the confessional. Bishops will be Bishops. Then there is one thing he wants added, which I think is a good idea and will improve the book. It seems that before she died, the Sisters allowed Mary Ann to become a tertiary and she was buried in the Dominican habit... I told the Sisters to write it up and indicate where it should come and send it to me...

Sister Evangelist wanted to know what "a free editorial hand" meant and I told her it meant you all would improve the book some, so she is all for a free editorial hand.

To A., February 4, 1961
I can't get over this Mary Ann business. I told the Sisters that if that child was a saint, her first miracle would be getting a publisher for their book. And now the more I think about the way that book is written, the more convinced I am that it is a genuine miracle. Giroux wrote, "I read the story with a few misgivings which somehow are not important." And I guess that about sums it up. They have asked for a free editorial hand, so I am hoping this will improve the book a little.
From which we might conclude:
  1. Sister Evangelist wrote the first draft, editing in stuff from the other sisters.
  2. Flannery O'Connor did some rewriting as she typed it up for them.
  3. The editors at Farrar, Straus & Cudahy did further rewriting.
  4. Everybody else had their own suggestions, too.
  5. Flannery O'Connor's letters are charming, fascinating and funny.


Friday, June 24, 2005

The charism we most need

Is joy, or so I've heard.

Dom Bettinelli quotes fr. Paul Murphy, OP, on the place of joy and laughter in the Dominican tradition:
Then, addressing the other brothers, [Bl.] Jordan [of Saxony, St. Dominic's successor,] said: "Laugh away to your heart's content.... You have my full leave and it is only right that you should laugh after breaking from the devil's thralldom. Laugh on then and be as merry as you please."
And Paul Lew wonders about the songs of today's pilgrims:
Perhaps we, the Pilgrim Church, need to re-discover that sense of joy and delight in our humanity, to learn to really celebrate life, and to express this in such a way that all people can see that we embrace all of life - the "joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age" (Gaudium et spes, 1) - and present all these to God in action, prayer and song, trusting in his aid, his grace, his mercy and above all, his redeeming love.


Felix typo alert

If you liked the "washed in the blood of the Lame" comment in the open book thread on liturgical music, you'll love Disputations's own coinage,
My guess is it means the lure of being too holy and high-minded to get out on the street and work for the Gospel, but your guess is as good as mine.



A corollary

If, as I suggested below, reading and rereading Scripture produces an unending series of mini-epiphanies and insights into God's revelation of Himself to us, it also seems to be the case that which insight comes when is for the most part unpredictable.

So we're all going about with different sets of insights on, say, the parable of the tenants or Psalm 43, but we have no way of knowing whether (nor any reason to expect that) we have all possible insights up to and including our most profound ones. We're feeling pretty good about ourselves and our grasp on the parable or the psalm, then *pop* goes a rather basic and obvious insight that we had somehow missed before, which subtly alters all the more profound insights, and we feel like an idiot for never having noticed this basic and obvious thing before.

But we shouldn't feel like idiots for never having noticed it. The indeterminacy and unpredictability of what we're going to discover next is just part of the nature of encountering God's word. Rather, we should feel like idiots for feeling pretty good about ourselves and our grasp on the parable or the psalm.


Thursday, June 23, 2005

What you need to do

is send a check for $5 to the Hawthorne Dominicans and ask for a copy of Mission Fulfilled. Or better, send a check for $10 and ask for three copies.

Mission Fulfilled is the new title of A Memoir of Mary Ann, which tells the story of a young girl who lives with the Hawthorne Dominicans in Atlanta.

It's an enthralling book about a great human being.

You will be a better human being for having read it.

The foreword by Flannery O'Connor is alone worth the price of the book (the book itself they'll send you for free, but you'll feel a cad if you don't at least cover their printing and postage costs), but that's not the part that will make you a better human being.

Read this book.


Saucers of wisdom

You all know "Footprints," right, about the footprints in the sand with the payoff when God says, "Then I carried you."?

It has been observed that, the first time you hear it, it's devastating; after half a dozen listens, you reply with a somewhat stiff, "Yes, I am familiar with that particular allegory"; and eventually you don't even notice the "Footprints" trivet on the clearance table at the local Christian books and gifts store.

This seems to be the way of all human wisdom. Sooner or not much later, we get to the bottom, and attempts to distill additional wisdom are frustrating.

When you construct something with a profound payoff, it eventually pays off all it has. Things written for effect soon lose their effect, and then they are good for nothing but trampling underfoot.

Now, Chesterton once complained about complaints that writers who "wrote for effect." He wondered what the devil they should write for? Effectlessness? But a writer getting read once is more than he can ask for, and getting reread is very heaven. That the well runs dry after four times through is not, generally, their concern.

Scripture is different. As part of God's revelation to man, it is to be read and reread, heard and reheard. For the most part, it doesn't pop at you on first reading, so it doesn't go stale on you on tenth reading.

But it does go opaque. It's kind of strange, isn't it, how a familiar passage doesn't become dull so much as silent. They don't tell you what you already know; they simply don't tell you anything at all. And of course there are passages that are silent from first reading on.

And then... pop! "The servant must have told the father his eldest son wouldn't come in to the celebration. I can be that servant, praying to God that my too-proud friend might return to the Church." Or whatever. A whole new vein is discovered, and the passage becomes a profitable mine once more. (I've lost all control over the metaphors in this post.)

In my experience, this process recurs often enough that one is soon convinced it will not end in this life, that the wisdom of God contained in the Bible is indeed without limit, that its cup cannot be drained.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A thought in progress

Against the Grain raises the topic of the "preferential option for the poor" -- or, as the blessed Pope John Paul II seemed to prefer, the "preferential love for the poor" -- which continues over at Mirror of Justice.

Now, I am not at all a close student of this subject. My own preferential option is for me, and I claim no virtue, insight, or private revelation regarding preferences for the poor.

However, when I do stroll past a discussion of the "preferential option," more often than not it appears to be couched in economic terms. And not just economics, but partisan economics. As in, "Those people say they support a preferential option for the poor, but their policies leave the poor worse off than before."

If poverty is an economic problem to be solved, then it's not my problem; I can barely handle my own economic problems, much less help others with theirs. If it's an economic debate, it's not my debate.

And if it's an economic problem or debate, it's not really the Church's problem or debate, in any particular way. All the Church would have to do is remind everyone of the basic moral principles, then let the economists and policy makers go to town.

But I don't think that's what the Church says. I don't think she regards poverty as a problem to be solved so much as a sorrow to be joined in.

I haven't figured out how to put this without leaving myself open to charges of self-serving quietism or romanticising poverty. And if someone can solve the problem of poverty by making all poor people wealthy enough, he by all moral means should go ahead and do it.

But the Gospel is not an economic development plan. The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or of drinking. Those of us who can speak of "the poor" rather than "we poor" must be in communion with those who can't, to share the life of the Spirit with them. Not in a patronizing way, assuring them they'll be just fine once they're dead; but in the way Christians were once known for loving each other.

If we speak of Catholic Social Teaching and do not speak of Christ, of His presence in our gathering with the whole Church, we aren't speaking of Catholic Social Teaching.


Joining in the fun

I took that quiz.

Your IQ Is 218

Your Logical Intelligence is Unbelievable
Your Verbal Intelligence is Legend
Your Mathematical Intelligence is Unmeasurable
Your General Knowledge is Encyclopedic


Monday, June 20, 2005

The source of authority

Destination: Order links to a Holy Whapping post that begins with the bold assertion:
I submit to you that beauty is really the source of authority.
Andrew goes on to write:
Explaining the True will work for those who already recognize and love Truth, if they are intellectually gifted; explaining the Good will work for the morally fit. But the Beautiful, the Beautiful is compelling to all.

Basically, my point is that the crux of true conversion, the best means for speedy evangelization, seems to be beauty. Propose something beautiful, and only then might people truly "submit" -– and yet, it hardly feels like submission: it has become "an authority that does not threaten."
Let me try this:

When we hear someone speak of what is true or good, we brace ourselves for the implied imperative to change our lives. We don't like that. But beauty, well, we already seek beauty, and if you've got something more beautiful than I've got, then I'm happy to have it and thanks.

Following St. Catherine of Siena's figure of the Bridge, beauty might allow us to hop right to the second stair. Beauty connotes no fear of punishment; we go straight to enjoyment of the pleasure we derive from it.

That would be a strictly limited submission to authority, limited by the duration and quantity of pleasure we experience, until and unless we advance to the third stair, of filial love for the Beauty Who created us.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

A good idea

Amy Welborn asked for reading recommendations for her 14 year old daughter; to date, she's had about fourteen dozen suggestions, including not only every book I might have recommended, but practically every historical fiction and fantasy novel I've ever read.

The one recommendation I absolutely cannot agree with was this:
Sooner or later she's going to tangle with Ayn Rand, and she should - anyone who is going to lead life guided by a philosophy ought to understand competing philosophies in their intellectual environment, and understand where they agree and disagree, and why.
As I replied in the following comment, all you need to know about Ayn Rand is that she was bull goose looney; objectivism sort of dissolves under the weight of its own bile, and there are better things to do with your time than acquaint yourself with the locus classicus for tripe like that.

But it does give me an idea for a book I think would be very helpful for teenagers: The Not-So-Great Ideas, a compendium of bum philosophies that captivate nineteen-year-olds when they first encounter them. Objectivism, solipsism, Marxism, materialism, nihilism: the dead-end sinks of human thought and sources of human misery. Collect them in a single book for high school students that, if nothing else, will teach them their parents aren't the only grown-ups who have lousy ideas.


Friday, June 17, 2005

The human drama

Logres directs me to a Godspy article, "Faith and the Human Drama," by Peter John Cameron, OP.

Fr. Cameron was the speaker at last week's Third Order Congress who made the point about Dominicans starting with the virtues rather than the commandments. He also wrote the passion play we saw Friday evening, and is the founding editor of the American edition of Magnificat.

The article shares a theme Fr. Cameron mentioned in his talk last week:
One main reason why the human being lives bereft of the meaning of life is because he has nothing to inspire him to search the depths of his self so as to discover the truth of his human "I." For the person who confronts the evidence of his own existence comes face to face with three key truths about the human "I":
  • first, I didn't make myself;
  • second, I have desires that I did not give myself and that I cannot delete which are infinite in their scope; and
  • third, I live with the expectation that I will be happy -- the certainty that I have been promised meaning and fulfillment in my life.
In his talk, he suggested Dominicans are well-suited to accompanying people as they face these truths. In the article, he describes theater's role in this.
We go to the theatre to experience an encounter -- not an encounter only with an "idea", but an encounter with a personal presence that corresponds to something primal and vital in the human soul.

... Theatre in the service of the evangelization of culture recognizes and takes full advantage of the "sacredness" of acting as a participation in God's chosen method of salvation -- the Father sent Jesus Christ the actor into human history.
Fr. Cameron also marshals quotations from our two most recent Popes to show that the medium of the theatre is, not action, but language. And when you have an actor present and speaking to an audience of people who have come to hear the actor speak to them, you have a vehicle that in important ways parallels the revelation of the Father's love in Jesus Christ. As Monsignor Luigi Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial Movement Communion and Liberation, is quoted, "the true motive of communication is affection."


Thursday, June 16, 2005

Should teach His brethren, and inspire

In a comment below, Rob writes:
The Crucifixion did not "just happen" to Jesus: He *chose* it.


What Jesus chose -- the object on which He fixed His will -- was to do the will of Him Who sent Him. That the will of Him Who sent Him was that He be crucified was, if I may so put it, accidental to Jesus' choice.

I think we need to understand this logically prior choice to do the Father's will as distinct from the temporal choice to be crucified. Suffering as such is not good; suffering as such is lousy. Suffering sought out and offered to God like a dead mouse brought in by a housecat isn't much better.

"Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered." Without fully addressing the question of how the Eternally Begotten Son can learn, this suggests that Jesus' human will underwent some temporal process of perfecting its obedience to the Divine will.

"Thy will be done," is the key, I think. Not, "I love You so much, I'm going to go suffer for You," but, "I love You so much, I will accept what suffering comes my way while doing Your will."

Do the cuts and bruises of everyday life constitute the crosses we are to take up to follow Christ? I would say they are a part of our crosses, even the sufferings we couldn't avoid if we wanted to. But a lesson of Gethsemane, I suggest, is that we can carry our crosses -- even our full crosses, with the persecutions in this world Jesus foretold for His disciples -- as followers of Christ yet in accordance with our own will; to be imitators of Christ, however, requires us to carry our crosses in accordance with the Father's will, and His will alone.

The above diagram shows the three ways in which our own wills can be conformed to the will of God. God's will is the blue circle. The red circle is the will of the prodigal, completely apart from God's will. The yellow circle is the will of the imperfect follower of Christ, lying partly but not wholly within God's will; this is the condition of the disciple who would go to Calvary without passing through Gethsemane. The green circle is the will of the perfect imitator of Christ, whose will is wholly determined by the will of God; there is nothing of self-will in what he wills.


Letting the hobby horse out of the barn

In a comment below, blihs asks for a citation for the "begin with the virtues rather than the commandments" concept I'd mentioned. I pointed to the table of contents of St. Thomas's Summa Theologica and of Romanus Cessario's Introduction to Moral Theology as early and recent examples within the Dominican tradition. (With Amazon's "look inside" feature, you can also read a few pages of Fr. Cessario's introductory chapter.)

I need to be a bit cautious with this, since the need for a virtue-based moral theology, rather than the rule-based one most people now living associate with Catholicism, is one of my pet themes, but I am nearly as ignorant as I am enthusiastic on the subject.

My nickel speech is that the presentation of morality was separated from virtue, and therefore moral theology separated from the other branches of theology, largely as part of the Counter-Reformation; at a time of great confusion, it can help to simply have rules to follow.

In the intervening centuries, however, the rules have come to be seen as not merely the pedagogical vehicle for morality, but as the essential basis for morality. And, importantly, an essentially arbitrary basis.

We live now at a time of great confusion, and rule-based morality is being pushed as a part of the Counter-SpiritOfVaticanTwo. But we also live at a time of great interest in our Faith, when people don't (indeed, can't) rely on Father in the confessional and the pulpit to tell them everything they should and shouldn't do. They want and need to know and live the Faith in a whole and integrated way, not in the field-surgery style developed with one eye toward maintaining the distinction between who's a good Catholic and who isn't.



Tuesday, June 14, 2005

And in the Garden secretly

The phenomenon of wanting Easter without Good Friday is well-known. (And perfectly understandable as well; those of us who disparage cheap grace ought to occasionally admit we'd be at the front of the line for it if it existed.)

It occurs to me, though, that there may be a related phenomenon of wanting the Crucifixion without the Agony in the Garden.

It's easy to downplay the Agony in the Garden as little more than the natural human anxiety anyone would experience while cooling his heels awaiting betrayal, arrest, condemnation, scourging, and crucifixion.

But Christ was not simply taking advantage of the down time between the Last Supper and Judas's kiss to slip in a few last-minute prayers. His, "But not My will, but Thine be done," was the final and complete self-emptying in prayer before His death, His formal surrender of all that He was in His humanity to the Father. Without that, there would have been some trace of human ego in the Crucifixion, a blemish in the sin offering for our redemption.

Christians naturally think in terms of following our Lord to Calvary, and in our better moments express a sincere willingness to suffer for and with Him. But I think we sometimes fail to see that, in order to suffer as He suffered, we must first empty ourselves as He emptied Himself. Otherwise, all of our sacrifices, even to death, will be to a greater or lesser degree about us, not Christ. They will be, at least in part, acts of narcissism or boasting directing others to notice our own wonderful wonderfulness, not the infinite mercy and love of the Father.

That self-emptying is hard, perhaps harder than the suffering others impose because it is entirely our choice. Being martyred for the Faith is easy to do, if you have a passport and one-way airfare to certain places in this world. Or, as open book's epigraph says, "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick." But to be genuinely willing to be a martyr, or not, as God's will may be; to exist for an uncertain duration in a state in which you make no demands rooted in your own sense of self; to hand back to the Father everything He has given you, even the really good stuff? Who can bear to do this if he doesn't really have to?


Monday, June 13, 2005

Living vicariately

For me, the most exciting (because most audacious, and therefore also most Dominic-ian) news at our Third Order Congress was that the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters are planning to open a house to care for the sick poor in Kenya, in the Dominican Order's Vicariate of Eastern Africa.

As it has been since their Congregation was founded, the Sisters' apostolate in Kenya will be to nurse and shelter, for free, incurable cancer patients who cannot afford care elsewhere.

Okay, so they don't offering solstice celebrations or massage therapy, but they do what they can. And they do it without fundraising campaigns; they don't even want me to put something in the sidebar here that says,
If you would like to support them in their mission of caring for the sick poor, please send a check to

The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne
Rosary Hill Home
600 Linda Avenue
Hawthorne, NY 10532,
because they rely entirely on the providence of God to supply them with what they need when they need it.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Congressional reports

I met several people at the Duc in Altum Congress who read this blog, and I'd like to invite them (assuming that, having met me, they will continues to read this blog) to post a short comment or two here about the event. I invite in particular those who never leave comments; you don't need to post your email, or even your name.

Who knows, maybe the eLumen monthly newsletter will compile some of the comments for its special Congress issue. At the very least, your comments will help those who didn't attend get an idea of what Dominicans do when they're gathered in large numbers.

In lieu of a detailed report myself, I'll just list five things I learned:
  1. Dominican tertiaries who do the first three Pillars of Dominican Life (prayer, study, and community) but not the fourth (preaching) aren't in much of a position to look down on those tertiaries who only do prayer and/or community. We aren't the Order of Study.
  2. If Masses run long and mess up your schedule, there's not much you can do about it.
  3. That Dominicans begin with the virtues rather than the commandments is because of, and justified only by, the Incarnation.
  4. What St. Catherine said about human souls seems to be true also of the Dominicans, at the individual, chapter, and provincial level: they're always either progressing or regressing. If they're standing still, that means they're falling behind.
  5. Most people are confused when troublemakers tell them, "Say 'Veritas, baby!,' and he'll owe you a drink."


Thursday, June 09, 2005

A distinguished gathering

Duc in Altum!, the Dominican Province of St. Joseph's Third Order Congress, begins this evening, with (in keeping with our charism) prayer followed by food, in the company of the friars of the Province, who are celebrating the bicentennial of the Province and the centennial of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

The official motto of the Congress is, "The Third Order for the Third Millennium." But I will stand a drink for anyone who greets me with the unofficial motto, "VERITAS, Baby!"

There are a few events open to the public, and if you're in the neighborhood of Catholic University in Washington, DC, come on by:
  • Friday, 8:30 a.m.: Morning Prayer in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
  • Friday, 10 a.m.: Ordination Mass in the Upper Church of the Shrine; five Dominican friars will be ordained priests by Cardinal Keeler.
  • Saturday, 8:30 a.m.: Morning Prayer followed by Mass, in the Crypt Church.
  • Sunday, 7:30 a.m.: Morning Prayer in the Crypt Church.
  • Sunday, 9 a.m.: Mass in the Upper Church; Cardinal McCarrick celebrating.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

In Dominican news

Nine feral cats will no longer be fed by the Sisters of Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx.

The government of Zimbabwe ordered the destruction of buildings in a relocation camp Dominican Sisters were using to help care for the poor, sick, and orphaned.

Guess which event is causing outrage throughout the United States.


Woodpeckers redux

Having given the question of why Protestants who reject both the Marian dogmas and the Eucharistic dogmas so often regard the former as a bigger problem than the latter, and having even considered the testimony of a few actual Protestants, I think I now see why this phenomenon is reasonable and even to be expected.

A person only comments on a given subject if he thinks he has something to say and if he want to say it. Sola Scriptura Protestants are both more likely to have something to say, and more likely to want to say it, on the subject of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary than on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. (Catholics, on the other hand, are more likely to have something to say and want to say it on the Eucharist, I suspect.)

There is an ahistorical, "plain [21st Century] meaning of [my preferred English translation of] Scripture" way of interpreting the Bible according to which the references to the Jesus' brothers and sisters puts the irrefutable kibosh on the doctrine of Perpetual Virginity. Everyone who interprets the Bible this way will consequently have something to say about that doctrine, and be quite confident about it. (Some may allow an outside possibility that the Catholic interpretation might be historically true, without allowing any possibility for imposing such a thing as a doctrine.)

The Real Presence, though, is a dicier proposition. There are no Bible verses whose alleged plain meanings refute it; there are even some that might be taken as support for it. Plus, what is the dogma of the Real Presence? How well does anyone, much less a non-sacramental Christian, understand what it means, compared to understanding what perpetual virginity means? What does anyone have to say about something that isn't simple and straightforward, that they don't much understand, and that doesn't really have anything to do with their own life?

And what if, just maybe, there's somehow something to the Eucharist after all?

On the matter of wanting to say something about a subject, attacking the doctrine of Perpetual Virginity has several advantages over attacking the doctrine of the Real Presence, over and above having a good idea of what to say. It keeps the debate centered on terms the sola Scriptura Protestant is comfortable with, terms with which Catholics -- whose principles of interpreting Scripture are quite different -- cannot come to grips. The result is an argument the Protestant unquestionable wins, as long as he's the one keeping score. And winning this argument is evidently important, I suspect because it discredits the Roman Catholic Church, and the claims the Roman Catholic Church makes about herself are such that you have to either discredit her, ignore her, or join her, and the honest Protestant would much prefer the first.

Debate on the Real Presence, meanwhile, is a much less clear-cut affair, which in the end would for the most part lead to the same end of discrediting the Church. So why choose the harder path?

If the above is roughly accurate, then my hypothesis about offering Mary to Protestants was incorrect. I'd replace it with this one: What the Church has to offer Protestants is the Eucharist. One way we can do this is by manifesting the centrality of the Eucharist to the Faith in such a way that non-sacramental Protestants cannot avoid or evade grappling with it as the primary significance of Catholicism. We should make the place of the Eucharist in our lives so evident that they cannot justify to themselves wasting effort on "Catholics worship statues" yawnfests, nor should we let them distract us with invitations to the stock Moebius-strip debates -- including those on the Eucharist.


Friday, June 03, 2005

Debate, woodpecker style

In tenth grade social studies class, we studied Marx's theory of Communism, then had to write rebuttals to it. After we presented our rebuttals, our teacher told us we had, for the most part, done a lousy job. We had countered small and easy details, while leaving Marx's foundational principles largely alone. The image our teacher used, which I expect he used every year he gave that assignment, was this: If you want to chop down a tree, you don't drill holes in the trunk; you saw through it at its base.

I am reminded of this when I encounter Protestants who, while rejecting both the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Marian dogmas of the Church, cannot stop expressing their dismay and concern that Catholics believe Mary is ever-virgin, because that seems to make her more like God (?!), yet have nothing to say about the fact that, in their opinion, we insist little pieces of bread are God.

I mean, on the list of Things That Worry Christians, wouldn't you think "idolatry" would rank higher than "tendentious interpretation of Koine Greek"?

I can understand the Marian doctrines being, as they often are, the last point of contention for people who are in the process of accepting the Catholic faith. But the first point of contention for people who aren't? It makes no sense to me.

In the conversations here over the past couple of weeks, though, I've come to suspect that, if what the Church has to give to the world is Christ, what she has to give to Protestants is Mary.


Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Our tainted nature's solitary boast

Rob Zerbe has asked a couple of times whether there's a meaningful distinction between worship of God and veneration of Mary.
It just seems to me the closer you put Mary on the same pedestal with the Godhead, the less distinguished they become.
Well, on the one hand, you might quote St. Augustine to the effect that "that service which is due to men, and in reference to which the apostle writes that servants must be subject to their own masters, is usually designated by another word in Greek [dulia], whereas the service which is paid to God alone by worship, is always, or almost always, called latreia"; then follow up with St. Thomas's elaboration:
Now servitude is due to God and to man under different aspects: even as lordship is competent to God and to man under different aspects. For God has absolute and paramount lordship over the creature wholly and singly, which is entirely subject to His power: whereas man partakes of a certain likeness to the divine lordship, forasmuch as he exercises a particular power over some man or creature.
On the other hand, you can grant that there certainly seem to be Catholics who don't seem to distinguish between God and Mary as objects of adoration. I'm not sure why this error is any more telling against the veneration of Mary than the error of vainglory tells against examining one's conscience, but there it is.

On the other hand, let me point out a very common error Rob makes, which often mystifies Catholics when they encounter it: He suggests that the Church's Marian dogmas "put Mary on the same pedestal with the Godhead." But what are the Marian dogmas?
  • Mary is the Mother of God
  • Mary is Ever-Virgin
  • Mary is the Immaculate Conception
  • Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven
How do these make Mary God-like? God is Spirit, so her physical motherhood doesn't make her more like God; on the other hand, we are all to bring forth Christ in the world, as truly if not as physically as did Mary. Lots of people are ever-virgin. Her immaculate conception makes her more like Adam and Eve than God, Who is not conceived. And yes, the Assumption makes her like her Son, but it also makes her like all the elect -- and unlike God, since an assumption implies a corporeal body.

So no, the Marian dogmas do not put Mary on a pedestal with God. They put her on a pedestal with mankind as God intended and intends mankind to be.