instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, August 25, 2006

Afterwards holy

Michaelus asks, "Who has a problem with St. Olaf?"

Who would dare? As Thomas J. Craughwell put it in Saints Behaving Badly:
The conversion of Norway proved to be a slow, tedious business, and Olaf was in a hurry to get the job done. With three hundred of his best men-at-arms he marched to those regions of Norway where resistance to Christianity was strongest. He destroyed pagan temples and smashed images of pagan gods. Anyone, of whatever rank, who would not abandon paganism risked execution, or blinding, or having a hand or foot lopped off. As Snorri tells us, the king "let none go unpunished who would not serve God."

It's interesting to note that Olaf's brutal, violent approach to converting a brutal, violent society worked. By 1030, Norway was a Christian country, nor did it backslide into paganism after Olaf's death.
Though not terribly popular in life, miracles after his death in battle (while trying to regain his throne, a common means of martyrdom for the saint-kings of the time) (and the miracles began pretty much immediately; there are reports of wounded soldiers being cured when they touched St. Olaf's blood while recovering his body) contributed to a very speedy canonization by his good friend Bishop Grimkell of Trondheim.

All the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle being kept up in the early eleventh century record his death, while MS C adds an express acknowledgement of his sanctity: "Her wæs Olaf cing ofslagen on Norwegon of his agenum folce [ond] wæs syððan halig," "In this year [1030] king Óláfr was killed in Norway by his own people, and was afterwards holy."
A lot of us, I think, sort of plan on being "syððan halig," though I don't know how many of us will be working miracles.


You will do well

We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
This is, of course, from the Second Epistle of St. Peter.

But it could also be part of the tract left on your doorstep by the Temple of Enlightened Venusian Consciousness.

This one verse shows both the need for and the limitations of Christian apologetics and catechesis. The need, because there are reasons to believe the Church rather than the Temple of Enlightened Venusian Consciousness, and the Church ought to be able to explain them.

The limitations, because in the end, Christianity is a matter of faith, and while faith can be found to be reliable, it cannot be proven so.

The need for apologetics and catechesis confers dignity; the limitations, risk -- in particular, the risk of presenting Christianity as a set of clever arguments in favor of a somewhat arbitrary set of rules. As, so to speak, a Faith-without-faith. And if faith without works is dead....


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

On the subject of adorable saints

Some people just don't look like they could possibly need much post-mortem prayer.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


Don't hate us because we're beatiful

Because, frankly, as a class Dominicans are no oil paintings. But there are exceptions.


Not coming this fall to Fox

Last week, I read a review copy of a book by Thomas J. Craughwell, Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints, due out in September.

The subtitle gives perhaps a better indication of the contents than the main title. There are twenty-eight brief biographies, about six pages on average, ranging from "Saint Matthew, Extortionist" to "Venerable Matt Talbot, Chronic Alcoholic." In his introduction, Craughwell explains the theme behind the selection:
At least since the nineteenth century many authors have gone out of their way to sanitize the lives of the saints, often glossing over the more embarrassing cases with the phrase "he/she was once a great sinner." I don't doubt the hagiographers' good intentions, but I can't help thinking it is misguided to edit out the wayward years of a saint's life...

The point of reading these stories is not to experience some tabloid thrill, but to understand how grace works in the world. Every day, all day long, God pours out his grace upon us, urging us, coaxing us, to turn away from everything that is base and cheap and unsatisfying, and turn toward the only thing that is eternal, perfect, and true -- that is, himself...

[The message of] great sinners who became great saints... is reassuring: if these people can be saved, then so can you!
And in fact, Craughwell records the facts (and the legends) in an admirably forthright, non-tabloid style. Bad behavior is understood broadly, ranging from "St. Vladimir, Fratricide, Rapist, and Practitioner of Human Sacrifice" to "St. Peter Claver, Dithering Novice," and in a couple of cases, the misbehavior may be entirely legendary.

The full list of saints:
  • St. Matthew, Extortionist
  • St. Dismas, Thief
  • St. Callixtus, Embezzler
  • St. Hippolytus, Antipope
  • St. Christopher, Servant of the Devil
  • St. Pelagia, Promiscuous Actress
  • St. Genesius, Scoffer
  • St. Moses the Ethiopian, Cutthroat and Gang Leader
  • St. Fabiola, Bigamist
  • St. Augustine, Heretic and Playboy
  • St. Alipius, Obsessed with Blood Sports
  • St. Patrick, Worshipper of False Gods
  • St. Mary of Egypt, Seductress
  • St. Columba, Warmonger
  • St. Olga, Mass Murderer
  • St. Vladimir, Fratricide, Rapist, and Practitioner of Human Sacrifice
  • St. Olaf, Viking
  • St. Thomas Becket, Hedonist
  • St. Francis of Assisi, Wastrel
  • Bl. Giles of Portugal, Satanist
  • St. Margaret of Cortona, Rich Man's Mistress
  • Bl. Angela of Foligno, Gossip and Hedonist
  • St. Ignatius of Loyola, Egotist
  • St. John of God, Gambler and Drunkard
  • St. Camillus de Lellis, Cardsharp and Con Man
  • St. Philip Howard, Cynic and Negligent Husband
  • St. Peter Claver, Dithering Novice
  • Ven. Matt Talbot, Chronic Alcoholic
As you can see, it's a varied list. Some of their stories are well-known, some relatively obscure.

I should point out that Craughwell leaves implicit what he calls the message of these stories, that no one is beyond salvation. There's very little editorializing, systematizing, or moralizing. Perhaps the closest he comes to this is in writing, "It is safe to say that under the formal process of canonization that has been in place in the Catholic Church for the last several hundred years, Olaf would never have made the cut."

Limiting Saints Behaving Badly to biography makes it a hard book to fault. It does raise some interesting questions -- not least what we today should say and think of St. Olaf -- without trying to answer them, but that leaves the reader free to come up with his own answers. And his own questions, too, for that matter.

I'd think this book could lead to some good discussions for a book club, and I intend to suggest it to my parish's DRE as a possible resource for teenage catechesis. (A few misbehaviors don't make suitable reading for younger children.)

There's a five page bibliography, so although you could get the gist of most of these lives at e.g. Saints O' the Day, most of the sketches are more extensive and detailed than you're likely to find online.



Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Dairy of a Country Priest

After the milking this morning, I noticed that Mme. Bessie had remained behind, standing quietly in the shadows by the side entrance. She is a Guernsey, a proud member of a breed my own people have been bred to treat with reverence. Only with great effort did I refrain from bowing my head respectfully as I addressed her, "Git along."

Mme. Bessie did not move. She may not have even heard me, or noticed. She appeared lost in thought, and from her flowed the gentle melancholy of her kind, a conditional resignation to the ways of the world, with yet a hint of resistance, folded upon itself like a creased but unsealed letter which might be read at any time.

As I watched her, I searched my own heart for such a note: the mere awareness of what was, not rising to indignation, but silently marking indignity, which itself points to the dignity overlooked by the world. I felt that I should offer Mme. Bessie some small gesture of comfort, which would redound to my own comfort, yet I feared to presume on her fellow-feeling. And so I merely said, "Ha, cow!," and waved my hand ineffectually.

After a long moment, as though to impress upon me that it was her choice and none of my doing -- which, were she but to understand, she would find is entirely how I would have all the cows treat me -- she turned slowly and lumbered at a stately pace through the double doors. A prayer of thanksgiving for this humiliation reached my lips, but I did not speak it, for I know well I am too worthless to deserve to be humbled.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

The forgotten virtue

Severity: the habit of being "inflexible in the infliction of punishment when right reason requires it."

In Sr. Kathleen, my elementary school principal, this virtue often expressed itself in the form of a stunning shoulder clamp from behind. In her humility, she allowed us to believe this wasn't a good thing.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Vestition Video



Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Last Will and Testament

St. Dominic's "last will and testament" was recorded in Peter of Ferrand's Legend, an adaptation of Bl. Jordan's Libellus with certain additional historical details.
"My very dear brothers," he said, "this is what I leave to you as a possession to be held by right of inheritance by you, my children. Have charity, preserve humility, and possess voluntary poverty." What a testament of peace, a testament never to be erased from the memory or modified by any later codicil.
There is a somewhat more expansive treatment of this theme here, which though treating of the same three bequests is of more doubtful provenance. (As the editor's note says, "Authorities have conflicting views on the authenticity, attribution, and utility of the document.")

In any case, charity, humility, and poverty were central to St. Dominic's own understanding of his Order. As J. B. O'Connor, OP, put it in his Saint Dominic and the Order of Preachers: is apparent that the founder of the Friars Preachers did not esteem poverty a whit less than his brother saint, the Seraphic Francis. But, unlike his saintly friend, he valued it principally as an effective means for the attainment of the ends of his apostolate. His attitude in this respect was based upon a twofold motive -- principle and expediency... As a matter of expediency, it was necessary that his followers be free from all incumbrances and the preoccupations which the possession of property entails, that they might enjoy a greater opportunity for study and possess the mobility necessary for the activities of their apostolate. Poverty, then, St. Dominic regarded as a means to an end; and if he expressed himself with the utmost vehemence in regard to those who should be unfaithful to its obligations, it was only because he foresaw that such infidelity meant the failure of their vocation as Friars Preachers. But he was farsighted enough to see that circumstances might arise which would render a rigorous observance of poverty a serious impediment to the work of saving souls, and he was broad-minded enough to meet this difficulty, as well as others of a similar nature, by placing in the hands of all superiors the constitutional power of dispensation.
It was said during his canonization process that, at the sight of some friars building on to a convent whose cells were so small they couldn't stand up straight in them, St. Dominic wept that they should so quickly abandon their vow of poverty:
At St. Nicholas, the cells of the brethren were quite plain and small. Therefore, Brother Ralph, the procurator, began to heighten some of them the length of an arm (Brother Dominic was away at the time). When Dominic returned and saw the higher cells, he began to weep; he rebuked Ralph and the other brethren many times, saying to them: "So soon you want to abandon poverty and build great palaces!" Hence, he ordered them to stop the work; it remained unfinished while he lived. As he himself loved poverty, so he loved to see it cherished by his brethren.
But that doesn't mean he would necessarily weep at the sight of the large, multi-story priories many of his sons and daughters now live in.

My guess is the first thing he'd ask is that his statues be moved out of sight.


Q&A to chew on

Q: What's a Franciscan's favorite grace?
"Father, all good things are of your making.
As we share these gifts of creation,
make us aware of your constant presence in our lives.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Q: What's a Jesuit's favorite grace?
"You do have an Eighty-Two Château Latour left? Thank God!"

Q: What's a Dominican's favorite grace?


A hopeful death

Bl. Jordan of Saxony records the death of St. Dominic thusly:
Meanwhile, at Bologna, Master Dominic's pilgrimage on this earth was drawing to a close and he became seriously ill. On his deathbed he summoned twelve of the more prudent brethren and, after exhorting them to be zealous in promoting the Order and persevering in holiness, he warned them against any questionable association with women, especially the young, whose attractions can be a snare for souls not solidly rooted in purity. "Behold," he said, "up to this hour the grace of God has kept my flesh unsullied; yet I confess to not escaping the fault that talks with young women affected my heart more than conversations with those who were older."
[A Spaniard to the end. And a true Christian, appreciative of the physical order yet striving for perfect charity toward all.]
Before his death he also assured his brethren that he would be of more benefit to them after death than in life, for he knew the one to whom he had entrusted the treasure of his labors and fruitful life. As for the rest, he was certain that there was laid up for him a crown of justice which would increase his power to obtain requests the more firmly it rooted him in the Lord's power.
As a result of fever and dysentery, he grew weaker and weaker, until, at last, that pious soul departed from its body and returned to the Lord, Who had given it. In return for a mournful dwelling, he received the eternal consolation of a home in heaven.
His promise to be of more benefit after death than in life is recalled in the processional O Spem Miram:
V. O wonderful hope which you gave to those who wept for you at the hour of your death, promising after your departure to be helpful to your children.
R. Fulfill, father, what you have said and help us by your prayers.
V. You who shone by so many miracles worked on the bodies of the sick, bring us the help of Christ to heal our sick souls.
R. Fulfill, father, what you have said and help us by your prayers.
V. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
R. Fulfill, father, what you have said and help us by your prayers.
V. Blessed Father Dominic, pray for us.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray. O God, who did enlighten your Church with the merits and teaching of blessed Dominic, your confessor and our father; grant at his intercession that we may not be wanting in temporal help, and may always increase in spiritual growth.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.
Go here to listen to the Dominican Nuns of Estavayer-le-Lac sing the Salve Regina and the O Spem Miram (starts about 3:50 in) as they process to Our Lady's altar after Compline.


Everything primitive is new again

I've glanced at the Primitive Constitutions of the Order of Friars Preachers before, and I've adopted the view (acquired from fr. Simon Tugwell, OP) that these constitutions represent St. Dominic's major lasting gift to the Church (insofar as they're the means by which his concept of an order of preachers would endure past his death).

There's a lot of interest in the document -- particularly if you're a Dominican, of course. I used substantially the same formula of profession friars were using back in the 1230s (though in my Lay Dominican Chapter we don't prostrate ourselves before asking for God's mercy and the prior's (who is for us a moderator)). Some of it is interesting for antiquarians, and some from the perspective of imagining it were in force today:
XVII -- Scandal
If anyone shall have scandalized his brother in any way, he shall lie prostrate at his feet until the one offended is pleased to raise him.
Since reporting faults -- one's own and those of others -- was a big part of community life under the old constitutions, a lot of attention is given to enumerating "lighter," "grave," and "more grave" faults. They range from "To deny or affirm anything with an oath, as some do in speaking" (light), through "To reproach a brother for a past fault for which he has made satisfaction" (grave), and "To strike anyone" (more grave), up to the "most grave fault":
The most grievous fault is the incorrigibility of one who does not fear to admit his guilt, but refuses the penalty.
Such a one was to be kicked out of the Order; not even apostasy carried that penalty.

Though read cold on an August morning, some faults may sound frivolous (e.g., "To sleep during the class lectures"), they all reflect deep wisdom about the discipline that must be preserved and the charity that must be manifested if an order of preachers is to flourish.


Open mic day

Dominicans don't think of St. Dominic primarily as a founder or exemplar, as a historical figure or icon. He is "our Holy Father Dominic."

But if he is our father, he isn't really ours, in an exclusive sense. His office speaks of God giving St. Dominic to the Church, which is not only what happened, but what has to continue to happen. The Order of Preachers was not founded and does not persist in order to extract from the general population everyone with a sufficiently Dominican spirituality. It exists to focus, to reinforce, and to strengthen the charism of holy preaching.

A charism has two essential parts: it is a gift from God; it is given for the good of the Church. Sometimes the second part gets forgotten, or at least downplayed.

But for Dominicans today to be good children of our Holy Father Dominic -- and to be a good child is to be a faithful image; just ask Our Lord -- we must be directed toward "preaching and the salvation of souls," in the words of the Primitive Constitutions of the Friars. It may be possible to be directed toward some kinds of preaching -- though not the "holy preaching" Dominicans speak of -- without being directed toward the good of others, but if your business is the salvation of souls then you're directed outwards.

And it's this direction that measures the quality of the Dominican's preaching -- which, again, is to be a "holy preaching," a preaching consecrated to God through prayer, study, and community. There are other ways to holiness, certainly, and there are other ways to holy preaching, but the Dominican way is this particular way, a balanced composite that, if each part is maintained, is sure to produce good fruit.


Being becoming

A couple of weeks ago, Fr. Greg proposed 1 Chronicles 16:29 as "God's dress code for Church":
Worship the Lord in holy attire.
It's an interesting verse. "Worship the Lord in holy attire," is, of course, the New American Bible translation. The Vulgate is, "Adorate Dominum in decore sancto," which Douay Rheims renders, "Adore the Lord in holy becomingness." Other translations have "holy array," "the splendor of holiness," "the beauty of holiness," and even "reverent grace."

"Holy attire" is good for making the point that how we dress for Mass matters. That expression could be rendered informally as "church clothes," since to be holy is to be dedicated to God. The idea that what we wear to Mass should be something set aside, not to be used for non-religious purposes, is ... well, okay, it's extreme, except for priests, deacons, and altar servers. But the idea that our participation at Mass is a liturgical act, and that therefore how we dress for Mass is also a liturgical matter, isn't so much extreme as unthought.

What I like about the Douay Rheims's "holy becomingness" is that it encompasses attire but extends much further. We speak of a becoming modesty, a becoming honesty, a becoming gratitude -- in short, becomingness encompasses both physical appearance and the appearance of virtue.

We should worship the Lord, then, not only in our good clothes, but in our good habits. (Of course, for some people, their clothes are habits, but you see what I mean.)


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What not to wear

Talking about what people should wear to Mass can be a dicey undertaking. Too often, it winds up as talking about what other people shouldn't wear, and that soil doesn't easily yield good fruit.

It can also wind up as telling other people what they should wear, which is often more rock than soil. "Fellow parishioner" is not a role conferring great authority in personal matters.

My guess is the reason people really don't like to be told how to dress for Mass is related to the reason that how people dress for Mass really is important. In a congregation, my appearance is what individuates me from everyone else; it's what makes me, in the eyes of someone else, this person rather than some other person, or no particular person at all. To a certain extent, saying I am wearing the wrong clothes is saying I am not choosing to be the person I ought to choose to be.

That may well be true, of course, but "You are not choosing to be the person you ought to choose to be" is not something most people have the standing to tell most people.

Another thing about conversations on how people dress at Mass is that, when people do give generalized advice, it often comes out sounding something like this: "Men, don't wear shorts. Women, don't dress like whores." That is, the question is treated as a question of propriety (or even of merely following a checklist) for men, but for women it becomes a question of modesty.

I fully realize modesty is not a besetting virtue of our culture, and that for a variety of reasons it's more of an issue for women and girls than for men and boys. But immodesty is just one reason clothes can be inappropriate for Mass, and I suspect using it to distinguish between women (and girls) and men (and boys) just gives people another reason not to listen. When the criticism directed at men is objective -- "You're wearing shorts!" -- and the criticism directed at women is subjective -- "You look like a tramp!" -- people may wonder whether there's more going on than an unbiased application of sound principles of propriety.


Coming soon to a city near me

You, too, if there's a city near you with a chapter of Third Order Dominicans of the Eastern U.S. Province. Each chapter in the Province has started, or will soon start, what we call a Siena Circle, a bible-sharing program originally developed by Fr. John Burke, OP.

Br. Bruno Shah, OP, a student brother at the Dominican House of Studies, has been assigned to work with the lay chapters on this program for the summer. I attended a workshop he gave last weekend on the theology of Bible sharing -- principally the theology of Scripture, but there's also theology involved in sharing Scripture -- and was very impressed by his learning and passion. Br. Bruno describes his assignment in a brief post on the Province's vocations blog.


A temperamental distinction

Peter Nixon, blogging at dotCommonweal, proposes a capital formula on the ever-vexing question of labeling Catholics:
If there is a single question that underlies what we might term the "liberal" tendency within the Church, it would be "Is the Gospel being heard?"
If there is a single question that underlies what we might term the "conservative" tendency within the Church, it would be "Is the Gospel being heard?"
As he illustrates with examples from Apostolic and Patristic times, these are two tendencies that have always existed in the Church. He goes on to suggest that individuals with one tendency ought to check their positions against the other:
Those whose instincts lead them to intone "Fidelity! Fidelity! Fidelty!" need to ask Paul's question about whether certain beliefs and practices are as inextricably linked to the Gospel as they believe. Those sympathetic to the "Pauline" question might do well to ask whether they are presenting the fullness of Christ or a pallid imitation that merely reflects culture rather than challenging it.
Let me just add that those with one tendency ought also to check their positions against their own tendency. Concern that the Gospel be heard can devolve into concern that the position statement be approved by consensus. Concern that the Gospel be heard can devolve into concern that the latest interview of a favored bishop be heard.

Oh, and this: Even if a particular temperament is properly associated with a particular group of people -- as above, or as in Chesterton's "progressives want to make new mistakes, conservatives want to keep making old ones" -- that doesn't mean everyone associated with the group has that temperament. "Non serviam" temperaments, for example, can make a home just about anywhere.