instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Word To Our Readers


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Two for the price of none

So if you can forsake God without necessarily becoming an idolater, can you become an idolater without necessarily forsaking God?

Of course! Who hasn't?

These days, few gods are jealous. Your belly and your television are broadminded; they'll let you slouch toward church for an hour or so on Sunday without much worse than a "Come back soon!" In some cases, certain gods, like pride and anger, even seem to enjoy accompanying you.

The real question isn't whether you can become an idolater without forsaking God, but whether you can become an idolater without God forsaking you.

Okay, the answer to that question is no, He won't, but that doesn't make it okay to build your own cistern.

And even if it were okay, it would be nonsensical. God is the Source of living waters. Even if you could build a cistern that held water, what would be the point? Is that water going to be better than the living waters of God? Will it give you something good that you won't get from the Fountain?


They have changed their glory for useless things

Today's first reading includes an imaginatively expressed complaint by God about His people:
Be amazed at this, O heavens, and shudder with sheer horror, says the LORD.

Two evils have my people done:
  1. They have forsaken me, the source of living waters.
  2. They have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water.
It's interesting that Israel's idolatry is expressed as two evils, that forsaking God is an evil distinct from embracing Baal. This is consistent with the Jewish tradition that, "I am the LORD your God," and, "You shall have no other gods before me," are two distinct commandments.

It also suggests a person might commit one evil without committing the other. That's not how I usually think of things, but then I usually think of idolatry in very general terms, that any good whatsoever (including the virtue of religion) sought ahead of God can be considered an idol.

In Jeremiah's day, though, idolatry meant idolatry. And certainly you can forsake God without literally worshipping an idol.

We might interpret the image of water in this passage as signifying the graces and blessings God provides to those who live [I made the common mistake of first typing "love"] according to His statutes. To forsake the Source of living waters is to declare that you don't need His graces and blessings.

Why might someone think they don't need God's graces and blessings? Let us list the ways:
  • They don't need any graces and blessings.
  • God has no graces and blessings to give.
  • God will give them graces and blessings even after they've forsaken Him.
  • They can manufacture their own graces and blessings.
  • They can get the graces and blessings somewhere else.
Note that only the last two imply the second evil of idolatry. If you don't think you need water, you aren't going to build a cistern.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My soul clings to You

After Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus in the garden on the morning of His resurrection, He said to her, "Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father."

According to St. Matthew, Mary (along with "the other Mary") had embraced His feet and done Him homage. This seems a natural enough reaction to seeing her once-dead Master alive before her, and in fact Jesus might come off seeming a bit brusque and businesslike in a moment that should have been a joyful and tender reunion.

But why was Mary at the tomb that morning to begin with? St. Luke indicates it was to complete the burial that had been interrupted by the Sabbath. Mary had been planning on perfuming her Lord's body and wrapping it up properly, a very intimate and tactile expression of her love.

Embracing Jesus' feet, then, was much along the lines of what she had planned since Friday. The circumstances were obviously indescribably happier, but might we not suppose she was still motivated by a desire -- excellent in itself, but still purely natural -- she had felt for days, that she embraced Him not as her Lord and her God but merely as her Master somehow restored?

If so, then Jesus' words -- which, incidentally, we don't need to think He spoke the instant she embraced Him -- would have been less a command to stop what she was doing and more of an invitation to see beyond the master-disciple relationship of the previous week and into the brother-sister relationship of the children of God. (Note how He goes on to tell her, not, "go to My disciples," but, "go to My brothers.")


Monday, July 21, 2008

Found humor

For years, the spellcheck at didn't recognize the word "blog." That was corrected a while ago.

I've just noticed the dictionary doesn't recognize the word "homilist." The suggested corrections include the good ("holiest"), the bad ("humiliate"), and the ugly ("homeliest").


More weeds

The homilist I heard yesterday mentioned that the "weeds" of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares look a lot like wheat -- a point also made by St. John Chrysostom:
For indeed this also is a part of the devil's craft, by the side of the truth always to bring in error, painting thereon many resemblances, so as easily to cheat the deceivable. Therefore He calls it not any other seed, but tares; which in appearance are somewhat like wheat.
And the NAB:
Weeds: darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat.

If I'd heard that before, I'd forgotten it. But it certainly does raise the stakes of the parable. The enemy isn't just being a nuisance, as he'd have been if he'd sown dandelions. He's being downright dangerous. The owner of the field could have been ruined, either by trying to pull the weeds too soon (and possibly pulling up too much wheat) or by allowing the poisonous plants to be gathered along with the good plants.

Extending this early similarity between good and evil from the world down into our hearts gives another reason God may be slower than we like in bringing us to perfection: we may not be as good as we think we are at telling the difference between what will bear good fruit in our lives and what will bear evil.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Self-similar weeds

"He who sows good seed is the Son of Man," Jesus explains to His disciples, "the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil."

That's the world in a nutshell, right? The good and the bad, side by side.

It's also the Church. The good and the bad, side by side.

It's also each of us. The good and the bad, side by side. We each bring forth good deeds begotten by God, and also evil deeds begotten by the devil.

It's also many of our individual acts. The good motive and the bad, side by side.

The eschatological perfection of the world this parable foretells may also explain why God doesn't seem eager to make us perfect as He is perfect. As it is the nature of a seed to grow into a fruitful plant, so it is the nature of a human to grow into a perfect child of God, and forcefully uprooting the weeds in our nature -- weeds, let us not forget, that we ourselves have nurtured -- may also uproot the good plants through which we are to be perfected.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Our help is in the Name of the Lord

In the last post, I plagiarized Psalm 146:
Put no trust in princes,
In mortal men in whom there is no help.
Take their breath, they return to clay
and their plans that day come to nothing.
For years, I've regarded this as sound, if sour, advice. The ways in which other people can turn to clay on us just when we need them are legion.

Still, to survive, much less thrive, we need to trust those around us. We need to have faith to some degree in our parents and teachers, we need to believe those who love us do love us, we need to trust our neighbors not to be perversely trying to harm us. And for the most part, for most people, such ordinary trust is well founded enough to get through the day.

Clearly, the psalmist is not advising against that sort of private or social trust. But neither, I'm coming to believe, is he merely advising against an overdependence on human reliability.

Rather, to say "put no trust in princes" is to say "put all trust in God."

And not merely in a passive way, either. The Holy Spirit didn't inspire the psalmist to remind us that
It is the Lord who keeps faith for ever,
who is just to those who are oppressed.
It is he who gives bread to the hungry,
the Lord, who sets prisoners free,
the Lord who gives sight to the blind,
who raises up those who are bowed down,
the Lord, who protects the stranger
and upholds the widow and orphan,
just so we would say, "Boy, that God sure is powerful." This is an invitation for each of us to see how we ourselves are oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, blind, bowed down. God is telling us that we need not be strangers, widows, and orphans, but can become His adopted children. And we do this by acting as children of the Father, by depending on Him for everything just as young children depend on their human fathers.

Which is not by regarding our trust in God as a practical matter. You don't need faith or trust to see that God, being God, can provide you with what you need; you just need to know what being God means. What God wants, I think, is the faith in Him that sees that God, being a loving Father, will provide you with what you need.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Have no anxiety at all

Think of something you desire that you know, expect, or hope to obtain. Who do you know, expect, or hope will cause you to obtain it?

I'd say the choices boil down to "humans" and/or "God." (Angels act as agents of God, and if you're counting on a demon to obtain something you desire... that's a different post.) (You might also know, expect, or hope to obtain something via impersonal natural causes, or even just chance, but I'll treat both as special cases of God's actions.)

Imagine a little compartment in your heart that provides the fuel for your knowledge, expectations, and hopes of obtaining things. In general, it will contain a mixture of two fuels, reliance on humans and reliance on God.

Now, on which of these fuels do our hearts run better?

Reliance on humans leads to anxiety. Reliance on God leads to peace.

But it's more than that, I think. In a sense, reliance on God is peace, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. To put not your trust in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation, instead to have your hope in the Lord your God, is to have a well-ordered heart, and as you know peace is the tranquility of order. And the very experience of God's peace, the presence of that grace in our hearts, enables us to grow in reliance on Him.

Of course, the reliance on God to which we are called doesn't amount to quietism, nor is God's peace a kind of torpor or dormancy. In practice, the two fuels I've pictured above mix; we rely on both God and ourselves to obtain food, for example. But the proper reliance on ourselves and other humans is conditional on and secondary to a reliance on the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A religion of peace

Do you ever think that Jesus could have expressed Himself with greater felicity when He said:
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword."
Someone (Mark Twain?) wrote a dialog in which Jesus explains this statement by saying, "I was misquoted." And who doesn't prefer the "Peace on Earth" message of Luke's infancy narrative to this business of swords and division?

Ah, but whatever our Christmas cards might say, the message of Luke's infancy narrative isn't, "Peace on Earth." It's, "On Earth peace to those on whom His favor rests." (Or, "on earth peace to men of good will," if you prefer the Douay-Rheims.)

Then there's the curious instruction Jesus gives His Apostles as He sends them out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel:
As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you.
This echoes Sunday's First Reading from Isaiah:
Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
In imitation of their Master, the Apostles wish peace upon those they meet, but not all are worthy of it. The peace that returns from an unworthy house to an Apostle achieves its end, that of signifying the house's unworthiness.

St. Paul writes of the peace that surpasses all understanding, but again context matters:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
It's the peace of God that guards the Christian -- if the Christian is worthy of that peace, and worth is proven by having no anxiety and praying and thanking God for everything.

Those who prefer to think Jesus was misquoted when He said He came to bring the sword will be obliged to think misquotes abound throughout the New Testament when it touches on the topic of peace.

The peace we should not think Jesus came to bring the world is peace as the world understands it: a sort of coincidental concord, perhaps, in which no one happens to be striving against another's personal interests. (Even further from His intention was to end all war, a political goal that requires a political solution (He'll handle that at the Second Coming).)


Friday, July 11, 2008

Let him who is wise understand these things

Today's first reading from Hosea ends with these words:
Straight are the paths of the LORD,
in them the just walk,
but sinners stumble in them.
Usually, I think, sinners are said to be those who aren't on the paths of the LORD at all, as for example when Jesus contrasts the broad road that leads to destruction and the constricted road that leads to life.

We might infer from Hosea one reason sinners usually avoid the paths of the LORD: When they're on them, they stumble. Walking along the constricted road is painful and humiliating. Who wants that?

No one, really, but if you have an idea of where the path leads, then you're willing to put up with falling seven times, because you can rise again and not stumble to ruin.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What did Jesus do?

Mark 3:31-35 (with parallels Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 8:19-21) is a hard passage for the Catholic discussing the place of Mary in the Church with a Protestant:
His mother and his brothers arrived. Standing outside they sent word to him and called him.

A crowd seated around him told him, "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you."

But he said to them in reply, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"

And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
Even more vexing is Luke 11:27-28:
While he was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed."

He replied, "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it."
Commenting on the passage in Mark, Theophylact offers the stock Catholic answer to why all this doesn't make veneration of Mary unbiblical:
He does not therefore say this, as denying His mother, but as showing that she is worthy of honor, not only because she bore Christ, but on account of her possessing every other virtue.
That line of argument will be more or less convincing depending on circumstances, but let me ask: What could Jesus have said that would have made the Catholic apologist's job simple?

To take the simpler passage from Luke 11, Jesus could have merely said, "Also," instead of, "Rather." Or, if you prefer to think of it this way, Luke could have written "Also" instead of "Rather"; after all, he'd already written Mary as saying all generations will call her blessed. That way, instead of Jesus correcting someone who was blessing Mary, He'd have been adding to what she said.

The obvious follow-on question is: Why didn't Jesus say that? Why, when He was presented with opportunities to preach good Catholic devotion to Mary, did He turn the conversation completely away from that devotion?

As you'd expect, I don't think the answer is that Catholic devotion to Mary is contrary to Christ's will. But neither do I think the answer suggested by Theophylact and echoed by countless others -- that He was broadening the praise of His mother beyond the physical realm into the moral and spiritual -- gets at the whole story.

When Jesus was told His mother and brothers were outside, He was in Capernaum, still in the early days of His ministry (Mark puts the story right after He chose the Twelve Apostles). No one had any real idea Who Jesus truly was (Peter's confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi comes four chapters later in Matthew, five chapters later in Mark).

Jesus' public mission was to reveal His Father, and it wasn't easy. As late as the night before He died, Philip could still say to Him, "Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."

What would have happened if, long before the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles ("and Mary the mother of Jesus") at Pentecost, long before the Apostles even knew that Jesus was the Messiah, He had directed their attention to His mother -- even to the extent of interrupting a sermon to speak with her?

It seems to me that would have only muddled His revelation and confused His disciples. The honor due to the Mother of God is a direct corollary of Jesus' self-revelation; to bring up the corollary before the primary lesson is known ill-befits the wise teacher.

So it's not just that Jesus didn't happen to respond in these situations in a manner that makes it easy to demonstrate the scriptural basis for veneration of Mary. It's that He shouldn't have responded that way. He wasn't composing a catechism. He was revealing His Father, and He left it to those to whom He revealed the Father to discover that the light of the Father reveals the light of the mother.

Catholics shouldn't try to paper over the development of Marian doctrine that can be found even within the New Testament. We shouldn't find these Gospel passages challenging to what we believe about the Mother of God, when they in part determine what we believe about her.

Instead, we should recognize that the very development that has occurred -- which I'd say Catholics must admit was intended by God to occur over time and not simply be given by Jesus as an explicit teaching -- teaches us important lessons about both the place of Mary (i.e., both logically and historically, distinctly after Jesus) and the nature of Jesus' revelation (i.e., completed but unfolding in time).


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Pauline alphabet

The Dominican brothers at Godzdogz are hitting the Pauline Year theme hard, having begun the series "A-Z of Paul." So far, they haveThey've also promised a Pauline response to the New Atheism later on.