Dominicana (Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph)
Being alone. It’s that all-too-familiar human experience. It lies at the root of our fears, ultimately making the vast wilderness frightening and the dark so haunting. The unnerving experience of being alone often descends upon men and women and has the power to paralyze them or otherwise entrap them in illusions of helpless desperation or worse, despair.
For many ancient philosophers, embracing solitude and approaching “the alone” purifies man. Plotinus—a follower of Plato—writes, “This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of the earth, passing from the alone to the alone.” This mystical account of the acquisition of knowledge describes how Plotinus views the human condition and ultimately man’s final end. For Plotinus, the human person pursues knowledge, since he is, after all, a rational creature and capable of knowing things as they truly are. Ultimately, though, man will find peace only by drawing in upon himself and thereby mystically returning to the One, the source of all things.
For Saint Augustine, on the other hand, something markedly different happens in the Christian life. As one who admires and reflects much of the thought of Plotinus, Augustine offers a radical re-interpretation of Plotinus’s teaching, in light of the Gospel. For Saint Augustine, the human person finds rest not in being alone, but by being alone with.
Perhaps the most beautiful example of this line of thinking in Augustine comes from his Confessions. Just before the death of his mother, Saint Monica, Augustine describes a mystical experience they shared together at the port of Ostia. He writes,
We proceeded step by step through all bodily things up to that heaven whence shine the sun and the moon and the stars down upon the earth. We ascended higher yet by means of inward thought and discourse and admiration of [God’s] works, and we came up to our own minds. We transcended them, so that we attained to the region of abundance that never fails, in which [God] feed[s] Israel forever upon the food of truth, and where is that Wisdom by which all these things are made, both which have been and which are to be.
The beautiful language of Augustine conveys not only the overwhelming nature of the experience, but also a truth at the very core of Christianity. Christians never live out their call of discipleship alone in a solitary vacuum. Even hermits are bound by their prayers and by a particular relationship with Christ to the community of believers.
For Augustine, to be Christian means that we are never truly alone. As he recounts his vision, he tells his readers, “We were alone, conversing together most tenderly.” Augustine shared perhaps the most absorbing mystical experience of his life with his mother. They were by themselves, together, but not isolated.
The Christian tradition vividly teaches this truth expressed by Augustine. The clarion call to live lives imbued with charity demands the companionship of family and community. Discipleship means joining with the other members of the body, working alongside the other laborers in the vineyard. In a truly mysterious way, intimately coming to know the revelation of God calls us Christians out of ourselves. United in Christ, fellow believers standing side by side, together we climb ever onward toward the eternal place where we shall see God as he is.
Image: Timothy Boocock, Staring at the Milkyway Galaxy in Trysil, Norway
A friend once asked me about the thought process that went into my decision to join the Dominican Order. “To be honest, I actually didn’t think much about it,” was my reply. Before I could proceed to explain, my friend interrupted, “Well, that’s hard to believe! Isn’t it your job as a Dominican to think? It doesn’t seem fitting for someone joining the Dominican Order to not think about his vocation.”
I was taken aback for a moment. On the one hand, I was confident in the huge choice I made for my life—I did in fact have a desire to become a Dominican friar—on the other hand, my friend was truly concerned with what appeared to be an irrational and hasty decision. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t subject my mind to a careful screening process or scrutinize all available options in order to figure out the right plan for my life. Well, I certainly have had some time to think about this brief exchange of words.
The objection raised by my friend concerning the need to think carefully before acting is very reasonable and wise. Indeed, one must not jump to conclusions without seeking the right counsel and obtaining all the necessary facts. This is called prudence—it’s about putting all the pieces together. But how does one know when all the pieces have been gathered together without entering into an infinite regress? How does one even know whether all the pieces are from the same box?
At the other end of the spectrum is a “wait-and-see” approach to discernment. It’s about waiting for the right moment, the right opportunity, and then pouncing on it. It’s the Whack-a-Mole game—wait for the little guy to pop up and then wham! You win the big money. All the options are out in front, and I just wait for a sign to help me take the next step.
Looking back at our biggest decisions in life, can we ever say that we’ve given them enough thought? In one sense, I did think about my vocation. Or to be more precise, I pondered my vocation, and I am still pondering it. But in pondering the meaning of my vocation, I do not think so much about getting it right with God, but about the right that God does. I did not create myself, my family members, my friends, my neighbors, or the Dominican friars. God created them all and continues to work through them.
In reply to my friend, I suppose I did have a thought process going into my discernment, just not the kind he expected. I thought not about the various possibilities for my life, which can be close to infinite; rather, I thought about God and pondered the great things He has done for me and for others, especially for my family, friends, neighbors, and the Dominican friars. God does an infinite amount for us for which we should be thankful.
In another sense, I can say that I did jump right into the Dominican life almost in an instant. I got baited and hooked, like a fish in the ocean. I saw something beautiful fluttering about so I came in for a closer look. I bit into the dangling lure of the consecrated life and then, all of sudden, was drawn up out of the water. It was Dominic who caught me, and he put me securely in the boat of the Fisherman.
Image: Mikhail Nesterov, St Paphnutius of Borovsk
The second of a series of three interviews with Fr. Nageeb Michael, OP, this video focuses on the current suffering of Iraqi Christians. Fr. Nageeb speaks at length about the current persecution of the Christian community in his homeland and even introduces his viewers to priests he knows personally who were killed for the Christian faith. The interview concludes with a plea for solidarity with and prayers for the Christian community of Iraq.
When we look back on the past, it is sometimes tempting to think of historical events as having a certain inevitability: because they happened in the way they did, it was necessary that they happen in such a way. With the aid of hindsight, we can discern how certain cultural movements or personalities influenced particular events or individuals and draw out connections and causalities that may even have been latent at the time. In itself, this can be a useful and fruitful exercise, especially when we consider the providential hand of God who is able to draw good even out of the evil actions of men.
In undertaking this exercise, however, it is always necessary to recall that the human beings involved in historical events acted freely, making contingent decisions whose consequences they had the opportunity to either consider or ignore. Just as we ourselves are free at the present moment to decide whether to continue to spend our time contemplating the mists of history as we peruse this blog or to give way to some more fruitful activity, so too the individuals whose lives and works we consider had the freedom to choose how they would respond to the situations in which they found themselves.
When we look back on an event that has happened, it is helpful to consider not only that it happened, but also to consider what motivations and circumstances contributed to an individual’s decision to act well or ill. What they have written they have written, but it is fruitful to consider not only the words that have been preserved but the anguish and joy that went into them.
One phenomenon that is fruitful to consider, both in past events and our current circumstances, is that of doubt. Often times, we think of doubt as something unhelpful or distracting, something that takes away from the self-confidence and drive that is indispensable for achieving greatness. In the 2010 On Heaven and Earth, a book-length dialogue between then Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka of Buenos Aires, our present Holy Father articulated a different view of this matter:
The great leaders of the people of God were men that left room for doubt. Going back to Moses, he is the most humble character that there was on Earth. Before God, no one else remained more humble, and he that wants to be a leader of the people of God has to give God His space; therefore to shrink, to recede into oneself with doubt, with the interior experiences of darkness, of not knowing what to do, all of that ultimately is very purifying.
In his recent biography of St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., devotes ample attention to the doubts and crises that plagued St. Francis throughout his life. Far from detracting from Francis’s sanctity, Thompson suggests that an accurate understanding of the difficulties that Francis went through in deciding how to act are of tremendous importance for appreciating his life and witness:
It is, I think, misleading to assimilate him to some stereotyped image of “holiness,” especially one that suggests that a “saint” never has crises of faith, is never angry or depressed, never passes judgments, and never becomes frustrated with himself or others. Francis’s very humanity makes him, I think, more impressive and challenging than a saint who embodied that (impossible) kind of holiness.
Doubt can be a source not only of indecision but more profoundly of purification, for it forces us to consider more deeply the motivations and circumstances of the exercise of our freedom. Doubt is not something to be sought for its own sake, but when it comes we can make the most of the experience by entrusting ourselves to the Lord who is able to make all things work together for the good for those who love him.
Image: Henry Walton, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)
Life in prison without parole. With this sentence the murder trial of Kermit Gosnell has come to an end. Yet another horrific, unmentionable injustice has been addressed by our nation’s legal system. The murder of infants had tipped the golden scales of justice, but with the piercing percussion of a swift gavel strike, the balance was restored. Next case. Could it be that justice is so easy?
No matter the sacral trappings of his legal authority, man’s judicial machinery has always been rather crude and cacophonous in its operation, sputtering and lurching forward, stretching a palsied finger to balance the unbalanceable and right the unrightable. We have known all along that the pure and polished scales are held only by the gods. They hang from the outstretched arms of Justitia, Themis, and Dike, far above the grasp of Judy, Brown, and Mathis.
Intuitively we know that justice requires more than we mortal men can muster. Who can truly fix the shattering blow of the murder, the betrayal, the lie? The shattering impact of injustice forever marks the past, its shards slice through the fabric of the future, and its stain lingers presently on the soul, debased and alienated by its vicious act. How can Gosnell give back the life he took from Baby A, Baby B, Baby C, Baby D, and the countless unlettered babies he slaughtered inside and outside the womb? He cannot. Restitution is impossible. A thousand lives spent in a thousand prisons will not restore what he has taken, and neither would his execution restore the balance. For justice we must look to another.
The old goddesses were destroyed when the light of Christ revealed their nihility, but their scales did not fall into just any mortal hands. They were caught by the Word made flesh, to whom all judgment has been given by the Father. Of course, his mission is firstly that of rescue and ransom: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pt 3:18). But when the time of repentance draws to a close, when the cup of God’s patience finally overflows with the blood of martyrs, infants, and marathon spectators, justice will be definitively served. On that day, the unjust will reap the eternal isolation to which every act of injustice inherently tends, and those justified in Christ, his love alive in their souls, will enter the eternal communion to which every act of charity inherently tends. Finally, our every desire for justice will be satiated by the One who alone is perfectly just.
There is hope even for a murderer. His life sentence will neither save him nor his victims, but he could still turn to the God of love, the God of mercy and compassion. He could allow his sins to be carried by the Savior. He could devote his life to penance. But if he does not choose to die with Christ, confess, repent, carry his cross and come after him, then he risks the fate of the final impenitent and may indeed carry his injustice right through the gates of Hell. For the sake of their immortal souls, pray God that all murderers be brought to repentance and know the infinite mercy of God.
When righteous anger rises within us, let us look forward to the day of Christ’s return to judge all nations, and let us call to mind that without God’s saving grace, our own injustice is as irremediable as that of a murderer. Our sin cannot be undone, but it can be forgiven. Our past cannot be changed, but it can be redeemed. Our victims may even become our brothers and our sisters in that land where every tear is wiped away. Let this then be our hope. Christ is making all things new, and one day soon, on a day like today, his perfect justice will be established forever.
Image: Roland Meinecke, Justitia
To many Christians, recent legal restrictions such as the HHS mandate seem like a “soft persecution.” It is tempting for us to portray such restrictions using the language and imagery of martyrdom. But is it accurate at all? One scholar, writing recently, thinks that contemporary Christians have the whole thing wrong—the history of martyrdom and its application today. Don’t we risk making a ridiculous comparison?
The ancient Christian writer Origen always sticks close to the root meaning of “martyr,” which is “witness.” In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, he says that, “everyone who testifies to the truth, whether he presents his testimony in words or deeds or in whatever way would correctly be called a ‘witness.’” But in the Catholic Church, it is “the custom of the brotherhood… to give the name ‘witnesses’ in a special sense only to those who have borne witness… by the pouring out of their own blood.” The early Church began to restrict the term “martyr” to a select group, as other early texts testify.
Origen’s definition of true “witness” is not narrow. It extends to any conceivable way one could testify to the truth about Jesus Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas has similar thoughts. He says that, “all virtuous deeds, inasmuch as they are referred to God, are professions of the faith… and in this way they can be the cause of martyrdom.” Thomas notes pointedly that this is why the Church celebrates John the Baptist as a martyr, “not for refusing to deny the faith, but for reproving adultery.”
To suffer as a Christian extends far beyond a confession made with words. It includes “also to suffer for doing any good work, or for avoiding any sin, for Christ’s sake, because this all comes under the head of witnessing to the faith.”
So is the language accurate?
Martyrdom is an act of fortitude—the virtue of dealing well in the face of death. By it, man keeps unreasonable fear or recklessness from overwhelming his resolve to stand fast in the good of reason. It includes bearing lesser evils as well. “Fortitude behaves well in bearing all manner of adversity,” Thomas says.
When the Christian suffers lesser evils than death, but does so for Christ’s sake, it seems to bear the same relationship to martyrdom that such suffering would bear to fortitude in general. While such “soft persecution” is certainly far from martyrdom, it is not ridiculous to see it on the same continuum.
Our Lord gave us this beatitude: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mt 5:11). When Christians bear mockery, scorn, social exclusion and loss of wealth for refusing to compromise with the Gospel, we indeed share in the blessing Christ promises us. The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds the baptized of such things: “You endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.”
It continues, “For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb 10: 32-34). Although we aren’t given to die for Christ, we can still follow the martyrs in following Christ, the true Lamb, wherever He goes.
Image: Fyodor Bronnikov, Martyr on a Circus Ring
What does our fantasy life say about us? Do thoughts determine our character, or is it only actions that count? The question has been asked and answered in various ways. Movies like Minority Report have played on the intuitive notion that punishing someone for a crime they have not yet committed is unjust. Or consider a 1961 episode of the Twilight Zone, “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” in which a bank clerk gains the ability to read thoughts. He “hears” an old trusted employee, Mr. Smithers, plotting in his head to rob the bank. Mr. Smithers does not actually rob the bank, because he is too afraid, but the aged employee does, however, admit that he thinks about doing it everyday.
So, how far removed are our thoughts from our actions?
Dr. Cindy LaCom, the director of Women’s studies at Slippery Rock University, worries about the effect pornography is having on men. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, LaCom writes about the recent incident in Cleveland where three women were held captive for 10 years:
We live in a world where the “Fifty Shades” trilogy (which has sold over 70 million copies) presents male domination over women as “erotic,” where the porn industry generates more annual profit than the National Football League, where 30 percent of Web traffic is porn. I am surprised at the lack of national dialogue about the pornification of our culture.
But sadly, in a world that endlessly replicates and sexualizes male domination of women, I am not surprised that this “fantasy” narrative has been literalized. Though there are doubtless myriad factors that contributed to this nightmare crime, I hope that one positive outcome is broader critical analyses of how pornography normalizes the domination and degradation of women in pervasive and damaging ways.
Dr. LaCom thinks that fantasizing about dominating women leads some people to actual carry out that fantasy. Obviously, the case in Cleveland is an extreme example. Many people have awful fantasies they never plan on actually fulfilling, like Mr. Smithers at the bank. But what we imagine does change how we act, and it says something about us if our fantasies are pure.
Pornography is a particularly strong example, because not only is it sinful in itself, but it inclines us toward sin. Even if it does not encourage the sort of violence that Dr. LaCom is concerned with, the lust which it fosters harms our perception of reality. It focuses us downward and makes people objects. In lust we forget God and shift our attention to the pleasures of the body. As St. Augustine says of his father in the Confessions II.3.6:
His glee sprang from that intoxication which has blotted you, our creator, out of this world’s memory and led it to love the creature instead, as it drinks the unseen wine of its perverse inclination and is dragged down to the depths.
The images we take in, particularly those that we associate with pleasure, remain with us. Augustine wrote his Confessions more than ten years after his radical conversion and baptism, but in Book X, he laments the effect his previous life of sexual sin has had on his memory. In his dreams he is reminded of his misspent youth, and is forced to re-confront his temptations.
Lust is called a capital vice, because it is born of a desire that points to a very powerful pleasure. So strong can this desire become, that we are led away from our true end: happiness with God.
In charity, the chief among the virtues, we love God above all things. But to love God, we must call him to mind. If our fantasies take us away from God, if they fix our desire elsewhere, they cost us the one most precious thing.
Christ warns us in Matthew 15 that it is deep within ourselves that our sins find their root.
It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.
. . .
The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile. (11, 18-20)
But lest we fear that we have turned our minds over to evil, that we have absorbed too much of the filth of our culture, God’s mercy is powerful. What we cannot do on our own, God can do in us. As Augustine prays, “On your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever you will.” He continues,“Yes, Lord, you will heap gift after gift upon me, that my soul may shake itself free from the sticky morass of concupiscence and follow me to you.” (Confessions X 29.40; 30.42)
A clean mind dedicated to the Lord should be our goal, even if like Mr. Smithers we don’t plan to ever fulfill our fantasies. With God this purity is possible.
Image: David Teniers the Younger, The Temptation of Saint Anthony
First Communion season is upon us. Young boys and girls in their white suits and white dresses line the aisles of churches across the country. Some come with smiles a mile wide, and others with lips nervously quivering. Why all the fuss?
If the Eucharist isn’t really Jesus’ Body and Blood, then it’s all nonsense, and the suits and dresses are just for show. If the Eucharist is simply a symbol of God’s love for us and nothing more, then there’s no need for such tra la la. But . . . if the substances of bread and wine are really converted into the Body and Blood of Jesus, then the whole situation changes. If Jesus, the Lord of the Universe, really comes down on the altar at Mass, then the children are right to tremble with nervous anticipation as they approach to receive his Divine presence.
Jesus Himself tells us,
I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (Jn 6:51)
Thus, Holy Communion is all about eternal life. Jesus really becomes present in the Eucharist because He loves us and desires for us to spend eternity with Him. It is true that the Eucharist is a sign of God’s love for us. Yet it’s so much more than that. God has loved us enough to become truly and substantially present, hidden under the appearance of bread and wine, so that we might consume Him and be changed into Him. In the Confessions, St. Augustine hears the Lord saying,
Nor shall you change me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into me.
In the Eucharist, He comes to us so that we might come to Him.
The brief life of Blessed Imelda Lambertini vividly shows this. Bl. Imelda became a Dominican nun at the age of nine and begged for two and half years to be able to receive First Communion. Since she was too young by the Italian standards of the time, she was asked to wait until she was twelve. On the Vigil of the Ascension in 1333, when Imelda was yet only eleven years old, the Lord granted her wish and came to her in a striking way. After Mass, she was found adoring a host which was floating above her. The chaplain was brought in, and to this young girl, wearing her white Dominican habit, he gave First Communion. She died upon consuming the Host. The Lord, truly present in the Eucharist, changed her life in an instant. Her soul, full of joy, was brought to heaven where she participates in the eternal life of God.
This is what the Lord offers to each of us when we receive Holy Communion, whether it be our first, our fiftieth, or our last: He offers us eternal life. In the Eucharist, He comes to us so that we might come to Him.
Image: Théophile Emmanuel Duverger, La Premiere Communion
The Greeks thought heroism and beauty belonged together. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and many myths are full to bursting with beautiful heroes doing beautiful things—and ugly things, but still doing them beautifully. They demanded that their heroes be beautiful, which is why so many statues and busts commemorate the politicians, leaders, and wealthy men of the day as models of physical perfection—even when we know them to have been dumpy, hook-nosed, or puny in real life.
God has never worked like that. He almost seems to prefer to choose unimpressive people as his representatives. David may have been “ruddy” and “handsome,” with “beautiful eyes” (1 Sm 16:12), but he was still a simple shepherd, as was the prophet Amos; Ezekiel’s outlandish physical prophecies would hardly qualify for Mr. Universe talent routines; and if the apocryphal Acts of Paul are to be trusted, Paul was “small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs.”
Pope Francis gives an interesting insight into this dynamic in his 2010 book On Heaven and Earth. There he speaks of Moses as we see him in Exodus 3, in all the splendor of his vocation and all the banality of his ordinariness:
Moses meets God when he is eighty years old, having already grown a belly; he tended his father-in-law’s sheep and all of a sudden, a burning bush, astonishment. He says, “I have seen God.”
Pope Francis’ Moses is delightfully prosaic: a potbelly hanging over his belt, still huffing and wheezing from clambering up Mount Horeb, looking a bit ridiculous leaning forward with his hands on his thighs trying to catch his breath—and then he sees God. This is the man God has chosen to deliver his people from slavery. Not a Hercules with a chiseled jaw and a silver tongue, but a potbellied old shepherd with a stutter and a checkered past.
In the Church, we meet many more potbellied-Moses types than strutting-Hercules types. God generally chooses to put his treasures in flawed and even broken vessels, and that is how he invites us to encounter him. This is a mystery. Surely, we think, more people would come to God if his beautiful message wasn’t so often sullied by flabby, ugly messengers: boring preachers, short-tempered confessors, impersonal bureaucrats, tacky musicians, ideological liturgists, and on and on.
But if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we too are often limp, wheezing, and potbellied in our faith. The ascent up Mount Horeb looks daunting and exhausting; and besides, talking to burning bushes is sure to mean more work for less pay. So we stick to our routine on the lowlands, confident that we can be Herculean messengers of God without needing to prove it to anyone by scrabbling around on mountaintops. And meanwhile, it’s just possible that those flabby-minded weaklings around us are thinking the same way about themselves and us…
Yet that potbellied Moses really did lead the Israelites out of Egypt; a crotchety curmudgeon like Jerome became a saint; and even people with spectacularly bad taste can get into heaven. God does not leave us alone in our mediocrity. The reality of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us is unveiled when we begin to recognize that God bestows his grace in and through imperfect vessels (including ourselves). God does not love me because I am beautiful, or because I am a spiritual hero: anything of beauty or spiritual heroism that I possess comes about because God loves me, because he comes to vivify my flabby spirit and free me from the hobbling weight of my sins and pettiness. What matters is not my spiritual athleticism: what matters is that I have seen God.
This is an invitation to mercy, of course—recognizing that others are as limp and frail as I, and that we all desire union with God at some level, however clumsily we may be pursuing it. But there’s more to it, as well. God didn’t just want the Israelites to have mercy on poor, potbellied, stuttering Moses; he wanted them to follow him, to see God’s grace in him, to allow him to bring them into an everlasting covenant with God. God invites us to encounter him as he dwells in others, not in spite of their weaknesses, but in and through their weaknesses. Moses has seen God, and God dwells in him; perhaps God desires to astonish me with the light of grace that pours out of the cracks in that broken vessel. If I see that light, if I am astonished, then I too have met God; I too have been taught love by one of God’s potbellied heroes.
Image: Potbellied Hercules. Photo by author.
And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
What are we to make of the Ascension? To some it may seem little more than a neat, miraculous way for Jesus to bid goodbye to His disciples. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, however, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, helps us to understand this mystery in a deeper way. In particular, he highlights the importance of a detail we might otherwise regard as insignificant: the presence of the cloud. Benedict calls this “unambiguously theological language” and recalls the instances throughout Scripture when the presence of a cloud marks some great event: the Exodus from Egypt (when Israel was led by a pillar of cloud through the desert), the Tent of Meeting (where Moses often conversed with the Most High, who was concealed in a cloud that filled the dwelling), and the Transfiguration (when the Father’s voice was heard coming from a cloud).
The cloud, then, is a symbol of God’s presence. Jesus’ ascension into it, according to Benedict, does not mean that He was transferred to some “remote region of the cosmos,” but rather that He entered “into the mystery of God.” Christ became incarnate for a specific purpose—to redeem mankind—and to accomplish this purpose it was not necessary that He remain on earth forever in bodily form. He returns to the higher reality whence He came.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus explains in one of his orations that the Blessed Trinity was revealed to us in stages. Men had to be prepared gradually to receive the great mystery that is the Trinity. God was proclaimed Father of His people Israel in the Old Testament. Then Christ the Word was manifested in the New Testament. Since every word conveys knowledge, Christ the Word brought knowledge of the person of the Father and revealed to mankind the inner life of God. But God wanted to share with us more than mere knowledge of Himself. He wanted to share His very life with us. And, for this, the Ascension prepared the way.
Christ ascended into heaven in order that the Holy Spirit, who is the mutual Love between the Father and the Son, would come and draw us into the life of divine love. The Holy Spirit is the impulse or inclination of the Father towards the Son and the Son towards the Father. Through grace, this impulse of Love dwells in us by the gift of charity. This participation in the life of the Trinity means that Christ is nearer to us now than He would be if He had remained on earth to walk among us in bodily form. It’s no wonder, then, as Pope Benedict says, that the disciples returned to Jerusalem after the Ascension “with great joy, and were continually in the Temple blessing God” (Lk 24:52–53).
Have you ever been to a portrait gallery? It’s extraordinary, really: a bunch of people walking around for hours, looking at face after face after face. And do you remember your old class photos? Rows upon rows of faces, staring back at you. And if you’ve ever been to a bureau to get a driver’s license, you have probably noticed the same remarkably consistent pattern—you need your face on a card to get your hands on the wheel.
Indeed, everyone is interested in faces. That peculiar arrangement of symmetrically placed visual and auditory organs with a nasal bump and an oral cavity has a power that captivates us. They engross us because they reveal us to each other. Somehow, our faces “speak” our selves.
Because of this, to have a face is to be open to others, accessible to others, there for the taking, there for the knowing. To find oneself with a face is to discover oneself as a being-for-others, something that is made to be communicated. Every face you see in a portrait gallery or on a driver’s license or in a facebook profile is looking back at you expectantly, waiting to be known and perhaps even desirous of knowing you.
This is why bad guys cover their noses and mouths with bandanas, why the Phantom of the Opera is spooky, and why hostages with black bags over their heads look so dehumanized. To hide one’s face is to hide one’s self. What a desolate world it would be if we all hid our faces. How we would thirst for the sight of a face!
How wondrous it is, then, to walk down a crowded street, to sit at a crowded dinner table, to look through family photo albums. Faces everywhere! Disclosures of selves everywhere! Face after face, revelation after revelation. So many self-disclosing countenances, each of them charged with meaning, desiring to be known, and desiring to know. To live in this world is to be a member of a vast network of faces communicating and revealing to each other.
Part of the joy of heaven will be its faces. Like here, there will be faces everywhere. But our heavenly faces will be lit with the divine light, which will make them brilliantly knowable, and they will shine with the joy of at last being fully known and fully knowing.
But here’s the craziest thing of all. In the midst of this multitude of faces, one of them will bespeak not a finite self, but the Divine Essence. For, strangely enough, our Creator has chosen to enter the great compendium of faces. And we will be quite content to spend an eternity pondering it.
Image: Icon of Christ the Saviour in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai (The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator)
Last week I reread The Great Gatsby for the first time since a summer vacation in high school. With the buzz about the upcoming film (out this Friday), I wanted to revisit what I vaguely remembered to be a good but sad story.
In my first go, I was simply excited to read a grown-up book with grown-up language, but left, in the end, disheartened by Gatsby’s loss of his pearl of great price: Daisy. A few years under the bridge, and in my second reading I fixed upon a different motif. In a word: Desire.
Gatsby grew up a sentimentalist of the worst kind, possessed by large ambitions and “colossal vitality.” When he met Daisy at a young age, he placed the full burden of his infinite desire on a single woman. There is a scene in which he pauses before committing all to her, when he knows that if he “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. . . . Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” Separated by war, she marries another, and he spends his years building up an ever more godlike image of her in his mind, which no person could possibly live up to.
The story is in some way about every man, for every man is a dreamer of what once was and what might be. Deep within, each of us awaits a certain “something” we cannot name, something to make life great and full and beautiful. There is a sort of promise life offers, however unclear, which we’re still waiting to discover. Some call the culprit Beauty, which stirs us and awakens our relentless restlessness. C.S. Lewis puts it best in a sermon:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
But it is not only momentous occasions—hearing some music for the first time or falling in love at a young age—which aggravate our secret yearning. Life itself has done so from the start: The most restless residents of humankind are children, and they happen to be the most indomitable of all dreamers, expecting so much magic from a life which is, at bottom, mortal.
Or is it? For it is precisely this expectation which Christ addresses in the fishermen of Galilee. From this perspective, his invitation to leave everything and follow him doesn’t come off as demanding as we might think. Perhaps in that moment he leaned in with one of Gatsby’s reassuring smiles and whispered, “Because whatever it is you’re looking for, old sport . . . we both know you haven’t found it yet.”
Years later, Gatsby moves to Daisy’s neighborhood, spending his summer evenings throwing ostentatious parties for the denizens of 1920s Long Island in hopes that she might wander into his life again. They do meet, but the affair is short-lived. She fails to live up to his image of her, and after an ensuing series of tragic events, she returns to her husband and Gatsby is shot dead in his swimming pool. Yet we are told that “Gatsby turned out all right in the end,” and certainly not because all but three characters show for his rainy funeral. Perhaps it was well with him because it was good for his earthly kingdom to crumble to pieces. That morning he shouldered his swimming raft, the narrator tells us, with a new spring in his step, again set free to seek something great.
All of our art, all our stories, are an exercise in this longing. We may call it nostalgia or whatever word we’d like, but we’re looking for a fullness we haven’t fully found yet. The Fitzgeralds’ own real-life fairytale turned foul. Scott had met his own Southern belle in Alabama and fought desperately to win her. Their marriage proved disastrous. A youth squandered with riotous living in France, a spree of infidelities, and soon Zelda lost her mind. The last words of the novel are likewise the epitaph on their common grave: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past.”
Scott Fitzgerald and Gatsby both fought to “change the past,” but that is precisely what Christ alone can achieve for us. Christ himself is our true “past,” our origin, come to find us and call us back home. If we don’t find him in this life, someone to answer and to bear our desire, then we run the same risk as this sad couple: their desire destroyed them in the end. They are buried together in the Catholic graveyard of Old St. Mary’s in Rockville, Maryland, just thirty minutes north of Washington. We should pray for them and for all who have yet to find the object of their endless searching.
Image: Francis Cugat, The Great Gatsby Dust Jacket (1925)
“Words, words, words,” replied Hamlet with despair-filled irony.
In a social setting suffused and encompassed by words, sound bites, snippets, and advertising, the mind cannot help but be overwhelmed. There is also the further complication that many of these words are unhelpful; things are not always what they seem, what they profess to be. When one’s glance falls upon abortion clinics named “Women and Family Centers,” stores selling exclusively pornographic and fetishist paraphernalia called “Adult,” and rock stars naming their children Dweezil and Moon Unit, it can appear that beyond being merely deceptive, some names simply fail to communicate altogether.
The medievals spoke about language as composed of signs. The word is chosen to communicate an idea, an idea in the mind which comes from a thing. The word was the verbal fruit of an idea rooted in something real. In this sense, words were conventionally chosen by man for the express purpose of revealing something about the thing at stake. Some even held that the words themselves, beyond just acting as a vehicle, had some proper reality. We can think in this case of onomatopoeia. The word signifies something else but in a manner that incarnates the nature. Affirmed above all was the sense that words are profoundly rooted in the real. Words are the fruit of a tree rooted in the soil of things.
It seems that the present age, as adverted to above, has forgotten the realities at stake in its use of language. In a technocratic age, wherein man seeks to extend his reign over nature both vast and miniscule, an appreciation for things as possessed of natures has been relegated to the background of our scientific considerations. This is all the more true when we speak of mankind, wherein the talk of passion, authenticity, and tolerance predominates over accounts of man’s nature. The individual, the seat of subjective rights, is the basic unit of the modern world, and consideration for his social, political, transcendent nature is relegated to the status of secondary concern. It is an age in the desert, forgetful of the land from whence it came and the promise to which it is called.
In a travel journal from a trip to Ireland, G. K. Chesterton contrasts this profound cultural forgetfulness with the deep rootedness observable in a culture (in 1918) still mindful of its roots:
It is strictly and soberly true that any peasant, in a mud cabin in County Clare, when he names his child Michael, may really have a sense of the presence that smote down Satan, the arms and plumage of the paladin of paradise […] It is often said, and possibly true that the peasant named Michael cannot write his own name. But it is quite equally true that the clerk named John [archetypal product of the industrial age] cannot read his own name. He cannot read it because it is in a foreign language, and he has never been made to realize what it stands for. He does not know that John means John as the other man does know that Michael means Michael. In that rigidly realistic sense, the pupil of industrial intellectualism does not even know his own name.
In the current cultural climate, the last thing we are likely to hear is the candid admission that we have “lost our way,” or worse yet that “we do not know our own mind,” but the facts seem to betray that such is the case. As the exasperated Israelite prophets would readily attest, there is no limit to our forgetfulness.
The fact remains that man is a mystery to himself and without the grace whereby to see, he remains such, constantly railing against God and reality on account of his limitation. In this sense, man is capable of “forgetting his own name.” And, as implied in the discussion above, to forget one’s name means to forget one’s own nature. To take the argument to its grim logical terminus, it follows that without a “still point in this turning world,” the obstacle can seem insuperable. How does man get on track when the very memory of the way has been blotted from his heart?
The prophet Jeremiah offers hope:
But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:33-34)
Ultimately, the solution to man’s forgetfulness can be found only in the Lord’s gift—the new Law by which the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is poured into the hearts of men: “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” Such is the grace accomplished for man by the Incarnate Word. To that end, we pray for a new Pentecost.
Image: Bob Embleton, Words on the Cushendun Stone
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves” (Jn 14:9-11).
This excerpt from the Gospel of today’s feast of the holy Apostles Philip and James packs quite a punch. Jesus at once rebukes Philip for his lack of faith and instructs his disciples of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity. He reveals to them that He and the Father are One and that it is truly the Father who is speaking to them. He even explains that it is really the Father who is the principle of His works.
Many of us can identify with Philip’s request: if God would just reveal Himself, if He would just make Himself known somehow to our bodily senses, our faith would be perfected. We would have no reason to doubt. It would even be an opportunity to give all those smug atheists the what for!
Oh we of little faith! The life of the Holy Trinity is a true mystery: the Son dwells in the Father and the Father in the Son, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both together as from a single source. This mystery is only accessible to our minds as an object of faith. We read in Hebrews 11:1 “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Again in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the woman at the well, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23-24). We can’t see spiritual things, but we can have faith that they exist and that they are true.
In Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” found in the Gospel of John a few chapters later than those above, we hear our Lord give a fuller account of the inner life of God and the life of God in man:
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying: “Holy Father, I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me… I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.” (Jn 17:20-23, 26).
What an incredible mystery! But how are we to make any sense of it? One of the most powerful readings of these passages reveals what the truly Christian life is: the life of Christ Himself. St. Paul’s mysterious remark to the Colossians now begins to take shape. He says in his letter that, “…in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body,” and that the labors of his ministry are “in accord with the exercise of his power working within me” (Col 1:24, 29). When we seek to conform our lives to Christ by living in accord with His Church and take the steps laid out for us by all those many saints who went before us, we truly become men and women of the Gospel. Our lives are transformed not by our exterior machinations, but by the inner principles of grace and of Jesus Christ Himself. We are actually changed and given divine life!
In baptism we die with Christ, we lay our life in Christ’s tomb as we are submerged under the waters, and when we arise, the spark of life that animates us is no longer that mortal, human life that was ours at birth, but becomes the unquenchable flame of God which animated Jesus Christ Himself. Again, as St. Paul writes to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:19b-20a).
The incredible gift of our baptism, the beginning of our life in Christ, or rather Christ’s life in us, is a moment to be truly celebrated. May our faith be ever firm, that in that faith we may know Christ, and in knowing Christ, also know the Father. May our souls be made a fitting home for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Image: El Greco, Apostle St. Philip
Pope Francis is a master of understatement: ”He always does a nice job, the Holy Spirit, throughout history.”
In his recent homily for the memorial of St. Athanasius, Pope Francis spoke about the role of the Holy Spirit in fostering harmony in the Church. In the context of the dispute among the early Christians as to whether Gentile converts should be held to the observance of the Jewish law, the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle James, bishop of Jerusalem, to speak in such a way that the dispute was settled (cf. Acts 15:7-21). As the apostles themselves described their consensus, “‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities” (Acts 15:28). As Pope Francis preached, “The Holy Spirit had … to foster harmony among these positions, the harmony of the Church, among them in Jerusalem, and between them and the pagans. He always does a nice job, the Holy Spirit, throughout history. And when we do not let Him work, the divisions in the Church begin, the sects, all of these things … because we are closed to the truth of the Spirit.”
By a happy coincidence, the Vespers reading from the Common of Doctors for the memorial of St. Athanasius also invoked the inspired wisdom of the apostle James: “Wisdom from above is first of all innocent. It is also peaceable, lenient, docile, rich in sympathy and the kindly deeds that are its fruits, impartial and sincere. The harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace” (James 3:17-18). This passage from the letter of St. James, whose author is traditionally identified with the first bishop of Jerusalem, offers us another angle for considering the theme of harmony and division in the Church.
Division and conflict in the Church arise from our sinful passions, not from the spirit of God who is the source of the wisdom from above. As St. Augustine once starkly remarked, even “Christ’s persecutors did not rend His [seamless] garment, [but] Christians divide the Church.” So often in the history of the Church, legitimate theological discussion has given way to bitter controversy that leads to division rather than the unification of the members of the Church in God. In the face of error touching upon the truths of revelation, it is certainly necessary to use theological arguments to identify and correct misunderstandings, but this defense of the faith must exhibit the qualities identified by St. James if it is truly to be “wisdom from above”.
In addition to being innocent (often translated less mellifluously as “pure”), the inspired wisdom that undergirds theological discussion in the Church should be peaceable, lenient, docile, rich in sympathy and the kindly deeds that are its fruits, impartial and sincere. Much could be said about this list of adjectives and its significance for the question at hand, but for now I would like to concentrate of the characteristic of wisdom being peaceable or peace loving (εἰρηνική).
Peace can be a controversial subject at times. It is true that peace can be a hollow good when its assertion does not reflect the full reality of a complex situation through a sort of false irenicism: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). Nevertheless, we must never forget that as Christians we are called to preach the gospel of peace: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace, of them preaching good things” (Rom 10:15 [Vg]; cf. Eph 6:15). The Gospel is a Gospel of peace because our God is not the “God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33). As St. Paul promises the Corinthians, “Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor 13:11). By living at peace with one another, a place is prepared for the God of peace to dwell among us.
And yet, the peace that we strive to maintain can only be preserved by the power of God himself. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on Romans, the unity of Christians can only come from the Spirit of Christ.
[St. Paul] touches on the unity of the mystical body when he says we are one body (Rom 12:5): that he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross (Eph 2:16). This mystical body has a spiritual unity through which we are united to one another and to God by faith and love: there is one body and one spirit (Eph 4:4). And because the Spirit of unity flows into us from Christ—anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him (Rom 8:9)—he adds in Christ, who unites us to one another and to God by his Spirit whom he gives us: that they may be one even as we are one (John 18:22).
As Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on Hebrews, peace is the proper effect of God, for true peace on earth can only come about from the charity that is given by God alone:
For God’s proper effect is to make peace, because he is not a God of dissension but of peace (1 Cor 14:33), and, have peace: and the God of peace and love shall be with you (2 Cor 13:11). For peace is nothing else than the unity of affections, which God alone can make one, because hearts are united by charity, which is from God alone. For God knows how to gather and unite, because God is love, which is the bond of perfection. Hence, he makes men of one manner to dwell in a house (Ps 68:7). For man made peace between himself and God through the mystery of Christ.
In our common life in the Church, and most of all in our theological investigations and discussions, the God of peace must transform our hearts and minds so that we may truly be lovers of his peace. Let us join our prayer to that of the Church on this feast of Sts. Philip and James: “Purify our minds, we pray, O Lord, by these holy gifts we have received, so that, contemplating you in your Son together with the Apostles Philip and James, we may be worthy to possess eternal life.”
At first, I simply wanted to read some good books. The fact is, I hadn’t kept up with reading literature since I left high school English classes behind. There was a novel or two here or there when I was home on vacation but it was pretty sporadic. It’s not that I didn’t see the value of the classics of literature; I just never set aside the time to read them between my studies in math and science and a good bit of time wasting on the side. When I arrived at the novitiate, where there was limited access to TV and the Internet, the things that had previously been major temptations to waste time were, thankfully, no longer an option. I decided that when I wasn’t occupied in the work, prayer, or study of the novitiate, I would spend some time catching up on reading good books.
Of course, there are a lot of good books out there, and it can be hard to figure out where to start. I thought the most logical place to start was at the beginning, with the classics of ancient Greece. So much later literature makes references to and assumes familiarity with Greek literature that it seemed reasonable to get familiar with those first. And yet, looking back, this is where the reasonable started to get a little irrational. If reading some of ancient Greek literature is good, then reading all of it has to be even better, right? By the end of the novitiate, I had read the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as all of the extant tragedies and had thrown in the comic plays for good measure.
This is just one example of my proclivity towards completionism. The desire to finish what you start is perfectly commendable, and there is much to be said about being thorough, but completionism takes it a step further. Having achieved some particular good and seen its value, completionism is the desire to experience every related good without exception. It’s a type of perfectionism aimed at some finite set of tasks with the promise of an amazing sense of accomplishment waiting at the end. Unfortunately, this sort of perfectionism often extends only as far as the checklist, not necessarily to the individual task. While I actually read every word of every extant Greek play, I can’t claim that I understood or appreciated them fully. What’s more, while there is undoubtedly some value in each of these ancient plays, there is a reason none of my classmates, who were much wider read than I, had read all of them. If the true goal is to read good books, then the Greeks can’t all be ignored, but to claim that even the least of the tragedies is better than anything else written in the last 2500 years is absurd.
When some present task, even if originally desired for something greater, gains an over-inflated sense of importance, it both clouds our judgment and twists the task itself. I had turned my noble goal of immersing myself in good literature into the chore of reading this particular set of forty or so plays whether I was enjoying them and appreciating them or not. Now, I don’t regret having spent time with these classics, although I do think I could have gotten more out of them if I approached them differently.
This ability to twist a good act into something lesser, even something damaging, is a real danger and can creep into many of our moral decisions. Even when we know that our true goal in life, our ultimate good, is to be happy with God forever in paradise, we can often lose sight of that goal for the particular task at hand. In a sense this is perfectly normal because the task at hand often needs a good bit of attention. The danger is when we inflate the importance of a particular task, even doing some good act or avoiding some bad act, such that we confuse it for the ultimate end itself.
When we begin to think that being a good person means completing certain tasks and following certain rules, we forget why we should be doing them at all. God wants us to be happy, and part of our being happy will, of course, involve doing certain good tasks and avoiding certain evils. Yet we should do these things not because they are part of some grand to-do list, but because we know that they are what will make us happy and, with the help of His grace, lead us to eternal happiness.
Image: Carl Spitzweg, The Book Worm
Workers of the world, awaken!
Rise in all your splendid might
Take the wealth that you are making,
It belongs to you by right.
No one will for bread be crying
We’ll have freedom, love and health,
When the grand red flag is flying
In the Workers’ Commonwealth.
So goes the old International Workers of the World ballad. It was written by Joe Hill, a socialist songwriter in the early 20th century. Today is May 1st, and about 80 countries are officially celebrating May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day. Robber barons, the Haymarket Massacre, the Pinkerton Agency, and the grinding gears of industrialization litter the background of this holiday. Yet the massive social unrest and the supposedly inevitable uprising prophesied in the lyrics never came to fruition in the United States.
Perhaps Americans were so enamored with the abundance of consumer goods capitalism provided that we were blinded to the plight of the worker . Perhaps we came to love televisions, Pop-Tarts, LPs, Twinkies, and IPods so much that we forgot we were oppressed. Yet whether this story is told by 19th-century social activists or 21st-century Wall Street Occupiers, Americans have not been easily swayed by their activism so as to adopt a class-warfare mentality. Why have Americans been so resistant to this narrative?
While the 20th century seemed to teach us that market economies tend to provide goods people need more easily than socialist economies, there have been rough patches in the American experience. The Great Depression scarred a whole generation: “Waste not, want not.” Stuffing money under mattresses and reusing coffee grounds are habits which continued for decades imply from the memory of the 30s. The Great Recession of our own time has left its mark too: graduating in the spring of 2009 was like tripping on the way out the door of your parents’ house.
Yet Americans, strangely, are not easily discouraged or turned into class warriors on account of this history. It seems that we are bonded to one another by something other than our economic exchanges. Maybe Clinton and Carville were wrong and it’s not always “the economy, stupid.” Something else intervenes.
There is an older tradition also celebrated on May 1st. Its best depiction in verse comes from Robert Herrick’s “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.”
GET up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air :
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.
Each flower has wept and bow’d toward the east
Above an hour since : yet you not dress’d ;
Nay ! not so much as out of bed?
When all the birds have matins said
And sung their thankful hymns, ’tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
Whereas a thousand virgins on this day
Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.
. . .
There’s not a budding boy or girl this day
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
A deal of youth, ere this, is come
Back, and with white-thorn laden home.
Some have despatch’d their cakes and cream
Before that we have left to dream
Perhaps some find the Labor Theory of Value to be great for sonnets, but I find these verses much more moving and a better depiction of the human condition. Men and women are doing what is most decidedly impractical and occasionally foolhardy—falling in love and planning a wedding celebration. “Cakes and cream” sound frivolous and grossly inefficient. Bread, water, and vegetables would be much cheaper and more nutritious. For those who pit leisure against the dignity of the worker’s labor, such festivity is an obstacle to progress.
Yet, I don’t think we ever fully bought into the exaltation of labor for labor’s sake. We realize that we weren’t created to labor for some purely earthly future. Who wants to be the ideal socialist worker on a beautiful spring day? One can imagine a conscientious socialist planner gazing out his window in the morning and seeing, not that “the Aurora throws her fair / Fresh-quilted colours through the air,” but that solar power will decrease the expenditure on energy by at least 30 percent over the next five years. The same man may walk through “a park / Made green and trimm’d with trees” and only see three plots of arable land likely to yield enough wheat to feed the district for six months.
For all its pathos, “Rising in splendid might” is less motivating than rising to see “the blooming morn / Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.” But the blooming morn and the wedding feast have always led to a truly humane happiness. As one philosopher notes, there is a difference between having a plan and knowing what people like. Joe Hill had a plan, and Robert Herrick knew what people liked. The latter understood that our human desire and real passion is not for a forthcoming economic paradise, but a present Divine Frivolity.
Image: Maurice Prendergast, May Day
St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers to preach the truth of the Gospel message in a world that was in need of saving grace. But prior to founding the friars, St. Dominic established the community of Dominican nuns. St. Dominic saw that an intimate life of contemplation, prayer, and penance was necessary for the preaching of his Order to bear fruit in the world. In this post I would like to draw attention to the Dominican life lived by the Dominican nuns at the Monastery of St. Jude in Marbury, Alabama.
In August of 1944 two nuns, Mother Mary Dominic, O.P. and Mother Mary of the Child Jesus, O.P., departed from Catonsville, Maryland and arrived in Marbury, Alabama to found the Monastery of St. Jude. The monastery was to be a place where those who aspired to the contemplative life could enter without prejudice to race. Bishop Thomas Toolen and Fr. Harold Purcell welcomed the two foundresses and helped them in the establishment of their monastery. Due to a shortage of materials during wartime, the nuns had a nearby frame farmhouse converted into temporary housing thirty miles North of Montgomery. Named after St. Jude, patron of the impossible, the nuns began to solicit funds in the 1950’s for a permanent monastery on the adjoining hill top of Marbury. By November of 1952 the ground was broken by Bishop Toolen to begin construction, and the community of nuns was able to enter the new monastery on the Feast of St. Jude, October 28, 1953.
Today the nuns at the Monastery of St. Jude remain ever faithful to their charism of work, study, and prayer set out by St. Dominic and their two foundresses. The nuns are consecrated women dedicated to truth in their study of Sacred Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Their schedule of work, study, and the liturgy of the hours keep the nuns in constant contact with the truth of Jesus Christ. The Constitution of the Nuns states that the solemn celebration of the liturgy is the heart of their whole life and the chief source of their unity. The Monastery of St. Jude is also known for its Hour of Guard, where one or more of the nuns are always at watch before the Lord, praying the rosary at the feet of the Blessed Virgin before the Eucharist.
The nuns see their lives as a consecration to God out of love. Through their work, prayer, study, and penance, God draws these consecrated women closer to himself and uses them as powerful intercessors on behalf of the world. They pray daily for the work of the Dominican friars who preach for the salvation of souls. The life of the nuns, therefore, is one dedicated to prayer that souls may come to know Jesus Christ.
St. Dominic founded the cloistered nuns to be at the heart of the Holy Preaching of his Order, and the need for these consecrated women is just as great today. This summer the nuns at the Monastery of St. Jude are hosting a vocations retreat for young women from the evening of Friday July 26 through the morning of Sunday July 28. This is a special event for the nuns, since usually women are invited only to make private visits. The nuns have also invited a Dominican friar to come for the retreat to give conferences and speak about the consecrated life in the Dominican Order. The retreat will include praying the Divine Office with the nuns, silent adoration, and times when the women can share their experiences with each other. May the Lord continue to bless these Dominican nuns with vocations and with the indispensible graces of their charism, as they intercede for the world and the salvation of souls.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when, for fear of the Jews, the doors were locked where the disciples were, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
It wasn’t just Peter, of course. The others had also denied Jesus. When he asked them to stay awake with him and keep watch, they had slept. When he was arrested, they had fled. When he was condemned to death, they had kept their distance. And now he was dead. It was evening, and the doors were locked.
The Apostles were paralyzed, overcome with guilt, fear, and doubt: guilt because of their faithlessness and cowardice, fear because of the Jews, doubt because they couldn’t believe what Mary Magdalene had told them—that she had seen the Lord. In fact, maybe they were half hoping it wasn’t true. For if it were true, if she had seen Jesus, why hadn’t he also appeared to them? Was it because, after their desertion, he wanted nothing more to do with them? On the other hand, if he was coming to see them, what sort of reunion could they expect? A joyful meeting of parted friends? Or a fearful visitation of divine wrath? After all, they had seen their Lord get angry before. Tables had flown in the Temple, and: “Get behind me, Satan.”
So the doors were locked—yes, against the Jews, but also, perhaps, somewhere in the back of the Apostles’ minds, against Jesus.
It is the same with us. In one way or another, we lock our hearts against the coming of Christ and, in the darkness of fear and doubt, kindle our own feeble lights. Like the Apostles, we do this even after Jesus has called us friends, washed our feet, died for our sake. Like the Apostles, we have lived long enough to learn that this world is no home for us, and yet still we hesitate. When the world no longer enchants, it retains its power to disenchant, and we are tempted to think, “Perhaps death is the end, and the Gospel is just a woman’s delusion after all.” Mary Magdalene was seeing things. Lock the doors.
Then Jesus came, and it was evening. St. Bede says something very beautiful about this: “He came in the evening because they would be most afraid at that time.” (Remember that Jesus had been arrested at night.) Notice, too, that Christ did not overawe them with the fullness of his glorified state. Rather, as St. Augustine says, “He accommodated his presence to man’s weak sight, and presented himself in such form that his disciples could look at and recognize him.” And, far from rebuking them for their lack of faith and cowardice, he calms their fears with the words, “Peace be with you”—as if to say, “I understand how sorry you are, and I forgive you.”
Divine mercy is a special theme of the Easter season, and it is nowhere more poignantly expressed, perhaps, than in the many encounters between the risen Christ and his disciples. If we take a step back, however, and consider God’s mercy from a more theological perspective, we can appreciate its presence and significance, not just during Easter, but at all times.
We tend to think of divine mercy as a response to our own sinfulness, and that’s certainly very fitting. But in reality it’s something much broader than that. In fact, it’s simply an aspect of God’s goodness and, therefore, a necessary part of all he does for his creatures. Now, according to St. Thomas, the essential feature of divine goodness is to communicate perfections—to make better or fulfill that which can be bettered or fulfilled—and this communication can be described in different ways. For example, insofar as God bestows perfections on his creatures, not for his own use, but only on account of his goodness, we call his goodness “liberality.” Again, insofar as he bestows perfections on his creatures in due proportion, we call his goodness “justice.” Finally, insofar as he bestows perfections to remedy or expel defects, we call his goodness “mercy.”
Justice and mercy, then, are really different aspects of the same thing, and this helps us to see how, far from being opposed to each other, they are in fact complementary. On the one hand, a just punishment can be merciful because it helps to remedy defects in the offender, and, on the other hand, a work of mercy (e.g., feeding the hungry) can be just because it is “in due proportion” (i.e., it is owed or due to another). In each case, we are describing different sides of one reality.
None of this stands in the way of the fact that mercy has a certain priority over justice (or “triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13)) inasmuch as it often goes beyond the minimum that justice demands. So, to give someone more than he deserves is not unjust, but rather, we might say, super just. As Hamlet observes to Polonius, such “justice” is the mercy on which we all depend before God and men. Likewise, St. Thomas says that every manifestation of God’s justice springs from a prior manifestation of his mercy, going back to that primordial work of mercy, the act of creation itself.
Today we celebrate the feast of a great Dominican saint, who also happens to be one of the great women of history: Catherine of Siena (1347–1380). Her famous Dialogue—more or less a transcription of four days’ worth of her ecstatic prayer—is a profound meditation on God’s love and mercy. Since the original work had no title, many have been given to it, but perhaps none is more fitting than that of the French translator, Père Hurtaud, who called it simply The Book of Mercy. Toward the end, God says to Catherine,
I have told you that I wish to show the world mercy so that you can see that mercy is the sign by which I am known. For through the mercy and the inestimable love that I have for man, I sent to earth the Word, my only-begotten Son. (IV, 5, 10)
Image: Andrea Vanni, St. Catherine of Siena (San Domenico, Siena) (Andrea Vanni, a Sienese artist and disciple of St. Catherine, painted this image of her on a pillar in the Church of St. Dominic in Siena. St. Catherine was in her early twenties at the time. Vanni’s is the only authentic portrait of St. Catherine we possess. The lily and the kneeling woman (not shown) were added after Catherine’s death.)
I would guess that if you are the type of person who reads a blog, you are also the type of person who uses email. And if you use email, then it is a healthy bet that you have sometimes found yourself checking your email quite frequently, perhaps every hour or every ten minutes. For me, it got to a point in college where it seemed like I was checking my email every three minutes. If you think about it, most of our email is quite banal: another mass mailing list has decided to express its commercial affection towards you, another friend has decided to send you a video of a talking dog, or you have received notice that your library books are overdue. What is it about using email that breeds this sort of habit? If we were to engage in any other activity so frequently, we would probably be labeled obsessive compulsive. Imagine going to your mailbox down by the street every hour! Perhaps you have always been a temperate email-checker or have an in-built disdain for email that has prevented you from checking it more than twice a day. If so, more power to you, but please indulge my use of this image.
The social media craze seems to, at least in part, be fueled by obsessive email checking. When the email inbox is empty and we feel a corresponding emptiness in our consciousness, we turn to Facebook. When we are low on personal messages from friends we turn to impersonal announcements from friends about what they are doing every five minutes. And when our friends are not stimulating enough, we turn to Twitter, which gives us the artificial thrill of being texted by movie stars, politicians, and popes.
What is at bottom in the frequent email and social media checking? I think that part of it is the daunting task of having to order our life. When the question “what should I be doing right now?” arises, it is much easier to turn to a simple reactionary activity where we can assume a passive role. Why think about what you should actually do, when you can easily check your email and taste a little bit of artificial efficiency and self-importance? Now it might seem like the proper remedy required for this sickness is a serious dose of moral exhortation of the style offered by famous self-helpers: “Be Proactive! Take life by the horns! Believe in yourself!” But no matter how enthusiastically one receives these exhortations at the outset, they rarely succeed in changing anyone’s behavior.
Personally, I like the prospect of being able to frequently assume a disposition of utter passivity throughout the day, and I don’t think it is a bad instinct. What matters is who or what we are passive or responsive towards. The desert fathers spoke of cultivating a fundamental purity of heart whereby one uninterruptedly focuses on God throughout the day. Spiritual authors also speak of a similar concept called the practice of the presence of God. I think that bound up with these practices is a definite passivity towards the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. When a Christian living in God’s grace asks, “What should I be doing right now?” he should not be surprised to sometimes receive a rather direct answer in the form of an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This may take the form of a subtle tug on the heart to do this or that, to speak to this friend, to read this book, or to go for a walk etc. What we need are not more frequent email checks, but a periodic and habitual openness to an interior movement from God.
Life is daunting, and we may acutely feel the burden of having to lay out our activity according to a reasonable procedure complete with to-do lists and color-coded calendars. However, life is lacking something for one who does not periodically allow himself to be caught in the sway of the Holy Spirit whereby he begins to operate according to divine Reason. In this way he becomes an instrument of divine Providence, content to be part of a schedule he cannot fully understand.
Image: Barker at the Vermont State Fair (1941)