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Jun 27 – St Cyril of Alexandria, (376-444), Patriarch of Alexandria, Father & Doctor of the Church, Pillar & Defender of the Faith, A Man’s Man of Christian Love

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After taking a look at the life of St. Cyril, it’s easy to see him as a man who always came into a situation with both barrels blazing. Seriously, Cyril took no prisoners.

Cyril was born at Alexandria, Egypt. He was nephew of the patriarch of that city, Theophilus. Cyril received a classical and theological education at Alexandria and was ordained by his uncle.  He succeeded his uncle Theophilus as patriarch of Alexandria on Theophilus’ death in 412.  Before Cyril became Patriarch, he had to survive a riot that ensued due to a rivalry for the Patriarchy with his rival, Timotheus.  Thus, Cyril followed his uncle in a position that had become powerful and influential, rivaling that of the Roman prefect.

When he became Patriarch of Alexandria in 412, he “assembled a mob” that plundered and closed the churches of the Novations1. Novations had been persecuting Christians in the area.  Cyril also drove out of Alexandria the Jews, who had formed a flourishing community there since Alexander the Great.  The Jews of Alexandria were also political backers of the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, governor of the Roman Diocese (political, not ecclesiastical) of Egypt. Expulsion from a territory was a secular power that belonged to the pagan Roman Prefect.  But the Jews had caused tumults and had massacred the Christians. Expelling their enemies may have been the only possible defense for the Christians.  The Roman Prefect of Egypt, Orestes, though was very angry at Cyril for usurping power that was his.  Cyril offered Orestes a Bible; a gesture which would mean Orestes’ acquiescence to Cyril’s religious authority and policy, which Orestes rejected.

Yes, you guessed it, a serious brawl ensued as a result of the conflict between Cyril and Orestes. 500 (yes, five hundred) monks came swinging out of the lower deserts of Egypt (Nitria) to defend Cyril. Can you imagine 500 men with big beards and worn-monastic habits storming into a fight against Orestes’ soldiers? One word comes to mind: Fortitude. One of the monks, Ammonius, actually beamed Orestes with a rock during the skirmish. Orestes had Ammonius tortured to death. Cyril actually honored the remains of the rock lobbing monk for a time.

Prefect Orestes enjoyed the political backing of Hypatia, a pagan female astronomer, philosopher and mathematician who had considerable moral authority in the city of Alexandria, and who had extensive influence. Indeed many students from wealthy and influential families came to Alexandria purposely to study privately with Hypatia, and many of these later attained high posts in government and the Church. Several Christians thought that Hypatia’s influence had caused Orestes to reject all reconciliatory offerings by Cyril. Modern historians think that Orestes had cultivated his relationship with Hypatia to strengthen a bond with the pagan community of Alexandria, as he had done with the Jewish one, to handle better the difficult political life of the Egyptian capital.  A Christian mob, however, led by a lector named Peter, took her from her chariot, dragged her to a church and tore her flesh with potsherds till she died, finally burning the pieces outside the city walls.  Cyril did not support this action and it caused him much embarrassment and political difficulty after the fact, but since this Peter was only a lector, and not a member of the clergy, Cyril could distance himself from this event.

Cyril, in league with Pope Celestine I, is most known for intellectually duking it out with Nestorius, who was the Patriarch of Constantinople (present day Istanbul). At one point, the Emperor (Theodosius II) had both Nestorius and Cyril arrested. The emperor, however, cut Cyril loose after Papal Legates showed up on his doorstep saying that Pope Celestine endorsed Cyril’s condemnation of Nestorius.

So what was the big deal with Nestorius? Well, he promoted the heresy of Nestorianism, which says that “Mary was not the Mother of God, Theotokos(Θεοτόκος), since Christ was Divine and not human, and consequently she should not have the word theotokos (God-bearer) applied to her.”  Dyophysitism.  (Caution to the reader:  there are LOTS of “physitisms”. Don’t ask.  It gets very long, shades of grey, & complicated!  Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 🙂  And you thought ecumenism was easy?)

Nestorianism goes, well, “out-of-its-way” to overly emphasize the disunion, or, at best, a very loose union between the human and Divine natures of Jesus, preferring the term Christotokos, in terms of whom Mary gave birth to; arguing that it was only the humanity of Christ which was born at the Incarnation, and not the Deity.  Conversely, the implication, at least, with Theotokos, possibly, Nestorians would argue, was it suggesting the Divine nature was also somehow created at the Incarnation?, which they could not stand.  However, Theotokos, properly understood, contains none of these objected to and objectionable connotations.  Nestorianism is a clear heresy from orthodox Christianity, negating the hypostatic, ὑπόστασις, union.  (How’s that for ten cent words?  Church techno speak! It helps to know a little Greek, Latin, & Hebrew.  It does.    Nicean orthodox Christianity says “True God & True Man”, in which it means:  two unique, full, complete natures, perfectly united in one person.  Dear Reverend Fathers on this distribution, how did I do?  Whew!  Did I pass?    These distinctions are NOT trivial, meaningless, nor unimportant.  Depending on how the Church defines the nature of Christ, it gives a whole new reading, meaning, & coloring to the interpretation of Scripture, tough enough as it is.  Better get it right!  Better!  🙂

Cyril was the bedrock for the third general Council of Ephesus in 431, which declared Nestorianism a heresy. Oddly enough, a group of bishops that sided with Nestorius convened their own council after the one at Ephesus and deposed Cyril (this is the point where Cyril and Nestorius got arrested by the Emperor).

The exegetical works of St. Cyril are very numerous. The seventeen books “On Adoration in Spirit and in Truth” are an exposition of the typical and spiritual nature of the Old Law. The Glaphyra or “brilliant”, Commentaries on Pentateuch are of the same nature. Long explanations of Isaiah and of the minor Prophets give a mystical interpretation, after the Alexandrian manner. Only fragments are extant of other works on the Old Testament, as well as of expositions of Matthew, Luke, and some of the Epistles, but of that of St. Luke much is preserved in a Syriac version. Of St. Cyril’s sermons and letters the most interesting are those which concern the Nestorian controversy. Of a great apologetic work in the twenty books against Julian the Apostate ten books remain. Among his theological treatises we have two large works and one small one on the Holy Trinity, and a number of treatises and tracts belonging to the Nestorian controversy.

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-Cyril, from the 2009 film “Agora”

“By nature, each one of us is enclosed in his own personality, but supernaturally, we are all one. We are made one body in Christ, because we are nourished by One Flesh. As Christ is indivisible, we are all one in Him. Therefore, He asked His Father “that they may all be One as We also are one.” – Saint Cyril of Alexandria

“That anyone could doubt the right of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills with astonishment. Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and she gave birth to him! Our Lord’s disciples may not have used those exact words, but they delivered to us the belief those words enshrine, and this has also been taught us by the holy fathers. The divinely inspired Scriptures affirm that the Word of God was made flesh, that is to say, he was united to a human body endowed with a rational soul. He undertook to help the descendants of Abraham, fashioning a body for himself from a woman and sharing our flesh and blood, to enable us to see in him not only God, but also, by reason of this union, a man like ourselves. It is held, therefore, that there is in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nonetheless one, the one true Son, both God and man; not a deified man on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form. We are assured of this by Saint Paul’s declaration: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.” – from a letter by Saint Cyril of Alexandria

But the biggest reason why St. Cyril of Alexandria is a ‘Trooper’ is his doctrine, which has been quoted by multiple Church councils—Cyril has the title Doctor of the Church. Here is an excerpt from his book on the Divine Motherhood of Mary:

“In the third book of his work on the holy and consubstantial Trinity, our father Athanasius, of glorious memory, several times refers to the holy Virgin as “Mother of God.” I cannot resist quoting his own words: “As I have often told you, the distinctive mark of holy Scripture is that it was written to make a twofold declaration concerning our Savior; namely, that He is and has always been God, and that for our sake in these latter days He took flesh from the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and became man.”

Prayer in Honor of Mary, Mother of God

“Hail, Mary, Mother of God, venerable treasure of the whole universe, lamp that is never extinguished, crown of virginity, support of the true faith, indestructible temple, dwelling of Him whom no place can contain, O Mother and Virgin! Through you all the holy Gospels call blessed the One whom comes in the name of the Lord.

Hail, Mother of God. You enclosed under your heart the infinite God whom no space can contain. Through you the Most Holy Trinity is adored and glorified, the priceless cross is venerated throughout the universe. Through you the heavens rejoice, and the angels and archangels are filled with gladness. Through you the demons are banished, and the tempter fell from heaven. Through you the fallen human race is admitted to heaven.

Hail, Mother of God. Through you kings rule, and the only-begotten Son of God has become a star of light to those who were sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.” -Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor

Love,
Matthew

1Novation was born about the year 200. He was a man of considerable learning, apparently educated in literary composition; the first writer to use Latin in the Church. His immediate rival in Rome, Bishop Cornelius, spoke of him sarcastically as ” that maker of dogmas, that champion of ecclesiastical learning”.  During the persecutions of emperor Decius in mid third century, Novatian took the position that those who had stopped practicing Christianity, the “Lapsi”, during the persecutions, to save themselves, could not be accepted back into the Church even if they repented and that the only way to reenter the church would be by re-baptism. Cornelius and Cyprian of Carthage did not believe in the need for re-baptism. Instead they thought that the sinners should only need to show contrition and true repentance to be welcomed back into the church.

During the election of the bishop of Rome in 251, Novatian opposed Cornelius because he was too lax in accepting the return of Christians who had lapsed during the persecutions. His party then consecrated him as a rival bishop (antipope) to Cornelius. He announced throughout the empire his election, as had Cornelius, as both parties appointed bishops and priests in cities where the incumbent favored his rival, thus creating a widespread schism in the Church.

By the end of 251, Bishop Cornelius assembled a council of sixty bishops that condemned and excommunicated Novation apparently over the legitimacy of his claim to the ecclesiastical throne of Rome. It was only later that Novation began to be called a heretic and this appeared to be over the question of the Church having the power to grant absolution in certain cases.  Novatian is known for his writing of which only two have survived, the De Cibis Judaicus and De Trintate (On the Trinity), an interpretation of the early church doctrine on the Trinity which is his most important work.  Novationists called themselves καθαροι (“katharoi”/Cathari) or “Puritans” reflecting their desire not to be identified with what they considered the lax practices of a corrupted Catholic Church. They went so far as to re-baptize their own converts. Because Novatianists (including Novatian) did not submit to the bishop of Rome, they were labeled by Rome as schismatics.

Novations were Montanists, another name for a heretical group, who took their name from a priest and Anti-pope, Montanus.  Montanus preached that those who fell from grace were out of the church forever, as opposed to the orthodox position that by sincere contrition and repentance the fallen might be readmitted. In addition they believed that the value of the sacraments depended on the purity and worthiness of the priest administering the rites. In time they merged with the Donatists who sprang up in Carthage, 4th century in a split with Rome over the failure of a their man to win the bishop’s seat.  The Novations also held second marriages were not valid.

St Joseph, Terror of Demons, pray for us!

Cuzco School St Joseph

-Cuzco School, Peru, “Saint Joseph and the Christ Child”, late 17th-18th century. Oil on canvas, 43 x 32 1/8in. (109.2 x 81.6cm), Brooklyn Museum

In the Litany of St Joseph, one the titles of honor given to him is Terror of Demons.  Due to his unshakeable faith, his assiduous perseverance, his admirable purity and his exceptional humility, and given the nobility and grandeur of his vocation – the protection, sustenance and care of the Blessed Mother and Our Lord Jesus Christ, as head of the Holy Family – we can expect that God also endowed him with an equally proportional grace to carry out such a lofty mission in life. And certainly we can picture him as a sublime icon of manliness and a pillar of strength that would sow terrible fear among the powers of darkness given his noble task.  Would God allow/accept anything less for the earthly foster-father of His Son?

In Catholic iconography, St Joseph is pictured holding a staff from which a white lily grows.  This is due to Catholic hagiography which states from reliable, albeit non-scriptural, sources near to the period, when the holy priest Simeon gathered all the young men of Jerusalem from the house of David at the temple to choose who would be the rightful spouse of Our Lady, he was inspired by God to give each man a dry rod. After a period of prayer asking for the manifestation of the Divine Will, pure white lilies – the symbol of purity – blossomed from St. Joseph’s staff and a white dove, most pure and brilliant, hovered over his head giving Simeon the sign that he was the chosen one.

Hence, St. Joseph is the epitome of a pure man: pure in thought, pure in heart; pure in body and soul – destined to be the most chaste spouse of Mary Most Holy conceived without sin. In face of such sublime purity and holiness, it would not be farfetched to believe that the ugly, filthy infernal spirits would cower in petrified fear in his presence.

I have a special intention I am entrusting to St Joseph, in addition to so much I have already entrusted to him.  Pray for me!  St Joseph, Terror of Demons, pray for us!

Love,
Matthew

Father’s Day – bringing it all home….

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A man’s wedding vows…

“V:  Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?

R:  We have.

V:  Will you honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?

R:  We will.

V:  Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church?

R:  We will.

V:  Since it is your intention to enter into marriage, join your right hands, and declare your consent before God and His Church.

R:  I, Matthew, take you, Kelly, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

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-by Br. Edmund McCullough, OP

“Long ago, in the days before direct deposit, Mom had to hope that on payday Dad would bring his whole paycheck home and not cash it at the bar on the way back from work. He and Mom would then sit down at the table and budget for the rest of the month. The kids needed new shoes, Catholic school tuition had to be paid, and so forth. It was important that Dad brought all the money home.

Now, I concede that things have changed in the last fifty years. Banks now offer direct deposit so most of us don’t even see our paycheck. Not as many bars or packaged goods stores cash paychecks anymore, and most families have two incomes. However, the principle still holds. Men are truly husbands and fathers when they bring it all home. And the “all” is not merely monetary.

A husband and father’s whole world lies within the four walls of his home. He brings home, not simply money, but all his attention, affection, and energy. He has a narrowness in the best sense of the word, what Chesterton calls a “truly local patriotism.”

The good father that sees this clearly is a realist. He sees facts: “I’m married to this one woman for as long as we live.” And “This is my child. I’m responsible for him for at least the next 18 years—probably more.”

But this narrowness is a beautiful reality, not a tragic one. The vows he made in marriage will focus his energy. Without them, he would risk drifting without any objective. It is because our feelings change—we ride stormy seas on a rolling main—that we make wedding vows. But sometimes daydreams settle in and the realist changes philosophies. He thinks, “If only I could have some independence. Wasn’t it great when I didn’t have to answer to anyone?” He starts to think that life has become cramped. He sympathizes with George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. He has given up all that for this? He faces pressure at work and mopey teenagers at home. He is not receiving the affirmation and respect he thinks he deserves from his wife. He starts to panic and think about how things could have been different. He ponders all those opportunities he gave up, all those other lives he could have lived.

That’s when a husband and father is tempted not to “bring it all home.” He is tempted to divert a bit more of himself to his co-workers or his old buddies. But if he’s wise, he goes back to basics. His world is here, right in front of him. All those other lives he could have lived aren’t real. His co-workers will change. His buddies have their own marriages. He can think to himself, “I didn’t sign on for this” (whatever “this” might be), but the circumstances of life don’t ask our permission.

If he retains his focus, his kids will come around to the same perspective that Mark Twain describes so accurately: “When I was at 18, my father was the dumbest man I’d ever met. When I was 21, I was amazed at how much he had learned in just three years.” With his wife, there are ups and downs. When two people live together for 50+ years, there are going to be disagreements, occasionally serious ones. But if he brings it all home, he will find that on the other side of such narrowness is a profound breadth and depth of life not accessible to those who divide their love.”

Love,
Matthew

“Prayer – the last refuge of scoundrels!” -Lisa Simpson

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-by Br. Clement Dickie, OP

“Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” -Bart Simpson

“Prayer, the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
-Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons, episode 14, describing Bart’s turn to God.  Bart would have to repeat the third grade if he failed another history exam, but he hadn’t studied for his make-up test. The night before the exam, he took refuge in the Almighty, begging for a snow storm.

It’s an old cliche that when your chips are down, you know who your real friends are. There are some friends whom you can turn to when you’re in trouble and there are others who fall away when the good times stop rolling.

In the Book of Judges, which covers the time between Israel’s settlement in the promised land (covered in the Book of Joshua) and the beginnings of the Davidic Kingdom (Samuel), we see the Israelites falling out with the God of their ancestors and partying with the Baals repeatedly. (Of course this is a perennial theme in Old Testament literature.) Worshiping Baals was just more fun than serving God.

In Judges 10, Israel again “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “served the Baals of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines; and they forsook the Lord and did not serve him” (Judges 10:6). God grew frustrated with His people and He allowed the Philistines and Ammonites to crush and oppress Israel.

Finally, Israel pleaded with God. “Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD, ‘We have sinned against You, for we have abandoned our God and served the Baals’” (Judges 10:10).

But this time God’s response is a little different: “The LORD answered the Israelites: Did not the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites, and the Midianites oppress you? Yet when you cried out to Me, and I saved you from their power, you still abandoned Me and served other gods. Therefore I will save you no more” (Judges 10:11-14).

Ultimately, God is faithful even where we fail. (As Paul puts it in his Second Letter to Timothy: “If we are unfaithful He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”) He will eventually have King David subdue the land, and ultimately He will send His only Son to be Our Savior.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us an invitation to friendship (15:14–17). While we do turn to our friends in times of trouble, friendship is much more than that. We need to give our attention to God even when we don’t have a big exam the next day or Amorites banging at the gates.

In good times worshiping idols like Baal, Bacchus, mammon, Mars, Aphrodite, or any other created thing may seem like fun. The rituals are exciting, and a material god is easier to comprehend than the utterly transcendent God. But in the end, the only way to happiness is through the One, True God.

But being friends with God means that we have to pray constantly. If our friends are real friends, they are with us in good times and bad times. And if we are real friends to them, we must invite them to be a part of our joys as well as our struggles. If He has deigned to make us worthy of being called His friends, we cannot fail to act on that friendship.”

Love,
Matthew

Doubt

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-by Br. Innocent Smith, OP

“In life and the life of faith, often times, we think of doubt as something unhelpful or distracting, as an impediment to greater faith; whereas, in terms of faith, doubt may be the catalyst to deeper faith, yet still, asking more and more profound questions of our faithful and talented teachers. In the 2010 On Heaven and Earth, a book-length dialogue between then Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and Rabbi Skorka of Buenos Aires, our present Holy Father articulated a 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.”

(Editor’s note:  this is NOT to be overwhelmed by fear and doubt; so many scripture passages, so little time; but rather to be honest regarding doubt’s existence in our lives of faith.  And, to admit, even, its helpful aspects towards holiness.  It wouldn’t be faith w/out doubt.  It would, rather, be certainty.  We are not called to certainty.  We are called to faith, a call involving greater humility than certainty.  As Christians, we are told over and over again to not fear.  We, therefore, do not fear doubt.  Our faith in Him allows us to look doubt “straight-in-the-eye”, and deal; entering more deeply into the great mystery of Redemption.  Recall, Catholicism has a very specific definition of the word “mystery”; when used in a Catholic sense, a mystery is not something which cannot be known, rather, it is a truth which can only be infinitely explored by human reason.)

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.”

Love,
Matthew

“…and they murmured against God.”

“The next day the whole Israelite community murmured against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the Lord’s people,” they said.”  -Numbers 16:41


-by Br. Tomas Rosado, OP

Although they rarely get the respect they deserve, our tongues really should be numbered among our most prized bodily members. With them we sing of love, we broker peace, we passionately preach, and we attempt to express our very selves. They are nothing less than the tools that build up humanity and the kingdom of God. The psalmist sees the tongue as the instrument of God’s praise: “my tongue shall tell of thy righteousness and of thy praise all day long” (Ps 35:28). Our tongues, as a part of our human bodies, are destined for eternal glory, for union with God. At the Resurrection of the body, the whole of the human person will be united with God, and our tongues will perform their part in the eternal worship of God.

However, while we are still journeying toward our final rest and joy, our instrument of praise can be turned away from its purpose. Our current culture does not make many allowances for the virtues of the tongue; According to many, the tongue is for the advancement of man, by any means necessary. Lies are permitted, even practically encouraged, among certain professions and having the wit to spin the truth is even considered a virtue.

In addition to the temptation to violate the truth, directly or indirectly, we also face the temptation to use the truth as a weapon at the wrong time. St. Thomas sums up these sins of the tongue: “the railer intends to injure the honor of the person he rails, the backbiter to depreciate a good name, and the tale-bearer to destroy friendship, so too the derider intends to shame the person he derides” (ST II-II q. 75, art. 1).

The first, reviling, uses the truth as a direct and open attack upon another. One of your coworkers is receiving praise for her great performance at her job and you openly decry her drinking problem. When we revile another, we cast down the excellences of a person’s life by revealing embarrassing and unnecessary information in his or her presence.

Backbiting also kills a person’s reputation, but it does so in secret, undermining his or her position in the eyes of others. This is the person who pretends to be friends while secretly detesting us or hoping to make himself greater by climbing over our fallen name.

Tale-bearing is telling something bad about someone in order to disrupt relationships. This includes telling old stories about someone so that a couple will break up or telling the boss some unflattering details of a coworker’s past mistakes so that they will get passed over for a promotion. It can express itself as a refusal to allow the “old you” die or to prevent the flourishing of good relationships.

The last, what St. Thomas calls deriding, can be good or bad. In its good aspect, derision can be directed at the evil actions of another. Mocking the evil someone has done in order to show them it is shameful could be helpful in some situations, but usually it isn’t. On the other hand, derision is always evil when it is employed in the mockery of what is good. This occurs when people are made to feel ashamed for doing good, such as when they defend the faith or refuse to participate in immoral activities. Derision can also be aimed at people themselves, so that they feel they should be ashamed for existing and that they aren’t worthy of our care or love. This is always evil.

One can find examples of these sins or privations of the tongue by scanning almost any Internet article or comment box. But more illuminating than any example is the penance given by St. Philip Neri to a gossip. For her penance, St. Philip Neri told the woman to pluck a chicken outside of the church and bring him the plucked chicken. Puzzled, she obeyed. He then sent her back out to collect the feathers, but the wind had scattered most of them, so she only returned with a handful. “Sins of the tongue are like the feathers,” he said, “once uttered they cannot be recaptured.”

What can help us to be aware and stop these sins of the tongue? Silence. If we do not spend time in silence, how can we know the value of words? In silence, we come to greater awareness of the presence of God. We spend our mental words on the Lord and He shows us His peace. When we are with someone we love very much, words are unnecessary. They know what we think with a glance. In coming to deeper knowledge of God through this prayer of silence, we come to greater love of Him who will tame our tongues through His grace.

In the words of St. Augustine: “Your God, your Redeemer, your Tamer, your Chastiser, your Father, instructs you [and your ungovernable tongue.] For what purpose? In order that you may receive an inheritance where you will not have to bear your father to the grave, but where you shall have your Father Himself for your inheritance. In view of this hope, you are being instructed. Do you therefore murmur?”

Love,
Matthew

May 26 – St Philip Neri, CO, (1515-1595) – Apostle of Rome, “A joyful heart…”

If one had to choose one saint who showed the humorous side of holiness that would be Philip Neri.  “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one”, he often said.  Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise.   As the Council of Trent was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality.

He was born in Florence on July 22, 1515, the youngest child of Francesco, a lawyer, and his wife Lucrezia da Mosciano, whose family were nobility in the service of the state. Neri was carefully brought up, and received his early teaching from the Dominican friars at San Marco, the famous Dominican monastery in Florence. He was accustomed in later life to ascribe most of his progress to the teaching of two of them, Zenobio de’ Medici and Servanzio Mini.  He showed the impulsiveness and spontaneity of his character from the time he was a boy. In fact one incident almost cost him his life. Seeing a donkey loaded with fruit for market, the little boy had barely formed the thought of jumping on the donkey’s back before he had done it. The donkey, surprised, lost his footing, and donkey, fruit, and boy tumbled into the cellar with the boy winding up on the bottom! Miraculously he was unhurt.

Philip’s own father was not successful financially, and, at the age of 18, Philip was sent to his uncle, Romolo, a wealthy merchant at San Germano, a Neapolitan town near the base of Monte Cassino, to assist him in his business, and with the hope that he might inherit his uncle’s fortune.  He did gain Romolo’s confidence and affection, but soon after coming to San Germano Philip had a conversion. During this time, Philip found a favorite place to pray up in the fissure of a mountain that had been turned into a Dominican chapel. We don’t know anything specific about his conversion but during these hours of prayer he decided to leave worldly success behind and dedicate his life to God.  He chose to relocate to Rome in 1533.

After thanking his uncle, upon arriving in Rome he was the live-in tutor of the sons of a fellow Florentine, Galeotto Caccia, an aristocrat.  He studied philosophy and theology under the Augustinians, until he thought his studies were interfering with his prayer life. He then stopped his studies, threw away his books, and lived as a kind of hermit.

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Night was his special time of prayer. After dark he would go out in the streets, sometimes to churches, but most often into the catacombs of St. Sebastiano to pray. During one of these times of prayer he felt a globe of light enter his mouth and sink into his heart. This experience gave him so much energy to serve God that he went out to work at the hospital of the incurables and starting speaking to others about God, everyone from beggars to bankers.

In 1548 Philip formed a confraternity with other laymen to minister to pilgrims who came to Rome without food or shelter. The spiritual director of the confraternity convinced Philip that he could do even more work as a priest. After receiving instruction from this priest, Philip was ordained in 1551.

At his new home, the church of San Girolamo, he learned to love to hear confessions. Young men especially found in him the wisdom and direction they needed to grow spiritually. But Philip began to realize that these young men needed something more than absolution; they needed guidance during their daily lives. So Philip began to ask the young men to come by in the early afternoon when they would discuss spiritual readings and then stay for prayer in the evening. The numbers of the men who attended these meetings grew rapidly. In order to handle the growth, Philip and a fellow priest, Buonsignore Cacciaguerra, gave a more formal structure to the meetings and built a room called the Oratory to hold them in.

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Philip understood that it wasn’t enough to tell young people not to do something — you had to give them something to do in its place. So at Carnival time, when the worst excesses were encouraged, Philip organized a pilgrimage to the Seven Churches with a picnic accompanied by instrumental music for the mid-day break. After walking twelve miles in one day everyone was too tired to be tempted!

In order to guide his followers, Philip made himself available to everyone at any hour — even at night. He said some of the most devout people were those who had come to him at night. When others complained, Philip answered, “They can chop wood on my back so long as they do not sin.”

Not everyone was happy about this growing group and Philip and Buonsignore were attacked by the priests they lived with. But eventually Philip and his companions were vindicated and went on with their work.

In 1555, the Pope’s Vicar accused Philip of “introducing novelties” and ordered him to stop the meetings of the Oratory. Philip was brokenhearted but obeyed immediately. The Pope only let him start up the Oratory again after the sudden death of his accuser. Despite all the trouble this man had caused, Philip would not let anyone say anything against the man or even imply that his sudden death was a judgment from God.

One church, for Florentines in Rome, had practically forced him to bring the Oratory to their church. But when gossip and accusations started, they began to harass the very people they had begged to have nearby! At that point, Philip decided it would be best for the group to have their own church. They became officially known as the Congregation of the Oratory, made up of secular priests and clerics.

Philip was known to be spontaneous and unpredictable, charming and humorous.

He seemed to sense the different ways to bring people to God. One man came to the Oratory just to make fun of it. Philip wouldn’t let the others throw him out or speak against him. He told them to be patient and eventually the man became a Dominican. On the other hand, when he met a condemned man who refused to listen to any pleas for repentance, Philip didn’t try gentle words, but grabbed the man by the collar and threw him to the ground. The move shocked the criminal into repentance and he made a full confession.

Humility was the most important virtue he tried to teach others and to learn himself. Some of his lessons in humility seem cruel, but they were tinged with humor like practical jokes and were related with gratitude by the people they helped. His lessons always seem to be tailored directly to what the person needed. One member who was later to become a cardinal was too serious and so Philip had him sing the Miserere, Psalm 51, the Psalm of repentance, at a wedding breakfast. When one priest gave a beautiful sermon, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon.  St Philip Neri was an enemy of solemnity and conventionality. When some of his more pompous penitents made their confession to him he imposed salutary and deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat (he was very fond of cats). When a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh. When people looked up to him too much, he did something ridiculous so that they should not respect someone who was no wiser – and no less sinful – than they were. In every case there was an excellent point to his pranks: to combat pride, or melancholy, or hero-worship.

Philip preferred spiritual mortification to physical mortification. When one man asked Philip if he could wear a hair shirt, Philip gave him permission — if he wore the hair shirt outside his clothes! The man obeyed and found humility in the jokes and name-calling he received.

There were unexpected benefits to his lessons in humility. Another member, Baronius, wanted to speak at the meetings about hellfire and eternal punishment. Philip commanded him instead to speak of church history. For 27 years Baronius spoke to the Oratory about church history. At the end of that time he published his talks as a widely respected and universally praised books on ecclesiastical history!

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Philip did not escape this spiritual mortification himself. As with others, his own humbling held humor. There are stories of him wearing ridiculous clothes or walking around with half his beard shaved off. The greater his reputation for holiness the sillier he wanted to seem. When some people came from Poland to see the great saint, they found him listening to another priest read to him from joke books.

Philip was very serious about prayer, spending hours in prayer. He was so easily carried away that he refused to preach in public and could not celebrate Mass with others around. But when asked how to pray his answer was, “Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you.”  Amen. Amen.

Philip died in 1595 after a long illness at the age of eighty years.

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– St Philip Neri’s effigy at his tomb in the Chiesa Nuova

We often worry more about what others think than about what God thinks. Our fear of people laughing at us often stops us from trying new things or serving God. Do something today that you are afraid might make you look a little ridiculous. Then reflect on how it makes you feel. Pray about your experience with God.  Or, if you’re like me, just be yourself!  

Prayer:
Saint Philip Neri, we take ourselves far too seriously most of the time. Help us to add humor to our perspective — remembering always that humor is a gift from God. Amen

Cheerfulness is an important part of holiness. St. Philip Neri’s story teaches us that the way to be really happy is to put God and other people first in our lives. If we only think about ourselves we’ll never feel satisfied.  Laughter is not much heard in churches: perhaps that is to be expected… but outside church, Christians should laugh more than anyone else – laugh from sheer joy, that God bothered to make us, and that He continues to love us despite the fools and sinners we are, or, at least, certainly me. Everyone is a sinner, but Christians are sinners redeemed – an outrageous, undeserved rescue and act of Divine Love that we make even less deserved by everything we do. It is too serious a matter to be serious about: all we can reasonably do is rejoice.

Which reminds me of a joke…”Take my…”, no, not that one, “Two Irish guys…”, not that one either.  Why can angels fly?….Because they take themselves so lightly!  

Many people wrongly feel that such an attractive and jocular personality as Philip’s cannot be combined with an intense spirituality. Philip’s life melts our rigid, narrow views of piety. His approach to sanctity was truly catholic, all-embracing and accompanied by a good laugh. Philip always wanted his followers to become not less but more human through their striving for holiness.

Philip Neri prayed, “Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow.”

Love,
Matthew

May 10 – St John of Avila, (1500-1569) – Doctor of the Church

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-by Pierre Subleyras (1746)

Saint John of Ávila, called the “Apostle of Andalusia” was a Spanish priest, preacher, scholastic author, and religious mystic.  John was born in Almodóvar del Campo, in the Province of Ciudad Real, of a wealthy and pious family of Jewish converso descent. At the age of fourteen he was sent to the University of Salamanca to study law but returned home after a year, where he spent the next three years in the practice of austere piety.  His sanctity impressed a Franciscan friar journeying through Almodóvar, on whose advice he took up the study of philosophy and theology at Alcalá de Henares, where he was fortunate to have as his teacher the noted Dominican friar, Domingo de Soto. While he was a student his parents died and after his ordination he celebrated his first Mass in the church where they were buried, then he sold the family property and gave the proceeds to the poor.

He saw in the severing of natural ties a vocation to foreign missionary work and prepared to go to Mexico. In 1527, while he was in Seville looking for a favourable opportunity to set out for his new field of labour, his unusually great devotion in celebrating Mass attracted the attention of Hernando de Contreras, a local priest, who mentioned him to the Archbishop of Seville and Inquisitor General, Alonso Manrique de Lara. The archbishop saw in the young cleric a powerful instrument to stir up the faith in Andalusia, recently reclaimed for Spain in the Reconquista by Servant of God Queen Isabel the Catholic and Ferdinand II of Aragon, having expelled the Berbers and Moors from Spain.  After considerable persuasion, Juan was induced to abandon his journey to America.

John’s first sermon was preached on 22 July 1529, and immediately established his reputation. During his nine years of missionary work in Andalusia, crowds packed the churches at all his sermons. However, his strong pleas for reform and his denunciation of the behaviour of the aristocracy later brought him before the office of the Inquisition in Seville. He was charged with exaggerating the dangers of wealth and with closing the gates of heaven to the rich. The charges were refuted and he was declared innocent in 1533. By special invitation of the royal court, he was later appointed to preach a sermon for a major feast day in the Church of the Savior in Seville.  Like other Spanish mystics of the period, including La Beata de Piedrahita, he was suspected several times during his career of belonging to the Alumbrados, deemed a heretical sect.(1)

John of Avila is also remembered as a reformer of clerical life in Spain. He founded several colleges where his disciples dedicated themselves to the teaching of youths. Among the disciples attracted by his preaching and saintly reputation were St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of God, St. Francis Borgia and the Venerable Louis of Granada.  Of special importance was the University of Baeza established in 1538 by a papal bull of Pope Paul III.  He served as its first rector, and it became a model for seminaries and for the schools of the Jesuits.  He is especially revered by the Jesuits. Their development in Spain is attributed to his friendship and support to the Society of Jesus.

He began his career as apostolic preacher of Andalusia, aged thirty. After nine years he returned to Seville, only to depart for the wider fields of Cordova, Granada, Baeza, Montilla and Zafra. For eighteen years before his death he was the victim of constant illness, the result of the hardships of his apostolate of forty years. He died on 10 May 1569 in the town of Montilla in the Province of Córdoba. He was buried in that city, in the Jesuit Church of the Incarnation, which now serves as the sanctuary to his memory.

In his homily declaring St John of Avila a Doctor of the Church, Pope Benedict said that John of Avila was a “profound expert on the sacred Scriptures, he was gifted with an ardent missionary spirit. He knew how to penetrate in a uniquely profound way the mysteries of the redemption worked by Christ for humanity. A man of God, he united constant prayer to apostolic action. He dedicated himself to preaching and to the more frequent practice of the sacraments, concentrating his commitment on improving the formation of candidates for the priesthood, of religious and of lay people, with a view to a fruitful reform of the Church.”

Saint John of Ávila’s works were collected at Madrid in 1618, 1757, 1792 and 1805; a French translation by d’Andilly was published at Paris in 1673; and a German translation by Schermer in six volumes was issued at Regensburg between 1856 and 1881. His best-known works are the “Audi Fili”  one of the best tracts on Christian perfection, and his “Spiritual Letters” to his disciples.

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-lower jaw relic of St John of Avila, currently in Almodovar del Campo

“Turn yourself round like a piece of clay and say to the Lord: I am clay, and you, Lord, the potter. Make of me what you will.” – Saint John of Avila

“Withdraw your heart from the world before God takes your body from it.” – Saint John of Avila

“Your life consists in drawing nearer to God. To do this you must endeavor to detach yourself from visible things and remember that in a short time they will be taken from you.” – Saint John of Avila

“Dear brothers and sisters, I pray God may open your eyes and let you see what hidden treasures he bestows on us in the trials from which the world thinks only to flee. Shame turns into honor when we seek God’s glory. Present affliction become the source of heavenly glory. To those who suffer wounds in fighting his battles God opens his arms in loving, tender friendship. That is why he (Christ) tells us that if we want to join him, we shall travel the way he took. It is surely not right that the Son of God should go his way on the path of shame while the sons of men walk the way of worldly honor: “The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the servant greater than his master.”” – from a letter by Saint John of Avila

Love,
Matthew

(1) The alumbrados (The Illuminated) was a term used to loosely describe practitioners of a mystical form of Christianity in Spain during the 15th-16th centuries. Some alumbrados were only mildly heterodox, but others held views that were clearly heretical. Consequently, they were firmly repressed and became some of the early victims of the Spanish Inquisition.

The historian Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo found the name as early as 1492 (in the form aluminados, 1498), and traced the group to a Gnostic origin. He thought their views were promoted in Spain through influences from Italy.

The alumbrados held that the human soul can reach such a degree of perfection that it can even in the present life contemplate the essence of God and comprehend the mystery of the Trinity. All external worship, they declared, is superfluous, the reception of the sacraments useless, and sin impossible in this state of complete union with God. Persons in this state of impeccability could indulge their sexual desires and commit other sinful acts freely without staining their souls.

In 1525, the Inquisition issued an Edict on the alumbrados in which the Inquisitor General, Alonso Manrique de Lara, explained how the new heresy of alumbradismo was discovered and investigated. The text then gave a numbered list of forty-eight heretical propositions which had emerged from the trials of the alumbrados’ first leaders, Isabella de la Cruz and Pedro Ruiz d Alcaraz. After each proposition were given the grounds on which it was judged heretical. Among the odder of these propositions are that it is a mortal sin to read a book to console one’s soul (No. 31), which the Inquisition’s theologians described as “crazy, erroneous, and even heretical”; and that one sinned mortally every time one loved a son, daughter, or other person, and did not love that person through God (No. 36), which the theologians said was “erroneous and false, and against the common teaching of the saints”. One alumbrado, seeing a girl cross the street, said that “she had sinned, because in that action she had fulfilled her will” (No. 40). The theologians commented: “The foundation of this proposition is heretical, because it seems to state that all action that proceeds from our will is sin.”

A labourer’s daughter known as La Beata de Piedrahita, born in Salamanca, came to the notice of the Inquisition in 1511, by claiming to hold colloquies with Jesus and the Virgin Mary; some high patronage saved her from a rigorous denunciation.  She is often, as The Catholic Encyclopedia cautiously notes, “cited as an early adherent” of the alumbrados’ errors, though “it is not certain that she was guilty of heresy”.  Some recent scholars, like the Dominican historian and theologian Álvaro Huerga, who takes a relatively favorable view of her, question, on chronological and other grounds, the tendency to associate her with that movement, seeing her rather as “pre-alumbrados”.

Henry Charles Lea, in his “A History of the Inquisition in Spain”, mentions, among the more extravagant alumbrados, a priest from Seville named Fernando Méndez, who had acquired a special reputation for sanctity: “he taught his disciples to invoke his intercession, as though he were already a saint in heaven; fragments of his garments were treasured as relics; he gathered a congregation of beatas and, after mass in his oratory, they would strip off their garments and dance with indecent vigor — drunk with the love of God — and, on some of his female penitents, he would impose the penance of lifting their skirts and exposing themselves before him.” Méndez died before the Inquisition could bring him to trial.

Ignatius of Loyola, while studying at Salamanca in 1527, was brought before an ecclesiastical commission on a charge of sympathy with the alumbrados, but escaped with an admonition. Miguel de Molinos was also accused of sympathy owing to some similarities between his book The Spiritual Guide and the teachings of the early alumbrados, Isabella de la Cruz and Pedro Ruiz de Alcaraz.

Their persecution, by Inquisitional standards, was not particularly severe. Those convicted of engaging in the mystical practices and heresy of the alumbrados were not executed, few endured long-term sentences, and most were tried only after they managed to acquire large congregations in Toledo or Salamanca. Not all, however, were so fortunate. In 1529 a congregation of naïve adherents at Toledo was subjected to whippings and imprisonment. Greater rigors followed, and for about a century alleged connection with the alumbrados sent many to the Inquisition, especially at Córdoba. In spite of this determined action, however, the heresy maintained itself until the middle of the 17th century. The connection of later alumbrados, whose practices varied in different places, to the original alumbrados, Isabella de la Cruz and Pedro Ruiz del Alcaraz, is debatable, but the continuing influence of their teachings is not improbable.

The movement (under the name of Illuminés) seems to have reached France from Seville in 1623, and attained some following in Picardy when joined (1634) by Pierce Guerin, curé of Saint-Georges de Roye, whose followers, known as Guerinets, were suppressed in 1635.

A century later, another, more obscure body of Illuminés came to light in the south of France in 1722, and appears to have lingered till 1794, having affinities with those known contemporaneously in the United Kingdom as ‘French Prophets’, an offshoot of the Camisards.

The Saints, Scripture, Jazz Music, & Calvinism…

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– by Br. Bonaventure Chapman, O.P.(Br. Bonaventure Chapman entered the Order of Preachers, Eastern Province, The Province of St Joseph, in 2010. He received an M.Th. in Applied Theology from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, where he studied for the Anglican priesthood.)

“The saints are the hermeneuts of the Scriptures. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us of this in Verbum Domini: ”The interpretation of Sacred Scripture would remain incomplete were it not to include listening to those who have truly lived the word of God: namely, the saints” (VD 48).

Yet this seems difficult to swallow after reading some of the saints’ interpretations of Scripture, with their allegorical and mystical numerology. For instance, take St. Augustine’s reflections on John 6, the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes:

“By the five loaves are understood the five books of Moses; and rightly are they not wheaten but barley loaves, because they belong to the Old Testament. And you know that barley is so formed that we get at its pith with difficulty; for the pith is covered in a coating of husk, and the husk itself tenacious and closely adhering, so as to be stripped off with labor. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, invested in a covering of carnal sacraments.”

Even St. Thomas, who asserted that all allegorical interpretation must be grounded in the literal sense of Scripture, seems to partake of this perturbing pattern: “This boy had five loaves, that is, the teaching of the law: either because this teaching was contained in the five books of Moses . . . or because it was given to men absorbed in sensible things, which are made known through the five senses.” John Calvin always struck me as more reliable in reading Scripture with his plain and clear style. No numerology, no speculation, just solid exposition and practical exhortation: “Let us now sum up the meaning of the whole miracle. It has this in common with the other miracles, that Christ displayed in it his Divine power in union with beneficence, it is also a confirmation to us of that statement by which he exhorts us to seek the kingdom of God, promising that all other things shall be added to us.”

When I was a Calvinist, I thought like a Calvinst, spoke like a Calvinist, and interpreted like a Calvinist. But now as a Catholic I have put Calvinist ways aside, especially with the help of different kind of exegete: John Coltrane.

A number of us student brothers are part of a jazz band which is preparing to play for the Annual Spring Gala this weekend here at the Dominican House of Studies (shameless promotion!). Although trained in classical clarinet I prefer to play jazz, especially the dixieland variety. One reason for this is improvisation: jazz usually involves a main melody or head followed by various musicians’ “readings” of this melody in improvised solos. The soloist gets to offer his own interpretation of the piece and add his own coloring to the music before the band comes together to complete the song. To me this is where the fun, excitement, and skill resides: not just playing but creating.

Now, as any jazz aficionado knows, one cannot simply play anything in these solos; there are chord progressions as well as the theme of the song in general to guide the solo, and any good solo must respect these. But there is plenty of creative space to bring out new treasures from a time-worn piece. And the greater the musician the more creative one can be. Listen as one of the greats, John Coltrane, describes his method: “Here’s how I play: I take off from a point and I go as far as possible. But hopefully, I’ll never lose my way. I say hopefully, because what especially interests me is to discover the ways that I never suspected were possible. My phrasing isn’t a simple prolongation of my musical ideas, and I’m happy that my technique permits me to go very far in this domain, but I must add that it’s always in a very conscious manner.”

Perhaps the saints are like this, inspired troubadours of the Gospel who can stretch the meaning of the text to find new and powerful interpretations. Like the jazz soloist their freedom for interpretation is not infinite. Yet there is a creativity to their readings, grounded in a life spent soaking in God’s word, that breaks open familiar passages in unexpected ways.

And it is unfortunately true that not everyone likes jazz; some people prefer the more classical or mundane forms of music. So too some people, like myself in my Protestant days, do not like the hermeneutics of the saints. But this antipathy need not be final or irreversible; perhaps one of these nay-sayers just needs someone to listen with them and explain the beauty, power, and truth of the saints’ solos. Or as Pope Benedict XVI says: “We can point to a fundamental criterion of biblical hermeneutics: the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church“ (VD 29). A world of music without jazz strikes me as a pretty impoverished place. How much more disconcerting is the impoverishment of a world of scriptural interpretation without those great masters, the saints?”

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-Mark Dukes, John Coltrane Icons

n.b. John Coltrane is considered a saint only in the 5,000-member African Orthodox Church for which this icon was painted. He is not a canonized Roman Catholic saint.

Love,
Matthew

“Man, are you guys Jedis or what?”

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-by Br. Humbert Kilanowski, O.P.

“Man, are you guys Jedis or what?” That’s what a surprised inner-city schoolboy said when he first encountered some of my fellow Dominican friars. And the question is not completely without basis. Our white habits and dark leather belts do give us an appearance similar to the legendary guardians of peace and justice in the Star Wars galaxy. We carry rosaries instead of lightsabers, but we are entrusted, like the Jedi Knights, with the task of safeguarding the Truth. Yet we differ from the Jedi—as does any Christian—on several points.

The story of Star Wars is set “a long time ago,” before the birth of Christ, and the Jedi philosophy—recognized as a real-world religion in some places <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jediism>—draws from several pre-Christian strains of thought, such as Zen Buddhist mysticism and Taoist dualism. The most striking parallel, however, is with the Stoicism of ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoic philosophers were pantheists who believed that God was a “world-soul” existing within all matter, very much like “the Force,” which Obi-Wan Kenobi describes as “an energy field created by all living things.” This idea is very much opposed to the transcendent God of Christian monotheism, who is totally other than the created universe.

But there is another way in which both Stoics and Jedi find themselves at odds with Christianity—in their idea that bodily emotions, or passions, are disturbances of the soul, and thus always evil. While the Stoics typically restricted this term to passions unchecked by reason, the Jedi go further and claim that all emotions are to be avoided.

This view is expressed succinctly, thought not very clearly, by the diminutive Jedi Master, Yoda: “Anger, fear, aggression—the Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.” The Jedi’s ideal state of mind is what Zeno and his followers called apatheia, which is not quite the same as what we call “apathy,” but is rather a total avoidance of all emotions, such as love and hate, joy and sorrow.

This last passion, sorrow, is the worst of all human experiences for Yoda: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” By placing the feeling of pain at the very bottom of this downward spiral, the Jedi Master not only denigrates all emotions, but asserts that suffering, an inevitable part of human experience (or, as some would say, our “lot in life”), is meaningless, and that no good can come out of it.

The life and work of Jesus Christ, therefore, is a scandal to the Jedi’s moral philosophy. Our Lord committed no sin and did no evil, yet He often experienced emotions: fear in the garden of Gethsemane, anger at the money-changers in the Temple, sorrow at the death of Lazarus, and love for all His people in the world. Moreover, His agony on the Cross accomplished the greatest possible good for the human race, namely, redemption for our sins. It even imbues our own sufferings with salvific meaning. Finally, Heaven is the cause of our greatest delight, and satisfies our most profound desires, which are even greater than our cravings for worldly adventure and excitement.

Thus, for the Christian, the emotions of the body are fundamentally good, even though they are not the highest good. They are not, as the Utilitarians claim (at the opposite extreme), the basic barometer of morality. In the section on morals in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas, OP, demonstrates how the passions can be good:

“The passions of the soul, insofar as they are contrary to the order of reason, incline us to sin: but insofar as they are controlled by reason, they pertain to virtue.” (I-II, 24, 2, ad 3)

Since we are more than our physical bodies and have the power to think and reason, we must not let our emotions dominate our actions, but always let our free will and knowledge harness and direct them toward the good. For example, anger can be good when it motivates a charitable act, such as correcting a neighbor’s fault or rectifying a previous act of injustice. Sorrow for sin leads to conversion and avoidance of future wrongdoing. And while irrational fear of creatures may set us on a path to darkness, a reverential “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prv 1:7).

St. Thomas uncovers the errors in Yoda’s causal chain: fear does not lead to anger (both are responses to a present evil or deprivation); anger does not lead to hate (but vice versa); yet hate does lead to suffering when it involves willing evil toward others.

We friars may look like Jedi Knights, but our theology and our moral theory are radically different. We believe that human nature is fulfilled, not by suppressing emotion, but by directing it toward the joys of contemplation and virtuous action. The fear of God, for us children of a loving Father, is the path to eternal life.

Love,
Matthew