Category Archives: Doctors of the Church

Nov 15 – St Albert the Great, OP, (1200-1280 AD) – Bishop, Scientist, Doctor of the Church, Doctor Universalis, Doctor Expertus


-by Charlie McKinney, adapted from the above

“Thorough Theologian

Albert’s greatest love of all was his love for God.

Albert so loved the natural sciences, waxing eloquent in his writings on everything from flowers to insects to fish to the squirrelly daily habits of the squirrels, because they all in small, diverse ways reflected the unspeakable, simple goodness and majesty of the Creator, from whom all creation flows. Albert knew so well how God speaks to us through creation, but he also knew that God has spoken to us directly too, in His revelation, and most directly of all through the words and the deeds of His Son incarnate.

Albert’s love for God is seen in his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, of Church history, of the liturgy, and of the Eucharist. Albert left extensive commentaries on the Scriptures, among the most prominent being his Commentary on Saint Luke’s Gospel. He wrote beautifully about the Eucharist and offered practical advice on mastering the art of prayer to express our love for God.

Perhaps Albert’s most significant purely spiritual work, De Adherendo Deo (On Cleaving to God), is one that he might have not written in its entirety. The beautifully simple, although profoundly moving book, which has been called a worthy companion to Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, is about “cleaving freely, confidently, nakedly, and firmly to God alone . . . since the goal of Christian perfection is the love by which we cleave to God.”

Charging Champion

The virtue of fortitude comes from the Latin fortis, “strength.” Saints Albert and Thomas would write a great deal about the nature of virtues, including fortitude, and Albert clearly not only knew of this spiritual strength but did not shy away from living it.

Fortitude employs the irascible appetite and can raise our ire to fight back to defend the good, even when this means facing difficult obstacles. We saw that Albert was happy bravely to champion the cause of the rights of the Dominicans and Franciscans when challenged by the secular professors of the University of Paris. We saw too a flicker of Albertian ire when he railed at those even within his order who tried to squelch the study of philosophy. Perhaps the most poignant and powerful example of Albertian fortitude, though, is how he defended his own greatest student not long after that student’s death.

On March 7, 1277, three years to the day after the death of Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Steven Tempier of Paris, having solicited input from various theologians, produced 218 propositions that were said to be contrary to the Catholic Faith. Among that list, sixteen propositions were clearly compatible with the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Some reports indicate that the elderly Albert traveled the three hundred miles to Paris on foot to meet Tempier’s challenge and champion his brilliant student’s thought. He began his speech to the learned professors by stating, “What glory it is for one who is living to be praised by those who are dead.” He went on to portray Saint Thomas as the one who truly lived, while his accusers of unorthodoxy were covered in shades of death through their ignorance and ill will. He defended the orthodoxy of Thomas’s writings, along with Thomas’s personal sanctity, offering to defend them both before an assemblage of competent men. He returned to Cologne and poured over Thomas’s writings, declaring to an assemblage of Dominicans that Thomas’s works were so masterful that he had “labored for all to the end of the world, and that henceforth all others would work in vain.”

Of course, the writings of Saint Thomas did not put an end to works in theology but would stimulate an endless stream of new work inspired by his brilliance as the Dominican Order and countless popes across the centuries have sung the praises for his works of theology. Thomas’s philosophical and theological sons and daughters would come to be called Thomists, and Albert himself is the first and the foremost among them.

Cherished Child

For many decades Albert the Great shone as one of the brightest lights in one of the greatest of centuries. His learning was unequalled, and he was known far and wide as a man who could get things done. The bark of his preaching and teaching had inflamed the hearts of countless students, friars, nuns, and parishioners who had heard and seen him. Recall, though, the legend that Blessed Mary had foretold that at the end of his days he would be bereft of his vast knowledge. A poignant tale records that Archbishop Sigfried had come to the Dominican convent to visit the elderly Albert one day and, knocking at the door of his cell, called out, “Albert, are you there?” The venerable master did not open the door, but merely answered: “Albert is no longer here; he was here once upon a time.”

It is said that the greatest encyclopedic mind of the century, the medieval memory master, began to lose his memory in the last weeks of his life. He retained the ability to say Mass, as he had done for so many years, but he removed himself ever more from the world, content to pray in his garden and his cell. The boots that had taken him all across Europe carried him daily to the site he had selected as the resting place of his body, as he prayerfully and peacefully prepared for the inevitable day of his death. His spirit strove solely to cleave closer to God.

In the twilight hours of November 15, 1280, clothed in the habit of the Order of Preachers, seated in a large wooden chair in his cell and surrounded by his brother friars in Christ, Saint Albert whispered that it had been a good thing to be a Dominican, and then, like a cherished child, his soul left to meet his heavenly Father and Mother.”

Love,
Matthew

Nov 10 – Pope St Leo the Great, (400-461 AD), “Challenge your heart”


-Francisco de Herrera el Mozo (spanish, 1622-1685): Saint Leo Magnus (pope Leo I), 164 x 105 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Leo’s papacy “…was undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church’s history.1” -Pope BXVI


-by Br Isidore Rice, OP

“The road that stretches before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it tests the strength of his legs.” (Fr. Walter Farrell, OP, My Way of Life)

St. Leo the Great must surely have felt the truth of this as he walked out unarmed to halt the impending hordes of Attila the Hun. Attila had rampaged through Northern Italy and would soon have proceeded to pillage Rome, had not the Pope, with no defense save the grace of Christ, turned him back.

Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness: sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts.” (Farrell).

Even when he was not confronting invading barbarians, St. Leo had to defend a Church pressured by errors on every side. In the West, some Pelagian clergy, thinking that God’s activity threatens our free will, excluded God from the beginning of man’s quest for God. In the East, some fell into the error of Eutyches, thinking that the supreme power of Christ’s divinity must smother His humanity into one nature. Even in Rome itself, Manichaeism was looting souls by pitting matter against spirit as the domains of two eternal antagonists.

Against all these attacks, St. Leo boldly proclaimed the person of Jesus Christ, who is “true God born in the undiminished and perfect nature of a true man, complete in what is His and complete in what is ours” (Tome of Leo)

“The great truths that must flood the mind of man with light are the limitless perfection of God and the perfectibility of man. The enticements that must captivate the heart of man are the divine goodness of God and man’s gratuitously given capacity to share that divine life, to begin to possess that divine goodness even as he walks among the things of earth. The truths are not less certain because they are too clear for our eyes. The task before our heart is not to hold a fickle lover, but to spend itself.” (Farrell).

All the errors Leo faced were attempts to dim the light of mystery, to make Christ, true God and true man, all too visible to our understanding. Thus they reduced the living God to a “fickle lover” who must be impressed by our good deeds, a bully who drives out what is authentically human, or an aloof spirit who could have nothing to do with flesh. But in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, we see both the blinding “perfection of God and the perfectibility of man.” In Jesus we see the God who does not need to compete with His creatures but rather invites them to cooperate with Him. In Jesus we see a man who reveals to man the heights to which he can be drawn.

“If man begins life with wisdom lent by God, he ends by possessing that wisdom; if he guides his steps by a light that is not his own along a road too high and hard for his feet, he ends united to that eternal Light, and at home forever in a world that is God’s.” (Farrell).

Troparion (Tone 3)

You were the Church’s instrument
in strengthening the teaching of true doctrine;
you shone forth from the West like a sun dispelling the errors of the heretics.
Righteous Leo, entreat Christ God to grant us His great mercy.

Troparion (Tone 8)

O Champion of Orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness,
The enlightenment of the universe and the inspired glory of true believers.
O most wise Father Leo, your teachings are as music of the Holy Spirit for us!
Pray that Christ our God may save our souls!

Kontakion (Tone 3)

Seated upon the throne of the priesthood, glorious Leo,
you shut the mouths of the spiritual lions.
With divinely inspired teachings of the honored Trinity,
you shed the light of the knowledge of God up-on your flock.
Therefore, you are glorified as a divine initiate of the grace of God.”

Love,
Matthew

1. Pope Benedict XVI, “Saint Leo the Great”, General Audience, 5 March 2008, Libreria Editrice Vaticana

We were made for happiness. It is our natural end.

be·at·i·tude
/bēˈadəˌt(y)o͞od/
noun
noun: beatitude, plural noun: beatitudes
1. supreme blessedness.

“Since happiness is the perfect and sufficient good, it must needs set man’s desire at rest and exclude every evil. . . . Wherefore also according to the Philosopher (Ethics, 1:9), happiness is the reward of works of virtue. — St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 5. arts. 4, 5

“Now I wish to tell you further, that a man proves his patience on his neighbor, when he receives injuries from him. Similarly, he proves his humility on a proud man, his faith on an infidel, his true hope one who despairs, his justice on the unjust, his kindness on the cruel, his gentleness and benignity on the irascible. Good men produce and prove all their virtues on their neighbor. . . .” — St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue

“Perceived lack of intimacy and belonging is clearly a threat to our happiness and, indeed, is a real evil when evil is understood as a lack of a good that should be present…As St. Irenaeus stated so well eighteen centuries ago, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.”13

One hundred years before Irenaeus’s birth, God made Himself visible and explained in His own words why He came to the people on earth: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). St. Thomas Aquinas added that God intends for us a twofold happiness: an imperfect happiness while here on earth and a perfect happiness in heaven.

Starting with Aristotle and concluding with St. Matthew, Thomas tells us: “The Philosopher, in placing man’s happiness in this life (Ethics, 1:10), says it is imperfect, and after a long discussion concludes: We call men happy, but only as men. But God has promised us perfect happiness, when we shall be as the angels . . . in heaven (Matt. 22:30).”14 And what are the keys to both kinds of happiness? We saw in this chapter’s first quotation that St. Thomas Aquinas claims that virtues hold the keys to happiness.

Virtues are habits or dispositions to know the truth and to do the good. They perfect our powers as human beings made in the image and likeness of God with intellects and wills. They perfect the capacities of our intellects to know what is true, and the capacities of our wills to rein in our passions and desires to keep us from doing what is wrong and to guide us toward what is right. The more we embrace and build these capacities, the happier we become and the less susceptible to negative attitudes and emotions, including those that accompany excessive, prolonged loneliness.

Now, there are important natural virtues, such as temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence, long known to great pagan philosophers. And literally thanks be to God, there are also supernatural, theological, or infused virtues that the Father and the Son freely bestow on us through the workings of the Holy Spirit: faith, hope, and love (also called charity). All the virtues work together to guide us toward that imperfect happiness we can experience on earth and the perfect eternal bliss we hope to share: the beatific vision of God in heaven.”

Love,
Matthew

Vost, Kevin. Catholic Guide to Loneliness (Kindle Locations 379-389, 391-417). Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

13 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV, 20, 7, as cited in Mons. Phillipe Delhaye, Pope John Paul II on the Contemporary Importance of St. Irenaeus, no. 10, http://www.ewtn.com/library/theology/irenaeus.htm.
14 Summa Theologica (ST), I-II, Q. 3, art. 2.

Faith, reason, & mystery

Many cogent Catholic lines of thought, taken towards their logical conclusion end in “…it’s a mystery.” Granted, somewhat unsatisfying, but accurate. When the Church, or a well formed member of hers, uses the “mystery”, their meaning in using this word is 180 degrees inverted from our common usage of this word. The Catholic definition of the word “mystery” is: not something which cannot be known, but, rather, something which can be infinitely known.

-by Br Elijah Dubek, OP

“It is tempting for the contemporary Catholic, especially an enthusiastic apologist, to try to explain and to prove the faith to others. I know many, myself included, who have discussed the faith with family or friends who have fallen away or even simply have a question to ask: nearly always, I overdid it. We want to recommend a great book to them, answer their questions, or take away all their intellectual obstacles to belief. After all, if everyone knew how reasonable our faith is, they would stop fighting it and hop on board, right? St. Thomas Aquinas cautions us against this method, “lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh” (Summa Theologiae). This is not merely a cautionary measure for those who simply do not know the reasons, as if he is telling us to leave the arguments to the experts. Rather, St. Thomas wants to safeguard the divine origin of faith, “that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:5).

Following this, the First Vatican Council declared, “There is a twofold order of knowledge, distinct both in principle and in object” (Dei Filius, Ch. 4). On the one hand, there is natural knowledge, which progresses from human reason as its principle and reaches toward its appropriate truths (those which we can discover through experience, argumentation, etc.). The other order is supernatural, bestowed on us through the divine gift of faith, revealing to us truths beyond our natural capacity. Indeed, Dei Filius insists that “there are proposed to our belief mysteries hidden in God, which unless divinely revealed cannot be known.” Furthermore, the supernatural order can grant us certitude even about some truths within the realm of reason.

The First Vatican Council and St. Thomas want us to recognize the distinct spheres of faith and reason, while realizing that the subject matter does indeed overlap at times. For example, we can know that God exists by reason and by faith. Natural reason can arrive through argumentation concerning the origin, conservation, and governance of creation to the certainty of the existence of God (with much difficulty, the admixture of error, and only after a long time, St. Thomas tells us). Reason is confident because of the soundness of one’s argument and understanding. Through faith, on the other hand, we believe in God because God revealed himself to us. Faith’s confidence rests in God, trusting not in our own ability but in God’s testimony.

While faith can certainly overlap in content with reason, we should remember what Vatican I told us: “There are proposed to our belief mysteries hidden in God, which unless divinely revealed cannot be known.” Far beyond reason’s reach, faith receives mystery. We should not depreciate these mysteries, as if we can penetrate them without divine assistance. After all, these mysteries are hidden in God! Far from discouraging us from seeking to understand, the recognition of the hidden, inaccessible character of mystery should teach us how precious faith is. Even if only “in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12), faith enables us to see these hidden mysteries. Let us dwell in these mysteries through faith, awaiting the day we may see the Lord face-to-face forever.”

Love, living with you the mystery,
Matthew

Aug 28 – St Augustine & the heretics


-St Augustine icon, by Joseph Brown, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY, ~2009

Rev Dwight Longenecker, Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England.
Fr Longenecker was brought up in an Evangelical Protestant home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the Fundamentalist Protestant Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson on the Isle of Wight. Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He now serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, SC.

“A heresy is never totally wrong. Its just that it is never totally right. A heresy is a half truth or a truth twisted. The reason a heresy is attractive is that it always seems to make perfect sense. A heresy is a religious truth you would make up if you were making up a religion. However, Catholic truth is stranger and subtler than that, and it takes sound teaching to expose and battle the heresy.

Heresies are persistent because they are attractive, and they are persistent because they usually console the heretic in some way. In other words, it is easier to believe the heresy than the fullness of the Catholic truth. The fullness of the Catholic truth is either difficult to believe or difficult to obey or both. The heresy always offers an easy way out–either an easier way of believing or an easier way of behaving.

The first heresy Augustine battled was Donatism. The Donatists were a schism in the North African Church that were sort of like Puritanical Protestant or Jansenists. They thought the church should be pure, and should be a church of saints, not sinners. They were unwilling to accept back those Christians who, out of weakness, compromised their faith during the persecutions and they insisted that for sacraments to be valid the priest had to be faultless.

While this sort of rigorism is understandable, it doesn’t take much to see where it leads. It leads to unbearable self righteousness. “We few, we holy few. We are the remnant, the true church, the only real Christians…” Nonsense. If you think the core error of Donatism does not exist today, look a little harder. Although the name “Donatism” is now a footnote of church history there are plenty of rigorist schisms and sects and plenty of the attitude within individuals and groups in many different churches.

The fact is, most heresies, while seeming attractive, can be countered very easily with a passage from the gospel. Donatists should read the parable of the wheat and tares. The sinners and the saints grow together and God will sort it out.

The second heresy Augustine battled was Manicheanism. This false religion was started by a Persian prophet named Mani (274 AD). He blended elements of occult Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity and came up with a complicated New Age kind of religion. His core heresy was dualism. He taught that the physical world was evil and the spiritual world was good. Manicheanism had a huge influence in the 3-4 centuries. We can see it in the harsh asceticism of the early monks for example.

Augustine’s teachings on the nature of evil countered this. He taught that the created world is good because God does not make evil. Instead evil is good twisted, distorted or destroyed.

While Manicheanism is also a footnote in church history, the idea that the physical world is bad and the spiritual world is good continues today. It is present in some New Age teachings and in Eastern religions and philosophies. It also lingers like an echo in elements of Christianity. It is tempting to look down on physical pleasures, and the right embrace of holy poverty can be twisted into a hatred or disgust or guilt about the goodness of the physical world.

The third heresy is Pelagianism. This is named for the British monk Pelagius (d. 420) His teaching was probably misunderstood, but if so, the misunderstanding was that he taught that the human will was not so tainted by original sin that it lost its power to do good. In other words, you can do good without God’s help. This led to the conclusion that you can get into heaven through good works.

Augustine corrected this heresy with his teachings on grace. It is God’s grace, continually working in and through creation and in and through our own lives that empowers our faith, empowers our good works and empowers the supernatural transformation of our lives.

These three heresies do us the service of bringing to light the true Catholic teaching. The created world is beautiful, good and true. If this is true, then we also, created in God’s image are good. However, that goodness is wounded by original sin. While we don’t have to be perfect at once, that is our destiny, our calling and the hard adventure on which we must embark. God’s good grace gives us the power to do this. Without his grace we are paralyzed by sin and locked in darkness. With his grace we can be free.”

Love, & His grace,
Matthew

Aug 28 – “To praise You is the desire of man…”, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’


-Joos van Wassenhove, 1474, St Augustine, oil on wood, 119 x 62 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

For my ‘Wisdom of the Saints, Part I of II” class through the Avila Institute, I had to read Augustine’s Confessions; and in a previous life, write an autobiography for the Dominicans and Jesuits. You’ll see.


-by Br Philip Nolan, OP

““Know thyself,” proclaimed the oracle at Delphi.

St Catherine of Siena echoed this teaching with her emphasis on the importance of the “cell of self-knowledge” to the spiritual life. But how can I know myself? This question became especially pertinent when I sat down to write the autobiography required for my application to the Dominican Order. “Know thyself” became “write an accurate autobiography of your life”—a daunting task.

Autobiography as a spiritual exercise takes its highest form in the writings of the saint we celebrate today, St. Augustine. His Confessions reveals an extremely self-reflective person attempting to wrestle with and understand his past decisions and current disposition. But before recounting tales from his own infancy, early education, and on and on until the moment of writing, St. Augustine first begins by declaring that his aim is to praise God—“To praise you is the desire of man.” It seems counterintuitive. In an attempt to praise God, he writes his own life story.

But this approach makes a certain sense. Because lives overlap, we can talk about others and ourselves in the same breath. A best man will tell of experiences he has shared with the groom in order to explain what is admirable and praiseworthy about his friend. And we can tell the story of God’s work in our lives in a similar way. We can recount moments in which we became particularly aware of God’s goodness and providential care. We can name the gifts and talents God has given us and the crosses he has allowed us in order that we may draw closer to him. This is part of what St. Augustine does in the Confessions. Praying, “What are you to me?” he seeks to remember and recount those times when he grew in knowledge of God.

But St. Augustine does not stop there. He continues, “What am I to You that You command me to love You?” He realizes that while we can tell our side of the story—how we became aware of God—the fullest explanation of our lives is God’s side of the story. He acknowledges to God, “I would have no being if I were not in You,” and asks Him, “Lord God, judge of my conscience, is my memory correct?” He asks God, “Have mercy so that I can find words.”

Autobiography for St. Augustine is thus neither self-definition nor simply a timeline. He only undertakes to tell the story of his life because it is a story that he has been given to tell—as St. John puts it, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you now” (1 Jn 1:3). God is the author of his life. God first thought of him, brought him to life, fleshed him out and developed his character, and then, in a step beyond the abilities of even the best human author, invited him to share in the understanding and freedom of the divine. With this new knowledge of his place in the world, St. Augustine writes his autobiography as an act of praise to the One Who gave him this life to live.

For Christians, the path to self-knowledge and the path to knowledge of God blur together. Sitting down to write a journal entry or a short autobiography can train our eyes to see more as God sees and to know more as God knows. With St. Augustine we pray, “May I know You, Who know me. May I know as I also am known.”

Love,
Matthew

Summer Theologiae

If you are not familiar with Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, or not been formally trained how to read/understand it properly, don’t.  It’s one of the denser, less accessible, “academic” tomes, although, in his time, St Thomas considered it a reference for beginners in the study of theology.  It has less to do with your or my abilities dear reader.  It simply was written for a medieval audience in a form of instruction or lecture we no longer use.  

Medieval teachers, traditionally, would pose a statement or question, which you will recognize if you read an authentic copy of the Summa, as the first sentence in any given section, or question, the Summa tackles.  The order of these questions is very logical and methodical.  It makes sense.  So far, so good.  

Once the professor had posed the statement to the class, their homework was to go home and think up “objections” to the statement/question, or why it could not be true.  Students would return to class the next time and pose their objection to the instructor.  

Having been trained/educated himself, the instructor was familiar with the most popular or reoccurring objections, and during class, in his lecture, he would go on to address each objection or concern, and this is how medieval students learned.  

So, the Summa, written in the 13th century, is still in this format, but is and can be a difficult read in the 21st century, to the untrained eye and mind.  I warned you.  Below is a lighthearted and humorous play on words, Summer instead of Summa, and using the joys of the beach to help us better understand the thirty thousand foot view of what St Thomas accomplished.  I can definitely relate! Enjoy!!!


-by Br Ignatius Weiss, OP

Having been practically raised on the beach, I delight in the smell of salt air, the sighing of the waves, and the feel of sand between my toes. The shore remains the site of some of my favorite memories, as well as the world’s most beautiful sights, yet too often people miss the beach for the sand.

While I don’t imagine many people tote their copies of the Summa Theologiæ or the commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics to the shoreline (it isn’t what most would consider “light reading”), I do see some similarities between the thought of St. Thomas and the beach:

  1. Sands on the Seashore. As the vast field of sand is composed of thousands of grains deposited by nature’s currents, so Thomism draws together a number of varied sources in a new way. St. Thomas’ genius drew together the wisdom of Scripture, pagan philosophers, and his own contemporaries into a cohesive expression of reality. Each of these sources brings elements from its origins and adds its particular hue to his theology.
  2. Playing in the Sand. The beach is the world’s greatest sandbox. A few scoops of sand, a bucket of water, and a little handiwork can turn a formless plot into a beautiful sand castle. Thomas’ grand collection of wisdom is always open for continued creativity. The centuries-old wisdom of Thomas continues to inspire people to seek answers to today’s questions.
  3. Thomistic Sunbathing. The beach is home to the sun bather and the oceanologist alike. There are many scientists who comb the coastline examining land, sea, and sky. Most people, however, come to the sea with coolers and beach chairs. Similarly, the main way people encounter Thomism is through Aquinas’ Eucharistic poetry like the “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo,” sung at Adoration. Basking in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, we are also exposed to the penetrating theology and elegant lyricism of St. Thomas Aquinas (no sunscreen required).
  4. The Perfect Perspective. Thomism offers a privileged perspective for beholding God’s glory in this life. The sunset can be seen from anywhere with a glimpse of the horizon, but from the shore we can look out on an unhindered vision of the horizon. Here our sight is limited most by the weakness of our frail, human eyes, but this perspective is undoubtedly better than through the city’s blocky skyline. Thomism shares a similarly open vantage point with its clarity and simplicity. It is easy to get distracted by the broad field of questions, articles, and distinctions presented in Thomism, but the incredible vantage point it provides to behold the glory of God on the shores of this life is unmatched.

The coarse sand and bright sun deter some people from enjoying a summer at the beach. Don’t miss the shore for the sand, don’t dismiss Thomism for its technicality.

Love & thought,
Matthew

Faith is an intellectual virtue…

2/6/14
-by David G Bonagura, Jr., teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.

“I don’t feel anything when I pray.” “I am bored at Mass.” “When I talk to God, I do not sense that someone is listening.” These laments, experienced at one time or another by both the pious and the lost, rise from the very heart of Christian praxis. They express the natural human desire for vibrant emotion and feeling in prayer, a reality that many often lack, especially as the faith is lived over the years.

Emotion, as a reality of the human experience, has a role within the life of faith. The Scriptures themselves express the full pantheon of human sentiment: joy and sorrow, gratitude and jealousy, trust and doubt, hope and fear, love and hate are all part of the divine economy of salvation because they, in their different ways, bring us into contact with God. But it is critical for believers to understand their emotions as one aspect within the broader context of their faith and their relationship with God – not as constitutive of their faith.

Because of the prevalence and power of sentiment, there has always existed a temptation, often well intentioned, to reduce faith to emotion and experience. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher declared, “faith is nothing other than the incipient experience of a satisfaction of that spiritual need by Christ.” Today “youth Masses” attempt to make Schleiermacher’s definition a reality among young people through excited cheering and contemporary music. Other Masses border on sentimentality with overly sappy hymns such as “Here I am Lord” and “You Are Mine.” We are then supposed to feel the presence of Christ and respond to Him in faith.

These personal experiences and feelings can indeed kindle faith, but they cannot be the sole pillars of our spiritual lives, because emotions are not the essence of faith. Rather faith rests upon a loving God Who is not the product of our subjective longings, but a real independent Being Who calls us into union with Him through the revelation of His Son. Faith requires us to acknowledge and accept revelation. The response we make to God may be spurred and accompanied by an array of sentiments, but it is with the intellect that we assent to God and His will.

For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas classified faith as an intellectual virtue: “[T]o believe is an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will.” The intellect has priority because it accepts what comes from God, yet it does so at the insistence of the will, which can be moved by the power of religious experiences. These experiences, when properly integrated within the contours of faith, can contribute to the further development of our relationship with God.

But because faith is the province of the intellect, we need not worry or doubt when emotion and religious sentiment ebb or even disappear from our lives, as they inevitably do. Spiritual aridity – the absence of feeling from the life of faith – is a normal occurrence in the spiritual life, and it can be temporary or prolonged. The saints, many of whom endured painful spiritual aridity for decades, teach us that the absence of religious feelings is God’s way of purifying our faith, which rests ultimately not on emotion, but on our trust in the authority of God’s word.

Often faith is stirred within us due to some profound experience that propels us forward joyfully in our relationship with God. But as the power of these experiences wanes over time, we are forced to trust that we remain in communion with God even as His presence seemingly vanishes. Our situation is akin to that of the apostles: for three years they experienced directly the presence of Christ, and the attendant joy and security that came with it. But after His death and resurrection, they learned, courtesy of Thomas, that it is not feeling but raw trust that constitutes faith. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

Because God is real and not the product of our emotions, we know He hears our prayers and is present to us even if we do not “feel” Him. Our restless hearts must continue to reach toward God, knowing that He alone is their end and fulfillment.

Contrasts are often drawn between Catholics’ more stoic worship with the energy of certain Protestant services. The different styles are pathways to faith; religious feeling of itself neither constitutes nor measures the faith present within the community or the individual. Faith’s true vibrancy depends on the degree to which we trust in God and assent to His revelation. When our trust and assent is strong enough that we give ourselves wholly to God, then we have the love of God in our hearts. And love is not merely sentiment: it is action and commitment as well.

Carmelite Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen writes that “the enkindling of love does not consist in the joy the soul may experience, but rather in the firm determination of the will to give itself entirely to God.” Faith puts us in union with the love of God. We need not fret over lack of religious emotion in our lives, and we need not think our preferred religious experience should be shared by everyone else. True love withstands the flux of all emotions because it is anchored in the certain hope of the God who made us for Himself.”

Love,
Matthew

Reason & emotion

-by David Nolan

“The Scottish philosopher David Hume famously claimed, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” In recent years, growing public awareness of the centrality of the emotions and desires to the human experience has superseded an earlier emphasis on emotional restraint. From psychoanalytical therapy to the emergence of a therapeutic direction in our justice system, the effects of this revolution in thinking are hard to overestimate. In many ways the changes are positive. Empathy, mutual understanding, and self-reflection now receive a healthy emphasis. Our culture encourages us to tolerate others and see alternative points of view as we try to appreciate each person’s background and emotional experiences. However, there is a major problem in the usual application of this ethos. Desires, we have come to believe, justify themselves. When asked why we do something, we say, “Because it feels good;” when asked what our opinions are on a political matter, we reply, “I feel…” Yet we need only to look at the example of emotionally motivated murder to realize desires are not self-justifying. St Thomas Aquinas, writing nearly 800 years ago, built upon Aristotelian notions of the passions and the appetites to develop a corrective picture of the human psyche. He demonstrates why desires cannot be self-justified and how we can positively proceed, neither denigrating human emotion below its rightful place nor exalting it to heights that can only precede a fall.

Aquinas’s passiones animae, translated as “emotions,” do not only refer to passions in the modern sense of overwhelming and perhaps incapacitating feelings. Instead, they refer to our reaction to the nature of every object or situation. He thinks we react in two ways, either to the object itself or to the difficulty we face in trying to obtain or avoid the object. For example, as a child I desired a dog. Dogs are naturally lovable, so I loved them and desired one for myself. This is the first type of emotion— what Aquinas calls concupiscible emotions—which entails having an emotional response to an object because of that object’s inherent nature. My parents, on the other hand, were not so amenable to my idea, and prevented me from fulfilling my desire for an adorable dog. Frustrated, I courageously fought for a puppy but eventually gave up hope and despaired of ever having one. Because my parents had stopped me from obtaining my goal, I was angry with them. Anger, courage, hope, despair—these are all emotions of the second sort, the irascible emotions; they describe our reaction to our perceived ability to obtain an object of desire. Aquinas thinks that both types of emotions have a close relationship with reason. In fact, he thinks our reason in a way rules our emotions, “not by a ‘despotic supremacy,’ which is that of a master over his slave; but by a “politic and royal supremacy,’ whereby the free are governed who are not wholly subject to command.” Eventually, I realized that a lasting anger at my parents was unreasonable and that I should probably encourage my anger to subside— and it eventually did.

Reason and emotions, then, enforce each other day by day. Aquinas grounds his understanding of emotions in the infinitude of little impulses that arise spontaneously throughout our normal experience. Focusing too heavily on extreme cases has largely skewed popular culture’s conversation on the relationship of emotions to reason. Usually, the impulses of our sensory appetite (emotions and passions) align quite closely with our reasoning abilities and our intellectual apprehensions. For example, in a given day, we desire to eat food, we want to complete tasks, and we try to care for our friends. While there are cases of overwhelming emotions, most of our life is more accurately described in little impulses of joy or sorrow, hope or despair, that we can encourage or check with our intellect and reason. The question remains, however: what impulses ought we to encourage?

Well, passions must be appropriate to their objects. In order for this to be true, apprehension must precede desire: we must know what something is before we want it. For example, I must know about cake before I can want cake. Once I have apprehended that the cake is sweet and delicious, I will then desire it. If I thought it was a pile of mud rather than chocolate cake, I would believe it to be distasteful and undesirable. Clearly, correct apprehension leads us to experience passions appropriate to the object. Only in light of the ‘appropriate’ can we understand the greater value and purpose of passions.

Emotions and desires, as aspects of the everyday, carry moral weight. We can make judgments as to the appropriateness, the goodness or badness, of our emotions. Aquinas writes, “in so far as they are voluntary, [passions can] be called morally good or evil. And they are said to be voluntary either from being commanded by the will, or from not being checked by the will.” Before competing in a race or a game, we can voluntarily work up positive emotions; in response to someone cutting us off while we drive, we can discourage our anger and try to remain levelheaded. Emotions are both reactive and willed, and their origin need not necessarily describe how we then respond to them.

Measures of good or bad can refer only to voluntary impulses. But when, if ever, are emotions voluntary? Our lives are a history of partially voluntary actions and reactions. Humans learn many things through experience, and as an essential part of this experience, the emotions help develop our habits. Even our instinctual drives, like the drive for food, can become more and more voluntary as we get older. Not only do we learn to like a broader range of foods (I learned to like onions only as an older teenager), but we also learn to have “will-power” in to restrain our consumption of some foods. As one of Aquinas’s commentators has said, by deciding which impulses we encourage and discourage, which emotions we try to check, we “tell our life story.” The choices we make now both reveal our current preferences, and encourage specific future preferences and future choices. Thus, it is impossible to be sure that an emotion is voluntary or otherwise in the moment: we have to understand ourselves as beings progressing through time. We do know, however, that emotions can be scrutinized according to moral standards.

If we can judge our emotions, how should we do this? We judge emotions based upon their relation to the person about which they arise and in relation to their object. Our emotional response must be appropriate to the context in order for it to be good. By our will, which we inform with our reason, our desires, and our emotion, we plan our path of action. Reason informs us when our path is contradictory— when our plan will not bring us to the goal that we willed. For example, competitive sports highly prize the quality of being a good loser. An overreaction to a loss comes off as immature. On the other hand, athletes who are apathetic to winning not only are less likely to succeed, but do not have enough emotion invested in the sport. Our reason must balance these many impulses, neither neglecting self-control nor suppressing a healthy passion. Over time, reasoned responses discourage inappropriate emotions and encourage appropriate ones. Eventually, I might not even have to really focus to keep my temper—it may start to come naturally. The joy of competition does not contradict a healthy appreciation for sportsmanship. Reason can balance our particular goals with our particular situation.

But there is a more fundamental way that the will, the reason, and desire all work together. One particular desire underlies all our other impulses: the desire for the good, for happiness. We cannot help to desire to be happy— it is our nature. If we ask ourselves why we wish to be happy, there is no answer other than “because.” Nothing transient, passing, or temporal can actually fulfill this most fundamental of desires. When we plan paths of action with our will, we are trying to fulfill this desire. Our will, as it aims at the universal good, ideally aligns the sensitive appetite (the source of desires and emotions) with the larger goal.

Aquinas recognizes the universal Good in the Incarnation— God is the ultimate object of desire, the source of happiness, and the greatest good. Our nature, to use modern terms, is programmed towards God, and in so far as we either pursue or reject God, we expand or limit our opportunity for real fulfillment in this world and the next. Against the measure of the ultimate good, our desires and emotions begin to fall into place. Slowly, through the building of good habits, we can desire objects and guide emotions appropriately. This is not to deny the many layers of emotional complexity. Emotional complication is part of growing up in the world, but through a growing awareness of self, we can begin to understand our emotional impulses. Through the practice of self control combined with the contemplation of God, our highest desire, we can hope to develop a greater internal unity. Our goal is to desire particular goods as the goods themselves deserve, and through the practice of virtue we begin to experience intense love and joy and desire towards objects that actually deserve that intensity of feeling.

Emotions are incredibly valuable, and the therapeutic insight of self-discovery through the examination of emotions is helpful. But as we understand ourselves and see extreme emotions in the light of many everyday impulses, we need to cultivate emotions that align with our intellect, reason, and that most fundamental desire, the desire that God implemented within us for Himself.”

Love,
Matthew

Aquinas on Work


-by Br Jonah Teller, OP

“The necessity of meat.” Certainly a pithy and memorable way to describe the principal object of manual labor. This is the first of four objects, or reasons, that St. Thomas gives for manual labor (STh., II-II q.187 a.3). The other three objects are as follows: for the sake of staving off idleness, so as to avoid all of the evils that can spring out of the sheer fact of nothing-to-do; for the sake of corralling one’s concupiscence, driving one’s body and training it in penance; and finally, manual labor is directed to almsgiving, working so as to have some way to support materially those who are less fortunate.

Here in this ordering a gradual progression emerges. The four objects of manual labor form four steps of ascent in the spiritual life, as it were. The first object—to obtain food—terminates in the body. We must eat to stay alive. There’s no way to phrase that, it seems, without sounding simple, but there it is. This action stays in the body and on the level of the physical.

The second object—the removal of idleness so as to avoid evil—moves beyond the purely physical realm, taking on a spiritual concern. This second object seems to be a privative or preventative one: stay occupied with work so as to avoid the expanses of time in which temptation creeps in. An image comes to mind: filling a container to its brim so that there’s no room for anything undesired. While this second object progresses from the purely physical nature of the first, it is still mostly negative in character.

The third object—curbing concupiscence by penance—is like the second but with important developments. It is concerned with conquering evil, but here things take on a more direct approach. Whereas the second object of labor focused only on keeping oneself occupied so as to avoid the evils attendant to idleness, this third object of work gives to labor an active quality in which it can be used as an instrument for spiritual purification.

Almsgiving—the fourth object of manual labor—marks an important shift in St. Thomas’ consideration of the question. Up to this point, the objects of labor have been focused on the self of the worker. They are turned inward, though not improperly so, to be sure. Here, however, in viewing manual work as a means by which one can help one’s neighbor, there is a turn outward to facing the other and allowing lives to intersect with each other. The second and third objects of work have a spiritual dimension, but as was noted earlier, they are either privative or combatting some evil. Here, with almsgiving, the spiritual work is positive: a work of charity towards another fellow human.

In all of these objects taken together (and there is no reason that they could not all be combined in the same act of work; indeed it seems that they should be combined), we can see a spectrum of spiritual progress delineated. Work begins as a way to sustain our animal life; it keeps us from many temptations; it addresses evils present within us; and it opens our hearts to our neighbors.”

Ora et Labora,
Matthew