Category Archives: Doctors of the Church

Dec 4 – St John Damascene (of Damascus) (675-749 AD), Icons = The Eyes of God

Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious
house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have
ears to hear but do not hear.
—Ezek. 12:2

Jesus said to [the disciples] . . . “Do you have eyes, and
fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”
—Mk 8:17–18

“Both Jesus and Ezekiel recognized the parallel between having ears to hear and eyes to see, but in the Protestant tradition of my childhood, the emphasis was always on having ears to hear (the words of the Bible) to the loss of eyes to see. My earliest spiritual formation focused on the hearing part and omitted what became apparent later as effective avenues for engaging the seeing part. Symbolic images within worship began to inform my spirituality only when I chose the Episcopal Church as a teenager. I do not know if an increasing awareness of symbolism was due to natural maturation or to the richness of symbolic images so available in Episcopal liturgy. However, I vividly remember saying at age seventeen that my reason for converting was, in part, because my previous church was just “so plain.” As with many other seekers, I had a hunger for something more tangible. There was the longing to see God and live…

…icons provide a vehicle for our participation in God’s redemptive work. Icons are no less than the “dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art.”

If this were a book about icons simply as religious art, it would not be worth writing, let alone publishing. If Orthodox Christianity did not claim icons are essential for seeing the holy, I would not be motivated to try to inform non-Orthodox Christians about icons. God embodied, in the human and historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth—who is, for all Christians, also the Christ—the mystery and doctrine on which salvation depends. But finding Jesus incarnate in today’s world is the struggle of faith for many, me included. The words and images I encounter every day need to be countered, challenged, and balanced against words and images whose purposes are edifying, redemptive, and healing. ”
-Green, Mary E., (2014), Introduction, Eyes to See: The Redemptive Purpose of Icons, Morehouse Publishing, New York

Icons, to the believer, and properly understood, are incarnational, just like Christmas.  Acheiropoieta, are icons not made by human hands.

In cinema involving Russian characters, you will see the Russian, typically, but it could be Greek, someone of Eastern Orthodox sentiment, cover any icon with a cloth just before performing some heinous act such as suicide. There is a reason for this.

Jesus Christ is the first eikon (alternative spelling, Greek for image) of God. Icons are a symbolic and allegorical composition of: “Behold, the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His mercy.” (Ps 32:18). Christian tradition dating from the 8th century identifies Luke the Evangelist as the first icon painter. There is a Christian legend that Pilate made an image of Christ.

In the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy, and of the Early Medieval West, very little room is made for artistic license. Almost everything within the image has a symbolic aspect. Christ, the saints, and the angels all have halos. Angels (and often John the Baptist) have wings because they are messengers. Figures have consistent facial appearances, hold attributes personal to them, and use a few conventional poses.

Color plays an important role as well. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven; red, divine life. Blue is the color of human life, white is the Uncreated Light of God, only used for resurrection and transfiguration of Christ. If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary: Jesus wears red undergarment with a blue outer garment (God become Human) and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red overgarment (human was granted gifts by God), thus the doctrine of deification is conveyed by icons. Letters are symbols too. Most icons incorporate some calligraphic text naming the person or event depicted. Even this is often presented in a stylized manner.

In the Eastern Orthodoxy, there are reports of particular, Wonderworking icons that exude myrrh (fragrant, healing oil), or perform miracles upon petition by believers. When such reports are verified by the Orthodox hierarchy, they are understood as miracles performed by God through the prayers of the saint, rather than being magical properties of the painted wood itself. Theologically, all icons are considered to be sacred, and are miraculous by nature, being a means of spiritual communion between the heavenly and earthly realms. However, it is not uncommon for specific icons to be characterized as “miracle-working”, meaning that God has chosen to glorify them by working miracles through them. Such icons are often given particular names (especially those of the Virgin Mary), and even taken from city to city where believers gather to venerate them and pray before them.

In the Book of Numbers it is written that God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, Nehushtan, and hold it up, so that anyone looking at the snake would be healed of their snakebites. In John 3, Jesus refers to the same serpent, saying that He must be lifted up in the same way that the serpent was. John of Damascus also regarded the brazen serpent as an icon. Further, Jesus Christ himself is called the “image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15, and is therefore in one sense an icon. As people are also made in God’s images, people are also considered to be living icons, and are therefore “censed” along with painted icons during Orthodox prayer services.

According to John of Damascus, anyone who tries to destroy icons “is the enemy of Christ, the Holy Mother of God and the saints, and is the defender of the Devil and his demons.” This is because the theology behind icons is closely tied to the Incarnational theology of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, so that attacks on icons typically have the effect of undermining or attacking the Incarnation of Jesus himself as elucidated in the Ecumenical Councils.

Thus to kiss an icon of Christ, in the Eastern Orthodox view, is to show love towards Christ Jesus Himself, not mere wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. Worship of the icon as somehow entirely separate from its prototype is expressly forbidden by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Catholics traditionally have also favored images in the form of three-dimensional statuary, whereas in the East, statuary is much less widely employed.

Icons are often illuminated with a candle or jar of oil with a wick. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for oil lamps are preferred because they burn very cleanly, although other materials are sometimes used.) The illumination of religious images with lamps or candles is an ancient practice pre-dating Christianity.

Windows to Heaven

Icons look different to us because they are meant to be heaven looking at us, not us at heaven, hence the Eastern Orthodox covering the icon before some unholy act, which the character does not want Heaven to see.

The eyes of an icon are meant to look into the viewer — with what has been called inverse perspective. Most Western artwork has a vanishing perspective point that draws the viewer into the painting. With an icon, the icon seems to move toward the viewer, bringing Heaven close. If you pray with an icon properly, it will seem as if heaven were drawing into you. As Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlon wrote, “For Eastern Christians, the icon is a representation of the living God, and by coming into its presence it becomes a personal encounter with the sacred, through the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

An icon, which we would most likely refer to as a painting, the correct verb for creation is “writing an icon”. An iconographer must be prepared for this work and receive permission from the bishop or abbot to begin an icon. He or she must spiritually prepare to write an icon with prayer and fasting. As the great modern Byzantine iconographer Photios Kontoglou wrote, “The art of the icon painter is above all a sacred activity…Its style is entirely different from that of all the schools of secular painting. It does not have its aim to reproduce a saint or an incident from the Gospels, but to express them mystically, to impart to them a spiritual character…to represent the saint as he is in the heavenly kingdom, as he is in eternity.”


-by Br Cornelius Avaritt, OP

“Icons are a gift of the Church. They are beautiful images that represent Christ and the mysteries of his life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following regarding icons:

The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images. Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other. All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. (CCC 1159-1161)

Praying with icons allows us to behold the face of Christ, and to catch a glimpse of his love for the world while meditating on his humanity. The representation of Christ’s humanity through an image allows us to understand more fully the gospel message and to grow in knowledge of him. Just as the sacred words of Scripture signify the events of Christ’s life, so do the images reveal a glimpse of God’s plan of salvation for the world through depictions of the life of Christ. Because the Son of God was made incarnate, he became depictable. Icons depict his humanity, and we can pray with icons to deepen our love for Christ.

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of St. John of Damascus, a monk and Doctor of the Church, who was a strong proponent for the use of icons. He says the following in favor of the practice of venerating icons:

“We use all our senses to produce worthy images of Him, and we sanctify the noblest of the senses, which is that of sight. For just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as the words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight; it brings us understanding.” (On the Divine Images,1, 17)

Icons captivate the eye, but they are not merely pieces of art that hang on walls. They bring “understanding.” The image “written” on an icon is meant to draw us into the mystery of Christ’s humanity, to engage our senses in prayer, to help us catch a glimpse of Christ’s face and through that prayer come to know him more. One feature of sacred images that helps bring such understanding is their rich symbolism depicted in the choice of colors of the scene. Gold often represents Christ. White represents purity and divinity. Red represents the humanity of Christ, while green represents earth and temporality. Purple is used to represent nobility. The different colors engage the eye, as to draw one into a meditation of the mystery that is depicted. Because of this, our prayer is made more fruitful and we come to recognize more fully the love Christ has for us.

Advent is a great time to grow in knowledge and understanding of our Lord. The use of icons for prayer during Advent is one way to grow in this knowledge and understanding. Icons helps us to catch a glimpse of salvation, and aid our belief in Jesus Christ. So, during this Advent season, as you are awaiting the arrival of our Lord, consider spending time in prayer with an icon, meditate on the mystery depicted in the scene, and may you come to know Christ’s love for you.”

Love,
Matthew

Sep 17 – Galileo, Copernicus, Bellarmine: to read history, throw away modern lenses


please click on the image for greater detail

“Presentism” is a heresy of history of reading history through modern point of view, culture, and biases. We cannot judge the past from the present. It is impossible. Nor would the past understand the present. The best way to read history is to prepare like an actor to participate in that moment in history taking a well know, well worn role, and seeing it through those eyes.


-by Christopher Check

“Events in history happen in certain times and places. Goes without saying, right? I’m not so sure. It’s not uncommon for us to examine the past through the lenses of today.

I once read a history of the eleventh-century Norman conquest of Sicily. This otherwise lively and accurate account portrayed Robert Guiscard and Roger de Hauteville as venture capitalists, a profession that no medieval man could have wrapped his imagination around.

It is a mistake to judge the decisions and actions of the churchmen involved in what has come to be called the Galileo Affair through the lens (no pun intended here) of modern astronomical discoveries. Better to consider the event by taking a stab at understanding the state of the science at the time, the personality of Galileo, the cultural and religious atmosphere, and the personality of the one saint in the story, the man whose sanctity we celebrate today on his feast day: Robert Cardinal Bellarmine.


-Nikolaus Kopernikus, “Torun portrait” (anonymous, c. 1580), kept in Toruń town hall, Poland, please click on the image for greater detail

Copernicus raises a question

Since ancient times man’s understanding of the cosmos was geocentric: a fixed, immobile Earth around which the heavenly bodies orbited. Aristotle and Ptolemy, whose model included planetary epicycles to account for apparent retrograde motion, were the chief proponents of this model. Among the ancients there was at least one proponent of a heliocentric model, Aristarchus of Samos (known to us through Archimedes), but in the absence of observational evidence the model that was intuitive took hold. Geocentrism was not doctrine, but because it came from Aristotle and because it comported with Scripture, the Church adopted the model.

Not until a canon of the Catholic Church, Nicholas Copernicus, in 1543 published on his deathbed his De revolutionibus orbium ceolestium did anyone give a serious look at a heliocentric model. Even then, few took notice, and the Church certainly was not alarmed. Fact is, Copernicus was encouraged by priests to publish, and he dedicated the book to Pope Paul III. (Luther and Calvin, it’s worth noting, were in fits; Luther called Copernicus a “fool.”)

Copernicus had not one piece of physical observational evidence in support of heliocentrism. De revolutionibus was a complex collection of mathematical formulas and Latin descriptions written to predict the location of the heavenly bodies throughout the year. It’s important to underscore that astronomers at this time in history were not natural philosophers, what we call “physicists” today. They were mathematicians. Their job was to devise the formulas that predicted the location of the heavenly bodies, whether or not the formulas were a true account of what was happening in the physical cosmos.

“Why bother then?” Well, if you were the navigator on a seagoing vessel, or one of the Jesuits at the Roman College hard at work on bringing more precision to the Julian Calendar (some eleven minutes too long every year), where the planets and stars were and when was of central importance to your trade. Also, if you were an astrologer—and make no mistake, back then astrology and astronomy were considerably less delineated than they are now (Galileo wrote horoscopes for cash)—the position of the heavenly bodies was critical to your trade, too.


-Galileo Galilei (1636), by Justus Sustermans, please click on the image for greater detail

Galileo: a force of nature

Knowing the distinction between astronomers (mathematicians) and natural philosophers (physicists) helps us appreciate just how groundbreaking Galileo was: he looked at astronomical questions from the perspective of a natural philosopher. His interests were motion, dynamics, mechanics, etc.; in other words, the fields that tell us what is happening in the physical world.

His theories would not have received the attention they did had it not been for the arrival in the early seventeenth century—in the Netherlands, perhaps—of a carnival toy. Galileo did not invent the telescope, but he sure did improve it, and—another critical contribution—in December of 1609 he pointed it at the heavens. The subsequent months revealed undiscovered wonders, the “mountains of the moon,” the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus. None of these was proof of a heliocentric solar system, but for a pioneer of deductive reasoning, they constituted compelling evidence.

Equally compelling was the force of Galileo’s personality. An impatient genius, Galileo did not go out of his way to make friends among his academic colleagues in Pisa, Florence, Padua, and Rome. His correspondence is replete with bold expressions of his arrogance and bitter insults leveled at men who disagreed with him. He not only lacked humility, he took pleasure at social gatherings in humiliating other scholars with rhetorical traps. His obstinacy is something to marvel at, especially when he was wrong—as he was about the tides, circular orbits, and comets, for example.

Had Galileo been a little more sensitive to the religious atmosphere of his age, the story might have gone less badly. It is commonly believed that the Church’s leading minds refused to look at Galileo’s arguments or look through his telescope. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had the backing of the Carmelite scientist and philosopher Paolo Antonio Foscarini and of many the Jesuits at the Roman College, including Gregorian Calendar architect Christopher Clavius, who were buying up his telescopes and confirming his findings. (His chief academic adversaries were laymen.)

It is true, however, that Galileo made his discoveries in a world still reacting to Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s insistence that Scripture was subject to personal interpretation. The Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century said it was not. There was no shortage of scriptural passages making reference to a fixed Earth orbited by sun and stars. (There still are!) The Church, as Cardinal Bellarmine was at pains to explain to Galileo when they met in 1616, needed to be deliberate in interpreting scriptural passages that seemed to contradict the discoveries of modern astronomy.

Bellarmine: the voice of reason

Bellarmine counseled caution for two reasons. The first showed a more disciplined and careful approach to deductive science than Galileo’s. “The Copernican system predicts the phases of Venus,” Bellarmine told Galileo. “This does not prove the converse, that is: Venus exhibits phases, therefore the universe is Copernican.” Bellarmine was right, of course. Tycho Brahe’s hybrid model, in which all but the Earth revolves around the sun and all that swirling bundle revolves around the Earth, would also account for the phases of Venus. In other words, absent proof (and that does not come until the mid-nineteenth century) caution more than anything was required in reinterpreting Scripture—which brings us to the good saint’s second reason for caution.

Bellarmine was sharp of mind and had a strong pastoral sense. He told Galileo, “The evidence is insufficient to force scriptural reinterpretations that could lead to doubts in the minds of the faithful about the inerrancy of Scripture.” The position is a perfectly reasonable one. It applies a pastoral solution to a speculative problem. Had Galileo listened to Bellarmine, he would not have found himself in front of an understandably impatient (by this time he had implied that the pope was simpleminded) and admittedly heavy-handed inquisition in 1633.

The dictate of charity

The details of that conflict are for another piece. Let’s conclude with the reflections of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, who, while still an Anglican, argued that Bellarmine in his caution was following the dictates of charity:

Galileo might be right in his conclusion that the earth moves; to consider him a heretic might have been wrong; but there was nothing wrong in censuring abrupt, startling, unsettling, unverified disclosures, if such they were, disclosures at once uncalled for and inopportune, at a time when the limits of revealed truth had not as yet been ascertained. A man ought to be very sure of what he is saying, before he risks the chance of contradicting the word of God. It was safe, not dishonest, to be slow in accepting what nevertheless turned out to be true. Here is an instance in which the Church obliges Scripture expositors, at a given time or place, to be tender of the popular religious sense.

I have been led to take a second view of this matter. That jealousy of originality in the matter of religion, which is the instinct of piety, is, in the case of questions that excite the popular mind, also the dictate of charity. Galileo’s truth is said to have shocked and scared the Italy of his day. To say that the Earth went round the sun revolutionized the received system of belief as regards heaven, purgatory, and hell; and it forcibly imposed a figurative interpretation upon categorical statements of Scripture.

Heaven was no longer above and Earth below; the heavens no longer literally opened and shut; purgatory and hell were not for certain under the earth. The catalogue of theological truths was seriously curtailed. Whither did our Lord go on his ascension? If there is to be a plurality of worlds, what is the special importance of this one? And is the whole, visible universe, with its infinite spaces, one day to pass away?

We are used to these questions now and reconciled to them; and on that account are no fit judges of the disorder and dismay that the Galilean hypothesis would cause to good Catholics, as far as they became cognizant of it, or how necessary it was in charity, especially then, to delay the formal reception of a new interpretation of Scripture, till their imaginations should gradually get accustomed to it.”

Love,
Matthew

Evangelicals & Augustine’s Confessions


-Augustine’s Confessions


-by Alberto Ferreiro, PhD

“Why do Evangelical Protestants find Augustine’s Confessions so engaging? In the university where I teach, for most students the Confessions is their first encounter with Augustine, and their response is overwhelmingly favorable. (Ironically, when I assign Augustine, most Catholics in my classes are reading him for the first time as well, and some have never heard of him at all.) Many Evangelicals have embraced him in much the same way they have embraced Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Merton. Though there are shortcomings of Evangelicals’ reading of the Confessions, Catholics can learn from them.

Let us begin with the pear tree episode, which highlights Augustine’s youthful, restless phase and his emerging recognition that something is dreadfully wrong with the deep impulses of human nature. Augustine describes how his group of “young scoundrels,” hanging out in the street until late, robbed a neighbor’s pear tree of its fruit “not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden” (Confessions 2:4:9).

Evangelicals—whether they are influenced by the Wesleyan, Lutheran, or Reformed view of human nature—have a strong sense of sin and the enormous damage it causes. While many modern Catholic and Protestant teachers minimize sin, Evangelicals tend to overemphasize the Fall and its effects on the individual and his relationship with God. Neither extreme is a healthy one. For Evangelicals it is not a question of simply doing good or controlling one’s destructive behavior; it is, rather, the need to experience a radical transformation of the inner person.

Augustine concluded, as he reflected on the act of stealing and destroying the pears, that there was really no such thing as a benign sin without temporal consequences. A shortcoming of the Evangelical understanding of sin is the lack of distinction between what Catholics call venial and mortal sin. Conspicuously absent in Evangelical preaching is any reference to this distinction as made in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15, and especially as when John says, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal” (1 John 5:17). What permeates Evangelical preaching and evangelism are Paul’s statements that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Where Evangelicals have it right is that they recognize, as did Augustine, that all acts of sin, while they may not be of similar temporal gravity, are reflections of our rebellion against God, and their effects deform us. In the end, neither Catholics nor Evangelicals must allow a loss of the sense of sin to enter into their lives and the life of the Church. If we begin to excuse away venial sin or treat it in a lighthearted manner, chances are in time we will also find justification for mortal sin as well.

One of the distinctive elements of Augustine’s conversion is his direct encounter with Scripture in the garden of Milan, buttressed by Ambrose’s preaching (5:13:23–25). This aspect of his conversion is often cited by Evangelicals. When a Catholic visits an Evangelical gathering for the first time, the one thing that stands out the most—other than the vigorous and copious singing—is the central place preaching takes in their worship. In many Evangelical churches, the eucharist is absent. It is celebrated infrequently with the emphasis on symbolism.

Nevertheless, as a former Evangelical, I can attest to having experienced a profound reverence (expressed through kneeling during the entire communion service), a call to conversion, and tears. But our focus here is on the centrality of the word. The call by Paul to the necessity of the preached word for salvation (Rom. 10:14–17) is heard frequently in Evangelical services.

Evangelicals have developed a consistent and deep understanding of the potent nature of God’s word on an individual, provided one’s heart is open to the action of the Holy Spirit. As Paul reminds us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Augustine is a model par excellence of the proper attitude one should bring to the private reading of sacred Scripture (the garden in Milan) and in the public proclamation of the word in the gathered body of Christ, the Church (the preaching of Ambrose).

Evangelicals have done well to focus on this most important aspect of the conversion experience of Augustine in the Confessions. God has at his disposal a limitless amount of ways to reach us, but one of the most important ways is through the word of God as contained in the Bible. Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Augustine came to understand—in the garden and through the preaching of Ambrose—all that Moses, the prophets, and the psalms said concerning Jesus Christ. But it was only a preparation for Augustine. He would soon discover how to fully “see” Jesus through the Eucharist (Luke 24:30–31, 35).

In the Confessions, Augustine singles out his discovery of Paul as of great importance (7:21:27), undoubtedly because of his reading the epistle to the Romans during his conversion in the garden. When in the company of Evangelicals, it does not take long for one to discover the importance of Paul. It is true that Evangelicalism, and historic Protestantism in general, is heavily Pauline. It is not only because Paul wrote a good portion of the New Testament. Paul comes first, and he is the lens through which the Gospels and all else in the New Testament are read. It comes hardly as a surprise, therefore, that this section of the Confessions is of great importance to Evangelicals.

Informed Catholics, on the other hand, read Paul through the lens of the Gospels and not the other way around—just as we are taught to read the Old Testament through New Testament eyes. Augustine himself noted, “The New lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New” (Quaest. in Hept. 2:73). Catholics express the primacy of the Gospels at Mass by standing and singing the Alleluia, by crossing their foreheads, lips, and chests before the reading, and by concluding the reading with the acclamation, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”

No one who reads the Confessions comes away untouched by Monica and her role in the conversion of her son (9:8:17–37). This section is one of the most moving in the entire work, and Evangelicals single it out as an example of perseverance in faith and the power of intercessory prayer. Many Evangelicals have a rich and profound prayer life, even though until very recently it lacked a contemplative dimension. While Evangelicals still lack the contemplative dimension of prayer, they make up for it with their strong belief in the efficacy of intercessory prayer.

Having attended numerous prayer meetings, services, and Bible studies, and having read much of their literature over the years, I can attest that the accent is clearly on intercessory prayer. (At times this can be taken to the extreme of telling God what needs to be done and how to do it.) Evangelicals are fond of citing Scripture passages that highlight intercessory prayer, among the most popular being James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”

By contrast, I cannot recall hearing a sermon based upon biblical texts that lend themselves to contemplation, such as the Marian text, “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). The Evangelical fear of Marian piety and devotion, which they label “mariolatry,” steers them away from such passages. As Catholic writer Mark P. Shea has observed, the aversion to and rejection of Marian themes in Scripture explains in part the absence of the contemplative and of silent adoration in Evangelical ecclesial culture.

We Catholics need to learn from our Evangelical brethren to integrate into our private prayer life intense intercessory prayer as much as they need to incorporate contemplative moments into their public and private prayer life. A prayer life without the contemplative runs the risk of becoming an exercise in demands that degenerates into telling God what to do and how to do it. That is a form of idolatry. On the other hand, a prayer life given over mainly to contemplation without an intercessory.aspect likewise tends to degenerate into self-absorbed spirituality focused only on the self. That too is a form of idolatry. From what we can gather in the Confessions, Monica did not fall into either extreme. She teaches and inspires us to persevere in intercessory prayer, which is contemplative fruit.

Most Evangelicals know Augustine only through the Confessions. What he says there is read in isolation from the rest of his theology, especially his theology of the liturgy and ecclesiology. This is understandable; to embrace the whole of Augustine’s writings would entail embracing the Catholic faith. The Confessions are safe in this regard, since they do not really touch upon these two areas of substantial disagreement between Evangelicals and Catholics.

Evangelicals’ reductionist view of the sacraments, above all of the Eucharist, explains their lack of interest in what Augustine has to say about these things. Evangelicals nevertheless need to give serious consideration to what Augustine has to say about the sacraments, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, the canon of Scripture, and the many others areas of theology he influenced decisively.

Conversely, from their reading of the Confessions Catholics can learn much from Evangelicals regarding the word of God. Catholics need to discover that Scripture itself in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament testifies time and again concerning the power of God’s word to transform people’s lives. One of the great pastoral challenges regarding the liturgy since Vatican II is to convince Catholics that the liturgy of the word is of vital importance.

The episode on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) is a good place for Catholics to see that Scripture is essential to our experience of Christ in the liturgy. Catholics require widespread catechesis to g.asp the transforming power that God’s word carries if we allow the Holy Spirit to burn it into our minds and hearts so that we may proclaim at every Mass, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” Once we realize that sacred Scripture is God’s word, objectively speaking, and that there is a presence of Jesus in it, it changes our attitude altogether to the proclamation of the word and the homily at Mass.

The private reading of the word of God that is so crucial to Evangelical discipleship can also be instructive to Catholics. That private moment in the garden in Milan where Augustine through his direct reading of Scripture met the Lord in a personal way needs to be pondered by Catholics. Since Vatican II there has been an explosion of private devotional reading material to help Catholics experience the word of God, whether individually or in small groups outside of Mass. Long-standing scriptural devotions such as the Liturgy of the Hours are making a return among Catholics around the world thanks to the encouragement of Pope John Paul II.

Even so, many parishes do not have ongoing scriptural catechesis or prayer groups. The biblical illiteracy of many Catholics—indeed, of some priests—is still a major problem. In Evangelical communities, Bible study groups are a central component of their apostolate.

Like Augustine, we need to visit our garden each day, be open to the power of God’s word, and allow the Paraclete to guide us into all truth. Many Evangelicals are experiencing only half of Emmaus (the table of the word) and many Catholics only the other half (the table of the bread). The two are one, the latter being the primary manifestation of Christ’s presence, as the Catechism eloquently affirms: “It is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present” (CCC 1374).

At the Eucharistic table we encounter our Lord once again in a singularly unique presence: his very body, blood, soul, and divinity—the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324, Lumen Gentium 11). The Jesus with whom we commune at the eucharistic banquet is the same Jesus who has spoken to us previously from the ambo in the word through the Spirit. The two disciples at Emmaus encountered nothing less than the same Jesus at every step—and so do we at every liturgy.

We Catholics have nearly as much to learn from our Evangelical friends about the word as they have to learn from us about the Eucharist. A major difference is that we have both word and Eucharist; it is a matter of Catholics entering into the fullness of both at every liturgy. Non-sacramental Evangelicals have relegated their eucharist to a distant, secondary role—if not to insignificance—and this is unfortunate.

If Catholics and Evangelicals read Augustine from a purely intellectual or scholarly approach (for which there is a time and a place), we miss out on the real reason as to why the Confessions were written in the first place. Was it not to guide our hearts and minds to the One who can only satisfy our restlessness in through a profound conversion? Do they not have as their goal to fulfill at every Catholic Mass what Paul prayed, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18)? Augustine, who was celebrated last year on the occasion of the 1,600th anniversary of the publication of his Confessions, would desire nothing less.”

Love,
Matthew

May 10 – St John of Avila, (1499-1569), Doctor of the Church – Inspirer of Saints


-St John of Avila, by El Greco, please click on the image for greater detail

The saints are made saints together…
-originally published in The Catholic Voice of the Archdiocese of Omaha

St. John of Avila is a little-known Spanish saint who helped or influenced many more saints we know much better.

He was born either in 1499 or 1500 in a small town south of Toledo, Spain. The only son of a wealthy family, he was sent off to study law. He left school after a deep conversion and was insistent on becoming a priest. He was ordained in 1526.

With the discovery of the New World still on the minds of many and the rise of new ideas and new technologies changing many lives, young Father John chose to leave his homeland and serve as a missionary priest to the people of New Spain (Mexico). He gave all his inheritance to the poor and, with the permission of his bishop, traveled to Seville, Spain, to await his transport ship to the Americas.

While he waited he preached in the town and caught the eye and ear of the holy Fernando de Contreras. Fernando and the Archbishop of Seville convinced Father John to stay and serve the people of Andalusia, which he did for a number of years. Father John was later brought to Córdoba and eventually to Granada where he finished his university studies.

A scholar of some prowess, Father John was recognized as an intellectually insightful man. He was an inventor, the author of a catechism for adults and children and the founder of several colleges and a university. But it was his love for God, for bringing souls to the Lord, and his deep spiritual insights that brought him wider acclaim.

His preaching was marked by a message of God’s deep and abiding love for us. This caught the attention of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, who sought out Father John hoping he would become one of those first Jesuits. Though he didn’t join, he sent 30 of his best spiritual mentees to the new order. In fact, it was Father John who helped convert St. Francis Borgia, SJ, who succeeded St. Ignatius as head of the Jesuits.

St. John of God, founder of the Hospitilars, was converted to a life of piety by the preaching of Father John. St. Peter Alcántara, reformer of the Franciscan Order, was a friend, as was St. John de Ribera. St. Thomas of Villanova distributed Father John’s catechism throughout his diocese. Finally, both St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, reformers of the Carmelite Order, actively sought out Father John for his spiritual wisdom.

His work “Audi, Filia” or “Listen, Daughter” is considered his spiritual masterpiece. He also corresponded with many lay people and priests to whom he gave spiritual direction. He wrote in one letter, “Open your little heart to that breadth of love by which the Father gave us his Son, and with him gave us himself, and the Holy Spirit, and all things besides.”

After some illness and exhaustion led him to retire from preaching, Father John died on May 10, 1569. He was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 for his tremendous insight and influence on Catholic spirituality during a critical time in church history.

Through St. John of Ávila we are reminded of God’s infinite love for us, to which we need only surrender, for it is that love which transforms us and makes saints of us all.

Love,
Matthew

Aquinas, ST Suppl. 72:1, ad 2 – Can the saints hear our prayers?


-by Karlo Broussard

(Summa Theologiae, by St Thomas Aquinas, OP, Supplement, Question 72, Article 1, objection 2)

“The second objection in the article says the saints don’t know our prayers because such knowledge would undermine their happiness. Here’s one way to put the argument:

P1: If the saints knew our prayers, then they would know our sufferings.

P2: If the saints knew our sufferings, then the saints would be sad.

P3: But the saints in heaven can’t be sad.

C1: Therefore, the saints can’t know our sufferings.

C2: Therefore, the saints can’t know our prayers.

The key premise is the second, to which Aquinas replies that we can’t say the saints in heaven are grieved by knowledge of our troubles in life because they are “so filled with heavenly joy, that sorrow finds no place in them.”

Although I think Aquinas is right here, it seems there needs to be a bit more explanation as to how knowledge of our sufferings wouldn’t undermine the happiness of the blessed. In the Summa, he obliges: “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good” (ST III:1:3, ad 3).

Whether the saints know that good or not doesn’t matter. Simply knowledge that God will direct a permitted evil to a greater good gives the saints reason not to be sad. This is especially true given the saints’ vision of the divine essence, which provides them with an improved perspective on how God perfectly orders things to His glory.

Second, the saints in heaven view the troubles in our lives with an eternal perspective, a perspective that Paul articulates in his letters. For example, in Romans 8:18, Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul writes, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

If Paul’s knowledge of such glory without the beatific vision could diminish sadness caused by his sufferings, then how much more would the saints’ knowledge of this glory with the beatific vision diminish sadness? Much more! In fact, being in the presence of the heavenly glory excludes sadness altogether.

So, just because the saints in heaven would have knowledge of the troubles in our lives if they knew our prayers, it doesn’t follow they would be sad. They know there are greater goods that God is bringing about through our troubles.

The third objection that Aquinas deals with is similar to an objection often heard today in challenging God’s existence: the problem of evil. It claims the saints can’t possibly know our prayers because if they did, they would respond to our requests for intercession, and we wouldn’t have suffering in our lives.

Behind this objection is the idea that a charitable person always assists his friend and/or neighbor when the latter is suffering. Since the saints in heaven have perfect love, and we’re their friends, it follows that if they knew our requests about what’s going on in our lives, they would help us in our sufferings.

But—the argument goes—they must not be helping us in our sufferings, because we suffer every day. Therefore, they must not know the requests that we make.

This objection is based on a false dichotomy. It supposes either the saints are praying for us, in which case we wouldn’t suffer, or they don’t know our prayers. But there’s a third option.

Perhaps the saints know our prayers and it’s just not God’s will that we be delivered from a particular trial, at least not yet. Like us, they don’t know all of God’s plan, and so even their petitions are subject to what the Lord wills (James 4:15). Alternately, if—in a particular case—they do know that God wills to allow a source of suffering, they certainly would not pray for it to be removed. Aquinas explains,

The souls of the saints have their will fully conformed to the Divine will even as regards the things willed; and consequently, although they retain the love of charity towards their neighbor, they do not succor him otherwise than they see to be in conformity with the disposition of divine justice (ST Suppl. 72:1, ad 3).

So, if we ask the saints to pray that we be delivered from a particular difficulty in our lives, and it doesn’t come to pass, it’s because it wasn’t God’s will. It’s not because the saints aren’t aware of our prayers.

Furthermore, if God doesn’t will to deliver us from a trial, the saints can still help us by praying we have the strength to persevere in faith and not lose hope in the midst of our suffering. Such prayers also would be fruits of perfect love.

Even if we don’t hear these arguments raised today, they’re interesting to consider. And if by chance a Protestant does happen to use one or both of them, a Catholic will be able to show why they don’t succeed.”

Love, all ye holy men and women, pray for us!!
Matthew

Go ask your Father: the Early Church was Catholic


-by Marcus Grodi

“For the first forty years of my life, it never crossed my mind that I needed anything else but the Bible to know what I needed to believe to be a faithful Christian. When I was in seminary and preparing to become a Protestant pastor I studied the history of Christianity, but with a certain slant that skirted any acknowledgment of the historical importance of the Catholic Church. For me, as well as most of my fellow seminarians, the important history essentially ended with the closure of the New Testament and picked up again with the sixteenth century Protestant reformation.

I certainly knew of some significant Christian figures and events from those “lost” fifteen hundred years, but for me and the congregations I pastored, all that was important was the Bible—which had been “saved” from the clutches of the “Whore of Babylon” through the courage of the Reformers. The few references I had read from the writings of the early Christian writers (I don’t remember referring to them as early Church “Fathers”) were selectively chosen to demonstrate that the early Church was more like Protestantism than Catholicism.

Then, by God’s grace, my eyes were opened to the problems of Protestantism. Without question, it was my discovery of the witness of the early Church Fathers that most opened my heart and mind toward the Catholic faith. Fortunately, God provided helpers to assist me in finding and working my way through the few available collections of the Fathers, most of which were out of print and some badly skewed by anti-Catholic translators. Through their witness, the Catholicism of the early Church became so obvious that my family and I knew that if we were to follow the truth then we had no option but to become Catholic.

A large majority of Christians today believe that all one needs to know about the early Church can be gleaned from the book of Acts, and that beyond that, the essence of early Church structure, liturgy, and praxis is somehow a prototype of what they experience in their modern-day Protestant churches.

But if the inspired words of the New Testament do not contain all that the Apostles taught the early Christians, then how does one discover the rest of what these early Christians believed? The answer to this—at least for hundreds of modern Protestant ministers who have surprisingly found their way home to the Catholic Church—is in the writings of the early Church Fathers.

How, though, can we access such a large corpus of writings, especially when they were written in languages that most of us today have not had the patience to learn?

For this, we are particularly blessed by the release of Jimmy Akin’s superbly compiled synopsis of the writings of the early Church Fathers.

There are other collections, which have helped many discover the beauty and importance of what these early writers reveal about the expanding and persecuted early Church. But Akin’s finely selected and categorized collection provides a far more accessible introduction into the full Catholicity of the early Christians. As a convert himself and a well-honed apologist, Jimmy knows the topics that are most crucial for those wanting and needing to know what the early Church believed—especially in those doctrinal areas where Catholics and non-Catholics bump heads.”

ST. AMBROSE OF MILAN

Born around 338; died 397. Bishop of Milan, Italy. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Originally, he was a government official. After the death of the local bishop, the Catholics and Arians got into a vehement conflict about who should be the new bishop.

Ambrose was trying to keep the peace and settle the two groups down when someone—allegedly a small boy—began chanting “Ambrose, bishop!” Soon the two groups began chanting together that Ambrose should be the new bishop. (The Arians, apparently, felt that although Ambrose was Catholic in belief he would be a kinder bishop than they otherwise would likely get.) Yet, Ambrose was not even baptized yet!

Culturally well-educated but at the same time ignorant of the Scriptures, the new Bishop briskly began to study them. From the works of Origen, the indisputable master of the “Alexandrian School”, he learned to know and to comment on the Bible. Thus, Ambrose transferred to the Latin environment the meditation on the Scriptures which Origen had begun, introducing in the West the practice of lectio divina. The method of lectio served to guide all of Ambrose’s preaching and writings, which stemmed precisely from prayerful listening to the Word of God.

The future St Augustine, converted to Christianity by St Ambrose, meanwhile, had come to Milan as a teacher of rhetoric; he was a sceptic and not Christian. He was seeking the Christian truth but was not capable of truly finding it.

What moved the heart of the young African rhetorician, sceptic and downhearted, and what impelled him to definitive conversion was not above all Ambrose’s splendid homilies, although he deeply appreciated them. It was rather the testimony of the Bishop and his Milanese Church that prayed and sang as one intact body. It was a Church that could resist the tyrannical ploys of the Emperor and his mother, who in early 386 again demanded a church building for the Arians’ celebrations.

In the building that was to be requisitioned, Augustine relates, “the devout people watched, ready to die with their Bishop”.   This testimony of the Confessions is precious because it points out that something was moving in Augustine, who continues: “We too, although spiritually tepid, shared in the excitement of the whole people.” (Confessions 9, 7).  St Monica, the tearful Christian mother of her wayward son Augustine, followed her son to Milan.  The customs for worship in Thagaste, Northern Africa, where they were from, were different than in Milan and Rome.  When she asked Ambrose what to do, he replied, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”  Very practical advice.

ST. ANTHONY OF EGYPT

Born around 250 at Herakleopolis Magna; died 356. A layman who lived in a variety of places in Egypt. Though hailed as “the Father of Monasticism,” he was not the first monk, but he was one of the first (if not the first) ascetics known to retire to the desert. A biography of him by St. Athanasius of Alexandria helped spread his style of monasticism.

ST. ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA

Born around 295; died 373. A Doctor of the Church. As a deacon he accompanied St. Alexander of Alexandria to the Council of Nicaea I. He succeeded Alexander as patriarch of Alexandria and was a tireless defender of Trinitarianism and foe of the Arians. His time as bishop was stormy, and he was expelled from his see five times but regained it each time.

ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO

Born 354; died 430. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Of Berber descent, he was born to a pagan father (Patricius) and Christian mother (St. Monica), in Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras, Algeria). He spent some time as a Manichean before becoming a Christian. He was baptized by St. Ambrose of Milan. Before becoming Christian, St. Augustine fathered a son (Adeodatus) by a concubine. After baptism, he became bishop of Hippo Regius, Numidia (now Annaba, Algeria). The most prolific of the Church Fathers, and one of the most important theologians in history.

POPE ST. CLEMENT I

Probably wrote in early 70. Various ancient sources place him as the first, second, or third successor of St. Peter. (Most commonly, he is held to be the third, after Linus and Cletus.) He was the author of a single surviving Letter to the Corinthians, which is often dated around 95, but this is too late a date.

William Jurgens points to internal evidence that places it no later than 80 or so (the date he favors) and possibly up to ten years earlier. John A. T. Robinson shows internal evidence that places it in the first part of the year 70. Specifically, Clement refers to sacrifices still being offered at the temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in July of 70. Clement also refers to the repeated crises that have prevented him from writing to the Corinthians until now, which is a likely reference to the violent “year of four emperors” in 69, a time of civil war that followed the forced suicide of Nero in 68. In it Galba, Otho, and Vitellius were successively acclaimed emperor and then killed or forced to commit suicide before Vespasian finally took office.

The epistle may or may not have been written before Clement was pope. He was, in any event, a major figure of the period, as demonstrated by the fact that a number of later works were attributed to him or written about him. Also referred to as “Clement of Rome.”

CONSTANTINE I

Born around 272; died 337. The first Christian emperor—an office he shared with Licinius from 306 until 324, when he became sole emperor. His conversion was prompted by a private revelation in which he was told to conquer in the sign of the cross. He moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium, which was rebuilt as Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). In 313 he and his co-emperor issued the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious toleration. He did not, however, make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 325 he convoked the Council of Nicaea I to deal with the Arian crisis. Though the council endorsed Trinitarianism, it did not stop the controversy. Constantine was eventually baptized by the Arian bishop of Nicomedia, the city in which he lay dying. Sometimes called “Constantine the Great.”

ST. CYPRIAN OF CARTHAGE

Born around 205; died 258. He was bishop of Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia). He presided at the Council of Carthage of 256. He got along well with Pope St. Cornelius I but had a falling out with Pope St. Stephen I over whether baptisms performed by heretics were valid (Cyprian wrongly held that they were not). For a time he had to shepherd his flock while in hiding due to persecution. Eventually he was martyred by beheading.

ST. CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA

Died 444. A Doctor of the Church. Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, Cyril was a harsh man who dealt cruelly with his enemies, including Jews, Novatians, St. John Chrysostom, and Nestorius. A mob of his followers brutally murdered the female pagan philosopher Hypatia, though there is no evidence that they did so at his direction. Despite his flaws, he was an important theologian and papal legate to the Council of Ephesus.

POPE ST. GREGORY I

Reigned from 590 to 604. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Though born to a wealthy family, he sold his possessions and established monasteries, one of which he dwelled in. He practiced asceticism to the point that he damaged his health. Reluctantly, he was drawn from the monastery into the service of the pope. Eventually, he was elected pope himself, though for a time he sought to avoid the office. He guided the Church during a crucial period of transition between antiquity and the Middle Ages. Commonly referred to as “Gregory the Great.”

ST. HILARY OF POITIERS

Born around 315; died around 367. A Doctor of the Church. He converted from paganism and, though he was married, he was also elected bishop of Poitiers in what is now France. A strong opponent of the Arians, he is sometimes referred to as “the Athanasius of the West.” Like St. Athanasius of Alexandria, he was for a time exiled, but he regained his see.

ST. IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH

Died around 110. He was the third bishop of Antioch (near the current city of Antakya, Turkey). He heard the apostle John. In the reign of the Emperor Trajan, he was taken to Rome and martyred. On the way he wrote six letters to various churches and one to St. Polycarp of Smyrna. These letters are an invaluable resource concerning early Christianity. They also exist in a long form that includes interpolations of the fourth century, and there is an abridgement of them in Syriac.

ST. IRENAEUS OF LYONS

Born around 140; died around 202. Originally from modern Turkey, where he heard St. Polycarp of Smyrna, he ended up becoming the second bishop of Lyons (now Lyon; then called Lugdunum), in what is now France. He intervened in a dispute between Pope St. Victor I and Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus on the date on which Easter should be celebrated. He also wrote against Gnosticism in his masterwork, Against Heresies.

ST. JEROME

Born around 347; died around 419. One of the four original Doctors of the Church. Originally from Dalmatia (located mostly in modern Croatia), he was educated in Rome and traveled extensively. He attended the Council of Rome in 382 and became the secretary of Pope Damasus, who instigated Jerome’s most famous work—the translation of the Bible in Latin known as the Vulgate. This gradually replaced previous Latin translations of Scripture. After the death of Damasus he moved to Bethlehem, where he continued his translation work. Jerome made many enemies as a result of his explosive temper and his ability to hold grudges even after the death of his opponents.

At one point Jerome needed additional priestly help with the monasteries he ran, and to supply the need St. Epiphanius of Salamis ordained Jerome’s own brother—a monk named Paulinian—forcibly and against his will. (At this point Jerome was at odds with his own bishop, John of Jerusalem—a split which Epiphanius fostered.)

To keep Paulinian from objecting, he was first gagged and then ordained a deacon. A Mass was held, with Paulinian serving the deacon’s part. Then he was grabbed, tied up and gagged again, and ordained a priest.

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM

Born around 359; died 407. A Doctor of the Church. Originally from Antioch in Syria (now Antakya, Turkey), he eventually and reluctantly became the patriarch of Constantinople. An extraordinary preacher, he was nicknamed Chrusostomos (Greek for “golden-mouthed”). A reformer at Constantinople, he was in conflict both with other churchmen and with the royal court, which twice had him exiled. Though the first time he was quickly brought back (the next day, in fact), the second time he died en route to his place of exile. One of his most famous works, and one that helped earn him his nickname, was a series of sermons he preached on “the incident of the statues.” When he was a newly ordained priest, a mob of tax protestors went on a rampage in Antioch and, in addition to vandalizing the city and the local prefect’s palace, they tore down the statues of the Emperor Theodosius and the late Empress Flacilla and dragged them through the streets. When the riot was over and reality set in, the city was terrified of what would happen next. A series of executions began, and the rumor went round that Theodosius was so enraged that he was contemplating the total destruction of the city, which many began to flee. The local bishop, Flavian, went to appeal directly to the emperor, and while he was gone John preached a famous series of sermons to comfort the population, offer them hope, and prepare them for the afterlife, should Flavian’s mission fail. All ended well when Flavian returned and announced that Theodosius had wept upon hearing his appeal on behalf of the city and that he had decided to spare it. It is suspected that John may have written the eloquent speech Flavian delivered to the emperor.

ST. POLYCARP OF SMYRNA (my parents had friends, who, as a cruel joke on their children, made each one take the Confirmation name “Polycarp”. Catholic love; not always so sweet and tender. 🙂

Born around 68; died around 155. Bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). He was a hearer of the apostle John. One of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters is addressed to him, and he himself wrote to the Philippians. An account of his martyrdom—The Martyrdom of Polycarp—is an important work of hagiography.

Love,
Matthew

Aug 27 – Tears of St Monica


-“The angel appears to St Monica”, by Pietro Maggi, [1714], painting in Saint Augustine chapel, in the right hand transept of san Marco church in Milan (Italy), please click on the image for greater detail.

Thus you gave another answer through your priest, a certain bishop nurtured in the Church and trained in your books. When that woman implored him to consider speaking with me, to refute my errors, un-teach me evil, and teach me good…he refused her, quite prudently, as I understood later. He responded that I was as yet indocile, that I was inflated with my heresy’s novelty… “but let him be. Only pray for him to the Lord: he will discover by reading what his error is…” She would not acquiesce to what he said but continued imploring… “Go away,” he said, “while you live, the son of these tears of yours shall not perish!” (The Confessions of St. Augustine III, 12)


-by Br Nicholas Hartmann, OP

With these words St. Augustine narrates the exchange between his mother St. Monica and an unnamed bishop. Monica weeps to the saintly bishop, urging him to purge her son of his errant thinking. Because of his intelligence and his studies in rhetoric, Augustine enjoyed worldly success, but his moral profligacy made his inner life tumultuous. He likely hoped Manichaeism—the errors referred to in the above passage—could acquit him of intemperance within the inner court of his conscience.

Monica knew better, or at least she knew that this heresy kept Augustine withdrawn from the true faith. Augustine’s successful career advanced him to Rome and then Milan, but it failed to placate her vexations about his well-being. Monica’s personal piety and progress in Christian virtue informed her to see through that veneer into the rot of his inner life. Indeed, Augustine lived in great spiritual danger, nurturing disordered loves and rejecting the truth of the gospel. He covered over his deep-seated unhappiness and moral fragility with theories of reality he imagined would exonerate him of any moral responsibility.

Monica shed tears over genuine evil. These were not worldly tears of self-pity brooding over failures in her maternal character. Neither did Monica blame the harshness of the world for her son’s character. Monica’s were profitable tears, and she sought a remedy in prayer and through a holy bishop. In her grief she sought to move Augustine to repentance.

The bishop, in his spiritual prudence, knew the best course: his intervention at that time would be inopportune and an impediment to the prodigal Augustine’s future conversion. That her tears did not move the saintly bishop to action does not imply they were in vain. On the contrary, they became a powerful intercessory prayer God was most disposed to answer—and he did. He was disposed to answer not because he needed any convincing, but because it is good for us to seek aid from God and receive it. In this case, Monica sought aid not only for herself, but for another.

Such was the prophecy of the bishop. Because of Monica’s tearful prayers to God for her son, Augustine would not be lost. God is disposed to answer our prayers, especially when we seek virtue for ourselves or others. St. Dominic himself was known to weep while praying: “what will become of sinners!” God is so disposed because it is good for us to seek from him what is truly good for ourselves and others. By doing so we depend on God, the giver of every good thing.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)”

Love, tears of joy,
Matthew

Sep 29 – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael

-from a homily on the Gospels by Saint Gregory the Great, pope, Second Reading, Office of Readings, Liturgy of the Hours, for September 29th.

“You should be aware that the word “angel” denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels.

And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.

Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily by known. But personal names are assigned to some, not because they could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they come among us. Thus, Michael means ‘Who is like God?’; Gabriel is ‘The Strength of God’; and, Raphael is ‘God’s Remedy.’

Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by His superior power. So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying: I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High. He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.

So too Gabriel, who is called God’s strength, was sent to Mary. He came to announce the One Who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers. Thus God’s strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle.

Raphael means, as I have said, God’s remedy, for when he touched Tobit’s eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness. Thus since he is to heal, he is rightly called God’s remedy.”

Love,
Matthew

Dec 14 – “Thy dear Love can slay”


-by Br Philip Nolan, OP

“There is a story about how St. John of the Cross celebrated Christmas: “On Christmas day . . . St. John of the Cross, while at ease with his brethren at recreation, took the image of the Holy Infant from the Crib and danced round the room, singing all the while: “Mi dulce y tierno Jesús/‘My sweet and tender Jesus,/ If Thy dear love can slay,/ It is today’”. The austere Carmelite mystic of the sixteenth century, known for his spiritual writings and his reform of the Carmelite Order, burst out in song and dance like David before the Ark of the Covenant. God’s presence sometimes makes great men childlike, even giddy.

Saint John of the Cross, however, as his name suggests, knew something of the brutality of life as well. Some of his Carmelite brethren went so far as to imprison him and publicly punish him out of opposition to his reforms. And through the sufferings, St. John held fast to Christ. As he exclaims in Counsels of Light and Love, “Thou wilt not take from me, my God, that which once thou gavest me in Thine only Son Jesus Christ, in Whom Thou gavest me all that I desire; wherefore I shall rejoice that Thou wilt not tarry if I wait for Thee” (71–2). The Incarnation fulfills all our desires—if only we will ponder the manger in wonder. The baby Jesus is God’s perfect gift to us—if only we will wait patiently for His greatness to be manifest in our lives.

In watching and waiting in Advent, we wonder at how small the beginnings of our redemption seem. Even now redemption can seem far from our world: “O sweetest love of God that art so little known” (Counsels, 68). The reign of God burst into the world in the meekest of ways: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” Now we prepare to see the babe in the manger, the silent work of God. We know that the Incarnation happened, that our “redemption is drawing near” -Lk 21:28

In the sure promise of redemption, the austerity and the name of St. John of the Cross begins to make sense. In the quiet of Bethlehem, God prepares for the crowds of Jerusalem. We begin with Him at the manger in Bethlehem and follow Him to the hill of Golgotha. God purifies our worldly desires as we take up the cross and follow Him. What begins in love, remains in love, and ends in love: ‘My sweet and tender Jesus,/ If Thy dear love can slay,/ It is today.'”

Love, and the victory of Love,
Matthew

Dec 7 – Veni Redemptor Gentium – St Ambrose of Milan, (337-397 AD), Father & Doctor of the Church

Veni, Redemptor gentium;
Ostende partum virginis;
Miretur omne saeculum.
Talis decet partus Deo.

Non ex virili semine,
Sed mystico spiramine
Verbum Dei tactum est caro,
Fructusque ventris floruit.

Alvus tumescit virginis.
Claustrum pudoris permanet;
Vexilla virtutum micant,
Versatur in templo Deus.

Procedit e thalamo suo,
Pudoris aulo regia,
Geminae gigans substantiae
Alacris ut currat viam.

Egressus eius a Patre,
Regressus eius ad Patrem ;
Excursus usque ad inferos
Recursus ad sedem Dei.

Aequalis aeterno Patri,
Carnis tropaeo accingere,
Infirma nostri corporis
Virtute firmans perpeti.

Praesepe iam fulget tuum,
Lumenque nox spirat novum,
Quad nulla nox interpolet
Fideque iugi luceat.

Gloria tibi, Domine,
Qui natus es de virgine,
Cum Patre et saneto Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula.

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come manifest thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.

O Equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud, eternal Son, to Thee
Whose advent sets Thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.


-by Br Raymond LaGrange, OP

Non ex virili semine,

sed mystico spiramine

Verbum Dei factum est caro

fructusque ventris floruit.

Literally, this means: “Not from man’s seed / But by the mystic spirit / The Word of God was made man / And the fruit of the womb sprung forth.” Spiramine, “spirit” also means “breath.” The breath of life once breathed into Adam is now breathed upon Mary. The Holy Spirit creates (On the Mysteries, 2.5). Unlike everyone else, Jesus is conceived by an act of God without bodily contact (On Virginity, II.2.7), just as the world was created without pre-existing matter. The incarnation is a sort of re-creation in the world, so that fallen nature may be redeemed. In the original creation, God made man in His own image. In the fullness of time, He created a body for Himself. This meeting of heaven and earth, God’s complete gift of Himself, happens in the womb of Mary.

The Holy Spirit is also the revealer. Ambrose tells us that the same cloud which led the Hebrews out of Egypt came to rest finally upon the Virgin Mary, in whom He conceived His Son. (On the Mysteries, 3.13) This cloud that led the Hebrews over the Red Sea brought them to rest at Mount Sinai, where the law was revealed to Moses. This law was the fullest revelation of God up to that point in history. This is fulfilled in the Word of God, Who is the New Law, conceived in Mary’s womb. The Holy Spirit reveals God to us in history through Mary.

Mary participates in a very special way in both creation and revelation by agreeing to bear the Son of God. Before Mary conceived the God-man in her womb, however, she beheld Him in prayer. In his work, On Virginity, Ambrose presents her as a model for consecrated virgins:

“She was a virgin not only in body but also in mind…humble in heart, grave in speech, prudent in mind, sparing of words, studious in reading, resting her hope not on uncertain riches, but on the prayer of the poor, intent on work, modest in discourse; wont to seek not man but God as the judge of her thoughts, to injure no one, to have goodwill towards all, to rise up before her elders, not to envy her equals, to avoid boastfulness, to follow reason, to love virtue.” (On Virginity, II.2.7)

Her soul was given entirely to prayer. When the Angel Gabriel came to announce to her the birth of Jesus, he found her alone, with nothing distracting her from her contemplation (On Virginity, II.2.10). Her contemplation continues after she gives birth. As Luke tells us, “Mary kept all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:19, On Virginity, II.2.13)

We can learn from Mary’s habit of contemplation. We, too, are called to ponder in our hearts the mysteries revealed to us. During this season of Advent, as we prepare to commemorate the coming of the Redeemer of nations, it is opportune to take on small penances and remove distractions from our lives so that we can give ourselves especially over to prayer. But our contemplation must not only look backward. It prepares us for death, and our entry into our heavenly homeland, where together with Mary and Ambrose and all the angels and saints, we will contemplate the Holy Trinity for eternity.”

Love & Advent,
Matthew