Category Archives: Doctors of the Church

St Anselm’s argument for the existence of God


-by Matt Nelson

St. Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence often gets a bad rap, even from many Catholics. For one thing, it can be a difficult argument to understand. Though its premises are rather simple, something about it makes us think we are being tricked. For another thing, we know that eminent authorities like St. Thomas Aquinas have expressed their discontent with the argument.

Nonetheless, I think it is wrong to discard the argument without a second thought. Indeed, I think there is still much of value to be gleaned from it. For simplicity’s sake, here’s a basic sketch of the argument:

  1. God is the greatest conceivable thing.
  2. But if something is only in the mind and not in reality, then a greater thing can be conceived.
  3. So, God cannot only be in the mind.
  4. Therefore, God exists in reality.

In short, the very idea of God necessitates His existence. Thus, the Psalmist is right when he writes, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). Whether or not this is a perfect representation of Anselm’s argument, it should serve our purposes today.

I would like to set aside for now the objections against it as an argument for God’s existence, not because it’s not an important question. It is indeed a very important question! But before defending the argument, we have to understand better what Anselm was saying. In fact, unbelievers who point out what they believe to be its weaknesses tend to miss Anselm’s meaning, and thus end up “defeating” a straw man. Engaging in an argument without clarifying meanings is never a good idea.

Christian apologists have long been frustrated to deal with popular skeptics railing against God as something other than what he truly is. Comparisons of God to the tooth fairy or Santa Claus are often flippantly made, particularly among the New Atheist types. Pathetic as such caricatures are, they betray a conception among non-believers that God is a finite creature. But for St. Anselm, that is precisely what God is not.

In an age when religious indifference is rampant and serious contemplation of spiritual things is scarce, St. Anselm’s argument is valuable because it takes on the form of a spiritual exercise.

In reality, God is not a thing at allthings in the sense of “beings in the world” have limitations. They can always be imagined to be greater in some way. But as Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe writes, “God cannot be a thing, an existent among others. It is not possible that God and the universe should add up to make two.”

What he means is that God’s mode of existence is completely different than everything else. Indeed, God is the creator of everything, and keeps it in being every moment it exists. This is the kind of God St. Anselm has in mind when he imagines “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

The Anselmian proof invites us to do away with the caricatures—a challenger cannot even begin to refute the proof until he seriously entertains the notion of God presented by Anselm. From that starting point, then, all lesser kinds of “divinities”—from Zeus to the Flying Spaghetti Monster—are necessarily ruled out. We must ask the question soberly: what is the greatest conceivable thing? It is certainly not a beast composed of pasta.

There is more than one way to approach the question. We can think about God as unrestricted existence—that is, existence itself. Or in Aristotelian terms, we can think about God as being pure act and no potency—which just means that God is utterly perfect and lacks all possibility of further perfection. Technically (and as St. Thomas affirmed), to think of God as existence itself is probably the best way to think about “what” God is.

But there is another way to think about what it means for God to be, as Anselm put it, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Let’s think about this in concrete terms. What is greater—a God who loves everyone who loves him back, or a God who loves everyone unconditionally? Clearly the latter, for his love is perfect. Now, such “negative theology” can help us understand what God isn’t, but it proves nothing about whether such a thing exists. Still, it can help to clarify the nature of the thing considered—the first step of serious argumentation.

In his influential book, The God of Faith and Reason, philosopher Robert Sokolowski considers another contrast, one that sheds light on St. Anselm’s meaning of God. The first “god” Sokolowski asks us to consider is one who becomes greater as the result of his creation. In this first case, “god + the world” is greater than the god alone. He contrasts this version with another in which God is so great that his creation adds nothing to his perfection. In the latter case, “God + the world” is not greater than God alone. And clearly, argues Sokolowski, this latter God is a greater conception of God than the former. Indeed, no greater God could be conceived. And there are important implications that follow from this.

One implication is that if God creates but gains nothing for himself by doing so, then it follows that God’s act of creation is completely gratuitous and unsolicited. We—the created—have everything to gain by virtue of the gift of our existence.

So, aside from what it contributes to the debate about God’s existence, St. Anselm’s ontological proof helps us to re-establish who God is and what it means for us to exist. It gets us thinking about the big questions again, for we have been created for our own good by a God who is unlimited in perfection. Our lives, then, should be lived in a way that reflects uncompromising gratitude, humility, and trust in God.

If St. Anselm’s argument fails as a proof for God’s existence, it nonetheless does great service in establishing a firm starting point for determining what it is we are trying to prove in the first place. Moreover, it compels us to think seriously about whether such a grand contention could be true.

Love,
Matthew

Summa Theologiae


-by Br Simon Teller, OP

“If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably heard of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s theological masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae. This work has fed the minds of over 700 years of Catholic thinkers, and at least two popes have written laws to enshrine it within the syllabi of seminary professors (see the Code of Canon Law, can. 252 §3). With an import that is vast and perennial, the Summa has become one of the most important texts of Christian literature.

You probably have heard of the Summa, but do you know why Aquinas wrote it?

When St. Thomas began his work on the Summa Theologiae, he did not set out to write a timeless classic. Rather, he intended to meet a specific need of his own era (see Jean-Pierre Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, 142–145).

During the 1260s, the Roman Province of the Dominican Order had a problem. Its intellectual life was in a sad state because the Roman friars had lost their ardor for study. Regrettably, many of them had forsaken the reading of sacred books. As a result, the preaching of the friars was beginning to run theologically dry, lacking the robust doctrinal character appropriate to the Dominican charism. Despite years of exhortations and commands from the Dominican powers-that-be, the friars had been unable to do anything to remedy the situation.

In 1265, the Dominican Order tasked St. Thomas with founding a center of studies at its Roman headquarters—Santa Sabina (Ed. one of my novitiate classmates, who could not sing, became Prior of Santa Sabina in Rome and Prior Provinical of the Eastern Province US). Select friars from throughout the Province would be sent to study there, with the hope that they would spread the intellectual zeal from this one house to the province’s other Dominican priories when these friars were sent out for further missions. As the assigned leader of this project, Aquinas was in charge of creating the program of theological formation that would be implemented at this new theological center.

To do this, he set to work charting a course of studies for the students of this new studium. In the process of writing and rewriting his courses, Aquinas produced a synthetic and doctrinally robust textbook for the theological formation of preachers and confessors: the Summa Theologiae.

As we now know, the Summa’s impact far surpassed Aquinas’s original, modest intentions. He had set out to provide for a particular need of his own time, namely, the revival of his province’s intellectual life. But his work far transcended the needs of the Roman Dominicans in the 1260s. For St. Thomas’s writings took on a transgenerational influence, fueling the intellectual zeal of the Church on a universal scale. The local need for a doctrinally rich textbook for beginners that Aquinas’s Summa met was also a need experienced by the whole Church.

St. Thomas did not begin this work with a view to producing a perennial masterpiece. His focus, rather, was on providing for the needs of his age. But God used Aquinas’s solicitude for a particular, local need to meet a need experienced by the whole Church throughout time.”

Love,
Matthew

Nov 10 – Heresy of Monophysitism


-Deesis mosaic Hagia Sophia, Constantinople.


– “humine” better shown as a uniform light blue/purple, an even mixture of white (divine) and dark blue/purple (human); both natures diluted/diminished. Catholic teaching: there is a fully human Jesus and a fully God Jesus, but one Jesus. Two natures in one (B)being. Neither is diminished/diluted.

Monophysitism originated as a reaction to Nestorianism. The Monophysites (led by a man named Eutyches) were horrified by Nestorius’s implication that Christ was two people with two different natures (human and divine). They went to the other extreme, claiming that Christ was one person with only one nature (a fusion of human and divine elements). They are thus known as Monophysites because of their claim that Christ had only one nature (Greek: mono = one; physis = nature).

Catholic theologians recognized that Monophysitism was as bad as Nestorianism because it denied Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. If Christ did not have a fully human nature, then he would not be fully human (and the Incarnation did not happen), and if he did not have a fully divine nature then he was not fully divine (and we are not saved by God, Himself).


-by Br Nicodemus Thomas, OP

“Today’s patron, Saint Leo (the Great) is indeed great. The fifth-century bishop of Rome reigned as Pope during the last years of the Western Roman empire. His list of accomplishments is impressive. He heroically met with Attila the Hun to save the Italian peninsula from invasion, and he was a father to the Roman people whom the emperors abandoned. However, the Church does not call St. Leo “great” merely because of his patrician birth or his political savvy. After all, the empire was falling apart and would end officially a decade after his death. So it might seem, if we only examine his secular accomplishments, that St. Leo is called “great” for reasons that do not merit the title.

During the fifth century, St. Leo preached against a group called the Monophysites who argued that there is a single nature in Christ. In other words, they claimed that Jesus Christ is not both really God and really man. Saint Leo, both in his famous Letter to Flavian and in his preaching, refuted their heresy and elucidated the mystery of the Incarnation for his brother bishops. Leo’s theology is not written in inaccessible language or specialized jargon. Rather, this Doctor of the Church explains to his universal flock the beauty and fittingness of the Incarnation. In Leo’s Christmas homily, he explains: “[Jesus] came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he [the devil] had overthrown mankind.”

The profundity of Leo’s reflection shines forth in the closing lines of his homily when he exhorts Christians to recall their dignity because they become “partners in the Divine nature.” The Pope is not claiming that Christians are now the divine essence; we have not become part of God, in a pantheistic sense. Rather, since God assumed our nature in the person of Jesus, Leo is arguing that we should “throw off our old nature and all its ways and as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh.” In other words, we are able to be radically changed because “through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

 How are we changed into temples of the Holy Spirit? Leo reminds us in a homily from today’s Office of Readings, “[Jesus] overflowed with abundant riches from the very source of all grace, yet though he alone received much, nothing was given over to him without his sharing it.” This means that we are capable of receiving grace in Christ because he assumed our nature, a grace with transformative power. Through grace we are able to receive the theological virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and ultimately eternal life itself.

So why is Leo Great? Leo is not only great because he was a follower and imitator of Christ like all of the saints, but also because he preached Who Jesus is to all people. Therefore, the Church calls Leo “Saint” on account of his holiness and she has called him “great” on account of his teachings which not only make us wiser but also help us to know Jesus Christ. So let us celebrate St Leo, because as he reminds us Who Christ is, he also reminds us who we are. Although we are not all called to be great theologians and teachers like St Leo, through Christ we are called to be saints.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Sep 17 – St Robert Bellarmine, SJ, (1542-1621), Counter Reformation, Vulgate, Papal temporal power & Galileo


-St Robert Bellarmine, SJ’s coat of arms, please click on the image for greater detail.

-by Mark Wheeler

“Robert Bellarmine was perhaps the most effective theologian and apologist for the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation battles with Protestantism. His success was obtained through his logical, temperate reasoning rather than through mere dogmatic assertions. Many returned to the Church because of his rational arguments and saintly manner.

Robert Frances Romulus Bellarmine was born in Tuscany, Italy on October 4, 1542. His mother, Cinthia Cervino, was the sister of Pope Marcellus II. Over his father’s objections he joined the Society of Jesus in 1560 and began a study of Aristotelian philosophy.

He went on to study at Florence, Padua, and Louvain; he concentrated his studies on Scripture, Hebrew, patristics, and Church history in order to defend the Church from the heresies of the Protestant Reformers. He became the first Jesuit professor at Louvain, where he lectured on the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.

After his ordination at Ghent in 1570, Bellarmine was recalled to Rome to teach theology at the newly founded Roman College. Later he became its rector. He held the chair of controversial theology while producing his major work, The Controversies, an apologetic defending the teachings of the Catholic Church and effectively refuting Reform theology. This writing proved so effective in bringing people back to the Church that academic centers were created in Protestant universities solely to respond to it.

Bellarmine played a leading role in preparing the Clementine revision of the Vulgate Bible, writing the introduction in 1592. Shortly thereafter he was made provincial of the Naples province for the Society of Jesus and raised to the cardinalate by Pope Clement VIII.

King James I of England entered into a written debate with Bellarmine over the temporal power of the pope; James denied it existed. Thomistic political philosophy led Bellarmine to the conclusion that the pope may justly wield temporal power where temporal matters affect spiritual matters. This view of limited papal civil power aroused the hostility of many in Rome, including Pope Sixtus V.

Bellarmine also became involved in the case of his friend Galileo. He convinced Galileo to agree to declare his findings as hypotheses for the time being, at least until they could be irrefutably proven.

The last years of Bellarmine’s life were dedicated to writing spiritual works including the Art of Dying Well and a commentary on the psalms. He died in Rome on September 17, 1621. He was canonized in 1930 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

The Power of the Resurrection in Our Bodies


-St Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD)

Brothers and sisters:
Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough?
Clear out the old yeast,
so that you may become a fresh batch of dough,
inasmuch as you are unleavened.
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

-1 Cor. 5:6b-8


-by Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem., a convert from Episcopalianism

“Christ’s eucharistic presence is entombed within us, that by its power we too may rise to new life.

When we go to the early Fathers of the Church to understand the sense of the great mysteries of faith we are celebrating at Easter, we are apt to be surprised. This is especially true if we go to the Fathers of the Syrian tradition, which represents the most ancient and authoritative approach to Sacred Scripture that we have.

Take, for example, the Scripture lesson given above, which is the classic epistle reading in the Roman Rite. How are we to understand all this talk of the leavening yeast being full of the corruption of malice and wickedness and our feast being made of the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth? Especially since it tells us that Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed and therefore we celebrate the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I never understood this “therefore” of St. Paul’s until I read St. Ephrem the Syrian’s commentary on the Gospels.

In speaking of the Last Supper, St. Ephrem counts the three days of Our Lord in the tomb as beginning when He, having been sacrificed in the eucharistic supper by the separation of His body and blood, is “buried” in the earth—that is, in man who is made of the slime of the earth, and in Holy Communion, and in remaining hidden in His members who have received the sacrament as He undergoes His passion and burial; in the following days He rises from the dead through this eucharistic presence and appears again, not under signs, but in His visible, palpable body!

This explains why the Catechism of the Catholic Church sees in the altar of our churches a symbol of the tomb. The Eucharist, which is meant to be “entombed” in our bodies after being sacrificed, gives us the sure power of the Resurrection promised by the Lord in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel.

This sacrificed bread of life is the fresh new bread, free of the malice of sin, pure and uncorrupted by its fermenting leaven. And it forms in us a new power, the very promise of our own resurrection because we have fed on the sacrificed and risen Lord!

The realism of the Eucharist extends not only to the “real presence” but also has real effects in our flesh and blood, which we will experience because we have fed on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, even the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.

In this sad time, when so many are deprived of the Holy Communion, we can reflect on the power of this sacrifice and sacrament. Perhaps we are being deprived because we had forgotten the great power and dignity and love that the Eucharist contains, and need to begin to receive this gift with purity, free from malice and wickedness, ready for the risen life of Christ.

May He count our desire to receive Him now as the channel of His grace and the pledge of our future resurrection!”

Love, & Easter Joy!!!
Matthew

Dec 14 – St John of the Cross, OCD (1541-1591) – a suffering saint’s sense of humor & hope


-by Shaun McAfee, was raised Protestant, Southern Baptist/Non-denominational, but at 24, he experienced a profound conversion to the Catholic Church with the writings of James Cardinal Gibbons and modern apologists. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology. As a profession, Shaun is a veteran and warranted Contracting Officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has served in Afghanistan and other overseas locations.

“What if you joined a religious order only to find that the religious lifestyle that once existed in it was now almost unrecognizable? Abuses are everywhere, laxity is the norm, nobody enforces the rules, and anyone who challenges the new status quo is met with cruelty.

You consider leaving, but one special leader within the order tells you that she has big plans and a good friend who will help out, and that she needs your help to do it all. So, you stay—only to be thrown in jail.

What do you do? You love the Church and your order, but your confreres all hate you, and they want you dead. Not just silenced­—dead!

That’s where we find the famous Carmelite and Counter-Reformer, St. John of the Cross, whose feast we commemorate today. December 14 is the day he died, but he didn’t die in that prison. He escaped, and where most of us might run away as far as possible or seek vengeance, and certainly leave that religious order, John was stubborn in his commitment to improving anything worth improving, loving anyone worth loving, and telling the world about his Dark Night. After suffering so much, nothing was going to stop him.

But John was not stubborn to the point where he let it affect his ability to work with and respect the opinions of others, nor did he let his stubbornness make him pigheaded; his was a determination, a resolve to do what he knew was right for the glory and love of God, even if it meant he would be hunted, imprisoned, and despised. We can learn from his life to reform correctly, which begins with reforming ourselves.

For John and his Carmelite friend, St. Teresa of Avila, reforming an order was as much a legal, political, and administrative process as it was a spiritual one. There is not a formula to be learned from them for reforming each and every problem in the Church today, but there are lessons about the character and virtue required for those who wish to make better of themselves first and their communities second.

First, if we wish to really help the Church, we must learn detachment. We must become unattached to worldly things. John consistently stressed that “individuals must deprive themselves of their appetites for worldly possessions.”

There is a difference, of course, between owning something for utility or proper entertainment and being attached to something for possession’s sake. The issue with attachment is when we base our happiness on the accumulation of stuff and the hoarding of things that have no eternal value. John explains: “It ought to be kept in mind that an attachment to a creature makes a person equal to that creature; the stronger the attachment, the closer is the likeness to the creature and the greater the equality.”

Next, we must hold strong to the virtue of hope. Hope is an absolute necessity if we are to commit our lives to a constant conversion, and it’s indispensable as well for those hoping to reform the Church in any measure: be it the culture in their parish, the focus of a small group, the consistency of a local chapter of a third order, or just the domestic church of their own family.

Hope is necessary because we’re human and will feel tempted at times to give up or to slacken our efforts. Through hope we can resist and focus on what we know to be true. In moments when we are filled with hope and holy ambitions, John tells us, “As often as distinct ideas, forms, and images occur to them, they should immediately, without resisting them, turn to God with loving affection, in emptiness of everything rememberable.”

The third thing we need to have is what John of the Cross calls “the first passion of the soul and emotion of the will.” He’s referring to joy, one of the fruits of the Spirit. What is joy, though? Our saint tells us:

“Joy is nothing else than a satisfaction of the will with an object that is considered fitting and an esteem for it . . . Active joy which occurs when people understand distinctly and clearly the object of their joy and have the power either to rejoice or not. . . . In this [passive] joy, the will finds itself rejoicing without any clear and distinct understanding of the object of its joy.”

John, though an austere and serious person, knew how to have fun and laugh. Once he escaped from prison, his first stories to his friends were about the funnier things that happened there, and his first homilies made audiences hysterical with his observations of the humorous moments in life.

There’s much more to be studied about St. John of the Cross’s reforming style and accomplishments, but detachment, hope, and joy are the top three we can learn from him to enable our resilience in times of change and performance in times of reform—especially our self-reform. Christian reform is not about novelties and progress but is a return to the soul’s conversion to Christ. True interior reform will keep the whole Church in a constant state of conversion.”

Love & the JOY of the Resurrection,
Matthew

Feb 21 – St Peter Damian (1007-1072 AD) – Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church, Reformer of the Clergy, Patron of Priests


-by Steve Weidenkopf

“By the eleventh century, the Church found itself in great need of reform, especially the clergy, and the Holy Spirit provided a series of reform-minded popes. These popes began their ecclesial careers as monks, and many of them had spent time at the famous reformed Benedictine monastery at Cluny in France. When Bruno of Alsace was elected pope in 1049, taking the name Leo IX, he initiated one of the most comprehensive reforms in Church history.

Leo (r. 1049-1054) recognized that simply issuing reform decrees from Rome would not change clerical behavior and restore the Church, so he decided to go on one of the most important road trips in papal history. During his five-year pontificate, he spent only six months in Rome, taking his reform road show to France, Italy, and Germany. Wherever he went, Leo deposed immoral bishops and punished clerics who were guilty of simony. Although those actions were necessary, the pope recognized that the major problem with clerical behavior was infidelity to the promise of celibacy.

In the first three centuries of Church history, there was no law prohibiting the ordination of married men, and many priests were married; however, marriage was never permitted after ordination. Moreover, all priests—married, single, or widowed—practiced sexual abstinence after ordination. The first recorded Church legislation concerning clerical celibacy in the West was decreed at the Synod of Elvira in Spain around the year 300, and in 385, Pope Siricius (r. 384-399) mandated celibacy for all clergy in the West.

But despite the longstanding practice of the Church, clergy in the early medieval Church often did not live celibacy faithfully. Many priests were not properly trained or formed, and they flouted their vow of celibacy, taking mistresses and concubines who bore them children, causing great scandal. Other priests engaged in homosexual acts. All the while, bishops and abbots seemed hesitant to act and restore virtue to the priesthood and monasteries.

But one monk was not afraid, and he wrote a book in which he called for Leo IX to remove this stain of clerical immorality. His name was Peter Damian, and today is his feast day.

Peter was born in Ravenna seven years into the eleventh century. His early life was marked by suffering; both his parents died when he was an infant. An older, abusive brother and his concubine took Peter into their home, where he was beaten, starved, and sent to work as a swineherd. In the midst of this tribulation, Peter took solace in Christ and developed deep piety. When he found a gold coin in the mud while tending the pigs, for example, instead of spending it on himself, Peter ran to the parish priest and paid a stipend for a Mass to be celebrated for the repose of his father’s soul.

Eventually, Peter was rescued from his horrible conditions by another brother who recognized Peter’s intellectual gifts and ensured he received an education in the liberal arts. This brother’s love and generosity influenced Peter to add his brother’s name, Damian, to his own and he henceforth was known as Peter Damian.

Peter’s devoted his life to growing closer to God, and he performed many acts of mortification to drive away temptations of the flesh. His spirituality was focused on the Cross, and he wrote, “Those who do not love the Cross of Christ do not love Christ” (Sermo XVIII, 11). He incorporated this focus into his life to such a degree that he came to describe himself as “Peter, servant of the servants of the Cross of Christ.”

In his late twenties, Peter joined a monastery, where he committed himself to personal reform and to pursuing reform within his community. He knew that reform in the larger Church and even in secular society was impossible without first focusing on the individual. Peter was appalled by the immoral behavior of the diocesan clergy and monks and endeavored to return his brother priests to virtuous living. During the time of Leo’s reign, he composed a book critical of clerical sexual immorality.

Addressed to the pope, the book (given the title The Book of Gomorrah centuries later) was not just a diatribe against sin but was also an exhortation to personal penance and a return to virtue and was written in a firm yet compassionate tone. He exhorted fellow priests who were tempted by the devil toward carnal pleasures to orient “your mind to the grave.” Even as he offered a chapter on “a weeping lamentation over souls surrendered to the dregs of impurity,” he provided also “an exhortation to the man who has fallen into sin, that he might rise again.”

He also noted that the “cancer of sodomitic impurity” was raging through the clergy “like a cruel beast,” decrying that “degenerate men do not fear to perpetuate an act that even brute animals abhor.”

Pope Leo IX favorably responded to Peter’s book and adopted many of his recommendations. Over time this work became an important part of the eleventh-century reform movement.

A few years after completing his manuscript, Peter was ordained a bishop and later created a cardinal. Peter wrote extensive letters, sometimes signing them as “Peter the Sinner” or “Peter the Sinner-Monk,” which provide a window into the soul of this important saint in the life of the Church. The life of St. Peter Damian is a model of virtue to Catholic clergy, and his words provide an exhortation and a warning for all Catholics not to let sexual vice taint the life and mission of the Church.”

Love, and praying all our ordained,
Matthew

Jul 19 – St Macrina the Younger (330-19 Jul 379 AD) – sister of Sts Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great & Gregory Nazianzus

Her father arranged for her to marry but her fiancé died before the wedding. After having been betrothed to her fiancé, Macrina did not believe it was appropriate to marry another man, but saw Christ as her eternal bridegroom.  Instead, she devoted herself to her religion, becoming a nun.

When all her siblings had grown, including Sts Basil the Great & St Gregory Nazianzus, and left the parental home, Saint Macrina convinced her mother, Saint Emilia, to leave the world, to set their slaves free, and to settle in a women’s monastery. Several of their servants followed their example. Having taken monastic vows, they lived together as one family, they prayed together, they worked together, they possessed everything in common, and in this manner of life nothing distinguished one from another.

After the death of her mother, Saint Macrina guided the sisters of the monastery. She enjoyed the deep respect of all who knew her. Strictness towards herself and temperance in everything were characteristic of the saint all her life. She slept on boards and had no possessions. Saint Macrina was granted the gift of wonderworking. There was an instance (told by the sisters of the monastery to Saint Gregory of Nyssa after the death of Saint Macrina), when she healed a girl of an eye-affliction. Through the prayers of the saint, there was no shortage of wheat at her monastery in times of famine.

Macrina had a profound influence upon her brothers and her mother with her adherence to an ascetic ideal. Her brother Gregory of Nyssa wrote a work entitled Life of Macrina in which he describes her sanctity throughout her life. Macrina lived a chaste and humble life, devoting her time to prayer and the spiritual education of her younger brother, Peter. Gregory presents her as one who consciously rejected all Classical education, choosing instead devoted study of Scripture and other sacred writings.

In 379, Macrina died at her family’s estate in Pontus, which with the help of her younger brother Peter she had turned into a monastery and convent. Gregory of Nyssa composed a “Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection” (peri psyches kai anastaseos), entitled ta Makrinia (P.G. XLVI, 12 sq.), to commemorate Macrina, in which Gregory purports to describe the conversation he had with Macrina on her deathbed, in a literary form modelled on Plato’s Phaedo. Even on her deathbed, Macrina continued to live a life of sanctity, as she refused a bed, and instead chose to lie on the ground.

Saint Macrina is significant in that her brother, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, was able to set standards for being a holy Early Christian woman. He believed that virginity reflected the “radiant purity of God.”

Universalism

Universalists, including Hosea Ballou and J. W. Hanson, claim Macrina as a Universalist in her teachings, citing works which they believe demonstrate Macrina’s belief that the wicked would all eventually confess Christ.

Troparion — Tone 8

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother, / For you took up the Cross and followed Christ. / By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away, / But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. / Therefore your spirit, O Holy Mother Macrina, rejoices with the Angels!

Love & faith,
Matthew

Hopeful Universalism? – St Macrina the Younger (330 – 19 Jul 379 AD) – sister of Sts Gregory of Nyssa & Basil the Great

-by Rt. Rev., Matthew Gunter, 8th Bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, the Episcopal Church in Northeast WI

“Today is the feast day of Macrina (330-379), older sister and theological/spiritual mentor of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the most formative theologians and leaders of the early Church. Both of these great theologians pointed to their sister as their mentor in the faith. She was the theologian behind the theologians. Another brother, Peter of Sebaste, also became a bishop and saint.

In his book, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory recounts a dialogue with Macrina in which he asks his sister and teacher a series of questions about the nature of the soul and the resurrection and related things. It might be that Gregory uses Macrina as a literary device to convey his own thoughts similar to the way Plato sometimes uses Socrates in his dialogues. Or maybe this really conveys things he learned directly from Macrina. In any event his respect for her is clear. Towards the end of On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina says this:

“To evaluate the way a person has lived, the judge would need to examine all these factors: how he endured suffering, dishonor, disease, old age, maturity, youth, wealth, and poverty; how through each of these situations he ran the course of the life allotted to him either well or badly; and whether he became able to receive many good things or many evil things in a long lifetime or did not reach even the beginning of either good or evil, ceasing to live when his mind was not yet fully developed. But when God brings our nature back to the first state of man by the resurrection, it would be pointless to mention such matters and to suppose that the power of God is hindered from this goal by such obstructions.

He has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained.

This is nothing else, according to my judgment, but to be in God Himself; for the good which is beyond hearing, sight, and heart would be that very thing which surpasses everything. But the difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person. This process of healing the soul would consist of cleansing it from evil. This cannot be accomplished without pain, as we have discussed previously.”
– On the Soul and the Resurrection, pp. 115-116

Note that Macrina and Gregory are not soft on the reality of death and judgment – this cannot accomplished without pain. We will be judged. There is reason to bear in mind the “Time of Scrutiny” (Sirach 18:20). There is still good reason to take our own piety with utmost seriousness and to invite others to participate now in “the blessedness which we hope for.”

They do seem, however, to understand The Judgment as having more to do with purgation and healing than final eternal punishment and torture. It is unclear whether or not they believed it is possible that some souls might hold out eternally against blessedness. But, they seem convinced that God, in His relentless love, will never give up on anyone – even beyond death and forever.

This hopeful universalism is quite different from an “all-y, all-y in come free” complacent universalism. Macrina and Gregory are not alone in expressing some version of this. One could add Isaac the Syrian (7th century), Maximos the Confessor (7th century), Frederick Denison Maurice (19th century), C. S. Lewis (20th century), Karl Barth (20th century), Hans Urs von Balthasar (20th century), and many others…”

Love & faith,
Matthew

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