Category Archives: Eschatology

The demonic is real


-Gustave Dore, please click on the image for greater detail


-by Joseph Heschmeyer, a former lawyer and seminarian, he blogs at Shameless Popery.

“One reason that we might find it hard to believe the New Testament is because we don’t know what to do with all that talk about the devil and the demonic. Jesus drives out demons throughout the Gospels. For instance, St. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, describing only thirteen healings, yet four of them (1:21-28, 5:1-20, 7:24-30, and 9:14-29) are exorcisms.

There are several reasons that we might struggle to believe in such accounts. Let’s briefly consider three possible objections before looking at how we might respond to them.

First, there’s the claim that belief in the devil is really an import from paganism. Elon Gilad argues in Haaretz that the Jewish belief in Satan derives from Zoroastrianism, which envisions the universe “as a battle ground between [two] opposing supreme gods[:] Ahura Mazda, the ‘wise lord,’ and Angra Mainyu, the ‘destructive spirit.’” Much of his argument is circular: for instance, he claims that the earliest biblical books don’t depict Satan but also argues that if a book does depict Satan, it must not be very old.

Gilad gets one thing right: there is an evil god of Zoroastrianism. That said, Angra Mainyu is said “to have existed ‘from the beginning’, independent of Ahura Mazda (i.e. he is coeval).” That’s not particularly similar to Satan, a creature created by God who then rebels. But still, Gilad is raising an important question: What should Christians make of the fact that many other religions do have a supreme evil figure?

Second, we might struggle with biblical accounts of possession and exorcism because such stories are common in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Lutheran theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann points out that we find similar accounts in non-biblical Jewish literature and in Greek literature, with authors like Philostratus and Lucian describing exorcisms. Bultmann argues that their common “stylistic characteristics” suggest that the New Testament description of exorcisms is really just “folk stories of miracles” that made their way into the Bible.

Third, there’s the idea that exorcisms are a belief of a pre-scientific age. The usual story goes something like this: back before we knew about disease or mental health, people believed that demons were responsible for physical and mental illness, but today we know better. Bultmann argues that “faith in spirits and demons” is “finished” by modern scientific knowledge.

“Likewise, illnesses and their cures have natural causes and do not depend on the work of demons and on exorcising them. Thus, the wonders of the New Testament are also finished as wonders; anyone who seeks to salvage their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders, hypnotic influences, suggestion, and the like only confirms this. Even occultism pretends to be a science. We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

Bultmann’s argument calls Jesus’ ministry into serious question, since it suggests that (1) Jesus falsely believed in demons because he was ignorant of things like disease or mental illness, (2) Jesus knew about disease and mental illness but encouraged the crowds in falsely associating these things with demons, or (3) the evangelists simply made up these healing stories. How could an all-knowing and good Jesus act as if demonic possession were a real thing if it isn’t?

In short, because demons, possession, and exorcism are all real things. As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, modern readers balk at this kind of talk: “I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do.’” Simply put, neither modern science nor Rudolph Bultmann has actually disproven the ideas of possession and exorcism.

What all three of the above objections get wrong is that they’re too narrow. It’s true that Zoroastrians believed in a powerful evil spirit that was sort of like the devil. But so do cultures on every inhabited continent. Are we to conclude that the Israelites took this idea from all of them, too, or that they all took it from Zoroastrianism? Likewise, it’s true that possession and exorcism stories are found throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. But the same goes for cultures across the world, in both the ancient and the modern world, including places that have never been Christian. As Craig Keener explains in “Spirit Possession as a Cross-cultural Experience”:

“Possession experience is not limited to either the [New Testament] or the ancient eastern Mediterranean world. One specialist, Erika Bourguignon, has observed that spirit-possession beliefs are geographically and culturally pervasive, “as any reader of ethnographies knows.” After sampling 488 societies, she found spirit-possession beliefs in 74% of them (that is, 360 societies), with particularly high ranges in the islands of the Pacific (88%) and 77% around the Mediterranean. . . .

Transcultural elements in fact include a biological element that cannot be reduced to (though may be patterned according to) cultural models. Studies reveal “an altered neurophysiology” during many possession states. While some anthropologists note that neurophysiological studies cannot resolve whether supernatural factors might supplement natural ones, it is clear that neurophysiological changes, including hyperarousal, do occur.”

It’s worth stressing that these are cultures in which possession cases are still happening. Rather than electric lights and radios and modern medicine disproving these events, modern science reveals that something is happening on a neurological level, and it’s happening across cultures and continents, including in plenty of places that don’t believe in the Bible.

This is exactly what you should expect to see if Christianity is right about the devil and his demons. Think about it this way. The Christian claim is that there are powerful spiritual beings who do harm to human beings. If we didn’t find evidence of such beings in any other culture, that would point to this being a Christian invention. The fact that we do find evidence of such beings, throughout history and today, in places that have little or nothing to do with Christianity, is evidence of the truth of the Christian teaching.

That doesn’t automatically mean that each of these possession cases is authentic. Some of the cases of alleged possession are surely misdiagnosed cases of mental illness, after all. But the fact that some cases are misdiagnosed mental illness doesn’t mean that all of them are. After all, the fact that some cases of mental illness are misdiagnosed as physical illness, and vice versa, doesn’t disprove the existence of two distinct (but related) categories of mental and physical illness. What Christianity, and countless other religions, is saying is that there are in fact three distinct (but related) categories: mental, physical, and spiritual.

Jesus wasn’t oblivious to the fact that these three categories existed. As Matthew 4:24 puts it, when Jesus’ “fame spread throughout all Syria . . . they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” Some of those coming to Jesus had physical and viral problems, and others had neurological problems, but others had spiritual problems. And rather than debunking this idea, the fact that we find similar-sounding beliefs in Zoroastrianism, ancient Greek culture, and across the ancient and modern world suggests that it’s true.”


-Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni, Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome, 1636, please click on the image for greater detail

“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.”

Love & divine protection,
Matthew

Hope to Die: Christian corpses (conquered the Roman Empire)

(n.b. Catholics are NOT to seek martyrdom!! Marcionite heretics did this. Catholics are to embrace martyrdom if inescapable or requires apostasy to avoid.)

“Christianity was first preached in a world where the Greco-Roman understanding of death and the afterlife shaped much of the Western world. Across the Roman Empire, most people professed their faith in the various pagan gods, including Pluto (or Hades), who they believed ruled the Underworld. At the Underworld’s entrance, the ferryman Charon moved spirits across the River Styx from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Once they made it to the other side, all the dead faced judgment, with the good going to Elysium, the bad being thrown into the pit of Tartarus, and the mediocre rest (the majority of humanity) aimlessly drifting about in the City of Pluto (or what the Greeks called the Asphodel Meadows). Some Romans also believed those who’d been judged worthy could choose to be reincarnated.

This vision of the afterlife offered some consolation to those who actually believed it, but not enough. Most Romans, like most of humanity, still feared what awaited them in the dark room of death. And that fear manifested itself in how they treated their dead.

The pagan Romans thought that if dead bodies weren’t treated a certain way and certain conditions weren’t met, the person’s soul would be denied admittance to the Underworld. Rather than receiving its eternal reward, the soul would instead endure an almost purgatory-like existence, waiting perpetually on the wrong side of the River Styx. The Romans also believed that if they failed to provide their departed loved ones with a proper burial, those waiting ghosts would return to haunt them.

For the rich, preventing this two-headed fate was a simple matter. They paid for elaborate funerals and lengthy funeral processions, which included professional mourners and friends wearing masks designed to look like the ancestors of the deceased. They also made sure to place a coin on or in the dead person’s mouth so that the soul could pay Charon to ferry them across the River Styx.

After the funeral procession concluded, a eulogy was often given. Next, the body was placed on a pyre and burned. The remaining ashes and bones were then placed in an urn, which was interred in some kind of sepulcher—usually highly decorated, with monuments to the deceased and even lifelike pictures of them. Those sepulchers were located outside the city gates, as the Romans liked to keep their dead far from them, at a “safe” distance. They did visit the sepulcher on various days throughout the year, though, believing that by making periodic offerings to their dearly departed, what remained of the person—their “shade”—would temporarily remember who they once were and earn a brief reprieve from aimlessly wandering about the Underworld.

For the poor, funerals were less impressive, with the funerary societies they frequently joined (for a small fee) providing shorter processions (just a musician or two), no eulogy, and interment of the ashes in a humbler resting site—often catacombs carved into clay and rock outside the city.

The poorest of the poor didn’t even have that. Those with no family or friends to fear a haunting and no money to join a funerary society were simply thrown into large pits or dumped into sewers.

In the late third and fourth centuries, many of these practices among the pagan Romans began to change, with inhumation (burial) gradually replacing cremation. Although some Romans had buried their dead in previous centuries, inhumation was considered a foreign (more specifically, Jewish) practice. The growing presence of Christians in their midst, however, along with other social shifts, changed that.

For the Christians, like the Romans, how they treated the dead was bound up with what they believed about life after death. But unlike their pagan counterparts, the Christians didn’t fear death. They welcomed it. Writing in the early fourth century, St. Athanasius remarked: “Everyone is by nature afraid of death and of bodily dissolution; the marvel of marvels, is that he who is enfolded in the faith of the cross despises this natural fear and for the sake of the cross is no longer cowardly in the face of it.”1

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, He didn’t switch a bright overhead light on in heaven, completely destroying the darkness that shrouded what awaits us after death. He gave us more of a night-light, making some things clear while leaving other things a mystery. But to Athanasius and other early Christians, that didn’t matter. The nightlight was sufficient because Jesus was there. Much like the presence of a mother or father can completely chase away a child’s fears of the dark, Jesus’s presence chased away the early Christians’ fear of death. They knew He would be there to greet them, and that was enough. Athanasius explains:

‘Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed and become incorruptible through the resurrection … Even children hasten to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength.2

To those Christian men, women, and children who “hasten[ed] to die,” death wasn’t the ultimate evil or the great unknown. It was the doorway to spending eternity with their beloved: Jesus Christ. We see this conviction in the firsthand accounts of martyrs, such as Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who faced death in Carthage’s arena in AD 203.

Both women were young wives and mothers: Felicity was pregnant at the time of their arrest, and Perpetua was still nursing her infant son. As the day of their death approached, the women didn’t want to run from it. Rather, Felicity prayed she would deliver her child soon so that she could face martyrdom with her fellow prisoners (even the Romans thought it beyond the pale to kill a pregnant women), and Perpetua gave thanks when her son finally weaned.

Felicity’s prayers were answered, and on the day of the scheduled execution, she accompanied Perpetua and their fellow Christians into the arena, “joyous and of brilliant countenances.” Perpetua sang psalms as she walked, and when the crowds demanded that the Christians be scourged before they faced the beasts, the women “rejoiced that they should have incurred any one of their Lord’s passions.” Finally, the women, like Jesus, freely gave their lives; they were not taken from them. We’re told: “when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), [Perpetua] set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain … had she not herself so willed it.”3

In the centuries that followed, holy men and women faced death with the same eagerness that Perpetua, Felicity, and other earlier martyrs, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, did. They wanted nothing more than to be in heaven with Christ. As Ignatius, on his way to martyrdom in AD 108, explained:

‘No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He Who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He Who rose for our sakes is my one desire.4

One thousand years later, that same desire to be with Christ led St. Bernard of Clairvaux to describe the death of a just man not as “terrifying,” but as “consoling”:

‘His death is good, because it ends his miseries; it is better still, because he begins a new life; it is excellent, because it places him in sweet security. From this bed of mourning, whereon he leaves a precious load of virtues, he goes to take possession of the true land of the living, Jesus acknowledges him as His brother and as His friend, for he has died to the world before closing his eyes from its dazzling light. Such is the death of the saints, a death very precious in the sight of God.5

From the thirteenth century—when St. Rose of Viterbo advised, “Live so as not to fear death. For those who live well in the world, death is not frightening but sweet and precious”—to the nineteenth century, when St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote: “It is not Death that will come to fetch me, it is the good God”—saint after saint encouraged Christians to welcome death. And many listened.

In Phillipe Ariès’s landmark survey of depictions of death in the literature of Western Civilization, he classifies pre-modern deaths as “tame deaths,” noting how the protagonists almost universally faced death with calm, peace, and ease. It was death, he explains, that brought people back to their senses, focused their attention, and was welcomed, almost as an old friend.6

Christians weren’t going to imitate the pagans and, as Tertullian put it, “burn up their dead with harshest inhumanity.”8 As Tertullian explained elsewhere, those who followed Christ were to “avert a cruel custom with regard to the body since, being human, it does not deserve what is inflicted upon criminals.”9 And so, from the very first, Christians buried their dead as Christ had been buried, and they did so with no fear of being made “unclean” or “polluted” by contact with the dead body. For the Christians, the dead body wasn’t “unclean” (as the Jews saw it), nor did those who handled it fear being haunted by some remnant of the person’s soul (as the pagans did). Writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine discussed the reverence Christians believed was due to the dead body, noting: The bodies of the dead, and especially of the just and faithful are not to be despised or cast aside. The soul has used them as organs and vessels of all good work in a holy manner. … Bodies are not ornament or for aid, as something that is applied externally, but pertain to the very nature of the man.10

Importantly, Christians understood the injunction to care for and bury the dead as universal; it applied to all bodies—the bodies of the poor, the stranger, the diseased, even the pagan. Accounts about early Christian communities are filled with stories of them seeking out the forgotten poor and burying them with the same care they showed to family members. Tertullian also tells us that in his native Carthage and other cities, the Church’s common resources were used to pay for the burying of the dead. There was no throwing the bodies of the poor into a pit or the sewers among the Christians.

Their pagan neighbors took note of that. In his essay “To Bury or Burn?,” the Protestant ethicist David W. Jones tells us:

‘The last of the non-Christian emperors, Julian the Apostate (AD 332–363), identified “care of the dead” as one of the factors that contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world. The church historian Philip Schaff, too, identified Christians’ display of “decency to the human body” in showing care for the dead as one of the main reasons for the church’s rapid conquest of the ancient world.11

In time, burying the dead would become known as one of the seven corporal works of mercy, considered as much an act of charity as feeding the hungry or tending to the sick. Religious associations, such as the Archconfraternity of the Beheaded John the Baptist in Florence and the Archconfraternity of St. Mary of the Oration and Death in Rome, also were formed to offer Christian funerals and burials to those who would otherwise have none.

No bodies, though, not rich nor poor, received as much attention as those of the martyrs.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

1 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 58.
2 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 57.
3 Tertullian, The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, 6. 
4 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 6.
Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in Charles Kenny, Half Hours with the Saints and Servants of God (London: Burns and Oats, 1882), 450.
See Phillipe Ariès, Western Attitudes Toward Death, trans. Patricia Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 1–25.
8 Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 1.
9 Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 51.
10 Augustine, On the Care of the Dead, 5.
11 Jones, “To Bury or Burn?,” 337.

Hope to Die: Powers That Come Forth

“In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we’re told that “sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving” (CCC 1116). These sacraments are the means by which God “resurrects us” in this life. Baptism restores divine life to our souls. The Eucharist nourishes that life. Confession replenishes it. Confirmation, Marriage, and Holy Orders strengthen it. And the Anointing of the Sick stirs up the divine life within us to heal our bodies and prepare our souls for eternal life. Today, as the Catechism says, the graces of all these sacraments come to us from the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. But before there was the Body of Christ, there was the body of Christ. Prior to the institution of the sacraments, Jesus is the sacrament. So, in the Gospels, it’s His actual physical body from which “powers … come forth.” In His lifetime, those powers did to people’s bodies what the sacraments have done to people’s souls ever since.

Jesus’s body does to our bodies what the sacraments do to our souls. Jesus’s body heals bodies. Jesus’s body teaches bodies. Jesus’s body feeds bodies. Jesus’s body raises bodies from the dead. Throughout His public ministry, powers go forth from His body, restoring people to the fullness of natural life. But the restoration of natural life isn’t enough. Jesus came for so much more than that. And the healings He works on earth both foreshadow the “more” and prove that more is possible. That is, they foreshadow the resurrection to come and prove that Jesus means what He says when He promises that all will rise again with Him on the last day.

“The Paschal Mystery has two aspects: by His death, Christ liberates us from sin; by His Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life. This new life is above all justification that reinstates us in God’s grace … Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace.” (cf. Eph 2:4–5; 1 Pet 1:3) (CCC 654)

“For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in a single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence, the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.”
Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 35.

The resurrected Christ is not a ghost or a spirit, but He also isn’t a body like He once was. He has been resurrected to a new life, in a new kind of body, and that is the kind of resurrection, that is the kind of body that is promised to us, one that is “sown in dishonor … raised in glory … sown in weakness … raised in power … sown a physical body … raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:43–44).

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die: Communion with the Dead

“At the dawn of creation, God filled the universe with signs that pointed to Himself. The whole world was meant to be a type of catechesis, an instruction in Who God is, what He does, and how He loves us.

It still is. Everywhere you look, there are natural analogies of His power, goodness, and love: the sun, the moon, the stars; the mountains, the oceans, the rivers; and especially, the man, the woman, and the child. Like the sun and the oceans, the human family reveals important truths about God. We are made in God’s image, and how we care for each other, protect each other, and especially how we give life to each other—to new generations—teaches us something about God, Whose nature is life-giving love.

This is good. The world, the family, what it has to teach us—it’s all good. God created it to be good. But the good is not God, and in a fallen world, the danger always exists that we will confuse the two. That we will worship the sun instead of the One Whose light the sun reflects. That we will worship the river instead of the One of Whose power the river reminds us. That we will worship the earthly family instead of the divine family for which we were made.

This is demonic bait. The world is pointing to the world to come, but the devil doesn’t want us to see that. Or, he doesn’t want us to care. Satan wants to convince us that this world is all there is, that this life is enough.

But the natural world is passing, which means that to worship the natural is always to enter into a covenant with death. It’s the deadliest form of worship. And yet, this is and was a temptation for fallen humanity. It was especially a temptation in a world where the fullness of truth had yet to be revealed, where God was only gradually filling in the blanks about Who He is and what He has in store for us.

To prevent the Israelites from the tendency to ancestor worship is why specific mourning rites are forbidden in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, such as the shaving of the head and the gashing of the skin (Lev 19:27, 21:5; Deut 14:1). Both rites were practiced among the Canaanites, who saw those acts as a way of making sacrifices to and communing with the dead.

For similar reasons, the Israelites are forbidden from offering tithes to the dead, such as wheat or animal products (Deut 26:14). Throughout the ancient world, people commonly made offerings to the dead or buried the dead with wealth and food. But Israel was not to be like its neighbors.

Likewise, in Numbers 19:11 we read, “He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days.” Numbers then goes on to outline an elaborate cleansing ritual, not only for those who touch the dead but also for anyone who even goes into the tent of someone who died.

Why would God issue such laws? Because the Israelites were going to catch cooties from the dead body? Because the body isn’t hygienic? No. Because God wanted Israel to understand that physical death is a sign of spiritual death. It’s a sign of what sin does to the soul. And sin is catching. It’s as contagious as any disease and as deadly as any disease. More deadly, actually.

We see this even more explicitly in Ezekiel 37 when God has Ezekiel preach to a valley of dead bones. The bones are a symbol of Israel. They are dead and defiled. And the defilement of their physical condition is a sign of the defilement of their spiritual condition. They had forgotten God, forgotten His ways, and lost the hope He had promised them. Through that forgetting, they defiled their souls. “Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off ’” (Ezek 37:11).

Telling the Israelites that touching the dead defiles them is a pedagogical lesson to help the Israelites learn to detest sin. The same goes for the prohibition on touching a leper. God doesn’t primarily care about skin purity. He cares about soul purity. And leprosy in the Bible is a sign of sin. It does to a person’s body what breaking God’s law does to the soul.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die: The Body as Sacrament

(Ed. sacrament = a visible sign of God’s grace.)

St. Athanasius explains:

‘What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.’
-Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 39–41

Zoe/Ζωή, in many ways, is the ultimate gift of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate reason for the Incarnation. It’s the why behind Jesus coming. But, unlike the new dignity all bodies take on through the Incarnation, zoe/Ζωή isn’t imparted to all people automatically. It’s imparted through Baptism.

In Baptism, we are born anew, receiving what Adam lost—the gift of divine life—into our souls once more. It’s easy to dismiss Baptism as a mere symbol, but when you understand the difference between bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή and between physical death and spiritual death, it becomes clear that the Sacrament of Baptism is more than figurative or symbolic. There is an ontological reality to our resurrection.

In the waters of Baptism, we die and rise by being united to Christ’s resurrected body. The divine life is restored to us so that the newly baptized person is more resurrected than Lazarus was. Lazarus got his natural, physical life back after four days. But in Baptism, we get our supernatural and divine life back, the life that Adam lost in the very beginning of time.

Baptism makes it possible for us to live the life for which God made us—a life that is more than natural—that is, in fact, supernatural. It also makes it possible for us to live a more fully human life, to enter more deeply into those things that make this earthly life worth living and have richer, more intimate connections with family and friends.

But Baptism doesn’t just affect our souls; it affects our bodies, too.

In all the sacraments, sanctifying grace—God’s own life— comes to us through our bodies. In Baptism, in Confirmation, in Marriage, in Holy Orders, and above all, in the Eucharist, God’s life enters into these bodies of ours through matter—water, wine, oil, a bishop’s hands, a spouse’s body— restoring the divine life that was lost by Adam and strengthening it within us. That grace divinizes our bodies. It makes them holy. It makes them temples. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16.

In every single baptized person who is not in a state of mortal sin, God lives. He dwells within us. All human life is sacred because it is a gift from God and because man is made in the image of God. But the bodies of the baptized have a holiness that comes from the sanctifying grace abiding within them. As C. S. Lewis once remarked in his famous lecture, “The Weight of Glory”:

‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way [as the Blessed Sacrament], for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.’
-C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 19.

Importantly, the holiness of the baptized body doesn’t end with death. Grace continues to linger in the bodies and bones of those united to Christ. That’s why Catholic cemeteries are considered holy ground. The bodies of the baptized are buried there. And those bodies are the seed of the resurrected body.

Jesus promises to transform our resurrected bodies, to glorify them, to deify them. “As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust,” writes St. Paul, “and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:48–49).

This promise of resurrection is our hope. It is that on which we stake our life. It is what enables us, as Christians, to face death with courage and joy.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die: The Walking Dead

-“Dead Man Walking” by Jeremy Camp

“Let the dead bury the dead…” -Lk 9:60

“The Holy Spirit is the giver of physical life, of what the Greeks called bios/βιο…there’s bios/βιο and then there’s zoe/Ζωή. Zoe/Ζωή is the word the Greek translators of the Old Testament used in Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [zoe/Ζωή]; and man became a living being.”

Unlike bios/βιο, zoe/Ζωή conveys so much more than mere physical existence. God didn’t just breathe air into Adam’s nostrils; He breathed life—spiritual life, eternal life, divine life. He breathed His own life into Adam. He gave Adam the life that from all eternity the Father is always communicating to the Son and that the Son is receiving and communicating right back to the Father. That life is so whole, so complete, it’s actually a Person: the Third Person of the Trinity. God breathed His Spirit into Adam, and that made it possible for him to live a life that wasn’t just natural, but supernatural.

Filled with zoe/Ζωή, Adam knew God intimately, familiarly, as a son knows his father, from the first moment of existence. He also imaged God, much as a son images his father, although his resemblance wasn’t physical; it was spiritual and intellectual.

When we understand the distinction between bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή, God’s words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:16–17 start to make a lot more sense. There, God lays out the ground rules for life in Eden, explaining, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” In the original Hebrew, even more emphasis is placed on the word “die.” The literal translation of that passage is “die the death.” God sounds serious there. Deadly serious.

But when you realize there are two kinds of life—bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή—you also realize there are two kinds of death— bodily death and spiritual death. Adam and Eve didn’t die physically that day in the Garden, but they did die spiritually. They lost something far more precious than natural life: they lost supernatural life, divine life, the gift of sanctifying grace in their soul.

We’re born physically alive, but spiritually dead…This is what mortal sin is. It is spiritual death.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie “The Sixth Sense” the young character Cole reveals that he sees dead people, but more significantly, that they don’t know they’re dead. They see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear. They ignore the reality of their own death, even though it is staring them in the face.

This is the world in which we live. Only, the people who don’t realize they’re dead aren’t physically dead; they’re spiritually dead. Some are unbaptized. Others are baptized but have fallen into mortal sin. But the spiritually dead are everywhere—on our streets and in our schools, in our workplaces and even in our parishes.

All around us are people not living the life they were made to live, who don’t have the life of God dwelling in their souls. They are the living dead—the reality to which all those zombie movies point. And they don’t even know it. They see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear.

Importantly, these people aren’t less dead than those who are physically dead but alive in Christ. They are more dead. They are more dead than the saints, more dead than the souls in purgatory.

The sixth-century bishop, St. Julian of Toledo, noted, that’s not a warning most of us heed:

“Everyone fears death of the flesh, few fear death of the soul. All are preoccupied with the coming of death of the flesh, which sooner or later, certainly must come. And for this they weary themselves. Destined to die, humankind struggles to avoid dying, and yet, destined to live forever, they do not labor to avoid sinning. And when they struggle to avoid death, they labor in vain; in fact, the most they obtain is that death is deferred, not avoided; if rather they refrain from sinning, their toil will cease and they will live forever. Oh that we could incite humankind, ourselves included, to be lovers of everlasting life as much as they are lovers of the life that passes away!”
-Julian of Toledo, Foreknowledge of the World to Come, trans. Tommaso Stancati, O.P. (New York: Newman Press, 2010), 383–84.

A person can be alive, but not alive. A person can be dead, but not dead.

Each of us faces a choice every moment of every day. When we choose God—His laws, His will, and His way—we choose life. And when we choose ourselves—our laws, our wills, our way—we choose death.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die

The Christian’s Last Passover

“The Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in Whom resides our only hope… .

For the Christian the day of death inaugurates, at the end of his sacramental life, the fulfillment of his new birth begun at Baptism, the definitive “conformity” to “the image of the Son” conferred by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and participation in the feast of the Kingdom which was anticipated in the Eucharist—even if final purifications are still necessary for him in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment.

The Church who, as Mother, has borne the Christian sacramentally in her womb during his earthly pilgrimage, accompanies him at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him “into the Father’s hands.” She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of His grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.”
-Catechism of the Catholic Church 1681–1683

CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
PART ONE
THE PROFESSION OF FAITH
SECTION TWO
THE PROFESSION OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
CHAPTER THREE
I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT
ARTICLE 11
“I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY”

“I believe in…the resurrection of the body…”
-Apostle’s Creed (First Council of Milan, 390 AD)

“…We look for the resurrection of the dead…”
-Nicene Creed (First Council of Nicea, 325 AD)

“From the beginning, Christian faith in the resurrection has met with incomprehension and opposition. ‘On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body.’ It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?” (CCC 996)

“I think many of us believe we’ll get a new body once we enter into eternal life or on Judgment Day. But we don’t see how this body—this weak, mortal body that eats and sleeps, catches cold and bleeds—could possibly be resurrected to eternal life. Surely God has better material he can work with?

Again, the Creed says otherwise. And in the original Greek, it says it even more explicitly. The first Christians who composed the Creed didn’t use the Greek word for body: soma. They used the Greek word for flesh: sarx. Every time we pray the Creed, that’s what we say: I believe in the resurrection of the flesh—of this flesh, of my flesh, of my tired, aging, imperfect flesh. I believe that this body will one day stand before the throne of Christ and worship Him with all the angels and saints. Yet, for all that we say it, so few of us really live it.

In life, we don’t treat our bodies like sacred temples that belong in the heavenly courts. We either abuse them— eating too much or too little, denying them sleep, denying them rest, filling them with toxic substances, and giving them over to immoral purposes. Or, we worship them—doing everything we can to recreate them into some cultural ideal. Sometimes, we do both, while also doing all we can to keep the signs of bodily weakness and aging at bay. Death, almost everyone agrees, is the one great evil.

But when death inevitably comes, how do we treat those bodies?

Today, more and more of us burn them. We don’t bury our bodies. We don’t treat them as our ancestors did, with reverence and care. Instead, we destroy the flesh in fire, crush the bones that withstand the flames, and then often scatter the remains, destroying all evidence that this body— this holy body in which God’s Spirit dwelt—ever existed.

We live like materialists. We die like Nihilists. And this is a problem.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

The Four Last Things – Death, Judgment, Heaven & Hell


-sculptures in the Admont Abbey, Austria, by Josef Stammel (1694-1795), please click on the image for greater detail

Death is represented by a human being at the end of their life in the form of an old male pilgrim, with cross, staff and scallop shell.

Behind him hovers a winged skeleton as the personification of death. This gruesome figure holds in its right hand a winged hourglass to indicate that the sands of life have run out. In its left, it holds a dagger as a symbol of the suddenness of death. The small putti at the feet of the dying man are also holding relevant ‘vanitas’ attributes (soap bubble, empty shell, extinguished and broken candle) to indicate the transience of all things on Earth. And there is the ‘Apple of Sodom’ that falls to dust as soon as it is touched. This motif evokes the words spoken during the Ash Wednesday service: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return!”

Judgment. Still partly wrapped in his shroud, the figure of a young man rises from his grave accompanied by a putto as angel.

Placed over his head is a rainbow on which the resurrected Christ is enthroned as Judge of the World. No judgment has yet been made in the case of the young man, whose gaze is directed at the demon cowering at his feet. This figure represents the prosecutor ‒ the advocate of the Devil, the Devil’s advocate, “diabolos” = Greek διάβολος, Latin “diabolus”, the divider, advocatus; Satan = Latin, “satanas”, the accuser, Rev 12:10 ‒ he wears glasses and is being pushed to one side under the weight of a mighty tome that records the deeds of the individual undergoing judgment. To the right, opposite the ‘Admont library devil’ as he is called, can be seen a displaced gravestone. It shows a skull, a candle in the process of being extinguished, the date ‘1760’ (presumably the date on which all the figures were completed) and the initials ‘ST’ for ‘Stammel’.

The conceptual highpoint of ‘The Four Last Things’ is the allegory of Heaven. Heaven is represented by the epitome of attractiveness magnificently clothed and jewelled and accompanied by several supporter figures.

Dressed as a crowned bride in the vestments of heavenly magnificence, this androgynous figure is being lifted up to Heaven by a slender angel. The figure’s transfigured gaze is directed away from the earthly observer into the higher spheres. In the elevated left hand, there is a heart to represent the unshakeable nature of the figure’s faith. In the aureole over the head is the symbol of the Holy Trinity. The figure bears a flaming star and a richly decorated cross on its breast. Below the crown on the figure’s forehead is the Greek letter ‘T’ (Tau), showing that the figure is one of the just (Ezekiel 9, 3 -4).

As in the case of Bernini, the ‘Anima Beata’ represents the counterpart to the ‘Anima Damnata’ in Hell. At the foot of the figure are seated three putti on a cloud bank. These allegories of three virtues (fasting, prayer, and charity) explain the judgment of Heaven’s court and contrast with the vices represented in the Hell sculpture. Here again, there is a circular serpent but this time it has a positive meaning as a symbol of eternal bliss; it is being held by the putto seated in the center of the cloud bank.

Once judged, each soul then passes to Heaven or to Hell as appropriate. The allegory of Hell consists of two forceful main figures and several minor accompanying figures.

A mature and naked man ‒ one of the damned souls ‒ rides on the shoulders of a macabre hybrid creature. It is part animal, part human, part man and part woman. Both figures are surrounded by flames that seem to draw them down into the dragon-headed jaws of Hell. The face of the damned soul expresses both rage and fear. In his raised right hand he holds a serpent that has formed a circle and is biting its own tail ‒ a symbol of eternity. In his left, he grasps a dagger in an attempt to defend himself. A worm bites his breast in the region of the heart.

In the lower part of the sculpture and provided as a warning of the reasons for the descent to Hell are bust-like heads symbolic of the vices: pride wearing a peacock cap and feathers, sloth as a sleeping child wearing a nightcap and with a tiny hippo on his head, avarice with a cap made of coins and a devil peering over his shoulder and gluttony with brandy bottle and sausages.

‘Hell’ is one of the most powerful and eloquent but also most unconventional and complex of the works of Josef Stammel. Images such as that of the Devil in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’ (1513) and Bernini’s marble bust ‘Anima Damnata’ (1616) seem here to have been assimilated and transformed by Stammel’s own imagination into a coherent artistic concept.


-by Br Nicholas Hartman, OP

“When the liturgical year winds down, the readings at mass focus on the Last Judgment and the end times. These subjects traditionally provoke mystique and fear. The biblical imagery depicting the end of the world is vivid and sometimes even bizarre.

On the one hand, the prospect of the Last Judgment and the end of the world should arouse a holy fear and awe. This world will not last forever. We will ultimately have to give an account of ourselves about either how grace has transformed us so that we love God above all things or how we have refused grace and preferred other things to God.

On the other hand, we should lend some thought to the Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell—because they should affect how we think of the world right now. One way to hone this discussion is to raise the question why God created the world in the first place. God is perfectly good and happy. Not only does He not need anything outside Himself to make Himself happy, but nothing can make Him happier than He is. [Ed. God is beatitude, Itself.] In other words, God cannot benefit at all from creating.

This raises a difficulty because, if everything is done for a reason, God does not seem to have a reason to create the world. This leads us to the idea that God’s goodness is diffusive. In other words, God wishes to see His goodness flower not just in His own life but also in something that is not God. Being perfect in everything, God does not benefit from creating. Rather, God creates the world—something that is not God—so that he can pour out his goodness into the world.

God pours His goodness into the world when He creates, but the world doesn’t manifest God’s goodness after the manner of vendors selling goods at a flea market or a yard filled with chimes sounding random notes in the wind. The world isn’t filled with good things without any inherent order or reason. The world in its totality is ordered as a whole to reflect the goodness of God. Instead of randomly sounding chimes, it is more akin to a symphony that coordinates the sounding of many instruments that together evoke some acute human emotion. As a musical piece expresses the emotions of a human being, so the world expresses the goodness of God. The world is ordered, and the goodness that it manifests is greater than any one part. Furthermore, each part of the world—especially the persons in it—participate in the good of the whole.

Finally, as an ordered whole, the world is building up to something. This is the point of the Last Things. The world has been building up to this point ever since it began. The Last Things should give us pause to reflect how much we rely on God’s mercy and how we should pray to persevere until the end, but they should also affect how we think of the world now. All the good in the world—culminating in the triumph of Christ—will come to fruition. The reason for every evil God permitted will come to light. In the end, the mysteries of the present world and its vexations will be revealed, and we will rejoice in God’s goodness that has been manifested in His creation.

Virgil’s Aeneid has a line that reads, “Perhaps at a future time, recalling even these things will cause delight” (I.203). The first reading for today’s mass fleshes out a similar idea but with more clarity and certainty:

‘Then I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire. On the sea of glass were standing those who had won the victory over the beast and its image and the number that signified its name. They were holding God’s harps, and they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:

“Great and wonderful are your works,
Lord God almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
O king of the nations.
Who will not fear You, Lord,
or glorify Your name?
For You alone are holy.
All the nations will come
and worship before You,
for Your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev 34:2-4).'”

Love & His righteousness,
Matthew

Heaven


-Abbey of Saint Gall cathedral rotunda, Switzerland, fresco, please click on the image for greater detail


-by Br Bartholomew Calvano, OP

“Getting to heaven is often given as the reason we should be good. Unfortunately, heaven is frequently presented as a place of fluffy clouds and baby angels playing harps. In fact, my own idea of heaven growing up was largely shaped by such popular depictions epitomized by the movie The Littlest Angel. In light of these depictions, it’s no wonder that heaven isn’t particularly attractive to many people. Even if we don’t imagine fluffy clouds, we probably think of eternal life as a continuation of this life, forever; but, of course, without all of the bad stuff that goes along with our day-to-day lives.

That’s an excellent pagan version of heaven, like the Greek Fields of Elysium or the Norse Halls of Valhalla. But if heaven is just the best of this life forever, it’s nothing more than a delayed hedonism. Are we just being good now for a little while so that we can do whatever we want for eternity? God promises us that heaven is far more than that.

In the Bible, heaven seems strange. We read a description of God as one seated on a throne who “looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald”(Rev 4:3).  Also, “in front of the throne, there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal”(Rev 4:6). Jesus is depicted as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes”(Rev 5:6); other denizens of heaven include “living creatures, each of them with six wings, [who] are full of eyes all around and inside”(Rev 4:8). All of the depictions of heaven are surreal because they are trying to tell us about something we can’t understand yet. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”(1 Cor 2:9). Heaven is not worth the trouble if it’s something we already understand. Heaven is more. It’s more than the best we’ve ever experienced. It’s more than the best we’ve ever imagined.

The eternal rest that we so often speak of is more than an eternal lazy day in bed. Such days are nice because they are a relief from the cares of the world, but we would quickly grow bored with them. Life in heaven is an active rest. It’s the combination of the peace of that lazy day in bed with the rush that comes after a difficult struggle. Rest and activity are paradoxically present together because we are in no way disturbed by the activity in which we participate.

My favorite description of heaven comes from Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P.’s spiritual meditation on the Summa, My Way of Life: “Even in heaven itself, where we shall have an unobscured view of divinity, our knowledge will be joyously incomplete, stopping as far short of exhaustion of the ineffable as the finite stops short of the infinite; through all the length of eternity, there will always be more for us to know of God.”

Heaven will be an eternity of moments where each moment is better than the last. It will not be the elimination of our thirst to know God more deeply, but the unceasing satisfaction of an ever-deepening thirst being quenched. Part of that ever-increasing knowledge will be a continually expanding awareness of how much God loves us. As God shares Himself with us for eternity, the friendship we have with Him will grow ever more rich.”

Love,
Matthew

Holy kleptomaniacs, thieves of Purgatory

Madrid, Spain – Eucharist and the souls in purgatory. Painting in Iglesia catedral de las fuerzas armada de Espana


-by Br Raphael Arteago, OP

“Every November, Holy Mother Church urges her members to become devout kleptomaniacs. Holy kleptomania may seem like an odd virtue to promote, but I would like to suggest that applying this concept with regards to the holy souls in purgatory can be a fruitful way to grow in friendship with our departed brothers and sisters.

Souls in purgatory are in such a state that they can, in a sense, be stolen for heaven. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting divine grace manifested in Christ.” What is more, souls who die in “God’s grace and friendship,” yet are still “imperfectly purified,” can be forgiven in “an age to come” (CCC 1030–1031), namely in a state of purification before entering the blessedness of heaven (Matt 12:31).

It is by the recommendation of Holy Scripture that the Church prays for these souls. Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46), and the author of Revelation notes that “nothing unclean shall enter” the Kingdom of Heaven “but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). Yet it is not only Scripture that extends this solemn responsibility to the Church, since the early fathers of the Church do so as well. Speaking about the dead, Saint John Chrysostom says, “let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation?” God uses our prayers and sacrifices offered in union with Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross to bring about some of the deepest designs of his heart, namely the salvation of souls and the renewal of his creation in Christ, the Eternal Word of the Father.

The great saints of the Church have heeded this call in a variety of ways, yet one example in the life of Saint Juan Macias highlights the sacred responsibility that the living members of the Church have in praying for the dead. Saint Juan Macias, a cooperator brother of the Order of Preachers who lived in Lima, Peru, during the sixteenth century, loved the rosary and had a special devotion of praying for the Holy Souls in purgatory. Such was his love for the rosary and the Holy Souls that he was described as the “thief of purgatory.”

Saint Juan Macias, in his response to the dual commandment of charity to love God and neighbor above all else, became a holy kleptomaniac for souls, as he zealously stole them from the purifying fires of purgatory and delivered them unto the blessed light of heaven. The charity which God inflamed in the heart of St. Juan Macias was one that recognized the profound importance of prayer within the providence of God.

Becoming a holy kleptomaniac, like St. Juan Macias, stretches the heart in mercy to those Holy Souls who long to behold their beloved Creator and Redeemer. It is a sacred and heroic task fueled by God’s grace that when done with devotion and love merits stolen treasures worth far more than any thief deserves.”

Pray for me when I am in Purgatory, I beg you.

Love,
Matthew