Aaron Henderson

Dr. Aaron Henderson is a Faculty Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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Life and Death in Christ

The last couple of years have forced us to confront the realities of suffering and death. I speak of coercion because we rarely enjoy thinking about suffering and death. They make us uncomfortable, at the very least, and at times perhaps even paranoid and fearful. In a certain respect, these reactions are understandable. Suffering and death are not desirable in themselves, involving as they do the weakening or destruction of the human body. But they are unavoidable, at least in this fallen world.

We often avoid talking about suffering and death in the spiritual life as well. We neglect to consider all the suffering that sin can bring us and those whom we love. We fail to reflect on the reality of spiritual death and the possibility of the second death of hell. And here too the neglect is somewhat understandable. Our own wickedness, or that of our loved ones, is a difficult thing to come to terms with, in part because our wickedness signifies to us that we need to convert to God, that we need to do the challenging work of changing our lives. Vices are bad habits, and habits are stable and deeply ingrained and thus hard to uproot. But again, such suffering is practically unavoidable in this vale of tears, and with the grace of God we are called to overcome sin and spiritual death. Indeed, that is why Christ came.

Because we neglect or misunderstand suffering and death, we likewise neglect or misunderstand the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, which exists for the sake of strengthening those who are seriously ill or aged and in danger of death. We forget this sacrament at our peril.

God in the Old Testament is the healer of His people, a physician for all who call upon His name. Jesus Christ continues this healing ministry in the New Testament, using His sacred humanity as the instrument of His divinity. Jesus restores sight to the blind, cleanses the leper, raises the dead, but the more vital healing is always spiritual. The bodily healing of the paralytic in Mark 2, for example, is a sign of the interior healing of his sin-wounded soul. Jesus’s earthly ministry, consummated on the bloody Cross, accomplishes most proximately not freedom of the people of Israel from Roman occupation, but the liberty of all men from the slavery and dominion of sin.

Now that Jesus has ascended to the Father, has His healing ministry ceased? By no means! Jesus continues to touch us through the sacramental mysteries. While all the sacraments in their own manner serve to heal and elevate human nature, there are two sacraments specially ordered to healing: Penance and Holy Anointing. If the former is primarily concerned with restoring supernatural life to the spiritually dead, the latter is concerned with strengthening the spiritually alive but sick. Because we are wounded by sin, inordinately attached to creatures even after being forgiven, we are often susceptible to doubt, anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness, and other vices when we are seriously ill or dying. Just reflect on how physical weakness, lack of sleep, and emotional distress can impact you. The first grace of Anointing of the Sick addresses precisely this reality. Here is how the Catechism puts it: “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This gift is a grace of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death” (1520). Notice that the primary grace of the sacrament is not one of physical healing. Yes, sometimes physical healing does result, but this is not principally why the sacrament was instituted. Even were a person to be miraculously saved from physical death, it would not be delayed forever. Instead, the sacrament is meant to save one from eternal death and prepare the soul to be with God in heaven forever.

Christ instituted the sacraments for a reason, including Extreme Unction (our “last anointing”) or Anointing of the Sick. Though we may be reluctant to contemplate for too long a sacrament bound up with the human conditions of suffering and dying, perhaps our sentiments will change when we remember what a merciful gift it is. It is a unique conformation to the passion and death of Christ, and thus a special sharing also in His victory in the Resurrection. Let this, then, be a call to rediscover the beauty and power of Holy Anointing.

The Beauty and Ugliness of Christ

That Jesus Christ is beautiful is perhaps obvious if we consider His divinity, for God is supereminently beautiful. Indeed, God is the source and cause of all beautiful things. But how often do we contemplate the human beauty of Christ? Our good friend, St. Thomas Aquinas, can aid us in this endeavor. In his commentary on Psalm 44 (45), St. Thomas explains different ways in which Christ is beautiful. In addition to pointing to Christ’s divinity, the Angelic Doctor gives three reasons that the man Jesus is beautiful. Our Lord is beautiful first of all in virtue of justice and truth. As John 1:14 says, He is full of grace and truth. In short, we need not limit Jesus’s beauty to His divinity; Jesus also has a fullness of grace in His human soul, whereas we have grace as from an overflowing and participation in His. The second aspect St. Thomas mentions is Jesus’s honorable way of life. He becomes the beautiful and perfect pattern of life that we ought to follow. The last aspect St. Thomas mentions is bodily beauty. He thinks that this too existed in Christ. And this is where things get interesting. St. Thomas appeals to the Song of Songs: “Behold you are fair, my beloved.” This is a profound way of seeing in the Old Testament a sign and figure of Christ. But isn’t it in tension with texts like Isaiah 53:2, which describe God’s messianic servant as ugly? “We have seen that there is in him no beauty or comeliness.” Furthermore, Jesus desired to be poor for our sake. Just consider Philippians 2, in which the Apostle speaks about Jesus being in the form of God such that He didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave or servant. We know how Jesus preached about the dangers of wealth and opulence. This should apply to bodily beauty too, since the Christian is supposed to cast these things aside for the sake of higher goods. How does St. Thomas respond to this? He says that Christ did not have absolutely supreme bodily beauty, since this was in no way required for His saving mission and in fact may have hindered it in some manner. Instead, St. Thomas thinks that Christ had the highest bodily beauty which was appropriate for His state. He may have had some awe-inspiring features and a certain grace about Him, but things like golden hair and “ruddiness,” as St. Thomas puts it, a flush, red face, would not have suited Him. He follows St. Augustine in speculating that something divine would have shone in Christ’s human face. We have, then, a dramatic interplay between beauty and ugliness in Christ, especially when we consider His passion and death. After all, it was to Jesus's passion and death that the prophet Isaiah was pointing when He said that the Suffering Servant had no beauty or comeliness. God's servant was said to be a man weighed down by sorrows and afflicted. The suffering of Christ, at least on the surface, is a supremely ugly thing. It is no wonder that people turned their heads from Him. The death of Christ, at least at first blush, is a dishonorable and horrible reality. Crucifixion was perhaps the most brutal death one could experience in the ancient world; indeed, the Romans designed it to be such. And yet, from the ugliness inherent in the paschal mystery comes the unsurpassable beauty of our redemption. The Cross for the Christian is the ultimate sign of contradiction, just as the one on the Cross had been such a sign His whole public ministry. It is for the Christian the most beautiful object, since from the bloody Cross comes the cleansing power of grace and salvation. It is through the ugliness of the Cross that we are brought to the beauty that alone can save.

May’s Treasures

May is a relatively unassuming month. Though we are still in the holy season of Easter, we have celebrated the day itself and await the great day of Pentecost. Between these two important days, however, there is much to celebrate. In fact, there is so much going on in May from the perspective of the Church’s liturgical calendar that it cannot be exhausted here. There are different ways one could divide up and categorize the memorials and feasts, but I will consider Doctors, Apostles, Mary, and Jesus. Even categorizing things this way, there is a richness that cannot be adequately expressed, a depth that cannot be sufficiently plumbed. For this reason, I will focus in a special way on the Ascension of the Lord, a solemnity not infrequently overshadowed by the aforementioned solemnities of Easter and Pentecost.

Perhaps the title “Doctor of the Church” is new to you, or perhaps you’ve never quite understood what it means. The persons afforded this lofty title are not medical professionals, of course, but doctors in the classical sense, namely teachers. In brief, the Doctors of the Church are saintly men and woman who have significantly contributed to our understanding of the mysteries of faith. Through their teaching, they provide sure guidance to the faithful of every age and nation. There are, to my knowledge, thirty-seven such Doctors, among whom are St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Catherine of Siena. On May 2, we remember St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. He is best known for safeguarding Christological orthodoxy at the time of the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He taught, against the heretic Arius, that Jesus is true God, eternally begotten of the Father, not a highly exalted creature as Arius had erroneously taught. The Son is, as we profess in the Creed, consubstantial with the Father. This May, read one of his books. For example, read his On the Incarnation and reflect on the unsurpassable gift we have in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Ask St. Athanasius for his intercession, that you too might hold fast to the truth about Christ and His saving work for us.

There are two additional Doctors of the Church celebrated in May: St. John of Avila and St. Bede the Venerable (May 10 and 25 respectively). Pope Benedict XVI said the following in his 2012 Apostolic Letter declaring St. John of Avila, the early 16th century priest and mystic, a Doctor of the Church: “The love of God, made known in Jesus Christ, is the key to the personal experience and teaching of the Holy Master John of Avila, an ‘evangelical preacher’ constantly grounded in the Sacred Scriptures, passionately concerned for the truth and an outstanding precursor of the new evangelization.” Following the example of St. John, read the Scriptures with faith and devotion. Thereafter, with a heart set ablaze by charity, reach out to others for the sake of bringing them to Christ. At the workplace, be an example of kindness, integrity, and love. At home, allow divine charity to be the unifying principle of your family. St. Bede was a 6th-7th century English monk. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is itself regarded as important in the history of the English people and in the history of literature. His learning and scholarship should be imitated by us. If you are a student or a teacher, ask for this venerable man’s intercession.

Next, the Church commends the Apostles. More specifically, she holds up Sts. Philip and James on May 3, and St. Matthias on May 14. The first two were part of the original band of twelve disciples chosen by Jesus. In choosing twelve, reminiscent of the twelve Tribes of Israel, Jesus signifies that He is reconstituting Israel. Matthias is chosen to fill the vacancy that Judas’s untimely and shameful death creates. The choosing of Matthias gives us some insight into what it means to be an Apostle. Consider these words from Acts 1:21, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” An Apostle, then, is one who has experienced the public ministry of Jesus, which began with His baptism in the Jordan and ended with His Ascension into heavenly glory. An Apostle (the word means “one who is sent”) is above all a witness to Jesus’s Resurrection, a witness to the fact that Jesus through His paschal mystery has conquered death and secured victory and life for all those who believe in Him. Though the office of Apostle is unique in the life and history of the Church, bear witness in your own way to the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection. Commit yourself to the teaching of the Apostles and their successors (the bishops).

The Blessed Virgin Mary makes a powerful appearance in the month of May as well. On May 13, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Beginning in 1917, the Virgin appeared to three peasant children (Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia) in Fatima, Portugal. She gave a powerful message of prayer (especially the holy rosary) and repentance. She warned of grave consequences for the world if the people of the world did not turn to her Immaculate Heart. On this day, pray the holy rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession. On March 25, Pope Francis, along with bishops from around the world, consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Take this time to consecrate yourself and your family to it as well, and to the Sacred Heart of her divine Son. Perhaps you can focus on the following prayer, revealed to the three children of Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy.”

The second Marian feast is that of the Visitation on May 31. This celebrates the visit Mary makes to her relative Elizabeth. The latter had already conceived a child of her own, John (later to be called “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer”). This encounter, which is recorded in Luke 1:39-56, is rich with meaning. First, upon Mary’s greeting, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus causes Elizabeth to exclaim, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” If these holy words sound familiar, it is because we pray them in the Hail Mary (a thoroughly scriptural prayer). In response to these words, Mary elects not to magnify or exalt herself, but rather to magnify the Lord. We have here Mary’s famous Magnificat. Take some time to reflect on this mystery of our salvation. Contemplate especially Elizabeth’s words concerning Mary, Mother of God, and Mary’s own words concerning God and His loving salvific plan.

Last but infinitely far from least we have Jesus Himself. On May 29, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. When the Lord gloriously rises to new life, He does not remain forever upon the earth. Instead, He returns to His Father and takes His celestial throne. This scene, as recorded in the Gospels, is a time of sadness for His disciples, for they wonder what will become of them in Jesus’s absence. But Jesus had promised that He would not leave them orphans (Jn. 14:18). Indeed, it is better that He departs, since His ascent means the descent of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth (Jn. 14:26). He it is who will empower the disciples boldly to carry out the Lord’s missionary mandate (see Mt. 28:19). Our Lord’s Ascension, as I said before, can tend to get overshadowed by Easter and Pentecost. But let us not forget this marvelous solemnity, on which the Lord consummated His earthly ministry and went to prepare a heavenly place for us.

Our Christian ancestors did much to celebrate this wonderful day. In the early Church, liturgical processions occurred. Eventually, however, perhaps in the eleventh century, quasi-liturgical “pageants” took their place. By the thirteenth century, a fairly general custom was to hoist a statue of the Risen Christ until it disappeared through the church’s ceiling. There are other relatively obscure customs connected with this day as well, including eating a bird to signify Jesus’s “flying” to heaven. This custom was widespread in many parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. In Central Europe, mountain climbing and picnics on high places were part of this blessed day. Very few of these customs remain today. Nevertheless, perhaps some of them may experience a renewal in contemporary Christian homes. A day of reading the Gospel account(s) of the Ascension, feasting on the meat of a bird to symbolize our Lord’s departure, and taking a family hike would be quite fitting. The Church’s maternal care continues unabated in May, so make sure to take full advantage and respond in thanksgiving.

Quick Tips:

-Read the writings of the Doctors of the Church, such as On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius (May 2, 10, and 25). -Pray for the bishops, successors of the Apostles (May 3 and 14) -Pray the rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession; pray the Fatima Prayer (May 13 and 31) -Reflect on the mystery of Jesus’s Ascension; eat a suitable meal (a bird of some kind) and take a hike with the family (May 26).

The Development of Doctrine

John Henry Cardinal Newman, canonized by Pope Francis in 2019, was the most famous convert to Catholicism of the 19th century. Prior to his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845, Newman was an Anglican priest and member of the so-called Oxford Movement. This movement, in opposition to various “protestantizing” tendencies in the Church of England, worked for a “catholic” renewal of sorts, a renewal at once doctrinal, pastoral, and devotional. Proponents of this movement considered the Church of England to be, at least ideally, a via media, a middle path or way, between ultra-protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But the more Newman examined the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, her history and councils, her Fathers and Doctors, the more he was convinced that she alone was the Lord’s one sheepfold. (You can read more about Newman’s conversion in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an intellectual autobiography not infrequently compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions.) In short, the more Newman discovered that, despite the Church penetrating ever deeper into the Christian mystery down through the centuries, the Catholic Church and her doctrine remained essentially the same, the more he was compelled to place himself under the Church’s maternal care. Newman provides a marvelous account of this historical development in a work published the same year as his reception into the Church, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman uses various images in the Essay to explain doctrinal development. Some are taken from human or animal life. In the quote above, Newman compares the development of a philosophy or belief to the stream that, as it moves from its source, becomes deeper, broader, and fuller. It is true, as Newman everywhere admits, that there is one body of apostolic teaching, one deposit of faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). For the Catholic tradition, public revelation ceased with Jesus Christ and His Apostles. And thus there is a richness proper to the apostolic age, a purity wholly unique. Nevertheless, the Church of Christ is able, as occasion demands and as necessity dictates, to make explicit what was implicit, to make manifest what was latent. This she does under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, holding fast to the pristine memory of Christ, her beloved Spouse and Head. The question that persistently haunted Newman during his time in the Church of England was the following: Are doctrines thought to be rather distinctive of the Catholic faith (the Marian dogmas, say, purgatory, the authority of the pope) illegitimate additions and accretions, or are they legitimate, organic developments of the apostolic faith? For the early Newman, it was reasonable for the Roman Church to claim the mark of “catholicity,” a certain universality. But the Church of England, he thought, truly possessed the mark of “apostolicity.” His views on this changed, of course, and Newman came to see the Roman Catholic Church as possessing the mark of apostolicity. Newman is concerned, then, with corruptions and genuine developments. The true Church will have, despite the myriad twists and turns of history, despite (and, in a certain respect, thanks to) the trials and the difficulties and the heresies, genuine developments of the apostolic faith. But how are we to know whether a particular doctrine is genuine or ingenuine, a development or a corruption? Newman suggests seven “notes” of the genuine development of an idea. The analysis here is somewhat “scientific” and speculative, since he is laying out principles, but it is also arguably more literary. The first note is “Preservation of Type.” There is an analogy here with creaturely growth. Chicks do not grow into fish, nor does a baby human degenerate into a brute. There is something similar with ideas. In short, even if an idea does not manifest itself in the same external image, there ought to be substantial identity for a true development. The second note is “Continuity of Principles.” Are the principles undergirding a particular idea themselves consistent, in continuity, or have they been altered? “Power of Assimilation” is the third note. Here again we see the likeness of this note in nature. Living organisms take things in, absorb them, incorporate them. The power to incorporate or assimilate is thus a property of life, and it is likewise the property of a living idea, an idea as present in minds living and acting in the world. The fourth note Newman proposes is “Logical Sequence.” When we look back upon the historical development of a doctrine, do we see in the process a naturalness and organic quality? In short, a later development must be in some way the logical outcome or result of the original teaching. For one with no knowledge of trees and their development, an acorn may bear no resemblance to the mature oak tree. But for one who understands, the process is intelligible, and the mature tree bears the marks of a “logical” sequence. Newman’s fifth note is “Anticipation of Its Future.” Sometimes we can see in an idea, because we know something of its nature and tendencies, hints of its future development. Perhaps we can see in a small child hints and anticipations of his future. Newman uses the example of St. Athanasius, “elected Bishop by his playfellows.” The sixth note is “Conservative Action Upon Its Past.” A development which reverses and contradicts the course of doctrine which has been developed before it is certainly corrupt, whereas a genuine development illustrates and corroborates (as opposed to obscuring and “correcting”) the body of thought from which it proceeds. Like our Lord, these developments come not to destroy but to fulfill. The seventh and final note is “Chronic Vigor.” The basic idea here is that corruptions tend to fizzle out, to dissipate over time, whereas genuine developments are marked by constancy and duration. Heresies, then, are short-lived; Newman says that they are in some odd intermediate state between life and death. Summarizing all of these notes, Newman writes, “To guarantee [an idea’s] own substantial unity, it must be seen to be one in type, one in its system of principles, one in its unitive power towards externals, one in its logical consecutiveness, one in the witness of its early phases to its later, one in the protection which its later extend to its earlier, and one in its union of vigour with continuance, that is, in its tenacity.” Granted that Newman’s theory of development is not the only one out there, his is certainly worthy of careful and prayerful consideration. His Essay is not an easy read, and he assumes a fair amount of knowledge of (intellectual) history from the reader. But this great 19th century convert to Catholicism provides us with strong reasons to believe the Catholic Church’s claim to be, in Christ, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the faithful guardian of the apostolic teaching. In her, as she lives and acts in the world, Christian doctrine develops, as ideas in the world are wont to do, yet without undermining or corrupting anything. As we reflect on God’s Revelation this year, let us give thanks to God for the truth of Christ and for the deep, board, and full stream from which we may freely drink.

The Bible & the Life of Grace

I recall teaching a Sacred Scripture course a couple of years ago and scandalizing a student or two with the above quote. “Is St. Augustine denying the importance of the Bible?” The Doctor of Grace is doing nothing of the kind, though it is not a mystery why this quote may initially cause some consternation. His point here is a profound one. The end or purpose or goal of Sacred Scripture is the sanctification of human beings. God revealed Himself in order to draw us to Himself. The Bible, then, God’s written word, is meant to lead the Christian to the perfection of charity. Notice St. Augustine’s language of one who rests upon and keeps a firm hold upon the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. This is someone who has reached maturity or perfection in the moral life. An analogy might be helpful here. Consider human law, the civil law with which we are all familiar. The law exists to make men just, to make them virtuous, to make them good citizens. What happens when one in fact becomes virtuous? There is a sense in which the virtuous man has no further need of the law. But this is not because the law is worthless or ineffective. Indeed, it signifies the goodness and efficacy of the law and indicates that the citizen has achieved the very end of the law. What it means is that the citizen has conformed himself to the law to such an extent that the law has become connatural to him; the law is so deeply rooted in him that he acts well habitually, without needing the force or coercion of the law. In a similar manner, the one who has been conformed perfectly to the law of Christ in faith, hope, and charity has achieved the end of the Scriptures, namely, human sanctification. To reach Christian perfection is to live radically by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who inspired the sacred page. St. Augustine points to people who have lived the Christian life without having consistent access to the Bible. The most extreme example would be the hermit who lives a life of quiet contemplation alone. As we focus this year on Divine Revelation, which is God’s free act of self-disclosure, His lifting the veil so that we might gaze into His inner mystery, let us give thanks for Sacred Scripture. Whether we have drunk so deeply of the wellspring that we need in a sense only to teach others, or if we ourselves still need instruction, the Bible is a wonderful gift.

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Time Well Wasted

There is arguably a connection between growing levels of stress and anxiety, especially among young people, and a culture of hyperactivity. There is a tendency to think that a person is valuable only inasmuch as he or she is contributing in a tangible, calculable way to civil society or to the Church. This tendency is perhaps more widespread here in the United States than abroad, for as a people we tend to value hard work and grittiness, at least as a hypothetical or ideal. The truth is, though, that this way of seeing work and the human person, which absolutizes work and makes it that for the sake of which human beings exist, is misguided, and it results in less fulfilled persons and thus in a disordered society.

An alternative to this modern hyperactive model can be found in Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture. He wrote the book in the throes of the post-war period in Europe, when there was indeed much to be done, much to be (re-)built. If leisure, as opposed to work, say, seems like a peculiar foundation for culture, bear in mind that Pieper does not mean laziness (and certainly not the capital sin of sloth), nor does he mean the mere absence of work. Pieper points out that leisure has its origin in the Greek skole and the Latin scola, both of which we might render as school in English. Leisure might not immediately come to mind when we reflect on our own experience of school. In fact, thinking of school might raise our blood pressure and elicit anxiety as we remember the many assignments, exams, and late-night study sessions. But the school exists to form the human person, and in an integral or complete way. It exists for the purpose of human flourishing. That is why, as Pieper explains, leisure is so bound up with the intellectual life, since reason is the highest thing in man and thus that which demands above all else to be fulfilled or perfected.

What characterizes this intellectual life? First, because we are creatures bound up with time and contingency and matter, human knowing progresses step-by-step, as it were, discursively, as it is sometimes called. Second, however, as creatures endowed with intellect, we reach out “beyond” the “human” and touch on the purely spiritual. The first aspect of human knowing does require a certain amount of intellectual work. The second aspect, on the contrary, is characterized by lightness, effortlessness. It is much the same in human relationships. They take work and careful cultivation. They require action. At the same time, an essential element of all meaningful relationships, especially marriage, is a profound receptivity and openness to the being of the beloved, not a complicated equation or rational process but a simple beholding. In short, some things are considered primarily as products of man’s blood, sweat, and tears, while others seem as pure gifts. Pieper relates discursive thought and intellectual contemplation as toil and trouble to effortless possession. The latter is the higher and the more important element even in human relationships, to say nothing of the relationship we ought to have with the Triune God.

To use a famous example from Luke 10, both Mary and Martha serve our Lord when He dwells in their house, but one more perfectly. Martha is “distracted with much serving,” as the Evangelist puts it, and Jesus Himself recognizes that she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” Mary, on the contrary, recognizes the one thing needful and so sits at Christ’s feet and listens to His teaching. Because Mary has chosen to sit in loving contemplation, Jesus judges that she has “chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Mary exemplifies for us the leisurely spirit, which again is not laziness or complacency but loving docility to being and to the Source of being.

This is precisely what we try to accomplish at the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture with our annual Great Books intensive courses and Catholic Imagination Fellowship, namely, to encourage and promote the oft-forsaken art of leisure. The classes are open to all, to the motivated high school student wanting college credit and to the retiree wanting to plunge more deeply into the life of the mind. The Fellowship is intended for college-aged students and is one of many ways the Alcuin Institute is trying to bolster Catholic culture in Eastern Oklahoma. The Fellowship in particular might seem to some like a waste of time. After all, while there are certainly books to be read and tasks to be completed, the goal of the program is not action but contemplation, not utility but the pursuit of that which is desirable in itself, for its own sake.

The Great Books allow one to enter into conversation and even communion with brilliant philosophical, theological, and literary minds, despite the considerable temporal distance. What makes this communion possible is truth itself, which has a universality and objectivity such that it transcends time and space. This runs contrary to a tendency, largely modern, to doubt whether our (intellectual) ancestors have anything at all to teach us. After all, the contemporary world is alive with its own unique problems and concerns. What, then, can a Greek man born before the time of Christ teach us about virtue and the good life? What can a fourteenth century Italian poem tell us about love and loss, heaven and hell?  Reading the wisdom of the past quickly dispels this doubt, it seems to me. It is hard to read Plato’s Apology without seeking to emulate the great and noble Socrates; it is practically impossible to read Dante’s Inferno without gaining some insight into divine justice and the beauty of God’s providential plan. Entering into intellectual communion with great minds has the power to make us great likewise, if we are but willing to let ourselves be transformed.

The Catholic Imagination Fellowship includes these Great Books courses, along with prayer, service to the Diocese, and cultural excursions, all of which in their own manner complement the time spent in the classroom. We intend it to be an admixture of work and leisure, always aware that the latter is the higher and more important element.

Because, as I said at the beginning, we live in a culture that has forgotten its own basis or foundation, all this may appear wasteful. But what seems to some as a waste, as trash, should in truth be every person’s treasure. I invite all those interested to “waste” time with us this summer at the Catholic Imagination Fellowship. I promise that it will be time well wasted. Visit our Fellowship page for more information!

Make a Resolution to Love

As the new year begins and many of us make resolutions, some concrete and realistic, others perhaps less so, the words of Jesus may be especially discouraging: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Our Lord is not addressing, of course, economic, academic, or aesthetic perfection. In other words, the Christian life does not demand that we become rich or supremely intelligent or beautiful. Instead, Jesus is speaking of moral perfection, a natural and supernatural integrity of life and action. But even if we have narrowed our focus, this command of Jesus may seem unreasonable, and an unreasonable command is no real command at all. The good news is that the heights of holiness can indeed be reached with God’s gracious help. Were Christ asking us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, the command would indeed be impossible. Enlivened and empowered by God’s grace, however, a life of holiness is within our grasp.

What does this life of holiness entail? St. John Paul II reflects on the biblical answer to this question in his encyclical Veritatis splendor. Though human life can be complicated and convoluted, the life of holiness requires, above all else, something simple: love. But this word is often distorted today, becoming very much like the squishy, vapid resolutions I mentioned above. Love is reduced to a feeling, an emotional state, and thus reduced to something turbulent and temporary. When Jesus speaks about love, on the contrary, it is something mighty, something profound, something worthy of animating one’s life.

For St. John Paul II, as for the entire Christian tradition, looking to Jesus shows us the path to love. I would like to draw out three essential elements of love. First, love (for example, the kind of love we find in virtuous friendships) involves willing the good of another person, and not for any perceived benefit but for the person’s own sake. While there is an emotional love proper to the human person, the love we are speaking about is fundamentally an act of the will. And because it is such an act, it is not subject to the turbulence and transience of emotional love. Consider a married couple that has been together for 40 years. There are bound to be days when the married persons do not feel in love with each other. Nevertheless, though emotional love when rightly ordered is a good that often accompanies voluntary love, voluntary love transcends emotional love. This distinction between love as an emotion and love as an act of the will explains at least part of the complex reality of divorce in the United States. Because couples confuse the two, often they base a relationship on emotional love and neglect the higher, more stable form of love that wills the good of the other in season and out of season, “in sickness and in health,” as the marriage rite puts it. When emotional love ceases or, God forbid, turns to hatred and resentment, the relationship itself crumbles.

Where do we see this aspect of love exemplified in the life and teaching of Jesus? We see it in His entire life of obedience to the Father for our sake, but especially in His willingness to die on the Cross. In the garden, our Lord’s humanity cannot help but cry out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And yet, because His human will is perfectly conformed to the Father’s will, He can say, “Yet not my will but Thine be done” (Mt. 26:39). It is a fearful thing to approach death, and thus we see Jesus in distress and sweating blood (Lk. 22:44). But He never ceased to will the good of our salvation. We too are meant to show our love for God in acts of obedience: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). For those of us who are still imperfect, our emotions may militate against this saying of our Lord. After all, sometimes I may not feel like obeying God; it may feel better in the short term to pursue bodily pleasure and eschew higher goods. For those who have reached the heights of holiness, however, there is an emotional joy that accompanies obeying God. Love, as St. John Paul II says, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. In this life, love is inextricably tied to self-giving, to sacrifice. Here, of course, Jesus is the ultimate example. We are not called merely to a fleeting emotional love but to a love that endures all for the sake of the beloved.

The second aspect of love is that it is always founded and grounded in the truth. This is quite a controversial point today, since many people have so absolutized the human will that whatever one chooses to pursue, to love, is justified, and justified precisely because one has chosen it. On the contrary, to state the matter simply, we cannot love what we do not know. Notice the respective implications of these opposing views. For the modern view of love, founded in an understanding of the will as an unfettered power to choose anything whatsoever, might makes right. The person with the stronger will inevitably wins out. Consequently, human relationships devolve into power struggles, occasions to manipulate and dominate others. For the classical view, founded in an understanding of the will as an intellectual appetite, all human beings are beholden to the wise and good order that God has created. Our willing must be in conformity with the truth about the created order, about the human person, and about God. When we choose something contrary to the truth, we are not free persons but slaves. The truth really does set us free (Jn. 8:32), and set us free primarily so that we may love as we ought.

Jesus’s entire mission hinges on the fact that we cannot love what we do not know. That is why the Son, the only one who has seen the Father (Jn. 1:18), comes to reveal the Father to us, so that we may know and love Him. This is our Lord’s prayer: “O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that thy love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn. 17:25-26). It is our job, then, whether by reflecting on the order of creation or on God’s word in Holy Scripture, to know God so that we may love Him all the more.

Finally, love should be focused on God; one should love God above all else. This is true even on the natural level, though for fallen man this is impossible without God’s healing grace. It is all the truer on the supernatural level, since we are called in charity to love God firstly and others, even sinners, out of love for God. God is to be loved above all else because love is of things lovable, and God is most loveable. Indeed, He is goodness itself and the source of all that is good. “God is love,” as 1 Jn. 4:8 says. When we place God first, when we love Him above all else, our other loves become rightly ordered. We are able to love our spouses, our children, our neighbors, our coworkers better when these loves are enlivened and perfected by love of God. Jesus Himself says when asked which is the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The entire Christian life hinges on these two commandments. They are inseparable, yes, but one is higher: love of God.

As we continue in this new year, let us remember with St. John Paul II that at the heart of our moral and spiritual journey toward perfection is love, a love that wills the good of the other for his own sake, a love that is always grounded in the truth, a love that is ordered first and foremost to the God who is love. Even if our other resolutions fall through, fulfilling the commandment of love will make this year fruitful.

Humans are Religious Animals

When thinking about religion and about our experience thereof, we might contemplate most readily the feelings we have when we pray, or the love we have for God, or perhaps the knowledge we have of God that gives rise to such love. And these are all legitimate aspects of human religious experience and expression. But perhaps we are less ready to see religion as a matter of justice. Religion is a part of justice because justice is about rendering to another what is his due. And just as we owe things to our parents, to our friends, to our coworkers, and so forth, so do we owe things to the God who created us, who sustains us in every moment in being, and who bestows on us every good gift. Religion is about rendering to God what is His due, and thus we see human beings in every time and place offering sacrifices, praying, taking vows and oaths.

Of course, because we live in a fallen world, these religious expressions are inevitably imperfect and sometimes even perverse. Human sacrifice or disordered sexual practices are extreme examples, but even more mundane religious expressions are subject to superstition and sensationalism, founded as they are on incomplete notions of God and of the human person in relation to Him. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous nature of religion testifies to its deep rootedness in human nature. We are fundamentally religious animals. We have what we might call a natural inclination toward religion and its acts.

This might be jarring for many to hear, especially given that atheism is often considered to be the human default. Religion is seen as something extrinsic or foreign to human nature. Or, if it is associated in some way with the evolutionary development of human beings, it is judged to be a vestiguum, a defunct remainder of a bygone age. This understanding, though, is contrary to the evidence. It is contrary to what we know to be true of the human heart, which must always seek its treasure, whether it be in the ego or in power, whatever false god one chooses, or whether it be in the one true God.

St. Thomas Aquinas also articulates a virtue of religion, a stable disposition or habit that allows us to perform acts of devotion that direct us toward God. We ought to cultivate this virtue daily. Jesus does not undermine or contravene the truth and beauty of natural human religiosity. Instead, Christ purifies and perfects human religion. He offers Himself as the insurmountable Sacrifice; He teaches us personally how to pray; He makes holy our vows and oaths. In Christ, we can approach at last the infinite God with the most fitting gifts. In His Church, we can participate even now in the heavenly liturgy and superabundantly fulfill the desire we all possess to order our lives to the God to whom we owe life and breath and everything.

Being Conformed to Christ’s Priesthood

No discussion of the sacraments of the New Law can be complete without a consideration of sacramental character. Three sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders) bestow sacramental characters, but what exactly are these characters? Answering this will serve to bolster our appreciation for them and for the sacraments which bestow them upon us. In short, the characters are bound up with receiving, or bestowing on others, things pertaining to divine worship. The sacramental characters are, first and foremost, conformations to Christ, especially to Christ’s Priesthood.

The New Testament presents Jesus as the new and perfect High Priest. Think here especially of the Letter to the Hebrews. And "High Priest" is not merely a juridical designation; it is not simply a legal title. It is a divine consecration that marks His very being (that is to say, it is ontological). Jesus is made High Priest so as to inaugurate the worship of the New Law. We need such an ontological consecration as well if we are to participate in the liturgical life of the Church.

As I said, three sacraments impart a mark of Christ, a “character” or “cultic power.” The first, of course, is Baptism, and it is on this sacrament that I would like to focus. Baptism is the first of the sacraments of initiation; it incorporates us into Christ and His Mystical Body. It also bestows a character, a consecration that makes the faithful apt to receive validly the other sacraments of the New Law. Good dispositions and intentions can only get one so far, and without this fundamental baptismal consecration, the reception of the other sacraments would remain ineffective. The baptismal character opens us up, as it were, to the whole exercise of Christian worship. It gives us the power to cooperate liturgically in the Sacrifice of the Mass, and in such a way that we are not merely spectators or assistants but “actors” and participants. This can be seen in the ancient custom of dismissing the catechumens before the offertory. Even today it is signified in the collective form of prayers that join us to the celebrant. Additionally, in virtue of Baptism and the character it bestows, a marriage entered into by baptized persons is a properly Christian and sacramental marriage.

The cultic consecration we receive in Baptism is indelible, not capable of being removed. Consequently, Baptism (as well as Confirmation and Orders) is not repeatable. Even the apostate, the one who tragically rejects his baptismal faith, cannot efface his baptismal character. The 20th century theologian and cardinal, Charles Journet, speaks beautifully of the sacramental character in the tragic figure: “[I]t remains in him as the last witness of his membership in Christ and of his Christian dignity, a secret possibility of returning to the light.” Let us recover, then, an appreciation for sacramental character and the special conformation it affords us to the Priesthood of Christ.


*This musing was inspired by an article I translated some time ago by Charles Cardinal Journet, The Mystery of Sacramentality.


The Ordered Cosmos

Humans are peculiar creatures, and deep down we all know this to be so. We are bound by time but tend in a certain manner toward eternity; we are bodily and yet possess an immaterial or spiritual principle; we are formed from the dust of the earth but are nevertheless made to the image of God. Sub-human animals do not attend to the time of day, nor do they, except by a kind of ineluctable inclination or instinct, concern themselves with seasons. At the other end of the hierarchy, angels are not worried about corruption or dissolution; they need not devote time to study or the arduous cultivation of virtue.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, the Old Testament reading for today’s Holy Mass, reflects on the rhythm of God’s material creation. There is a time and place for all things, seasons of birth and growth and maturity and decay. But for the human person in a special way there are times to be at work and at leisure, to fast and to feast, to speak and to keep silent, to weep and to laugh, and all the rest. That human life ebbs and flows is inevitable, for we are, again, beings bound by time and space. And this is precisely as God wills it to be, even if we are meant ultimately (without ceasing to be creatures) to be caught up into His own eternity and immutable perfection.

What does Ecclesiastes have to teach us? After all, we all know existence to be constituted by moments both good and bad, lovely and tragic, life-giving and death-dealing. The sacred author wants us to see that all things are ordered by God’s wisdom. The rest of creation participates in its own manner in God’s ordering wisdom, but human beings in a far higher and more perfect way. We can, in short, because we are intellectual creatures, order as God orders and guide as God guides. We can perceive the ordered pattern of creation and act in accord with it. This is nothing trivial or unremarkable, but rather something wonderful for which to thank God.

The Church’s liturgical calendar provides a much-needed structure to the Christian life. The Church is a good Mother, and just as our parents teach us how to live and act in the world in an ordered way, in accord with the times and seasons, so too does the Church. In her case, though, she is using the times and seasons, sanctified by her divine Spouse and Head, to lead us to eternal life.

As we focus this year on the sacraments, the highest expressions of the Church’s liturgical life, let us see them as wise and good gifts of God, remedies for sin appropriate for the peculiar creatures we are. As the sacred author of Ecclesiastes knew so profoundly, the God who transcends every imperfection and change orders all things well, whether in nature or in grace.