Aaron Henderson Archives
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.