Eli Stone

Eli Stone is a Research Assistant for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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Faith of Our Fathers: St. Athanasius of Alexandria

In his treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius seeks to demonstrate that the Christian religion is the only true religion and he sets forth the central beliefs of the Christian faith. Here, Athanasius does not act as a speculative theologian; rather, he seeks to “communicate in writing [that which] we learned from them [the Apostles]” (Against the Heathen). Accordingly, Athanasius does not seek to offer his own opinions on the subject of Christ’s Incarnation, but rather transmit that which he has received from his own teachers as a faithful steward of the Tradition. To begin his work, Athanasius examines our human mortality in an effort to understand our natural state. In the above passage, Athanasius begins with an idea taken almost verbatim out of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “Men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil […] come inevitably under the law of death.” However, for Paul, this “law of death” is the Old Covenant, whereas Athanasius offers a slight twist on this law: “the transgression of the commandment [i.e. not to eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden] was making them [humanity, represented by Adam and Eve] turn back again according to their nature.” Athanasius suggests that our mortality is an essential part of our nature as humans—it defines who we are. Why is this? Because “as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.” For Athanasius, God’s gift of existence to humanity is a manifestation of His grace. In transgressing the commandment in the Garden, Adam and Eve symbolically (and actually) reject that very grace which enables them to exist: “The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it.” What Athanasius suggests here is that, in addition to man’s nature as a finite, mortal being, God has given a super-nature to him, which is called a Likeness. It is by virtue of this super-natural gift of God’s Likeness which overrides man’s mortality and allows him to remain immortal. Unlike our nature, however, our Likeness is something which must be cultivated and “preserved.” According to our Catholic tradition, we know that we are “like” God insofar as we can know things as God knows them, and love them as God loves them. So, by cultivating these faculties of knowing and loving, we become more like Him. Think of an expert woodcarver. He simply is a woodcarver. If you wanted to become a woodcarver like him, you would probably begin by watching him work; noting his skill and technique. But at some point, you would have to imitate what this woodcarver does. You would not start out very good at it, but as you developed the skill, you would eventually cease being like a woodcarver—you would be a woodcarver. To drive the point home, Athanasius quotes two passages from Sacred Scripture: “So is it affirmed in Wisdom: ‘The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.’ And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, ‘I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you.’” Thus by keeping the law of God—that is, by exercising the super-natural Likeness He has given us—we can become immortal like God. “But ye die as men and fall as one of the princes.’” For all the lofty talk and opportunity that God gave us, the fact remains that we have discarded that immortality which God wanted for us. By forsaking the contemplation of God, and refusing to exercise our faculties of knowing and loving, we have abandoned our super-nature, and chained ourselves to our mortal existence. But this is not the end of the story for Athanasius. Though we were quick to discard God’s grace, He was not quick to withdraw it. Through the Incarnation, Christ comes to reconcile ourselves to Him. Through His example, Christ teaches us how to repair the tarnished Likeness within us, and by the graces of the Church He enables us to do so. And, in this great act of self-revelation, Christ allows us to know and love God by coming to know and love Himself. So how do we cultivate our super-nature? How do we maximize our Likeness? We do so first by coming to know God through prayer, study, and participation in the life of the Church. Then, we exercise our love for God by following His commandments, worshipping Him “in spirit and in truth,” and in service to our neighbor. In these ways, we come to imitate Christ, and in imitating Him, we die to our mortal nature, allowing that super-natural Likeness to bear us up as we pass from death into life everlasting.

The Magi & the Epiphany

After the celebration of Christmas, it might be tempting to think that the cause for celebration is over. After a month of preparation for the “big day,” it becomes all too easy to slip into the “well, that was nice” mindset. To be sure, Christmas is one of the holiest days in the liturgical calendar, but our rich Catholic heritage informs us that our festivities ought not stop there. At the conclusion of Christmastide (the “Twelve Days of Christmas” spoken of in the song), we will celebrate the Epiphany. A Greek word in origin, “epiphany” is a conjunction of epi- (meaning “upon”) and -phaino (meaning “shine” or “appear”). Epiphany, then, marks the celebration of Christ as the “Light of the World,” an aspect of the Messiah which was foretold in the prophet Isaiah: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). In his sixth homily on Matthew, St. John Chrysostom explains that this “illumination” of all the nations is hinted at by a particular sign in the Scriptures: the visitation of the Magi. Little is known about the Magi, apart from the minimal information contained in Holy Writ. Traditionally, the Church has held that these were three scholars or “wise men” that hailed from eastern Persia, and were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Historically, they have even been esteemed as saints; according to one legend, St. Thomas the Apostle baptized them in modern-day India after Christ’s death and resurrection. Our German Catholic forerunners in faith began celebrating the Epiphany in a particular way which has endured even to the present day: the blessing of homes with chalk. Sometime in the 16th century, faithful Catholic men began to dress up as the three Magi, travelling from house to house collecting donations. Symbolically, this represents the preparations that the Magi had to make for their long journey from the Orient to Bethlehem—and for the expensive gifts which they brought our Lord! After proclaiming the good news, and receiving whatever the generous faithful would offer, these men would then bless the home with the initials of the Wise Men and the sign of the cross, inscribed in chalk on the doorpost. The initials C.M.B. also represent the Latin invocation Christus Mansionem Benedicat—“Christ bless this house.” After making these collections, the men would then distribute these to the poor; in such a way, they would bring the gifts of the faithful to Christ (as present in the poor). Even today in Germany, many children will dress up and take on the role of the Wise Men, singing songs as they go door to door collecting funds for the less fortunate. Though this tradition of the Magi going house-to-house is not present in American Catholicism, many faithful Catholics still take the opportunity to celebrate Epiphany with the chalking of doors. This simple, family-oriented ritual offers a wonderful opportunity to imbue one's home with sacramental graces, fortify it against the spiritual forces of evil, and even catechize your children! Why not make an event of it, and come up with your own charity project as a family? Many of our parishes in Eastern Oklahoma perform the blessing of chalk on the Epiphany, and we will be distributing devotional packets for your use at our St. John's Day event tomorrow. You can either ask your local priest to perform the chalking, or bless your own home with some of the resources available on our site. There is still plenty of reason to rejoice, and celebrating the Epiphany offers a great way to continue our tradition of faith and extend the joy of Christmastide into the New Year!

[This star of Christmas] appears not in the night, but in mid-day, while the sun is shining; and this is not within the power of a star, nay not of the moon; for the moon that so much surpasses all, when the beams of the sun appear, straightway hides herself, and vanishes away. But this by the excess of its own splendor overcame even the beams of the sun, appearing brighter than they, and in so much light shining out more illustriously.

—St. John Chrysostom, Homily 6 on Matthew, chap. 3

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007: Relationship with Christ, Conferences, and wrapping up the Synod

St. Jerome: Defender of the Religious Ideal

Of the many saints in the history of the Church, perhaps none have been so influential as St. Jerome. For the past 1,500 years (and even to this day), his Latin Vulgate has formed the spiritual life of the Church in the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and through countless commentaries and devotional works. For these reasons, he was highly esteemed in the Middle Ages, especially as the patron of scriptural studies, but also as one of the “Four Doctors” or “Four Pillars” of the Western Church (along with Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great).

In more recent times, however, St. Jerome has been regarded as a bit too “rough around the edges”—a sort of “Oscar the Grouch” of Christianity. Of course, Jerome had such a reputation during his own time; his exacting critical methods, the harsh critiques of others’ work, and his passionate zeal for correcting erroneous scriptural passages won him many enemies. Even his correspondence with the great St. Augustine is, in many places, layered with varying degrees of tension and apparent strife. To many, Jerome can come across as (and is sometimes politely dismissed as) something of a “crabby old man.”

Such an appraisal, in my estimation, is far from accurate. Though blunt and (at times) quite forceful in his argumentation, St. Jerome has a far different side to him; this is most especially seen in his letters to women, or his consolatory letters to friends grieving loved ones. In such letters, we find a remarkable tenderness as Jerome conveys his affection for his friends, always seeking to direct them to God. In true priestly fashion, we see that Jerome is quite ready to adapt his tone, style, and diction to the particular needs of his audience; the staff to guide a wandering sheep, the rod to rebuke the prowling wolves. In some cases, however, even the sheep need the rod—such was the case with the young Heliodorus.

A promising novice whom Jerome knew, Heliodorus had decided to abandon his monastic vows and return to his secular life in Rome. St. Jerome, in his letter, begins by expressing his sorrow at Heliodorus’s departure, and recounting his deliberation about how to best express himself. But Jerome quickly passes over the pleasantries: “Offended love does well to be angry. You have spurned my petition; perhaps you will listen to my remonstrance. What keeps you, effeminate soldier, in your father's house?” Harsh words, perhaps—but they match the gravity of Heliodorus’s sin.

Jerome chastises Heliodorus for “abandoning his post” as an “enlisted soldier for Christ.” As a professed monk, Heliodorus has publicly promised (to Christ and His Church!) to live a life of penance, asceticism, and prayer. But now he has gone back on his vows—grave matter in any circumstance, but most especially a grave sin when committed against God Himself. So, St. Jerome’s excoriation of Heliodorus is not a result of ill-temper, but is an example of fraternal correction—a stinging antiseptic, but intended to call him to repentance.

Lest we think Jerome heartless, he goes on: “I am not ignorant of the fetters which you may plead as hindrances. My breast is not of iron nor my heart of stone. I was not born of flint or suckled by a tigress. I have passed through troubles like yours myself.” He goes on to recount the many pleas of family, old friends, and familiar folk who so often try to dissuade young novices to abandon their call to religious life. Christ Himself warned, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the service in the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 9:62). Jerome, speaking to the many who would hold back Heliodorus, echoes Christ’s injunction: “If they believe in Christ let them bid me God-speed, for I go to fight in His name. And if they do not believe, ‘let the dead bury their dead.’”

Jerome’s use of militaristic language may seem to us moderns a bit brash and “extremist”—but recall, Holy Scripture itself is full of such language, throughout the Old Testament into the New, from St. Paul to Revelation—even the words of Christ Himself. To St. Jerome, spiritual warfare is real, and though Heliodorus’s cowardice by no means entails a lost battle for Christ’s Kingdom, it does put Heliodorus at risk of forfeiting the spoils of battle—namely, an inheritance in Heaven.

Far from merely tearing down and belittling Heliodorus for his error, Jerome encourages him and bids him return: “I invite you now; come, and come quickly. Do not call to mind old ties; the desert is for those who have left all. Nor let the hardships of our former travels deter you. You believe in Christ, believe also in His words: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.’ Take neither scrip nor staff. He is rich enough who is poor — with Christ. […] My brother, it is affection which has urged me to speak thus; that you who now find the Christian life so hard may have your reward in that day.”

St. Jerome’s Letter 14 (to Heliodorus) provides an excellent window into the mind of the great saint. Throughout his writings, it is evident that much of Jerome’s “prickliness” stems from the fact that he finds many Christians lax in the practice of their faith. After the cessation of Roman persecution, and as it became socially acceptable (and even materially profitable) to become a Christian, mass “conversions” had filled the pure wheat-fields of the Church with so much chaff and tares. With the great “popularization” of Christianity came a general relaxation in the strictness of Christian observance, and many newly-professed Christians came to see the pious examples and ascetical practices of the Desert Fathers as unnecessary to the Christian life.

Such laxity in practice even threatened the purity of Church teaching. In Jerome’s Treatise on the Perpetual Virgin Mary, he responds (quite forcefully) to the heresies of Helvidius, who claimed—contrary to the Church—that Mary did not remain a virgin all her life. In his Against Jovinian, Jerome takes up the pen against Jovinian, who taught—against the words of St. Paul and Christ Himself—that celibacy afforded no advantages to the spiritual life over marriage. After himself emulating the ascetical life of Christ and seeing its benefits in his life (and the lives of the countless others he advised), it is a small wonder that St. Jerome was so zealous to promote the ascetic and monastic lifestyle—one which had served as a powerful model of holiness to Christians (and has for centuries).

If, then, we find St. Jerome’s writings to be “harsh” or “demanding,” we may do well to examine our own preconceptions of the Christian life. Rooted as he is in the biblical text, Jerome never bids us do anything that is not, in some way, contained in Scripture or enjoined directly by Christ. He hardly writes a thought without some reference to the written Tradition of the Church (an example for all of us to follow). His Treatises provide excellent rebuttals to Protestant talking-points, and his Letters contain inestimable treasures of both consolation and exhortation to any who are considering religious life.

The debt that the Church owes St. Jerome is immeasurable, and every faithful Catholic would do well to regard him as a dear friend in faith, a zealous ascetic, and a great defender of the Christian religious ideal.

006: Tulsa Time with Bishop Konderla – Contributing to the Life of the Church

Made for More – Exodus90

Fr. Simeon Spitz – Perfecting Holiness