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

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Living the Faith in April

But of course, we’re not there yet. April’s first weeks are still in Lent, so be sure to hang in there with those Lenten practices! If you are short on spiritual reading, perhaps take a look at some of the saints with feast days that fall during Lent. The rousing Lenten sermons of St. Vincent Ferrer (April 5) would be a great source to reflect upon. St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (April 6) also has some works, such as his Meditations, or his Duties of a Christian, which would make for good reading during this time. Right at the end of Lent, we enter Passiontide on Palm Sunday (April 10). Quite unusual among the other Masses of the liturgical year, Palm Sunday is the only time we have a responsorial Gospel, where we act out the drama of Christ’s condemnation to death. This is a wonderful exercise in the sacramental nature of the Catholic faith: just as every Eucharist offered “connects” the present to the past in a very real way, so too on Palm Sunday, we “present” ourselves at Christ’s condemnation—and at no moment are we more present than when we ourselves say those words of condemnation: “Crucify him!” Being so present can cause us to wince—as we ought to every time we renounce our Savior, even by the littlest of sins. Another wonderful tradition celebrated during Passiontide is the Tenebrae service. Coming from the Latin word meaning “Darkness,” Tenebrae is rooted in ancient monastic prayer services known as the Liturgy of the Hours. As the Lamentations of Jerimiah are read, candles are slowly extinguished one by one, representing Israel’s fading hope through her centuries of exile, with her sorrows culminating (as we know) in the death of her Messiah. The Diocese typically hosts one at the Cathedral; check with your pastor to see if he is planning one for your parish! Since Passiontide’s dramatic “re-living” of Christ’s suffering is uniquely Catholic in its sacramentality, it makes a wonderful opportunity to invite our Protestant brothers and sisters to experience Christ in a very powerful way. My first experience of a Catholic Holy Week was something that helped me on my journey into the Catholic Church, and I would invite you to ask at least one friend or family member to join you for a similar experience this Holy Week. Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter…any or all of these Masses would be an excellent opportunity to introduce someone you know to the beauty of our Catholic faith and witness the power of the Liturgy. Of course, the biggest joy of April is Easter! The Triduum begins with Holy Thursday and continues into Good Friday, concluding with the Easter Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday. There are a myriad of devotions you can do during these days; perhaps you can keep a late prayer vigil on Holy Thursday after Mass, or watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Good Friday is an excellent day to go to your local parish and sit in front of the tabernacle—what would normally be called “adoration”—and meditate upon the emptiness of life without Christ. Some parishes do a “Tre Ore” prayer service, meditating upon the “Seven Last Words” of Christ in commemoration of His three hours of agony on the cross. Of course, the Stations of the Cross is another wonderful form of devotion for the day. Finally comes the Easter Vigil, which celebrates the Resurrection and the new life which Christ brings into the world! As challenging as it may be, stay up for the Vigil Mass in anticipation of Christ’s Resurrection; after all, such should be the anticipation we feel for Christ’s return in glory—so why not exercise those virtues of hope and joy? Of course, it is only fitting to celebrate Easter Sunday in a special way with the family. If you have traditional celebrations, such as an Easter brunch, then by all means keep those traditions going! If you don’t have any “regular” way of celebrating Easter, why not start one? Family picnics and hikes are both great ways to “encounter” the Resurrection in a very tangible way—especially by noting the new fauna and flora, seeing once-dead trees springing forth shoots of new life. Dyeing, racing, and hunting for Easter eggs can be a great activity to bring the family together and turn off the electronics. Whatever you do to celebrate, take some time to meditate on the power of Christ’s Resurrection to animate all that we do. After all, as St. Paul says, “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Of course, the celebration doesn’t stop on Monday! After a full season of fasting and penance, Holy Mother Church asks us to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ with a full season of festive celebration! Find a way to celebrate the Octave of Easter, or perhaps the whole of Eastertide, with personal devotions. Perhaps continue your spiritual reading with St. Louis de Montfort’s (April 28) Secret of the Rosary or True Devotion to Mary. Or, take up the mystical Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (April 29), a celebrated Doctor of the Church. Or, perhaps, you’re a sponsor for someone who will be baptized or confirmed this Easter. Why not read a spiritual book with them, and continue to strengthen them in their newfound faith? St. Augustine’s Confessions is a wonderful meditation to start with, while the Rule of St. Benedict or St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life provide good “practical” guides to Catholic spirituality. Easter brings new life, and with it, endless possibilities. However you celebrate, give thanks to the Lord for the gift of life—and the life which is only made possible to us through the gift of Christ!

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Faith of our Fathers: St. Justin Martyr

Not much is known about the life of St. Justin Martyr. A second-century apologist and martyr born around 100 A.D., Justin first began life as a pagan Greek. Dissatisfied with his early studies, he began wandering among the fashionable philosophical schools of his day—from Stoics to Peripatetics to Pythagoreans. Finally, Justin felt some sense of rest in Platonism, but upon hearing of the existence of some prophets who, centuries before, had been animated by the Spirit of the One True God, he became intrigued. In studying the Christian faith and witnessing the virtuous and ascetic lives led by the Christian faithful, Justin was converted and began to teach Christianity as the “true philosophy.” At one point opening his own school in Rome, Justin came to earn the disfavor of the Roman authorities, and was beheaded for his Christian faith in the 160s A.D. His written work survived him, and he is most known for his two Apologies (“Defenses” of the Christian faith), and his later Dialogue with Trypho, a spirited disputation with a Jew over whether Christ is truly the Jewish Messiah.
In both the First and Second Apology, St. Justin Martyr seeks to dissuade the Roman emperor Antonius Pius and the Roman Senate from continuing the persecution of Christians of his own day. In order to do this, Justin appeals to justice, arguing that the moral and civic virtue of the Christian people makes it manifestly unfair to punish them. Justin argues that the conduct of Christians—including their respect for civil law, abstinence from all crimes and disturbance of the peace, offering prayers for the emperors and governors, and the charitable work of the Church for the poor and needy—rather than earning death sentences, ought to win the praise and favor of the Roman authorities. The life of a Christian, Justin argues, represents that of a model citizen, even better than many other Roman citizens who live their lives undisturbed. And so, justice demands that the persecution of Christians cease. To build his case, Justin offers a brief summary of various misunderstood points of the Christian faith—allegations of atheism, sorcery, and cannibalism, in particular—many of which had been leveled against Christians as justification for Roman violence. In the course of his arguments, however, Justin frequently compares the teaching of Christians with those of other, earlier Greek and Roman thinkers. By pointing out the similarities between, say, the teachings of Plato and those of Christ, Justin seeks to demonstrate that Christianity is not opposed to, but rather harmonious with, many elements of existing Greco-Roman culture and values. In light of Justin’s goals, and the widespread religious pluralism of his day, it would have perhaps been easier for Justin to mention only the similarities of these religious traditions—opting to neglect the radical differences between the Christian and the Pagan in order to “smooth over” diplomatic relations. Justin, however, refused to do this; instead, he confidently supports the divergence of Christian faith from many points of Roman religion, especially denouncing the worship of multiple “gods”—whom Justin frequently refers to as “demons.” Throughout his writings, Justin does not only seek to claim that, but also why, giving his Roman audience the opportunity to see that, while Christian tradition diverges from Roman tradition, it does not do so arbitrarily, but for good and compelling reasons. As Justin’s own conversion was prompted by his learning of the Old Testament prophets, he frequently makes reference to them in his own arguments. If various nomadic and unusual historical figures were, at different times and places across the centuries, capable of foretelling the events of Christ’s birth, life, and death—if this is all true, then surely, Justin argues, these ought to be considered divine signs of authenticity. But perhaps the most compelling evidence in favor of Christianity that Justin finds lies not in the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, but rather in the Greek “prophets”: the poets and philosophers. Immediately before the above passage, Justin explains that the “seed of Reason [Logos] is implanted in every race of men” (II Apology, IIX). This means that all cultures are bound together by access to the same fundamental and transcendental realities such as Truth, Beauty, Uprightness, and the like. These realities are accessible to all by reason; thus those who have the opportunity to exercise their reason most—for example, lawyers and philosophers—often come into contact with these realities, and can “speak well” regarding them. In the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil, one can find a plethora of truths and insights into the nature of reality, God, and the mystery of mankind. Justin, however, makes a monopolizing claim for the Christian faith: “whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word.” That is to say, whatever truths the Greek poets and philosophers encountered through the use of their reason, those truths have their origin in the eternal Word—Jesus Christ. This point is generally summed up in the contemporary maxim “all truth is God’s truth,” though for Justin the idea is more nuanced. Often, different thinkers will come to different conclusions, and this was no less the case with the Greeks. The reason for this, Justin argues, is because their contemplation of the Word was restricted to only those things which could be known by reason, and so their knowledge of the truth was piecemeal: “since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.” The corollary to this is that now, since the Word has been made known through Christ and the Incarnation, we have access to the whole of the Word—through the testimony of the Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments. We no longer need suffer the contradictions that arise when we try to probe the mysteries of reality, for Reality Himself has come to us! “And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies.” Here, Justin points out that the affinity between certain Greco-Roman philosophers and later Christians is not limited to their shared quest for truth, but also the great sufferings that they both undergo. In particular, Justin alludes to Socrates, who “was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves [specifically, atheism and the corruption of the youth]. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized.” But though Justin sees in Socrates a great friend of the Christian faith, he nevertheless points out the deficiencies in the Greek attempt to comprehend God’s essence by reason alone: “he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying that it is [not] easy to find the Father and Maker of all.” According to the Greeks, only one who had studied philosophy—arduously trying to hone and perfect his thinking for the better part of his life—would have the ability to peek behind the veil of reality and contemplate God; and even then, they would only have a glimpse. In a society where most were slaves, or illiterate, or too poor to afford an education, this meant that almost nobody would have access to God. “But these things our Christ did through His own power.” That is, Christ Himself, in His own person, makes manifest to us the mystery of the Father, as He explains in John’s Gospel: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9). Not only that, but Christ Himself declares the mysteries of God to all men: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared Him” (Jn. 1:18). This means that, as Justin points out, “not only philosophers and scholars” can be taught to understand the mysteries of God, “but also artisans and people entirely uneducated.” The contrast made between Christ and Socrates here is subtle, but important. As Justin points out, many Greek philosophers were killed for their teachings—some of which, as in the case of Socrates, were true. This made educating an uneducated, illiterate society both difficult and dangerous: “it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.” But what the Greeks were unable (and, in many respects, unwilling) to accomplish, Christ brought about through His perfect teaching and example. Both Socrates and Christ died for teaching the truth, but only Christ rose from the dead, “since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason.” St. Justin Martyr thus stands out as an early defender of the implicit harmony between Greco-Roman thought and Christian faith. What these “prophets” knew in part, Christ made known in full, not only to the most erudite and sophisticated, but also (and especially) to the simple and lowly. This line of thought allowed later Christians to engage more deeply with the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition; a conversation which subsequently shaped the Western world over the next 1500 years. In many ways, then, St. Justin Martyr can be truly credited as a forerunner to some of the most robust thinkers of the Christian faith, as the trailblazing apologist of a Christianity that could indeed be called “true philosophy.”

Stella Coeli (“Star of Heaven”)