Dcn. Harrison Garlick
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Dcn. Harrison Garlick serves as a Great Books Tutor for the Alcuin Institute, and is the Chancellor of the Diocese of Tulsa.

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Dcn. Harrison Garlick Archives

ON FAITH & FORTITUDE: THE SHIELD OF SIR GAWAIN

On New Year’s Eve, King Arthur was with his knights and other guests at the round table. As was his custom, King Arthur would not begin to eat until he had heard some story of wonder and renown. Suddenly, a man on horseback came riding into his hall. He was a giant clothed completely in the color green bearing a huge, ornate axe. In fact, to the amazement of the guests, the half-giant knight had skin and hair colored green—even his horse was green. Known aptly as the “Green Knight,” he issued a challenge to those brave heroes in Arthur’s hall: one of them would be permitted to strike the Green Knight once with his own axe, and then the Green Knight would strike him once in return.

The hall was silent before the massive, green man. Eventually, Sir Gawain stood before the Green Knight and brokered terms of the holiday game. Sir Gawain would strike the Green Knight and then, a year later, Sir Gawain would have to journey to the chapel of the Green Knight to stand and receive his strike.

Sir Gawain lifted the axe and swung with all his might—the head of the Green Knight went rolling across the floor. The game had apparently come to its predictable end. Yet, to the amazement of King Arthur’s court, the headless knight walked over, picked up his head, and galloped away, reminding Sir Gawain he would see him one year hence.

In this 14th century anonymous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, our hero must find the fortitude to journey and face his green foe. While his overall pilgrimage is certainly worth reading (please do not watch the 2021 movie), what is most apt for us is how Sir Gawain found the fortitude he needed to start his journey. The author spends a great amount of time telling us about Sir Gawain’s armor, but most notable for us is his shield. On the inside of his shield, Sir Gawain has painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this manner, when he lifts his shield in battle, her eyes will meet his – and he will be encouraged. In the maternal eyes of Mary, he will find the fortitude necessary to do what is asked of him.

Sir Gawain invites us to understand that fortitude is necessary for a virtuous life. It does not matter if you are smart enough to understand what is right if you are too afraid to do it. How many of us know what the Gospel demands of us but buckle under the pressure of our culture?

Though our faith makes demands upon our fortitude, it also helps it. Faith perfects or strengthens our fortitude. This interplay between faith and fortitude is reflected in today’s Scripture readings.

In the first reading, the author praises the Jews whose faith in God allowed them to have the bravery to endure hardships and await justice (Wis 18:6-9). The author states, “Your people awaited the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes”—their faith allowed their fortitude to hold.

In the second reading, we see how the faith of Abraham gave him the courage to leave his homeland and endure hardships for the sake of the vocation to which God had called him (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19). The greatest test of which was God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his only son—Isaac. Abraham’s fortitude, perfected by his faith, allowed for a narrative that would foreshadow God the Father sending His own Son to be sacrificed.

Third, in today’s Gospel, Christ tells us to “[g]ird your loins and light your lamps”—to be brave and to have faith (Lk 12:32-48). For to us, His “little flock,” He has given the Kingdom, if we can endure the hardships of the world for the sake of the Cross.

After linking the virtues of faith and fortitude, our Gospel today ends with a warning. Alluding to the end times, Christ tells us that when the Master comes, He will throw the wicked servant amongst the “unfaithful” for punishment. A clear analogue to hell. Yet, He says of the servant who knew the will of his Master but did not do it—that servant will be saved but punished severely. A clear analogue to purgatory.

Christ’s warning is clear: We will be disciplined—either by our own will in this life or by the Divine Will in the life to come. Knowing the will of God is not enough. We must have the fortitude to live the Gospel—to be mocked, to be alienated, to endure hardship all for the sake of Jesus Christ.

May we, like Sir Gawain, find encouragement in Mother Mary to live the life expected of us—a life of faith and fortitude.

On the Poem the Pearl & Seeking the Higher Good

We come upon a man who has lost something. A spotless pearl has slipped through his fingers and is now lost in the earth. He grieves and cries. His heart hurts with a cruel pain and a torment churns within his chest (Pearl, no. 2). He lays on the mound in the garden still seeking his pearl—but his pearl will never be found. For the pearl that slipped through his fingers into the earth was his infant daughter, now buried beneath him. He lies on her grave crying out for his perfect pearl, and he drifts into sleep. Providence provides the father with a vision. The man is transported to a celestial garden with crystal cliffs and jeweled forests (nos. 7-9). He walks until he comes to a river with waves like glass illuminated by light, shining like the stars. On the other side of the river, he observes great heavenly cliffs, and at their base, walking by the river, he sees a beautiful young woman (no.14). She is arrayed like a heavenly queen, a bride of Christ, with glistening robes all adorned with pearls. The longer the man looks, the more his heart knows that this young woman is somehow his daughter. She is his spotless pearl. Overcome with bliss, his heart expands just to contain the joy. The father cries out to his lost daughter. Yet, the heavenly maiden turns her grey eyes upon her father with a cool and collected spirit. She is reserved and, with a surreal solemnity, gently reproaches her father for what she calls “madness” (no. 23). The anticipated reunion of father and daughter gives way to daughter, now a heavenly saint, expressing her concerns for him. Why does he grieve for her when she is safe in heaven—but he is still in the struggles of life? Why does he seek her in heaven and not God? The jarring nature of their reunion is, at its heart, a clash of earthly expectations against divine ones. What follows is a beautiful dialogue between father and daughter about the nature of true happiness and what her father must do to secure it. In a preliminary manner, the jarring character of the father’s reunion with the daughter is reflected in the meeting of Jesus, Mary, and Martha. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, lies at the feet of Jesus listening to Him, while Martha flitters around the house serving her guests. When Martha asks our Lord for Martha to help, it is somewhat contrary to our expectations to hear Christ decline and side with Mary. Is it not good for Martha to serve her guests? Often, we reduce the moral life to avoiding evil and choosing the good. And while this is arguably the most basic moral precept, much of life is actually choosing between different goods. It was good that the father loved his daughter, just as it was good Martha wanted to serve her guests. In both cases, however, the father and Martha had to learn to choose a higher good over a lesser good. It was good the father loved his daughter, but it was better for him to love God. It was good Martha wanted to serve others, but it was better for her to be at the feet of Jesus. A key insight here, however, is that seeking the higher good does not exclude the lower. In fact, the higher will always perfect the lower. If the father loves God first, then he will love his daughter with a more perfect love. If Martha chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus, then it will ultimately perfect her service to others. At the end of the Pearl, an anonymous 1300s poem, the daughter, that queenly, heavenly virgin, a true spotless pearl, shows her father that true happiness is in God. He then sees the Lamb, standing victorious yet slain, and the father is so overcome with zeal to be with God that he attempts to cross the river. He awakes from his dream on the grave of his daughter. He still must live his earthly pilgrimage. He must seek the true Pearl, Jesus Christ, and order all other goods to this end.

Solzhenitsyn and True Freedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stood before 20,000 people at the 1978 Harvard graduation ceremony. Aleksandr, a Russian, had spent ten years of hard labor in the Soviet gulags on trumped up charges before fleeing to the United States. He had risen to fame in the West by shining a light on Soviet atrocities through his writings, such as The Gulag Archipelago, a true accounting of those who endured the inhumanity of the Soviet labor camps. Thus, as he stood before Harvard University, he was expected to lambaste the Soviets and praise the West, especially the United States, in which he had found refuge. Yet, Aleksandr took an unexpected turn. While he certainly lamented the suffering of his homeland under the Soviets, he took up the question of whether he would recommend the West as a model for his home country—he answered “no.” Shocking his audience, he further explained that under the West men and women had become fractured, atomized, and subject to a false freedom. He observed that this false sense of freedom had taught mankind that there was no “higher force” above him—that man was an autonomous moral universe. It was a freedom that would end in ruin. The disease Aleksandr diagnosed in the late 1970s has only metastasized and increased in severity. For us, as moderns and Americans, the concept of freedom means a lack of restraint and a plurality of options for our own self-creation. The more choices we have, the more freedom we believe we have. Thus, our modern age tells us that we are the most freewhen we have the most choices to pursue what we desire. Most notably, this modern notion of freedom is almost entirely removed from considerations of what is good or bad. Freedom is just about choice—what is good or bad is relative to each individual. This notion of freedom would have been incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks and Romans and our own Early Church Fathers. The ancient notion of freedom was not about maximizing choice but was rather about self-discipline. Freedom, for the ancients, meant cultivating a self-governance that freed you from our inclination toward evil and disorder. True freedom was cultivated in a person by practicing virtue. In fact, the original meaning of the liberal arts was an education that freed you to pursue the good, the beautiful, and the true. Freedom meant you were free to choose what was good and you had that interior freedom by the virtue of self-governance and self-control. You were the master of your passions and desires—not the other way around. If freedom truly is the ability to choose what is good and beautiful in this life, then to choose what is evil cannot be an act of authentic freedom. Here, we see the ancient understanding of freedom at work in the New Testament. As St. Paul tells us, to sin is not an expression of our freedom but rather of slavery. He who sins is not free. If we use our freedom to choose gossip, to amass material goods, to consume pornography, to lie, and to pursue what we deem good over what is truly good, God—then we are not free persons but slaves. We are, in fact, the most free when we pursue what is the most good—God. We are the most free when we are detached from sin and choose what is good, beautiful, and true. Let us not fall prey to the false freedom of our age. What the world praises as freedom is slavery. Let us truly be free in Jesus Christ by exercising self-governance by disciplining our desires and cultivating virtues.  

How to Read the Bible like Aquinas & Dante

St. Jerome states, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (CCC 112). In other words, we come to know the reality of Jesus Christ by reading Holy Scripture. Yet, what if we read the Bible incorrectly? If the Scriptures are a source of knowledge about our Lord, would not a wrong reading of the text twist our understanding of Christ? We, especially as moderns, are always in danger of distorting the Gospel to meet our own ideological standards. As Bishop Konderla teaches, “We are called to measure ourselves against the teaching of Christ and His Church, not our own imaginations or standards.” He continues, “We must receive the Jesus Christ who came two-thousand years ago, not create a ‘Jesus’ who meets the fashions and fads of this age” (God Builds a House, 6). If we are to discipline ourselves to receive Jesus—and not manufacture a “Jesus”—then a vital part of that reception is a proper understanding of how to know Christ in Holy Scripture. How then does the Church teach us to read Holy Scripture? In the 1300s, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote a letter to his patron, Lord Cangrande della Scala, regarding how one should read the Divine Comedy.  His answer was simple: you read the Comedy the same way you read the Bible. In summary of Sacred Tradition, Dante explains that there are four senses or ways to read Holy Scripture: literal and three spiritual ways, i.e., allegorical, moral, and anagogical. These four senses were also taught by St. Thomas Aquinas (STI.1.10) and are contained in the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC” 115-19). They represent the time-tested wisdom of the Church on how to come to know and love Jesus Christ through the Holy Scriptures. Let us examine each “sense” of biblical interpretation, how it relates to the others, and how they all draw us into a deeper relationship with our Lord. The literal sense of Scripture is also known as the “historical sense.” St. Thomas notes the literal sense is the meaning the author intended. For example, Dante gives the simple illustration of the passage: “When Israel went out of Egypt.” He observes, “If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses.” The literal is simply the intended, historical meaning of a text. It is important, however, to interpret the literal correctly, because “all other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116). Similarly, Aquinas states that the spiritual sense of Scripture—allegorical, moral, and anagogical—is “based on the literal and presupposes it.” The importance of the literal sense of Scripture as foundational to all other senses emphasizes how vital it is that Catholics read commentaries that are faithful to the magisterium. Like a broken foundation of a home, a slanted literal sense can distort the greater spiritual senses built upon it. The allegorical sense is the first of the three types of the “spiritual sense.” In the allegorical sense, Dante teaches that the aforementioned verse about Israel exiting Egypt “means for us our redemption done by Christ.” But what does the exodus of Israel have to do with Christ? A lot. In the allegorical sense, the reader is always looking for types or signs of how one thing in Scripture signifies another. For example, Israel in bondage to Egypt is similar to us in bondage to sin. Here, Moses would be a type of Christ. He leads the People of God out of Egypt to the Promise Land, as Christ leads us out from sin and into grace and salvation. Moses serves as a sign pointing forward to the reality of Christ. Moreover, both Israel and the Christian faithful find the portal of their salvation through water: the Red Sea and Holy Baptism (CCC 117). In their journey to the Promised Land, the Israelites are given bread from heaven, mana; and in our earthly journey toward our Promised Land, heaven, we are given the Bread of Angels, the Holy Eucharist. Christ himself makes this allegorical comparison in the Eucharist Discourse (John 6). The relationship between the allegorical and the literal gives rise to a fundamental principle of reading the Bible: the Old Testament foreshadows the New, and the New Testament perfects the Old. This dynamic between the Old and New Testament, as expressed in signs, serves as an allegorical foundation to both the moral sense and the anagogical sense. The moral sense answers the question: how should I act? It is arguably the spiritual sense with which we are most familiar when trying to read Scripture. The Church teaches, “The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly” (CCC 117). What moral lesson does Dante draw from Israel leaving Egypt? As noted, the moral sense is informed by the allegorical. For example, Dante presents Israel leaving Egypt as “the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace.” We take the comparisons drawn from the allegorical sense and apply them to our own pursuit of holiness. If Israel leaving the bondage of Egypt is like humanity being delivered by Christ, then how can I apply this lesson to my own moral life? How can I leave behind sin and pursue holiness? St. Thomas says the moral sense focuses on “things done in Christ,” and “what we ought to do.” The allegorical can help the moral dimension of Scripture unfold into a beautiful guide to our earthly pilgrimage. The anagogical sense is arguably the most foreign to modern readers of Scripture. The Catechism expresses that the term anagogical comes from the Greek term anagoge which means “leading” (CCC 117). What is the Scripture ultimately leading us toward? The Church teaches that in the anagogical sense: “We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland” (CCC 117). If the moral is how should I act? then the anagogical is what does this teach me about my final end, i.e., eternal happiness with God in heaven? Like the moral, the anagogical draws from the allegorical to find types and signs. As St. Thomas observes, the anagogical looks for signs that “signify what relates to eternal glory.” For example, Dante notes that the anagogical lesson of Israel leaving Egypt is the final salvation of “the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” The anagogical sense always points us toward our heavenly home. “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” The four senses of Holy Scripture are a gift from our Sacred Tradition to delve deeper into the mystery of the Bible and thus, in turn, into the mystery of Jesus Christ. Interpreting Scripture aright allows us, as Bishop Konderla instructed, to receive the Jesus Christ that entered into history and not manufacture a “Jesus” out of the fads and fashions of our age. The literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical senses are an invitation to configure ourselves to Jesus Christ and inoculate us against the errors of the present. May we, like Aquinas and Dante, come to love Jesus Christ in the Holy Bible.

Hector, First of the Nine Worthies

Amongst the stone filigree of the 13th century city hall of Cologne stand statues of men called the “Nine Worthies.” These exemplars of chivalric virtue were first presented by Jacques de Longuyon in his 13th century work, “The Vows of the Peacock.” Also known as the “Nine Good Heroes,” these warriors are Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Emperor Charlemagne, and King Godfrey of Bouillon, representing three pagans, three Jews, and three Catholics. The first of these Nine Worthies, Hector, serves as an introduction to virtue. What does it mean to be virtuous? In Greek, the term for virtue is arête, meaning “excellence.” While its ancient etymology is somewhat obscure, it may be derived from Ares, the god of war, and reveal the primal origin of virtue as prowess in combat. Hector, as presented by Homer in the Iliad, exhibits this virtue as the stalwart defender of Troy. Hector is lauded as having slain “nineteen kings in hand-to-hand combat.”[1] The prince of Troy and general of her armies was the first into the fray and the last to retreat. He is, without doubt, the most skilled warrior of Troy. Yet, is the virtue of Hector reducible to his skill in combat? Homer offers the juxtaposition of Achilles. Achilles is colored by rage and fights for his own glory. Hector fights for Troy and his beloved Trojans. Achilles stands idly by watching his own countrymen die to assuage his pride. Once he does rejoin the war, his aptitude for combat is equaled only by his cruelty and bloodlust. He slaughters men begging at his feet for mercy, denies his enemies their proper burial rites, and offers Trojans as human sacrifices. Ultimately, Hector, “the breaker of horses,” dies by the hand of Achilles, “the breaker of men.” If arête found its fullness in proficiency of war, then Achilles would be presented as the triumphant protagonist. Yet, Homer brings the Iliad to a close with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the triumph of Achilles over Troy nor his death are recorded. Homer arguably turns the primal notion of virtue on its head by ending the narrative with praise and honor for the warrior who lost the duel. The virtue of Hector certainly included courage and military might—but it also encompassed his love for Troy and her people. It was the latter that animated the former into something praiseworthy and beautiful. The death of Hector serves as an introduction to true virtue. The primordial form of virtue blossoms in the writings of Homer and develops throughout the ages of Alexander the Great and Caesar. In fact, the presentation of the Nine Worthies can be seen broadly as an ongoing perfection of virtue. The paganism of antiquity and its heroes exhibits a certain flourishing of the nature of man and his natural excellence. This natural arête is then coupled with the virtue of following God’s self-revelation as shown by the heroes of the Old Testament. Finally, our nature is healed and elevated by the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ allowing worthies such as Charlemagne to seek the supernatural perfection of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Thus, the Nine Worthies serve as an illustrative instruction on the formation of virtue, a pedagogy—especially for boys and young men—in cultivating a chivalric spirit configured to Jesus Christ. And one of the first tests of an adolescent’s pursuit of virtue is whether he esteems the bravado of Achilles or the death of Hector, first of the Nine Worthies.   [1] Jehan Wauquelin, The Medieval Romance of Alexander, trans. Nigel Bryant (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2012), Appendix Three.

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ON FAITH & FORTITUDE: THE SHIELD OF SIR GAWAIN

On New Year’s Eve, King Arthur was with his knights and other guests at the round table. As was his custom, King Arthur would not begin to eat until he had heard some story of wonder and renown. Suddenly, a man on horseback came riding into his hall. He was a giant clothed completely in the color green bearing a huge, ornate axe. In fact, to the amazement of the guests, the half-giant knight had skin and hair colored green—even his horse was green. Known aptly as the “Green Knight,” he issued a challenge to those brave heroes in Arthur’s hall: one of them would be permitted to strike the Green Knight once with his own axe, and then the Green Knight would strike him once in return.

The hall was silent before the massive, green man. Eventually, Sir Gawain stood before the Green Knight and brokered terms of the holiday game. Sir Gawain would strike the Green Knight and then, a year later, Sir Gawain would have to journey to the chapel of the Green Knight to stand and receive his strike.

Sir Gawain lifted the axe and swung with all his might—the head of the Green Knight went rolling across the floor. The game had apparently come to its predictable end. Yet, to the amazement of King Arthur’s court, the headless knight walked over, picked up his head, and galloped away, reminding Sir Gawain he would see him one year hence.

In this 14th century anonymous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, our hero must find the fortitude to journey and face his green foe. While his overall pilgrimage is certainly worth reading (please do not watch the 2021 movie), what is most apt for us is how Sir Gawain found the fortitude he needed to start his journey. The author spends a great amount of time telling us about Sir Gawain’s armor, but most notable for us is his shield. On the inside of his shield, Sir Gawain has painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this manner, when he lifts his shield in battle, her eyes will meet his – and he will be encouraged. In the maternal eyes of Mary, he will find the fortitude necessary to do what is asked of him.

Sir Gawain invites us to understand that fortitude is necessary for a virtuous life. It does not matter if you are smart enough to understand what is right if you are too afraid to do it. How many of us know what the Gospel demands of us but buckle under the pressure of our culture?

Though our faith makes demands upon our fortitude, it also helps it. Faith perfects or strengthens our fortitude. This interplay between faith and fortitude is reflected in today’s Scripture readings.

In the first reading, the author praises the Jews whose faith in God allowed them to have the bravery to endure hardships and await justice (Wis 18:6-9). The author states, “Your people awaited the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes”—their faith allowed their fortitude to hold.

In the second reading, we see how the faith of Abraham gave him the courage to leave his homeland and endure hardships for the sake of the vocation to which God had called him (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19). The greatest test of which was God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his only son—Isaac. Abraham’s fortitude, perfected by his faith, allowed for a narrative that would foreshadow God the Father sending His own Son to be sacrificed.

Third, in today’s Gospel, Christ tells us to “[g]ird your loins and light your lamps”—to be brave and to have faith (Lk 12:32-48). For to us, His “little flock,” He has given the Kingdom, if we can endure the hardships of the world for the sake of the Cross.

After linking the virtues of faith and fortitude, our Gospel today ends with a warning. Alluding to the end times, Christ tells us that when the Master comes, He will throw the wicked servant amongst the “unfaithful” for punishment. A clear analogue to hell. Yet, He says of the servant who knew the will of his Master but did not do it—that servant will be saved but punished severely. A clear analogue to purgatory.

Christ’s warning is clear: We will be disciplined—either by our own will in this life or by the Divine Will in the life to come. Knowing the will of God is not enough. We must have the fortitude to live the Gospel—to be mocked, to be alienated, to endure hardship all for the sake of Jesus Christ.

May we, like Sir Gawain, find encouragement in Mother Mary to live the life expected of us—a life of faith and fortitude.

On the Poem the Pearl & Seeking the Higher Good

We come upon a man who has lost something. A spotless pearl has slipped through his fingers and is now lost in the earth. He grieves and cries. His heart hurts with a cruel pain and a torment churns within his chest (Pearl, no. 2). He lays on the mound in the garden still seeking his pearl—but his pearl will never be found. For the pearl that slipped through his fingers into the earth was his infant daughter, now buried beneath him. He lies on her grave crying out for his perfect pearl, and he drifts into sleep. Providence provides the father with a vision. The man is transported to a celestial garden with crystal cliffs and jeweled forests (nos. 7-9). He walks until he comes to a river with waves like glass illuminated by light, shining like the stars. On the other side of the river, he observes great heavenly cliffs, and at their base, walking by the river, he sees a beautiful young woman (no.14). She is arrayed like a heavenly queen, a bride of Christ, with glistening robes all adorned with pearls. The longer the man looks, the more his heart knows that this young woman is somehow his daughter. She is his spotless pearl. Overcome with bliss, his heart expands just to contain the joy. The father cries out to his lost daughter. Yet, the heavenly maiden turns her grey eyes upon her father with a cool and collected spirit. She is reserved and, with a surreal solemnity, gently reproaches her father for what she calls “madness” (no. 23). The anticipated reunion of father and daughter gives way to daughter, now a heavenly saint, expressing her concerns for him. Why does he grieve for her when she is safe in heaven—but he is still in the struggles of life? Why does he seek her in heaven and not God? The jarring nature of their reunion is, at its heart, a clash of earthly expectations against divine ones. What follows is a beautiful dialogue between father and daughter about the nature of true happiness and what her father must do to secure it. In a preliminary manner, the jarring character of the father’s reunion with the daughter is reflected in the meeting of Jesus, Mary, and Martha. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, lies at the feet of Jesus listening to Him, while Martha flitters around the house serving her guests. When Martha asks our Lord for Martha to help, it is somewhat contrary to our expectations to hear Christ decline and side with Mary. Is it not good for Martha to serve her guests? Often, we reduce the moral life to avoiding evil and choosing the good. And while this is arguably the most basic moral precept, much of life is actually choosing between different goods. It was good that the father loved his daughter, just as it was good Martha wanted to serve her guests. In both cases, however, the father and Martha had to learn to choose a higher good over a lesser good. It was good the father loved his daughter, but it was better for him to love God. It was good Martha wanted to serve others, but it was better for her to be at the feet of Jesus. A key insight here, however, is that seeking the higher good does not exclude the lower. In fact, the higher will always perfect the lower. If the father loves God first, then he will love his daughter with a more perfect love. If Martha chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus, then it will ultimately perfect her service to others. At the end of the Pearl, an anonymous 1300s poem, the daughter, that queenly, heavenly virgin, a true spotless pearl, shows her father that true happiness is in God. He then sees the Lamb, standing victorious yet slain, and the father is so overcome with zeal to be with God that he attempts to cross the river. He awakes from his dream on the grave of his daughter. He still must live his earthly pilgrimage. He must seek the true Pearl, Jesus Christ, and order all other goods to this end.

Solzhenitsyn and True Freedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stood before 20,000 people at the 1978 Harvard graduation ceremony. Aleksandr, a Russian, had spent ten years of hard labor in the Soviet gulags on trumped up charges before fleeing to the United States. He had risen to fame in the West by shining a light on Soviet atrocities through his writings, such as The Gulag Archipelago, a true accounting of those who endured the inhumanity of the Soviet labor camps. Thus, as he stood before Harvard University, he was expected to lambaste the Soviets and praise the West, especially the United States, in which he had found refuge. Yet, Aleksandr took an unexpected turn. While he certainly lamented the suffering of his homeland under the Soviets, he took up the question of whether he would recommend the West as a model for his home country—he answered “no.” Shocking his audience, he further explained that under the West men and women had become fractured, atomized, and subject to a false freedom. He observed that this false sense of freedom had taught mankind that there was no “higher force” above him—that man was an autonomous moral universe. It was a freedom that would end in ruin. The disease Aleksandr diagnosed in the late 1970s has only metastasized and increased in severity. For us, as moderns and Americans, the concept of freedom means a lack of restraint and a plurality of options for our own self-creation. The more choices we have, the more freedom we believe we have. Thus, our modern age tells us that we are the most freewhen we have the most choices to pursue what we desire. Most notably, this modern notion of freedom is almost entirely removed from considerations of what is good or bad. Freedom is just about choice—what is good or bad is relative to each individual. This notion of freedom would have been incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks and Romans and our own Early Church Fathers. The ancient notion of freedom was not about maximizing choice but was rather about self-discipline. Freedom, for the ancients, meant cultivating a self-governance that freed you from our inclination toward evil and disorder. True freedom was cultivated in a person by practicing virtue. In fact, the original meaning of the liberal arts was an education that freed you to pursue the good, the beautiful, and the true. Freedom meant you were free to choose what was good and you had that interior freedom by the virtue of self-governance and self-control. You were the master of your passions and desires—not the other way around. If freedom truly is the ability to choose what is good and beautiful in this life, then to choose what is evil cannot be an act of authentic freedom. Here, we see the ancient understanding of freedom at work in the New Testament. As St. Paul tells us, to sin is not an expression of our freedom but rather of slavery. He who sins is not free. If we use our freedom to choose gossip, to amass material goods, to consume pornography, to lie, and to pursue what we deem good over what is truly good, God—then we are not free persons but slaves. We are, in fact, the most free when we pursue what is the most good—God. We are the most free when we are detached from sin and choose what is good, beautiful, and true. Let us not fall prey to the false freedom of our age. What the world praises as freedom is slavery. Let us truly be free in Jesus Christ by exercising self-governance by disciplining our desires and cultivating virtues.  

How to Read the Bible like Aquinas & Dante

St. Jerome states, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (CCC 112). In other words, we come to know the reality of Jesus Christ by reading Holy Scripture. Yet, what if we read the Bible incorrectly? If the Scriptures are a source of knowledge about our Lord, would not a wrong reading of the text twist our understanding of Christ? We, especially as moderns, are always in danger of distorting the Gospel to meet our own ideological standards. As Bishop Konderla teaches, “We are called to measure ourselves against the teaching of Christ and His Church, not our own imaginations or standards.” He continues, “We must receive the Jesus Christ who came two-thousand years ago, not create a ‘Jesus’ who meets the fashions and fads of this age” (God Builds a House, 6). If we are to discipline ourselves to receive Jesus—and not manufacture a “Jesus”—then a vital part of that reception is a proper understanding of how to know Christ in Holy Scripture. How then does the Church teach us to read Holy Scripture? In the 1300s, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote a letter to his patron, Lord Cangrande della Scala, regarding how one should read the Divine Comedy.  His answer was simple: you read the Comedy the same way you read the Bible. In summary of Sacred Tradition, Dante explains that there are four senses or ways to read Holy Scripture: literal and three spiritual ways, i.e., allegorical, moral, and anagogical. These four senses were also taught by St. Thomas Aquinas (STI.1.10) and are contained in the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC” 115-19). They represent the time-tested wisdom of the Church on how to come to know and love Jesus Christ through the Holy Scriptures. Let us examine each “sense” of biblical interpretation, how it relates to the others, and how they all draw us into a deeper relationship with our Lord. The literal sense of Scripture is also known as the “historical sense.” St. Thomas notes the literal sense is the meaning the author intended. For example, Dante gives the simple illustration of the passage: “When Israel went out of Egypt.” He observes, “If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses.” The literal is simply the intended, historical meaning of a text. It is important, however, to interpret the literal correctly, because “all other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116). Similarly, Aquinas states that the spiritual sense of Scripture—allegorical, moral, and anagogical—is “based on the literal and presupposes it.” The importance of the literal sense of Scripture as foundational to all other senses emphasizes how vital it is that Catholics read commentaries that are faithful to the magisterium. Like a broken foundation of a home, a slanted literal sense can distort the greater spiritual senses built upon it. The allegorical sense is the first of the three types of the “spiritual sense.” In the allegorical sense, Dante teaches that the aforementioned verse about Israel exiting Egypt “means for us our redemption done by Christ.” But what does the exodus of Israel have to do with Christ? A lot. In the allegorical sense, the reader is always looking for types or signs of how one thing in Scripture signifies another. For example, Israel in bondage to Egypt is similar to us in bondage to sin. Here, Moses would be a type of Christ. He leads the People of God out of Egypt to the Promise Land, as Christ leads us out from sin and into grace and salvation. Moses serves as a sign pointing forward to the reality of Christ. Moreover, both Israel and the Christian faithful find the portal of their salvation through water: the Red Sea and Holy Baptism (CCC 117). In their journey to the Promised Land, the Israelites are given bread from heaven, mana; and in our earthly journey toward our Promised Land, heaven, we are given the Bread of Angels, the Holy Eucharist. Christ himself makes this allegorical comparison in the Eucharist Discourse (John 6). The relationship between the allegorical and the literal gives rise to a fundamental principle of reading the Bible: the Old Testament foreshadows the New, and the New Testament perfects the Old. This dynamic between the Old and New Testament, as expressed in signs, serves as an allegorical foundation to both the moral sense and the anagogical sense. The moral sense answers the question: how should I act? It is arguably the spiritual sense with which we are most familiar when trying to read Scripture. The Church teaches, “The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly” (CCC 117). What moral lesson does Dante draw from Israel leaving Egypt? As noted, the moral sense is informed by the allegorical. For example, Dante presents Israel leaving Egypt as “the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace.” We take the comparisons drawn from the allegorical sense and apply them to our own pursuit of holiness. If Israel leaving the bondage of Egypt is like humanity being delivered by Christ, then how can I apply this lesson to my own moral life? How can I leave behind sin and pursue holiness? St. Thomas says the moral sense focuses on “things done in Christ,” and “what we ought to do.” The allegorical can help the moral dimension of Scripture unfold into a beautiful guide to our earthly pilgrimage. The anagogical sense is arguably the most foreign to modern readers of Scripture. The Catechism expresses that the term anagogical comes from the Greek term anagoge which means “leading” (CCC 117). What is the Scripture ultimately leading us toward? The Church teaches that in the anagogical sense: “We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland” (CCC 117). If the moral is how should I act? then the anagogical is what does this teach me about my final end, i.e., eternal happiness with God in heaven? Like the moral, the anagogical draws from the allegorical to find types and signs. As St. Thomas observes, the anagogical looks for signs that “signify what relates to eternal glory.” For example, Dante notes that the anagogical lesson of Israel leaving Egypt is the final salvation of “the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” The anagogical sense always points us toward our heavenly home. “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” The four senses of Holy Scripture are a gift from our Sacred Tradition to delve deeper into the mystery of the Bible and thus, in turn, into the mystery of Jesus Christ. Interpreting Scripture aright allows us, as Bishop Konderla instructed, to receive the Jesus Christ that entered into history and not manufacture a “Jesus” out of the fads and fashions of our age. The literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical senses are an invitation to configure ourselves to Jesus Christ and inoculate us against the errors of the present. May we, like Aquinas and Dante, come to love Jesus Christ in the Holy Bible.

Hector, First of the Nine Worthies

Amongst the stone filigree of the 13th century city hall of Cologne stand statues of men called the “Nine Worthies.” These exemplars of chivalric virtue were first presented by Jacques de Longuyon in his 13th century work, “The Vows of the Peacock.” Also known as the “Nine Good Heroes,” these warriors are Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Emperor Charlemagne, and King Godfrey of Bouillon, representing three pagans, three Jews, and three Catholics. The first of these Nine Worthies, Hector, serves as an introduction to virtue. What does it mean to be virtuous? In Greek, the term for virtue is arête, meaning “excellence.” While its ancient etymology is somewhat obscure, it may be derived from Ares, the god of war, and reveal the primal origin of virtue as prowess in combat. Hector, as presented by Homer in the Iliad, exhibits this virtue as the stalwart defender of Troy. Hector is lauded as having slain “nineteen kings in hand-to-hand combat.”[1] The prince of Troy and general of her armies was the first into the fray and the last to retreat. He is, without doubt, the most skilled warrior of Troy. Yet, is the virtue of Hector reducible to his skill in combat? Homer offers the juxtaposition of Achilles. Achilles is colored by rage and fights for his own glory. Hector fights for Troy and his beloved Trojans. Achilles stands idly by watching his own countrymen die to assuage his pride. Once he does rejoin the war, his aptitude for combat is equaled only by his cruelty and bloodlust. He slaughters men begging at his feet for mercy, denies his enemies their proper burial rites, and offers Trojans as human sacrifices. Ultimately, Hector, “the breaker of horses,” dies by the hand of Achilles, “the breaker of men.” If arête found its fullness in proficiency of war, then Achilles would be presented as the triumphant protagonist. Yet, Homer brings the Iliad to a close with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the triumph of Achilles over Troy nor his death are recorded. Homer arguably turns the primal notion of virtue on its head by ending the narrative with praise and honor for the warrior who lost the duel. The virtue of Hector certainly included courage and military might—but it also encompassed his love for Troy and her people. It was the latter that animated the former into something praiseworthy and beautiful. The death of Hector serves as an introduction to true virtue. The primordial form of virtue blossoms in the writings of Homer and develops throughout the ages of Alexander the Great and Caesar. In fact, the presentation of the Nine Worthies can be seen broadly as an ongoing perfection of virtue. The paganism of antiquity and its heroes exhibits a certain flourishing of the nature of man and his natural excellence. This natural arête is then coupled with the virtue of following God’s self-revelation as shown by the heroes of the Old Testament. Finally, our nature is healed and elevated by the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ allowing worthies such as Charlemagne to seek the supernatural perfection of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Thus, the Nine Worthies serve as an illustrative instruction on the formation of virtue, a pedagogy—especially for boys and young men—in cultivating a chivalric spirit configured to Jesus Christ. And one of the first tests of an adolescent’s pursuit of virtue is whether he esteems the bravado of Achilles or the death of Hector, first of the Nine Worthies.   [1] Jehan Wauquelin, The Medieval Romance of Alexander, trans. Nigel Bryant (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2012), Appendix Three.