Dcn. Harrison Garlick

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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Avoiding the Unreal: How to Read the Great Books Well

I. Reclaim your Education

“We are concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking,” wrote Robert M. Hutchins, editor of the 1952 Great Books of the Western World.[1] In order to “recall the West to sanity,” Hutchins, and his associate editor Mortimer Adler, compiled the fifty-four volume Great Books of the Western World series representing the primary texts from the greatest intellects in Western history.[2] From Homer, to Dante, to Shakespeare, they saw these authors in a dialogue, a “Great Conversation,” that gave the West a distinctive character.[3] These authors, especially the ancient and medieval ones, had contributed to the rise of the liberal arts and to the belief that the liberally educated man was one who had disciplined his passions in pursuit of the good. As Hutchins observed, “the aim of liberal education is human excellence.”[4]

Yet, Hutchins saw the West as undergoing a practical book burning.[5] The great books were being removed from Western education and with them any semblance of a true liberal education. Today, the book burning continues. It is evident that modern education is more a training—it trains students for a societal function and delegates the holistic, human formation to a culture of relativism. A college graduate is no longer expected to be “acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition” nor the perennial questions into truth, beauty, or goodness.[6] We are deaf to the “Great Conversation.” We are cut off from the great treasury of our intellectual inheritance and only vaguely aware it even exists.

The great books are an invitation to reclaim your education. They are a remedy to the privations of modern education and a salvageable substitute for our lack of a robust liberal arts formation. As Hutchins advocated, in reading the authors of the great books “we are still in the ordinary world, but it is an ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius.”[7] We are invited to the Great Conversation, to listen, and to add our voice to the pursuit of truth.

There is a latent danger, however, in how one approaches the great books.

II. Avoid the Sins of your Age

In his 1647 masterpiece, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, the Spanish priest Baltasar Gracian, S.J., exhorted his audience to “avoid the faults of your nation.”[8] He explains: “Water shares the good or bad qualities of the strata through which it flows, and man those of the climate in which he is born.”[9] We live, as Cardinal Ratzinger observes, under a “dictatorship of relativism,”[10] and it contaminates every feature of our intellect. To have the requisite self-awareness and virtue to purge these impurities is a “triumph of cleverness.”[11] Whether we think of the ark of Noah, the compulsion out of Plato’s cave, or the angel that led Lot out of Sodom, the great books can help us escape the errors of our age. Writers like Aristotle or St. Boethius challenge our modern presumptions and stretch our imagination to encompass new perspectives on reality. We may better see our age for what it is and what led to our present culture (or anti-culture).

Relativism, however, is pernicious and infects even the remedies against it. We should observe that the authors of the great books disagree. In fact, many of the modern great books became “great” by being contrary to most all that had preceded them. The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes is a rejection of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. The understanding of history by Karl Marx is a revolution against over two thousand years of human observation, and Friedrich Nietzsche rejects everyone to wage war against Socrates and Jesus Christ. In short, the “great books” were chosen for their impact and not principally for their truth.

The latent danger in the great books is that one simply becomes a well-read relativist. Before us are the greatest minds in the West, these minds disagree, therefore there is no reasonable expectation of truth. Even so-called conservative great books projects will refrain from saying one great book is better than another—they denounce any type of guidance to the great books, favoring a pseudo-neutrality that places dialogue over truth.[12] As Patrick Deneen observes in his 2013 essay, “Against Great Books,” “I have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books.”[13] Many of the “great books” listed in the Great Books of the Western World are the same books that led to the crisis of education in the West. As Deneen notes, “the broader assault on the liberal arts derives much of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great books themselves.”[14] If applied incorrectly, the remedy for our failing liberal education, the “great books,” becomes part of the disease.

The great books can help us avoid the errors of our age, but we cannot approach them through those same errors. Approaching the great books as some cosmopolitan relativist bears a contrary purpose than that of the traditional liberal arts. If the great books are our answer to the collapse of the liberal arts, then the great books must echo the true purpose of the liberal arts.

III.       Conform your Mind to Reality

In his 1946 classic, The Intellectual Life, the French Dominican A.G. Sertillanges lays out the simple purpose of study: “The order of the mind must correspond to the order of things.”[15] He is drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, who teaches that truth is the conformity of the mind to reality.[16] This is the purpose of the liberal arts, of the great books, and of all study: the pursuit of truth. We must labor to conform our minds to the contours of reality. We aid one another in our pursuit of truth through our words, whether oral or written, for it is the purpose of our words to convey truth. How rich we are then to have the writings of such masters as St. Augustine to help guide us in this vocation of the intellect. As Sertillanges teaches, “books are signposts” on the movement of the mind toward truth.[17] We approach such authors as a student approaches a teacher—ready for a tutelage in what is real.

All things are judged good or bad according to their purpose (or telos, as the classical Greeks called it). I know a good knife must be sharp, because I understand its purpose is to cut. And because I know its purpose, I understand that the whetstone is good for the knife while its opposite would be bad. In sum, because I understand the purpose or telos of the thing, I can know whether the quality of that thing is good or bad—and also what is good or bad for that thing. So too is it for our intellect. If the purpose of our intellect is truth, then it is by that standard I judge what is good or bad for my intellect. Like a whetstone to the knife, a true great book will sharpen my mind’s understanding of reality. It is in obedience to this telos that we, like Sertillanges, judge our study and the study of the great books in particular. Not all great books meet this standard—as some are guides to the delineations of what is real, while others labor against it.

If we are to reclaim what was lost when the liberal arts fell, then the purpose of studying the great books must be the pursuit of truth. It was not relativistic dialogue that led Bl. Alcuin of York and Emperor Charlemagne to rebuild the West. Nor was it relativism that nurtured St. Thomas Aquinas or Dante. We are the inheritors of a robust pursuit of truth—a desire to satiate in the thickness of reality.

Yet, how does one judge what is true? In other words: how do we reconcile that we turn to the great books to teach us truth, yet we are to judge the great books by whether they teach truth? Are we the arbiter of what is real? What standards or principles should one bring to the study of the great books? What was the principle of truth amongst the liberal arts?

IV. Become a Student of the Logos

In his architectonic 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed, “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature.”[18] His address—arguably one of the most important postconciliar papal teachings—submits that there is a profound harmony between Greek reason and Hebrew faith. The Greek philosophers, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, sought the logos of reality. The Greek term logos means “the account of something” or the “ordering principle of a thing.” In Plato’s Republic, for example, Socrates is seeking the logos of justice—to know the reason and reality of what justice is. Aristotle speaks of logos as an argument that appeals to the intellect. The pursuit of the logos is part of our intellectual inheritance. It cultivated in the West the belief that nature, and all within it, bears a discoverable, rational order. It is at the heart of both our philosophy and our empirical sciences, as from logos we draw the word logic and the suffix –logy, as in biology (the account of life) or zoology (the account of animals). If truth, as aforementioned, is the conformity of the mind to reality, it was the concept of logos that taught the West that reality was an ordered, objective, and rational whole.

Greek reason and Hebrew faith began a dialogue hundreds of years prior to Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI observes, “despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.” To the Holy Father’s point, one may compare the violent clash of Greeks and Hebrews in First and Second Maccabees with the notable influence of Greek thought upon the reflections on faith in the Book of Wisdom or Sirach. Moreover, it is notable that the first Old Testament canon, the Septuagint (c. 250 B.C.), was a Greek translation centered in Alexandria. In sum, Greek reason coupled with Hebrew faith under Roman order tilled the earth for the coming of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul teaches, our Lord came in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4).

The zenith of this harmony is provided by St. John, as he opens his Gospel with an allusion to Genesis: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” St. John notably gives the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity the name Logos. He further proclaims, “the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, is the Logos of all creation—the ordering principle of reality itself. As Aristotle notes that logos can be a communication of reason, so too is the Logos the Word—the Word spoken by the Father in Genesis that structured the very order of being. The rational order of reality observed by the Greeks is the work of the Eternal Word, the Logos. As St. Paul teaches, in Jesus Christ “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). Note as well that the Logos not only created reality but continues to hold it in existence (Col 1:17). What the Greeks sought via reason and what the Hebrews sought via faith is revealed to be Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Eternal Logos.

Truth is the conformity of the mind to reality, because objects in reality have a logos—a rational order—to which the mind may adhere. Here, we may better understand why Christ proclaims He is the Truth (John 14:6). If Jesus is the Logosof all that is real, Reason-itself, the account of all creation, then to conform your mind to Him would be to contemplate the Truth of all things. He is not the logos of any particular thing, but the Logos of all—and in Him and through Him we may come to a better understanding of particulars. The liberal arts must be understood as a pursuit of the Logos. The student would undergo a disciplined order of knowledge that moved the intellect into conformity with reality. First, the student would learn grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium), and then arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium). All of these, however, and such higher sciences as medicine or law, were subservient to and perfected by the queen of the sciences, theology. The liberal arts were a foundation to and an acknowledgment of the study of God by both reason and faith, as illuminated by the Logos. It is amongst the debris of what was such a time-tested tutelage in the real that we must return to the great books. Deprived of this education, we turn first to the teachers who may be called “the ancients,” the intellects from Homer to Dante, who built up such a rich treasury of education. It is by their observations on nature and revelation that we learn of the Logos.

We live in the age of the anti-logos. Modernity is a rejection. The second half of the great books, “the moderns,” from Machiavelli to present, largely represents a deconstruction of any belief in an ordered whole of creation. While there are certainly good modern thinkers, such as Cardinal Newman or Pope Benedict XVI, the main trait of our modern age is rejection. Man no longer turns to God, revelation, nature, or history for guidance, but rather these become malleable to man’s creative will. Each man becomes his own god, his own “Logos,” who believes reality should conform to the “truth” of his own imagination. We live in an anti-culture—our dominative tutelage in the unreal. We live in a post-Christian paganism that no longer even adheres to the natural  logos of Socrates or Aristotle. The sin of our age, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted, is the sin against the Creator.[19] Man now makes his own reality and demands others adhere to it—the dictatorship of relativism.

Let us reclaim our culture. Let us reclaim our education by turning to the teachers of what is real, those who may help us—in this age of the unreal—conform our minds to Reason-itself, the Eternal Logos, Jesus Christ.

On Christ’s Invitation to Chaos

Water is chaos. Water is death, disorder, ugliness, and confusion. As Holy Scripture teaches us, after God had made the heavens and the earth, the earth was, in its primal state, covered in water and “darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Yet, above these primordial depths fluttered the Spirit of God and by His Word He drew Creation from the waters.

The opening of Holy Scripture presents us with a pattern of God pulling order from disorder, life from death, and beauty from ugliness. As He pulled our world from the waters, so too will He pull salvation from chaos and death time and time again.

Remember the narrative of Noah’s Ark, and how God, in His anger, recalled the primordial waters of Creation to once again retake the face of the earth. Death, chaos, and destruction reigned. Yet, God again in His mercy drew forth salvation from the watery depths and humanity was made anew with Noah and his family.

Remember the narrative of the infant Moses laid upon the waters of the river Nile. As Noah had his Ark, so too did Moses have his basket—and what should have been his death became his salvation. For Pharaoh’s daughter drew him forth from the waters and named him Moses—meaning “to draw out.” His name, of course, is prophetic—because as he was drawn out from the Nile, so too will he draw Israel out of Egypt. Yet, once again water appears as death, as Israel becomes trapped on the banks of the Red Sea—but God turns what should have been death into life by allowing Israel to cross.

Note as well the fate of the Egyptians who were swallowed up in a watery death—a warning to us all of what happens if we attempt to navigate the chaos of this life without God.

We could also speak of how the waters of the Jordan River stood between Israel and the Promise Land or how Jonah, in his disobedience, was cast from his ship into waters and swallowed by a beast of the sea.

The entire pattern of God drawing forth salvation from the waters is perfected in the baptism of Jesus Christ. For here there is no ark or basket, but rather the very instrument of death itself—water—is made the tool of salvation. We are submerged in the baptismal waters to show our death with Christ, and, as God pulled forth Creation from the primordial waters of Genesis, so too are we drawn forth as new creatures in Jesus Christ. As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, Christ was not baptized to become holy, but to make the waters holy for us. God enters into death and the instrument of that death becomes the portal of our salvation.

This ancient symbolism of water representing chaos and death gives new insight into the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ—we may recall His first miracle of turning water into wine or His later miracles of walking on water and rebuking the storm at sea. We may even start to understand why, when He cast the demons into the pigs, the demons drove the animals to be drowned in the waters. Time and time again, Holy Scripture uses water to demonstrate the authority of Jesus Christ over chaos and death.

Here, let us stop and ask: Why is any of this important to today’s Gospel? Well, have you ever wondered why Jesus chose fisherman for His first disciples? Why not choose carpenters like He and his earthly father? Why did He choose fisherman? To understand, we must apply the lessons learned since Genesis: that the waters represent a formless, primordial chaos.

For our Lord tells His first disciples, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

He is not inviting His disciples to comfort or safety. For if one is going to be a fisherman, one must be upon the open waters. As God drew forth Creation from the formless depths of our primal earth, so too does He now invite His disciples to join Him in drawing forth a new Creation from the chaos of this world.

He calls them to be “fishers of men,” because as a man draws a fish out of the sea and into the boat, so too do the disciples of Christ draw souls out of the chaos of this world and into the Catholic Church. This is our calling. Our Lord asks us to endure the chaotic, stormy seas of this life for the sake of those souls who are still lost amongst its churning depths.

We must hear his call. We are to be “fishers of men,” and we will be in the chaos but not of it—we are called to draw souls out of the death of this life into the new life of Jesus Christ. We bring order to chaos, light to darkness, and hope to despair.

Our Lord has made the call—He has asked us to be fishers of men.

May we answer the call and “push out into the deep” to rescue souls from the watery chaos of this world.[1]

    [1] In the first reading from Isaiah (Is 8:23—9:3), the song of praise is from those souls drawn into the safety on the new Ark, the Catholic Church. It is not unremarkable that the road glorified is the “seaward” road. The second reading from St. Paul (1 Cor 1:10-13, 17) against divisions is a warning to not the chaos of the world enter the Church any more than a fisherman allows the waves of the sea into his boat. Finally, see Into the Deep: A Biblical Study on Chaos & Discipleship for a more in depth treatment of the allegory of water as chaos.

Into the Deep: A Biblical Study on Chaos & Discipleship

The world is in chaos. Modern man now holds himself as an autonomous moral universe in which every conceivable reality is malleable to his subjective will. Man has been “emancipated,” in the spirit of non serviam, from God, the Church, nature, history, reason, and now even his own body. Even the most basic realities of what it means to be human are eroding and with it the foundations of our civilization.

If we asked whether there was cause to hope amongst the chaos, most Catholics would, if even out of piety, answer yes—our hope is in Jesus Christ. Yet, what did Jesus Christ teach us about the relationship between chaos and hope? What is the biblical understanding of chaos? And what is the relation of chaos to vocation of a disciple of Jesus Christ?

The answer to these questions is water and what lies beneath the concept of the waters in the biblical text. Let us look at the opening of Holy Scripture:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1-2).

The primordial waters of Creation are formless, void, and dark. The Spirit of God flutters above the deep, and it is from these waters that God will draw Creation. The contrast in the opening of Holy Scripture grants us our template for understanding the biblical allegory of water: water represents chaos, disorder, darkness, and death; but, just as God drew Creation from the face of the deep, so too does God draw order, beauty, light, and life from that which is chaotic.

It is this interplay between the chaos of water and the order of God that we will use as our primary pattern, our thesis, to examine other examples in the biblical text.

A clear example resides in Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood (Gen 6-9). The primordial waters of Creation return to reclaim the earth for chaos. The Great Flood is another creation narrative, in which God must once again draw forth order and beauty from the chaotic deep.

The waters represent death and the Ark represents life. Many of our Early Church Fathers saw in this text an allegory of the Church and the world. The Church is the Ark, our salvation, and the world is the watery abyss, our death and damnation.

As an aside, there is an image here that has always caught my imagination. Note that the waters burst forth before the door to the Ark is closed. You can only image what realizations set in on the people around Noah when the waters started to come forth—when they realized that the Ark was indeed their hope for salvation. And note that in the midst of this realization—who closes the door to the Ark? The Lord does—not Noah but the Lord (Gen 7:16). It is ultimately God’s Ark, as it is God’s Church, and He decides who is worthy to enter and be spared the waters of chaos and who is not.

Let us leave Noah for the narrative of Moses. The life of Moses is deeply intertwined with the allegory of water. First, recall that in order to save her child’s life, his mother sets her infant son in a basket upon the waters of the Nile (Ex 2:3). Like Noah in the Ark, we see the child’s life preserved upon the waters that would have otherwise been his death. He is then pulled forth from the waters by Pharaoh’s daughter, who names him Moses, meaning “to be drawn out” (Ex 2:10). Like Creation itself, Moses is drawn from the waters and his very name exemplifies the relationship between chaos and order, death and life, water and God.

The narrative of Moses’ salvation as an infant serves as a foreshadowing to the salvation of Israel. Moses is called by God to draw out Israel from its bondage in Egypt and, as he was delivered from the waters of the Nile, he must now be the hand of God in delivering Israel from the waters of the Red Sea (Ex 14:10-22).

What should have been their death, the Red Sea, God turned into the vehicle of their salvation. A pattern emerges, as seen in the stories of Creation, Noah, and Moses, that those who have hope in God often find their salvation amongst and through chaos.

Take note of the fate of the Egyptians (Ex 14:22-31). They too attempted to cross the Red Sea but, like those who did not trust in God during the Great Flood, they are swallowed by the waters and it becomes their death. The Egyptians serve as a fateful reminder for those who attempt to traverse this life—with all its chaos and disorder—without placing their hope in God.

Another considerable example is the crossing of the Jordan River (Jos 3:17). Here, God commands Joshua to have the Ark of the Covenant lead the people across the Jordan. Once again, like the Red Sea, there is water between Israel and the Promised Land. The Ark is carried into the waters and the waters cease and those carrying the Ark stand upon dry ground. The Ark remains in the middle of the dry riverbed until the entire host of Israel has safely crossed.

Here, like the Red Sea, we observe a clear visual of the necessity for us to place our hope in God when attempting to cross the waters of this life into the eternal Promise Land.

Let us turn to a somewhat different and more nuanced example of water as an archetype of chaos. In the book of Job, when Job laments his losses, he cries out for thick darkness and blackness to swallow up the day of his birth (Job 3:4-5). Notably, amongst the chaos he is suffering, he invokes the Leviathan—the great beast of the waters (Job 3:8).

It more notable that when God decides to chastise Job, God too invokes the Leviathan (Job 41:25). God presents a clear juxtaposition: to God, the Leviathan is a plaything, like a maiden tying a bird to a string; but to man, the Leviathan, this great beast of the sea, means certain death. It is only with God, by placing our hope in him, that man can be delivered from this great beast of the waters, this beast of chaos.

Another example, and arguably one of the best examples of the allegory of water, is the narrative of Jonah. As you will recall, Jonah attempts to run from the Lord and, while he is on a ship at sea, the Lord sends a storm. Jonah is subsequently tossed out of the ship and into the sea. It is intriguing that with Noah and Moses, the vessel upon the water was the instrument of God’s salvation, and here we have Jonah, who is contrary to the will of God, being tossed out of the vessel and into the sea. He is tossed out of what represents salvation and into what represents death and chaos—only to be swallowed by a great beast of the sea. And while there is some debate whether Jonah died within the belly of that creature, it is clear that our Lord Jesus Christ uses the story as a foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection—drawing yet another parallel between water and death.

Does this pattern of God using water, representing death and chaos, as a vehicle of salvation extend to the New Testament? Yes. In fact, almost our entire study up to this point could be a reflection on the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Let us recall that St. Ambrose, in commenting on Luke 3:21, tells us Christ was baptized not to become holy, but to make the waters holy for us.[1] God enters death and the instrument of death becomes the portal of our salvation.

As the Spirit of God fluttered above the primordial waters and then drew forth Creation, so too does the Holy Spirit draw us from our baptismal waters as a new creation in Christ. The Church, into which we are baptized, is our salvation, as was the Ark to Noah or the basket to Moses. Moreover, we hope never to be contrary to the will of God and be tossed from the ship like Jonah. It is through these waters—like with the Red Sea or the Jordan—that we must pass to enter our Promised Land, our eternal happiness with God.

Even a casual survey of the ministry of Jesus Christ exhibits a continuation of this catechesis on water.

At the wedding of Cana, our Lord performs His first miracle—the turning of water into wine (John 2:1-11). This is, in many ways, a summary of the entire salvific mission of Jesus Christ. What represents chaos and death, water, becomes by the hand of Christ wine—which in turn foreshadows our true salvific drink, the Precious Blood. Like the wedding at Cana, we too are called to wed ourselves to Christ and become one flesh with Him: we leave behind the water and we take of the wine.

Recall also Christ calming the storm (Matt 8:23-27). Jesus and His disciples are in a boat on the sea. “Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by waves” (Matt 8:24). Notably, however, Christ is asleep. His disciples wake our Lord and, as Matthew records, “he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm” (Matt 8:26). The narrative of Christ calming the sea recalls His relationship to the primordial waters of Creation. For Christ is the Eternal Word, the Logos, the ordering principle and account of all reality (John 1:1-14). It is in Him, through Him, and for Him all things were made (Col 1:15-17). Thus, when God the Father spoke the words of creation over the primordial waters it was the Eternal Word, the Logos, that gave Creation its form and substance—and continues, at present, to hold all things in being (Col 1:17). Christ can be the God who sleeps amongst the waves, because the chaos they represent holds no danger to Him. The Logos brought order to the primordial waters, and the Incarnate-God, Jesus Christ, calms the waters of the sea.

St. Matthew then pivots into the story of Christ’s healing of the demoniacs (Matt 8:28-34). As you may recall, Christ drives the demons out of the two men and into the herd of swine. We should take careful observance of the fact that when the demons are sent into the pigs, the demons drive the pigs into the sea where they die amongst the waters. St. Matthew is showing us that the sea, the water, is the realm of the demonic—that which is lifeless, void, and dark; yet, he couples this narrative with the calming of the storm to show us that this chaotic realm is subject to the authority of Jesus Christ. Here, it is most important to recall from the narrative before that when Christ calmed the storm, He actually rebuked it—He used the language of an exorcism. The two narratives are meant to be read as one.

We could also contemplate Christ walking on the water and what it means for St. Peter, our first pope, to leave the boat and come to Christ standing atop the waves. Let us, however, turn to when Christ calls Peter to be a disciple and what water has to do with discipleship.

The Gospel records:

As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him (Matt 4:18-22).

It is not by accident that Christ called fishermen to be his first disciples. It is an intentional act that illuminates a pattern throughout all of Salvation History. It is a decision built upon the narratives of Creation, Noah, Moses, Jonah, and more. Walking by the sea, He calls them to be “fishers of men.” If one is to be a fisher of men, where must one be? As a man draws a fish out of the sea from his boat, so too do the disciples of Christ draw souls out of the chaos and into the Church.

Therefore, chaos is not a reason to give up hope. We are called to chaos. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to be in the chaos but not of it—to draw souls out of the chaos and into the grace of God’s Church. We are called to be in disorder but not be disordered. We navigate the chaos for the salvation of our neighbor—fishing them out of darkness and death of the worldly waters and into the great Ark of our Salvation, the Catholic Church. We are agents of order to disorder, of light to darkness, of hope to despair, and of life to death.

Before we end, let us examine the end of Scripture. In the Book of Revelation, St. John writes:

And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name… The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?” (Rev 13:1-4)

Here, we see the return of the great sea beast, the Leviathan, who serves as a type of antichrist in the Apocalypse. He represents disorder, death, chaos, and is contrary to God in all ways. The people, echoing a corruption of St. Michael’s name, praise the sea beast saying, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?” The irony of their praise is found in recalling what God said about the Leviathan in Job–it can bring swift death to us, but to God it is nothing, a plaything to be led on a string. As demonstrated by Christ throughout the New Testament, God has absolute authority over the waters, the chaos, and all that dwell therein.

But we, placing our hope in Christ, know that the great sea beast is defeated and a new earth and a new heaven are created. Our biblical examination of water concludes as St. John writes toward the end of his Apocalypse:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more (Rev 21:1).

There is no sea in the new earth. Chaos has been brought to order, darkness to light, death to life, and the Leviathan, the sea beast, is defeated by the Lamb. The allegory of water provides an architectonic template to understanding the entire narrative of Salvation History, and it is a divine story given to us to provide hope amongst the death and darkness of daily life.

In the Gospel of Luke, Christ is with His disciples and tells them to “push out into the deep,” into the “deep water” (Lk 5:4). So too is Christ calling us to push out into the deep and draw out the souls who need Him the most. May we always be willing to take the hope of God into the depths of chaos.

This article is an adaptation of the talk entitled “On Water, Chaos & Catholic Leadership” given at the 2021 USCCB national Child & Youth Protection Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and similarly a talk entitled “On Hope & Chaos: A Biblical Study on Water” at the 2021 Idea of a Village Conference in Locust Grove, Oklahoma.


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.

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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.

On Hell, Lying & the Purpose of Speech

Having journeyed through most of hell, Dante the Pilgrim and his guide, the poet Virgil, arrive at the Eighth Circle. In Dante’s Inferno, hell is presented as nine concentric circles spiraling into the earth—with each consecutive circle representing a greater sin and thus a worse punishment. As such, those near the top of the Inferno suffer lighter punishments for less serious sins, while those in the depths of hell suffer the most for the most egregious crimes against God and neighbor. Having already traversed the first seven circles, Dante has seen souls punished for sins such as lust, gluttony, wrath, acedia, and heresy. He observed that tyrants—those who brought untold suffering to mankind—were punished for violence against their neighbor by being boiled in a river of blood. Having just witnessed such a brutal punishment for tyrants, Dante leaves those who engaged in violence and enters the Eighth Circle. Expecting to see a sin worse than the circle before, Dante sees those souls who engaged in pandering, seduction, and flattery. The reader is left perplexed as to how Dante the Poet can think flattery and other types of fraud are worse sins than being violent. Virgil, his guide, tells him that the souls in the Eighth Circle are guilty of fraud. Dante the Poet does not present the Inferno as an actual mapping of hell but rather a mapping of our souls. It is a story of virtue and vice and what makes men and women choose either good or evil. What, then, is Dante trying to teach us about the nature of evil by placing a sin such as flattery, a species of fraud, in a lower section of hell than violence? First, we must understand that truth is the conformity of the mind to reality. When we say something is true, we mean this represents authentic existence, a realism, and the understanding of the mind corresponds to actuality. As Catholics, we hold to the teachings of tradition and of Scripture that the world is knowable. St. Paul teaches in the opening of his letter to the Romans that we can come to understand the reality around us and determine what is good and what is evil—and we are culpable or responsible to live in accordance with those determinations. Second, the purpose of speech is to convey truth. If truth is the conformity of the mind to reality, then our speech has the purpose of sharing truth with one another. Our speech should always help our neighbor come to understand the truth—whether it is in person, at a dinner table, or on social media. Thus, we see that a lie is contrary to the very purpose of speech. It divorces the mind from reality. When we lie to our neighbor, we impede their intellect from knowing what is true. Lying stops them from being able to understand what is good and what is evil and how to live accordingly. It decouples the mind from reality and always bears evil fruit. Yet, does this really answer the question presented by Dante? Lying is evil, yes, but why does Dante think it is so evil that even the sin of flattery, a species of fraud, would be punished amongst the worse sections of hell? Let us recall that Jesus Christ is the Eternal Word. St. John, in the opening of his Gospel, tells us: “All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made” (Jn. 1:3). In the creation of the world, we see God the Father speaking creation into existence—it is the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, who gives structure to reality itself. God says, “Let there be light” and light becomes real. Similar to how a word gives form and meaning to sound, so too does Christ the Eternal Word give structure to reality. When we speak a word, we attempt to convey the truth about reality; yet, when God the Father speaks the Eternal Word, it conveys reality itself. This is why the Scriptures tell us that Christ is Truth. Not that he knows the truth. But rather He is the Truth. Because if truth is the conformity of the mind to reality, and Christ is the Word that structured reality, then to come to know Christ is to know the truth of all things. In coming to know Jesus Christ, our intellects conform not simply to the truth of reality but to that which is more real than reality itself, the Author of reality. Thus, returning to Dante’s catechesis on lying, we see that to speak a lie is contrary to the very nature of who Jesus Christ is—when we speak a lie to our neighbor, we divorce their mind from reality—the very reality of which Christ is the author. We separate our brothers and sisters from Jesus Christ in every lie we tell. Thus, Dante shows us that while it is evil to destroy the body, it is much more evil to destroy someone’s mind with a lie. When we lie, we act contrary to the very Author of reality and to the purpose of speech itself. And from those lies, from that disconnect of reality, will come a host of other sins—including violence. Recall the words of today’s Holy Gospel: “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).  

In Defense of Erotic Love

There is in every human person a primal desire to be satiated. We long to feel whole, to feel rest in the love of another. We are drawn to beauty, we love it, and we wish to attain it and delight in it always. The lover seeks satisfaction in the beloved. We want someone to justify our existence—to look on us in love and say, “It is good that you exist; how wonderful you are!”[1] The resounding natural yearning in man to be fulfilled is known as eros, our erotic love. C.S. Lewis speaks of eros as a “Need-love” that seeks satisfaction in the beloved.[2] Eros is a self-love, according to Josef Pieper, the “desire for full existence, for existential exaltation, for happiness and bliss.”[3] It is, as Pope Benedict XVI observes, a certain “ecstasy” of the soul.[4] In the seminal text on eros, Plato’s Symposium, Socrates recounts how a woman, Diotima, taught him erotics.[5] All humans are desirous of beauty. We wish to possess beautiful things, to make them ours. We associate this desire most clearly with the feeling of being in love and particularly with sex. The lover longs to satisfy themselves in the beloved, to experience ecstasy, wholeness, and rest. When the lover is satisfied in the beloved, the lover is happy. All humans are desirous of happiness. Here, Diotima helps Socrates understand that eros, the erotic love common to all men and women, is the desire of beautiful things and of being happy.[6] Yet, as Diotima observes, men and women do not wish to be happy only some of the time. We desire to be happy all of the time. If happiness is the slaking of our erotic need on beautiful things, then we must be in possession of beautiful things always. Our eros is an insatiable thirst for the infinite, yet, the beloved is finite. Here, erotic desire can lead into a type of senselessness, where the lover attempts to quench his or her erotic hunger by consuming one beloved after another in an endless dissatisfaction. This is, in short, to be unskilled in erotics. Instead, Diotima invites the lover to contemplate the beauty of the body of the beloved, and that this beauty is present in others as well. Moreover, there is a greater beauty to behold, the beauty of the soul. There is an attraction to the virtuous life, the beauty of human excellence and honor. Diotima presents a picture of ascent, wherein the lover moves from one beauty to another, like rungs on a ladder, until coming to contemplate the beauty present in all things. The lover takes on the erotic life of the philosopher, finding gratification in contemplating beauty-itself, the divine.[7] The lesson of Diotima is that our erotic desire for a beloved can lead us to the divine. To be skilled in erotics is to understand that our “common eros” can and should lead us upward to a “heavenly eros.” Eros is an ascending love calling us up a “ladder of love,” as we move from one rung to another until we can satiate in the divine beauty-itself.[8] For Socrates, the philosopher is a lover, a lover of beautiful things, and the philosophic life is the most erotic life, because it can ascend to what our erotic love yearns for most: infinite beauty.[9] Yet, does this erotic love have a role in Christianity? The predominant theme of eros is that the beauty of the beloved can arouse in us an ascent toward the divine. Let us briefly review whether eros, as a concept, is present in ancient Hebrew thought and then in the teachings of Jesus Christ. “The Prophets,” Pope Benedict XVI teaches, “described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images.”[10] In Ezekiel, God looks upon Israel as a young woman “arrived in maidenhood.” He tells her, “your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.” And, “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love.” God takes her as His own, enters into covenant with her, and bathes and clothes her as His bride (Eze 16:6-14). God and Israel at Mount Sinai is read as a marriage (Ex 19:1-9). He is the husband and she the bride (Jer 31:32; Is 54:5-6). When Israel commits idolatry, God condemns her for adultery against her true Husband. She plays the “harlot” offering her beauty to her “lustful neighbors” (Eze 16:15-58). God portrays Himself as the angry, jealous Husband of the unfaithful wife (Eze 16:42). God uses the common eros of man to explain how our heavenly eros is only to be sated in Him—to do otherwise is spiritual adultery. What Plato observed by nature, Holy Scripture clarifies by revelation. Eros “is the clearest and most powerful inclination toward lost wholeness.”[11] Scripture too, as Pope Benedict XVI observes, expresses man seeking wholeness within his natural erotic desire: “a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).[12] We seek wholeness in the beloved. There are, however, notable distinctions between Plato’s erotics and those of the ancient Hebrews. First, in Holy Scripture, “eros directs man toward marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive.”[13] The erotic appetite of the human person for the beloved finds its proper satiation in the marriage of man and woman. Second, God is our Beloved. God is revealed to be a personal God, a God who loves us, and who describes his own love for humanity in erotic terms.[14] The lover is called to ascend to the infinite Beloved, Beauty-itself. Despite Israel being the adulterous wife, God promises her an everlasting covenant and fulfills that promise in the body and blood of Jesus Christ (Eze 16:60). Here, we see a maturation of the ancient Hebrew erotics, as Christ is the Groom who takes us as His Bride. We become “one flesh” with Him. He is the Head, and we are His Body (Eph 5:21-33). As the common erotics of the marital bond have a comingling of the lovers, so too are we given the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ to consume. It is in Him we delight and for Him we yearn. Yet, is this erotic love truly the love proclaimed in the Gospel? St. Paul never uses the term eros. He uses another Greek word for love, agape, to describe the selfless, self-sacrificial love so unique to our true religion. How can the self-love of erotic longing harmonize with the selfless love of agape? A need-love with a love of self-sacrifice? Let us sketch three general responses to this inquiry. First, eros and agape are competitive. Here, St. Paul’s Christian agape is a triumph over Plato’s pagan eros, and any mixture thereof is a betrayal of the Gospel.[15] Yet, this predominantly Protestant polemic is, as Pope Benedict XVI teaches, ignorant of the erotic reality of both the Old and New Testament and that of historic Christianity.[16] Second, others see eros and agape as largely indistinguishable. Neither Plato nor St. Paul invented the terms eros or agape. They existed prior to their specific philosophical or spiritual definitions and represent a broader range of concepts. Moreover, a Church Father in the East may speak only of eros or speak of agape as a type of eros, while a Western Father may engage eros and agape only through their various translations into Latin. Consequently, a strict historical claim on the precise meaning of eros or agape runs counter to the legitimate plurality of philosophical traditions that have been used to express these words for love.[17] While this second approach to the issue of eros and agape has merit, the various uses of these terms do not preclude the predominant meanings of eros and agape from being parsed and presented as two harmonious movements of love. Following the tutelage of Pope Benedict XVI, the third approach draws from the Catholic tradition to offer eros and agape as the ascent and descent of the soul.[18] Eros is an ascent. Those skilled in erotics climb the ladder of love toward Beauty-itself, the Divine Beloved. We hear the call: “you are loved, it is good that you exist,” and we ascend toward the voice that offers supreme satisfaction and rest. The lover stands before the Beloved. He washes her in the baptismal waters and offers her to become one flesh with Him in the Holy Eucharist. The erotic desire of the human heart is enraptured in an unmerited wonder whose bliss is rivaled only by the sublime dread of the finite falling into the infinite. We are given the gift of grace—to participate in the divine life of God. Our nature is elevated to something supernatural. Eros satiates in the endless elation of union with the Beloved. St. Teresa of Avila speaks of an angel thrusting a golden spear into her heart and filling her with the fire of God’s love. A moment of heavenly eros captured beautifully in Bernini’s sculpture, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” Both ancient Hebrew erotics and that of Plato find their perfection in the grace of God. Few have charted the ascent of soul like St. Gregory of Nyssa or Dante Alighieri. St. Gregory, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, reads the lover in the Song of Songs as climbing the ladder of virtue toward her Beloved.[19] Moses ascends Mount Sinai and slips into the “bright darkness” of God, as Elijah is drawn upward into heaven by Beauty-itself. [20] The soul soars on wings to celestial delights or climbs up the great chain linking the soul to God.[21] Eros, St. Gregory observes, is like a flame tending ever upward and never downward.[22] He even portrays Christ as an archer, like the god Eros or Cupid, shooting the lover with the arrow of eros to draw her toward Himself.[23] Plato’s thesis that the beauty of the beloved can arouse in the lover a love of Beauty-itself is on full poetic display in Dante the Pilgrim’s pursuit of Beatrice throughout the Divine Comedy. Like the ladder of love, the beauty of Beatrice leads Dante into an understanding of the greater beauties of virtue and Divine Wisdom. Notably, Beatrice ceases to be Dante’s guide just prior to the culmination of his pilgrimage to God. It is St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the deeply erotic mystic, who guides Dante into the final part of his ascent: the Most Holy Trinity. The beauty of the beloved gives way to a heavenly eros that seeks the satisfaction of a mystical union with God.[24] Agape is a descent. If eros is the natural love that leads us to God, then agape is the supernatural love that is only infused in us after we partake in the Divine Life. Agape is caritas, charity, the greatest of the theological virtues. Eros is a need-love, a virtuous self-love, while agape is a gift-love, a selfless and self-sacrificial love. In eros a person knows that he or she is loved by God, and in agape the person attempts to love God and others as God has loved them. It is the harmony between Christ promising eternal satisfaction to all who hunger and thirst with Christ also commanding persons pick up their cross and crucify themselves. The ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium finds its perfection in the biblical narrative of Jacob’s ladder. In his dream at Bethel, the Patriarch Jacob sees angels ascending to and descending from God on a ladder. As Pope Benedict XVI and the Early Church Fathers observe, these ascending and descending angels represent the ascent of eros to God and the descent of agape from Him.[25] We may think of Moses, having ascended Mount Sinai and met God, now descends to serve Israel. Christ, having risen to the transcendent glories of Mount Tabor, descends into His Passion.[26] St. Paul, having soared to mysteries of heaven, descends into his apostolic mission and martyrdom. The soul in union with God is ever satiated in Him and ever seeking to love God and others with the love of God. As our Lord teaches, the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). Our self-love is the standard for our love of neighbor.[27] To be truly skilled in erotics is to understand that the lover must first find satisfaction in the Beloved before she knows how to love her neighbor. She must cultivate a virtuous self-love of giving herself to God in the nuptial mysteries of holy eros in order to love her neighbor as she has been loved and as she loves herself. As St. Augustine proclaims, “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”[28] It is to this rest, we invite our neighbors.