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 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.

In Praise of the Holy Family Against the Gods

Homer and the Ancient Greek poets tell us that in the beginning there was the world, Gaia, and the heavens, Uranus. The earth and the heavens came together and gave birth to the great and powerful Titans—and the chief titan, Cronos, waged war against his own father and killed him and ascended in power and ruled over the world. In turn, Cronos had children—the Olympian gods—but fearing his children would dethrone him, he ate them when they were born. Yet, at the birth of one of his sons, Cronos was tricked into swallowing a stone and the young male child, named Zeus, escaped and grew strong and bold until he led an assault against his own father and cast Cronos down—and Zeus, having defeated his own father, became the chief god of Mount Olympus. From his throne, Zeus used his power to live a life of adultery and manipulation. In the gods of the old West, the relationship between father and son was one marked by antagonism, power dynamics, and violence. And as such, the family suffered. We must understand the contrast between the old ways and our true religion. In reality, God the Father and God the Son act in perfect unity and the Son is obedient to the Father’s will. It is not a dynamic of power and violence but one of obedience, humility, and love. As it is written, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son that whosoever shall believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Father and Son work together for the salvation of mankind. And Christ does not come in power and strength but as a tender child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Today, the Church gives us the gift of contemplating the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Not only does God the Father and God the Son model the proper relationship between Father and Son, but God sees fit to give us a family, a holy family, which we can take as our model and guide. There is much that can be said about the Holy Family, but regarding the relationship between a father and a son, it is notable that the father in the holy family, the exemplar of all families, is an adoptive father—Saint Joseph is the adoptive father or foster father of Jesus Christ. What can this teach us? Two general observations: First, it shows us what it truly means to be a father to a son. To be a father is not reducible to or even inclusive of a biological connection. For as Pope Francis teaches, a true father is one who is intentional in parenting his children. A man could have several children inside his home to whom he is not actually a father. As a good example, we think of St. Joseph who stood in the breech between the world and his family. He protected them. He listened to the voice of God and led his family into safety and security. Under his fatherhood, his wife and son were allowed to flourish and carry out their vocations. In contrast, one may think of the priest Eli who refused to be a father to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. His sons terrorized those around them and, most tragically, failed in their vocation to serve the people of Israel. St. Joseph, as an adoptive father, shows us that being a father is an intentional act. The second lesson from the adoptive fatherhood of St. Joseph is that we are all adopted. As Joseph adopts Jesus Christ into his family, so too does God the Father adopt all of us as his sons and daughters. St. Paul often reminds us throughout the New Testament that the Father adopts us through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. For Jesus is True Son of God. Whereas we bear the image of God like a coin bears the image of a king, Christ bears the image of God like a son to his father. It is in Jesus Christ that we are adopted and find the joys of salvation. As we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, like us take St. Joseph as a model of fatherhood, an adoptive and intentional fatherhood. A fatherhood that is willing to stand against the gods of this age that seek to bring antagonisms and violence into the family. A fatherhood that is willing to lead the family into being adoptive sons and daughters of Jesus Christ.

On King Arthur & the Woman with the Issue of Blood

The young King Arthur sat in his pavilion and before him laid the crushed and broken body of one of his young knights. The young knight – who still lived – told King Arthur about a mysterious knight fully clad in black armor who dwelt deep in the forest. The young knight had challenged the knight in all black, known as the Sable Knight, to a joust and had been soundly defeated. The Sable Knight had helped the young man back on to his horse and sent him riding back into the forest. Yet, the Sable Knight had done one curious and dishonorable act—he had kept the young knight’s shield as trophy. King Arthur loved the young knight and his love for him moved him to act. While his other knights asked for permission to challenge the Sable Knight, King Arthur decided that he, himself, would challenge the knight to teach him humility. Donning his armor and mounting his milk-white war horse, the good King Arthur rode through the forest alone toward the stronghold of the Sable Knight. His heart was full of joy and courage, and he chanted a song to himself as he rode among the trees. At last King Arthur came to long stone bridge spanning a river running through the forest. In the middle of the bridge a black shield was hung and beside it a brass hammer. On the far side of the bridge, King Arthur observed a large apple tree and amongst the branches hung the shields of defeated knights. King Arthur pushed his horse forward and observed that a sign with great red letters hung underneath the black shield, and it read: “Whoever hits this shield, does so at his great peril.” King Arthur, having read these words, grabbed the brass hammer and struck the black shield with such a violent blow that it echoed throughout the whole forest. King Arthur was not afraid. In answer to the strike upon the shield, a knight armored in all black rode forth to take his place on the far end of the stone bridge. The knight in black, the Sable Knight, told King Arthur he would take his shield and place it in the apple tree with all the others. Arthur, in turn, said he would humble the Sable Knight for his dishonor to the young knight and all the others. Words being at an end, the two took their places in an adjacent field. Each sat upon his war-horse and each held in front of them a long ashen spear. Then the “two rushed forth like lightening, coursing across the ground with such violent speed that the earth trembled and shook beneath them.” They met in the center of that field, “crashing together like a thunderbolt” with such violence that both spears shattered upon the armor of the other. Grabbing new spears, they crashed into each other again, and again, until, tired and wounded, they drew their swords and fought on foot until both King Arthur and the Sable Knight were bloodied and broken—the match was at a draw. King Arthur retired to the hut of a forest hermit. While he was tended to with prayers and medicine, King Arthur contemplated how to again challenge the Sable Knight and be victorious. The Sable Knight, however, was his equal, and King Arthur needed an advantage. Here, Arthur was led to an enchanted lake surrounded by lush and fragrant flowers that held an item of incredible power. In the middle of the lake a woman’s arm extended from the water and held the most beautiful sword King Arthur had ever seen—it was the sword, Excalibur. The only way to reach the sword was a boat carved of solid brass. If you had fear in your heart, the boat would sink beneath the waves and take you with it. If you had courage, the boat would float. Many knights had lost their lives in that lake, but King Arthur remained courageous and drew Excalibur from the lake. And, in short, armed with Excalibur, he returned to challenge the Sable Knight and defeated him soundly. The narrative of King Arthur and the Sable Knight is one of courage and overcoming obstacles, and the sword Excalibur has long been held to be a symbol of faith. As it was necessary for King Arthur to wield Excalibur to overcome the Sable Knight, so too is it necessary for us to wield faith to overcome our trials. In today’s Gospel, Mark provides us with two such examples. It was by faith that the woman with the issue of blood pushed through the crowd that considered her unclean to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe. It was by faith that Jairus disregarded the opinion to not bother Jesus anymore because his daughter had died. We may think these obstacles are not as glorious or daunting as a knight clad in black, but they are the obstacles that easily defeat us time and time again. How often does the opinion of the crowd keep us from reaching Jesus? How many times does the advice and opinion of others turn us back from what Jesus has told us he would do? Today’s gospel is a reminder that you cannot serve both Jesus and this world. Faith, like Excalibur, must be wielded to cut through the trials and temptations of this life. As the chasm between our culture and our Gospel continues to grow, may our faith help us to cling to Jesus no matter the opinions of this world.

On Aslan, the Holy Spirit, and Lifeless Souls

During World War II, the Pevensie children flee to the English countryside to escape the Nazi air raids on London. The children – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy – are the guests of an eccentric but kind professor who welcomes them to his large country estate. One day, as the children are playing in the old house, the youngest child, Lucy, stumbles through the back of a wardrobe and enters into an enchanted land filled with mythological creatures and adventure. The children come to know the land as Narnia, and that Narnia is held under the wicked rule of the White Witch, a tyrant who has cast a spell over Narnia to make it always winter but never Christmas. Yet, through their relationship with a couple of talkative beavers, the children come to understand that Aslan, the lion, has returned to Narnia to liberate it from the perpetual winter of the White Witch. Through a series of charming adventures, the children join forces with Aslan; yet, Aslan’s victory over the Witch is not what they expect. Where they expect him to be a military hero, to find victory in power and conquest, Aslan instead offers himself as a willing victim, a sacrifice, to save the life of another. He lays down his life, and in that ultimate act of love, he is able to receive his life again. It is only in the death and resurrection of Aslan that Narnia finds its ultimate victory over the evil of the White Witch. C.S. Lewis’ 1950 classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has an enduring value for children, because it serves as an excellent introduce for their young minds to the concept of allegory. Habituating a child’s intellect to note the signs of allegory amongst the literal text is a great service to them. It stretches their imagination to observe the layers of a text, and to have patience in unfolding a narrative. In understanding the signs and symbols of the death and resurrection of Aslan, they may grasp a deeper understanding of the death and resurrection of our Lord. Just as Aslan died to liberate Narnia from the power of the White Witch, so too did Christ die to liberate us from Satan, the prince of this world, and the power of sin and death. Yet, there is another interplay between Aslan and the White Witch that serves to teach us a truth about Jesus Christ. The White Witch’s ultimate power is to turn people to stone. Toward the end of the narrative when Narnia is fighting for its freedom, the resurrected Aslan visits the castle of the White Witch, and there he finds a great number of poor creatures turned to stone adorning the courtyard like statues. It is there that Aslan breathes on them and restores them to life. Today’s Gospel is the key to understanding this text. For in the Pentecost of St. John, we see the resurrected Christ breathing the Holy Spirit upon his disciples telling them they have the power to retain and to forgive sins. This passage, as taught by our Church at the Council of Trent, is the basis for the Sacrament of Confession – that Christ gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins and that this power continues to reside in the Catholic priesthood. In Latin, the soul is called anima and it is from this word that we derive words such as animation or animal – something that has an anima is something that moves, it has life, it is animated, just like if something does not have life, like a table or a stone, it is called inanimate – without an anima. The souls in Narnia being turned to stone by the evil of the White Witch serves as an analogue to the effect of sin upon our own souls. The Church teaches there are two types of sin: venial sins that wound our life with Christ but do not kill and mortal sins that do kill our life with Christ and separate us from Him. Like the souls turned to stone in Narnia, mortal sin causes our soul to become inanimate or lifeless. But, just as Aslan entered the domain of the White Witch and breathed life into those turned to stone, so too can a priest, by the power of the Holy Spirit, breathe new life into a soul in the Sacrament of Confession. God’s mercy is always greater than our sin – if only we would humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness. As we enter into this great Solemnity of Pentecost, if you have been away from the Sacrament of Confession, consider returning to have new life breathed into you – to experience the sanctifying grace that reanimates our souls and makes them holy and pleasing to God.