Joey Spencer
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Joey Spencer is a Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture, and serves as the Archivist for the Diocese of Tulsa.

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Happy Is He Who Prays with the Church

Each feast day, St Therese of Lisieux's sister Pauline would read Dom Guéranger’s commentary on the Mass in order to prepare their minds and hearts. St. Therese writes of this experience, “How I loved the feasts! You knew how to explain all the mysteries hidden under each, and you did it so well that they were truly heavenly days for me.”[1]

Dom Prosper Guéranger was a Benedictine monk who was instrumental in the liturgical reform movement of nineteenth-century France as well as the re-founding of Solesmes Abbey. Our Lady of Clear Creek Monastery is part of the Solesmes Congregation and thus becomes a connection between our diocese and the history of Solesmes and Dom Guéranger.

Founded in 1010, the Benedictine Priory of Solesmes was closed in 1791 as a result of the anti-Church sentiment in France during the French Revolution. In 1831, the buildings of the priory which had survived the French Revolution but had fallen into neglect were put up for sale by the French Government. Father Guéranger realized that if he could buy the priory it would be an opportunity to re-establish the Benedictine religious life to France, which was all but lost after the French Revolution. With the help of private donations, Guéranger succeeded in acquiring the Priory of Solemnes, and in 1832, religious life under the Rule of St. Benedict returned to France. “Prayer which had been interrupted, has been resumed.”[2] In 1837, the Priory of Solesmes was made the Abbey of Solesmes and Dom Prosper Guéranger was appointed Abbot and Superior General of the Benedictines of the Congregation of France.

One of the results of re-establishing the Benedictine monastic tradition to France was that Dom Guéranger was able to focus on studying the Church’s liturgy. In 1841, Guéranger began writing The Liturgical Year, a fifteen-volume work which explains day by day the liturgical year of the Church, including the Mass and the Divine Office. After the devastating years during and following the French Revolution, in order to strengthen the Church, he recognized the importance of the laity having an understanding of the liturgy.

But this liturgical prayer would soon become powerless were the faithful not to take a real share in it, or at least not to associate themselves to it in heart. It can heal and save the world, but only on the condition that it be understood. Be wise, then, ye children of the Catholic Church, and obtain that largeness of heart which will make you pray the prayer of your mother.[3]

His hopes were that he could revitalize the Church by introducing the faithful to the prayer of the Church with explanations and commentaries. As seen in the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, The Liturgical Year made it possible for the lay faithful to come to know the prayer of the Church and participate in the liturgy in a way that was impossible before it was published. Saints read his work and were strengthened in their faith. Thus it is fitting that in 2005 the cause for beatification was opened for Servant of God Dom Prosper Guéranger.

Dom Prosper Guéranger died in 1875 after finishing nine of the fifteen volumes. The other six volumes were completed by another Benedictine monk under Dom Guéranger’s name. The Liturgical Year is today still considered one of the most important resources for liturgical studies. In addition to studying the liturgical year, Dom Guéranger also helped to recover and re-establish the use of authentic Gregorian Chant in the liturgy. May his work inspire us even today as we seek to draw closer to our Lord in the sacred liturgy. [1] Àngel de les Gavarres, Thérèse, The Little Child of God’s Mercy: Her Spiritual Itinerary in the Light of Her Autobiographical Manuscripts (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1999), 23. [2] Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year: Volume I – Advent (New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2000), 5. [3] Guéranger, The Liturgical Year: Volume I – Advent, 5-6.

The Nativity of our Lord: The Feast of this Awe-filled Mystery

As we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, it seemed proper to spend some time with a few sermons of Saint Peter Chrysologus, particularly those dealing with the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Saint Peter Chrysologus was appointed Bishop of Ravenna by Pope Sixtus III sometime around the year 431. At the time, Ravenna was the political capital of the Western Roman Empire. According to the legend of the saint, the people of Ravenna had chosen their own man for bishop, but St. Peter the Apostle and St. Appolinaris had come to Pope Sixtus III in a vision and instructed the Pope to name Peter Chrysologus bishop. St. Peter Chrysologus was known for his gifts as a shepherd to his people and a preacher. Of his writings, there are 176 sermons attributed to his name as well as a pastoral letter written to the heretic Eutyches. It is believed by scholars that of the 176 sermons, 168 are authentic writings of the saint. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1729 by Pope Benedict XIII.

Known as the Doctor of Homilies, as a preacher, St. Peter’s sermons were short. “He frequently stated that he did not want to weary his hearers by speaking too long.”[1] Even though his sermons were short, they were beautifully crafted and theologically rich, earning him the epithet Chrysologus or “the Golden Orator.” While Christianity had become the official religion under Emperor Theodosius the Great in the late fourth century, there were still many at the beginning of the fifth century who were influenced by the old pagan religions. The focus of most of St. Peter’s sermons was the moral conversion of his flock. That he truly cared for the people he shepherded, desiring their conversion and salvation, is apparent in the sermons. “You are my life, my saving encouragement, and my glory. Therefore, I cannot suffer you to remain ignorant of what God gave me to know.”[2] His passion was for saving souls and his gift was to be able to share in his sermons difficult theological ideas in an easily understood and pastoral manner.

Preface II in the Eucharistic prayer for the Mass of the Nativity of the Lord could be a description of St. Peter Chrysologus’ thoughts present in his sermons regarding the Nativity. It is a beautiful prayer reminding us that in Christ’s Incarnation there is not only the salvation of man, but also the restoration of the unity of all creation which was disordered with the first sin in the Garden.

For on the feast of this awe-filled mystery,

though invisible in his own divine nature,

he has appeared visibly in ours;

and begotten before all ages,

he has begun to exist in time;

so that, raising up in himself all that was cast down,

he might restore unity to all creation

and call straying humanity back to the heavenly Kingdom.[3]

With this prayer in mind, we can now turn to the words of St. Peter Chrysologus and see how he expresses the same themes in his homilies.

For Peter Chrysologus, the Incarnation of Christ is always an awe-filled mystery. This mystery begins with the Annunciation. In one of his sermons, Chrysologus ponders the meaning of the Archangel Gabriel’s words when he proclaims to Mary, “the Lord is with thee.” “‘The Lord is with Thee.’ Why is the Lord with you? Because He is coming to you not merely to pay a visit, but He is coming down into you in a new mystery, that of being born.”[4] In another sermon the great saint asks us to turn our thoughts to the mystery of Christ in Mary’s womb.

Then ponder this in your heart: Can you fathom the mystery of the Lord’s birth? Do you deserve to enter into the resting place of that bosom, where the heavenly King, with all the full majesty of His divinity, finds His repose? Ought you, as a rash witness with human eyes and bodily senses, to gaze on the virgin’s conceiving? Can you, as a bystander, contemplate with daring reverence the very hands of God fashioning for himself the holy temple of a body within the womb of the mother?[5]

In Mary’s womb God became flesh and blood and shared in our human nature while Mary became the tabernacle of Our Lord and the Mother of God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of Judea, in the days of Herod” (Matt. 2:1). Both Bethlehem and Judea are particular places, both of which can be visited today, while “in the days of Herod” allows us to pinpoint a particular time in human history. As Preface II states, at Jesus’ birth God appears visibly and enters into time. St. Peter Chrysologus expresses it beautifully when he says,

He who made man from undefiled earth, without any process of birth, He Himself by being born fashioned His human nature from an undefiled body. The hand which with dignity raised earth to our image also with dignity assumed flesh for our restoration.[6]

That Christ assumes flesh for our restoration is a direct reference to the Fall in the Garden.

The first man, Adam, the father of the race, the origin of all posterity, lost by his sin the good of nature, the freedom of his race, and the life of his offspring…. Thus it is that Christ was born to elevate those prostrate in an earthy seed up to a heavenly nature.[7]

In Christ’s Incarnation it is not just man who is restored, but all of creation is restored as well. In his sermons there is a cosmological view in which all of creation celebrates the coming of our Savior.

So, what God commands an angel relates. His spirit fulfills it and His power brings it to perfection. The virgin believes it, and nature takes it up. The tale is told from the sky, and then proclaimed from all the heavens. The stars show it forth, and the Magi tell about it. The shepherds adore, and the beasts are aware. As the prophet testified: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib." [8]

All of creation participates and celebrates the Nativity of our Lord.

As we prepare for the coming of Christ this Christmas, let us remember that it is part of the mystery and beauty of the Church, that the same truth preached during Advent and Christmas by St. Peter Chrysologus in fifth century Ravenna, is the same truth our pastors will preach to us on Christmas day. “Today, Christ, who is the King of peace, has come forth with His peace and routed all discord, banished dissensions, and dissipated conflicts.”[9] May we all experience the peace of Christ who routes discord and dissipates conflicts this Christmas.

Lord, Open Our Eyes So We Might See

I was recently asked to teach two classes in the upcoming year on the topics of the Eucharist in Sacred Art and on Eucharistic Miracles. As I have not taught on these particular subjects before, the first step was to grab the books off the shelf and start collecting the pictures I will need for the class on art. In the collecting of pictures, I ran across the picture which accompanies this musing. It is a picture from a few years ago in which Bishop Slattery is consecrating the host, making what was once bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What struck me about the picture was the gaze of the priests. At this moment in the Mass all of the priests are intensely looking at the Eucharist, their eyes focused on Christ Himself, who is truly present in the Sacrament. If we were to step back and enlarge the picture so that we could see the high altar in its fullness, we would notice that some of the angels depicted on the altar are also looking at the Eucharist held up by the Bishop. The eyes of the other angels are focused on the tabernacle or the depiction of Christ on the Cross. All eyes are on Christ! If only our eyes could be opened to the spiritual reality taking place in this picture, we would also see a host of real, not artistically depicted angels and saints focused intensely on Christ present in the Eucharist.

This being said, there are many in the Catholic Church who do not believe in Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist. A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 found that only about one-third of Catholics believe in the true presence. While this number may come as a surprise to many, this disbelief is not new or modern.

There is a similar situation depicted in the life of St. Gregory the Great contained in the Golden Legend by Jacobus Voragrine. As St. Gregory is distributing the Eucharist to the laity, one particular woman steps up to receive the Eucharist with an amused smile on her face. St. Gregory pulls back the Eucharist and asks the lady why she is so amused. The lady happened to be the woman who made the bread for the host and admitted that she found it hard to believe that the bread she made was now the body of Christ. St. Gregory placed the Eucharist back on the altar and prayed that God show His grace by revealing the truth of what the Church believes. The Sacrament on the altar became flesh before the eyes of all. The woman was converted and after her conversion was further catechized by St. Gregory. For those of us helping catechize the faithful, we have work to do! But we should do this work with great joy, keeping our eyes focused on the Eucharist, and knowing that Christ and all of His saints and angels are right there with us.

All the Trees of the Wood Sing for Joy Before the Lord

When life gets busy, as it so often does, with all the distractions it can be easy to lose sight of the most important things while trying to juggle all of the small stuff. Not that all of the small stuff doesn’t have its own place and importance, but things become problematic when the small stuff becomes a distraction for, or even takes the place of, more important things. St. Augustine tells us that things are either used or enjoyed. Things enjoyed bring us happiness, and the only thing which can bring us true happiness is God. God is the only thing we should enjoy. Everything else should be used in order to lead us to God. “Those things which are objects of use assist, and (so to speak) support us in our efforts after happiness, so that we can attain the things that make us happy and rest in them.”[1] All of the small stuff should be ordered so as to bring us closer to God and not become distractions or ends in their own right.

This can be easier said than done in a world with a lot of anxiety and constant busyness. When life gets busy and focused on the wrong things, I find myself drawn to taking a walk in the woods or sitting alone in a beautiful garden. This always helps to redirect my thoughts to God. There is something about nature which has a calming effect on the soul.

The French aristocrat and commentator on early American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, in an essay titled “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” expressed what he experienced when stepping away from the cities and entering the American wilderness.

In that spot, the wilderness was probably just as it appeared six thousand years before to our ancestors’ eyes—a delightful and scented solitude festooned with flowers; a magnificent dwelling, a living palace constructed for man but into which the master had not yet made his way. The rowing boat slipped along effortlessly and silently. All around us reigned total serenity and peace. It was not long before we ourselves became, as it were, soothed at the sight of such a scene. Our conversation began to become more and more intermittent. Soon we were only whispering our thoughts. At length we fell silent altogether and, both putting up our oars, we descended into a quiet reverie filled with inexpressible magic.[2]

Perhaps the calming of the soul is due to God’s working on us through His creation. St. Thomas in the Summa contra Gentiles describes how we can come to God through His creation. “Now, God brought things into being by His wisdom; wherefore the Psalm (103:24) declares: ‘Thou hast made all things in wisdom.’ Hence, from reflection upon God’s works we are able to infer His wisdom, since, by a certain communication of His likeness, it is spread abroad in the things He has made.”[3] Thus the flowers of the garden and the trees in the woods, by their creation and existence, proclaim the greatness of God.

So, the next time you get caught up in the small things and get distracted from God, find the nearest garden or wooded walk and remember the words of St. Basil, “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go, the least plant may bring you clear remembrance of the Creator.”[4] After a bit, you too will find yourself soothed, less anxious, and refocused on the one thing that matters: God.

[1] St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.3. [2] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 922. [3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles II, ch. 2. [4] St. Basil, The Hexaemeron, 5.2.

The Custom of Reading Out Loud

Over the summer the Alcuin Institute hosted its first Catholic Imagination Fellowship. As part of this fellowship three college-aged scholars participated in two accredited, two-week intensive Great Books courses covering the ancient and medieval writers, as well as a two-week internship working with the staff of the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic. It was a great joy to get to work through so many texts with the students and my fellow tutors in the Institute. One of the texts we read was Euthyphro by Plato. It is a fairly short text and one that can be read in about an hour. One afternoon after class, we decided to read the entire text out loud so that the text would not only be read, but also heard. Euthyphro can be a tough text, and sometimes in hearing the dialogue read out loud our ears catch things that our eyes don’t. Not only was it beneficial, but the Fellows thoroughly enjoyed having the text read to them. Every teacher at one time or another will find themselves reading to their students. As a parent, I read to my son all the time, until he was able to read the books himself. Once my son could read, it was rare that I would read out loud unless I was teaching a class. All of my friends are readers, but unless it is a poem on all too rare occasions, we do not come together to read texts out loud to each other. Outside of classes or reading to our kids, why don’t we read to each other more often? Perhaps we should! The occasion that made me ponder reading out loud was a book I read recently called The Haunted Bookshop, written shortly after the end of World War I. One of the main characters of the story is Roger Mifflin, a charismatic pipe-smoker and owner of a used bookshop. Mr. Mifflin takes on a new employee and lodger named Titania whom he is introducing to the world of books. On the first night Titania stays with the Mifflins, and after dinner, Roger Mifflin makes the following suggestion for the evening’s entertainment. “Well my dear,” said Roger after supper that evening, “I think perhaps we had better introduce Miss Titania to our custom of reading aloud.”[1] Titania is of course delighted at the idea of being read to. This then made me think of the Inklings. Several years after the time depicted in The Haunted Bookshop, A group of scholars and Oxford dons, including C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams, would come together in the rooms of C.S. Lewis or meet at the Eagle and Child pub to read texts to each other. Some read their own texts, and many are now considered classics in their own right. These 20th century examples made me ponder reading out loud in the Church. My first thoughts went to another book which was read by the scholars of the Catholic Imagination Fellowship, The Rule of Benedict. Rule thirty-eight concerns the weekly reader. “The brothers’ meals should always be accompanied by reading, not by a person at random who just picks up the book, but by someone who will read for the whole week starting on Sunday. After Mass and Communion, the one who is starting his period of duty should ask all the brothers to pray for him, so that God may preserve him from a spirit of pride, and then everyone in the oratory should repeat this verse after him three times, ‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will show forth your praise’ (Ps. 51:15). Then he will receive a blessing and start reading.”[2] They hear the Word of God while they are eating. They ingest the Word of God with their ears, just as they ingest the food on their plates with their mouths. We do the same, when at every Mass we hear the priest or deacon read the Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word. St. Paul tells us, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Being read to has always been a part of the Tradition of the Church. Unfortunately, we live in a time that is very noisy. It is hard to escape the television, the radio, and the internet. If you think about it, in a way, these modern technologies are just a modern way of reading out loud to us. Perhaps it would be better to turn them off. A better alternative would be to get together with your family or a few friends, pick up a good book or Sacred Scripture, and as Roger Mifflin would say, re-introduce “the custom of reading aloud.” [1] Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop (Philadelphia: J B Lippincott Company, 1955), 74. [2] The Rule of Benedict, trans. Carolinne White (New York: Penguin, 2008), 38.

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Stop Christian Passer-by…and Pray

I have a lot of books. One of my favorite things in life is to have a comfortable chair, warm coffee, and a good book in my hands. It is a common occurrence that the book I sit down with will not be the same book I find myself reading when I finish my pot of coffee. Some interesting statement in the first book will lead me back to something I read in another and so on and so on, until, by the end of the pot of coffee, there is a new stack of books which have migrated from the shelves to the side of my chair. Recently it was not the book, but the bookmark, which set me off on my reading adventure…and prayer. A great number of my books have been bought second-hand in used bookstores. Very often they will have prayer cards for friends and family members who have passed away tucked inside. I always keep these prayer cards. Sometimes they find their way into the current book I am reading, marking my place, but also reminding me to pray for the dead. On this particular day the prayer card was for a Ms. Chastain who was born in 1932 and died in 2008. On seeing her card, I said a prayer for her, and before I started reading the book, praying for this woman led me to another book in search of something I had recently read about a memorial stone asking for prayer in an old English church. The memorial stone was for the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When the famous poet of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner knew he was going to die, he prepared the poem that is engraved on his memorial stone.  
“Stop Christian Passer-by! Stop Child of God. And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.: That he who many a year with toil of breath Found death in life, may here find life in death! Mercy for praise-to be forgiven for fame He asked and hoped through Christ. Do thou the same!”
The memorial stone is located in the center aisle of St. Michael’s Church, Highgate. It is an ever-present reminder to each “passer-by” not only to pray for those who have gone before us, but also to pray and prepare for our own death. Having found my reference to Coleridge’s memorial stone, and saying a quick prayer for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I then recalled a similar request for prayers by the author of a twelfth century book on painting, glassmaking, and metalwork. The book, On Divers Arts, was written under the name Theophilus, which was almost assuredly a pseudonym. Scholars believe that the real author was either a Benedictine monk or Roger of Helmarshausen, an early twelfth century artisan. Whoever Theophilus was, he had the foresight to know that his text would be read many years after his death. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he too asks for prayers when he is gone.  
When you have read this again and again and entrusted it to your tenacious memory, you will repay your instructor for his pains if every time you have made good use of my work, you pray for me that I may receive the mercy of almighty God who knows that I have written what is here systematically set forth neither out of love for human praise nor from desire for temporal reward, and that through envious jealousy I have neither stolen anything precious or rare nor silently reserved anything for myself alone, but rather that I have given aid to many men in their need and have had concern for their advancement to the increase of the honor and glory of His name.[1]
Almost a thousand years later, after reading this passage in his book, I said a prayer for Theophilus. The Church teaches that we should pray for the dead; it is one way in which we participate in the communion of saints. Praying for the dead is also a reminder that we too will someday die, and God will judge us on how we lived. So, if you are reading this in your comfortable chair with a hot mug of coffee, please say a prayer for Ms. Chastain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Theophilus, and those other friends and family who have preceded us in death. And, if you are reading this (hopefully many years in the future) and I have gone on to my judgment, please say a prayer for me!       [1] Theophilus, On Divers Arts (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1979), 13.

Caravaggio’s Light

In the Church of San Luigi de Francesi in Rome, there is a side chapel devoted to the life of St. Matthew. Hanging within the Contarelli chapel, there are three masterpieces by the Baroque artist Caravaggio. The paintings of the chapel, like a book, if read left to right, tell the story of the life of St. Matthew. If you step into the side chapel and turn your head to the left, you will see Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. In the painting, Matthew is sitting with four other tax collectors who look to be counting money. Christ enters the room from the shadows, interrupting the counting, and points to a surprised Matthew, calling him to “follow me” (Matthew 9:9). If you look directly in front of you, and above the altar, you will see Caravaggio’s The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. This famous painting depicts St. Matthew at a table writing his Gospel as it is dictated to him by an angel. Finally, if you look to your right, you will see the third painting by Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Jacobus de Voragine, the thirteenth century chronicler of the lives of the saints and Archbishop of Genoa, describes St. Matthew’s death as being cut down with a sword in the midst of saying Mass. This is the story being depicted in Caravaggio’s painting. A barely dressed man holding a sword stands over Matthew while an angel leaning down from heaven is offering the frond of a palm representing martyrdom. In the background you can see the altar and the altar candle still burning, showing that St. Matthew was in the act of saying Mass when he was attacked. If you look to the left of St. Matthew’s assailant, you will see the bearded face of a man fleeing the scene with his head turned back to take in the last moments of St. Matthew’s martyrdom. This bearded man is a self-portrait of Caravaggio, who has painted himself into the scene. While each painting is a masterpiece in and of itself, the real genius of Caravaggio is expressed when all three paintings are experienced together in the setting of the Contarelli Chapel during a Mass. This genius has to do with Caravaggio’s light source in each of the paintings. In The Calling of St. Matthew, the light source comes from the lower right-hand corner of the painting, while the source of light for The Martyrdom of St. Matthew comes from the lower left of the painting. For The Inspiration of St. Matthew, the light source seems to come from below and directly in front of the painting. This only makes sense when you see the priest at the altar holding up the Eucharist at Mass. The elevated Eucharist becomes the source of light for all three paintings. Christ is the light of the world, and as Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, He is also the light for all three of these masterpieces. Caravaggio not only gives us three masterpieces, but in his use of the Eucharist as the source of light expresses the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Giving Thanks for Backseat Drivers

I have never heard anyone say that they love backseat drivers.  Most of us have experienced a time or two when we have been distracted by a witty billboard, beautiful scenery along the road, or even a great conversation with the backseat driver through the use of the rearview mirror. I’ll share one of my experiences. Driving home from a night out with friends, I had become distracted by the conversation we were having and had taken my eyes off the road.  All of the sudden everyone in the car yelled at the top of their lungs, “BOX”!  The suddenness of the screams from a car full of backseat drivers uncomfortably redirected my attention to a giant television box that I was about to hit in the middle of the road!  I barely had time to swerve to miss the box. I’m grateful that an accident was avoided. Recollecting the story of the box in the road made me think of the story of Balaam and the donkey on their way to visit Prince Balak. Three times on the journey, the Angel of the Lord will stand in the middle of the road, sword in hand, threatening the life of Balaam. Balaam’s donkey, that long-suffering, loyal and faithful creature, acts in the narrative as the backseat driver. Three times, his faithful donkey will see the impending danger that Balaam does not and will act in order to save her master (Numbers 22, 25, 27). All three times Balaam beats the poor creature in order to force the donkey back onto the road. Finally, the third time the angel stands in the way, there is no room to move right or left, so the brave donkey kneels to the ground, stopping in front of the angel. Then a miraculous event occurs: God opens the mouth of the donkey so that she can express her lifetime of service and loyalty, the truth of which Balaam cannot deny (Num. 30). At this point, God opens the eyes of Balaam and he sees the Angel of the Lord standing, sword in hand, ready to kill him, the danger that the donkey had seen but Balaam had been blind to.  Balaam not only sees the threat of the Adversary Angel, but also sees his guilt in his turning away from God’s will. It begs the question: If the donkey’s eyes are always open to the Lord, why aren’t ours? Just like Balaam, we live in a world of distraction, and this distraction can lead us away from God and into sin. We should be thankful for the donkeys and the backseat drivers in our life who call our attention not only to the physical dangers within the road but also our own blindness to sin; perhaps God is using them to open our eyes.

A“Living Man”: the Martyrdom of St. Blandina

In the fifth chapter of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius quotes from a letter scholars believe to have been written by Saint Irenaeus. It is a letter written to the Churches in Asia and Phrygia regarding the persecutions occurring in the Churches of Lyons and Vienne.  Eusebius includes the letter in his narrative so that the struggles of the saints who underwent persecution and martyrdom for Christ might not be forgotten in the history of the Church. For Eusebius as well as Irenaeus, the gods of the Roman Empire, and those who persecuted the Christians in their name, were linked with, and doing the work of, the diabolical. This cosmic battle of the diabolical against God and his followers is an essential element in understanding Irenaeus’ view of the persecution of the saints of Lyons and Vienne, and serves as well as a crucial element in Irenaeus’ theology of God’s forming His creation into a “living man.” While it is the Holy Spirit who strengthens the martyrs in their tribulations, it is Satan who puts doubt and fear into their hearts, “striving with all his power, that some blasphemy might be uttered by them.”[1] Just as Christ voluntarily gave His life for the salvation of the world, so also do the martyrs go to their death voluntarily for Christ. In the paschal mystery, Christ’s death is transformative. Through His crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ destroys death, so that man might have eternal life in God. The martyrs go to their death knowing that death no longer has its sting, rather it is a part of God’s plan of redemption through which they will truly become vivified. “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess. We sow a corruptible body in the tomb, but he raises up an incorruptible body, a ‘spiritual body.’”[2] Only through death can we enter into eternal life in the presence of God. Christ turns death into a new beginning rather than the end. Christ told his followers to “take up your cross and follow me, for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25). To lose one’s life in martyrdom was not to be a dead man, but was to gain eternal life in Christ. According to Irenaeus, we must first die in order to truly become “living Men.” The martyrs knew that in dying for Christ, they were entering into eternal life, and to watch the martyrs voluntarily and joyfully go to their death without a fight was baffling to the pagans. In order to become a “living man,” one has to have the Holy Spirit and one has to die in Christ. To die the death of a martyr was to give oneself over to Christ, so that through the power of the Holy Spirit, one could be transformed into a living man in the hands of God. When asked why he was willing to turn himself over to his persecutors, St. Ignatius of Antioch gives the answer that, “to be near the sword is to be near God; to be in the claws of wild beasts is to be in the hands of God.”[3] Not only did the martyrs go to their death voluntarily, but also confessing Christ so that they might be strength to others. One of the Christians martyred in Lyons was a slave girl named Blandina. The martyrdom of Saint Blandina is only one story of martyrdom among many which Irenaeus expounds upon. However, Blandina’s story is unique, in that in its telling, Irenaeus gives us an insight into how, for the Christian who sees with the eyes of faith, weakness becomes strength, death becomes life, and in martyrdom the saints participate in the timeless sacrifice of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Blandina’s story in Eusebius is an excellent example of how through the death of martyrdom, the martyr becomes a source of life for other Christians who see the crucifixion of Christ in their example. Through martyrdom, Blandina fully becomes a “living man,” and as such becomes an expression of the glory of God through whom others are strengthened so that they too might become “living men” through dying in Christ. “For the glory of God is a living man, and the life of man is to see God.”[4] Holding on to worldly freedom, physical health, or material goods never allows one to be free; the threat of having these freedoms or goods taken away will always be a source of control over the individual afraid to lose them. Christ tells us in Matthew 10:28, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Blandina, a slave in the world, did not allow herself to be a slave to the world; rather she chose to give herself to Christ, allowing herself to be used in any way that God saw fit; like clay in the hands of the Creator, she allowed herself to be formed by God. By doing so she was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Blandina’s persecutors were destroying her body, yet they were being defeated; their goal was to bring her to death, yet in her martyrdom they were becoming her source of eternal life. Blandina chose to die to herself so she might live in Christ, suffering her persecution voluntarily and letting Christ work through her. Among the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, it was Blandina who most perfectly became the icon of Christ for those Christians witnessing her persecution. Blandina, after suffering many tortures, was suspended on a stake and left to be devoured by the wild animals. Hanging on the stake, Blandina, for those who saw with eyes of faith, became an icon of Christ hanging on the cross. “For as they saw her in the contest, with the external eyes, through their sister, they contemplated Him that was crucified for them, to persuade those that believe in Him, that every one who suffers for Christ, will forever enjoy communion with the living God.”[5] For those Christians who wavered in the face of persecution, the confession of the martyrs became a source of strength for them so that they were able to reclaim their faith and become confessors themselves. Such was the case when the Phrygian Doctor Alexander stood before his persecutors and confessed the faith. In light of his courage, those who had renounced the faith were once again given the strength to proclaim their faith. This infuriated the persecutors. “The mob, however, chagrined that those who had before renounced their faith were again confessing, cried out against Alexander, as if he had been the cause of this.”[6] Being full of the Holy Spirit, the confessor’s preaching of Christ had an effect on those who had also received the Spirit. According to Irenaeus, Christ’s reclamation, through the confessing of the martyrs, of those Christians who had fallen into apostasy was spiritually devastating to the devil. Hearing the confession of Christ for those who had fallen away was efficacious. They wanted the life that they saw present in the lives of the martyrs, even if they had to die the death of martyrdom to truly live. It is hard not to imagine that Irenaeus’ experience of witnessing and writing about the martyrs in Lyons and Vienne did not have some impact on his theological writings.  The martyrdom of Blandina and her fellow Christians present clear practical examples of Irenaeus’ theological thought, particularly in his theology of the glory of God being a “living man.”  And if seeing God is the way to becoming a “living man,” then He is clearly present in the lives and deaths of Blandina and the other martyrs of Lyons and Vienne. May the Martyrs of the Church always be a source of strength for those suffering, so that they too may eventually become “living men” through Christ, entering into the fullness of life in the eternal presence of God.

St. Augustine: Love & Conversion in the Church

Sacred Scripture reveals through salvation history that God calls every person to Himself. Those who respond to their vocation and turn to the Lord are often used for the conversion and salvation of others. Conversion does not always occur in a single moment but sometimes is a process of coming to God over time. The theology of conversion is not only seen in Sacred Scripture, but also in the lives and theology of the saints. St. Augustine is an example of a saint who was converted over time, and, thus, his theology is one of constant conversion. The Church, according to St. Augustine, is full of saints and sinners: saints who have converted from a sinful life to one of holiness and sinners who have not yet let the old man die so that the new man might live. Likewise, there are Saints who fall into sin, and the most wretched of men who become martyrs for Christ. To participate in the life of the Church is to participate in flux. “In any case, those who appear to be bad today may be good tomorrow, just as those who today are proud of their own goodness may tomorrow turn out to be bad,” he wrote. To be a member of the Body of Christ is to participate in a life of ongoing conversion, sometimes being used by God in the conversion of others, sometimes using others as an example of conversion for oneself. Conversion does not occur in a vacuum; it is both relational and a struggle over time. The relational experience of conversion can be understood as a fundamental element in Augustine’s own conversion and, therefore, works its way into Augustine’s theology and pastoral approach to those whom he served as Bishop of Hippo. For Augustine, the Church on earth is like a hospital, filled with many people at different levels of spiritual health and healing. There are those who suffer from grievous, near fatal wounds, wounds that others turn their eyes away from in disgust, hard wounds to heal. Likewise, there are those who are well on their way to recovery, a recovery that becomes an example to those who are still in the process of healing. Finally, there are also saints, priests and bishops who are charged with being the doctors in this spiritual hospital. The Church is the dispensary of God’s healing medicine. “And since the same medicine is not to be applied to all, although to all the same love is due, so also love itself is in travail with some, becomes weak with others; is at pains to edify some, dreads to be a cause of offence to others; stoops to some, before others stands with head erect; is gentle to some, and stern to others; and enemy to none, a mother to all.” Healing in the Church is done through conversion to Christ, and converts to Christ become an example to others helping them in their own conversion. Once man as an individual is in a proper relationship with God, this love of God is expressed through the love of others, the Church. As Christ laid down his life for us out of love, we also are called to sacrifice ourselves for others. “And for this reason, that inasmuch as love is the end of the commandment and the fulfillment of the law, we also may love one another, and even as He laid down His life for us, so we also may lay down our life for the brethren,” stated Augustine. While laying down our life for the other is the ultimate sacrifice, love for our brethren can be expressed in other ways as well. Our expression of joy in living a life of faith in God can become an example for others in the Church. Augustine uses the example of coal. Those who have no faith or have gotten lost in a life of sin are likened to dead coal. Those who are living a life in Christ and are on fire in their faith are considered live coals. All that is needed to bring the dead coal to life is to be placed next to a burning coal. It brings great joy to the whole Church to see the effects of conversion, life in Christ, in someone who had been dead in sin. “But while you praise this live coal− if you praise him wisely −you will apply him to another who is dead, and set fire to him or her as well,” he said. In this way, the Church grows exponentially through Christ and His saints. Christ uses those in His Church for the conversion of others. Just as our life must be given for the good of others, so also our knowledge of Christ and the precepts of the Christian faith must be given over to others so that they might use what we have for their own use to enjoy God in the Holy Trinity. Augustine expresses this well when he compares our sharing of what God has given us with others to the miracle of the loaves and fish. “So just as that bread increased in quantity when it was broken, in the same way all the things the Lord has already granted me for setting about this work will be multiplied under his inspiration, when I start passing them on to others.” Sharing what God has given us with our brethren is not only beneficial to them, but to the individual sharing it as well. Also, loving one's brethren is the greatest form of loving God. Augustine knew that there were those in the Church who did not yet belong to the Church and that they could be a source of scandal within the Church. And yet, while he disliked them, he loved them all the same. “Today I hate such wicked and perverted people, though I love them as people in need of correction, so that instead of money they may prefer the doctrine which they learn and, above the doctrine, may prefer you, God, the truth, the abundant source of assured goodness and most chaste peace.” Augustine knew from his own experience that God works on people over time. He unpacked Sacred Scripture to his flock and corrected their errors while never losing hope that some of those who were in the Church but not part of Christ’s body would come to conversion just as he had. Augustine wrote, “True, it is hidden from us when it is that one whom we now see present in the body does really come in spirit; nevertheless, we should deal with him in such a manner that he may conceive this desire even though it does not as yet exist.” It is not known when God will act on the sinner’s heart and predispose the person to conversion, but out of love for one's brethren there must be hope and prayer. Sinners and scandal will always be present in the Church, but like a hospital, the Church exists for the salvation of those people. “But if our mind is troubled by some scandal and so is unable to produce a calm and agreeable discourse, so great should be our love towards those for whom Christ died, desiring to redeem them by the price of His own blood from the death of the errors of this world that the very fact of the word being brought to us in our dejection that someone is at hand who desires to become a Christian should have the effect of alleviating and dispelling our grief, even as the joy over gains is wont to alleviate grief over losses,” he taught. The scandal cannot overcome the joy in just one person who decides to become a Christian, and those who are already in the Body of Christ should seek out those who remain outside. We live in tumultuous times. It is our job to be the live coals, a source of love and conversion to others, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those both within the Church and without.