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The Spirit of the Lord: The Devotion of Romano Guardini to Christ and His Church

Romano Guardini is one of the most important voices in Catholic intellectual discussions of the last century. This is most evident in the significant influence his works have had on the last three popes. While a student at the University of Munich, Pope Francis started to write a dissertation on him and recently stated, “I am convinced that Guardini is a thinker who has much to say to the men of our time, and not only to Christians.” Some scholars have argued that much of Pope Benedict XVI’s theological work is a lengthy mediation on his thought. When Benedict XVI resigned his papacy, he cited the above quote from Guardini. And Guardini’s 1918 work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, became the subject of a dialogue with Max Scheler, who was the focus of Pope St. John Paul II’s doctoral dissertation.

Moreover, Guardini’s writing and thought was considered a significant influence on the Second Vatican Council, even though personally he was dissatisfied with its implementation. Pope Paul VI even offered to make him a cardinal in 1968, but he declined. As the author of 75 books, his influence on Catholic thought continues to this day. In commemoration of his faithful life and ministry, he was declared a Servant of God in 2016. The gravity of Romano Guardian’s theological and philosophical reflections continue to impact the life of the Church and its faithful nearly 140 years after his birth.

Romano Guardini was born in Italy in 1885. A year later, his father moved the family to Mainz, Germany where he raised the family as devout Catholics. Guardini was an excellent student, but during his university years his faith was challenged by the pervasive agnosticism and atheism. He suffered from depression and experienced a spiritual crisis. When he was home on vacation, he was engaged by this passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“It became clear to me that there exists a law according to which persons who ‘find their life,’ that is, remain in themselves and accept as valid only what immediately enlightens them, lose their individuality. If they want to reach the truth and attain the truth in their very selves, then they must abandon themselves…,” he later reflected.

After resolving his own crisis of faith, Guardini studied for the priesthood at the University of Mainz. He entered Holy Orders in 2010 and then spent the next decade serving in various parish assignments while he pursued doctoral studies in theology. Guardini's real desire was to teach in the academy so that he could explore the impact of modernity in the life of the Church and the culture. This relationship between faith and culture was central to much of his theological thought.

“The task of Christian culture is twofold: on the one hand, to penetrate and transfigure nature by grace; on the other, to unlock revelation and take possession of it by means of nature,” he wrote in his essay, Thoughts on the Relation between Christianity and Culture.

While doing his doctoral studies at the University of Freiburg, Guardini chose to focus his attention on St. Bonaventure, which was unusual since Thomism dominated theological discussions in the Church at the turn of the last century. Guardini, however, found the rigid Thomism of the day to be cold and impersonal. His decision to write his dissertation on the Soteriology of St. Bonaventure even caused conflict with his clerical superiors and prevented him from obtaining a teaching position at the seminary.

After finishing his dissertation in 1915, Guardini served in the military as a hospital orderly and directed Juventus, a Catholic organization of students. He also became close friends with Ildefons Herwege, the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach, which was the center for liturgical renewal in Germany. The centrality of the liturgy became a key theme in Guardian’s faith and thought. He published The Spirit of the Liturgy in 1918 and it became a best-seller in Germany and popular work for Catholics everywhere.

He believed that the liturgy was a means to overcome the cold rationalism in the Church. He argued that the liturgy had a sort of playfulness, writing, “The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with saying and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’”  The liturgy is, to be sure, serious play, with set rules and complex symbols, but these are all in service of a deeper experience of God.

 For Guardini, the spirit of the liturgy is above all a spirit of community, uniting the faithful with each other even as it unites them to God. This theme of community in the Mass and the Church was further developed in his 1922 work, The Church and the Catholic. Against the prevailing individualism of the day or the increasing popularity of communism, both of which destroy true community, Guardini contended that the Church as the Body of Christ is a community made possible by the voluntary association of people with “free personality,” which is necessary for any true community.

After writing his second dissertation on St. Bonaventure at the University of Bonn in 1924, Guardini earned a position as the chair of Philosophy of Religion and Catholic Worldview at the University of Berlin, which was largely Protestant and anti-Catholic. This academic position at a non-Catholic university left him outside the dominant intellectual circles of the period. Also, his focus on liturgy and community was unique. He avoided Thomistic language and categories as well as the popular focus on apologetics. Further, he engaged with classic literature and world religions, areas that few Catholic thinkers dared to explore during that period.

While he was not popular in Catholic academic circles, he began to attract the attention of some of the brightest young Catholic minds, including Josef Pieper, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Hannah Arendt. Yet even as Guardini was willing to dialogue with modern thought and other religions, there was no doubt that Jesus Christ was the unique center of all truth. But Christianity was more than a set of rigid dogmas, it was a personal engagement with the person of Jesus Christ. This explains his focus on the Church as a community and the liturgy as the pinnacle of life in the Church.

One of Guardini's earliest and most influential works offers an insight into his thought. His Letters from Lake Como is a collection of his observations about the relationship between technology and humanity. Guardini reflected on “the manner in which human beings, through their architecture and craftsmanship, interacted non-invasively and respectfully with nature.” But he noticed that this interaction had started to change in the modern world and humanity had become more aggressive and domineering toward the creation through its architecture.

Guardini argued that technology “has become a destiny that subjugates its human creators as much as their creations” and believed that the modern person “must recover a sense of the sacred before the sacred name can be heard again.” He contended that technology had introduced an artificiality of existence, abstracting the person from reality and reducing the human experience to concepts, formulas and sentiments. While acknowledging the potential benefits of technology, he said we must receive it “yet with incorruptible hearts remain aware of all that is destructive and nonhuman in it.”

The most popular work in his extensive corpus is The Lord, first published in Germany in 1937 and introduced to English readers in 1954. In The Lord, Guardini offers reflections and commentary on the life and person of Jesus Christ and what faith in Him requires. Still popular with the Catholic faithful, Pope Benedict XVI commented, “The Lord has not grown old, precisely because it still leads us to that which is essential, to that which is truly real, Jesus Christ Himself. That is why today this book still has a great mission.”

Romano Guardini reflects on the nature of faith in The Lord, “Understanding of Christ requires a complete conversion, not only of the will and the deed, but also of the mind. One must cease to judge the Lord from the wordly point of view and learn to accept His own measure of the genuine and the possible; to judge the world with His eyes. This revolution is difficult to accept and still more difficult to realize, and the more openly the world contradicts Christ's teaching, the more earnestly it defines those who accept it as fools, the more difficult that acceptance, realization. Nevertheless, to the degree that the intellect honestly attempts this right-about-face, the reality known as Jesus Christ will surrender itself. From this central reality, the doors of all other reality will swing open, and it will be lifted into the hope of the new creation.”

“God Loves You”: The Evangelical Ministry of the Venerable Fulton Sheen

When I was still a Lutheran pastor, I regularly flipped around cable channels in the evening hours after everyone had gone to bed. Whenever I landed on EWTN and saw Bishop Fulton Sheen on “Life is Worth Living,” the channel surfing came to an end. Initially, I was attracted by his dramatic flair as he strode across the screen with a wide smile, cassock and flowing cope, theatrical stares into the camera, flamboyant hand gestures and nearly indecipherable scrawling on a chalkboard while explaining a theological doctrine. He was engaging. And I listened.

The Venerable Fulton Sheen ended each show with the statement, “God loves you.” He preached Jesus Christ and the Christian faith in all of its fullness. While his winsome personality and dramatic presentation stopped me from changing the channel, the clarity of his proclamation and the depth of his understanding of the Christian faith, the modern person and the decaying Western culture made me put down the remote.

Two months before Sheen’s death on December 9, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II sent him a letter of congratulations on the occasion of his 60th anniversary as a priest. He wrote, “God called you to proclaim in an extraordinary way his dynamic word....In these six decades of your priestly service, God has touched the lives of millions of the men and women of our time.”

Sheen was one of the most influential voices for the Catholic faith in the twentieth century. He not only reached millions through his popular television show but also through his radio presence for some 20 years, 66 published books, classroom instruction, public speaking, and countless newspaper and magazine columns. Pope St. John Paul II said to him regarding his ministry, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.”

As a Roman Catholic bishop, he was an unlikely candidate to be the first televangelist in Eisenhower America. It is even more remarkable that his popularity would attract an audience of 30 million, appear on the cover of Time and win an Emmy. His Cause for Canonization was opened in 2002, and in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI recognized him as someone who had lived a life of “heroic virtue” and proclaimed him "Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.”

Born in El Paso, Illinois, in 1895 to Newt and Delia Sheen, Sheen grew up in a devout Catholic home. He graduated valedictorian from his high school, attended minor seminary, and completed his training for the priesthood at St. Paul Seminary. He was ordained in 1919 and then started his graduate studies. After earning two bachelor degrees at The Catholic University of America, he received his doctorate from the University of Louvain. His dissertation served as the basis for his book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas, which included an introduction by G. K. Chesterton.

Sheen then took a faculty position at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in 1926. For the next 23 years, he developed his skills as a scholar, educator, preacher and evangelist. During his tenure at CUA, his reputation as a published academic and dynamic communicator attracted not only throngs of students, but the attention of the media. In 1930, he was asked to serve as a fill-in on “The Catholic Hour” radio program. His phenomenal popularity resulted in the program asking him to continue as a weekly host for the show. He hosted this show for the next 20 years.

Sheen’s widespread popularity can be attributed to his gift of addressing significant theological, political and cultural topics with humor, depth and clarity. Having read the entire corpus of Aquinas in Latin, he used this foundational knowledge of the Catholic faith to not only proclaim Christ but also to apply the Gospel to the difficult moral decisions and complicated social issues of the time.

The impact of his ministry is revealed in a 1937 letter that he he wrote to the CUA rector, Msgr. Joseph Corrigan, “During the past year letters demanding personal attention have run between 75 and 100 a day.... This coupled with classes never given with less than six hours preparation for each lecture has left me physically exhausted. However the good to be done is such that one dare not shrink from its opportunities for apostolate.”

In 1950, Sheen left CUA to become the national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Then, after being consecrated as a bishop in 1951, he started his famous television series, “Life Is Worth Living.” Initially, only three stations carried the program. But after Life and Time magazines did feature stories on it, the show spread nationwide and drew millions of viewers, propelling him to unprecedented fame and influence for a Catholic clergyman in America.

He won the 1952 Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality. Upon receiving the award, Sheen credited Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for their valuable contribution to his success. His show was so popular at the time that it competed with popular television celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle. When Berle's ratings declined and Sheen's increased, Berle commented, “​​If I'm going to be eased off TV by anyone, it's better that I lose to the one for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.”

Sheen had an uncanny ability to explain the mysteries of the Catholic faith in ways that were engaging and easy to understand, while never retreating from difficult theological or social topics. Each episode opened with him in full vestments offering a few jokes to introduce the topic and then writing “JMJ” (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) on his blackboard. After presenting a significant theological or philosophical issue, he would instruct the audience on how to apply the lesson to daily life and would finish with an exhortation. He would then graciously bow to applause from the studio audience.

For the six years that “Life Is Worth Living” was on-air, Sheen shared the hope of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ with an increasingly secular nation and made the faith of the Catholic Church accessible to the American public. This was significant for a Catholic community that was sorely misunderstood during that time. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI recalled how "Fulton Sheen ... would fascinate us in the evenings with his talks.

In addition to this popular show, Sheen was active in raising money to support  Catholic missions through his role as director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In this role, he influenced the lives of tens of millions of people all over the world. He is also considered instrumental in the conversion of an untold number of people to Catholicism, from working-class New Yorkers he encountered in daily life to a number of recognizable celebrities who sought him out for instruction.

After the show ended, Sheen continued to be a popular author and speaker. In 1966, he was named Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester but resigned from that position in 1969. In his resignation letter, Bishop Sheen wrote, "I am not retiring, only retreading." Pope Paul VI then named him Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales.

The grace of making a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament was a central theme to Sheen’s preaching and teaching throughout his ministry. Sheen also practiced this advice. Throughout his ministry, friends and witnesses commented that he never failed to keep his holy hour from the day of his priestly ordination until his death on the floor of his private chapel in 1979. Sheen once stated, “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white Host.”

Archbishop Sheen’s cause for canonization was opened by the Diocese of Peoria in 2002, and in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him “Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.” In 2014, a reported miracle attributed to his intercession was approved by both the medical board that reports to the Vatican and the theological commission that advises the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Metaphysics of Beauty

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s main character in The Idiot famously claims that “beauty will save the world.” Ever since its publication in 1869, and increasingly in recent years, this enigmatic phrase has been used to express an enduring hope in the possibility of restoring an authentic Christian culture in an modern, increasingly secular society. But is this hope well founded? How can beauty go about saving a world that is so obviously marred and almost entirely defined by its ugliness and brutality?

Thankfully, Dostoevsky proposes a ready answer to this perplexing problem. In the same novel, he introduces an intriguing character named Ippolit, a young man dying of tuberculosis. In one particular scene, Ippolit, reflecting upon his encounter with the painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by the famous German-Swiss artist Hans Holbein, comments:

It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a share of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him in his most horrible suffering. But in [this] picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering in the cross…. [I]t is nature alone…. Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is — in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which is senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly, and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being — such being as by himself was worth the whole nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of this being alone! ... The people who surrounded the dead man, none of whom is in the painting, must have felt horrible anguish and confusion on that evening, which at once smashed all their hopes and almost all their beliefs.

Ippolit’s response to the painting of the dead Christ draws into clear focus the crisis under consideration and suggests, at least indirectly, a response. Modern culture is very much like the painting by Holbein. The effects of sin upon our world have distorted and disfigured — so it seems — every inch of it; just as every inch of Christ’s body, in Holbein’s painting, is defaced. Like Ippolit, we perceive only a disfigured and dismantled “corpse;” a dead thing, where once existed a living, virial, life-giving and beautiful culture. Faced with such ugliness, advanced and magnified by technology (aka the “machines” referenced by Ippolit), it becomes difficult to see the truth of things; to see the beauty that is beyond and hidden within the fallen created world.

Importantly, not all who gaze upon Holbein’s dead Christ see what Ippolit sees, namely, fallen “nature alone.” Through the gift of faith, some can — with some effort — contemplate the painting and see beyond the suffering and scandal — the mere destruction of a body — and see the sublime love that moved Christ to die such an ignoble death. This capacity to see rightly — to be able to see the hidden beauty that animates and moves all things, even sin and suffering — must be developed and cultivated. We must be taught “how to look” and thus receive the saving power of beauty in the midst of sin and suffering.

This raises the question: how does one begin to look rightly? How is it possible to discern and experience the truly beautiful in a sinful and dreadful world? It would seem that the first thing that must be done is to acknowledge that there exist counterfeit forms of ‘beauty.’ A ‘beauty’ which, according to Josef Ratzinger, “is deceptive and false.” Such false forms of beauty aim merely to “dazzle” and “lock … [man] entirely into himself … with the desire for power, possession and pleasure.” In contrast, Ratzinger argues that authentic beauty always draws man out of himself and awakens in him the longing for the “Ineffable” (cf. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” Aug. 2002). In other words, true beauty always leads outward and upward, to some good beyond the beholder, while false forms of beauty merely tantalize and entice man to remain within himself.

Once we grasp this important distinction and resist falling prey to false forms of beauty that merely “delight the eyes,” we can then begin to see beauty and experience its salvific power. Looking rightly requires more than the use of our aesthetic senses (principally sight and hearing, since the other senses are too deeply immersed in matter). We must implore the use of our intellects. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the beautiful is “that which pleases when known.” In contrast to that which is simply experienced unreflectively, the truly beautiful must be understood. We must use our cognitive power to discern three essential elements of a thing in order to experience its beauty. We must actually do work in order to enjoy the beautiful.

The first thing that must be done is that we must intellectually grasp a thing’s “integrity.” Everything that is beautiful has an organic wholeness or an interior unity that is pleasing when perceived and understood. Imagine, for example, gazing upon a magnificent Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana). Such a species of tree, with its twisting and sprawling array of enormous branches, has an interior unity, a grandeur in its totality. Its branches and leaves are an integral part of a splendid whole. If that tree were to be coppiced (trimmed down to its trunk), its integrity would be spoiled and its beauty destroyed. Perceiving and understanding a thing’s wholeness is an essential element of a thing’s beauty.

Secondly, we must train ourselves to see a thing’s relation both to God and to other things. St. Thomas calls this the discernment of “right proportion.” The truly beautiful is always rightly proportioned to God and to others. This is why we can gaze upon the life of Mother Theresa, for example, and exclaim with confidence that there was a beautiful woman! Her life exhibited a proper relation to her Creator and to the poor souls she encountered in her ministry. In contrast, think of the disproportioned life of the drunkard or the womanizer. They relate proportionally neither to God nor to His creatures and thus live a truly disproportioned and ugly life.

Lastly, in order to see correctly, we must be able to discern the intelligibility of things. Everything beautiful has a certain “claritas,” or splendor of form. This splendor of form radiates through a thing’s matter and makes it intelligible to the viewer. For example, we can gaze upon a handsomely constructed wooden chair and understand immediately its purpose. Its form clearly communicates to us what we should do with the thing. We ought to sit in a chair. The clarity of purpose is easily discernible by a thing which is truly beautiful. Again, in contrast, much of modern abstract art lacks such intelligibility. One could gaze for hours at a painting by Kandinsky (not recommended) and have no idea what you are looking at. It lacks intelligibility or claritasand is thus deemed, rightfully so, ugly.

Hence to “see” the beautiful, we must be able to understand a thing’s integrity, right proportion, and intelligibility. As mentioned, this takes some intellectual effort. In discerning these essential elements within things — even things that have become corrupted and distorted through sin — we begin to train ourselves not only to see and delight in authentic beauty, but, more essentially, we begin to move beyond the beauty of the created order and perceive the utmost integral, proportioned, and intelligible good, namely God Himself. Beauty properly understood is transcendent. It moves us to Beauty itself. And it is this Beauty, contemplated and adored, that has the power to save us and the whole world.

Becoming a “Living Man”: St. Irenaeus and 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.

May’s Treasures

May is a relatively unassuming month. Though we are still in the holy season of Easter, we have celebrated the day itself and await the great day of Pentecost. Between these two important days, however, there is much to celebrate. In fact, there is so much going on in May from the perspective of the Church’s liturgical calendar that it cannot be exhausted here. There are different ways one could divide up and categorize the memorials and feasts, but I will consider Doctors, Apostles, Mary, and Jesus. Even categorizing things this way, there is a richness that cannot be adequately expressed, a depth that cannot be sufficiently plumbed. For this reason, I will focus in a special way on the Ascension of the Lord, a solemnity not infrequently overshadowed by the aforementioned solemnities of Easter and Pentecost.

Perhaps the title “Doctor of the Church” is new to you, or perhaps you’ve never quite understood what it means. The persons afforded this lofty title are not medical professionals, of course, but doctors in the classical sense, namely teachers. In brief, the Doctors of the Church are saintly men and woman who have significantly contributed to our understanding of the mysteries of faith. Through their teaching, they provide sure guidance to the faithful of every age and nation. There are, to my knowledge, thirty-seven such Doctors, among whom are St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Catherine of Siena. On May 2, we remember St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. He is best known for safeguarding Christological orthodoxy at the time of the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He taught, against the heretic Arius, that Jesus is true God, eternally begotten of the Father, not a highly exalted creature as Arius had erroneously taught. The Son is, as we profess in the Creed, consubstantial with the Father. This May, read one of his books. For example, read his On the Incarnation and reflect on the unsurpassable gift we have in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Ask St. Athanasius for his intercession, that you too might hold fast to the truth about Christ and His saving work for us.

There are two additional Doctors of the Church celebrated in May: St. John of Avila and St. Bede the Venerable (May 10 and 25 respectively). Pope Benedict XVI said the following in his 2012 Apostolic Letter declaring St. John of Avila, the early 16th century priest and mystic, a Doctor of the Church: “The love of God, made known in Jesus Christ, is the key to the personal experience and teaching of the Holy Master John of Avila, an ‘evangelical preacher’ constantly grounded in the Sacred Scriptures, passionately concerned for the truth and an outstanding precursor of the new evangelization.” Following the example of St. John, read the Scriptures with faith and devotion. Thereafter, with a heart set ablaze by charity, reach out to others for the sake of bringing them to Christ. At the workplace, be an example of kindness, integrity, and love. At home, allow divine charity to be the unifying principle of your family. St. Bede was a 6th-7th century English monk. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is itself regarded as important in the history of the English people and in the history of literature. His learning and scholarship should be imitated by us. If you are a student or a teacher, ask for this venerable man’s intercession.

Next, the Church commends the Apostles. More specifically, she holds up Sts. Philip and James on May 3, and St. Matthias on May 14. The first two were part of the original band of twelve disciples chosen by Jesus. In choosing twelve, reminiscent of the twelve Tribes of Israel, Jesus signifies that He is reconstituting Israel. Matthias is chosen to fill the vacancy that Judas’s untimely and shameful death creates. The choosing of Matthias gives us some insight into what it means to be an Apostle. Consider these words from Acts 1:21, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” An Apostle, then, is one who has experienced the public ministry of Jesus, which began with His baptism in the Jordan and ended with His Ascension into heavenly glory. An Apostle (the word means “one who is sent”) is above all a witness to Jesus’s Resurrection, a witness to the fact that Jesus through His paschal mystery has conquered death and secured victory and life for all those who believe in Him. Though the office of Apostle is unique in the life and history of the Church, bear witness in your own way to the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection. Commit yourself to the teaching of the Apostles and their successors (the bishops).

The Blessed Virgin Mary makes a powerful appearance in the month of May as well. On May 13, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Beginning in 1917, the Virgin appeared to three peasant children (Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia) in Fatima, Portugal. She gave a powerful message of prayer (especially the holy rosary) and repentance. She warned of grave consequences for the world if the people of the world did not turn to her Immaculate Heart. On this day, pray the holy rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession. On March 25, Pope Francis, along with bishops from around the world, consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Take this time to consecrate yourself and your family to it as well, and to the Sacred Heart of her divine Son. Perhaps you can focus on the following prayer, revealed to the three children of Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy.”

The second Marian feast is that of the Visitation on May 31. This celebrates the visit Mary makes to her relative Elizabeth. The latter had already conceived a child of her own, John (later to be called “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer”). This encounter, which is recorded in Luke 1:39-56, is rich with meaning. First, upon Mary’s greeting, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus causes Elizabeth to exclaim, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” If these holy words sound familiar, it is because we pray them in the Hail Mary (a thoroughly scriptural prayer). In response to these words, Mary elects not to magnify or exalt herself, but rather to magnify the Lord. We have here Mary’s famous Magnificat. Take some time to reflect on this mystery of our salvation. Contemplate especially Elizabeth’s words concerning Mary, Mother of God, and Mary’s own words concerning God and His loving salvific plan.

Last but infinitely far from least we have Jesus Himself. On May 29, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. When the Lord gloriously rises to new life, He does not remain forever upon the earth. Instead, He returns to His Father and takes His celestial throne. This scene, as recorded in the Gospels, is a time of sadness for His disciples, for they wonder what will become of them in Jesus’s absence. But Jesus had promised that He would not leave them orphans (Jn. 14:18). Indeed, it is better that He departs, since His ascent means the descent of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth (Jn. 14:26). He it is who will empower the disciples boldly to carry out the Lord’s missionary mandate (see Mt. 28:19). Our Lord’s Ascension, as I said before, can tend to get overshadowed by Easter and Pentecost. But let us not forget this marvelous solemnity, on which the Lord consummated His earthly ministry and went to prepare a heavenly place for us.

Our Christian ancestors did much to celebrate this wonderful day. In the early Church, liturgical processions occurred. Eventually, however, perhaps in the eleventh century, quasi-liturgical “pageants” took their place. By the thirteenth century, a fairly general custom was to hoist a statue of the Risen Christ until it disappeared through the church’s ceiling. There are other relatively obscure customs connected with this day as well, including eating a bird to signify Jesus’s “flying” to heaven. This custom was widespread in many parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. In Central Europe, mountain climbing and picnics on high places were part of this blessed day. Very few of these customs remain today. Nevertheless, perhaps some of them may experience a renewal in contemporary Christian homes. A day of reading the Gospel account(s) of the Ascension, feasting on the meat of a bird to symbolize our Lord’s departure, and taking a family hike would be quite fitting. The Church’s maternal care continues unabated in May, so make sure to take full advantage and respond in thanksgiving.

Quick Tips:

-Read the writings of the Doctors of the Church, such as On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius (May 2, 10, and 25). -Pray for the bishops, successors of the Apostles (May 3 and 14) -Pray the rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession; pray the Fatima Prayer (May 13 and 31) -Reflect on the mystery of Jesus’s Ascension; eat a suitable meal (a bird of some kind) and take a hike with the family (May 26).

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The Spirit of the Lord: The Devotion of Romano Guardini to Christ and His Church

Romano Guardini is one of the most important voices in Catholic intellectual discussions of the last century. This is most evident in the significant influence his works have had on the last three popes. While a student at the University of Munich, Pope Francis started to write a dissertation on him and recently stated, “I am convinced that Guardini is a thinker who has much to say to the men of our time, and not only to Christians.” Some scholars have argued that much of Pope Benedict XVI’s theological work is a lengthy mediation on his thought. When Benedict XVI resigned his papacy, he cited the above quote from Guardini. And Guardini’s 1918 work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, became the subject of a dialogue with Max Scheler, who was the focus of Pope St. John Paul II’s doctoral dissertation.

Moreover, Guardini’s writing and thought was considered a significant influence on the Second Vatican Council, even though personally he was dissatisfied with its implementation. Pope Paul VI even offered to make him a cardinal in 1968, but he declined. As the author of 75 books, his influence on Catholic thought continues to this day. In commemoration of his faithful life and ministry, he was declared a Servant of God in 2016. The gravity of Romano Guardian’s theological and philosophical reflections continue to impact the life of the Church and its faithful nearly 140 years after his birth.

Romano Guardini was born in Italy in 1885. A year later, his father moved the family to Mainz, Germany where he raised the family as devout Catholics. Guardini was an excellent student, but during his university years his faith was challenged by the pervasive agnosticism and atheism. He suffered from depression and experienced a spiritual crisis. When he was home on vacation, he was engaged by this passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“It became clear to me that there exists a law according to which persons who ‘find their life,’ that is, remain in themselves and accept as valid only what immediately enlightens them, lose their individuality. If they want to reach the truth and attain the truth in their very selves, then they must abandon themselves…,” he later reflected.

After resolving his own crisis of faith, Guardini studied for the priesthood at the University of Mainz. He entered Holy Orders in 2010 and then spent the next decade serving in various parish assignments while he pursued doctoral studies in theology. Guardini's real desire was to teach in the academy so that he could explore the impact of modernity in the life of the Church and the culture. This relationship between faith and culture was central to much of his theological thought.

“The task of Christian culture is twofold: on the one hand, to penetrate and transfigure nature by grace; on the other, to unlock revelation and take possession of it by means of nature,” he wrote in his essay, Thoughts on the Relation between Christianity and Culture.

While doing his doctoral studies at the University of Freiburg, Guardini chose to focus his attention on St. Bonaventure, which was unusual since Thomism dominated theological discussions in the Church at the turn of the last century. Guardini, however, found the rigid Thomism of the day to be cold and impersonal. His decision to write his dissertation on the Soteriology of St. Bonaventure even caused conflict with his clerical superiors and prevented him from obtaining a teaching position at the seminary.

After finishing his dissertation in 1915, Guardini served in the military as a hospital orderly and directed Juventus, a Catholic organization of students. He also became close friends with Ildefons Herwege, the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach, which was the center for liturgical renewal in Germany. The centrality of the liturgy became a key theme in Guardian’s faith and thought. He published The Spirit of the Liturgy in 1918 and it became a best-seller in Germany and popular work for Catholics everywhere.

He believed that the liturgy was a means to overcome the cold rationalism in the Church. He argued that the liturgy had a sort of playfulness, writing, “The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with saying and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’”  The liturgy is, to be sure, serious play, with set rules and complex symbols, but these are all in service of a deeper experience of God.

 For Guardini, the spirit of the liturgy is above all a spirit of community, uniting the faithful with each other even as it unites them to God. This theme of community in the Mass and the Church was further developed in his 1922 work, The Church and the Catholic. Against the prevailing individualism of the day or the increasing popularity of communism, both of which destroy true community, Guardini contended that the Church as the Body of Christ is a community made possible by the voluntary association of people with “free personality,” which is necessary for any true community.

After writing his second dissertation on St. Bonaventure at the University of Bonn in 1924, Guardini earned a position as the chair of Philosophy of Religion and Catholic Worldview at the University of Berlin, which was largely Protestant and anti-Catholic. This academic position at a non-Catholic university left him outside the dominant intellectual circles of the period. Also, his focus on liturgy and community was unique. He avoided Thomistic language and categories as well as the popular focus on apologetics. Further, he engaged with classic literature and world religions, areas that few Catholic thinkers dared to explore during that period.

While he was not popular in Catholic academic circles, he began to attract the attention of some of the brightest young Catholic minds, including Josef Pieper, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Hannah Arendt. Yet even as Guardini was willing to dialogue with modern thought and other religions, there was no doubt that Jesus Christ was the unique center of all truth. But Christianity was more than a set of rigid dogmas, it was a personal engagement with the person of Jesus Christ. This explains his focus on the Church as a community and the liturgy as the pinnacle of life in the Church.

One of Guardini's earliest and most influential works offers an insight into his thought. His Letters from Lake Como is a collection of his observations about the relationship between technology and humanity. Guardini reflected on “the manner in which human beings, through their architecture and craftsmanship, interacted non-invasively and respectfully with nature.” But he noticed that this interaction had started to change in the modern world and humanity had become more aggressive and domineering toward the creation through its architecture.

Guardini argued that technology “has become a destiny that subjugates its human creators as much as their creations” and believed that the modern person “must recover a sense of the sacred before the sacred name can be heard again.” He contended that technology had introduced an artificiality of existence, abstracting the person from reality and reducing the human experience to concepts, formulas and sentiments. While acknowledging the potential benefits of technology, he said we must receive it “yet with incorruptible hearts remain aware of all that is destructive and nonhuman in it.”

The most popular work in his extensive corpus is The Lord, first published in Germany in 1937 and introduced to English readers in 1954. In The Lord, Guardini offers reflections and commentary on the life and person of Jesus Christ and what faith in Him requires. Still popular with the Catholic faithful, Pope Benedict XVI commented, “The Lord has not grown old, precisely because it still leads us to that which is essential, to that which is truly real, Jesus Christ Himself. That is why today this book still has a great mission.”

Romano Guardini reflects on the nature of faith in The Lord, “Understanding of Christ requires a complete conversion, not only of the will and the deed, but also of the mind. One must cease to judge the Lord from the wordly point of view and learn to accept His own measure of the genuine and the possible; to judge the world with His eyes. This revolution is difficult to accept and still more difficult to realize, and the more openly the world contradicts Christ's teaching, the more earnestly it defines those who accept it as fools, the more difficult that acceptance, realization. Nevertheless, to the degree that the intellect honestly attempts this right-about-face, the reality known as Jesus Christ will surrender itself. From this central reality, the doors of all other reality will swing open, and it will be lifted into the hope of the new creation.”

“God Loves You”: The Evangelical Ministry of the Venerable Fulton Sheen

When I was still a Lutheran pastor, I regularly flipped around cable channels in the evening hours after everyone had gone to bed. Whenever I landed on EWTN and saw Bishop Fulton Sheen on “Life is Worth Living,” the channel surfing came to an end. Initially, I was attracted by his dramatic flair as he strode across the screen with a wide smile, cassock and flowing cope, theatrical stares into the camera, flamboyant hand gestures and nearly indecipherable scrawling on a chalkboard while explaining a theological doctrine. He was engaging. And I listened.

The Venerable Fulton Sheen ended each show with the statement, “God loves you.” He preached Jesus Christ and the Christian faith in all of its fullness. While his winsome personality and dramatic presentation stopped me from changing the channel, the clarity of his proclamation and the depth of his understanding of the Christian faith, the modern person and the decaying Western culture made me put down the remote.

Two months before Sheen’s death on December 9, 1979, Pope St. John Paul II sent him a letter of congratulations on the occasion of his 60th anniversary as a priest. He wrote, “God called you to proclaim in an extraordinary way his dynamic word....In these six decades of your priestly service, God has touched the lives of millions of the men and women of our time.”

Sheen was one of the most influential voices for the Catholic faith in the twentieth century. He not only reached millions through his popular television show but also through his radio presence for some 20 years, 66 published books, classroom instruction, public speaking, and countless newspaper and magazine columns. Pope St. John Paul II said to him regarding his ministry, “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.”

As a Roman Catholic bishop, he was an unlikely candidate to be the first televangelist in Eisenhower America. It is even more remarkable that his popularity would attract an audience of 30 million, appear on the cover of Time and win an Emmy. His Cause for Canonization was opened in 2002, and in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI recognized him as someone who had lived a life of “heroic virtue” and proclaimed him "Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.”

Born in El Paso, Illinois, in 1895 to Newt and Delia Sheen, Sheen grew up in a devout Catholic home. He graduated valedictorian from his high school, attended minor seminary, and completed his training for the priesthood at St. Paul Seminary. He was ordained in 1919 and then started his graduate studies. After earning two bachelor degrees at The Catholic University of America, he received his doctorate from the University of Louvain. His dissertation served as the basis for his book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas, which included an introduction by G. K. Chesterton.

Sheen then took a faculty position at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in 1926. For the next 23 years, he developed his skills as a scholar, educator, preacher and evangelist. During his tenure at CUA, his reputation as a published academic and dynamic communicator attracted not only throngs of students, but the attention of the media. In 1930, he was asked to serve as a fill-in on “The Catholic Hour” radio program. His phenomenal popularity resulted in the program asking him to continue as a weekly host for the show. He hosted this show for the next 20 years.

Sheen’s widespread popularity can be attributed to his gift of addressing significant theological, political and cultural topics with humor, depth and clarity. Having read the entire corpus of Aquinas in Latin, he used this foundational knowledge of the Catholic faith to not only proclaim Christ but also to apply the Gospel to the difficult moral decisions and complicated social issues of the time.

The impact of his ministry is revealed in a 1937 letter that he he wrote to the CUA rector, Msgr. Joseph Corrigan, “During the past year letters demanding personal attention have run between 75 and 100 a day.... This coupled with classes never given with less than six hours preparation for each lecture has left me physically exhausted. However the good to be done is such that one dare not shrink from its opportunities for apostolate.”

In 1950, Sheen left CUA to become the national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Then, after being consecrated as a bishop in 1951, he started his famous television series, “Life Is Worth Living.” Initially, only three stations carried the program. But after Life and Time magazines did feature stories on it, the show spread nationwide and drew millions of viewers, propelling him to unprecedented fame and influence for a Catholic clergyman in America.

He won the 1952 Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality. Upon receiving the award, Sheen credited Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for their valuable contribution to his success. His show was so popular at the time that it competed with popular television celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle. When Berle's ratings declined and Sheen's increased, Berle commented, “​​If I'm going to be eased off TV by anyone, it's better that I lose to the one for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking.”

Sheen had an uncanny ability to explain the mysteries of the Catholic faith in ways that were engaging and easy to understand, while never retreating from difficult theological or social topics. Each episode opened with him in full vestments offering a few jokes to introduce the topic and then writing “JMJ” (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) on his blackboard. After presenting a significant theological or philosophical issue, he would instruct the audience on how to apply the lesson to daily life and would finish with an exhortation. He would then graciously bow to applause from the studio audience.

For the six years that “Life Is Worth Living” was on-air, Sheen shared the hope of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ with an increasingly secular nation and made the faith of the Catholic Church accessible to the American public. This was significant for a Catholic community that was sorely misunderstood during that time. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI recalled how "Fulton Sheen ... would fascinate us in the evenings with his talks.

In addition to this popular show, Sheen was active in raising money to support  Catholic missions through his role as director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In this role, he influenced the lives of tens of millions of people all over the world. He is also considered instrumental in the conversion of an untold number of people to Catholicism, from working-class New Yorkers he encountered in daily life to a number of recognizable celebrities who sought him out for instruction.

After the show ended, Sheen continued to be a popular author and speaker. In 1966, he was named Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester but resigned from that position in 1969. In his resignation letter, Bishop Sheen wrote, "I am not retiring, only retreading." Pope Paul VI then named him Archbishop of the Titular See of Newport, Wales.

The grace of making a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament was a central theme to Sheen’s preaching and teaching throughout his ministry. Sheen also practiced this advice. Throughout his ministry, friends and witnesses commented that he never failed to keep his holy hour from the day of his priestly ordination until his death on the floor of his private chapel in 1979. Sheen once stated, “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white Host.”

Archbishop Sheen’s cause for canonization was opened by the Diocese of Peoria in 2002, and in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him “Venerable Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen.” In 2014, a reported miracle attributed to his intercession was approved by both the medical board that reports to the Vatican and the theological commission that advises the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Metaphysics of Beauty

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s main character in The Idiot famously claims that “beauty will save the world.” Ever since its publication in 1869, and increasingly in recent years, this enigmatic phrase has been used to express an enduring hope in the possibility of restoring an authentic Christian culture in an modern, increasingly secular society. But is this hope well founded? How can beauty go about saving a world that is so obviously marred and almost entirely defined by its ugliness and brutality?

Thankfully, Dostoevsky proposes a ready answer to this perplexing problem. In the same novel, he introduces an intriguing character named Ippolit, a young man dying of tuberculosis. In one particular scene, Ippolit, reflecting upon his encounter with the painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by the famous German-Swiss artist Hans Holbein, comments:

It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a share of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him in his most horrible suffering. But in [this] picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering in the cross…. [I]t is nature alone…. Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is — in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which is senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly, and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being — such being as by himself was worth the whole nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of this being alone! ... The people who surrounded the dead man, none of whom is in the painting, must have felt horrible anguish and confusion on that evening, which at once smashed all their hopes and almost all their beliefs.

Ippolit’s response to the painting of the dead Christ draws into clear focus the crisis under consideration and suggests, at least indirectly, a response. Modern culture is very much like the painting by Holbein. The effects of sin upon our world have distorted and disfigured — so it seems — every inch of it; just as every inch of Christ’s body, in Holbein’s painting, is defaced. Like Ippolit, we perceive only a disfigured and dismantled “corpse;” a dead thing, where once existed a living, virial, life-giving and beautiful culture. Faced with such ugliness, advanced and magnified by technology (aka the “machines” referenced by Ippolit), it becomes difficult to see the truth of things; to see the beauty that is beyond and hidden within the fallen created world.

Importantly, not all who gaze upon Holbein’s dead Christ see what Ippolit sees, namely, fallen “nature alone.” Through the gift of faith, some can — with some effort — contemplate the painting and see beyond the suffering and scandal — the mere destruction of a body — and see the sublime love that moved Christ to die such an ignoble death. This capacity to see rightly — to be able to see the hidden beauty that animates and moves all things, even sin and suffering — must be developed and cultivated. We must be taught “how to look” and thus receive the saving power of beauty in the midst of sin and suffering.

This raises the question: how does one begin to look rightly? How is it possible to discern and experience the truly beautiful in a sinful and dreadful world? It would seem that the first thing that must be done is to acknowledge that there exist counterfeit forms of ‘beauty.’ A ‘beauty’ which, according to Josef Ratzinger, “is deceptive and false.” Such false forms of beauty aim merely to “dazzle” and “lock … [man] entirely into himself … with the desire for power, possession and pleasure.” In contrast, Ratzinger argues that authentic beauty always draws man out of himself and awakens in him the longing for the “Ineffable” (cf. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” Aug. 2002). In other words, true beauty always leads outward and upward, to some good beyond the beholder, while false forms of beauty merely tantalize and entice man to remain within himself.

Once we grasp this important distinction and resist falling prey to false forms of beauty that merely “delight the eyes,” we can then begin to see beauty and experience its salvific power. Looking rightly requires more than the use of our aesthetic senses (principally sight and hearing, since the other senses are too deeply immersed in matter). We must implore the use of our intellects. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the beautiful is “that which pleases when known.” In contrast to that which is simply experienced unreflectively, the truly beautiful must be understood. We must use our cognitive power to discern three essential elements of a thing in order to experience its beauty. We must actually do work in order to enjoy the beautiful.

The first thing that must be done is that we must intellectually grasp a thing’s “integrity.” Everything that is beautiful has an organic wholeness or an interior unity that is pleasing when perceived and understood. Imagine, for example, gazing upon a magnificent Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana). Such a species of tree, with its twisting and sprawling array of enormous branches, has an interior unity, a grandeur in its totality. Its branches and leaves are an integral part of a splendid whole. If that tree were to be coppiced (trimmed down to its trunk), its integrity would be spoiled and its beauty destroyed. Perceiving and understanding a thing’s wholeness is an essential element of a thing’s beauty.

Secondly, we must train ourselves to see a thing’s relation both to God and to other things. St. Thomas calls this the discernment of “right proportion.” The truly beautiful is always rightly proportioned to God and to others. This is why we can gaze upon the life of Mother Theresa, for example, and exclaim with confidence that there was a beautiful woman! Her life exhibited a proper relation to her Creator and to the poor souls she encountered in her ministry. In contrast, think of the disproportioned life of the drunkard or the womanizer. They relate proportionally neither to God nor to His creatures and thus live a truly disproportioned and ugly life.

Lastly, in order to see correctly, we must be able to discern the intelligibility of things. Everything beautiful has a certain “claritas,” or splendor of form. This splendor of form radiates through a thing’s matter and makes it intelligible to the viewer. For example, we can gaze upon a handsomely constructed wooden chair and understand immediately its purpose. Its form clearly communicates to us what we should do with the thing. We ought to sit in a chair. The clarity of purpose is easily discernible by a thing which is truly beautiful. Again, in contrast, much of modern abstract art lacks such intelligibility. One could gaze for hours at a painting by Kandinsky (not recommended) and have no idea what you are looking at. It lacks intelligibility or claritasand is thus deemed, rightfully so, ugly.

Hence to “see” the beautiful, we must be able to understand a thing’s integrity, right proportion, and intelligibility. As mentioned, this takes some intellectual effort. In discerning these essential elements within things — even things that have become corrupted and distorted through sin — we begin to train ourselves not only to see and delight in authentic beauty, but, more essentially, we begin to move beyond the beauty of the created order and perceive the utmost integral, proportioned, and intelligible good, namely God Himself. Beauty properly understood is transcendent. It moves us to Beauty itself. And it is this Beauty, contemplated and adored, that has the power to save us and the whole world.

Becoming a “Living Man”: St. Irenaeus and 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.

May’s Treasures

May is a relatively unassuming month. Though we are still in the holy season of Easter, we have celebrated the day itself and await the great day of Pentecost. Between these two important days, however, there is much to celebrate. In fact, there is so much going on in May from the perspective of the Church’s liturgical calendar that it cannot be exhausted here. There are different ways one could divide up and categorize the memorials and feasts, but I will consider Doctors, Apostles, Mary, and Jesus. Even categorizing things this way, there is a richness that cannot be adequately expressed, a depth that cannot be sufficiently plumbed. For this reason, I will focus in a special way on the Ascension of the Lord, a solemnity not infrequently overshadowed by the aforementioned solemnities of Easter and Pentecost.

Perhaps the title “Doctor of the Church” is new to you, or perhaps you’ve never quite understood what it means. The persons afforded this lofty title are not medical professionals, of course, but doctors in the classical sense, namely teachers. In brief, the Doctors of the Church are saintly men and woman who have significantly contributed to our understanding of the mysteries of faith. Through their teaching, they provide sure guidance to the faithful of every age and nation. There are, to my knowledge, thirty-seven such Doctors, among whom are St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Catherine of Siena. On May 2, we remember St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. He is best known for safeguarding Christological orthodoxy at the time of the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He taught, against the heretic Arius, that Jesus is true God, eternally begotten of the Father, not a highly exalted creature as Arius had erroneously taught. The Son is, as we profess in the Creed, consubstantial with the Father. This May, read one of his books. For example, read his On the Incarnation and reflect on the unsurpassable gift we have in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Ask St. Athanasius for his intercession, that you too might hold fast to the truth about Christ and His saving work for us.

There are two additional Doctors of the Church celebrated in May: St. John of Avila and St. Bede the Venerable (May 10 and 25 respectively). Pope Benedict XVI said the following in his 2012 Apostolic Letter declaring St. John of Avila, the early 16th century priest and mystic, a Doctor of the Church: “The love of God, made known in Jesus Christ, is the key to the personal experience and teaching of the Holy Master John of Avila, an ‘evangelical preacher’ constantly grounded in the Sacred Scriptures, passionately concerned for the truth and an outstanding precursor of the new evangelization.” Following the example of St. John, read the Scriptures with faith and devotion. Thereafter, with a heart set ablaze by charity, reach out to others for the sake of bringing them to Christ. At the workplace, be an example of kindness, integrity, and love. At home, allow divine charity to be the unifying principle of your family. St. Bede was a 6th-7th century English monk. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is itself regarded as important in the history of the English people and in the history of literature. His learning and scholarship should be imitated by us. If you are a student or a teacher, ask for this venerable man’s intercession.

Next, the Church commends the Apostles. More specifically, she holds up Sts. Philip and James on May 3, and St. Matthias on May 14. The first two were part of the original band of twelve disciples chosen by Jesus. In choosing twelve, reminiscent of the twelve Tribes of Israel, Jesus signifies that He is reconstituting Israel. Matthias is chosen to fill the vacancy that Judas’s untimely and shameful death creates. The choosing of Matthias gives us some insight into what it means to be an Apostle. Consider these words from Acts 1:21, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” An Apostle, then, is one who has experienced the public ministry of Jesus, which began with His baptism in the Jordan and ended with His Ascension into heavenly glory. An Apostle (the word means “one who is sent”) is above all a witness to Jesus’s Resurrection, a witness to the fact that Jesus through His paschal mystery has conquered death and secured victory and life for all those who believe in Him. Though the office of Apostle is unique in the life and history of the Church, bear witness in your own way to the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection. Commit yourself to the teaching of the Apostles and their successors (the bishops).

The Blessed Virgin Mary makes a powerful appearance in the month of May as well. On May 13, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Beginning in 1917, the Virgin appeared to three peasant children (Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia) in Fatima, Portugal. She gave a powerful message of prayer (especially the holy rosary) and repentance. She warned of grave consequences for the world if the people of the world did not turn to her Immaculate Heart. On this day, pray the holy rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession. On March 25, Pope Francis, along with bishops from around the world, consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Take this time to consecrate yourself and your family to it as well, and to the Sacred Heart of her divine Son. Perhaps you can focus on the following prayer, revealed to the three children of Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy.”

The second Marian feast is that of the Visitation on May 31. This celebrates the visit Mary makes to her relative Elizabeth. The latter had already conceived a child of her own, John (later to be called “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer”). This encounter, which is recorded in Luke 1:39-56, is rich with meaning. First, upon Mary’s greeting, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus causes Elizabeth to exclaim, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” If these holy words sound familiar, it is because we pray them in the Hail Mary (a thoroughly scriptural prayer). In response to these words, Mary elects not to magnify or exalt herself, but rather to magnify the Lord. We have here Mary’s famous Magnificat. Take some time to reflect on this mystery of our salvation. Contemplate especially Elizabeth’s words concerning Mary, Mother of God, and Mary’s own words concerning God and His loving salvific plan.

Last but infinitely far from least we have Jesus Himself. On May 29, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. When the Lord gloriously rises to new life, He does not remain forever upon the earth. Instead, He returns to His Father and takes His celestial throne. This scene, as recorded in the Gospels, is a time of sadness for His disciples, for they wonder what will become of them in Jesus’s absence. But Jesus had promised that He would not leave them orphans (Jn. 14:18). Indeed, it is better that He departs, since His ascent means the descent of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth (Jn. 14:26). He it is who will empower the disciples boldly to carry out the Lord’s missionary mandate (see Mt. 28:19). Our Lord’s Ascension, as I said before, can tend to get overshadowed by Easter and Pentecost. But let us not forget this marvelous solemnity, on which the Lord consummated His earthly ministry and went to prepare a heavenly place for us.

Our Christian ancestors did much to celebrate this wonderful day. In the early Church, liturgical processions occurred. Eventually, however, perhaps in the eleventh century, quasi-liturgical “pageants” took their place. By the thirteenth century, a fairly general custom was to hoist a statue of the Risen Christ until it disappeared through the church’s ceiling. There are other relatively obscure customs connected with this day as well, including eating a bird to signify Jesus’s “flying” to heaven. This custom was widespread in many parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. In Central Europe, mountain climbing and picnics on high places were part of this blessed day. Very few of these customs remain today. Nevertheless, perhaps some of them may experience a renewal in contemporary Christian homes. A day of reading the Gospel account(s) of the Ascension, feasting on the meat of a bird to symbolize our Lord’s departure, and taking a family hike would be quite fitting. The Church’s maternal care continues unabated in May, so make sure to take full advantage and respond in thanksgiving.

Quick Tips:

-Read the writings of the Doctors of the Church, such as On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius (May 2, 10, and 25). -Pray for the bishops, successors of the Apostles (May 3 and 14) -Pray the rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession; pray the Fatima Prayer (May 13 and 31) -Reflect on the mystery of Jesus’s Ascension; eat a suitable meal (a bird of some kind) and take a hike with the family (May 26).