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On Hell, Lying & the Purpose of Speech

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

In Praise of the Holy Family Against the Gods

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

On King Arthur & the Woman with the Issue of Blood

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

On Aslan, the Holy Spirit, and Lifeless Souls

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

On Dante & Good Shepherd Sunday

On Holy Thursday, in the year 1300, Dante the Pilgrim finds himself lost in the woods. He is afraid and alone. Each time he attempts to escape the darkness, to run toward the light, he is block by a wild beast. Running through the woods, his “heart plunged deep in fear,” he sees a man and cries out for help. The man is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who has been sent by the Blessed Virgin Mary out of pity to be Dante’s guide. Yet, Virgil does not lead Dante to safety, but rather down a “deep and rugged road” to the gates of Hell itself, and then a downward spiraling into the earth through the nine circles of Hell. There, Dante observes the punishments of the damned, and, with marvelous insights into our human nature, dialogues with them about the justice they endure and why their souls sought evil over good. Arriving at the ninth circle, the final pit of the inferno, he finds it a frozen wasteland with Satan trapped in the ice. There he follows Virgil through the center of the earth, leaving Hell, to stand before a mountain rising out of the sea. Dante hears singing, and looks up to see angels sailing ships across the waters full of souls chanting the psalms. These are the penitent souls on their way to the mountain of Purgatory. The mountain has seven terraces or rings that spiral upward toward heaven, each terrace purging the soul of one of the seven deadly sins. Coming through the gates of purgatory to the first terrace, Dante finds the side of the mountain path decorated with three great marble carvings. The first depicts the Annunciation in which Our Lady gave her “yes” to God; the second shows King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant upon its return to Jerusalem; and the third of the Roman Emperor Trajan, a pagan, who stopped his entire imperial caravan to speak and assist a poor widow. Before these beautiful carvings, Dante sees penitent souls slowly working their way up the mountainside. The souls carry large stones on their back forcing them to bow their heads and face the ground. Dante comes to understand that the first sin to be purged—the first sin that must always be purged—is pride. These souls, face bent toward the ground, now bow in death where they would not bow in life. As he makes his way up the terrace, Dante notes that not only are there carvings on the side of the mountain but there are also carvings in the ground. Whereas the mountainside reliefs of Mother Mary, King David, and Emperor Trajan show examples of humility, the depictions in the ground show examples of pride. The stones on the backs of the souls force them to bow, facing the ground, and thus, the souls contemplate these carvings as they make their pilgrimage up the mountainside. The thirteen examples of pride cut into the earth are drawn from both the biblical and classical tradition. The first example set before the souls is that of Satan, falling to earth like lightning, after being cast of heaven for his rebellion against God. The carvings also show the giants of Greek mythology who attempted to overthrow Zeus and Mount Olympus and a carving of King Nimrod, the ancient hero, whose pride led him to build the Tower of Babel. In their pursuit of humility, the penitent also see a carving of the disobedient King Saul who died ingloriously by falling upon his own sword and another carving of the young girl, Arachne, who for her pride in challenging Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was turned into a spider. They also see Holofernes, the general who mocked God, who was later decapitated by the beautiful Israelite woman, Judith, and, among the other examples, the last is of the city of Troy, who in its pride accepted the Trojan horse, now burning in flames. As the souls contemplate these images of pride, their stones becomes lighter, allowing them to begin to turn their heads and see the examples of humility upon the mountainside. Eventually, as Dante observes, they are able to stand upright, purged of the sin of pride, and the Angel of Humility allows them to move on to the next terrace. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The Church provides us a Gospel reading in which we recall that Our Lord is our Shepherd, and we are his sheep. There is humility in being a sheep. There is no such thing as a prideful sheep. A proud lamb is a ridiculous notion—but no more ridiculous than when man is prideful in the face of God. Learn from Dante—the first step in following the Lord, the first step in being a sheep of his flock, is humility. Just like Mary listened to the angel and gave her “yes” to God, so too can we listen and know the voice of our Shepherd. Whether it is Satan cast into the earth, King Saul upon his own sword, or Troy burning in flames, pride will always lead to death and destruction. Be a humble sheep. And may we have the wisdom to learn humility in this life before we must learn it in the next.

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On Hell, Lying & the Purpose of Speech

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

In Praise of the Holy Family Against the Gods

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

On King Arthur & the Woman with the Issue of Blood

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

On Aslan, the Holy Spirit, and Lifeless Souls

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

On Dante & Good Shepherd Sunday

On Holy Thursday, in the year 1300, Dante the Pilgrim finds himself lost in the woods. He is afraid and alone. Each time he attempts to escape the darkness, to run toward the light, he is block by a wild beast. Running through the woods, his “heart plunged deep in fear,” he sees a man and cries out for help. The man is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who has been sent by the Blessed Virgin Mary out of pity to be Dante’s guide. Yet, Virgil does not lead Dante to safety, but rather down a “deep and rugged road” to the gates of Hell itself, and then a downward spiraling into the earth through the nine circles of Hell. There, Dante observes the punishments of the damned, and, with marvelous insights into our human nature, dialogues with them about the justice they endure and why their souls sought evil over good. Arriving at the ninth circle, the final pit of the inferno, he finds it a frozen wasteland with Satan trapped in the ice. There he follows Virgil through the center of the earth, leaving Hell, to stand before a mountain rising out of the sea. Dante hears singing, and looks up to see angels sailing ships across the waters full of souls chanting the psalms. These are the penitent souls on their way to the mountain of Purgatory. The mountain has seven terraces or rings that spiral upward toward heaven, each terrace purging the soul of one of the seven deadly sins. Coming through the gates of purgatory to the first terrace, Dante finds the side of the mountain path decorated with three great marble carvings. The first depicts the Annunciation in which Our Lady gave her “yes” to God; the second shows King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant upon its return to Jerusalem; and the third of the Roman Emperor Trajan, a pagan, who stopped his entire imperial caravan to speak and assist a poor widow. Before these beautiful carvings, Dante sees penitent souls slowly working their way up the mountainside. The souls carry large stones on their back forcing them to bow their heads and face the ground. Dante comes to understand that the first sin to be purged—the first sin that must always be purged—is pride. These souls, face bent toward the ground, now bow in death where they would not bow in life. As he makes his way up the terrace, Dante notes that not only are there carvings on the side of the mountain but there are also carvings in the ground. Whereas the mountainside reliefs of Mother Mary, King David, and Emperor Trajan show examples of humility, the depictions in the ground show examples of pride. The stones on the backs of the souls force them to bow, facing the ground, and thus, the souls contemplate these carvings as they make their pilgrimage up the mountainside. The thirteen examples of pride cut into the earth are drawn from both the biblical and classical tradition. The first example set before the souls is that of Satan, falling to earth like lightning, after being cast of heaven for his rebellion against God. The carvings also show the giants of Greek mythology who attempted to overthrow Zeus and Mount Olympus and a carving of King Nimrod, the ancient hero, whose pride led him to build the Tower of Babel. In their pursuit of humility, the penitent also see a carving of the disobedient King Saul who died ingloriously by falling upon his own sword and another carving of the young girl, Arachne, who for her pride in challenging Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was turned into a spider. They also see Holofernes, the general who mocked God, who was later decapitated by the beautiful Israelite woman, Judith, and, among the other examples, the last is of the city of Troy, who in its pride accepted the Trojan horse, now burning in flames. As the souls contemplate these images of pride, their stones becomes lighter, allowing them to begin to turn their heads and see the examples of humility upon the mountainside. Eventually, as Dante observes, they are able to stand upright, purged of the sin of pride, and the Angel of Humility allows them to move on to the next terrace. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The Church provides us a Gospel reading in which we recall that Our Lord is our Shepherd, and we are his sheep. There is humility in being a sheep. There is no such thing as a prideful sheep. A proud lamb is a ridiculous notion—but no more ridiculous than when man is prideful in the face of God. Learn from Dante—the first step in following the Lord, the first step in being a sheep of his flock, is humility. Just like Mary listened to the angel and gave her “yes” to God, so too can we listen and know the voice of our Shepherd. Whether it is Satan cast into the earth, King Saul upon his own sword, or Troy burning in flames, pride will always lead to death and destruction. Be a humble sheep. And may we have the wisdom to learn humility in this life before we must learn it in the next.