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ON FAITH & FORTITUDE: THE SHIELD OF SIR GAWAIN

On New Year’s Eve, King Arthur was with his knights and other guests at the round table. As was his custom, King Arthur would not begin to eat until he had heard some story of wonder and renown. Suddenly, a man on horseback came riding into his hall. He was a giant clothed completely in the color green bearing a huge, ornate axe. In fact, to the amazement of the guests, the half-giant knight had skin and hair colored green—even his horse was green. Known aptly as the “Green Knight,” he issued a challenge to those brave heroes in Arthur’s hall: one of them would be permitted to strike the Green Knight once with his own axe, and then the Green Knight would strike him once in return.

The hall was silent before the massive, green man. Eventually, Sir Gawain stood before the Green Knight and brokered terms of the holiday game. Sir Gawain would strike the Green Knight and then, a year later, Sir Gawain would have to journey to the chapel of the Green Knight to stand and receive his strike.

Sir Gawain lifted the axe and swung with all his might—the head of the Green Knight went rolling across the floor. The game had apparently come to its predictable end. Yet, to the amazement of King Arthur’s court, the headless knight walked over, picked up his head, and galloped away, reminding Sir Gawain he would see him one year hence.

In this 14th century anonymous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, our hero must find the fortitude to journey and face his green foe. While his overall pilgrimage is certainly worth reading (please do not watch the 2021 movie), what is most apt for us is how Sir Gawain found the fortitude he needed to start his journey. The author spends a great amount of time telling us about Sir Gawain’s armor, but most notable for us is his shield. On the inside of his shield, Sir Gawain has painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this manner, when he lifts his shield in battle, her eyes will meet his – and he will be encouraged. In the maternal eyes of Mary, he will find the fortitude necessary to do what is asked of him.

Sir Gawain invites us to understand that fortitude is necessary for a virtuous life. It does not matter if you are smart enough to understand what is right if you are too afraid to do it. How many of us know what the Gospel demands of us but buckle under the pressure of our culture?

Though our faith makes demands upon our fortitude, it also helps it. Faith perfects or strengthens our fortitude. This interplay between faith and fortitude is reflected in today’s Scripture readings.

In the first reading, the author praises the Jews whose faith in God allowed them to have the bravery to endure hardships and await justice (Wis 18:6-9). The author states, “Your people awaited the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes”—their faith allowed their fortitude to hold.

In the second reading, we see how the faith of Abraham gave him the courage to leave his homeland and endure hardships for the sake of the vocation to which God had called him (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19). The greatest test of which was God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his only son—Isaac. Abraham’s fortitude, perfected by his faith, allowed for a narrative that would foreshadow God the Father sending His own Son to be sacrificed.

Third, in today’s Gospel, Christ tells us to “[g]ird your loins and light your lamps”—to be brave and to have faith (Lk 12:32-48). For to us, His “little flock,” He has given the Kingdom, if we can endure the hardships of the world for the sake of the Cross.

After linking the virtues of faith and fortitude, our Gospel today ends with a warning. Alluding to the end times, Christ tells us that when the Master comes, He will throw the wicked servant amongst the “unfaithful” for punishment. A clear analogue to hell. Yet, He says of the servant who knew the will of his Master but did not do it—that servant will be saved but punished severely. A clear analogue to purgatory.

Christ’s warning is clear: We will be disciplined—either by our own will in this life or by the Divine Will in the life to come. Knowing the will of God is not enough. We must have the fortitude to live the Gospel—to be mocked, to be alienated, to endure hardship all for the sake of Jesus Christ.

May we, like Sir Gawain, find encouragement in Mother Mary to live the life expected of us—a life of faith and fortitude.

On the Poem the Pearl & Seeking the Higher Good

We come upon a man who has lost something. A spotless pearl has slipped through his fingers and is now lost in the earth. He grieves and cries. His heart hurts with a cruel pain and a torment churns within his chest (Pearl, no. 2). He lays on the mound in the garden still seeking his pearl—but his pearl will never be found. For the pearl that slipped through his fingers into the earth was his infant daughter, now buried beneath him. He lies on her grave crying out for his perfect pearl, and he drifts into sleep. Providence provides the father with a vision. The man is transported to a celestial garden with crystal cliffs and jeweled forests (nos. 7-9). He walks until he comes to a river with waves like glass illuminated by light, shining like the stars. On the other side of the river, he observes great heavenly cliffs, and at their base, walking by the river, he sees a beautiful young woman (no.14). She is arrayed like a heavenly queen, a bride of Christ, with glistening robes all adorned with pearls. The longer the man looks, the more his heart knows that this young woman is somehow his daughter. She is his spotless pearl. Overcome with bliss, his heart expands just to contain the joy. The father cries out to his lost daughter. Yet, the heavenly maiden turns her grey eyes upon her father with a cool and collected spirit. She is reserved and, with a surreal solemnity, gently reproaches her father for what she calls “madness” (no. 23). The anticipated reunion of father and daughter gives way to daughter, now a heavenly saint, expressing her concerns for him. Why does he grieve for her when she is safe in heaven—but he is still in the struggles of life? Why does he seek her in heaven and not God? The jarring nature of their reunion is, at its heart, a clash of earthly expectations against divine ones. What follows is a beautiful dialogue between father and daughter about the nature of true happiness and what her father must do to secure it. In a preliminary manner, the jarring character of the father’s reunion with the daughter is reflected in the meeting of Jesus, Mary, and Martha. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, lies at the feet of Jesus listening to Him, while Martha flitters around the house serving her guests. When Martha asks our Lord for Martha to help, it is somewhat contrary to our expectations to hear Christ decline and side with Mary. Is it not good for Martha to serve her guests? Often, we reduce the moral life to avoiding evil and choosing the good. And while this is arguably the most basic moral precept, much of life is actually choosing between different goods. It was good that the father loved his daughter, just as it was good Martha wanted to serve her guests. In both cases, however, the father and Martha had to learn to choose a higher good over a lesser good. It was good the father loved his daughter, but it was better for him to love God. It was good Martha wanted to serve others, but it was better for her to be at the feet of Jesus. A key insight here, however, is that seeking the higher good does not exclude the lower. In fact, the higher will always perfect the lower. If the father loves God first, then he will love his daughter with a more perfect love. If Martha chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus, then it will ultimately perfect her service to others. At the end of the Pearl, an anonymous 1300s poem, the daughter, that queenly, heavenly virgin, a true spotless pearl, shows her father that true happiness is in God. He then sees the Lamb, standing victorious yet slain, and the father is so overcome with zeal to be with God that he attempts to cross the river. He awakes from his dream on the grave of his daughter. He still must live his earthly pilgrimage. He must seek the true Pearl, Jesus Christ, and order all other goods to this end.

Solzhenitsyn and True Freedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stood before 20,000 people at the 1978 Harvard graduation ceremony. Aleksandr, a Russian, had spent ten years of hard labor in the Soviet gulags on trumped up charges before fleeing to the United States. He had risen to fame in the West by shining a light on Soviet atrocities through his writings, such as The Gulag Archipelago, a true accounting of those who endured the inhumanity of the Soviet labor camps. Thus, as he stood before Harvard University, he was expected to lambaste the Soviets and praise the West, especially the United States, in which he had found refuge. Yet, Aleksandr took an unexpected turn. While he certainly lamented the suffering of his homeland under the Soviets, he took up the question of whether he would recommend the West as a model for his home country—he answered “no.” Shocking his audience, he further explained that under the West men and women had become fractured, atomized, and subject to a false freedom. He observed that this false sense of freedom had taught mankind that there was no “higher force” above him—that man was an autonomous moral universe. It was a freedom that would end in ruin. The disease Aleksandr diagnosed in the late 1970s has only metastasized and increased in severity. For us, as moderns and Americans, the concept of freedom means a lack of restraint and a plurality of options for our own self-creation. The more choices we have, the more freedom we believe we have. Thus, our modern age tells us that we are the most freewhen we have the most choices to pursue what we desire. Most notably, this modern notion of freedom is almost entirely removed from considerations of what is good or bad. Freedom is just about choice—what is good or bad is relative to each individual. This notion of freedom would have been incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks and Romans and our own Early Church Fathers. The ancient notion of freedom was not about maximizing choice but was rather about self-discipline. Freedom, for the ancients, meant cultivating a self-governance that freed you from our inclination toward evil and disorder. True freedom was cultivated in a person by practicing virtue. In fact, the original meaning of the liberal arts was an education that freed you to pursue the good, the beautiful, and the true. Freedom meant you were free to choose what was good and you had that interior freedom by the virtue of self-governance and self-control. You were the master of your passions and desires—not the other way around. If freedom truly is the ability to choose what is good and beautiful in this life, then to choose what is evil cannot be an act of authentic freedom. Here, we see the ancient understanding of freedom at work in the New Testament. As St. Paul tells us, to sin is not an expression of our freedom but rather of slavery. He who sins is not free. If we use our freedom to choose gossip, to amass material goods, to consume pornography, to lie, and to pursue what we deem good over what is truly good, God—then we are not free persons but slaves. We are, in fact, the most free when we pursue what is the most good—God. We are the most free when we are detached from sin and choose what is good, beautiful, and true. Let us not fall prey to the false freedom of our age. What the world praises as freedom is slavery. Let us truly be free in Jesus Christ by exercising self-governance by disciplining our desires and cultivating virtues.  

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.

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ON FAITH & FORTITUDE: THE SHIELD OF SIR GAWAIN

On New Year’s Eve, King Arthur was with his knights and other guests at the round table. As was his custom, King Arthur would not begin to eat until he had heard some story of wonder and renown. Suddenly, a man on horseback came riding into his hall. He was a giant clothed completely in the color green bearing a huge, ornate axe. In fact, to the amazement of the guests, the half-giant knight had skin and hair colored green—even his horse was green. Known aptly as the “Green Knight,” he issued a challenge to those brave heroes in Arthur’s hall: one of them would be permitted to strike the Green Knight once with his own axe, and then the Green Knight would strike him once in return.

The hall was silent before the massive, green man. Eventually, Sir Gawain stood before the Green Knight and brokered terms of the holiday game. Sir Gawain would strike the Green Knight and then, a year later, Sir Gawain would have to journey to the chapel of the Green Knight to stand and receive his strike.

Sir Gawain lifted the axe and swung with all his might—the head of the Green Knight went rolling across the floor. The game had apparently come to its predictable end. Yet, to the amazement of King Arthur’s court, the headless knight walked over, picked up his head, and galloped away, reminding Sir Gawain he would see him one year hence.

In this 14th century anonymous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, our hero must find the fortitude to journey and face his green foe. While his overall pilgrimage is certainly worth reading (please do not watch the 2021 movie), what is most apt for us is how Sir Gawain found the fortitude he needed to start his journey. The author spends a great amount of time telling us about Sir Gawain’s armor, but most notable for us is his shield. On the inside of his shield, Sir Gawain has painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this manner, when he lifts his shield in battle, her eyes will meet his – and he will be encouraged. In the maternal eyes of Mary, he will find the fortitude necessary to do what is asked of him.

Sir Gawain invites us to understand that fortitude is necessary for a virtuous life. It does not matter if you are smart enough to understand what is right if you are too afraid to do it. How many of us know what the Gospel demands of us but buckle under the pressure of our culture?

Though our faith makes demands upon our fortitude, it also helps it. Faith perfects or strengthens our fortitude. This interplay between faith and fortitude is reflected in today’s Scripture readings.

In the first reading, the author praises the Jews whose faith in God allowed them to have the bravery to endure hardships and await justice (Wis 18:6-9). The author states, “Your people awaited the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes”—their faith allowed their fortitude to hold.

In the second reading, we see how the faith of Abraham gave him the courage to leave his homeland and endure hardships for the sake of the vocation to which God had called him (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19). The greatest test of which was God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his only son—Isaac. Abraham’s fortitude, perfected by his faith, allowed for a narrative that would foreshadow God the Father sending His own Son to be sacrificed.

Third, in today’s Gospel, Christ tells us to “[g]ird your loins and light your lamps”—to be brave and to have faith (Lk 12:32-48). For to us, His “little flock,” He has given the Kingdom, if we can endure the hardships of the world for the sake of the Cross.

After linking the virtues of faith and fortitude, our Gospel today ends with a warning. Alluding to the end times, Christ tells us that when the Master comes, He will throw the wicked servant amongst the “unfaithful” for punishment. A clear analogue to hell. Yet, He says of the servant who knew the will of his Master but did not do it—that servant will be saved but punished severely. A clear analogue to purgatory.

Christ’s warning is clear: We will be disciplined—either by our own will in this life or by the Divine Will in the life to come. Knowing the will of God is not enough. We must have the fortitude to live the Gospel—to be mocked, to be alienated, to endure hardship all for the sake of Jesus Christ.

May we, like Sir Gawain, find encouragement in Mother Mary to live the life expected of us—a life of faith and fortitude.

On the Poem the Pearl & Seeking the Higher Good

We come upon a man who has lost something. A spotless pearl has slipped through his fingers and is now lost in the earth. He grieves and cries. His heart hurts with a cruel pain and a torment churns within his chest (Pearl, no. 2). He lays on the mound in the garden still seeking his pearl—but his pearl will never be found. For the pearl that slipped through his fingers into the earth was his infant daughter, now buried beneath him. He lies on her grave crying out for his perfect pearl, and he drifts into sleep. Providence provides the father with a vision. The man is transported to a celestial garden with crystal cliffs and jeweled forests (nos. 7-9). He walks until he comes to a river with waves like glass illuminated by light, shining like the stars. On the other side of the river, he observes great heavenly cliffs, and at their base, walking by the river, he sees a beautiful young woman (no.14). She is arrayed like a heavenly queen, a bride of Christ, with glistening robes all adorned with pearls. The longer the man looks, the more his heart knows that this young woman is somehow his daughter. She is his spotless pearl. Overcome with bliss, his heart expands just to contain the joy. The father cries out to his lost daughter. Yet, the heavenly maiden turns her grey eyes upon her father with a cool and collected spirit. She is reserved and, with a surreal solemnity, gently reproaches her father for what she calls “madness” (no. 23). The anticipated reunion of father and daughter gives way to daughter, now a heavenly saint, expressing her concerns for him. Why does he grieve for her when she is safe in heaven—but he is still in the struggles of life? Why does he seek her in heaven and not God? The jarring nature of their reunion is, at its heart, a clash of earthly expectations against divine ones. What follows is a beautiful dialogue between father and daughter about the nature of true happiness and what her father must do to secure it. In a preliminary manner, the jarring character of the father’s reunion with the daughter is reflected in the meeting of Jesus, Mary, and Martha. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, lies at the feet of Jesus listening to Him, while Martha flitters around the house serving her guests. When Martha asks our Lord for Martha to help, it is somewhat contrary to our expectations to hear Christ decline and side with Mary. Is it not good for Martha to serve her guests? Often, we reduce the moral life to avoiding evil and choosing the good. And while this is arguably the most basic moral precept, much of life is actually choosing between different goods. It was good that the father loved his daughter, just as it was good Martha wanted to serve her guests. In both cases, however, the father and Martha had to learn to choose a higher good over a lesser good. It was good the father loved his daughter, but it was better for him to love God. It was good Martha wanted to serve others, but it was better for her to be at the feet of Jesus. A key insight here, however, is that seeking the higher good does not exclude the lower. In fact, the higher will always perfect the lower. If the father loves God first, then he will love his daughter with a more perfect love. If Martha chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus, then it will ultimately perfect her service to others. At the end of the Pearl, an anonymous 1300s poem, the daughter, that queenly, heavenly virgin, a true spotless pearl, shows her father that true happiness is in God. He then sees the Lamb, standing victorious yet slain, and the father is so overcome with zeal to be with God that he attempts to cross the river. He awakes from his dream on the grave of his daughter. He still must live his earthly pilgrimage. He must seek the true Pearl, Jesus Christ, and order all other goods to this end.

Solzhenitsyn and True Freedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stood before 20,000 people at the 1978 Harvard graduation ceremony. Aleksandr, a Russian, had spent ten years of hard labor in the Soviet gulags on trumped up charges before fleeing to the United States. He had risen to fame in the West by shining a light on Soviet atrocities through his writings, such as The Gulag Archipelago, a true accounting of those who endured the inhumanity of the Soviet labor camps. Thus, as he stood before Harvard University, he was expected to lambaste the Soviets and praise the West, especially the United States, in which he had found refuge. Yet, Aleksandr took an unexpected turn. While he certainly lamented the suffering of his homeland under the Soviets, he took up the question of whether he would recommend the West as a model for his home country—he answered “no.” Shocking his audience, he further explained that under the West men and women had become fractured, atomized, and subject to a false freedom. He observed that this false sense of freedom had taught mankind that there was no “higher force” above him—that man was an autonomous moral universe. It was a freedom that would end in ruin. The disease Aleksandr diagnosed in the late 1970s has only metastasized and increased in severity. For us, as moderns and Americans, the concept of freedom means a lack of restraint and a plurality of options for our own self-creation. The more choices we have, the more freedom we believe we have. Thus, our modern age tells us that we are the most freewhen we have the most choices to pursue what we desire. Most notably, this modern notion of freedom is almost entirely removed from considerations of what is good or bad. Freedom is just about choice—what is good or bad is relative to each individual. This notion of freedom would have been incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks and Romans and our own Early Church Fathers. The ancient notion of freedom was not about maximizing choice but was rather about self-discipline. Freedom, for the ancients, meant cultivating a self-governance that freed you from our inclination toward evil and disorder. True freedom was cultivated in a person by practicing virtue. In fact, the original meaning of the liberal arts was an education that freed you to pursue the good, the beautiful, and the true. Freedom meant you were free to choose what was good and you had that interior freedom by the virtue of self-governance and self-control. You were the master of your passions and desires—not the other way around. If freedom truly is the ability to choose what is good and beautiful in this life, then to choose what is evil cannot be an act of authentic freedom. Here, we see the ancient understanding of freedom at work in the New Testament. As St. Paul tells us, to sin is not an expression of our freedom but rather of slavery. He who sins is not free. If we use our freedom to choose gossip, to amass material goods, to consume pornography, to lie, and to pursue what we deem good over what is truly good, God—then we are not free persons but slaves. We are, in fact, the most free when we pursue what is the most good—God. We are the most free when we are detached from sin and choose what is good, beautiful, and true. Let us not fall prey to the false freedom of our age. What the world praises as freedom is slavery. Let us truly be free in Jesus Christ by exercising self-governance by disciplining our desires and cultivating virtues.  

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.