Writings

Musings, Essays,
&  other Pondersome Distractions

short reflections on whatever happens to catch our fancy
longform articles intended to spur on your own reflections
spiritual meditations given throughout the liturgical year

The Ordered Cosmos

Humans are peculiar creatures, and deep down we all know this to be so. We are bound by time but tend in a certain manner toward eternity; we are bodily and yet possess an immaterial or spiritual principle; we are formed from the dust of the earth but are nevertheless made to the image of God. Sub-human animals do not attend to the time of day, nor do they, except by a kind of ineluctable inclination or instinct, concern themselves with seasons. At the other end of the hierarchy, angels are not worried about corruption or dissolution; they need not devote time to study or the arduous cultivation of virtue.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, the Old Testament reading for today’s Holy Mass, reflects on the rhythm of God’s material creation. There is a time and place for all things, seasons of birth and growth and maturity and decay. But for the human person in a special way there are times to be at work and at leisure, to fast and to feast, to speak and to keep silent, to weep and to laugh, and all the rest. That human life ebbs and flows is inevitable, for we are, again, beings bound by time and space. And this is precisely as God wills it to be, even if we are meant ultimately (without ceasing to be creatures) to be caught up into His own eternity and immutable perfection.

What does Ecclesiastes have to teach us? After all, we all know existence to be constituted by moments both good and bad, lovely and tragic, life-giving and death-dealing. The sacred author wants us to see that all things are ordered by God’s wisdom. The rest of creation participates in its own manner in God’s ordering wisdom, but human beings in a far higher and more perfect way. We can, in short, because we are intellectual creatures, order as God orders and guide as God guides. We can perceive the ordered pattern of creation and act in accord with it. This is nothing trivial or unremarkable, but rather something wonderful for which to thank God.

The Church’s liturgical calendar provides a much-needed structure to the Christian life. The Church is a good Mother, and just as our parents teach us how to live and act in the world in an ordered way, in accord with the times and seasons, so too does the Church. In her case, though, she is using the times and seasons, sanctified by her divine Spouse and Head, to lead us to eternal life.

As we focus this year on the sacraments, the highest expressions of the Church’s liturgical life, let us see them as wise and good gifts of God, remedies for sin appropriate for the peculiar creatures we are. As the sacred author of Ecclesiastes knew so profoundly, the God who transcends every imperfection and change orders all things well, whether in nature or in grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Are You Baptized in the Holy Ghost?

Are you baptized in the Holy Ghost? This is a question that you’ll often get if you ever hang around Charismatic Christians—whether Protestant or Catholic. What they usually mean is, “Have you experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in a powerful way?” Often they think a sign of this “baptism” is the outward manifestation of certain spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues.

But for Catholics, the language of “being baptized in the Holy Spirit” need not be reduced to a subjective experience that we may have of Him or the ability to speak in strange tongues. It arguably refers to a sacrament: namely, the Sacrament of Confirmation.

In Acts 1:4-5, Jesus instructs the apostles not to leave Jerusalem until they receive the promise of the Father to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” which, according to Peter in Acts 11:15-16, is a reference to the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

Now, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraph 1288 that the Sacrament of Confirmation “in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church.” This is confirmed in Acts 8 when Peter and John lay hands on the newly baptized Christians in Samaria and give them a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit similar to that of the Christians in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost.

If Pentecost was the event where the early Christians received their “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, and the laying on of hands in Confirmation perpetuates the graces of Pentecost, then it follows that to be confirmed is to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit” insofar as by means of the sacrament we receive the same outpouring of the Spirit that allows us courageously to spread and defend the faith in word and deed.

And just because some confirmed Christians might not have the gift of tongues, doesn’t mean they haven’t been “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” since, according to Paul in 1 Cor. 12:30, not all members of Christ’s Body have this gift.

So, to the question, “Have you been baptized in the Holy Ghost?” Christians who’ve been validly confirmed can say with some charismatic flair, “Amen, brotha!”

Confessions II and the Human Will

The thematic center to the second book of the Confessions is the human will (voluntas): our dynamic propulsion towards the good.  It has been asserted that Augustine is the first to give us a theology of the will.[1]  And, his interest in the human will is all-pervasive.  For Augustine’s anthropology, the will is so defining of our identity that it is perhaps more true to say not that you have a will, but that you are your will.  The will is identified with the affective vector of the human person, such that we can say (with insufficient nuance) that, for Augustine, love is the will.  It is the dynamic propensity to seek rest in the object of affection and drives all we do.  Indeed, the entire moral life can be evaluated by one’s loves precisely because you become that which you love.  What we love shapes us and eventually even transforms us into itself.  In his Homilies on the Epistle of John, Augustine writes, “Always as a person loves, so he is.  Do you love the earth?  Then you are of the earth.  Do you love God? Then you are of God.”[2]  Our desires and loves determine where we seek rest.  If we seek rest in created goods—transient and material goods lower than the soul’s own nature—the result is exhaustion, disintegration, and unhappiness.  Conversely, desiring rest in the divine reality for which the soul is fitted brings with it peace, joy, and good fruit.

The dynamism of the will—a vital, driving force—is perhaps the most distinctly Augustinian feature to his account of the human will.  The will necessarily moves; it pulls somewhere.  And, having found the object of its affection, the will takes aim, seeking to unite itself to that which it loves.  Elsewhere Augustine writes that while impure love pulls the soul down, holy love raises the soul to eternal realties: “Every kind of love has its own energy, and in the soul of a lover love cannot be idle; it must lead somewhere.”[3] “I was moving,” recalls Augustine in the second book of the Confessions, “but far from you (irem abs te longius)” (2.2.2).  In Confessions II Augustine uses the narrative of his autobiography—recalling formative unhappy experiences of his youth—to articulate his mature theology of the will.  It is this account of the human will that also underwrites the two dominant theological topics of the book that we will unpack: the nature of evil and the character of friendship.

Not only is the will a dynamic élan, a moving existential force, but, for Augustine, the will is also always—invariably and necessarily—ordered to pursue the good.  This is a fundamental premise.  We cannot will evil.  Objections to this premise arise almost immediately.  A moment’s honest self-reflection reveals countless times our will is drawn to what it should not.  Augustine suggests a slight qualification to this fundamental anthropological premise: East of Eden, in the regime of sin, the will is always—invariably and necessarily—ordered to pursue the perceived good.  Recall the quip attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “A man knocking on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”   Often we misappraise the good: we desire some good at the wrong time, in the wrong way, in the wrong amount, etc.  Taking a fourth generous pour of Scotch with friends last night was not good: I lost mental clarity, my speech was injudicious, I slept poorly and got up late.  But I said “Sure!” because I perceived another dram to be good; I could not have acquiesced if I did not perceive it to be good.

 A common objection to the Augustinian contention that our will invariably and exclusively desires (perceived) goods is that it soft-pedals the gravity of evil.  Sure, the desire for a “perceived good” makes sense of having one too many drinks, but what of vicious crimes—cold-blooded murder?  Even here, insists Augustine, the principle stands.  Even objectively monstrous evils—the 9/11 terrorists plots, for example—germinate in the soul, are cultivated, put into motion, and, finally, realized only as perceived goods.

Why is this the case?  Why can the will not be drawn to evil?  Because evil is a nothing.  Evil is a lack.  There is no “there” there to which the will might be drawn.  In Augustine’s technical articulation, evil is a privatio boni, a privation of the good.  A moral evil—sin—is a defection from the good.  But it is nonsense to speak of the “cause” of defect.  Nothing has no cause.  Famously, Augustine is left with admitting his ignorance about the cause of an evil will: “If you ask this, and I answer that I do not know, probably you will be saddened.  And yet that would be a true answer.  That which is nothing cannot be known.”[4]  Evil entails the absence of some good requisite for the flourishing of the whole.  The definition of evil as privatio boni contains two essential implications, the first in the order of being (ontological) and the second in the order of knowing (epistemological).

First, to hold that evil is a privation entails that the good has ontological priority.  This is a metaphysical claim before it is a moral claim.  We suffer natural evils.  If I am born without an arm, I suffer an evil; a good requisite to the whole of my body is absent.  Evil is always subsequent and parasitical to the good.  It attaches itself to some good thing and sucks the life out of it.  This makes sense: Genesis 3 comes after Genesis 1 and 2.  God first fashions an ordered whole that is “very good,” its corruption is subsequent.  However, our initial instinct is not to think of evil as a privation; we endow evil with an ontological “thickness” and reality it does not possess.  We seem almost instinctively to hold dualistic or Manichaean views of evil—a Star Wars mentality of light versus darkness, each with its own forcefield vying for supremacy both in our souls and in the world.  Consider the classic image of the comic book hero standing at a crossroads, needing to make a decision.  On his right shoulder a cherubic angel is perched, urging our hero to follow the high path, to listen to his better self.  But, on his left shoulder a horned demon grasping a trident temptingly whispers that he take the easy route and put his own desires first.  Here Good and Evil are rendered substantial; each pulls in the opposite direction.  But this is to endow evil with being—with an ontological density—that it does not have.

Second, the fact that evil is a privation entails it lacks intelligibility.  We struggle to make sense of evil.  And, that’s as it should be.  If being and good are convertible, then a lack of goodness entails a lack of being.  But how do you explain a lack?  You can’t.  We can only account for the good; we can only explain being that exists.  We cannot explain nothing.  A dentist can’t actually tell you about your cavity—the absence of your tooth.  To explain a cavity, he needs to speak about the tooth that remains, which is missing something.  Without a tooth there is no cavity.  Or, try to explain the hole in a doughnut, without referring to the substantial good of the doughnut.  I need to apprehend the nature of the “good requisite” before I can speak of evil.  The good as an ordered, integral, created nature needs be intellectually “seen” before I can recognize evil as a corruption of that nature.  I need to know what a whole, healthy human body is before I can recognize that to be deprived of an arm or to mutilate my body in some way is an evil.  I need to know the nature of a loving marriage to perceive that bigamy is evil.  The lack of intelligibility proper to evil is the counterpoint to the truth that being and good are convertible.  Omne ens est scibile, reads a popular scholastic adage: “all being is knowable.” Creation is ordered, structured, harmonious, that is to say, good, and therefore knowable.  Evil is unknowable because there is no-thing to know.  One commentator rightly remarks that, for Augustine, evil is a surd; it is irrational and, ultimately, meaningless.

The privation of the good accounts for life’s many little evils.  For example, I have a flat bike tire because the rubber of the tire has worn away over time, leaving it exposed to sharp glass.  The good requisite for the tire (rubber) is absent.  But great evils—evils in which the attendant good seems so distant and the privation so all-consuming—leave us at a loss.  Perhaps this explains something of our society’s fascination with figures in whom evil seems almost totalizing. (Consider the slew of TV documentaries devoted to psychopathic killers.)  Or, our enduring interest in monstrous historical evils.  (We have whole university programs devoted to holocaust studies.)  We want to understand what cannot be understood.

These two essential claims attendant to the definition of evil as privatio boni—that evil is a lack in the order of being (ontological) and, therefore, a lack in the order of knowing (epistemological)—structure Augustine’s moral analysis of the theft of the pears in the Confessions.  This infamous scene—now recalled years later as a mature bishop—gives Augustine a literary opportunity to articulate his theology of human willing.  Augustine insists it was “nothing” that attracted him.  This absence or privation—“nothing”—is here hypostatized, rendered a substantive noun.  Paradoxically, “nothing” is the thing that Augustine pursues:

I wanted to carry out an act of theft and did so, driven by no kind of need other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice.  Wickedness filled me (sagina iniquitatis).  I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality.  My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.  There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither color nor taste….  We carried off a huge load of pairs.  But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs.  Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed (2.4.9).

The inexplicable character of evil is on full display.  Augustine says I wanted (volui) to thieve.  But he cannot really explain this want, because to explain would be to tell of the good he sought in that evil act.  But here the good is so occluded as to seem altogether absent.  It is not the good of food that compels him to reach for the forbidden fruit.  Rather, an absence—a deficiency of justice—drives him.  But how can a nothing have such causality?  As James Wetzel provocatively puts it, “An absence is not an agent … where does an absence get the legs for that?”[5]  Augustine describes himself as stuffed by depravity: sagina iniquitatis—a fascinating, if paradoxical, description of the sated “fulness” of this absence.  The will’s desire for a perceived good explains evil behavior.  Here, however, there is no thing (res) that “I wished to enjoy” (volebam frui).  The fruit is not attractive; what is pilfered is thrown to swine.  It is the theft and sin itself that is sought (ipso furto et peccato).  Augustine is attempting to give an account of what is unintelligible: pure evil.  Augustine’s rhetoric serves to highlight this problem.  He asks himself, “What was I seeking there?” (quid ibi quaerebat) and answers,

I became evil for no reason (causa nulla).  I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.  It was foul, and I loved it.  I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fault itself.  My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin.  I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake (2.4.9).

The will is a dynamic propulsion of love for the (perceived) good.  Here, however, Augustine reifies evil, seeming to give it an ontological status.  Evil is presented as a thing and something desired for its own sake.  It is evil itself Augustine seems to seek.  Four times Augustine repeats, amavi—“I loved.”  He loved the foul (foeda amavi), he loved the destructive (amavi perire), he loved the defective (amavi defectum), and tellingly—in case we missed the point—he insists it was not a defective good that he loved (non illud ad quod deficiebam), but he loved the defect itself (defectumipsum).  How can this be?

Ultimately, this cannot be.  It runs counter to the fundamental ontological structures of the universe: God creates good things, to which evil is subsequent and corruptive.  Why does a person do evil?  For the good!  It is the good desired in an evil act that drives a person.  Augustine proceeds to define sin as an “immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of the good” (2.5.10).  The will is not static: it either inclines down, desiring goods lower than its own nature, or it is drawn up; the weight of its love lifting it to seek spiritual goods higher than its own nature.  Admittedly, when the will seeks the lowest realities of “inferior goods” (ima), these too have their delight.  The reason is given in Augustine’s prayerful exclamation: Deus meus, qui fecit omnia (“My God, who has made them all” [2.5.10]).

Augustine’s fierce aversion to Manichean dualism leads him to emphasize this point.  No one pursues evil per se; rather, evil is pursued under the formality of the good.  Augustine points out that this is the first thing that any detective worth his salt realizes.  To investigate a crime entails attempting to discover the good that the criminal sought.  This is called the motive.  Augustine imagines a murder scene.  The detective asks, “What motivated a person to commit murder?”  In other words, what is the good the murderer sought?  Many goods could motivate murder: perhaps he desired his victim’s wife or his money.  Or perhaps the murderer acted out of fear.  His desire for the good of safety and stability drove him to murder.  What if he had already suffered at the hands of the person he killed?  The good of (disordered) justice drove him.  Augustine’s point is simple: “No one would commit murder without a motive (sine causa)” (2.5.11).

Even a man so wontedly evil that he seems to delight in killing for its own sake is not in fact so.  In the Roman imagination, the paragon of such unmitigated evil—of terrorist barbarity—is Cataline.  An accomplished Roman solider, Catiline turned traitor and led a violent revolt to overthrow the Roman republic.  Augustine quotes the judgment of the Roman historian, Sallust, who views Catiline as the embodiment of all evil: “It was said of one brutal and cruel man [Catiline] that he was evil and savage without reason” (2.5.11).  But Augustine points out that even Cataline had an “objective.”  The flood of violence and bloodletting he unleashed aimed to secure his own power and prestige, to rule beyond the strictures of Roman law: “No, not even Catiline himself loved his crimes; something else motivated him to commit them” (2.5.11).

We really should not consider vice to be the opposite of virtue, insists Augustine.  The ontological priority of the good and the privative character of evil entail that, instead, vice is a specious imitation of virtue.  La Rochefoucauld famously said that “hypocrisy is a compliment vice pays to virtue.”  What he meant is that a vicious person, debased and besotted by disordered attachments, certainly does not want to be seen as such.  Either such a person denies having such aberrations or simply denies that they are, in fact, aberrations.  Each vice, maintains Augustine, apes at some virtue; vice is unintelligible except as a distorted mirror image of virtue.  Augustine cycles through a catalogue of vices, explaining each as a drab earthly counterfeit of resplendent heavenly virtue—a reality that is, in fact, God’s own (2.6.13).  Pride imitates God’s omnipotence; ambition his divine honor and glory; cruelty seeks to inspire the holy fear due God alone; idleness is a counterfeit to God’s rest; burning rage a parody of divine justice.  Each vice aspires to possess something which in reality is an exclusively divine property and obtains for creatures only by way of participation.  We might say that vice is a creature’s aspiration to possess a divine prerogative in an autonomous manner.  A vicious soul, explains Augustine, seeks transcendence outside of God (extra te); futilely grasping at what can only be had “by returning to you” (redit ad te).  He concludes, “In their perverted way all humanity imitates you” (2.6.14).

As Augustine returns to reflect on his own vicious teenage delinquency he affirms once again that “the theft itself was a nothing (nihil)” (2.8.16).  But there must be something that drove him, some good he sought in his theft.  James O’Donnell remarks, “His principle, after all, is that nothing is nothing save evil, and that there is no thing-ness to evil that could attract even the wickedest of souls.”[6]  If the good sought in his theft was not the pears, what was it?  As Augustine turns the incident over in his mind (“I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time” [2.8.16]) he comes—in the last paragraphs of the book—to identify the good he sought: his desire for comradery and friendship—or, rather, a specious imitation of friendship—drove him.

Friends, for Augustine, act as an accelerant on the will.  They drive the will beyond its typical limitations.  We rightly say that friends bring out the best in us.  When we consider the heroic actions of great saints, we usually discover a dear friend close at hand (St. Gregory and St. Basil; St. Benedict and St. Scholastica; St. Francis and St. Clare; St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier; St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross).  The converse is also true.  Malevolent and base actions, especially if they are contrary to our typical mode of acting, are often incited by friends.  Today we term such malign influence on our will “peer-pressure”—an experience acutely felt by young people whose will is as yet less stable.  Augustine was no exception.  He writes, “Friendship can be a dangerous enemy (o nimis inimica amicitia) a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation…. As soon as the words are spoken, ‘Let us go and do it’, one is ashamed not to be shameless” (2.9.17).  Augustine blames the company he kept for his marauding thievery.  Five times he repeats, “Alone I would never have done it” (2.8.16–2.9.17).

Had I been alone I would not have done it—I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time—alone I would never have done it.  Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang (consortium) in whose company I did it…. My pleasure was not in the pears; it was in the crime itself, done in association with a sinful group (consortium) (2.8.16).

Friendship is major theme in Book II and inseparable from Augustine’s theology of the will.  However, it is revelatory that Augustine never once calls his teenage troupe “friends” (amicitia), instead he labels them “associates” (consortium).  This omission highlights Augustine’s understanding of the nature of friendship.

Friendship is a relationship of will; a communion, exclusive to persons—human, angelic, and (as Augustine boldly suggests in one place) divine.  “An exchange of mind with mind,” maintains Augustine, “marks the brightly lit pathway of friendship” (2.2.2).  Only persons, that is, intellectual natures, can jointly will a common good.  In his maturity, Augustine was a great friend and had many friends; a fact attested to by his voluminous correspondence with a host of friends all over the Mediterranean world.  A frequently voiced desire is Augustine’s wish to live in community together with his friends.  Here he lyrically writes, “Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls” (2.5.10).  The love proper to friends impels to “unity.”  Another way to say this is friends possess a common will.  That shared will (in Augustine’s terms, a “bond”) jointly aims at some good.  Thus, for Augustine, friendship is triangular.  It is not simply two (or more) people’s mutual delight in one another, but, rather, their joint delight in a common good.  Augustine terms this third thing (or person) that constitutes a friendship their “common object of love.”  So just as the quality of an individual’s will is determined by what he loves, that is, the good he seeks and delights in, so too, the quality of a friendship is determined by the mutual will or love of the friends, that joint reality which they together seek and delight in.  The “common object of love” is the register by which one can adjudicate the quality of a friendship.  If the common object of love is noble, beautiful, and life-giving, so too is the friendship.  Conversely, if the common object of love is base and slovenly, so too is the friendship.  Imagine friends who do little more than get together for gossip or drinking sessions; such communion hardly rises to the definition of “friendship.”  But people whose mutual object of love consist in joint sport, study, service, etc. possess a union of wills that aims at something beautiful and hence enjoy a beautiful friendship.  In this analysis, then, the highest form of friendship is when friends possess a joint love for God.

Confessions II gives us a profound literary analysis of the human will—the will as a moving, driving force seeking union with the good.  This movement can be focused and direct or distracted and fragmented.  After the fall, we often confuse genuine goods conducive to our flourishing and fulfilment with those that are hollow and ersatz.  Yet, it remains that case that we are hardwired to pursue exclusively that which we perceive to be good.  We cannot will evil.  Augustine’s poignant reflections on the theft of the pears serve to illustrate the principle that the will is never attracted to evil per se.  This is because evil lacks reality; it is a privation of the good, for which reason it also lacks intelligibility.  Pure evil is pure nothingness—there is no-thing to which the will might be drawn and no “there” to explain.  Augustine uses the “pear incident” to illustrate both that evil is a nothing and that it is the good that is sought in any evil act.  The good Augustine sought in thievery was a sense of camaraderie or specious friendship.  A shared love of a good, that is to say, a common will, constitutes authentic friendship.  And, just as an individual’s will is determined by the quality of the good sought, so too the common will or bond of friendship is determined by the quality of the good jointly pursued.

 

The Alcuin Institute is constantly striving to understand the world in deep ways, and we do our best to spur others on to reflect more deeply on life. However, our individual journeys towards the Truth often go unnoticed. We hope that these “musings” on various issues will give you an insight into the deeply personal nature of our mission, while also giving you an occasion to ponder the same mysterious realities we seek to know and make known everyday.

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The Ordered Cosmos

Humans are peculiar creatures, and deep down we all know this to be so. We are bound by time but tend in a certain manner toward eternity; we are bodily and yet possess an immaterial or spiritual principle; we are formed from the dust of the earth but are nevertheless made to the image of God. Sub-human animals do not attend to the time of day, nor do they, except by a kind of ineluctable inclination or instinct, concern themselves with seasons. At the other end of the hierarchy, angels are not worried about corruption or dissolution; they need not devote time to study or the arduous cultivation of virtue.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, the Old Testament reading for today’s Holy Mass, reflects on the rhythm of God’s material creation. There is a time and place for all things, seasons of birth and growth and maturity and decay. But for the human person in a special way there are times to be at work and at leisure, to fast and to feast, to speak and to keep silent, to weep and to laugh, and all the rest. That human life ebbs and flows is inevitable, for we are, again, beings bound by time and space. And this is precisely as God wills it to be, even if we are meant ultimately (without ceasing to be creatures) to be caught up into His own eternity and immutable perfection.

What does Ecclesiastes have to teach us? After all, we all know existence to be constituted by moments both good and bad, lovely and tragic, life-giving and death-dealing. The sacred author wants us to see that all things are ordered by God’s wisdom. The rest of creation participates in its own manner in God’s ordering wisdom, but human beings in a far higher and more perfect way. We can, in short, because we are intellectual creatures, order as God orders and guide as God guides. We can perceive the ordered pattern of creation and act in accord with it. This is nothing trivial or unremarkable, but rather something wonderful for which to thank God.

The Church’s liturgical calendar provides a much-needed structure to the Christian life. The Church is a good Mother, and just as our parents teach us how to live and act in the world in an ordered way, in accord with the times and seasons, so too does the Church. In her case, though, she is using the times and seasons, sanctified by her divine Spouse and Head, to lead us to eternal life.

As we focus this year on the sacraments, the highest expressions of the Church’s liturgical life, let us see them as wise and good gifts of God, remedies for sin appropriate for the peculiar creatures we are. As the sacred author of Ecclesiastes knew so profoundly, the God who transcends every imperfection and change orders all things well, whether in nature or in grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Are You Baptized in the Holy Ghost?

Are you baptized in the Holy Ghost? This is a question that you’ll often get if you ever hang around Charismatic Christians—whether Protestant or Catholic. What they usually mean is, “Have you experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in a powerful way?” Often they think a sign of this “baptism” is the outward manifestation of certain spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues.

But for Catholics, the language of “being baptized in the Holy Spirit” need not be reduced to a subjective experience that we may have of Him or the ability to speak in strange tongues. It arguably refers to a sacrament: namely, the Sacrament of Confirmation.

In Acts 1:4-5, Jesus instructs the apostles not to leave Jerusalem until they receive the promise of the Father to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” which, according to Peter in Acts 11:15-16, is a reference to the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

Now, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraph 1288 that the Sacrament of Confirmation “in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church.” This is confirmed in Acts 8 when Peter and John lay hands on the newly baptized Christians in Samaria and give them a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit similar to that of the Christians in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost.

If Pentecost was the event where the early Christians received their “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, and the laying on of hands in Confirmation perpetuates the graces of Pentecost, then it follows that to be confirmed is to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit” insofar as by means of the sacrament we receive the same outpouring of the Spirit that allows us courageously to spread and defend the faith in word and deed.

And just because some confirmed Christians might not have the gift of tongues, doesn’t mean they haven’t been “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” since, according to Paul in 1 Cor. 12:30, not all members of Christ’s Body have this gift.

So, to the question, “Have you been baptized in the Holy Ghost?” Christians who’ve been validly confirmed can say with some charismatic flair, “Amen, brotha!”

Confessions II and the Human Will

The thematic center to the second book of the Confessions is the human will (voluntas): our dynamic propulsion towards the good.  It has been asserted that Augustine is the first to give us a theology of the will.[1]  And, his interest in the human will is all-pervasive.  For Augustine’s anthropology, the will is so defining of our identity that it is perhaps more true to say not that you have a will, but that you are your will.  The will is identified with the affective vector of the human person, such that we can say (with insufficient nuance) that, for Augustine, love is the will.  It is the dynamic propensity to seek rest in the object of affection and drives all we do.  Indeed, the entire moral life can be evaluated by one’s loves precisely because you become that which you love.  What we love shapes us and eventually even transforms us into itself.  In his Homilies on the Epistle of John, Augustine writes, “Always as a person loves, so he is.  Do you love the earth?  Then you are of the earth.  Do you love God? Then you are of God.”[2]  Our desires and loves determine where we seek rest.  If we seek rest in created goods—transient and material goods lower than the soul’s own nature—the result is exhaustion, disintegration, and unhappiness.  Conversely, desiring rest in the divine reality for which the soul is fitted brings with it peace, joy, and good fruit.

The dynamism of the will—a vital, driving force—is perhaps the most distinctly Augustinian feature to his account of the human will.  The will necessarily moves; it pulls somewhere.  And, having found the object of its affection, the will takes aim, seeking to unite itself to that which it loves.  Elsewhere Augustine writes that while impure love pulls the soul down, holy love raises the soul to eternal realties: “Every kind of love has its own energy, and in the soul of a lover love cannot be idle; it must lead somewhere.”[3] “I was moving,” recalls Augustine in the second book of the Confessions, “but far from you (irem abs te longius)” (2.2.2).  In Confessions II Augustine uses the narrative of his autobiography—recalling formative unhappy experiences of his youth—to articulate his mature theology of the will.  It is this account of the human will that also underwrites the two dominant theological topics of the book that we will unpack: the nature of evil and the character of friendship.

Not only is the will a dynamic élan, a moving existential force, but, for Augustine, the will is also always—invariably and necessarily—ordered to pursue the good.  This is a fundamental premise.  We cannot will evil.  Objections to this premise arise almost immediately.  A moment’s honest self-reflection reveals countless times our will is drawn to what it should not.  Augustine suggests a slight qualification to this fundamental anthropological premise: East of Eden, in the regime of sin, the will is always—invariably and necessarily—ordered to pursue the perceived good.  Recall the quip attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “A man knocking on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”   Often we misappraise the good: we desire some good at the wrong time, in the wrong way, in the wrong amount, etc.  Taking a fourth generous pour of Scotch with friends last night was not good: I lost mental clarity, my speech was injudicious, I slept poorly and got up late.  But I said “Sure!” because I perceived another dram to be good; I could not have acquiesced if I did not perceive it to be good.

 A common objection to the Augustinian contention that our will invariably and exclusively desires (perceived) goods is that it soft-pedals the gravity of evil.  Sure, the desire for a “perceived good” makes sense of having one too many drinks, but what of vicious crimes—cold-blooded murder?  Even here, insists Augustine, the principle stands.  Even objectively monstrous evils—the 9/11 terrorists plots, for example—germinate in the soul, are cultivated, put into motion, and, finally, realized only as perceived goods.

Why is this the case?  Why can the will not be drawn to evil?  Because evil is a nothing.  Evil is a lack.  There is no “there” there to which the will might be drawn.  In Augustine’s technical articulation, evil is a privatio boni, a privation of the good.  A moral evil—sin—is a defection from the good.  But it is nonsense to speak of the “cause” of defect.  Nothing has no cause.  Famously, Augustine is left with admitting his ignorance about the cause of an evil will: “If you ask this, and I answer that I do not know, probably you will be saddened.  And yet that would be a true answer.  That which is nothing cannot be known.”[4]  Evil entails the absence of some good requisite for the flourishing of the whole.  The definition of evil as privatio boni contains two essential implications, the first in the order of being (ontological) and the second in the order of knowing (epistemological).

First, to hold that evil is a privation entails that the good has ontological priority.  This is a metaphysical claim before it is a moral claim.  We suffer natural evils.  If I am born without an arm, I suffer an evil; a good requisite to the whole of my body is absent.  Evil is always subsequent and parasitical to the good.  It attaches itself to some good thing and sucks the life out of it.  This makes sense: Genesis 3 comes after Genesis 1 and 2.  God first fashions an ordered whole that is “very good,” its corruption is subsequent.  However, our initial instinct is not to think of evil as a privation; we endow evil with an ontological “thickness” and reality it does not possess.  We seem almost instinctively to hold dualistic or Manichaean views of evil—a Star Wars mentality of light versus darkness, each with its own forcefield vying for supremacy both in our souls and in the world.  Consider the classic image of the comic book hero standing at a crossroads, needing to make a decision.  On his right shoulder a cherubic angel is perched, urging our hero to follow the high path, to listen to his better self.  But, on his left shoulder a horned demon grasping a trident temptingly whispers that he take the easy route and put his own desires first.  Here Good and Evil are rendered substantial; each pulls in the opposite direction.  But this is to endow evil with being—with an ontological density—that it does not have.

Second, the fact that evil is a privation entails it lacks intelligibility.  We struggle to make sense of evil.  And, that’s as it should be.  If being and good are convertible, then a lack of goodness entails a lack of being.  But how do you explain a lack?  You can’t.  We can only account for the good; we can only explain being that exists.  We cannot explain nothing.  A dentist can’t actually tell you about your cavity—the absence of your tooth.  To explain a cavity, he needs to speak about the tooth that remains, which is missing something.  Without a tooth there is no cavity.  Or, try to explain the hole in a doughnut, without referring to the substantial good of the doughnut.  I need to apprehend the nature of the “good requisite” before I can speak of evil.  The good as an ordered, integral, created nature needs be intellectually “seen” before I can recognize evil as a corruption of that nature.  I need to know what a whole, healthy human body is before I can recognize that to be deprived of an arm or to mutilate my body in some way is an evil.  I need to know the nature of a loving marriage to perceive that bigamy is evil.  The lack of intelligibility proper to evil is the counterpoint to the truth that being and good are convertible.  Omne ens est scibile, reads a popular scholastic adage: “all being is knowable.” Creation is ordered, structured, harmonious, that is to say, good, and therefore knowable.  Evil is unknowable because there is no-thing to know.  One commentator rightly remarks that, for Augustine, evil is a surd; it is irrational and, ultimately, meaningless.

The privation of the good accounts for life’s many little evils.  For example, I have a flat bike tire because the rubber of the tire has worn away over time, leaving it exposed to sharp glass.  The good requisite for the tire (rubber) is absent.  But great evils—evils in which the attendant good seems so distant and the privation so all-consuming—leave us at a loss.  Perhaps this explains something of our society’s fascination with figures in whom evil seems almost totalizing. (Consider the slew of TV documentaries devoted to psychopathic killers.)  Or, our enduring interest in monstrous historical evils.  (We have whole university programs devoted to holocaust studies.)  We want to understand what cannot be understood.

These two essential claims attendant to the definition of evil as privatio boni—that evil is a lack in the order of being (ontological) and, therefore, a lack in the order of knowing (epistemological)—structure Augustine’s moral analysis of the theft of the pears in the Confessions.  This infamous scene—now recalled years later as a mature bishop—gives Augustine a literary opportunity to articulate his theology of human willing.  Augustine insists it was “nothing” that attracted him.  This absence or privation—“nothing”—is here hypostatized, rendered a substantive noun.  Paradoxically, “nothing” is the thing that Augustine pursues:

I wanted to carry out an act of theft and did so, driven by no kind of need other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice.  Wickedness filled me (sagina iniquitatis).  I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality.  My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.  There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither color nor taste….  We carried off a huge load of pairs.  But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs.  Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed (2.4.9).

The inexplicable character of evil is on full display.  Augustine says I wanted (volui) to thieve.  But he cannot really explain this want, because to explain would be to tell of the good he sought in that evil act.  But here the good is so occluded as to seem altogether absent.  It is not the good of food that compels him to reach for the forbidden fruit.  Rather, an absence—a deficiency of justice—drives him.  But how can a nothing have such causality?  As James Wetzel provocatively puts it, “An absence is not an agent … where does an absence get the legs for that?”[5]  Augustine describes himself as stuffed by depravity: sagina iniquitatis—a fascinating, if paradoxical, description of the sated “fulness” of this absence.  The will’s desire for a perceived good explains evil behavior.  Here, however, there is no thing (res) that “I wished to enjoy” (volebam frui).  The fruit is not attractive; what is pilfered is thrown to swine.  It is the theft and sin itself that is sought (ipso furto et peccato).  Augustine is attempting to give an account of what is unintelligible: pure evil.  Augustine’s rhetoric serves to highlight this problem.  He asks himself, “What was I seeking there?” (quid ibi quaerebat) and answers,

I became evil for no reason (causa nulla).  I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.  It was foul, and I loved it.  I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fault itself.  My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin.  I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake (2.4.9).

The will is a dynamic propulsion of love for the (perceived) good.  Here, however, Augustine reifies evil, seeming to give it an ontological status.  Evil is presented as a thing and something desired for its own sake.  It is evil itself Augustine seems to seek.  Four times Augustine repeats, amavi—“I loved.”  He loved the foul (foeda amavi), he loved the destructive (amavi perire), he loved the defective (amavi defectum), and tellingly—in case we missed the point—he insists it was not a defective good that he loved (non illud ad quod deficiebam), but he loved the defect itself (defectumipsum).  How can this be?

Ultimately, this cannot be.  It runs counter to the fundamental ontological structures of the universe: God creates good things, to which evil is subsequent and corruptive.  Why does a person do evil?  For the good!  It is the good desired in an evil act that drives a person.  Augustine proceeds to define sin as an “immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of the good” (2.5.10).  The will is not static: it either inclines down, desiring goods lower than its own nature, or it is drawn up; the weight of its love lifting it to seek spiritual goods higher than its own nature.  Admittedly, when the will seeks the lowest realities of “inferior goods” (ima), these too have their delight.  The reason is given in Augustine’s prayerful exclamation: Deus meus, qui fecit omnia (“My God, who has made them all” [2.5.10]).

Augustine’s fierce aversion to Manichean dualism leads him to emphasize this point.  No one pursues evil per se; rather, evil is pursued under the formality of the good.  Augustine points out that this is the first thing that any detective worth his salt realizes.  To investigate a crime entails attempting to discover the good that the criminal sought.  This is called the motive.  Augustine imagines a murder scene.  The detective asks, “What motivated a person to commit murder?”  In other words, what is the good the murderer sought?  Many goods could motivate murder: perhaps he desired his victim’s wife or his money.  Or perhaps the murderer acted out of fear.  His desire for the good of safety and stability drove him to murder.  What if he had already suffered at the hands of the person he killed?  The good of (disordered) justice drove him.  Augustine’s point is simple: “No one would commit murder without a motive (sine causa)” (2.5.11).

Even a man so wontedly evil that he seems to delight in killing for its own sake is not in fact so.  In the Roman imagination, the paragon of such unmitigated evil—of terrorist barbarity—is Cataline.  An accomplished Roman solider, Catiline turned traitor and led a violent revolt to overthrow the Roman republic.  Augustine quotes the judgment of the Roman historian, Sallust, who views Catiline as the embodiment of all evil: “It was said of one brutal and cruel man [Catiline] that he was evil and savage without reason” (2.5.11).  But Augustine points out that even Cataline had an “objective.”  The flood of violence and bloodletting he unleashed aimed to secure his own power and prestige, to rule beyond the strictures of Roman law: “No, not even Catiline himself loved his crimes; something else motivated him to commit them” (2.5.11).

We really should not consider vice to be the opposite of virtue, insists Augustine.  The ontological priority of the good and the privative character of evil entail that, instead, vice is a specious imitation of virtue.  La Rochefoucauld famously said that “hypocrisy is a compliment vice pays to virtue.”  What he meant is that a vicious person, debased and besotted by disordered attachments, certainly does not want to be seen as such.  Either such a person denies having such aberrations or simply denies that they are, in fact, aberrations.  Each vice, maintains Augustine, apes at some virtue; vice is unintelligible except as a distorted mirror image of virtue.  Augustine cycles through a catalogue of vices, explaining each as a drab earthly counterfeit of resplendent heavenly virtue—a reality that is, in fact, God’s own (2.6.13).  Pride imitates God’s omnipotence; ambition his divine honor and glory; cruelty seeks to inspire the holy fear due God alone; idleness is a counterfeit to God’s rest; burning rage a parody of divine justice.  Each vice aspires to possess something which in reality is an exclusively divine property and obtains for creatures only by way of participation.  We might say that vice is a creature’s aspiration to possess a divine prerogative in an autonomous manner.  A vicious soul, explains Augustine, seeks transcendence outside of God (extra te); futilely grasping at what can only be had “by returning to you” (redit ad te).  He concludes, “In their perverted way all humanity imitates you” (2.6.14).

As Augustine returns to reflect on his own vicious teenage delinquency he affirms once again that “the theft itself was a nothing (nihil)” (2.8.16).  But there must be something that drove him, some good he sought in his theft.  James O’Donnell remarks, “His principle, after all, is that nothing is nothing save evil, and that there is no thing-ness to evil that could attract even the wickedest of souls.”[6]  If the good sought in his theft was not the pears, what was it?  As Augustine turns the incident over in his mind (“I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time” [2.8.16]) he comes—in the last paragraphs of the book—to identify the good he sought: his desire for comradery and friendship—or, rather, a specious imitation of friendship—drove him.

Friends, for Augustine, act as an accelerant on the will.  They drive the will beyond its typical limitations.  We rightly say that friends bring out the best in us.  When we consider the heroic actions of great saints, we usually discover a dear friend close at hand (St. Gregory and St. Basil; St. Benedict and St. Scholastica; St. Francis and St. Clare; St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier; St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross).  The converse is also true.  Malevolent and base actions, especially if they are contrary to our typical mode of acting, are often incited by friends.  Today we term such malign influence on our will “peer-pressure”—an experience acutely felt by young people whose will is as yet less stable.  Augustine was no exception.  He writes, “Friendship can be a dangerous enemy (o nimis inimica amicitia) a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation…. As soon as the words are spoken, ‘Let us go and do it’, one is ashamed not to be shameless” (2.9.17).  Augustine blames the company he kept for his marauding thievery.  Five times he repeats, “Alone I would never have done it” (2.8.16–2.9.17).

Had I been alone I would not have done it—I remember my state of mind to be thus at the time—alone I would never have done it.  Therefore my love in that act was to be associated with the gang (consortium) in whose company I did it…. My pleasure was not in the pears; it was in the crime itself, done in association with a sinful group (consortium) (2.8.16).

Friendship is major theme in Book II and inseparable from Augustine’s theology of the will.  However, it is revelatory that Augustine never once calls his teenage troupe “friends” (amicitia), instead he labels them “associates” (consortium).  This omission highlights Augustine’s understanding of the nature of friendship.

Friendship is a relationship of will; a communion, exclusive to persons—human, angelic, and (as Augustine boldly suggests in one place) divine.  “An exchange of mind with mind,” maintains Augustine, “marks the brightly lit pathway of friendship” (2.2.2).  Only persons, that is, intellectual natures, can jointly will a common good.  In his maturity, Augustine was a great friend and had many friends; a fact attested to by his voluminous correspondence with a host of friends all over the Mediterranean world.  A frequently voiced desire is Augustine’s wish to live in community together with his friends.  Here he lyrically writes, “Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls” (2.5.10).  The love proper to friends impels to “unity.”  Another way to say this is friends possess a common will.  That shared will (in Augustine’s terms, a “bond”) jointly aims at some good.  Thus, for Augustine, friendship is triangular.  It is not simply two (or more) people’s mutual delight in one another, but, rather, their joint delight in a common good.  Augustine terms this third thing (or person) that constitutes a friendship their “common object of love.”  So just as the quality of an individual’s will is determined by what he loves, that is, the good he seeks and delights in, so too, the quality of a friendship is determined by the mutual will or love of the friends, that joint reality which they together seek and delight in.  The “common object of love” is the register by which one can adjudicate the quality of a friendship.  If the common object of love is noble, beautiful, and life-giving, so too is the friendship.  Conversely, if the common object of love is base and slovenly, so too is the friendship.  Imagine friends who do little more than get together for gossip or drinking sessions; such communion hardly rises to the definition of “friendship.”  But people whose mutual object of love consist in joint sport, study, service, etc. possess a union of wills that aims at something beautiful and hence enjoy a beautiful friendship.  In this analysis, then, the highest form of friendship is when friends possess a joint love for God.

Confessions II gives us a profound literary analysis of the human will—the will as a moving, driving force seeking union with the good.  This movement can be focused and direct or distracted and fragmented.  After the fall, we often confuse genuine goods conducive to our flourishing and fulfilment with those that are hollow and ersatz.  Yet, it remains that case that we are hardwired to pursue exclusively that which we perceive to be good.  We cannot will evil.  Augustine’s poignant reflections on the theft of the pears serve to illustrate the principle that the will is never attracted to evil per se.  This is because evil lacks reality; it is a privation of the good, for which reason it also lacks intelligibility.  Pure evil is pure nothingness—there is no-thing to which the will might be drawn and no “there” to explain.  Augustine uses the “pear incident” to illustrate both that evil is a nothing and that it is the good that is sought in any evil act.  The good Augustine sought in thievery was a sense of camaraderie or specious friendship.  A shared love of a good, that is to say, a common will, constitutes authentic friendship.  And, just as an individual’s will is determined by the quality of the good sought, so too the common will or bond of friendship is determined by the quality of the good jointly pursued.

Life and Death in Christ

The last couple of years have forced us to confront the realities of suffering and death. I speak of coercion because we rarely enjoy thinking about suffering and death. They make us uncomfortable, at the very least, and at times perhaps even paranoid and fearful. In a certain respect, these reactions are understandable. Suffering and death are not desirable in themselves, involving as they do the weakening or destruction of the human body. But they are unavoidable, at least in this fallen world.

We often avoid talking about suffering and death in the spiritual life as well. We neglect to consider all the suffering that sin can bring us and those whom we love. We fail to reflect on the reality of spiritual death and the possibility of the second death of hell. And here too the neglect is somewhat understandable. Our own wickedness, or that of our loved ones, is a difficult thing to come to terms with, in part because our wickedness signifies to us that we need to convert to God, that we need to do the challenging work of changing our lives. Vices are bad habits, and habits are stable and deeply ingrained and thus hard to uproot. But again, such suffering is practically unavoidable in this vale of tears, and with the grace of God we are called to overcome sin and spiritual death. Indeed, that is why Christ came.

Because we neglect or misunderstand suffering and death, we likewise neglect or misunderstand the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, which exists for the sake of strengthening those who are seriously ill or aged and in danger of death. We forget this sacrament at our peril.

God in the Old Testament is the healer of His people, a physician for all who call upon His name. Jesus Christ continues this healing ministry in the New Testament, using His sacred humanity as the instrument of His divinity. Jesus restores sight to the blind, cleanses the leper, raises the dead, but the more vital healing is always spiritual. The bodily healing of the paralytic in Mark 2, for example, is a sign of the interior healing of his sin-wounded soul. Jesus’s earthly ministry, consummated on the bloody Cross, accomplishes most proximately not freedom of the people of Israel from Roman occupation, but the liberty of all men from the slavery and dominion of sin.

Now that Jesus has ascended to the Father, has His healing ministry ceased? By no means! Jesus continues to touch us through the sacramental mysteries. While all the sacraments in their own manner serve to heal and elevate human nature, there are two sacraments specially ordered to healing: Penance and Holy Anointing. If the former is primarily concerned with restoring supernatural life to the spiritually dead, the latter is concerned with strengthening the spiritually alive but sick. Because we are wounded by sin, inordinately attached to creatures even after being forgiven, we are often susceptible to doubt, anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness, and other vices when we are seriously ill or dying. Just reflect on how physical weakness, lack of sleep, and emotional distress can impact you. The first grace of Anointing of the Sick addresses precisely this reality. Here is how the Catechism puts it: “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This gift is a grace of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death” (1520). Notice that the primary grace of the sacrament is not one of physical healing. Yes, sometimes physical healing does result, but this is not principally why the sacrament was instituted. Even were a person to be miraculously saved from physical death, it would not be delayed forever. Instead, the sacrament is meant to save one from eternal death and prepare the soul to be with God in heaven forever.

Christ instituted the sacraments for a reason, including Extreme Unction (our “last anointing”) or Anointing of the Sick. Though we may be reluctant to contemplate for too long a sacrament bound up with the human conditions of suffering and dying, perhaps our sentiments will change when we remember what a merciful gift it is. It is a unique conformation to the passion and death of Christ, and thus a special sharing also in His victory in the Resurrection. Let this, then, be a call to rediscover the beauty and power of Holy Anointing.

Is Les Miserables Anti-Catholic?

I have at last closed the cover on Victor Hugo’s epic, 1260-page Les Miserables. Its dust-jacket in shreds but the spine intact, this behemoth has made its way back to the shelf after a year (yes, a year) of faithfully enlivening my leisure time and literary imagination. While I was waist-deep in the book, people would notice the book on this table or that, and suddenly a conversation would be born. Catholic friends tend to give an unconscious raised eyebrow while asking curious yet dismissive questions such as: “Oh, hmm… Isn’t he, well, you know, anti-Catholic?” Or, “Interesting…I heard that book’s rather anti-Catholic.” I pause for a moment, unsure of myself in light of this conversation killer. “Are we thinking of the same book?” I wonder. I consider, “Perhaps I’ve seriously misunderstood Hugo. The person I’m talking with is pretty sharp, after all.” After some mental water-treading, I generally come to rest on a thought like this, “Well, I’m only x pages into this beast. Maybe I just haven’t gotten to the anti-Catholic part yet.” Having scaled the rampart, slinked through the sewer, and seen the wonderful ironic resolution, I own an admission of Hugo’s clear jabs at Catholicism. Perhaps despite Hugo’s own efforts, however, the text simply cannot stand up to a facile, anti-Catholic claim. Catholic truth, goodness, and beauty abound in the book, but one section in particular stands out, perhaps because Hugo—despite his best efforts to the contrary—ends up showing forth the glory of the consecrated life. Like so many of the book’s most powerful pericopes, this one has no place in the newest film version nor the musical, though its melodrama strikes me as that type irresistible to Hollywood and Broadway. I speak of Jean Valjean’s two pivotal moments of redemption. We all know the first saving moment for Jean Valjean—the Bishop’s hospitality and then radical forgiveness, which bring about the criminal’s ensuing conversion. The candlesticks “given” to the criminal as tokens of the bishop’s hope in the power of grace to redeem any man given back to God in love. This scene shines for its universal, undeniably attractive Christian pathos. This moment of forgiveness marks the purchase of Jean Valjean’s freedom, even if he does not understand this redemption until later, when reflecting on having stolen a coin from a destitute boy. While this salvation lends a Christian lens to the narrative arc, it is another mini-story of this epic that bears the focus of the uniquely Catholic lens: the largely unknown story of the Convent at Petit Picpus. In desperate flight from the indominable Javert, Jean Valjean scales a wall, raises Cossette over it with himself, and drops down from its height into the depths of the last place he had thought to be: a Catholic cloister, the convent of an astoundingly austere religious order. To be sure, Hugo’s description of this order, their meticulous attention to the rule, their attention to each other (perhaps over-attention), their allergy to men, and their general lack of joy gives him fodder for some strong critique of the religious life, and a Catholic worldview. Catholics, but especially these women, seem to live as though already dead, seem to have committed a kind of suicide, dead to the concrete goods of the world, frozen in a morgue of traditionalism, in the hope of a life they might one day possess eternally. Hugo seems to paint the nuns as leaning toward a kind of hypocrisy and foolishness in their preference for this a living death. Consider the stony words Hugo slings at the religious:
Monastic communities are to the great social community what the ivy is to the oak, what the wart is to the human body. There prosperity and fatness are the impoverishment of the country. The monastic system, useful as it is in the dawn of civilization, in effecting the abatement of brutality by the development of the spiritual, is injurious in the manhood of nations. Especially when it relaxes and enters upon its period of disorganization, the period in which we now see it, does it become baneful, for every reason that made it salutary, in its period of purity… The convent…is one of the gloomiest concretions of the Middle Ages. The cloister…was the intersecting point of multiplied horrors. The Catholic cloister, properly so-called, is filled with the black effulgence of death. A convent is a contradiction,—its object salvation, its means self-sacrifice. The convent is supreme egotism resulting in supreme self-denial. In the cloister they suffer that they may enjoy—they draw a bill of exchange on death…The assumption for the veil…is a suicide reimbursed by an eternity….”
Hugo believes the monastic moment has passed. A life lived on the edge of eternity must die with the birth of enlightenment progress, progress which requires all to participate and be open to its movements, its scouring the hull of society for accretions. The monastic life claims an irresponsible and unjust right to resist the inevitable progress of man. Progress will and must destroy the monastic “dream of the indefinite prolongation of things dead and the government of mankind by embalming…to foist the past upon the present.” Hugo respects the past, “provided it will but consent to be dead. But, if it insist upon being alive, we attack it and endeavour to kill it.” Interestingly, Hugo’s depiction is, at least in part, explicitly supported by Catholic saints. St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata (no. 59), calls the cloister “a way of living Christ’s Passover. From being an experience of ‘death,’ it becomes a superabundance of life, representing a joyful proclamation…” St. John Paul II affirms the cloister as a place of death, but resists Hugo’s claim that the religious somehow confuse the death for life itself. Instead it is more progressive, more forward looking than the most progressive worldly society could be, since the cloister already contains within it a participation in the summum bonum the remainder of the world ceaselessly believes “progress” will bring them alongside. Now, despite Hugo’s open attack, he cannot bring himself to be wholly uncharitable to religious life. After a number of short chapters jabbing religious life, he concedes a patronizing allowance for the convent as “a place of error but of innocence”:
This monastic experience, austere and gloomy as it is…is not life, is not liberty: for it is not the grave, for it is not completion: it is that singular place, from which, as from the summit of a lofty mountain, we perceive, on one side, the abyss in which we are, and, on the other, the abyss wherein we are to be: it is a narrow and misty boundary, that separates two worlds, at once illuminated and obscured by both, where the enfeebled ray of life commingles with the uncertain ray of death; it is the twilight of the tomb. For ourselves, we, who do not believe what these women believe, but live, like them, by faith, never could look without a species of tender and religious awe, a kind of pity full of envy, upon those devoted beings…waiting between the world closed to them and heaven not yet opened; turned towards the daylight not yet seen, with only the happiness of thinking that they know where it is; their aspirations directed towards the abyss and the unknown, their gaze fixed on the motionless gloom, kneeling, dismayed, stupefied, shuddering, and half borne away at certain times by the deep pulsations of Eternity.
Even if this is Hugo’s true opinion, that the Catholic lens brings into focus the dead past while blurring out the progress of the present, he cannot help but allow the beauty and wonder of the true Catholic worldview through the stained glass of Jean Valjean’s meditations. Hugo, even if he is an anti-Catholic, humbly allows Jean Valjean’s insight to lift the haze of any prejudice that might fog his own mind. Because no summary can equal his prose, I give you a generous excerpt here:
God has his own ways. The convent contributed, like Cosette, to confirm and complete, in Jean Valjean, the work of the Bishop. It cannot be denied that one of virtue's phases ends in pride. Therein is a bridge built by the Evil One. Jean Valjean was, perhaps, without knowing it, near that very phase of virtue, and that very bridge, when Providence flung him into the convent of the Petit-Picpus. So long as he compared himself only with the Bishop, he found himself unworthy and remained humble; but, for some time past, he had been comparing himself with the rest of men, and pride was springing up in him. Who knows? He might have finished by going gradually back to hate. The convent stopped him on this descent. It was the second place of captivity he had seen. In his youth, in what had been for him the commencement of life, and later, quite recently too, he had seen another, a frightful place, a terrible place, the severities of which had always seemed to him to be the iniquity of public justice and the crime of the law. Now, after having seen the galleys, he saw the cloister, and reflecting that he had been an inmate of the galleys, and that he now was, so to speak, a spectator of the cloister, he anxiously compared them in his meditations with anxiety. Sometimes he would lean upon his spade and descend slowly along the endless rounds of reverie. He recalled his former companions, and how wretched they were. They rose at dawn and toiled until night. Scarcely allowed to sleep they lay on camp-beds, and were permitted to have mattresses but two inches thick in halls which were warmed only during the most inclement months. They were attired in hideous red sacks, and had given to them, as a favour, a pair of canvas pantaloons in the heats of midsummer, and a square of woolen stuff to throw over their shoulders, during the bitterest frosts of winter. They had no wine to drink, no meat for food excepting when sent upon “extra hard work.” They lived without names, distinguished solely by numbers, and reduced, as it were, to ciphers, lowering their eyes, lowering their voices, with their hair cropped close, under the rod, and plunged in shame.
The reader already sees the mental comparisons stacking up in Valjean’s mind, from the allusion to early rising and little sleep on account of the work of prayer, acetic cold, uncomfortable habits hiding cropped hair, austere diet, new names given at consecration, vows of silence, fear under the rod of God’s wrath, and overwhelming shame at the possession of sexuality or any passions whatsoever. In the following paragraphs he describes the convent’s practices in a manner exceeding the pains of the galleys. We see the hammer of progressive critique about to strike the nail of religious life deeper into the cross of the Christ it purports to honor. By miraculous discipline, however, Hugo cannot bring himself to let fall the blow. He allows Jean Valjean’s wrestling with the juxtaposition of these two forms of imprisonment. The one in guilt, the other in innocence. The one til expiation or escape, the other til death. Valjean ponders the results of each form of slavery—the galley and the cloister:
What resulted from the first? One vast curse, the gnashing of teeth, hatred, desperate depravity, a cry of rage against human society, sarcasm against heaven. What issued form the second? Benediction and love. And, in these two places, so alike and yet so different, these two species of beings so dissimilar were performing the same work of expiation. Jean Valjean thoroughly comprehended the expiation of the first; personal expiation, expiation for oneself. But, he did not understand that of the others, of these blameless, spotless creatures, and he asked himself with a tremor: “Expiation of what? What expiation?” A voice responded in his conscience: the most divine of all human generosity, expiation for others. Here we withhold all theories of our own: we are but the narrator; at Jean Valjean’s point of view we place ourselves and we merely reproduce his impressions.
This last line lays bear Hugo’s own conflicted thoughts on the Catholic worldview. He can’t bring himself to avow Valjean’s position. He must break the fourth wall to disavow the vision that so powerfully raptures the reader, a vision that is ironically borne out by Valjean’s entire life—lived for the redemption, happiness, and expiation of Fantine and Cosette. Let’s allow Hugo (I mean, Jean Valjean) to continue:
He had before his eyes the sublime summit of self-denial, the loftiest possible height of virtue; innocence forgiving men their sins and expiating them in their stead; servitude endured, torture accepted, chastisement and misery invoked by souls that had not sinned in order that these might not fall upon souls which had; the love of humanity losing itself in the love of God, but remaining there, distinct and suppliant; sweet, feeble beings supporting all the torments of those who are punished, yet retaining the smile of those who are rewarded. And then he remembered that he had dared to complain. Often, in the middle of the night, he would rise from his bed to listen to the grateful anthem of these innocent beings thus overwhelmed with austerities, and he felt the blood run cold in his veins as he reflected that they who were justly punished never raised their voices towards Heaven excepting to blaspheme, and that he, wretch that he was, had uplifted his clenched fist against God. Another strange thing which made him muse and meditate profoundly seemed like an intimation whispered in his ear by Providence itself: the scaling of walls, the climbing over inclosures, the risk taken in defiance of danger or death, the difficult and painful ascent—all those very efforts that he had made to escape from the other place of expiation, he had made to enter this one. Was this an emblem of his destiny? This house, also, was a prison, and bore dismal resemblance to the other from which he had fled, and yet he had never conceived anything like it. He once more saw gratings, bolts and bars of iron—to shut in whom? Angels. Those lofty walls which he had seen surrounding tigers, he now saw encircling lambs. It was a place of expiation, not of punishment; and yet it was still more austere, more somber and more pitiless than the other. These virgins were more harshly bent down than the convicts. A harsh, cold blast, the blast that had frozen his youth, careered across that grated moat and manacled the vultures; but a wind still more biting and more cruel beat upon the dove cage. And why? When he thought of these things, all that was in him gave way before this mystery of sublimity. In these meditations, pride vanished. He reverted, again and again, to himself; he felt his own pitiful unworthiness, and often wept. All that had occurred in his existence for the last six months, led him back towards the holy injunctions of the bishop; Cosette through love, the convent through humility. Sometimes, in the evening, about dusk, at the hour when the garden was solitary, he was seen kneeling, in the middle of the walk that ran along the chapel, before the window through which he had looked, on the night of his first arrival, turned towards the spot where he knew that the sister who was performing the reparation was prostrate in prayer. Thus he prayed kneeling before this sister. It seemed as though he dared not kneel directly before God. Everything around him, this quiet garden, these balmy flowers, these children, shouting with joy, these meek and simple women, this silent cloister, gradually entered into all his being, and little by little, his soul subsided into silence like this cloister, into fragrance like these flowers, into peace like this garden, into simplicity like these women, into joy like these children. And then he reflected that two houses of God had received him in succession at the two critical moments of his life, the first when every door was closed and human society repelled him; the second, when human society again howled upon his track, and the galleys once more gaped for him; and that, had it not been for the first, he should have fallen back into crime, and had it not been for the second, into punishment. His whole heart melted in gratitude, and he loved more and more.
So, is Les Miserables anti-Catholic? Yes, explicitly it would seem so. Hugo’s sainted bishop shines as a brilliant Christian only despite his institutional Catholicism. The religious life is excoriated as a blockade to progress, allowed only on account of the good will of those entering such an erroneous life. At the same time, no, Hugo’s work is profoundly pro-Catholic. Hugo’s critiques feel insipid, forced, pallid in the face of Jean Valjean’s vivid meditation on the religious life and the second redemption it has offered him and, indeed, offers the world at large. His wooden philosophizing cannot stand up to the winds of his sweeping narrative. For not only does he allow Jean Valjean’s astounding meditation upon religious life onto the page, but he shapes the entire narrative around Jean Valjean’s life of vicarious expiation on behalf of Fantine, Cosette, and Marius. A consideration, I suppose, for another long-winded blog about the Catholic masterpiece of an even longer-winded (anti-Catholic?) author.

The Custom of Reading Out Loud

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

Stop Christian Passer-by…and Pray

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

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.