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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Metaphysics of Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a “Living Man”: St. Irenaeus and the Martyrdom of St. Blandina

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

May’s Treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Tips:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Metaphysics of Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a “Living Man”: St. Irenaeus and the Martyrdom of St. Blandina

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

May’s Treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Tips:

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

Faith of our Fathers: St. Justin Martyr

Not much is known about the life of St. Justin Martyr. A second-century apologist and martyr born around 100 A.D., Justin first began life as a pagan Greek. Dissatisfied with his early studies, he began wandering among the fashionable philosophical schools of his day—from Stoics to Peripatetics to Pythagoreans. Finally, Justin felt some sense of rest in Platonism, but upon hearing of the existence of some prophets who, centuries before, had been animated by the Spirit of the One True God, he became intrigued. In studying the Christian faith and witnessing the virtuous and ascetic lives led by the Christian faithful, Justin was converted and began to teach Christianity as the “true philosophy.” At one point opening his own school in Rome, Justin came to earn the disfavor of the Roman authorities, and was beheaded for his Christian faith in the 160s A.D. His written work survived him, and he is most known for his two Apologies (“Defenses” of the Christian faith), and his later Dialogue with Trypho, a spirited disputation with a Jew over whether Christ is truly the Jewish Messiah.
In both the First and Second Apology, St. Justin Martyr seeks to dissuade the Roman emperor Antonius Pius and the Roman Senate from continuing the persecution of Christians of his own day. In order to do this, Justin appeals to justice, arguing that the moral and civic virtue of the Christian people makes it manifestly unfair to punish them. Justin argues that the conduct of Christians—including their respect for civil law, abstinence from all crimes and disturbance of the peace, offering prayers for the emperors and governors, and the charitable work of the Church for the poor and needy—rather than earning death sentences, ought to win the praise and favor of the Roman authorities. The life of a Christian, Justin argues, represents that of a model citizen, even better than many other Roman citizens who live their lives undisturbed. And so, justice demands that the persecution of Christians cease. To build his case, Justin offers a brief summary of various misunderstood points of the Christian faith—allegations of atheism, sorcery, and cannibalism, in particular—many of which had been leveled against Christians as justification for Roman violence. In the course of his arguments, however, Justin frequently compares the teaching of Christians with those of other, earlier Greek and Roman thinkers. By pointing out the similarities between, say, the teachings of Plato and those of Christ, Justin seeks to demonstrate that Christianity is not opposed to, but rather harmonious with, many elements of existing Greco-Roman culture and values. In light of Justin’s goals, and the widespread religious pluralism of his day, it would have perhaps been easier for Justin to mention only the similarities of these religious traditions—opting to neglect the radical differences between the Christian and the Pagan in order to “smooth over” diplomatic relations. Justin, however, refused to do this; instead, he confidently supports the divergence of Christian faith from many points of Roman religion, especially denouncing the worship of multiple “gods”—whom Justin frequently refers to as “demons.” Throughout his writings, Justin does not only seek to claim that, but also why, giving his Roman audience the opportunity to see that, while Christian tradition diverges from Roman tradition, it does not do so arbitrarily, but for good and compelling reasons. As Justin’s own conversion was prompted by his learning of the Old Testament prophets, he frequently makes reference to them in his own arguments. If various nomadic and unusual historical figures were, at different times and places across the centuries, capable of foretelling the events of Christ’s birth, life, and death—if this is all true, then surely, Justin argues, these ought to be considered divine signs of authenticity. But perhaps the most compelling evidence in favor of Christianity that Justin finds lies not in the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, but rather in the Greek “prophets”: the poets and philosophers. Immediately before the above passage, Justin explains that the “seed of Reason [Logos] is implanted in every race of men” (II Apology, IIX). This means that all cultures are bound together by access to the same fundamental and transcendental realities such as Truth, Beauty, Uprightness, and the like. These realities are accessible to all by reason; thus those who have the opportunity to exercise their reason most—for example, lawyers and philosophers—often come into contact with these realities, and can “speak well” regarding them. In the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil, one can find a plethora of truths and insights into the nature of reality, God, and the mystery of mankind. Justin, however, makes a monopolizing claim for the Christian faith: “whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word.” That is to say, whatever truths the Greek poets and philosophers encountered through the use of their reason, those truths have their origin in the eternal Word—Jesus Christ. This point is generally summed up in the contemporary maxim “all truth is God’s truth,” though for Justin the idea is more nuanced. Often, different thinkers will come to different conclusions, and this was no less the case with the Greeks. The reason for this, Justin argues, is because their contemplation of the Word was restricted to only those things which could be known by reason, and so their knowledge of the truth was piecemeal: “since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.” The corollary to this is that now, since the Word has been made known through Christ and the Incarnation, we have access to the whole of the Word—through the testimony of the Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments. We no longer need suffer the contradictions that arise when we try to probe the mysteries of reality, for Reality Himself has come to us! “And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies.” Here, Justin points out that the affinity between certain Greco-Roman philosophers and later Christians is not limited to their shared quest for truth, but also the great sufferings that they both undergo. In particular, Justin alludes to Socrates, who “was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves [specifically, atheism and the corruption of the youth]. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized.” But though Justin sees in Socrates a great friend of the Christian faith, he nevertheless points out the deficiencies in the Greek attempt to comprehend God’s essence by reason alone: “he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying that it is [not] easy to find the Father and Maker of all.” According to the Greeks, only one who had studied philosophy—arduously trying to hone and perfect his thinking for the better part of his life—would have the ability to peek behind the veil of reality and contemplate God; and even then, they would only have a glimpse. In a society where most were slaves, or illiterate, or too poor to afford an education, this meant that almost nobody would have access to God. “But these things our Christ did through His own power.” That is, Christ Himself, in His own person, makes manifest to us the mystery of the Father, as He explains in John’s Gospel: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9). Not only that, but Christ Himself declares the mysteries of God to all men: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared Him” (Jn. 1:18). This means that, as Justin points out, “not only philosophers and scholars” can be taught to understand the mysteries of God, “but also artisans and people entirely uneducated.” The contrast made between Christ and Socrates here is subtle, but important. As Justin points out, many Greek philosophers were killed for their teachings—some of which, as in the case of Socrates, were true. This made educating an uneducated, illiterate society both difficult and dangerous: “it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.” But what the Greeks were unable (and, in many respects, unwilling) to accomplish, Christ brought about through His perfect teaching and example. Both Socrates and Christ died for teaching the truth, but only Christ rose from the dead, “since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason.” St. Justin Martyr thus stands out as an early defender of the implicit harmony between Greco-Roman thought and Christian faith. What these “prophets” knew in part, Christ made known in full, not only to the most erudite and sophisticated, but also (and especially) to the simple and lowly. This line of thought allowed later Christians to engage more deeply with the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition; a conversation which subsequently shaped the Western world over the next 1500 years. In many ways, then, St. Justin Martyr can be truly credited as a forerunner to some of the most robust thinkers of the Christian faith, as the trailblazing apologist of a Christianity that could indeed be called “true philosophy.”

Hector, First of the Nine Worthies

Amongst the stone filigree of the 13th century city hall of Cologne stand statues of men called the “Nine Worthies.” These exemplars of chivalric virtue were first presented by Jacques de Longuyon in his 13th century work, “The Vows of the Peacock.” Also known as the “Nine Good Heroes,” these warriors are Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Emperor Charlemagne, and King Godfrey of Bouillon, representing three pagans, three Jews, and three Catholics. The first of these Nine Worthies, Hector, serves as an introduction to virtue. What does it mean to be virtuous? In Greek, the term for virtue is arête, meaning “excellence.” While its ancient etymology is somewhat obscure, it may be derived from Ares, the god of war, and reveal the primal origin of virtue as prowess in combat. Hector, as presented by Homer in the Iliad, exhibits this virtue as the stalwart defender of Troy. Hector is lauded as having slain “nineteen kings in hand-to-hand combat.”[1] The prince of Troy and general of her armies was the first into the fray and the last to retreat. He is, without doubt, the most skilled warrior of Troy. Yet, is the virtue of Hector reducible to his skill in combat? Homer offers the juxtaposition of Achilles. Achilles is colored by rage and fights for his own glory. Hector fights for Troy and his beloved Trojans. Achilles stands idly by watching his own countrymen die to assuage his pride. Once he does rejoin the war, his aptitude for combat is equaled only by his cruelty and bloodlust. He slaughters men begging at his feet for mercy, denies his enemies their proper burial rites, and offers Trojans as human sacrifices. Ultimately, Hector, “the breaker of horses,” dies by the hand of Achilles, “the breaker of men.” If arête found its fullness in proficiency of war, then Achilles would be presented as the triumphant protagonist. Yet, Homer brings the Iliad to a close with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the triumph of Achilles over Troy nor his death are recorded. Homer arguably turns the primal notion of virtue on its head by ending the narrative with praise and honor for the warrior who lost the duel. The virtue of Hector certainly included courage and military might—but it also encompassed his love for Troy and her people. It was the latter that animated the former into something praiseworthy and beautiful. The death of Hector serves as an introduction to true virtue. The primordial form of virtue blossoms in the writings of Homer and develops throughout the ages of Alexander the Great and Caesar. In fact, the presentation of the Nine Worthies can be seen broadly as an ongoing perfection of virtue. The paganism of antiquity and its heroes exhibits a certain flourishing of the nature of man and his natural excellence. This natural arête is then coupled with the virtue of following God’s self-revelation as shown by the heroes of the Old Testament. Finally, our nature is healed and elevated by the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ allowing worthies such as Charlemagne to seek the supernatural perfection of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Thus, the Nine Worthies serve as an illustrative instruction on the formation of virtue, a pedagogy—especially for boys and young men—in cultivating a chivalric spirit configured to Jesus Christ. And one of the first tests of an adolescent’s pursuit of virtue is whether he esteems the bravado of Achilles or the death of Hector, first of the Nine Worthies.   [1] Jehan Wauquelin, The Medieval Romance of Alexander, trans. Nigel Bryant (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2012), Appendix Three.

Divine Mercy Sunday Indulgence and Graces

In private revelations to St. Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s, Jesus called for the Second Sunday of Easter to be celebrated as the Feast of Mercy or Divine Mercy Sunday. He promised the complete remission of all sin and all punishment due to sin for those who go to Confession and Communion that day.
My daughter, tell the whole world about My Inconceivable mercy. I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to Me will contemplate My love and mercy throughout eternity. The Feast of Mercy emerged from My very depths of tenderness. It is My desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy. (Diary of St. Faustina 699)
When Pope Saint John Paul II canonized St. Faustina on April 30, 2000, he established the Feast of Divine Mercy for the universal Church. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments followed with an official decree on May 23, 2000 regarding Divine Mercy Sunday. On June 29, 2002, another decree granted a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions for those who honor the Divine Mercy on that day. A plenary (“full”) indulgence is granted by the Church for certain acts of devotion judged to be of great spiritual benefit. The one who obtains such an indulgence is released from any punishment in Purgatory that they may have justly incurred up to that point. There has been some debate about whether the promise Jesus made regarding the “complete forgiveness of sin and punishment” on Divine Mercy Sunday is one and the same as the plenary indulgence established by the Church in 2002. Why does this matter? A plenary indulgence is obtained only under certain conditions – complete detachment from sin, Confession within a certain period of time, the reception of Holy Communion, and prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father. In addition to these, the plenary indulgence of Divine Mercy Sunday also requires:
  • “in any church or chapel, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, take part in the prayers and devotions held in honor of Divine Mercy
  • or, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved in the tabernacle, recite the Our Father and the Creed, adding a devout prayer to the merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. “Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!”).”
Some people may be discouraged to learn that they must conduct their devotions “in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin” in order to receive the grace of Divine Mercy Sunday. If Jesus’ promised graces and the plenary indulgence established by the Church are one and the same, then it would seem that only those who are already quite holy can obtain the graces promised by Jesus. Who can say with certainty that they are free from all affection for sin, even venial sin? It seems to me that to understand the grace of Divine Mercy Sunday as one and the same as the plenary indulgence contradicts the very meaning and object of the feast, which is an outpouring of mercy for sinners. In his words to St. Faustina, Jesus requires that we go to Confession and Holy Communion to obtain the promised graces. On the other hand, Jesus commands us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” and calls us to love as He loves. No one gets a free pass to live a life of sin – or even mediocrity, for that matter. To understand Divine Mercy Sunday as a loophole to authentic conversion and sanctification of our lives would amount to the sin of presumption. We could say the same thing about going to Confession. We need to cultivate true repentance and the sincere effort to change our lives. So, how should we receive the graces of this great feast? Should we strive for the indulgence or just put our hope in Jesus’ words to St. Faustina? I would make the following suggestion. Divine Mercy Sunday is a day for sinners, and we are all sinners. It offers us the opportunity to let ourselves be healed of sin and relieved of the just punishment that is their due. Trust is the means by which we obtain God’s mercy, not by a fearful withholding of our lives and troubles from our loving God. So I think we have every reason to celebrate this feast and hope for the graces promised by Jesus. God’s mercy is not, however, an excuse to tolerate sin in our lives.  Finding ourselves reluctant to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to God, we can pray for the grace we need to overcome whatever is holding us back. We can strive for “complete detachment from sin” by considering how unreasonable and ungrateful it would be to seek God’s gifts – and every good thing in our lives is His gift – while persevering in offending Him. Let’s strive sincerely and wholeheartedly to fulfill the requirements for receiving a plenary indulgence on Divine Mercy Sunday. If after our best efforts, God finds that we still fall short, let’s entrust our misery to Him. The Mercy of God is capable of working miracles. Let’s open our hearts to Him and give him permission to change us. Concerning the Feast of Mercy Jesus said: Whoever approaches the Fountain of Life on this day will be granted complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. (Diary of St. Faustina 300) I want the image solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter, and I want it to be venerated publicly so that every soul may know about it. (Diary 341) This Feast emerged from the very depths of My mercy, and it is confirmed in the vast depths of my tender mercies. (Diary 420) On one occasion, I heard these words: My daughter, tell the whole world about My Inconceivable mercy. I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to Me will contemplate My love and mercy throughout eternity. The Feast of Mercy emerged from My very depths of tenderness. It is My desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy. (Diary 699) Yes, the first Sunday after Easter is the Feast of Mercy, but there must also be deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to our neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to absolve yourself from it. (Diary 742) I want to grant complete pardon to the souls that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion on the Feast of My mercy. (Diary 1109)

The Development of Doctrine

John Henry Cardinal Newman, canonized by Pope Francis in 2019, was the most famous convert to Catholicism of the 19th century. Prior to his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845, Newman was an Anglican priest and member of the so-called Oxford Movement. This movement, in opposition to various “protestantizing” tendencies in the Church of England, worked for a “catholic” renewal of sorts, a renewal at once doctrinal, pastoral, and devotional. Proponents of this movement considered the Church of England to be, at least ideally, a via media, a middle path or way, between ultra-protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But the more Newman examined the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, her history and councils, her Fathers and Doctors, the more he was convinced that she alone was the Lord’s one sheepfold. (You can read more about Newman’s conversion in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an intellectual autobiography not infrequently compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions.) In short, the more Newman discovered that, despite the Church penetrating ever deeper into the Christian mystery down through the centuries, the Catholic Church and her doctrine remained essentially the same, the more he was compelled to place himself under the Church’s maternal care. Newman provides a marvelous account of this historical development in a work published the same year as his reception into the Church, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman uses various images in the Essay to explain doctrinal development. Some are taken from human or animal life. In the quote above, Newman compares the development of a philosophy or belief to the stream that, as it moves from its source, becomes deeper, broader, and fuller. It is true, as Newman everywhere admits, that there is one body of apostolic teaching, one deposit of faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). For the Catholic tradition, public revelation ceased with Jesus Christ and His Apostles. And thus there is a richness proper to the apostolic age, a purity wholly unique. Nevertheless, the Church of Christ is able, as occasion demands and as necessity dictates, to make explicit what was implicit, to make manifest what was latent. This she does under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, holding fast to the pristine memory of Christ, her beloved Spouse and Head. The question that persistently haunted Newman during his time in the Church of England was the following: Are doctrines thought to be rather distinctive of the Catholic faith (the Marian dogmas, say, purgatory, the authority of the pope) illegitimate additions and accretions, or are they legitimate, organic developments of the apostolic faith? For the early Newman, it was reasonable for the Roman Church to claim the mark of “catholicity,” a certain universality. But the Church of England, he thought, truly possessed the mark of “apostolicity.” His views on this changed, of course, and Newman came to see the Roman Catholic Church as possessing the mark of apostolicity. Newman is concerned, then, with corruptions and genuine developments. The true Church will have, despite the myriad twists and turns of history, despite (and, in a certain respect, thanks to) the trials and the difficulties and the heresies, genuine developments of the apostolic faith. But how are we to know whether a particular doctrine is genuine or ingenuine, a development or a corruption? Newman suggests seven “notes” of the genuine development of an idea. The analysis here is somewhat “scientific” and speculative, since he is laying out principles, but it is also arguably more literary. The first note is “Preservation of Type.” There is an analogy here with creaturely growth. Chicks do not grow into fish, nor does a baby human degenerate into a brute. There is something similar with ideas. In short, even if an idea does not manifest itself in the same external image, there ought to be substantial identity for a true development. The second note is “Continuity of Principles.” Are the principles undergirding a particular idea themselves consistent, in continuity, or have they been altered? “Power of Assimilation” is the third note. Here again we see the likeness of this note in nature. Living organisms take things in, absorb them, incorporate them. The power to incorporate or assimilate is thus a property of life, and it is likewise the property of a living idea, an idea as present in minds living and acting in the world. The fourth note Newman proposes is “Logical Sequence.” When we look back upon the historical development of a doctrine, do we see in the process a naturalness and organic quality? In short, a later development must be in some way the logical outcome or result of the original teaching. For one with no knowledge of trees and their development, an acorn may bear no resemblance to the mature oak tree. But for one who understands, the process is intelligible, and the mature tree bears the marks of a “logical” sequence. Newman’s fifth note is “Anticipation of Its Future.” Sometimes we can see in an idea, because we know something of its nature and tendencies, hints of its future development. Perhaps we can see in a small child hints and anticipations of his future. Newman uses the example of St. Athanasius, “elected Bishop by his playfellows.” The sixth note is “Conservative Action Upon Its Past.” A development which reverses and contradicts the course of doctrine which has been developed before it is certainly corrupt, whereas a genuine development illustrates and corroborates (as opposed to obscuring and “correcting”) the body of thought from which it proceeds. Like our Lord, these developments come not to destroy but to fulfill. The seventh and final note is “Chronic Vigor.” The basic idea here is that corruptions tend to fizzle out, to dissipate over time, whereas genuine developments are marked by constancy and duration. Heresies, then, are short-lived; Newman says that they are in some odd intermediate state between life and death. Summarizing all of these notes, Newman writes, “To guarantee [an idea’s] own substantial unity, it must be seen to be one in type, one in its system of principles, one in its unitive power towards externals, one in its logical consecutiveness, one in the witness of its early phases to its later, one in the protection which its later extend to its earlier, and one in its union of vigour with continuance, that is, in its tenacity.” Granted that Newman’s theory of development is not the only one out there, his is certainly worthy of careful and prayerful consideration. His Essay is not an easy read, and he assumes a fair amount of knowledge of (intellectual) history from the reader. But this great 19th century convert to Catholicism provides us with strong reasons to believe the Catholic Church’s claim to be, in Christ, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the faithful guardian of the apostolic teaching. In her, as she lives and acts in the world, Christian doctrine develops, as ideas in the world are wont to do, yet without undermining or corrupting anything. As we reflect on God’s Revelation this year, let us give thanks to God for the truth of Christ and for the deep, board, and full stream from which we may freely drink.

Augustine: Confessing God & the Soul

In these few elliptic sentences of the opening paragraph of what might be the most resonate of Christian texts outside of Scripture—the Confessions—Augustine articulates the human condition as a quest to know where he comes from and who he is.  In short, a quest to know God and the soul.  Augustine plays with the various senses of the word confessio in his great autobiography.  But here, in the opening lines, two senses come to the fore that give architectonic structure to the whole of Augustine’s theological quest.   The subject of confession is God and man.  It is the confession of the goodness of the creator whose love and glory imbue all things.  It is the confession of man’s original created goodness, but also his subsequent brokenness and the distorted character of his loves.  It is the confession of our relentless, dogged search for God.  And, it is the confession of the redeemer whose grace reconciles fallen creatures back to himself. Of course, the beauty and enduring quality of the Confessions is that this universal human quest—to know God and the soul—is expressed with the searing introspective particularity of Augustine’s own confession.  The power of the Confessions lies in the fact that this startlingly intimate story of a soul is an everyman tale, in which we, ultimately, recognize ourselves. The first subject of confession is God.  Confession is a publicly expressed recognition—an acknowledgment—honoring God’s glory; it is a confession of praise.  Like much of the first paragraphs, the opening words, “Great are you Lord, and highly to be praised” (Ps. 47: 2), is drawn from the Psalter.  The psalms give Augustine a voice, a language to acclaim the greatness and glory of God.  The Psalms are not Augustine’s own words, yet, paradoxically, no words could more truly be his “own” words; no words could address God more directly, intimately, and personally.  As we listen to Augustine voice his confession of praise through the cadence of the Psalter, it almost feels as if we are intruding, that perhaps we have inadvertently entered the privacy of the Bishop’s room and are now overhearing him deep in prayer. The second subject of confession is man; it is a confession of the human condition.  To be human is to be a creature, indeed, only a small part (portio) of creation.  Each creature gives praise and glory to the Creator in whatever its created mode.  The sun by shining brightly, the turnip by growing hazy purple, the inexorable donkey by refusing to budge: “All things counter, original, spare, strange; … praise him” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).  The human person also praises God.  Unlike the sun, the turnip, or the donkey, however, he praises God not simply by being; rather, he can choose to praise God.  Man desires to praise God, and does so as man, which is to say, with his heart and mind.  His will is engaged as he seeks to love and know God.  But here complication ensues.  Death and sin circle close at hand.  Augustine writes, homo circumferens mortalitatem suam (“man, bearing his mortality with him”).  Circumferens literately means “carrying around in a circle.”  To be human is to bear about mortality; it is to carry the existential weight of knowing yourself a being given unto death.  It is to possess a deep-seated awareness that each day is a day in which I am closer to decomposition and the evisceration of all earthly memory that I ever existed.  And, unlike the contingency of all creatures—the sun that burns out, the turnip that rots away, and the donkey whose life comes to an end—the mortality of man seems wholly unnatural.  It is not comfortable.  Unlike the rotting turnip, we sense this is not how it should be with us.  Paul Tillich famously remarked, “Finitude in awareness is anxiety.” Other creatures do not share this angst, this stinging awareness of their finitude.  They do not “carry around” (circumferens) their mortality—they simply are mortal.  A donkey does not seek to transcend its finite existence.  Indeed, the donkey is completely intelligible within the natural order, according to the cycles by which it comes in and out of existence.  However, unlike the sun, the turnip, or the donkey, we have an immortal soul.  We were made for eternity.  The death we “carry around” is unnatural and we experience it profoundly. Twice Augustine uses this verb, circumferens—man is consigned to “carry about” mortality (mortalitatem circumferens) and to “carry about” the “witness of his sin” (circumferens testimonium peccati).  “The sting of death is sin,” writes the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:56).  Augustine also links death with sin.  Sin is part of what the Confessions confesses about the human condition.  Man’s death is a “witness” testifying to his sin, a “witness” that God “resists the proud.”  This is the albatross hung about his neck, which at every moment testifies to his physiological angst; to the dis-ease of being mortal with an immortal soul. It is here that we bump up against what is arguably the most celebrated of Augustinian insights: the restless heart (cor inquietum).  The human heart is a bundle of desires and wants constantly jostling, itching to be itched.  We cannot seem to be find peace, somewhere “to be,” a “place” of deep-seated contentment.  This lack of serenity causes our restless hearts to thrust themselves outward, grabbing and grasping at the latest iteration of what fixes our fancy.  We cannot seem to settle down.  Finite goods fail to satiate the wants of the soul.  No sooner do we get the object of desire, and a new want is promising to fill the void.  We are driven, obsessed, and desperate for more—for a transcendent more.  This is the human psychological condition; we have a fire in our belly that renders us incapable of finding peace in life.  The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard spoke of this angst as a brooding lack of satisfaction.  Sigmund Freud went on to articulate this experience in terms of modern clinical psychology: a listless weltschmerz or ennui that can make it well neigh impossible to get out of bed in the morning. But the restless heart can be a great and powerful thing: its energy fuels the narratives of literature and film; it inspires painting and sculpture, music and drama.  Ronald Rolheiser puts this well:  
At the heart of all great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion lies the naming and analyzing of this desire…. Desire intrigues us, stirs the soul. We love stories about desire—tales of love, sex, wanderlust, haunting nostalgia, boundless ambition, and tragic loss…. Whatever the expression, everyone is ultimately talking about the same thing—an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else. This dis-ease is universal. Desire gives no exemptions.[1]
The restless heart—the central motif of Augustine’s autobiography—fires the will of political empire builders and corporate titans, but equally inspires saints to heroic acts of virtue and self-sacrifice.  A restless heart moved Francis of Assisi, Therese of Avilla, and Mother Theresa. The restless heart is the symptomatic response to the penultimate character of finite existence.  The more that we want, but fail to grasp in each good thing that we clasp in our hands and hearts, bears witness to a transcendent Good that alone can satisfy.  The refracted, reflected, shimmering goods shining the world over are but partial instantiations—incarnations—of the primordial Good for which we long.  We experience with intensity (but also nostalgia) that we are made for an eternal Good that alone gives peace: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine’s own life, detailed in the Confessions, is a personal and poignant expression of the universal cor inquietum.  It is the story of a soul and the desperate, futile ways that this soul seeks peace and belonging.  His intention in writing the Confessions, recalls Augustine in the Retractions, written at the end of his life, was to lift up the affections of the heart—his own and those of others—to the love of God.  It is only in God’s love that the soul finds belonging, satisfaction, and rest.  The Confessions is the story of one soul’s long, purgative journey to find rest in God. Noverim te, noverim me (“May I know you and may I know myself”), prays Augustine in his early dialogue, the Soliloquies (written even before his baptism).  This quest to know God and the soul is the golden thread running through Augustine’s corpus.  In the Confessions this theme finds a heightened intensity.  Augustine confesses who God reveals himself to be and who man is.  As in Augustine’s other works, here too, it is clear that knowledge of God and knowledge of the soul are inextricable.  Self-knowledge entails coming to know myself in God.  The process of self-discovery, of prayerful interiority, entails becoming increasingly attuned to the fact that my ontological and spiritual ground is the Transcendent Good.  As such, Augustine’s spirituality of ascent is not like conquering a distant mountain—perilously inching up a ladder to seize upon a remote and unknown place.  No: Tu autem eras interior intimo meo et superior summo meo (“You were more inward than my most inward parts and higher than the highest element within me”) prays Augustine, as he comes to realize the intimacy of God’s personal presence.  To ascend to God is to plunge ever more deeply into the self and there to discover my truest self in God.