But I have a few thoughts to share first.This week we read Book I, chapters 3–5, and Book II, chapter 1 and 2. [Read more...]
Views of a new Catholic in an old world on the joy and inexhaustible meaning found in the Faith
But I have a few thoughts to share first.This week we read Book I, chapters 3–5, and Book II, chapter 1 and 2. [Read more...]
As the disciples asked Our Lord, “teach us to pray,” so we ask as well. As I have learned from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, simple prayer is often best—done anytime and anywhere, as well as by the devotion of the Rosary (I’m a neophyte admittedly!) and by reading the Liturgy of the Hours. But at other times, while doing spiritual reading for example, I have found prayers such as the one I found today in the Treasury of the Catholic Church.
The prayer below is attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose feast day is celebrated tomorrow by our Orthodox brethren and on June 9 by the Catholic Church. I wrote once on the pleasure of discovery in our faith. Finding prayers such as these, and sharing them with you, is a pleasure too. Find a quiet place and meditate on the pictures these words paint.
O Judge, whose judgment is righteous, and to Whom is known all that is concealed: condemn me not at Thy righteous judgment, when all secrets will be exposed!
With the tears that she brought to Thee, the harlot destroyed the record of her transgressions. Behold, I too bring Thee a gift of tears. Accept them from me, O Lord, as Thou didst accept them from her.
The evil one has deceived me with his caresses and has taken my mind captive with his seductions. Drive him away from me, who am miserable, O our Lord; snatch me from his hands, that he might not tear me to shreds.
Judge me, O Lord, and settle my dispute with the merciless enemy. He has made me a target for his arrows. According to Thy compassion, may those arrows gore him instead.
Be my helper, O Lord, for I am miserable and have no other helper. And do not let the enemy see me vanquished and mock me, as he mocked our foremother.
Woe is me if all my secrets are revealed and subjected to scrutiny then, when no justification will be considered. My spirit shudders, O Lord, for I hear that fire will consume the lawless, and I am straw and hay. And if Thou O Lord wilt regard my sins, I shall perish.
May Thy goodness, O Lord, that once lifted Thee onto the Cross for the redemption of our race, forestall me who am miserable, that I might be vouchsafed forgiveness of my sins.
Thou, O Jesus, hast redeemed all with Thy blood; and by Thy death hast Thou bound the powerful adversary. Release me from the fetters of the evil one; break his shackles and bonds.
Rebuke him so that he will withdraw from me, who am miserable, that his will might not be realized in me. Bring my will into accord with Thine, O Lord, Who blottest out my sins by Thy loving-kindness.
Do not leave me in the hands of the malefactor, and give him authority over me; for Thou hast prepared Thy flesh and blood as food for me, and Thy Cross in imprinted on my brow.
Strengthen me, O Lord, for I am infirm. Blot out my transgressions, for greatly have I sinned. Make chaste my senses, that they might submissively and unwaveringly follow Thy royal path.
May Thy light shine in my thoughts; may they be illumined by Thy rays, and may Thy magnificent radiance gladden them, for Thou art the sun that irradiates all.
Cleanse our stains with Thy hyssop, wash our sores with Thy blood, and sanctify the secret workings of our thought with Thy body.
Praise be to Thee, Who hast redeemed the human race which had perished, lifted it upon Thy shoulders and carried it into the house of Thy Father.
I didn’t attend Catholic schools, though my wife did up until the fifth grade. But I could still appreciate the humor, especially after having been married for 20 years! Sister teaches this class and the audience are the students, so be prepared for participation. She oddly seemed a lot like one of my Drill Instructors at Parris Island, making people get “on your feet!” and calling us “Soldiers for Christ.”
At least two parish priests were in the audience with us, and it was an ecumenical crowd. The performance in my neck of the woods was for the benefit of a local chapter of The Ulster Project. A very fun show. Take a look at the clip below.
I once entertained the idea that I would prove Catholicism wrong. I would convince my wife, through the overwhelming historical evidence I was so sure to find, and then we would start shopping for a non-Catholic church to join. Ironically, many of our readers find themselves in a similar situation: shopping for a spiritual home. The idea stopped me cold.
Recently I wrote a post about decision making. One of the key problems that anyone facing a decision has to grapple with is search costs. If you tend to be a maximizer or optimizer, you agonize over decisions. You search high and low for every shred of information about a product, or service, in the hope that you will land upon the optimal choice that will deliver happiness etc. In your quest to know everything (as a maximizer, you need complete information), your search costs are high, gargantuan.
The idea of searching for the one best church among a multitude of denominations was daunting, to say the least. I saw it as an exercise with about as much spirituality as searching for the right country club. I want to go where I feel welcome, and where I am comfortable. I want to go to church with people like me. So where to begin? The phone book? No, you start satisficing by limiting your search costs. You seek referrals and the opinions of others.
I have an idea! Why not go to the church that we helped build while I was a child? Surely my Mom (who lives in my hometown too) still goes there. But no luck: she had moved on, as many of your family members may have too.
Then why not try to decide why Mom chose to become a Presbyterian instead of remaining a non-denominational Christian, and go to church with her? Or maybe keep going to the Catholic Church with my wife and kids while I pondered further. Inertia is another side-effect of monumental search costs. I told myself I would use this inertia to prove that Catholicism was in error! Or not, as it turns out in my case.
“Sandy C” sent this comment the other day on Webster’s post sharing, which shared a comment from our dear reader Mujerlatina. Here’s what Sandy wrote:
Mujerlatina’s story actually gives me great comfort because of her statement “The mysticism, the Real Presence, the devotions and popular piety all continue to call me ‘home.’” As an former Evangelical hurt by a string of pastors who thought the church was “all about them”, I find great solace in thinking the Catholic Church is what is says it is. It IS the Real Presence. It is bigger than its historical excesses before the Reformation, the recent abuse scandals involving American priests, criticism over Vatican II and the “watered down” liturgy, any one priest and any one Pope. Too many Evangelical churches I’ve known revolve around the pastor and when the pastor moves on (by choice, retirement, scandal, or whatever), the church changes so as to be unrecognizable. I need more. I need the promises of Christ that “I will never leave you,” and “I will not leave you without a Comforter” and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it (the Church).
I agree with these sentiments. As a guy who sat in the pews with my cradle Catholic wife for 18 years before I heeded “the call,” I was unaffected by the priesthood too. Priests came, and went, like good soldiers for Christ. The congregations always endured. Was I unaffected? My wife was not overbearing about her faith. If anyone was overbearing about faith, it was me.
I was well on my way to becoming a Pharisee—sure that I knew everything that I needed to know about being a Christian. In fact, I found out that I was the Prodigal Son’s older brother and that the Church is not “all about me.” It is not about being comfortable, but about being loved. As I wrote in a post on courage a few days ago, look at the Catholic Church and what she believes in. Is “to be popular, to be comfortable” one of her trademarks? No, the Cross is her trademark.
In the readings for today, St. Paul exhorts Timothy:
For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God. (2 Timothy 1:6-8)
This isn’t the newfangled “prosperity gospel” that has become popular of late. This is the hard road, the Sermon on the Mount. I find strength and solace as I travel this path and am thankful for the many graces the Sacraments provide to succor the flock as we follow our Shepherd down this rough path.
In today’s Office of Readings, St John Chrysostom exhorts us to remember that St. Paul, great as he was, was human like us:
Are you surprised at my saying that if you have Paul’s merits, you will share that same reward? Then listen to Paul himself: “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth a crown of justice awaits me, and the Lord, who is a just judge, will give it to me on that day – and not to me alone, but to those who desire his coming.” You see how he calls all to share the same glory?
Now, since the same crown of glory is offered to all, let us eagerly strive to become worthy of these promised blessings. In thinking of Paul we should not consider only his noble and lofty virtues or the strong and ready will that disposed him for such great graces. We should also realise that he shares our nature in every respect. If we do, then even what is very difficult will seem to us easy and light; we shall work hard during the short time we have on earth and someday we shall wear the incorruptible, immortal crown. This we shall do by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom all glory and power belongs now and always through endless ages. Amen.
I thank God that I recognized the call in time.
Good evening to our faithful friends at the YIMC Book Club. After a dramatic come from behind finish, our winner was Mere Christianity by noted author and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. So without further hesitation, let’s wade into this week’s reading, which included the Foreword, Preface, and Chapters 1 & 2.
Mr. Lewis begins the book in the Foreword by stating that he intends only to write around what All Christians can agree on. As stated in the post with the syllabus, Lewis is not going to try to determine whether the Catholic Church, or any denomination or offshoot of it is the true Church. Indeed, this may even explain the popularity of this book to a degree. Lewis seems to have adopted this quote by Rupertus Meldenius (circa 1627–1628), which is often attributed to St. Augustine, as his mission statement for the book:
If we preserve unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in both, our affairs will be in the best position.
Given that the authority of the Catholic Church is considered a “non-essential” to Lewis, is it any wonder that his friend J. R. R. Tolkein was dismayed when Lewis joined the Church of England instead? After all, by what authority are the essentials of the Christian faith determined? I understand his intent though, as questions regarding the intricacies of different denominations, and the political bickering that a non-Christian sees as conflict, may indeed drive someone away from Christ instead of into His arms. Sort of like my post this morning regarding the bickering about a new Missal. Yawn!
Instead, the idea of the great hall of the mansion with many rooms is given to us. Of course, with over 300 orders, and several rites reporting to Rome, including the recent olive branch extended to the Church of England, and thousands of parishes spread far and wide, this description is apt for the Catholic Church as well. To me, considering which room you are comfortable in is like choosing which parish or mass time you feel most comfortable in, so his point here is still valid, as was waiting in the hall, which I did for a very long time.
Is anyone out there surprised to hear that this book was first delivered as a series of radio broadcasts during World War II? I know I was. Is it even imaginable that a major broadcaster today would invite a discussion of Christianity on the air to the public today? Highly unlikely. Maybe somewhere in the hinterlands of cable television channel selections, but not on the main channels. Think of the hue and cry that Brit Hume endured recently when he hoped a certain celebrity would find Jesus Christ, and you will know what I mean. And yet, when the entire Luftwaffe is bombing your country every night with squadrons of bombers and V-1 and V-2 rockets, maybe people become a little more open-minded and forgiving about such discussions.
So we will keep these background events firmly in mind and find no fault in Lewis when he claims that the book is not “academic, philosophical musings” but instead “a work of oral literature, addressed to people at war.”
Chapter 1 starts with an appeal to standards of behavior that everyone is expected to know. Lewis states that this used to be called the Law of Nature in the classical era. St. Anthanasius in The Incarnation of Our Lord said as much when he wrote this in the mid 300′s:
It is, indeed, in accordance with the nature of the invisible God that He should be thus known through His works; and those who doubt the Lord’s resurrection because they do not now behold Him with their eyes, might as well deny the very laws of nature.
And this as Lewis sees it, is the Law of Human Nature, which may be upheld or broken by man, unlike the physical Laws of Nature with which we are familiar such as the laws of gravity etc.
He goes on to explain questions of cultural differences regarding the idea of “right” and “wrong” behavior. As Lewis asserts, these differences really haven’t amounted to much, regardless of whether you are a Dutch nobleman or the noble savage. But the funny thing is that as soon as someone claims there is no “real” Right or Wrong, they quickly take back that notion almost immediately when the issue of “fairness” comes into play. The very idea of “fairness” means that a Law of Human Nature is real and therefore there is a “real” Right and Wrong. My RCIA instructor, our parish priest, explained this as our conscience, and guess what? None of us are really obeying or “keeping” this Law of Nature. If you think you are, Lewis says you don’t need this book (and I say you are delusional).
So we have this ideal of behavior implanted in us and yet we fail to live up to the standards we have set for ourselves and for others. This standard is the Law of Nature. Lewis admits (whew!):
I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm.
This sounds like my kids’ answers when I ask why didn’t you do your homework, or clean up your room?
The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?
Very good point, Mr L., and as Don Henley croons in Dirty Laundry, we love ripping to shreds the reputation of anyone who doesn’t live up to the Standard.
The truth is, we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule or Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.
This sounds like my conscience talking to me, all right! Blame the bad on something else, while taking all the credit for the good stuff! Lewis sums up the law and its effect on us with the following two points:
First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.
Maybe of “clear thinking” but not necessarily immune from fuzzy thinking either. Chapter 2 begins with Lewis, before going any further, answering some common objections to what seems pretty clear regarding this Law of Nature and our knowledge and violations of same.
For example, some people wrote to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?
he argues against this as follows,
But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.
Yes, don’t blame the instrument, kiddo, look at the player! And now the Law of Human Nature is shortened to “Moral Law” for simplicity’s sake.
But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.
Just like everybody pulls for Luke Skywalker and the ragtag rebels vs. Darth Vader and his powerful Sith Lord. We love to pull for the underdog! And doing the right thing is often unpopular, or even downright dangerous!
The thing that says to you, “Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,” cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.
And what of the overriding power of the instincts for doing good?
. . . we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call “good,” always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses- say mother love or patriotism-are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad.
Remember our past discussions on the Just War doctrine of the Church or Chesterton’s argument of the Lion laying with the Lamb, but still being a Lion?
All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries.
Seriously, look at the effects of Nationalism run amok when Lewis gave this radio address.
Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the “right” notes and the “wrong” ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.
But wait, Mr Lewis, you say, how about settling on one overriding value proposition on which to base every action? Sort of like the Prime Directive (which never seemed to stay constant BTW) in Star Trek! Ah, if only life were so simple. Black and white with no shades of gray. What planet are you on?
The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials “for the sake of humanity,” and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.
But, but, Christopher Hitchens says— Sorry Chris, this isn’t like learning our multiplication tables, brother. Lewis argues that this law of right behavior is something known but unlearned. Some learned things are conventions but others, like mathematics, are real truths. And Lewis argues that progress means not just changing but changing for the better. We have had lots of progress and Qohelth in Ecclesiastes argues that we keep running into the same problems time and time again, progress be damned. But isn’t there one best way of doing things and thinking through these moral problems mankind faces? The dream of all those guys who invented time & motion studies? The holy grail of behavioral scientists?
The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.
And the Christian standard is what he is referring to here. That standard that has been given us by God, paid for by the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and passed down to us by the Apostles and martyrs and on to us through the Church. Lewis concludes this chapter, and we this weeks section with these thoughts:
But one word before I end. I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.
The Death Penalty? Don’t get me started, Mr. Lewis, but I think I get your point. Of course, there is that little story in the Old Testament about a certain witch in Endor that King Saul visited once. But that is another story, for another time.
What comments do you have to share, club members? Any passages strike you in a particular way? Please share your thoughts and impressions with your YIMC Book Club companions! Pass me the hors d’oeuvres!
Posted by Frank
Errata alert and mea culpa! One of our readers alerted me to the fact that a chapter was omitted from the syllabus of our YIMC Book Club selection, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. I have adjusted the syllabus accordingly, and happily it involves only a few extra pages. I will be posting on the first week’s readings later on today.
I promised St. Athanasius (297–373 AD) to our readers tomorrow, but it turns out that, although the Orthodox Church celebrates his feast on January 18, the Catholic Church doesn’t do so until May 2, in keeping with the tradition of using the date when a saint’s soul leaves this world for the next.
So instead, I’ll leave these fully baked thoughts from chapter one of St. Athanasius’s book On the Incarnation, in which he begins his defense of Church teaching against the followers of Arius and Arius’s notion that Jesus, although chosen by God, was merely a man and not the Word made Flesh. Note the clear and lucid style he uses, including many scriptural references clearly including some books (the Shepherd of Hermas, for example) in the canon of the New Testament that were later excluded as non-canonical from St. Jerome’s Vulgate Bible (405 AD).
In the introduction to this translation of On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity (the YIMC Book Club’s next selection) has this to say regarding the importance of this work:“We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.”
Consider this as a way to clear our palates after reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy prior to moving on to the next course with Mere Christianity. St. Athanasius, take it away—
In our former book [Against the Heathen] we dealt fully enough with a few of the chief points about the heathen worship of idols, and how those false fears originally arose. We also, by God’s grace, briefly indicated that the Word of the Father is Himself divine, that all things that are owe their being to His will and power, and that it is through Him that the Father gives order to creation, by Him that all things are moved, and through Him that they receive their being.
Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth. For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God.
Now in dealing with these matters it is necessary first to recall what has already been said. You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.
In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction. In the universe everything would be sun or moon or whatever it was, and in the human body the whole would be hand or eye or foot. But in point of fact the sun and the moon and the earth are all different things, and even within the human body there are different members, such as foot and hand and head. This distinctness of things argues not a spontaneous generation but a prevenient [coming before, or preceding] Cause; and from that Cause we can apprehend God, the Designer and Maker of all.
Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is Himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to Him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on the part of the carpenter that he can make nothing unless he has the wood. How could God be called Maker and Artificer if His ability to make depended on some other cause, namely on matter itself? If He only worked up existing matter and did not Himself bring matter into being, He would be not the Creator but only a craftsman.
Then, again, there is the theory of the Gnostics, who have invented for themselves an Artificer of all things other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These simply shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture. For instance, the Lord, having reminded the Jews of the statement in Genesis, “He Who created them in the beginning made them male and female . . . ,” and having shown that for that reason a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife, goes on to say with reference to the Creator, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matt. xix. 4–6) How can they get a creation independent of the Father out of that? And, again, St. John, speaking all inclusively, says, “All things became by Him and without Him came nothing into being.” (John i. 3) How then could the Artificer be someone different, other than the Father of Christ?
Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. He says as much in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;Gen. i. 1 and again through that most helpful book The Shepherd (ed. The Shepherd of Hermas), “Believe thou first and foremost that there is One God Who created and arranged all things and brought them out of non-existence into being.”(The Shepherd of Hermas, Book II.) Paul also indicates the same thing when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things which we see now did not come into being out of things which had previously appeared.” (Heb. xi. 3)
For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise.
But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.”(Gen. ii. 16.) “Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.
You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man. The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption.
But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.
By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.”88Wisdom vi. 18 And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, “I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you: but ye die as men and fall as one of the princes.”(99Psalm lxxxii.)
This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says: “God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world.”(Wisdom ii. 23)
When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment. Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and rapine filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice, all kinds of iniquities were perpetrated by all, both singly and in common. Cities were warring with cities, nations were rising against nations, and the whole earth was rent with factions and battles, while each strove to outdo the other in wickedness. Even crimes contrary to nature were not unknown, but as the martyr-apostle of Christ says: “Their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature; and the men also, leaving the natural use of the woman, flamed out in lust towards each other, perpetrating shameless acts with their own sex, and receiving in their own persons the due recompense of their pervertedness.”(Rom i.26)
The complete book, including the introduction by C.S. Lewis may be read online here.
As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of the Desert Fathers. Today, we celebrate St. Anthony the Great. Anthony is really the Godfather of all the Desert Fathers and the person responsible for starting the formation of Christian monastic orders. I love the following saying attributed to him, because it seems to hit home with how I often feel these days, despite the fact that this was said over 1600 years ago:
Abba Anthony said: “A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad because you are not like us.”
Yes, we are living in interesting times. And what an interesting person! A role model even of St. Francis of Assisi. Take a look at what Thomas Merton has to say about Abbot Anthony from his book The Wisdom of the Desert.
In the 4th century AD the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the ancient Roman world to live in the solitude and silence of the desert. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can all be summed up in one brief phrase: the quest for salvation. Among these men (and women!) the life and witness of St. Anthony the Great is unique.
St. Anthony, called “the father of monasticism”, was born in central Egypt about 251 AD, the son of peasant farmers who were Christian. In circa 269, he heard the Gospel being read in Church and applied to himself the words of Jesus to the rich man: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come, follow Me.” He sold everything he owned, gave the proceeds to the poor and devoted himself to a life of asceticism under the guidance of a recluse living on the outskirts of his village.
Around 285 AD he went alone into the desert to live in complete solitude. It was in this solitude and silence that Anthony heard clearly the Word of God for his life. After 20 years in solitude, Anthony emerged “as one initiated into the mysteries of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit (he became) a physician given by God to Egypt through whom the Lord healed many people.” He died at the age of 105 in 356 AD and his biography, written by St. Athanasios (whose memory the Orthodox Church celebrate on January 18th, and the Catholic Church on May 2nd) created an immediate literary and theological sensation throughout the ancient world.
What can we, more than 1500 years later, learn from Anthony’s witness? What is the meaning of his flight from society into the desert? First, society—which meant classical Roman pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life “in this world” – was regarded by Anthony and the many other desert fathers and mothers as a shipwreck from which each had to swim for their lives.
These were men and women who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the non-Christian tenets of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. These Coptic hermits—for Anthony—like so many of his brothers and sisters, was a Copt and spoke no Greek or Latin—who left the world as though escaping from a shipwreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the ability but even the obligation to pull the world to safety after them. Perhaps we cannot do exactly what Anthony did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break our spiritual chains, cast off the domination of alien compulsions and find our true selves in Christ Jesus.
Some sayings of St. Anthony the Great:
When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?” He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”
Abba Anthony said: “This is the work of a great man: always to take responsibility for his own sins before God and to expect temptations until his last breath.”
He also said: “Whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it in accordance with the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”
Abbe Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”
Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares? Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.’”
Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (Jn 4:18)
He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”
St. Anthony, Pray for Us!
When I was going through the RCIA program as a candidate, the need to choose a Confirmation name came up. The director of the program and my sponsor both gave me some suggestions (including St. Francis Xavier, as I recall).
I liked what I read about him, but he didn’t seem right for me. I thought a lot about it. I realized that I was choosing a friend in heaven whom I could ask to pray for me. That is a special trust, so choosing this person haphazardly wasn’t in the cards for me.
By this time in my journey, I had come across the Desert Fathers & Mothers. I love these people! Such stories, such sacrifice, such practical sayings! All very motivating to a guy who, despite all my earlier objections to Catholic Christianity, found himself standing in the recruiting office saying “sign me up.”
I really enjoyed what they had to say about living our faith. But one of them stood out to me most, and I knew he was the patron saint for me: St. Macarius the Great. His feast day was yesterday (January 15, so I humbly apologize for not getting this post up sooner, Abba!).
St. Macarius is known by other sobriquets as well: Macarius the Great; Macarius the Wonder Worker; Macarius the Elder. As for me, I just call him Abba Macarius when I ask him to pray for me. He once said this about prayer:
Abba Macarius was asked, “How should one pray?” The old man said, “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.”
Amen to that! Here a few other stories and wise sayings to give you a taste of my patron:
A brother once came to the abbot Macarius and said to him, “Master, speak some word of exhortation to me, that, obeying it, I may be saved.” St. Macarius answered him, “Go to the tombs and attack the dead with insults.” The brother wondered at the word. Nevertheless he went, as he was bidden, and cast stones at the tombs, railing upon the dead. Then returning, he told what he had done. Macarius asked him, “Did the dead notice what you did?” And he replied, “They did not notice me.”
“Go, then, again,” said Macarius, “and this time praise them.” The brother, wondering yet more, went and praised the dead, calling them just men, apostles, saints. Returning, he told what he had done, saying, “I have praised the dead.”
Macarius asked him, “Did they reply to you?” And he said, “They did not reply to me.” Then said Macarius, “You know what insults you have heaped on them and with what praises you have flattered them, and yet they never spoke to you. If you desire salvation, you must be like these dead. You must think nothing of the wrongs men do to you, nor of the praises they offer you. Be like the dead. Thus you may be saved.”
Wow, talk about learning to be dead to the world. Sheesh-ka-bobbers!
The same Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul saying, ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’ (1Tim.6.7) ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1.21)
Ahem, I get a lump in my throat just reading that one. I personally am so far away from this level of spirituality that any help I can get from a friend like this is more than welcome! And then I found out he wrote twenty-two homilies too. Did he really write them? Or did someone else write them and use his name (much as the writer of Ecclesiastes leads us to believe he was King Solomon)? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. They are powerful homilies, and I feel duty bound to share them with you.
They have titles like the following:
That God alone is able to deliver us out of the bondage of the wicked ruler.
Christians ought to go over the course of this world with care, that they may attain the praise of God.
There is a wide difference between Christians and the men of this world.
The gifts of grace are preserved by a humble mind and a ready will, but destroyed by pride and sloth.
How the soul ought to demean herself in holiness and purity towards her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
Christians that are willing to improve and increase ought to force themselves to every thing that is good.
Wow, I don’t think I’ve seen the word syllabus since I graduated from college. Unlike our previous selection (G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy which has 9 chapters for 9 weeks of reading), our next one isn’t as conveniently organized. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, is a bit more complicated in structure. But no worries! I think I’ve come up with a plan to read our new selection in as simple a way as possible over the course of the next 9 weeks. Subject to change, the plan is as follows.
Mere Christianity (MC) consists of four sections or “books” with 5 to 12 chapters in each one.
We will be tackling them as follows:
Week 1 (to be read by 1/21/10) Preface, Forward, Book 1: Chapters 1 & 2 (27 pages)
Week 2 (1/28/10) Book 1: Chapters 3, 4 & 5; Book 2: Chapters 1 & 2 (33 pages)
Week 3 (2/04/10) Book 2: Chapters 3, 4 & 5; Book 3: Chapter 1 (26 pages)
Week 4 (2/11/10) Book 3: Chapters 2, 3, 4, & 5 (28 pages)
Week 5 (2/18/10) Book 3: Chapters 6, 7, 8 (25 pages)
Week 6 (2/25/10) Book 3: Chapters 9, 10, 11, 12; Book 4: Chapter 1 (29 pages)
Week 7 (3/04/10) Book 4: Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 (23 pages)
Week 8 (3/11/10) Book 4: Chapters 6, 7, 8 (23 pages)
Week 9 (3/18/10) Book 4: Chapters 9. 10, 11 (21 pages)
And there you have it. Head to your favorite bookstore, public library, or here to get your copy of the book. It is, in my humble opinion, imperative that you read both the preface and the foreword as a part of the first week’s reading. There you will find Mr. Lewis’s plan for the book as well as an explanation of what is included, and left out, and why.
This is a high-level look at Christianity, and as such, we won’t be answering the question Why I Am Catholic here. I hope, however, that it proves to be an enjoyable exploration of the of the question Why I Am Christian.
The format for our discussions is simple: I’ll provide a very brief summary of that week’s readings and then offer some personal comments, reflections, and so on. Then you’ll use comments to keep the discussion going until the following week. No mid-term exams, and no final exam either. Sound good? Get your copy of Mere Christianity and get cracking!