Because of Thoughts Like These from St. Athanasius

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.

Because I Believe a Saint is a Saint

Posted by Webster 
An op-ed piece in this morning’s New York Times reminds me of my sainted father railing against the liberal media. Back then, as recently as five years ago, I thought Dad was off his rocker. Now that I’m a Catholic, it’s more like, Dad rocked. Witness today’s NYT.

The article, Pope Quiz: Is Every Pontiff a Saint?, takes my Pope to task for pushing the canonization cause of not only Pope John Paul II but also the “controversial” Pius XII (left). I’m not here to debate these Popes as candidates for sainthood. (I’m not qualified!) Nor do I want to stick my nose into the much-bruited flap between Catholics and our ancestors in faith, the Jewish people, over the legacy of Pius XII. It only takes a few yappers to make a flap these days, especially if the “right” people get the ear of the “right” media. Why isn’t there a bigger flap in the NYT against abortion? But ecccchh—

What does disturb me and what I think is worth taking issue with is the choice of David Gibson to weigh in on this issue and his choice of “authorities” to buttress his point of view. Here is a clip from the Publisher’s Weekly review of Gibson’s “biography” of BXVI:

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s name was announced as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church on April 19, 2005, Gibson, a journalist and Catholic convert, was among the throng but not cheering. The author of The Coming Catholic Church considers himself part of “the silent majority of Catholics, who were hoping, praying, for the vibrancy and openness that would herald a new chapter in the history of the church.” Instead, he writes, they got a “polarizing figure” with a well-publicized past, a man known for his heavy hand with liberation theologians and others deemed to veer toward heterodoxy. . . .

I hear Dad railing. The NYT runs an editorial on the canonization question and they pick this guy? I canceled my subscription to the Boston Globe in the past week (don’t ask), and if I had a subscription to the NYT, it would be history too.

And who does Gibson choose to back his POV that BXVI is guilty of undue haste in beatifying his predecessors? If you were Gibson and you needed buttressing, you couldn’t do better than (1) a Notre Dame professor of theology who states bluntly that John XXIII is “the only one of the recent batch of papal candidates for canonization who is at all credible” (like, you’re qualified to say?!) or (2) Hans Küng, whose feud with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and falling out with the Church is very old news. Admittedly, Gibson did call the Vatican press office for (3) an anonymous official counter-opinion (from a “papal spokesman”), but after giving this statement three lines, he immediately marshals a rebuttal from (4) Christopher Bellitto, “a church historian at Kean University in Union, N.J.” That makes it three named “authorities” against one anonymous papal flak. Well, I guess that settles that!

To paraphrase an irate Wendy Hiller in the final prison scene of A Man for All Seasons, “If anyone wants to know my opinion of David Gibson and his thesis, he only has to ask me!!”

Which is to say, Gibson really might have asked a faithful Catholic’s opinion. And this is mine. I believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived on this earth two thousand years ago; that he entrusted his teaching to Peter, the Apostles, and the Church they founded; that he promised them that their actions would be guided by the Holy Spirit (“until the end of time”); that the Holy Spirit still acts through the Catholic Church today; and that if there seems to be a rush to canonization, begun during the Papacy of John Paul II, we owe it to ourselves to push beyond the typical academic and political arguments endorsed by the NYT and other mainstream media and ask ourselves,

“Isn’t it remotely possible that something else is at work here?”

What do you think?

Because of the Liturgy II

Posted by Webster
I went to Mass this morning after a couple of days away and a mildly troubling personal experience last night, and I was greeted by a whole string of that’s-why-I-go-Mass moments:

  • entering and finding fellow members of the Universal Church who had arrived ahead of me, yes
  • kneeling gratefully before Mass, yes
  • standing to honor the priesthood as the celebrant entered, yes
  • examining my conscience privately, saying the Confiteor publicly, yes
  • the second reading from First Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit, yes
  • the silly story in the homily about the priest’s mother putting a glass of water in front of him at his ordination party and telling him to be an alter Christus and turn it into wine, yes
  • the consecration, yes
  • the elevation, yes
  • the Our Father, yes
  • the waiting in line to receive, yes
  • the meditation after communion, yes
  • the benediction, yes
  • the flowing back into daylight with the stream of the Universal Church, yes

In each of these moments there was a letting go of what’s not important, a giving up to what is. And I am not even home this weekend.

That’s right: This little chaplet of moments unfolded at a foreign parish—an away game! I had none of the familiar cues offered by Father Barnes, or Frank Gaudenzi kneeling in the first pew ahead of me, or Ferde and Heidi two rows behind me, or familiar lectors, or Fred’s masterful organ music, or the chance to wave to Flo during the Sign of Peace. It was a pure experience of the liturgy. The Presence of Christ in his Word and his Body and Blood, shared in communion with others. Where two or three are gathered together. Home or away.

This little meditation relates directly with my recent thoughts about the liturgy. I have been thinking quite a bit about the liturgy, thinking that it’s a complex issue I don’t understand well. My thinking has been fueled by an exchange of e-mails with a faithful reader of this blog, an Anglican who loves many things about his church (as I loved many things about the Episcopal Church of my youth), but who is also looking closely at Catholicism and perhaps even Orthodoxy.

My Anglican friend is concerned, as I am, about the liturgy. In a recent e-mail, he wrote (and I excerpt liberally):

A week or so ago, in response to a post on the website, I had expressed my frustration with the quality of the language in the liturgy that I have heard in Catholic parishes. I think what set me off was a translation of a portion of the lectionary read during Advent. Instead of what we often get as “And his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” there was a stilted near equivalent which included odd constructions like “God-Man.” It may have been closer to the literal construction of the Hebrew, but it didn’t work in English. . . .

On the other hand, I was recently a member of an Episcopal parish that, from time to time, resorted to “The Message,” an abominable “contemporary” version of the Bible. It’s more of a paraphrase than an actual translation, and I vividly remember a passage from Revelation which came out as “God is in the neighborhood.” Which (naturally) made me think of God firing up the hibachi and inviting the folks over for a couple of Millers. A vision of the eternal banquet, to be sure, but . . .

I think I realized I was a traditionalist when I articulated this thought: there is nothing so dated as that which was deliberately contemporary ten years ago. Or perhaps it was when I decided that the word “creative” ought never to modify the word “liturgy.”

And now I hear that the Catholics are approaching the approval of a revised missal for English speakers. So my residual affection for Episcopal forms and practice may soon be moot. . . .

We are approaching a revised missal, aren’t we? It is this, along with a certain wistful nostalgia for the Book of Common Prayer, that glorious English text of my youth, that has made the liturgy a burning question for me. Why do the words matter? Which words?

Before I share a few thoughts from Pope Benedict that may help guide thinking on this issue, let me add a few more thoughts from my Anglican friend, written in a follow-up e-mail:

The real issue, of course, has been what all of this really meant to me. I have forced myself to evaluate whether I have been looking for a pretty neat expression of a particular culture, with a bit of spiritual uplift thrown in, or whether there was something more that I was looking for, but not quite getting. The real hard question is this: whether I love the words more than the Word. Does my affection for the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer amount to idolatry? Is the “reformed catholicism” model of Anglicanism still viable, or have the current crises in the Anglican Communion exposed fatal flaws? Is the Catholic Church in fact who she claims to be, or should I be talking to those in the Orthodox traditions? How do I engage in this process of discernment without excessive disruption of my family life?

This e-mail reinforced for me the central question of the liturgy. What do I want from the liturgy? A reaffirmation of my own cultural heritage? (Bring back the King James Version!) A bit of spiritual uplift? (The Gloria set to “Greensleeves”!) But particularly—Do I love the words or the Word? And if I love the words, is that idolatry?

I do not have easy answers to these questions. But I have just finished reading Pope Benedict’s early memoir, Milestones: 1927–1977, and I have found, to my relief, that questions of the liturgy have been central to his life. In fact, he writes (in the mid-1990s) that—

“I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.

Imagine that! My Pope says my question is central! Of course, I don’t pretend to understand this “disintegration” with the complexity of thought that Benedict, a great theologian, brings to it, but at least I know this is something worth thinking deeply about.

Now, to close this already long post with a pretty long history lesson from my Pope—

The critical moment of concern, according to Benedict (writing as Cardinal Ratzinger), was the introduction of a new missal by Pope Paul VI in the wake of Vatican II—“accompanied by the almost total prohibition, after a transitional phase of only half a year, of using the missal we had had until then.” With arch-typical balance, Ratzinger writes:

I welcomed the fact that now we had a binding liturgical text after a period of experimentation that had often deformed the liturgy. But I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy. . . . The prohibition of the missal that was now decreed, a missal that had known continuous growth over the centuries, starting with the sacramentaries of the ancient Church, introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic.

Never before in history? Tragic consequences? Of course, Ratzinger backs this up with history, looking back at the Council of Trent which was followed by the creation of a new Missale Romanum in 1570 by Pope Pius V. He explains that Pius V did not create a new missal and did not prohibit old, local forms of the missal, so long as they had been in use for at least two hundred years:

Many of his successors had likewise reworked this missal again, but without ever setting one missal against another. It was a continual process of growth and purification in which continuity was never destroyed.

Then comes, for me, the punch line, delivered like a knockout blow:

The irruption of the Reformation had above all taken the concrete form of liturgical “reforms.” It was not just a matter of there being a Catholic Church and a Protestant Church alongside one another. The split in the Church occurred almost imperceptibly and found its most visible and historically most incisive manifestation in the changes of the liturgy. These changes, in turn, took very different forms at the local level, so that here, too, one frequently could not ascertain the boundary between what was still Catholic and what was no longer Catholic.

In the face of these questions, it seems we have to be extraordinarily vigilant. However, if you ask me to be vigilant on this issue, I feel like a child asked to perform nightwatch duty, who is wide awake, vigilant as he can be (he is a good boy), but he doesn’t know what to look for!

My pope offers a few guiding principles, and with these this long post will close—

There is no doubt that [Pope Paul VI’s] new missal in many respects brought with it a real improvement and enrichment; but setting it as a new construction over against what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm. For then the impression had to emerge that liturgy is something “made,” not something given in advance but something lying within our own power of decision. . . . When liturgy is self-made, then it can no longer give us what its proper gift should be: the encounter with the mystery that is not our our own product by rather our origin and the source of our life.

Rather than try to frame this post with some sort of concluding thoughts, I would rather ask readers (the few of you who have come this far) to offer your own complementary thoughts on the liturgy and what my Pope calls its “disintegration.”

Which is to say, your comments—?

For All the Saints: Anthony the Great

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!

Because of the Good News XIII

Posted by Webster 
Given the week just ended—when the devastation in Haiti has been in all of our thoughts and the Haitian people in our prayers—a look at the Good News might seem to be a head-in-the-sand operation. But a big part of being a Catholic, for me anyway, is to pray even when—especially when—things are darkest. And a big part of prayer is praise and thanksgiving.

Still, with respect for the tragedy still unfolding in Haiti, I’ll keep this short.

I was raised in a wealthy Episcopal parish, and one of the things I am most proud of in the Catholic Church is its economic and racial diversity. As we move through a three-day weekend dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, I was proud to read this post from an African American deacon.

I am also proud of being a Catholic anytime I read about anything my Pope, BXVI, has done. For example this.

As a volunteer religious education teacher who doubts his own ability to inspire fourth-graders, I loved this story from Suzanne Temple about leading her home-schooling boys in prayer. And I was happy to be reminded, by the Deacon’s Bench, how the children we teach can inspire us more than we inspire them.

As the father of daughters in their 20s, I was inspired by this testimony about chastity from an exceptionally intelligent young woman.

But here’s my vote for most inspiring story of the week, about the young man at left, forwarded to me by my own pastor, Father Barnes.

Did you ever listen to the apparent certainty of historians about what happened over 2,000 years ago and wonder, how can they be so certain? That’s what I was thinking when I read that the Old Testament may have been written much earlier than commonly thought.

In the economy we are all suffering through, it is inspiring to read about answered prayers. In any economy, it is inspiring to read about prayers answered by a saint. Or simply to read of a saint.

I can’t finish this post without another word on Haiti. One of the most powerful commentaries on this week’s earthquake was offered by Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, one of the leaders of Communion & Liberation in the United States (left). You can read his complete post on the America magazine blog here. I’ll close with an excerpt: 

To what kind of God can one pray in such circumstances? Only to that God who, as St. Paul wrote, “spared not his own Son” the pain of the cry of why. If he gave his Son to die for us, Paul argues, it is impossible that he should refuse us anything that will help or bless us, since he has nothing he values more than His Son (cf. Romans 8, 32). I do not want an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen. An explanation would reduce the pain and suffering to an inability to understand, a failure of intelligence, so to speak. I can only accept a God who “co-suffers” with me. Such is the God of the Christian faith. But faith or no faith, Christian or not, our humanity demands that the question “why” not be suppressed, but that it be allowed to guide our response to everything that happens. This is the only way to a possible redemption of our humanity.

For All the Saints: Macarius the Great

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.

If you think these titles are wise sayings unto themselves, you owe it to yourself to read the homiles yourself here. You’ll be glad you did!
Happy belated Feast Day Abba Macarius!

YIMC Book Club – Mere Christianity Syllabus

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!

Because Tolkien Wrote a Poem Such as This

As Webster puts the wrap on Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I am reminded of GKC’s admonition that (and I paraphrase) we should seek the one to lead us who knows he isn’t worthy of doing so. Ahem—you found him, Skipper, and “Aye, aye sir.”

But before I go wading into any details of our next read (Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis), let me post this little jewel of a poem written by a colleague of Jack’s, J. R. R. Tolkien of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings renown. I know, from Wikipedia, that “Tolkien’s devout faith was a significant factor in the conversion of C. S. Lewis from atheism to Christianity, although Tolkien was dismayed that Lewis chose to join the Church of England.”
Sort of how I feel about Jack too. But before I get all open-minded about Lewis, the weather outside is frightful and there is a lot of meat on my plate. Your plate too, probably. Let’s enjoy this poem together first.

Roads Go Ever On by J.R.R. Tolkien

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
trees and hills they long have known.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Thanks to Mr. Papes

Guest post by Allison Salerno 
As a child, I went to Mass every Sunday with my mom and my dad and my brother and my two sisters. Our church, the converted gym of the closed brick parochial school, was always crowded. I grew up in a large suburban parish in the 1960s and 1970s, when families of four, six, or eight children were common. Our family—with four children and two parents at Mass—was unexceptional.

I’d like to say I paid a lot of attention to the liturgy or understood the homilies. Instead, I wiggled. I bickered with my sisters. I observed what my classmates were wearing. Mostly, I watched the other families. Always, I paid attention to the Papes family and the dad who was taking his four children to church. His wife did not attend because she wasn’t Catholic. This made me notice him.

Mr. Papes was a devoted husband and father who attended church every Sunday. He coached Little League teams and cheered his children on at swim meets at our country club. The Papes kids were athletes and strong students. They would always greet me with a smile. They were encouraging and kind and enthusiastic. Mr. Papes was an unassuming man who exuded a quiet kind of confidence.

* * *

Sunday night a high school classmate called, one of his daughters-in-law, saying that Mr. Papes had died on January 8 and that the funeral was Wednesday, January 13. He was 81 years old and had been battling cancer. His four children were all married. He had 10 grandchildren and a loving marriage of 54 years.

All these years later I can still see him—genuflecting at the pew and then kneeling unabashedly in prayer. I see him singing in the choir and receiving communion.

At his funeral one of his sons said that when Mr. Papes dropped his sons off at middle school, his parting remark was “help someone today.” Mr. Papes had let his children know in ways big and small what really mattered.

That story triggered a memory in me. When I returned home that night, I remembered how Mr. Papes’s eldest son, Matthew, then a senior at the University of Michigan on the baseball team, stopped by my dorm room during my first week of college there. He asked me how things were going, gave me his phone number, and said to call if I needed help or had any questions.

* * *

Reports in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times recount how Theodore Constantine Papes was born in Gary, Indiana, in 1929, the son of immigrants from Greece and Italy. He landed a job at IBM in 1952, the year he graduated from the University of Michigan Phi Beta Kappa. He was a U.S. Navy veteran.

Mr. Papes climbed the corporate ladder at IBM, rising to the rank of Senior Vice-President and Group Executive, Director General of IBM Europe/Middle East/Africa. He founded Prodigy Services Inc. One tribute describes him as “a pioneer of his times,” whose company “provided online news, email, shopping and other services years before the World Wide Web.

Quite apart from his professional accomplishments, Mr. Papes’s actions told me about the importance of faith. He lived his faith by loving his wife. He lived his faith by taking his children to church weekly. He lived his faith by reminding his children of their duty to work hard while lending a helping hand to others. He lived his faith because while he had achieved great professional success, he was a humble man who treated people with respect.

To watch him at church and to see, as the years passed, how the values he and his wife shared bore fruit in their children was a privilege. Even after his death, Mr. Papes continues to inspire.

YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 9

Posted by Webster 
With this post and the comments that follow, we say good-bye to our first YIMCBC book, Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton. Next week we turn to Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Frank will lead that discussion.

Chapter 9, “Authority and the Adventurer”
The entire book is, in Chesterton’s own words, “an account of my own growth in spiritual certainty.” The first eight chapters set aside major modern objections to Christianity (from materialism, Marxism, and other schools of thought), then show ways in which Christian positions make rational sense. In the final chapter, Chesterton asks and answers the ultimate question. As advocate for the devil, he writes:

Even supposing that [Christian] doctrines do include [many] truths, why cannot you take the truths and leave the doctrines? . . . Why cannot you simply take what is good in Christianity, what you can define as valuable, what you can comprehend, and leave all the rest, all the absolute dogmas that are in their nature incomprehensible?

This is the argument for ethical humanism or even an anti-clerical Protestant Christianity: “We all know what’s right. We don’t need dogmatic mumbo-jumbo to back it up. We don’t need a clergy to keep us in order. We can all just get along.”

The reason Chesterton finally embraces Christianity, needs Christianity, is the same reason Rome was the center of the Roman Empire: All roads led there. Likewise, for Chesterton, all the data points to Christ. He is persuaded by “an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.’’

To back this up, he begins with two “triads of ordinary anti-Christian arguments” (six arguments, in all). In each instance, he shows that the facts back the Christian position. The six arguments are:

  1.  “Men, with their shape, structure, and sexuality are, after all, very much like beasts, a mere variety of the animal kingdom.”
  2. “Primeval religion arose in ignorance and fear.”
  3. “Priests have blighted societies with bitterness and gloom.”
  4. “Jesus was . . . sheepish and unworldly, a mere ineffectual appeal to the world.”
  5. “Christianity arose and flourished in the dark ages of ignorance and . . . would drag us back [to these].”
  6. “The people still strongly religious or (if you will) superstitious—such people as the Irish—are weak, unpractical, and behind the times.”

You can read for yourself his response to each of these—and he might have picked many other anti-Christian arguments. Being married to a faithful Catholic woman whose maiden name is Katie McNiff, I appreciated this Englishman’s defense of the Irish, at point 6.

In all cases, Chesterton writes, “The skeptic was quite right to go by the facts, only he had not looked at the facts. The sceptic is too credulous; he believes in newspapers or even in encyclopedias.” This was my conclusion today about a commenter who threw offhand criticisms at the Catholic Church.

There is much more to this concluding chapter, but I will leave that to the few (the happy few) who have followed this discussion to its end. What did you find most interesting about Chesterton’s final chapter?