Tag Archives: Theology

Pre-Existent Soul?

After studying a glimpse of Theology, I’ve come to realise that the most important prerequisite which one needs to seriously study the Faith is Christian Philosophy.

Why? Because Philosophy is the LANGUAGE in which God uses to communicate Revelation to us. One cannot do Bible Exegesis without at least a basic understanding of Aristotelian Metaphysics.

Just this afternoon, a friend in one of my group chats made a ‘theologically’ incorrect statement which was innocent by nature, but actually disastrous to the Christian Faith. He said, “Oh, back in 1980 I wasn’t on earth yet. My soul was still floating around in heaven.”

This is why Metaphysics is crucial. Such statements reflect the lack of understanding in even the most fundamental ideas of our Faith. I immediately corrected him and said that we do NOT have pre-existing souls. It is in fact, a heresy from the early 4th Century!

The notion of us having pre-existent souls would imply Reincarnation, or that God sent us to earth as if it were some sort of test. It is completely incompatible with Christianity.

“If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.” (Second Council of Constantinople)

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Originally posted on Instagram.
Image: PD-US

The Treasure of Sin?

Some of us (me definitely included) fall into despair sometimes when we believe that we are too damned.

"The confession" by Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750
The Confession, Pietro Longhi, ca. 1750

We detest sin — as we all should! — but we detest sin not because we desire the good, but we detest it out of frustration, out of a belief that God might not forgive us again.

Peter Kreeft in his book Three Philosophies of Life talks about the Treasure of Sin and he has basically given me hope again!

Wait. What?! Sin? A treasure? Yes, read on.

“But we are all philosophers, unless we are animals. Men live not just in the present but also in the future. We live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead. Our lives are like an arc stretching out to us from the future into the present. Our hopes and ideals move our present lives. Animals’ lives are like an arc coming to them out of their past; they are determined by their past. They are pushed; we are pulled. They are forced; we are free. They are only instinct, heredity, and environment; we are more; we are persons.

The determinists, from Marx and Freud to Skinner, who deny this fact, insult us infinitely more than any preacher who shouts sin and damnation at us. It is a great compliment to call a man a sinner. Only a free man can be a sinner. The determinists mean to steal from us the great treasure of sin. They deny us our freedom, and therefore our hope, our ability to live not just from our determined past but also from our undetermined future.”

— Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, p. 29

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Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Two Charcoal Fires

Peter’s Denial, Carl Heinrich Bloch (1873)

There are only two charcoal fires (Greek: anthrakia) mentioned in the whole Bible, and they are both in the Gospel of John. The first anthrakia mentioned was in the high priest’s courtyard, where the gatekeeper said to Peter, “You are not one of this man’s disciples are you?” and Peter says, “I am not.” Questioned like that two more times, Peter, now warming himself at the same fire, DENIES being a disciple of Jesus two more times (c.f. Jn 18:18, 25-27).

The second anthrakia mentioned was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, apparently prepared by the Risen Christ (Jn 21:9). Here, the very same Peter was questioned; “Do you love me?” and the disciple now affirms his ALLEGIANCE three times.

Christ’s Charge to Peter, Raphael (1515-1516)

So one anthrakia sets the threefold denial of discipleship, while the other anthrakia sets the threefold affirmation of discipleship. Coincidence? Knowing John’s Gospel, such symbology is likely not by chance. And who is to say that the association does not go back to Jesus himself, helping Peter to realize that the denier is being given a fresh start in his relationship to the Lord. This beach scenario is not only a matter of astounding forgiveness; it is also of commissioning: “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.”

I’ve once asked a bunch of friends before – “Why did Jesus mention feeding his Lambs and then his Sheep? Like, what’s the difference?” This verse is deeply theological and the Church has the best answer: Jesus is commissioning Peter here to become not just leader of the laity (lambs); but also leader of the clergymen (sheep); symbolized through the young and mature in the flock.

Peter is given an opportunity to demonstrate the love he professed by sharing in the mission of the risen Lord. Ultimately, it is going to be a matter of being led where he does not want to go. Loving the head shepherd means obeying his commandments – even if it means becoming the first Pope, which would ultimately lead to his martyrdom.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Cult of Numbers

About Gregory

Gregory the Theologian, (1408), Dormition Cathedral, Vladimir, Wikimedia Commons.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 326/330 – 390), nicknamed since antiquity as ‘The Theologian’, was a fourth-century bishop, born in the rural setting of modern-day central Turkey. He is venerated as a Father of the Church, and is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with Ss. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory fought strenuously for spiritual orthodoxy, particular in relation to a doctrinal understanding of the Trinity, championing the Nicene perspective, and developing a unique Trinitarian language. He viewed the Nicene stance as a midday between the heretical extremes of Sabellianism and Arianism.[i]

Classically trained in rhetoric and philosophy, he is responsible for transposing Hellenism into the Early Church. In fact, “Gregory’s literary ability was regarded so highly by the learned connoisseurs of Byzantium that they ranked him with the great stylists of classical poetry and prose.” [ii] For example, Psellos (c. 1017 – 1028) describes Gregory’s style in glowing terms as embodying the gifts of figures such as Demosthenes, Pericles, Lysias and Herodotus, whilst outranking them, in wit, persuasive power, beauty and skill.[iii] He was even well regarded by Renaissance humanists for his literary prowess.[iv]

Gregory has left the Church with a large corpus of written works: letters, poems and orations. It is through his orations—speeches delivered in homilies and sermons, and polished and edited in his later life—that he has extended his greatest influence, both theologically and literarily.

Oration 42

Among his 44 orations is Oration 42—a Farewell Address; a kind of apologia directed at his flock at Constantinople upon his resignation. A resignation made for the purpose of quelling the dissensions and controversy surrounding his Canonically awry position in Constantinople. He thus stepped aside, to keep the peace.

The audience included the 150 bishops of the Eastern Church gathered for the First Council of Constantinople (381), and various rivals low and high. It is also addressed to the Nicaean faction in general. He is defending accusations against his style of ministry in Constantinople, whilst raising the banner of his Trinitarian faith. He says his farewells with a mix of sadness, joy, and satire, and leaves by throwing a few preacher-punches at the “great and Christ-loving city!” a descriptive term he calls unenlightened, while at the same time it is expressive of his hope of what could be.[v] Still, the tenderness of his delivery is undeniable—in Gregory is a pastor who loved his people.

The Cult of Numbers

The portion of this Oration I’d like to draw attention to is section 7, where Gregory alludes to a worldly, economic kind of religious way of thinking, that can be described as the cult of numbers. This can simply be understood to be a measuring of spiritual success and fruitfulness in Christian communities, based solely on numbers—on the population of a group in the Church or the Church as a whole. It is an outlook that focuses on the external of quantity, to the exclusion and neglect of the quality of such members. A quality defined by sound spirituality and doctrine, manifesting in holiness and love.

The Context of His Farewell

In the context of his Farewell Oration, he speaks to a church where the Nicene community has recently regained power from the Anti-Nicene’s; finally having the support of imperial policy on its side. It is “a people now grown from small to great, from scattered to well-knit, from a pitiable even to an enviable state”—and Gregory testifies to this increase as the work of God, the rich harvest won through his ministry with the support of his companions.[vi] Yet he does not praise the increase in numbers as the real reason to rejoice, but the increase in this people’s quality: a people who soundly “worship the Trinity”.[vii]

Gregory—God and Numbers

In the following extract Gregory shares what he thought he “heard God saying” (Or 42:8) in those days when the faithful adherents of the Trinity in Constantinople were a mere remnant, “tiny and poor” (Or 42:4), vastly outweighed by those who “wickedly divided” the Godhead in their false doctrines: many of whom, brought from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, now stand before Gregory as he speaks.

“But you build walls around me, and marble slabs and mosaic floors, long colonnades and porticoes; you glitter and shine with gold, spending it like water and gathering it up like sand, forgetting that faith camping in the open is worth more than the richest impiety, and that three-people gathered in the name of the Lord are worth more to God than tens of thousands who deny the divinity. Do you value the Canaanites more than Abraham, all by himself? Or the Sodomites more than Lot on his own? Or the Midianites more than Moses—though all of these were aliens and strangers? What of the three hundred of Gideon, who manfully lapped up the water, while thousands were rejected? What of Abraham’s household slaves, a few more than these in number, who pursued and defeated many kings and their armies of thousands of men, few though they were? And how do you understand this passage: ‘If the number of the children of Israel should become as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved?’ Or this: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bent their knees to Baal.’ No this is not the solution—God does not delight in numbers![viii]

The Approach of a Spiritual Man

Gregory understood this Scripturally-derived lesson of God so very clearly. His understanding was applied in the way he went about his ministry. Faced with a tiny remnant Gregory did not conjure up systematic methods to increase his flock, with the mind of an accountant and tact of an administrator. Nor did he subject himself to human standards at the compromise of the Gospel message to gain sympathizers (Or 42:19). Nor did he play politics, to win members to his flock—siding with one faction against another, but he simply delineated between truth and falsehood, paying no regard to human groupings. And nor did he lord his authority over the Anti-Nicene’s in order to crush them, and consolidate the numbers of his Nicene-flock, when the tables turned in his camps’ favor, but rather he acted mercifully, to the point of being blamed for leniency by his very own.

For St. Gregory was a spiritual man, who saw things with a spiritual eye. Seeing success in the quality of his people, not in their numbers; to the point he even lost favor with much of his own due to his steadfastness to the Gospel of mercy. He knew what was at stake — “the salvation of the soul”— and saw his pastoral responsibility with a sharpness of vision: “to guard and protect his flock” but above all “by distributing the word” in teaching, example and the sacraments, which he calls “the first of our tasks” (Or 2:35).[ix]

In one of his poems he defends his Word-focused approach as a Bishop; an approach carried out from the motive of saving souls, not to increasing numbers for the sake of numbers:

You’ve been considering a bishop as you would an accountant, laying stress on mere rubbish, where I’ve been concerned with important issues. A priest should have one function and one only, the sanctification of souls by his life and teaching… Other matters he should relinquish to those skilled in them.[x]

Learning from Gregory

There is so much we can learn from St. Gregory on the cult of numbers. The lesson he understood so well, is perennially relevant to the Church in all its spheres: on the universal scale, the local parish scale, on the level of the religious community, and even to the microcosm of every youth, bible study or prayer group. The value of all of these is not weighed by the numbers of attendants or alleged adherents, but on the quality of the interior fruits of sound spirituality and doctrine, brought forth as the harvest of the Word; nourishing the real spiritual growth of its members, shown to be authentic by a visible and practical love.

It is easy for groups to become ‘accountant-minded’ and focus on numbers as the measure of spiritual success. Acting in ministry from the motive to “increase numbers,” and investing efforts to win “bums in seats.” Yet by focusing on numbers, we lose our focus of love—depersonalising the face of ‘the other’ into a mere number, thus losing sight of the face of Christ in our neighbour; and this is all a consequence of chasing after numbers instead of a deepened relationship with the Word and the lived proclamation of His Truth—a proclamation that reaches out to ‘the other’ as the image of God, not as the means to bump up a statistic.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus shows us that we need not focus on numbers, for “God does not delight in numbers!” but we need only focus on God the Trinity, seeking to increase the quality of the “tiny and poor” remnant in our midst—above all by seeking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ourselves (in prayer, instruction and the sacraments); and this labour will be blessed by God who in time, will bring forth an increase far greater in quality and quantity, than we could ever achieve by our quest for greater numbers.

God did so in Constantinople in the fourth-century A.D., and He can do so again in our day; so long as we see like Gregory that our strength lies not in numbers, but in our God, and the unconditional Love He has for us (Ps 28:7). That Love of the Father for the Son, the Love who is the Holy Spirit—and increasing in this Love, which always reaches out, and not in numbers, must be our sole and only focus.

 

[i] Brian E. Daley, S.J., Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006), Oration 42:16, pp. 147-148.

[ii] Ibid., p.1.

[iii] Ibid., p.27. Direct source, see Michael Psellos, “The Characteristic of Gregory the Theologian, the Great Basil, Chrystostom, and Gregiry of Nyssa.”

[iv] Ibid. pp. 26-28.

[v] Ibid. Oration 42:27, p.154.

[vi] Ibid. Oration 42:9, p.144.

[vii] Ibid. Oration 42:7, p.143.

[viii] Ibid., pp.143-144.

[ix] Ibid. Introduction, 53.

[x] On Himself and the Bishops, as it appears in Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers p. 52.

A Review of Benedict XVI’s Shortest Book

daughter-zion

Yesterday I finished the first book I’ve ever read by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I’m quite proud of myself. This isn’t the first one I’ve started. One of the Lay Dominicans in my chapter has made the argument that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will one day be declared a Doctor of the Church. To be declared a Doctor of the Church, you have to be someone that people generally agree wrote or spoke in such a way as to clarify or develop Christian doctrine. Many commentators have pointed out that Benedict XVI was much more of a scholar and professor compared to his more charismatic predecessor St. John Paul II or successor Francis. This is very apparent in all of his writings — this book being no exception.

Even for someone like me with a Master’s degree in church teaching, I could only take this book in small chunks with long breaks. I highly recommend reading until it doesn’t make sense anymore, then put it down. When you pick it back up with a fresh mind, it’ll all make perfect sense again.

It’s dense. As he explains in the introduction, it’s basically three college lectures elaborated, revised and edited into book form. It’s only 90 pages, the last 10 or so of which are end-notes.

It does, however, look deeply and thoroughly into our Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption. He actually digs into the Old Testament for proof and explanation. He shows how Mary is truly a daughter of Israel found in the Old Testament writings and prophets just as much as her Son. As an old hymn states:

O Mary of all women,
You are the chosen one,
Who, ancient prophets promised,
Would bear God’s only Son;
All Hebrew generations
Prepared the way to thee,
That in your womb the God-man
Might come to set us free.

O Mary, you embody
all God taught to our race,
For you are first and foremost
In fullness of His grace;
We praise this wondrous honor
That you gave birth to Him
Who from you took humanity
And saved us from our sin.

It was a very appropriate book to work on during the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady.

If you would like to better understand how the Catholic faith fits into the Old Testament, give this book a chance. If you’d like to understand the role of Our Lady better especially in light of her identity as a Jewish woman, give this book a chance. If you wish you could brag to all your intellectual friends that you’ve read something by Benedict XVI, give this book a chance.

I’m glad I did for all of those reasons.

Daughter Zion is hard to find unless you look online. It is available in e-book  and paperback format from several sources. You just need to let your fingers do the walking.

This book review first appeared on the blog True Dignity of Women.

Resolutions and Virtues Part 2: Virtues as Moral Help

In my previous column, I discussed the cardinal virtues and stated that they could be of some benefit to us in keeping our New Year’s resolutions [1]. I did not, however, discuss how (or why) the virtues are beneficial t us in this way.

Wasn’t that a party?

So where do these virtues tie in to our new year’s resolutions? I have already given a brief description of which of the cardinal virtues might tie in to some of the more popular new year’s resolutions. I think that there are three more things to be said about virtues, and how they aide us in our resolutions.

The first is that the virtues are powers (ST II-II.56.1). Specifically, they are powers of the should which enable us to act as we ought. Now, the New Year’s resolutions which are more commonly made largely concern things which we ought to do, but which require some sacrifice on our part to do them. This sacrifice largely pertains to temperance: be it a sacrifice of time for doing something else that in the moment we would rather do, or of money that we are tempted to spend elsewhere, or of pleasures which we can do without. In some cases, it pertains (“in a restricted sense”, ST II-II.123.4R1) to fortitude.

GPHR 45/7702: Bernard H.B. Lange, CSC, in gym with students weightlifting.
Do you even lift?

Let us consider the very specific resolution of dieting, exercising, and losing weight. Dieting as dieting pertains to abstinence, a part of temperance. Getting up early to exercise (if in the morning) also pertains to temperance, in that it limits the pleasure of sleep. But returning to the exercising after feeling sore from the first (or hundredth) workout is an imperfect, “restricted” form of fortitude. So is cutting back portion sizes (or cutting out snacks between meals) when one feels hunger pangs. So, for that matter, is increasing a workout’s intensity (or load) when the last one seemed difficult. So much for the virtues as powers.

Second, then, is that the virtues are also habits (ST II-II.55.1-3). In considering habits in general, and virtues and vices (bad habits) in particular, the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler writes

“You know how habits get formed. To form the habit of being on time for appointments, you have to try to be punctual over and over again. Gradually, the habit of being punctual gets formed. Once it is formed, you have a firm and settled disposition to be on time in getting where you promised to be. The stronger the habit, the easier it is to act in that way and the harder it is to break the habit or to act in the opposite fashion.

When you have formed a habit and it is well-developed, you take pleasure in doing what you are in the habit of doing because you do it with ease—almost without effort. You find acting against your habits painful” (Aristotle for Everybody).

adler in libraryVirtues are habits, good moral habits, and they can help us to fight bad habits. They can, moreover, help us to develop the skills or abilities that we desire, as Adler notes in continuing his discussion:

“Having temperance enable us to resist what appears to be good in the short run for the sake of what is really good in the long run…Just as temperance is an habitual disposition to resist the lure of pleasures for the sake of more important goods that overindulgence in pleasure would prevent us from getting, so courage [fortitude] is an habitual disposition to take whatever pains may be involved in doing what we ought to do for the sake of a good life.

For example, we recognize that getting knowledge and developing certain skills are intellectual virtues that we ought to have. But acquiring knowledge and skills may be painful.Studying is often hard to do; learning how to play a musical instrument well, how t write well, or how to think well involves practicing that is often irksome” (Aristotle for Everybody).

There are several ways in which this ties into our New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, many of the resolutions in questions can be met once—and then forgotten. I can diet and exercise to lose weight, but once the weight is off, will I continue to diet and exercise to keep it off? If dieting and exercising have become habitual, and if the fortitude to face another workout and the temperance to resist the desire to stay in bed (or to have an extra helping at dinner) have all become habit, then my odds of keeping the weight off are good. I will not need to make losing the same 15 pounds my resolution again next year.

Total Money MakeoverTo pick on another resolution, consider the popular goal of saving money. For many people, this goal might as easily be stated as To pay down my debts. Now, one popular method of doing this is to use debt consolidation: a seeming short-cut to paying less money each month to get rid of old debt. Concerning this practice, popular financial advisor Dave Ramsey writes that

“Debt CONsolidation—it’s nothing more than a con because you think you’ve done something about the debt problem. The debt is still there, as are the habits that caused it; you just moved it! You can’t borrow your way out of debt. You can’t get out of a hole just by digging out the bottom. Larry Bucket says debt is not the problem; it is the symptom. I feel debt is the symptom of overspending and undersaving.

A friend of mine works for a debt-consolidation firm whose internal statistics estimate that 78 percent of the time, after someone consolidates his credit-card debt, the debt grows back. Why? He still doesn’t have a game plan to either pay cash or not buy at all, and hasn’t saved for ‘unexpected events,’ which will also become debt” (The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness).

I would emphasize here that the key point is contained here: this trick doesn’t work largely because the underlying habits which caused the problem—too much debt, in particular consumer [2] debt—are still there [3]. The same thing can be said for the latest “miracle” diet drug with respect to weight loss, or for that matter to saving water and electricity (go green) by only changing to a more efficient version of a frequently-used appliance (though this can help!). Ultimately, any of these “shortcuts” may technically help us to keep our resolutions short-term, but longer-term it will be in vain. I may save some money this year, but if I then go into debt (frivolously) next year, what have I gained? Or if I lose 15 pounds by June, and then regain them by December, is my resolution actually a success?

conan best in lifeI would like to turn now to the third, and final, thing which is left to be said about the virtues. The virtues are important to our living a moral life, that is, to living a good life. However, they are not the only thing to living a good life, and indeed the cardinal virtues are improved on by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Just as we might build upon a successfully kept resolution in our own lives, God can build upon the virtues with the gifts of and with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft writes of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance:

“These four are called ‘cardinal’ from the Latin word for ‘hinge.’ Al other virtues hinge on these four. That includes lesser virtues, which are corollaries of these, and aso greater virtues (the three ‘theological virtues’), which are the flower of these.

These four virtues are not the only virtues, or even the highest ones. As Einstein surpassed Newton, Jesus most certainly surpassed Plato. But just as Einstein did not contradict Newton but included him, presupposed him, and built on him, so Jesus’ supernatural virtues do not contradict Plato’s virtues but presuppose them. Plato gives us virtue’s grammar; Jesus gives us virtues’ poetry….

Of course natural [e.g. the cardinal] virtues are real virtues, just as natural reason is real reason and natural beauty is real beauty.

True, it does not save you [to be virtues in the merely natural sense]. You do not get to heaven by being a little more just, wise, courageous, and temperate, That is not enough. But it is good.

It is also a foundation for the supernatural virtues, which do get your to Heaven. A person who is unjust, foolish, cowardly, and uncontrolled will find it harder to believe, to hope in, or to love God. The natural virtues are the seedbed, soil, or fertilizer for the flower of supernatural virtue [e.g. the theological virtues]. Ethics is preparatory to religion, because ‘the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ'” (Back to Virtue).

Slapping Batman Pelagianism nd virtueI include this long passage because because it show that we need not stop with cultivating the natural virtues: we in fact ought to allow God to cultivate in us the supernatural ones. God does in fact build on whatever foundation we lay, if we will allow him to [4]. Venerable Louis of Grenada writes that

“The gifts of the Holy Ghost also facilitate the operations of the virtues, animating them and strengthening them so that they will always be ready for the performance of their proper acts. Faith, hope, and charity are perfected by the gifts of wisdom and understanding; prudence, by the gifts of knowledge and counsel; justice, by the gift of piety; fortitude, by the gift of fortitude; and temperance, by the fear of the Lord” (Summa of the Christian Life).

In a similar manner, we can build on the success of keeping our New Year’s resolutions. If you ultimately want to lose 40 pounds, start with the goal of losing 15, then try for another 25 next year when that is successful. Or if you only lose 5, try to loose another 15 pounds next year. If your goal is to save up a third of your income as an emergency fund, but you save up only half of this, make saving up a third your goal next year (and then you will have a slightly more substantial emergency fund).

Remember that these New Year’s resolutions are not in themselves sufficient to make us truly happy in life, or truly fulfilled, or successful. Neither are the natural virtues by themselves sufficient to make us happy, nor saintly, nor will they get us into heaven. But, just as the New Year’s resolution (and its keeping) is a good start,so are the virtues a good start for us. They will make it easier for us to keep our resolutions, and to better our own lives. More importantly, they will enable us to allow God to work in our lives in such a way that we are able to live a good life in this world and enter into the joy of heaven in the next.

 

—-Footnotes—-
[1] Once, these may have been “Lenten Resolutions!”

[2] Consumer debt—there’s also student loan debt, and the mortgage. These are topics for another day, but it seems to me that there is a difference in habit between the poor college student who is $25k in debt from paying for tuition and the one who sailed through with scholarships but wracked up $20 k in debt from buying the latest in consumer electronics, etc.

[3] Dave Ramsey also notes that many of these loan consolidation companies do lower your monthly payments, in exchange for extending the period of the loan. This means that while the monthly payment may be a bit less, the period over which the payment is to be made will be extended by years, and so the total amount paid may also be greater. It’s also more difficult to attack debt one item at a time when all the debt is consolidated into a single large loan.

[4] He even offers us the perfect foundation, who is Christ.

Heavenly Bodies: On the Resurrection of the Flesh

The resurrection of the dead is among the central tenets of Catholicism, and indeed of any branch of “mere” Christianity which could be called “orthodox” [1]. It is the central point of the Gospels, that Christ came to die and then that he rose again from the dead; it is a point mentioned both in connection with Christ and then again with us in the historic creeds. And indeed, it is a central enough point that St. Paul tells us,

“Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15).

The general resurrection is thus intimately connected to the other doctrines—and speculations—concerning eschatology. Our bodies are intimately a part of us—and if our souls are to be separated from our bodies at death, then we are incomplete until body and soul are reunited in the resurrection. As Dante Alighieri writes in his Divine Comedy,

When, glorious and sanctified, our flesh
Is reassumed, then shall our persons be
More pleasing by their being all complete;
For will increase whate’er bestows on us
Of light gratuitous the Good Supreme,
Light which enables us to look on Him;
Therefore the vision must perforce increase,
Increase the ardour which from that is kindled,
Increase the radiance which from this proceeds.
But even as a coal that sends forth flame,
And by its vivid whiteness overpowers it
So that its own appearance it maintains,
Thus the effulgence that surrounds us now
Shall be o’erpowered in aspect by the flesh,
Which still to-day the earth doth cover up;
Nor can so great a splendour weary us,
For strong will be the organs of the body
To everything which hath the power to please us.”
(Paridiso, Canto XIV, Longfellow Translation)

Thus, the beatific vision of heaven—and for that matter the torment of hell—will prove ever grater to us when we are whole, body and soul. We may “experience” these as souls, but that experience is not complete when we lack our bodies, through which we experience the world.

Here is a speculative answer as to why that may be. As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, all that is in our minds is first experienced through the five senses (ST I.84.6). Now, our souls may be separated from our bodies at death [2], with the result being that we have in heaven mind and memory and intellect and even will, but not those things which are proper to the body such as the senses. It seems to me that, deprived of the sense, we cannot gain new experiences in their proper entirety.

I’m not necessarily citing this book here, but I generally recommend reading Mortimer J. Adler.

What does this mean heaven will be like for us? Perhaps we can look to the angels—though it seems to me that we don’t actually know much about their experiences of heaven. Again, we have deduced that they do not learn in the same way that we do: rather, they are able to instantly grasp and understand new knowledge, conveyed not so much be sense as by intuition. Will our intellects be heightened in this manner? It is certainly within the realm of possibility, and would speculate that this must be so if we are to judge the angels themselves (see 1 Corinthians 6:3). Perhaps we will experience a heightening of this sort, and then we can apply these heightened intellects to intuit heaven’s joy: but again this is not so much an experiencing of heaven as an understanding of it. It would be good, and exceedingly so, even under these conditions, but how would we experience that goodness? Perhaps through memories of the good things we experienced in this life, but elevated and perfected by heavenly grace [3].

Yet, without our bodies, are we really experiencing the fullness of heaven, or is the whole thing little more than a dream-like state until the resurrection [4]? Reunited with our bodies, we may finally actually experience heaven, and in so doing move beyond memory and imagination to actually participate in the real thing. It is one thing to understand the joy of heaven, and even to have that as our single thought, to take delight in it as it fills our minds, our souls; it is another thing still to be fully present in heaven, to experience it and delight in the experience.

Speculation aside, we are told another thing about our bodies in heaven:

“But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body….So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44).

From this, and from the resurrection accounts of the Gospels, we can draw a few conclusions about our bodies in heaven:

  1. These bodies will in fact be our bodies, that is, they will be the body we have on earth, albeit perfected. For example, Christ’s risen body still retained the wounds of his crucifixion (John 20:24-29). The resurrection is not a repudiation of earthly man, but rather it is his completion and perfection.
  2. Our risen bodies will be whole. Each of us will have our entire body restored to us (Luke 12:17).
  3. The bodies in their perfection are “spiritual bodies” [5]. Saint Augustine explains in his City of God that this means they are perfected beyond even what our first ancestors (Adam and Eve) had in the garden before the Fall and the entrance of Original Sin. For example, Adam and Eve still required sustenance (e.g. the tree of life, Genesis 2:9, 16), but our resurrected bodies will not. One result of this is that our risen bodies will be immortal.
  4. Our risen and glorified bodies will be impassible. This means that they will be incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:42) but that they will also be free from inconveniences, such as the pain of heat or cold or physical barriers (John 20:19).
  5. Our glorified bodies will shine with brightness (or glory). They will have different degrees of glory (1 Corinthians 15:39-42).
  6. Our bodies will have perfect agility. This means that we will be able to move with the swiftness of thought, and so space will prove no barrier to our movements. The body can move instantly to any place the soul desires.
  7. The risen body will be absolutely obedient to the soul, and the intellect will govern the will. This obedience is called “subtility,” and was among the gifts enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the Fall but since then lost.

Suffice it to say that the resurrection is something to look forward to (as the Nicene Creed states), and this as a joyous part of the life in the world to come.

—-Footnotes—-
[1] Orthodox: here I mean that there are certain doctrines which the various branches and schisms of Christianity have traditionally held in common. I will not list all examples here, but some include the doctrine of the Trinity, or that Christ was both true God and true man, or that He died and then on the third day resurrected from death to life. Basically, anything contained in the historic creeds, and a few other points of doctrine or common morality.

[2] This is certainly the bulk of opinion among Catholic thinkers. I suppose that the Orthodox opinion of a general dormition until the resurrection would be one alternative to this. The idea of form (soul) without matter (body) is a difficult one to fathom, so I won’t attempt to discuss it much more here.

Cover from Out of the Silent Planet. In the boat is Ransom with a hross (plural hrossa).

[3] Here I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, in which the main character (Ransom) questions the alien hrossa about their mating rituals. The hross which he questions explains that they mate for a single season of life. Ransom asks whether there is pleasure for them, and if so how they can bear to remember it without returning to it. The surprised hross replies that there is as much pleasure in the memory as in the thing itself, and that only in memory can pleasure be completed.

[4] Perhaps there may be something to the Orthodox interpretation, and yet we need not give up the Catholic interpretation to get there!

[5] Note that the fact that the glorified body is a “spiritual body” does not necessarily mean it won’t be “material.” The body s still the matter of which the soul is the form.

The Works of Mercy Part VII–Ransom Captives and Admonish Sinners

This is part VII of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, part IIIpart IV, part V, and part VI first.

Ransom Captives and Admonish Sinners
Ransoming captives may seem the strangest, the least necessary of the works of mercy today. Oh, it was surely necessary historically (and Christ does specifically mention it in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats). There are indeed two different religious orders which were established to do this work historically. Both the Trinitarians and the Order of Our Lady of Ransom specifically had as their mission the rescuing of Christian captives from the hands of the infidels (which largely meant, Muhammedans). Members of the Order of Our Lady of Ransom took a fourth vow, which was to substitute themselves for other captives held be infidels, thereby ransoming those captives by becoming themselves captives: a very Christ-like approach to the problem of captivity.

But how can we do this particular work of mercy today? Hostage situations seem more a problem for the FBI and the police than for the average citizen. POWs are traded between warring governments, and the occasional ship taken by pirates is more likely to be rescued by SEALs than by concerned Samaritans.

Sometimes this work of mercy is interpreted as the simpler “visit the imprisoned,” and that is indeed a part of this work. Not all captives can be ransomed, nor really should all prisoners be set free: there is often a good reason why they are imprisoned, and letting them free is neither merciful to their victims nor to their own souls. But in the US at least, virtually any prisoner can receive visitors, and many of them greatly appreciate the visits. Many parishes run some sort of prison ministry, which might involve Bible studies or even Communion services, both of which can be invaluable to any prisoner. It may be too late for the hardened criminal to walk free under the sun or stars, but there is yet time for him to repent so that he finds himself in Paradise rather than perdition after his death [1].

Captivity goes beyond the bars of a prison or the demands of a hostage situation. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that sickness refers to distress due to an “internal cause” (e.g. lack of health, but any internal cause of distress), and captivity is distress due to an “external cause” (e.g. imprisonment, but any other external cause of distress):

“If the need be special, it is either the result of an internal cause, like sickness, and then we have ‘to visit the sick,’ or it results from an external cause, and then we have ‘to ransom the captive.’…All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives” (Summa Theologica II-II.32.2 Answer and Reply 2).

Therefore, ransoming captives includes many works of mercy beyond visiting the imprisoned and freeing hostages. The fireman who pulls a woman from a burning building is ransoming the captive, as is the teacher who breaks up a fight in the schoolyard.

A more serious problem in our society is sex-trafficking. The USCCB (council of US bishops) has a program which attempts to fight sex trafficking, which is the modern day equivalent of slavery. The American abolitionist historically worked to ransom the captive by freeing slaves, and now their successors work against the modern slaves, those victims of human trafficking.

There are worse situations against which the Church has been leading the fight. Abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, parental surrogacy, artificial insemination (arguably) and in vitro fertilization (definitely) are all forms of captivity. Many of of them—embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization (in practice at least), and abortion—result in the death (often very painful) of the captive, in this case a tiny human being in the earliest stages of his development. Ransoming the captive here aims to put a stop to these evil practices, and where possible to save the lives of their victims. Abortion destroys at least two lives—the child’s and the mother’s—and rescuing a woman and her child from abortion most certainly is a form of ransoming the captive which can be engaged in directly or indirectly (by prayer) by us as lay Catholics.

Moreover, certain sins, especially those pertaining to addictions, require the presence and availability of the thing to which a person is addicted. Thus, an alcoholic sins when he over-imbibes. Whereas his addiction to alcohol is a sort of sickness, the actual presence of alcohol to tempt him is a sort of captivity, and so to remove this temptation is a sort of ransoming. Thus, another form of ransoming the captive is to remove external aides to sin, such as alcohol from an alcoholic, drugs from a drug addict, or weapons from a man who might be tempted to murder.

While we are removing those external aids to sin, we might go a step further and consider the internal ones. If there are many people who are put in external danger, bodily damage, corporal captivity, then it is also true that all of us face a greater internal threat from sin. We are all to some extent enslaved, ensnared, and beshackled by sin. Thus, a fitting spiritual compliment to the corporal work of mercy ransoming captives would be ransoming sinners. However, we cannot ransom sinners and remove them from their captivity in sin: that’s a thing that only God can do. However, we can do a slightly less glamorous task which may be the first step in this process, which is the spiritual work of mercy of admonishing the sinner.

In the book of Ezekiel, we read

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

This is addressed by God to His prophet, meaning ultimately to all His prophets. This includes us, since we are also prophets by our baptisms. According to our Lord, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets (and among the first of the New), yet those who will be part of the Kingdom of God are greater still.

Since we are all called to be prophets by our baptisms, we are also called to take up the mantle of the prophets as “watchmen” against sin. Therefore, we are in fact called to admonish sinners. It does not seem that this was ever an “easy” task, in that admonishing sinners always carries with it a certain risk. In past ages where sin was taken more seriously, admonishing a particularly powerful sinner might bring with it certain social consequences, and worse. Nobody likes to be reminded that he is a sinner; the more humble accept the correction without bitterness; the more haughty see the rebuke as a personal attack and look to exact revenge.

That is still true today [2]. Admonishing the sinner still carries a number of social (and physical, for that matter) risks, whether the sinner is a powerful stranger or a close friend. Try telling one of your “gay” friends that homosexual acts are immoral (as per Catholic moral teaching and the Natural Law tradition), and you will see how strong the friendship is [3]. Ditto for your “straight,” Christian friends who are divorced and remarried.

However, there is an added twist in today’s society. There is a Bible verse which has been twisted and then placed on the lips of the collective culture, and used as a bludgeon against the work of admonishing sinners. After all, we read in both the Gospel of St Matthew (7:1-5) and the Gospel of St Luke (6:37-42) Christ’s own words: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Even the Gospel of St Mark echoes this point, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more” (Mark 4:24).

So we are warned sternly against judging others.

However, these passages have been twisted from their intent. For one thing, we are being told not to judge falsely (hence Christ’s use of the word “hypocrite” [4]). We are not to condemn others, either, and this is what judging as Christ uses it here boiled down to. We do not know the inner movements of the hearts or the inner thoughts of the minds of others: we cannot gaze into each others’ souls to see fully our motives, struggles, desires, thoughts, beliefs, etc.

We can, however, see actions, and call them what they are. Therefore, we cannot judge a person—this is the real warning which Christ is giving here—and call ourselves better than him for not committing all of his sins. For that matter, we can’t call ourselves worse simply because he does not seem to commit all of ours. What we can do, and what this work of mercy requires of us, is to call a sin a sin. This can be done publicly where the sin is public (what we sometimes call a “scandal” [5]); it can be done generally where the sin is widespread (e.g. abortion, contraception, usury, pornography, etc.). But in its most potent (and most merciful) form it is done tactfully, privately, and done with the intention to helping the other person to give up his sin.

Lest we get hung up on the “judge not” passage, Christ also tells us about fraternal correction, and admonishes us to use it rather than pretending that the sin does not exist and that it causes no harm:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

Admonishing the sinner is in fact a work of mercy, and one which Christ Himself enjoins us to do. We are to do it tactfully, lovingly, without boasting, and without condemning. That is a tall order, but it is a far cry different from not doing this at all. When we do not admonish the sinner, we risk losing our own souls, whatever else may be the outcome.

 

Continue to Part VIII.

—Footnotes—
[1] Saint Dismas, often known as “the good thief,” is an excellent example of this.

[2] Mary Stachowicz is a name we may hear more often in the future. She died a martyr for the Faith, murdered by a homosexual man for telling him that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful.

[3] Not to mention that we have created a socio-political-economic climate in which the wrong remarks about the wrong classes of people can lead to losing one’s job. Personal conversations and private actions increasingly have public consequences, usually not for the better.

[4] Hypocrite means something very different in the Gospels than its common use today. Now it merely means not practicing what one preaches. This is not at all the meaning of the words as used by Jesus, since it would make anybody who preached a consistent moral code into a hypocrite. Since He tells us that we must “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if we merely echo His own words we would be hypocrites by today’s (mis-) use of the word.

The word then meant something akin to wearing a mask, putting on a false show like an actor. It would mean, in other words, that we ourselves do not believe in the moral standard which we are preaching, that we don’t hold ourselves to the moral standard to which we hold everyone else. We have one (easy) moral standard for ourselves, and another (harder) one for everyone else. “Hypocrisy” is, in other words, more rightly translated by the phrase “double standard,” and so “judging” means holding others to this double standard to which we do not hold ourselves. God is not fooled, and if we do this, then we will ultimately be held to the higher/harder standard by God.

[5] Another words whose meaning has changed. “Scandal” once meant something—an action, some words, etc—which caused others to lose their faith or to doubt. As Christ Himself says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

The Works of Mercy Part VI–Visit the Sick and Comfort the Afflicted

This is part VI of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, part IIIpart IV, and part V first.

Visit the Sick and Comfort the Afflicted
When we hear of “the sick,” we probably think immediately of those who are in the care of hospitals or hospices. Perhaps we think of our own families while they suffer through cold and flu season, or allergy season. This is, of course, sickness in the conventional sense of the word, and those who suffer it need our assistance and our care.

The elderly infirm also fall into this category, and so visitations to the nursing home also are a way of fulfilling this work of mercy. Since loneliness is often rampant in the nursing homes and retirement centers, the elderly in particular often appreciate visitors.

Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that the sick include both the elderly infirm and those who are permanently disabled:

“The purpose of giving alms is to relieve our neighbor’s need. Now there are many needs of human life other than those mentioned above, for instance, a blind man needs a leader, a lame man needs someone to lean on…

All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives. And the wealth with which we relieve the poor is sought merely for the purpose of relieving the aforesaid needs [hunger, thirst, clothing, shelter]: hence there was no reason for special mention of this particular need” (ST II-II.Q32.A2. Obj2 and Reply).

Thus, “the sick” is a broad term. It encompasses those who are injured; those who are physically ill (whether temporary, chronic, or acute); those who are elderly infirm; those who are disabled (blind, maimed, lame, paralyzed); those who are mentally ill; and those who are ill from addiction (through substance abuse, for example).

Visiting the sick can be a simple act of kindness, such as sending a “get-well soon” sympathy card; or helping a blind man to cross a busy intersection safely. It can be a little more involved still, as when we prepare a meal or care for the children or property (e.g. pets) for somebody who is near-bedridden (if only temporarily) with sickness. This work can be even more involved to the point of feeling like it is all we are able to do, as any parent who has stayed up all night with throwing-up sick children will attest. And it gets even harder, as anyone who has suffered through the last days of a loved one’s cancer or other slowly fatal illness can attest.

I should add another thing here before considering the spiritual work of mercy which complements visiting the sick. Illnesses have alway been around, but they haven’t always been this safe. “The sick” also included lepers, which were not merely ill but fatally so; and the disease was a scary one, so that lepers were often banned from inhabited areas [1]. Yet, Saint Francis of Assisi ministered to one such leper despite his great fears of the disease, and Saint Damien Molokai eventually died from the leprosy which he contracted ministering to a leper colony on the Hawaiian island whose name he bears. There were many instances of Catholic orders setting up hospitals (as discussed previously), which eventually would care for victims of the plagues (and in particular the Black Death). And Catholic priests and sisters and lay persons have been chaplains, nurses, and doctors to the soldiers in the various wars throughout history, often risking their lives to minister to the wounded (or even to the fearful fit before a battle).

We may not all be called to take such risks in mercy, though of course we can read in the Bible that “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We may not have to fear leprosy or the bubonic plague (for now), but there are other diseases of both mind and body. AIDS is somewhat prevalent in America, but it is a pandemic in Africa, with as many as one in three people being infected in some countries. It may not be contagious in the way that the plague or leprosy was, but there is always some small risk of coming into contact with infected fluid.

Nearer to home, there is a different sort of sickness which we might confront. I would call it mental illness, but that is not quite accurate: call it mental imbalance, especially as caused by substance abuse. There are some men whose drug-addled brains leave them unpredictable at best, dangerous at worst. Yet these, too, are “sick,” these too need to be visited, though their visitations may take the form of counseling or admonishing as well as merely visiting and comforting.

Still, to comfort is the first purpose of visiting the sick, and any aide offered to the sick is surely meant in part to do that. This then is the spiritual complement to visiting the sick: comforting the afflicted. This work of mercy is often also referred to as consoling the sorrowful and occasionally as succoring the suffering. It perhaps most directly describes what we intend to do when visiting the sick (in the literal sense of visiting a person who is physically ill).

Or, to return to a previous example, it is even more so what we do for the family of the terminally ill and the surviving next of kin to the recently departed. Anyone who has suffered through the last days of a dying relative knows second-hand the suffering of the relative, but first-hand their own suffering through sympathy and a sense of loss. The person who comes to visit the sick might also do as much to relieve their suffering as to relieve the dying person’s, if the visit is done in a spirit of charity and goodwill. The same might be said of those who engage in the corporal work of burying the dead, as their honoring of the memory of the departed might also offer comfort to the living folks dear to him.

The afflicted, the sorrowing, the grieving, the miserable: these words all pertain to an interior state more than an exterior one. Certainly, some of these states may be confused with depression, whether from a chemical imbalance (which would make it a more physical sickness) or a metaphysical state. There are correspondingly some forms of affliction which we might attempt to comfort, and some which are left to the “professionals,” by which I mean the ordained priests. I can help alleviate the physical or mental suffering of a friend or family member of spending time with him, or by kind works or kind deeds, or by a thoughtful gift or even a warm embrace.

However, some kinds of affliction are metaphysical, spiritual. We see these everyday, and are to some extent powerless against them. We can offer consolation and comfort, but some afflictions can be removed only by exorcism. This is a job for a trained priest, lest we bring the afflicting spirit upon our own heads. These kinds of affliction fall under a different work of mercy.

In the meantime, comforting the afflicted involves any true act (or words) of true kindness. Unfortunately, all-too-many people mistake comforting the afflicted with enabling the affliction. The man addicted to drugs who suffers withdrawal pains does not need to be given more drugs, but rather needs counseling and rehabilitation. Similarly, many people today are “afflicted” by their sins, and their perceived wronging at the hands of society over those sins. This is true of any addictive sin or sinful temptation, whether drug addiction, kleptomania, viewing pornography, eating disorders (gluttony), gossip [2], or any of a variety of sexual temptations and disorders, etc.

All-too-often the response is to excuse the sin as being the natural satisfaction of a very real (and often physical/physiological) temptation. It is always easier to say, “You were born this way, and there is nothing wrong (disordered) about that temptation or acting upon it” than it is to recognize that to varying extents and degrees we are all born into sin. We all suffer the curse of Adam, the concupiscence of our parents; to some extent, we all live in the double darkness of sin and ignorance, and we all struggle with some particular sin or set of sins. We are all afflicted in this way.

It is no comfort to pretend that a sin is not a sin for the sake of gaining physical or psychological satisfaction. It may appear to be comforting the afflicted, and may appear to be treating the “physical symptoms” of the affliction; so would be giving drugs to an addict in withdrawal pains. Doing this may alleviate the physical pains and craving for a time, but in the meantime it places the soul more firmly in the grasp of that temptation, so that the afflictions will return with a vengeance. It trades physical comfort for spiritual affliction. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

There is another kind of affliction which is spiritual, and which is of the opposite sort than this. If our society inflicts spiritual afflictions in the name of physical comforts and consolation, our consciences might at times inflict spiritual agony in greater proportion that our sins warrant. C.S. Lewis puts this idea into his children’s stories, in particular during an exchange between two characters in his Prince Caspian. Near the end of that book (spoiler!), the title character is crowned King of Narnia, and holds a brief dialogue with Aslan (Narnia’s manifestation of Christ). Aslan explains to Caspian that he is descended from pirates who had blundered into the world of Narnia, eliciting a disappointed remark from Caspian about wishing that he had descended from “more honorable lineage,” to which Aslan responds:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve..that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

We have a tendency to beat ourselves up over little things, which can then at times cause us to lose focus on the bigger things. Scrupulosity over small sins can lead us to miss bigger ones, which is nearly as great a spiritual danger to us as listening to the world when it tells us to ignore our sins entirely.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24).

The problem of the Pharisees, as Jesus explains earlier in the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, is that they had failed to comfort the afflicted, and had indeed added to their affliction:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:2-4).

The Scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ Judgment seat—Moses of course was the one to whom God gave the Old Law, the Ten Commandments as it were. Thus the Scribes and Pharisees were correctly interpreting the moral law, but were not correctly applying it. What underlies morality is love, and the “rules” of morality are rules of “right living” (and ultimately, of “right loving”), which have a threefold purpose: inner harmony, social harmony, and harmony between society and God. The first is harmony within one’s soul, that is, right relationship to oneself. The second is harmony with one’s neighbors (and between all members of the human race), right relationship with others. The last is harmony between the soul and God, that is, right relationship to God.

The Pharisees for their part were not being excoriated for insisting on the moral rules, nor even for their interpretations of the moral rules. The moral rules still apply insofar as they were moral rules, as Christ notes:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

The problem is not that the Pharisees were going too far in their moral pronouncements: rather, they were not going far enough. They made the pronouncements, but then did not help others to live up to those pronouncements, and then judged and condemned those others when they failed. We look to Christ as the ultimate comforter of the afflicted, Who says “I do not condemn you for your sins: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11), but also “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). He comforts all the afflicted by taking on the cause of all our afflictions, and with it much of the suffering. herein lies the true difficulty of comforting the afflicted, which is the risk of taking on some of the suffering and some of the affliction ourselves. If we will be true disciples we must, because He did.

Continue to Part VII.

—Footnotes—
[1] According to Old Testament Jewish Law, lepers must be banned from civilized areas and must further warn away any travelers whom they might encounter.

[2] Gossip can be addicting, sort of; if not gossip itself then at least the attention which comes from it.

Mercy Part V–Harbor the Harborless and Forgive Offenses Willingly

This is part V of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, part III, and part IV first.

Harbor the Harborless, Forgive Offenses Willingly
“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58).

Harboring the Harborless is sometimes referred to as “welcoming the stranger,” and indeed it is referred to in this way by Christ Himself in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As our communities—even at times parish communities—break down we all become anonymous strangers to each other. The simplest form of harboring the harborless is therefore to welcome a stranger, if not actually befriending him:

We can start in much simpler ways by welcoming the stranger – be he literally homeless or merely “checking out the parish to see if it would be a good Church home.” In my experience, that’s where we lay Catholics can be of huge assistance to the Body of Christ. Homelessness in one’s own parish is an endemic problem in Catholic America. My family attended a parish for three years and, by the time we left, were just as anonymous to our fellow parishioners as when we first came. The stories of aching loneliness I hear from average Catholics sitting as strangers in pews all over the United States are painfully familiar and painfully common. “Nobody knows my name. We have no friends here. I come to get my sacrament card punched each Sunday but I have no living connection to this parish.” These are things heard again and again in parishes around the country. It’s the reason ex-Catholics are ex-Catholics. They don’t leave the Church because they read “Call no man Father” and realized to their horror that priests were called “Father.” That’s the theological excuse that gets layered on later. The real reason is, “I was desperately lonely and this Evangelical guy invited me to his church, and they welcomed me and gave me a place and knew my name and loved me.”

Of course, harboring the harborless does go beyond welcoming strangers. I have already hinted at providing shelter in discussing clothing the naked. To some extent, this is what harboring the haborless means: housing the homeless. This works of mercy has in some way had the greatest impact on western civilization, because many religious orders took it seriously as a commandment to provide hospitality. The result was that monasteries often provided housing and care for road-weary travelers—many still do today. From these were developed hospitals (note the root) which in addition provided the work of visiting (caring for) the sick.

Others operate more or less as retreat houses, which provide a different kind of shelter: peace and tranquility in the midst of a noisy world. They give a chance to take shelter form the demands of everyday life and to reconnect with God (and for that matter with family). I do not know anybody who has come back from a monastic retreat complaining about the experience.

And, to the extent that we have an extra bed (or couch) or even an extra guest room (or house), we have the opportunity to offer shelter to the shelterless. We might even go a step further by literally providing home space for a homeless person, though this takes a certain amount of trust that we may or may not have (and which may or may not be warranted).

Harboring the harborless (or welcoming the stranger) goes beyond “merely” providing a roof over someone’s head, whether for a single cold night or for a longer period while they get their feet under them. It can mean sheltering the refugee (or the immigrant), which might even put one at odds with one’s government [1]. It extends especially to those refugees who come seeking safety and asylum, as those who fled Cuba for Florida or Cambodia for California, or the Jews who fled Germany during the Third Reich. Most recently, it includes aiding those who are fleeing persecution from Mohammedan militant groups like ISIS or Boko Haram.

This brings up another important example of harboring the harborless—and providing asylum, albeit not political asylum. Battered women/children shelters provide a different kind of shelter, that against an abusive domestic situation. And Crisis Maternity Homes provide an especially important work of mercy, harboring a mother experiencing a so-called “crisis pregnancy.” Such women are often unwed teens (or occasionally young twenties) whose families pressure them to murder their unborn children. Some of these young women have been thrown out of their homes by their own parents for choosing life, others have been forced to run away from home to protect their unborn children—whether from abortion-minded parents or abusive live-in boyfriends.

Again, this work of mercy is sometimes referred to as “welcoming the stranger,” and to some extent it is just that, even in the face of ingratitude from them. To again quote Mr Shea:

Just because somebody is a victim doesn’t mean he can’t be a bad person, too. Hitler, after all, was a homeless person. It’s easy, in the flush of excitement over conversion, to leap into a sort of Franciscan zeal for the leper, only to discover that the leper is a major jerk. That homeless guy you want to help may be homeless not because he’s one of the wretched of the earth whom fate dealt a bad hand, but because he’s a violent, unstable parasite who bites the hand that feeds him. Sometimes, the bum suffers not from bum luck but from sitting on his sinful bum. Sometimes, it really is better for professionals to handle things than to assume that your sanctity will melt the heart of the guy who, if you but knew it, is wanted for rape in three states.

Yet, all that said, we are still commanded to harbor the harborless. And there are ways to do it – even ways to do it via personal involvement and not merely by writing a check. For instance, some 20 years ago, a small non-denominational church in the north end of Seattle took it upon itself to start sponsoring refugees into the United States. I remember it well because it happened to be my church. Our pastor, working with a relief agency in the area, arranged to bring a refugee and his two children from Vietnam. They had walked through Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the children had seen bodies stacked like cord wood. They came here in the early 1980s and subsequently brought their mother and sibling here when they got established. We also sponsored two men from Ceaucescu’s Romania (and then their families) and a family from Communist Poland.

This means that harboring the harborless does in fact tie into some of the spiritual works of mercy: bearing wrongs patiently, which I have already discussed, and forgiving offenses willingly. Whereas bearing wrongs patiently means to tolerate offenses committed against us for the sake of the other person, to forgive those wrongs means to not hold them against that other person. This we are implicitly commanded to do; that is, we specifically pray that we will do this every time we utter the prayer taught us by the LORD: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The converse of this prayer would simply be, “Do not forgive us our trespasses as we fail to forgive others theirs against us.” The Lord makes this even more explicit when He tells us that if we forgive others, then God will also forgive us (Matthew 6:14). Moreover, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is a momentous thing, that Christ took on human flesh and human nature in order to conquer sin and death—and that by so doing, He freed us from them. This freedom is such that we could be forgiven by God, but also by each other; in other words, because we are free from the final effects of sin, we can therefore also forgive one another, and this forgiveness becomes more than a dead and empty gesture.

One distinction can be made here. We can extend forgiveness, but it must be accepted, too. Forgiving another’s trespasses against us heals us of the need to hold on to these offenses, but the other person must accept that forgiveness to move on himself. He must repent of his sins to be truly released from them, otherwise they will retain their grip on his soul.

We are not our sins. The Catholic convert Leah Libresco writes that

To forgive someone is not to sanction or endorse the previous transgression. And it’s not a prerequisite that the person forgiven have acted in good faith or in the service of some competing good. The pope could just as easily forgive an assassin (as, indeed, he did), but his act of charity wouldn’t leave us saying that the whole attempted assassination was morally negligible.

Otherwise, we’re selling forgiveness short. We’re saying it can only be extended to the people who aren’t really bad at all; it’s more like the perfunctory “Sorry!” “’Sokay” when you bump into someone on the subway…

When we forgive someone, we acknowledge sin as sin without essentializing it. The forgiveness the pope would offer would be removing the Homeric epithet of “the oathbreaker Cardinal” or “the assassin Mehmet Ali Aǧca” and restoring us as “the child of God, who broke an oath.”

Sin is something we do, not something we should give up and say we are. Seeking forgiveness begins when we recognize and detest our sins, and is extended when a friend agrees with us, and shows us that it’s possible to loathe them and love us.

Thus, an essential part of forgiving sins, the part which makes it truly an act of mercy (and of sacrifice) is that we recognize the person as distinct from his sins. The sins we must hate, for they are hateful in God’s sight, but the sinners who commit them are fellow men like us: these we must love, because as men we too are sinners. Then all sins can be forgiven (if repented), or at least borne with when not.

 

Continue to Part VI.

—Footnotes—
[1] As Mark Shea notes, the Church and the government are not necessarily always called to do the same thing. The Church must harbor the harborless, even as the government must at times set immigration policy which leads to the deportation of those same “harborless.” I would add that the Church should then co-operate in this deportation process even while otherwise harboring an illegal, unless there is a very good reason to not cooperate (meaning the person risks persecution or death or unjust imprisonment etc. if deported; in short, if deportation means destroying a family or if the refugee has legitimate claims to asylum).

Works of Mercy Part IV–Clothe the Naked and Bear Wrongs Willingly

This is part IV of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, and part III first.

Clothe the Naked and Bear Wrongs Willingly
A couple of years ago, there was a kerfuffle over the popular clothing maker Abercrombie and Fitch when some remarks made by their CEO in a then seven-year-old interview surfaced:

The article dredged up a seven-year-old interview with Mike Jeffries, the sixty-eight-year-old, eccentric C.E.O. of Abercrombie & Fitch, rehearsing the principles that made Abercrombie one of the most successful—and most hated—brands in retail history. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Jeffries observed. “We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

One response to this interview was a campaign called “Fitch the Homeless,” in which a man searched second-hand stores for Abercrombie and Fitch clothes, bought them, and then videotaped himself distributing them to homeless people. Was the man behind the campaign acting mercifully by clothing the naked?

Clothing serves a practical purpose as well as a moral one. The practical purpose is the protection of the body from the immediate environment, which includes keeping the body warm in the cold of winter and keeping out the biting and stinging bugs of the summer. The moral purpose is to remind onlookers that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), and that it is the visible matter of the soul. Another moral purpose of clothing is that it further helps a person to act with modesty and decorum, though these things are both rooted in human dignity (of others and one’s own, respectively) which might be made visible with proper clothing.

These purposes of clothing should make clear a few points about clothing the naked:

  • The clothing should be in decent condition. “Hand-me-downs” are of course perfectly acceptable, provided that they are in good condition: they are little different from clothing obtained at a second hand store like Goodwill or the Salvation Army or Savers, all of which often sport some very dignified garments.
  • The clothing should be modest and decorous. This means again that it is in good shape, but also that it fits well and is “presentable.” A part of being presentable is that it it is not overly flashy nor overly big on images etc. Modest means more than just “being covered,” and decorum often goes out the window when the shirt says something offensive or lewd.
  • Actually, more often that not designer t-shirts lack modesty, decorum, or both; so, for that matter, do the ever-popular jeans with holes torn in them. These may be expensive clothing, but they are not performing the moral (and, for the matter, many of the practical) functions of clothing.
  • There is a sense in which clothing is also shelter. This is especially true to the survivalist, who will often note that clothing choice is among the most important decisions to make when preparing for a disaster. Providing a nice rain-coat or a warm blanket straddles the line between clothing the naked and harboring the harborless.

Among other things, it should be clear from this list that the “Fitching the Homeless” campaign was not exactly merciful to the homeless. Instead, it was about using the poor to score publicity points against Abercrombie and Fitch. It hinged on the idea that the poor were somehow less dignified, that the clothing “brand” would suffer by being seen on homeless folks—which to be fair was a problem with the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch more so than with the fellow undertaking the campaign. In short, it accepted the premise of the CEO that the poor are somehow “lesser” than the rest of us. As one commentator at the time put it,

“This stunt is based on the exact same premise offered by Jeffries: that some people are ‘unworthy’ to wear A&F clothes. The hipster doofus handing out A&F clothing to people on the street is doing it because he accepts the notion that they’re somehow lesser than “the rest of us.” His stunt has no bite without this assumption.

And the guy in the video is just passing out clothes to random people, without any sense of whether or not the clothes are wanted or even fit. He gives something to a decidedly plus-sized woman when we already know A&F doesn’t make plus sized clothing. These people are just being used as props.”

While this stunt involved giving clothing to the poor, it left them in truth more naked than before.

An often-misunderstood passage—and there are unfortunately all too-many of these—has our LORD telling us, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). Here we see a link between clothing the naked and bearing wrongs patiently.

And many sins are of a nature as to leave the sinner “spiritually naked,” they may be an embarrassment to him, may impair his sense of decorum or may be against modesty. A drunkard feels ashamed that he gets drunk as often as he does: so he remedies this shame by getting drunk. Bearing wrongs willingly means being patient with someone whose sins are often as frustrating to them as they are to you. Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that

“In respect of the result of the inordinate act, on account of which the sinner is an annoyance to those who live with him, even beside his intention; in which case the remedy is applied by ‘bearing with him,’ especially with regard to those who sin out of weakness, according to Romans 15:1: ‘We that are stronger, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak,’ and not only as regards their being infirm and consequently troublesome on account of their unruly actions, but also by bearing any other burdens of theirs with them, according to Galatians 6:2: ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens.'”

To bear another’s wrongs patiently is to develop a sympathy for them: that is, a sympathy for the person suffering, for the person who experiences temptations to sin. We are all tempted by something, after all, whether that something obviously and directly hurts others or whether the harm is more hidden and secretive. There are, in the final scheme of things, no merely “private” sins and no harmless evils, since every sin damages our relationship to God and to His Church.

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well” (Luke 6:28-29). These are not merely passive measures of nonviolence being counseled by the good shepherd. As one commentator has noted, these are in fact rater “edgy” statements given the time and place they were made:

In Roman Palestine, incidentally, a person of superior rank who slapped you in the face would expect you to respond by crawling in the dust and grovelling before him. (Or, her.) To remain standing, instead, and turn the other cheek, was a little more edgy than we may nowadays appreciate. Similarly, a Roman soldier could lawfully require you to carry his gear for one Roman mile, but not farther. This was a tax in kind, a short-term enslavement. By carrying it for two miles, you were turning the tables. You were now portering in friendship as a free man — and showing him how to do his job. This, too, was edgy. Similarly with him that commandeered thy cloak: give him the coat also, as the charitable act of a free man. Jesus was not counselling passivity, let alone gestures that are “holier than thou.” He was proposing quite practical — and edgy — stratagems for the slave to free himself from the bondage of this world.

In bearing wrongs willingly, we neither retaliate nor grovel, but instead show forth our own sense of dignity, acting with a sense of modesty and decorum: we may in turn inspire others to do the same. There is a certain bondage which comes from holding a grudge: by bearing others wrongs willingly, we free ourselves from that bondage, at least in part. We throw off the shackles of this world, and in return may inspire those who wrong us to do the same. We then take a few faltering steps as free men, as people who are more able to cooperate with God’s grace to overcome our own sins, or perhaps to inspire or help others to overcome theirs.

In acting with decorum and modesty, we become momentary windows for a world which has forgotten what these things are. Perhaps as such we will inspire them to act in accordance with their own dignity as men bearing the image and likeness of God. We need more men of virtue, more women of grace–but we must first become such people.

 

Continue to Part V.

Works of Mercy Part III–Giving Drink to the Thirsty and Instructing the Ignorant

This is part III of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part I and part II first.

 

Give Drink to the Thirsty and Instruct the Ignorant
Hunger may be among the worst forms of physical suffering by sheer magnitude, for many people go hungry. On the other hand, thirst is perhaps nearly so common, for many lack access to water. The homeless unemployed perhaps wants for food, water, shelters and at times, clothes. Nor was thirst unknown in ancient times. Much of what I said about hunger applies here, too.

Giving drink to the thirsty is an act which often is even more appreciated than feeding the hungry, in particular during the hot summer months. Those that have the space in their car (or truck, minivan, etc) could consider buying one of those 24- or 36-count packages of water bottles and stowing them on the floor of the vehicle to hand out to the homeless. These folks generally appreciate it, and it is fulfilling one (or, if you add a small snack, two) works of mercy which can literally be done as a part of a normal commute by handing out the bottles while waiting at stoplights.

In the Psalms we read that “From thy lofty abode thou waterest the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy work” (Psalm 104:13, or Psalm 103:13 depending on numbering). Water too is a gift from God, and one which is meant for the benefit of us all. On the other hand, this verse became the subject of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ inaugural address when he became master of the sacred page (theologian) at the University of Paris. In that address, he stated that God’s watering the mountains (or hilltops) was an allegory for His pouring forth knowledge and understanding on the wise [1]. God waters the mountains, which in turn fertilized the plains and fields—God gives His knowledge and understanding and wisdom to some, who in turn share it with others who are ignorant.

“Soaking” up knowledge like a sponge, or “thirsting for knowledge,” or “drinking” in knowledge: all of these are rather natural expressions. If our spiritual hunger is for righteousness—which is opposed to sin—we might be said also to have a spiritual thirst is for knowledge and understanding and wisdom. In fact, the Beatitude actually says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” but righteousness means both right acts and right desires: so that we must know what to believe and what to desire and how to live to be truly righteous. Unfortunately, we are born in a “double darkness,” as Saint Thomas Aquinas notes, “of sin and ignorance.”

Thus, to instruct the ignorant is to help lift this darkness. As with counsel, a part of this instruction may take the form of discussing what is good and what is evil; what is of God and what is of the world. Good spiritual instruction therefore pertains to one (or more) of three things: what we ought to believe (creed, faith), what we ought to desire (worship, hope), and how we ought to live (morality, charity).

In my own experience, there are three things pertaining to our faith about which people are ignorant and thus in need of instruction:

  1. There is a lot of ignorance (or confusion) about what the Church really teaches in a given doctrine or dogma, and by extension what the Church does not teach as doctrine or dogma. As Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, most people do not hate the Church (or her teachings), but rather hate what they misunderstand the Church to be (or to teach).
  2. There is much ignorance (or, again, confusion) about what the Bible really says (and really means), in particular what Christ says an means whenever He speaks in the Gospels. We are all at times in the place of the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts, asking “How can I [understand the Scriptures], unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30).
  3. There is widespread ignorance about the relationship between morality and love, between worship and hope, and between faith and the creeds. Morality is frequently treated as only “a list of do’s and don’t” rather than the demands of love. Communal worship and the liturgy are often equated with rote rituals and dead motions and empty words rather than right reverence and the nearest we get to heaven on earth. And the creed and its associated dogmas become extra distraction to hinder us from forming a relationship with Christ (like so many barnacles on a ship, as one person put it) rather than clarifications about Who God has revealed Himself to be.

Some of these things are nuanced and some contain many layers of meaning and levels of complexity. Others are more straightforward, but have been given nuances which they are not meant to contain [2]. Moreover, one cannot effectively teach what he does not know, so to instruct the ignorant requires the sacrifice of time spent in studying as well as that in teaching. And on the other hand, because knowledge of Truth comes from God, prayer is an active part of this particular work of mercy.

Continue to Part IV

 

—Footnotes—
[1] Knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are three gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, between the first two spiritual works of mercy we have also encountered four gifts of the Holy Spirit.

[2] This is common with any verse containing moral teachings, and historically also has happened to verses with theological meanings. Both still happen today, though the former is more common than the latter. More often still, they contain the straightforward literal meaning and the nuanced (metaphorical, allegorical, etc) meaning, but the latter is called upon to make the former disappear. Thus a clear and consistent proscription against sodomy becomes merely a teaching about “hospitality.” And, to be fair, attempting to sodomize a person is certainly less-than-hospitable.