Archive for December, 2009


Dawn Eden’s Reasons To Be Chaste (A Shorter List)

December 30, 2009

Dawn Eden

Dawn Eden has been an online force for Catholic bloggers for several years now and I have respected her efforts from afar. “Afar” because she often writes about relationship issues and chastity. This is her speaking to her conversion to Chastity:

As a late convert to chastity, I sometimes have a hard time explaining my vocation to people — and not just to those who think it’s bizarre to forgo premarital sex. There are Catholics of traditional upbringing who look at me as if they’d never met a 38-year-old woman who wasn’t either a mother or a nun. When I wrote on my blog about the response I gave to the Irish Times reporter, a male reader commented, “[T]hough there might be something to be said for ‘easing’ into the idea of a lifetime of singleness, at some point, I think that making an affirmative commitment to single lay celibacy would give that life the same focus and purpose that men and women living holy orders or marriage enjoy.”

I believe that a small but significant number of people share that reader’s perspective, in that they are uncomfortable with the idea of uncertainty. They can’t imagine themselves leading a chaste single life for an extended period of time, and so they feel uneasy at the idea that someone would choose a life lacking the “focus and purpose” of celibacy vows. To them, the idea of an unmarried person’s attempting to live chastely without consecrating their choice before God is the equivalent of a couple’s shacking up rather than making their union official. I feel as though they think I’m just playing at chastity.

When it comes to faith, God recognizes no mushy middle. On the one hand, the Bible is filled with exhortations to take a stand, perhaps most eloquently in Revelation 3, when Jesus tells the Laodicean church to be cold or hot — but not lukewarm. But on the other, the Bible makes clear that our life on Earth is an ongoing study in reconciliation. “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” said Moses, and God’s people have always been strangers among the worldly. The Lord wants us to rely solely upon Him for direction, as David writes in the 25th Psalm: “Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord; for he shall pluck my feet out of the net.”

In other words, as I see it, we are supposed to be absolutely certain of where we stand — but not so sure about where we’re going.

Through Jesus’ reconciling the world to himself, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, we as Christians are given the “ministry of reconciliation.” This ministry is intended to be ongoing. It does not end when one lives under vows, regardless of the sense of closure such vows may provide.

A friend of mine, while training me to volunteer at a charity that helped homebound senior citizens, warned me not to assume that a healthy-looking client was able to take good care of himself. “Not all disabilities are visible,” she said.

In the same way, not all abilities are visible. It is impossible to tell from observing someone’s life what spiritual graces that person has received. “The world admires only spectacular sacrifice,” wrote St. Josemaria Escriva, “because it does not realize the value of sacrifice that is hidden and silent.”

Being a good twenty years older and having grown up in a much more innocent age where HIV-AIDS had not yet ravaged the dating landscape, my sexual coming of age was given over to the Playboy philosophy and learning how to become a sexual predator. I continued polishing my skills after separating from my wife in my late thirties. So my fascination with Dawn comes from wondering how my life could have been different had my conversion happened in my teens and I had learned about chastity earlier. I also spent my 20s and 30s in Japan which had a highly developed sexual predator culture that I smoothly adopted. It also gave me an excuse – I wasn’t being any different from any other Japanese man I knew. In fact, I partook of none of their sexist behaviors but used my skills to seduce my prey.

Chastity, Dawn tells us, “is often used to mean abstaining from sex, as if it were equivalent to celibacy. One remembers St. Augustine, grappling with his desires, crying out to God, “Give me chastity . . . but not yet!” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life.’” Yet if being chaste were the same as being celibate Christ’s faithful wouldn’t be that great in number.

Chastity flows from the moral virtue of temperance which along with Prudence ( the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time); Justice  (proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others) and Courage or Fortitude (the forbearance, endurance, and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation) combine to comprise the Four Cardinal Virtues. You may note that all four do not come naturally and require not only an education in but a devotion to their practice. Needless to say they are not taught in school and form no basis for any practical outlook in our culture – outside of the Boy Scouts perhaps, which I had abandoned in my early teens.

Chastity helps us direct our sexuality and sexual desires toward authentic love and away from using persons as objects for sexual pleasure. Chastity is not, as I had imagined, a matter of repression of sexual feelings and temptations, but is the successful integration of the gift of sexuality within the whole person. To integrate the gift of sexuality means to make it subordinate to love and respect through the practice of chastity

Dawn Eden writes: “Part of chastity entails the proper ordering of sexual pleasure — which means engaging in it only within marriage. But more than that, it is really a way to look at all of one’s relationships so that they no longer become mere exchanges of commodities. It means experiencing others’ presence — not just what they do, but their existence itself — as a gift. A spouse is a particularly special reminder of that most perfect gift of self made by Jesus Christ.

While sex can bring pleasure, the jury is still out on whether it can bring joy…The Catholic Church believes that true joy comes from God. In that light, the only way a sexual relationship can bring such joy is if it is undertaken by a man and woman who have brought God into it through the sacrament of marriage.”

One of the great secular best sellers while I was growing up was “The Joy of Sex,” a 1972 best seller by the aptly named but now deceased Dr. Alex Comfort. That highly graphically illustrated book became the coffee-table Kama Sutra of the baby-boom generation. Its three versions sold more than 12 million copies and earned the good Doctor who morphed from a physician into poet, novelist, scientific researcher, anarchist and pacifist and author of 51 books over three million dollars, most of which he gave away to charities. Supposedly the actual work of churning its hymn to Sex and Freedom took only three weeks.

But this is the Freedom which counsels the satisfaction of appetites. It is hard to recall the Church’s definition of freedom, which was not the political license to follow our bellies or the philosophical encouragement to send our elders packing. Freedom was understood, rather, as a growing into the habits, the virtues, that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.

As Dawn points out it is “in sacramental marriage, spouses’ commitment of unending love for one another emulates God’s unending love for them. As a result, their temporal feelings of sexual gratification are transformed — gaining a deep and fulfilling sense of spiritual permanence.” Had this been the Joy of the “Joy of Sex,” perhaps something good may have come out of it.

But in 1968 the median age of the United States was my own, 21 years old. The average age of the soldier in Vietnam was 19. There wasn’t much premium on wisdom and few could recognize it. As consumers the young drove the markets and if you could package stupidity and sell it as wisdom so much the better. And it came out during a perfect storm: when the birth control pill had removed some constraints to sex, and before AIDS added new ones.

When Dr. Comfort passed, the NY Times hunted about for a tribute to him and the book. They knew just where to look: ”Dr. Comfort’s ‘Joy of Sex’ was a landmark book that made an important contribution to human development and healthy sexuality,” said Joan Malin, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of New York City. ”The groundbreaking publication of this book took us from an era of silence and shame about sexuality to one of greater openness and discussion.”

Those folks are still with us and probably look on in horror at the phenomena of Dawn Eden.

But to get back to my summary here, Dawn tells us that beyond marital happiness, there are countless reasons why chastity is worth pursuing in the here and now.  I’ve distilled seven from the 10 and ½ she offered.

One (#1) she writes on is to find joy in unexpected places:

“Becoming chaste requires a conscious decision to change perspective…. The decision is that only after taking the focus off love, acquired or absent, that it is possible to see life’s blessings as the gifts they are….Relationships can no longer be viewed through the lens of entitlement: You accept the fact that love is too precious to be a thing “deserved,” as most of the broader culture seems to teach.

With this new vision, true love means being loved for who you are, not what you do. Likewise, there is a desire to share that same kind of unconditional love with others — not only a spouse, but also anyone else — because giving love is the only way to truly live.

Another (#2) is to experience true freedom:

True sexual freedom can exist only when the dignity of the human person is recognized. That is impossible in an environment that upholds works like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, inviting people to reduce their self-image to their anatomy. Likewise, there is no dignity in a society that encourages touching another person’s body but not allowing that person to touch your heart.

The Church’s teachings on chastity enable us to discover, understand, and live out our liberty in Christ. G. K. Chesterton wrote nearly a century ago in Orthodoxy: “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. . . . We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased.”

A third (#3) is to recognize that fornication is a mortal sin:

“If there’s a Heaven worth getting to, then it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Jesus said that sex outside of marriage separates us from Him.

The Catechism defines sin in two categories, venial and mortal, according to their gravity, particularly how they affect charity — that is, one’s ability to love God and thereby truly love others. “Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it,” but “mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him” (1854-55).

“Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself,” the Catechism adds. “It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.”

The Catechism specifically mentions fornication — sex outside of marriage — as a sin, and the Church has traditionally taught that it is a mortal sin. This teaching can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus said, “I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 9:28). If lustful looks are adulterous, how much worse is lustful physical contact?

St. Paul tells us that “fornicators” and other “unrighteous” “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Willful sin of any kind, including fornication, deprives one of heaven.

A friend of mine offers another sobering thought: If you have sex outside of marriage, what you’re really saying to your sex partner is, ‘I wish you hell.’”

A fourth (#4) is to build true intimacy, not forced or premature intimacy:

“Before taking marriage vows, the best way to practice for married love is by not having sex. That’s because most of marriage is not having sex. It’s a lesson that many couples learn too late.

Studies show that the top three reasons why couples divorce are communication problems, unhappiness, and incompatibility (see “Perceived Causes of Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, February 1985). These problems often arise because couples have not learned, before their marriage, to communicate effectively and to make sacrifices for the good of the other. A major reason for this is often that they have skipped steps to intimacy, using sex to create a false bond while failing to make necessary efforts to deepen their relationship.

Part of the pseudo-intimacy that sex can bring is caused by body chemistry. Numerous scientific studies, some of which are cited in Dr. Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected, have shown that the hormone oxytocin, which is released during sexual arousal, facilitates or fabricates a feeling of bonding, particularly in women.

Moreover, the nature of sex itself — being a complete physical self-giving — puts pressure on relationships where emotional intimacy has not been fully and deeply established.

For those who attempt to use sex as a shortcut to intimacy, the results are often painful. A study in the Journal of Sex Research found that college students in committed dating relationships often consented to unwanted sexual activity out of the belief that it was necessary for intimacy:

Approximately one quarter of the men and one half of the women who participated in this study reported consenting to unwanted sexual activity during a two-week period. This finding indicates that these experiences were not uncommon for our sample. . . . Participants typically reported consenting to unwanted sexual activity to satisfy a partner’s needs, to promote relationship intimacy, and to avoid relationship tension. Diminished intimacy and/or relationship discord may be a consequence of violating such an implicit contract.

So, popular culture’s ideal of sexual freedom, in practice, means making yourself available so that someone can emotionally pressure you into sex.

The fifth (#5) is to deepen your relationship with god

“Different stages of life bring different priorities. “He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord — how he may please the Lord,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthians. “But he who is married cares about the things of the world — how he may please his wife.”

Likewise, Paul writes, “The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world — how she may please her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

The time that God gives for the single life is precious — and not merely because you have more freedom to do what you want to do when you want to do it. It’s precious because it provides a unique opportunity to bring all your spiritual graces into full flower — and to do so in ways that will bear fruit for the rest of your life.

It costs no money and often takes very little time to share God’s love with someone in need, yet the rewards are incalculable. In years to come, you may be very thankful that, when you were unmarried and in good health, you used your time to learn holiness.”

The sixth (#6) is to dramatically increase your odds of having a lasting marriage

Numerous studies suggest that if a couple has had sex before marriage, the pair is far more likely to get divorced. The divorce rate for couples who live together before marriage is nearly twice that of couples who do not cohabitate (see “The changing character of stepfamilies,” Demography 32; and “Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 57).

Likewise, research by Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson shows that experimenting with one or more sex partners doesn’t prepare one for being able to maintain a committed relationship — just the opposite, in fact. The Heritage Foundation researchers, analyzing the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, found that for women 30 or older, those who were monogamous (only one sexual partner in a lifetime) were by far most likely to still be in a stable relationship (80 percent). Having sex with just one extra partner dropped that probability to 54 percent. Two extra partners brought it down to 44 percent. Who would have thought that the price of sleeping with even one partner would lead to divorce for almost half of those who had only one extra tryst?

And the last one (#7) she lists is to learn how to love others the way god loves you

“The hunger for love is so great that people often attach its name to emotions or impulses that are far inferior to the real thing.

As St. John wrote, God is love. In becoming man, He showed us how we are to love one another — fully, completely, and sacrificially, with nothing held back.

The key to love is chastity, because it is only through chastity that we can learn to love one another as God loves us. That kind of love does not depend upon what another does for us. We love others because God gave us the ability to do so, and it is in doing so that we fulfill our destiny as His children.”If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:12).

This love, as we have seen, can be experienced only when it is accepted as a gift, not as what one deserves. The beauty of it is that, to fully experience the gift of another, one must become a gift. “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love): “Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf John 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf John 19:34).”

Loving others as God loves them requires truth and integrity — qualities that are absent in sex outside of marriage.

In non-marital sex, your body says, “I give myself to you completely,” while your heart says, “nope,” “maybe,” or “hope so.” The dichotomy between what is done and what is felt is spiritually damaging, because what you do with your body affects your soul.

“The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine,” John Paul II says in the Theology of the Body. “It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.”

That mystery has its source in the ultimate union — that of God and His Church in heaven. To the extent that you reflect God’s love, your body and soul are at heaven’s leading edge.

Living chastely means recognizing your true residence and living as though you are already there. The size of your home is determined by the size of your heart. As countless saints have discovered, it is truly living large.”

As you see Ms. Eden makes some powerful arguments. The full article with some interesting comments from readers is here. Her blog and all things Dawn is here. She no longer blogs but her posts are still there.


Book Recommendation: “My Grandfather‘s House” — Robert Clark

December 29, 2009

Tracing his ancestry back 500 years, PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association) book award-winner Robert Clark (Mr. White’s Confessions) maps a legacy of religious belief, disbelief, and faith that mirrors his own spiritual quest.

Although he speaks to his recent re-entry into the Catholic Church (the original church of his 500-year-old ancestors), Clark has not written a predictable “I once was lost but now I’m found” autobiography. Rather, he examines a familiar English-American religious legacy.

“Like my forebears, I have been variously, and sometimes simultaneously, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Puritan, a Transcendentalist, an agnostic, and an atheist,” Clark explains in the introduction to the book. Using his own journey of doubt and faith as the narrative framework, Clark weaves in the religious stories of his ancestors.

We meet the Clark family members as inquisitors during the rein of Henry VIII, as Puritan settlers, as accusers in witch trails, and as cohorts of Emerson and Thoreau. Clark has great command over his ancestors’ stories, his own story, and his story-telling ability. As a result, he has pulled this ambitious autobiography together in a way that is historically informative, consistently entertaining, and personally meaningful. Deftly and often humorously, he helps us see how our ancestors’ religious conversions, confusions, and conquests often reflect our own.(Quoted from a trade review)

“Clark, keenly aware of his narrative’s singularity, tries hard to situate it in the literary canon. He calls it a confessio, akin to Augustine’s great prototype — a rumination on and among his memories with the simple end of praising his God and comprehending himself” — but Clark wanders into fields of which Augustine never dreamed. He begins by tracking his memories and those of his family back to Reformation England and his oldest known ancestor, John Griggs. So far, this is standard family history, but Clark apparently sensed that his bloodline alone could not transmit the complexities of half a millennium of religious development. Therefore, in what constitutes either a daring expansion of the genre or a freely indulged penchant for digression, he shifts his focus at every opportunity to the notable figures of the age — in this case, from the Griggses to Henry VIII, that theocrat and thug whom he wittily calls ”the very Babe Ruth of divorce.”

And so it goes, through the Puritans, the America migrations, the Salem witch trials, the Transcendentalists and into modernity. Clark details each religious climate by shuttling between family and wider world, presenting vague portraits of his ancestors — the available records are often sparse — and vivid ones of historical greats like Margaret Fuller, Emerson, Hawthorne and Melville. He fragments his narrative further by interspersing, at odd intervals, the story of his own religious meanderings. We learn of child cruelties, adolescent antics and adult traumas, all hinting at an unfulfilled yearning for a spiritual home.”
From PHILIP ZALESKI’s review in the NY Times.

My reading selections here:

Thomas Cranmer And Henry VIII’s Reformation
Among the orders for the removal of shrines, the proscription of devotions, and the lighting of candles for the dead and the saints, was one that mandated every parish acquire a copy of the Bible in English, and moreover record baptisms, weddings and funerals carried out in its churches…In all this there is a replacement of substitution being worked: of words for things, or of the names of things for the signs themselves. The Bible replaces the statues and images of the shrines and the rites and symbols of the liturgy; the parish record book stands in the place of the saints and the dead. Under Protestantism, preaching would be the principal sacrament: words would fill the disenchanted, disembodied, now merely symbolic shell of the Eucharist….

This is the great divorce…of things and signs of things from words and names, the triumph of  nominalism, our culture’s concession that it knows nothing of God, and that God, for all we know, knows (or at least cares) nothing of us. Since God is no longer assuredly in things and intimately so, we are estranged not only from Him but from his creation, from things themselves; and even his “gifts and creatures of bread and wine” are nothing more than what we call them , nothing more than names.

The Puritan Temperament
The Puritan temperament was reluctant to ascribe any good fortune to God’s will, for fear that such an explanation would prove to be a manifestation of spiritual pride (and thus perhaps prompt God to retaliate in anger). But in times like the 1620s it was quick to attribute bad fortune of every kind to divine displeasure. The medieval mind had assumed that since God was god, the good that occurred in the world was an expression of his presences, while evil had no real existence, but was merely a privation of the good, a necessary concomitant of free will, in which God permitted his creatures the godlike freedom to say no to Him.

Puritanism turned this disposition upside down. Bad fortune was almost always taken to be a direct expression of divine anger, while good fortune tended to be construed as indifference — God choosing to leave you alone — rather than favor. Moreover, the Puritans replaced the medieval enchanted created world — God’s corporeal self-expression, which seemed to partake of he Creator’s own timelessness — with a fallen, even hostile environment where the clock was always ticking , and always, needless to say, running down. It was as though the Puritans had substituted pessimism for optimism an time for space, exchanging an organic universe for one segmented, even fragmented by events and destinies. In keeping with their devotion to the word and the law, they were obsessed with history, with uncovering the hidden narrative in which each individual was an actor and which ended in either damnation or salvation.

Modern vs. Puritan Belief
In our time, belief — like seemingly everything else in our culture of consumer individualism — is a choice, and not one that comes very easily to most people. But for the Puritans disbelief was simply not an option, not because religion was mandated but because the reality of God’s existence  — and his pleasure and displeasure — was self-evident, the first principle of reality.  God existed and had power over your life whether you liked it or not. Amid all the boundless uncertainty of the world, that one thing was absolutely certain. The Puritans then did not have a problem believing in God but believing in themselves, their own paltry human faith. Faith was not simply the prerequisite to salvation, but was salvation itself, the greatest gift , the absence of which was sheer nonexistence, the place called hell.

New England Christianity in the 1700s
By the early 1700s, New England Christianity was devolving int to camps: on the one hand, the proto evangelical hellfire preachers represented by Stoddard and most famously by his heir Jonathan Edwards, who emphasized an effective spirituality based on a personal subjective experience of sinfulness and redemption;  on the other, the Harvard centered “Brattle Street Liberals” who proposed an accommodation between Christian faith and the celebration of human reason that was then gaining ground in Europe….a cooler more intellectual religion that is the ancestor of Unitarianism, Episcopalianism and “mainstream” Protestantism.

Jesus And Dualism
There is an account in the Gospel of St. John in which Jesus encounters and subsequently restores the sight of a man blind from birth. Seeing this man — or rather, in a sense, not really seeing him at all, everyone around Jesus asks, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” the only explanation anyone can imagine is that this misfortune is the result of either predestination or willful misbehavior; or, in psychological rather than puritan words, of a childhood trauma (the memory of which many be repressed ) or of self-inflicted wounds — of “acting out or neurotic ideation”

Jesus stunning , baffling reply is “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He is blind in order that he works of God should be made manifest in him” Jesus is saying, I think, that this man, in his very blindness, is a sign a sacrament of grace, In this transformation, Jesus has turned what others in their dualism could only see as judgment or punishment, as pathology or abnormality into glory, into health. And then, bringing that grace to fruition, he restores the man’s sight.

Unitarian Theology of The 1820s
Unitarian theology was a response to both the pessimism of Calvinism and the high emotion of evangelical, affective religion. To counter them it put its faith in an optimistic view of human potential and in rationality. Indeed, it found God nowhere so evident as in reason, as in the mind. Unitarianism’s most eminent preacher, William Ellery Canning, saw the mind of God mirrored in the mind of man:

“The creation is a birth and shining forth of the Divine Mind, a work through which his spirit breathes. In proportion as we receive this spirit, we possess within ourselves an explanation of what we see.”…Putting aside the perfection the soul for what might be called the perfection the mind Harvard Unitarianism saw scholarship and education — particularly a literary education — as a kind of Eucharist, a communing with and partaking of the divine.

Emerson’s Harvard Divinity School Address
In his Divinity School address, Emerson did not simply propound a philosophy uncongenial to Harvard Unitarianism, but seemed to attack Unitarian doctrine at its foundations. Norton and even Channing had clung — against all evidence of their rationalism — to the precept that Jesus as at least partly divine and that his performance of miracles evinced that divinity.

Against that, Emerson maintained that Jesus simply “belonged to the true race of prophets and saw with open eyes the chemistry of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there.” But, said Emerson, Jesus was divine only insofar as God manifests his divinity in every man. Sarah Clarke was in the audience and afterward called Emerson’s address “a strain of high music rising from sweet melody to awful grandeur…not so much sublime as divine.” Andrews Norton, too, found an analogy to music, sputteringly referring to it as “this incoherent rhapsody.”

Thoreau’s Transcendentalist World
Thoreau paid to have the body of the Marquis of Ossoli buried and the spot marked, and returned to Concord. In his journal he wrote: “I do not think much of the actual, it is something that we have long since done with.” In a letter to a friend, he expanded on the thought: “I have in my pocket a button which I ripped off the coat of the Marquis of Ossoli, on the seashore the other day. Held up, it intercepts the light– an actual button– and yet all the life it is connected with is less substantial to me, and interests me less, than my faintest dream. Our thoughts are the epochs in our lives; all else is but a journal of the winds that blew while we were here….More than any Transcendentalist’s world, Thoreau’s was fully emptied of “God” or “meaning” beyond what the mind could bring to it. Nothing but thought stood between life and death, between existence and nothingness. Actuality, what men had imagined was real, was mute; it scarcely cast a shadow.

Irony And Belief
Not too long ago, irony could be genuinely enlightening, it could open our eyes. Joined to the sensibility of a former time — that of a Dickens or a Flaubert or a Marx — it could be a scourge, an engine of moral outrage. If nothing else, it suggested an awareness of plurality and nuance; at worst it was a display of sophistication. But more recently in its “postmodern” form, irony has now become an empty parlor game. It is to ethics –to the problem of our human situation and how we ought to live within it — as the pun is to humor; clever,  diverting, and instantly forgettable, it merely inverts rather than responds to the question.

As convinced view of the world — which I think is how it was being practiced by me and the people I knew — it is to say the least, problematic. Irony became the voice of universal agnosticism, of the incapacity to believe, to know, or to be certain of even one’s own identity — it was the refusal to take the value or verity of anything at face value. And if his seems to you to be the way things are, then perhaps it is the only honest position to take, if it is in fact a position at all, since it must necessarily undermine and look askance even at itself. That corrosiveness is the problem with irony: in its postmodern form, it seems to lead inevitable to resignation, cynicism, or nihilism.

The object of irony , after all, is to demonstrate what things are not, to falsify or undermine their claims to truth and reality. Its affinities are with what is not, with lack, privation, and nonbeing, and it thus plums the same depths as desire. Irony as a worldview, empties the world and finally itself of meaning and being. Agnosticism, to which irony gives expression, arose because the facts of science and of an undeniably amoral world seemed to render belief untenable. If belief depends on knowledge — in this case the scientific proof of a God who manages his creation in accordance with our notions of justice — it will always be untenable, because belief, by definition, is not knowledge. It is something to which we assent rather than something we know. Belief has nothing  to do with what God does and everything to do with we we do, with our willingness or refusal , or capacity or incapacity, to accept an unbelievable proposition.

Irony and Agnosticism
We also know that, followed by means of irony to its own conclusion, agnosticism is untenable on the grounds not of belief but of simple reason: Its logic makes it self-consuming. For agnosticism to be correct, we have to posit a reality based on nothing rather than on something, on nonbeing rather than on being. Regardless of our notions about God or religion, we cannot do this…It is true that we cannot directly know reality, but it is also true that reality is.

Belief in Reality And Being
Anyone will rightly object that that believing in reality does not entail belief in God. That is true enough, but it does entail belief in being and from there it is a very short leap to God, if you want to make it. The fact of reality may not prove God, but it implies Him. Agnosticism self-destructs as both knowledge and belief; atheism is, of course no more than another probable proposition that posits nothing rather than something , it might be true, or it might not…

The assent to something rather than nothing says that there are indeed real entities outside ourselves–it and most important you  — and those entities by context and relation make us real to ourselves. Being acknowledges being, making being, as it were, be; and that process of being in relation to itself, lacking nothing, is how we understand God to be love. That is why we say that love — not desire, lust, need, domination, or possession –brings us out to ourselves, perceives us and calls us out, gives its assent to us and asks only that we assent to it that we acknowledge its “you” as it has acknowledged our ”I.”

A Basic Discovery Of Self-Consciousness
(There is) a basic discovery that human self-consciousness makes: that of death and its particular inevitability and pre-ordainedness. But self-consciousness is also a gift, the capacity to perceive ourselves and creation in relation to each other, to practice “beknowing” .. and to see the evidences through which God manifests himself in the world, In this, we might say that something God’s mind, his self utterance, is mirrored in our minds; and since that self-utterance is the ground of love — being regarding being and wishing it to be — it is also through this gift that we are able to learn to love. The highest and most precious aspect of this gift of self-consciousness is the capacity to love God and apprehend his love for us. This capacity is called grace and it is by its workings that conversions …befall us.


Joseph Frank’s “Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time”

December 28, 2009


This is a monster of a book (959 pages) and is actually a one volume compilation of a five volume work that the author, Joseph Frank, began in the 1970’s. As a young critic in the mid-1950s Frank settled on the then fashionable topic “Existential Themes in Modern Literature” for a presentation at Princeton. Since the leading existentialist lights of the age, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, both regarded Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes From The Underground” (1864) as a foundational text for their philosophies, Mr. Frank began an intensive look at the novella, Notes From The Underground.

“His fascination with its anguished protagonist — who on the first page brazenly proclaims “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man” — eventually led the critic to learn Russian and to plan a short book on the sociological and ideological roots of the Underground Man’s self-hatred. But as Mr. Frank’s fascination with 19th-century Russian culture and social thought grew, so did his project. In 1976 there appeared “Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849,” followed by four further volumes of critical biography, culminating in 2002 with “Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881.”

The poet Allen Tate, introducing Mr. Frank’s first book, a collection of essays on modern literature titled “The Widening Gyre” (1963), described him as “a philosophical critic with an international point of view.” Given such a background, Mr. Frank has avoided the usual sort of literary biography, the kind that strings together facts and anecdotes from a writer’s public life. Instead he keeps his attention focused on Dostoevsky as an artist and thinker, one whose work represents a dialogue with the political, cultural, religious and social movements of his time. As Mr. Frank writes: “The personal entanglements of the figures in the novels, though depicted with often melodramatic intensity, cannot really be understood unless we grasp how their actions are intertwined with ideological motivations.”

The net result of Frank’s efforts (the monster referred to earlier) is presented to us as Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, and is a hybrid of biography, literary criticism and intellectual history. A few weeks ago the WSJ published a long review on the book, combining it with some reflections on Dostoevsky. I’ve summarized and taken some reading selections from it here:

About the Book Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time
All five installments of this work — invariably and rightly described as magisterial — have now been reduced to a single massive volume. Editor Mary Petrusewicz cut the full text by roughly two-thirds, and the result was then read and approved by Mr. Frank, now 91 and a distinguished professor emeritus of Slavic and comparative literature at both Stanford and Princeton. “Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time” thus immediately becomes the essential one-volume commentary on the intellectual dynamics and artistry of this great novelist’s impassioned, idea-driven fiction.

Naturally, some details have been sacrificed in the abridgment. For instance, in the third volume, “The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865,” Mr. Frank spends several pages discussing the possible influence on Dostoevsky of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel “Mary Barton” and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (especially “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”). In this condensation all the Gaskell material has been dropped even though the plot of her novel about industrial suffering, murder and conscience almost certainly influenced “Crime and Punishment” (1866) and “The Brothers Karamazov” (1881). Happily, Princeton University Press promises to keep all five volumes of the full biography in print.

An Overview of His Life
Dostoevsky’s own life (1821-81) was itself quite full of “melodramatic intensity.” His father, who had pulled himself up from poverty to become a doctor, was probably murdered by the family’s own serfs. The young Dostoevsky, following the success of his first novel, “Poor Folk” (1846), joined the progressive Petrashevsky Circle, whose members were eventually arrested for treason and sentenced to be shot. Pardon was granted only when the first three of the condemned were actually standing before the firing squad; Dostoevsky was waiting his turn in the next group of three. Instead of being executed, he was shipped off to four years at hard labor in Siberia — an experience chronicled in “The House of the Dead” (1862). He did not return to St. Petersburg until a full decade had passed, during which time he had become a populist, a believing Christian and a deeper, more serious artist.

In subsequent years Dostoevsky grew increasingly religious, politically conservative, xenophobic and Slavophile, convinced that Russia’s destiny was to lead the world back to God. Already suffering from epilepsy and emphysema, the novelist steadily wrecked his health with overwork. He finished “The Brothers Karamazov” just a month before he died at age 59.

Dostoevsky Dramatized The Ideas Of His Time
As Mr. Frank shows, Dostoevsky brilliantly dramatized the ideas of his time, especially by juxtaposing the social romanticism of the 1840s — the era of the cultivated Russian daydreamers sometimes called “superfluous men” — and the nihilism of the 1860s, associated with the anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Sergey Nechaev (the probable co-authors of the notorious “Catechism of a Revolutionary”). But Dostoevsky was also constantly measuring his own work against that of the cosmopolitan Ivan Turgenev, whose “Fathers and Children” had electrified the country. Moreover, he was distinctly envious of the gentrified, landowning Tolstoy, going so far as to disparage “Anna Karenina” and its popularity: “I can’t understand what they’re all so excited about.” Surprisingly, these two giants of Russian fiction never met.

The Chapters In “Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time”
Mr. Frank devotes individual chapters to each of Dostoevsky’s major books — besides those already mentioned, they include “The Idiot” (1869), “Demons,” also known as “The Possessed” (1872), and the journalistic “Diary of a Writer” (1873-1881). He stresses Dostoevsky’s grotesque sense of comedy, his vision of the family as a battleground for psychic domination, his belief in the sanctifying power of suffering and his characteristic atmosphere of “fantastic realism,” through which 19th-century Russian life comes to resemble Greek tragedy or biblical drama. These explicatory chapters bring to bear the critic’s subtle analytic intelligence, as well as his immense learning. Still, one may sometimes disagree. For example, Mr. Frank rather casually sums up Kirillov’s suicide (in “Demons”) as “the self-negation and self-refutation of his own grandiose ideas.” This may be true, but it rather downplays the sheer psychological drama of Kirillov’s last night, as he struggles against his overwhelming desire to live. To me, there is no more harrowing scene in all of 19th-century fiction.

The Most Harrowing Novelist In The World
But then Dostoevsky is the most harrowing novelist in the world. As Mr. Frank says: “It is this union of uncommon social sensitivity with agonized religious probings that gives his work its properly tragic character and its unique place in the history of the novel.” “The Brothers Karamazov” certainly belongs on the same shelf as the Book of Job and “The Oresteia,” “King Lear” and “Paradise Lost.” Such works are fundamentally psycho machias —  representations of battles within the soul, titanic struggles between good and evil, with human salvation and redemption hanging in the balance.

After all, when you read Dostoevsky, you know that he isn’t writing for the sake of social advancement, intellectual vanity or even material gain (though he always needed money, often desperately). He is writing because the Lord has touched his tongue with a blazing coal, and he must go forth and bear witness. His detractors, like Vladimir Nabokov, maintain that Dostoevsky is vulgar, sentimental and melodramatic. In fact, he makes most other writers seem precious, fussy and minor. Here, says Dostoevsky, is the human heart, racked by suffering and pain, lost in the wilderness of this fallen world, hungry for God. Until we rest in Him, our lives are simply ordeals, feverish nightmares, torment.

Dostoevsky Took Ideas Personally
Today we aren’t used to novelists openly espousing such ardent religious belief. But faith in Christ formed the core of Dostoevsky’s being and from it, as Mr. Frank shows, he confronted what he viewed as the ills and horrors — the demons — of his time. He took ideas personally, a friend once said, and actually “felt thought.” His “Notes From Underground” pushes the prospect of Benthamite utilitarianism to its limits — and reveals that utter misery is what results when you allow the head to dominate the heart. That haunting book is, as Mr. Frank substantiates, a riposte to N.G. Chernyshevsky’s arguments about the virtues of “rational egoism.” “Demons” confirms that nihilism uses political expedience as the cover for satanic evil, deliberate cruelty and the “necessary” murder. All of Dostoevsky’s greatest characters — the conscience-stricken ax-murderer Raskolnikov, the dandyish revolutionary Stavrogin, the atheistical Ivan Karamazov —  reveal souls chafed and lacerated by theories. And because of Joseph Frank we know precisely what those theories are.

A Dramatist Of Ideas
Still, Fyodor Dostoevsky wouldn’t be remembered today if he were nothing but a polemicist or a prophet. He was, above all, a dramatist of ideas, often making his devils far more charismatic than his meekly holy characters, such as the saintly prostitute Sonya or Prince Myshkin (in “The Idiot”). “I see,” says Svidrigailov, the derisive and cynical debauchee in “Crime and Punishment,” “that I may strike some people as a romantic figure.” To start one of Dostoevsky’s great novels is to experience what the author himself once called “mystic terror”: The books read like hallucinations or the frantic dreams of madmen, and in them all our darkest, most irrational impulses are acted out.

Not The Text But The Ideological Context
That said, this great psychological novelist didn’t create ex nihilo. His work, which transcends his time, is also deeply grounded in it. To understand Dostoevsky’s often savage satire or nightmarish visions or just the conversations among the Karamazov brothers, one needs to grasp not only the text but also the ideological context. To both of these there is no better guide than Joseph Frank.

I’ve got the book on order at my library and will be writing more about it. Other Dostoevsky stuff on Paying Attention To The Sky can be found…

Here (a review of Victor Abbas Reading Dostoevsky);

Here  (Henri deLubac on reading Dostoevksy)

And Here  (Father Richard John Nuehaus’ reflection on “Dostoevsky’s Question”)


Christmas With Fr. Robert Barron

December 25, 2009

I’ve never forgotten this little presentation Fr. Robert Barron made. Although one has heard the story from Luke so many times (as recently as today) this is the only one that truly made me understand what was going on: suddenly the swaddling clothes, the story of the census and who Caesar Augustus really was — I never quite put it all together. But it’s these details that give this story its meaning. Somehow I got lost in the tinsel of the baby Jesus for too many years.

Now the Christ is in Christmas for me which means that I call it Advent and the most important thing I do is attend Mass because that is where my home and my family are now.

Here’s the telling of the story that so impressed me:


Reading Selections II From Catholicism By Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

December 23, 2009

Interior of Rheims Cathedral, France

The Church
Catholics believe that God was made man in order, among other things, to deliver a body of truth to man, much of which he might have guessed at, some of which he might positively have known, some of which he could neither have known nor guessed at. This body of truth was delivered to His Apostles; and it is beyond the power or the rights of their successors either to add to, or to diminish, in the smallest degree, this Divine Revelation.

Christ constituted, however, a Church — that is to say, a group of persons raised, by certain rites which we shall consider later, to the supernatural state, and intended to embrace sooner or later the whole of human kind; and one of the functions of this Church is to preserve aright and to promulgate the truths revealed to her by Christ. Yet, while the Church may not modify the truths themselves, she will “develop,” as time goes by, their contents; she will, for instance, make more explicit that which was at first implicit or obscure, in answer to questions or denials on matters of faith; and in this action — in the exercise, that is to say, of this supreme dogmatic function of hers — she believes herself so far safeguarded by the assistance of God as to be incapable of teaching error. This gift of Infallibility, it will be noticed, is quite another thing from Inspiration. The former is rather a negative gift by which she is kept immune from error; the latter a positive impulse, given to the prophets and the writers of Scripture, including Infallibility, but transcending it. The Church does not claim Inspiration, either for her General Councils or for her Divinely appointed Head; yet she claims entire infallibility for these two mouths of hers by which she formally defines truth.

The Unity of the Church
Unity is provided for in the following manner: Christ, it is recorded in the Gospels, chose out one from among His Apostles to be the leader, and, in a sense, the centre of the rest; and He particularized him in many ways. First He gave him a new name, and Himself supplied the interpretation of that name. He called him Cephas, or Peter; and added that “upon this Cephas” (He) would build His Church; further adding that “the gates of hell should not prevail against” this Church. Next He said that to him He would give “the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”; and lastly commissioned him to “feed His sheep.” It is noticeable that these three functions thus representatively conferred upon Peter are predicated in their fullness only of Christ Himself: He is the “Foundation Stone,” the “Door,” and the “Good Shepherd.”

Catholics therefore claim that the Church of Christ — that Church to which Christ committed such functions and to which He promised His continual Presence — can be identified by its unity with Peter; and the See of Rome, therefore, where Peter lived and died, is called the “Holy” or the “Apostolic” See; and its occupant is regarded as having inherited the prerogatives of Peter. Among these prerogatives, therefore, is that of safeguarding and defining the truth; and the Bishop of Rome, or “Pope,” is named the “Vicar of Christ.” He, therefore, when, as supreme Pastor of Souls, in a matter of Faith or Morals, he defines a truth to be held by all Christians, acts in virtue of his commission from Christ, and is divinely safeguarded from error. His prerogative does not preclude the possibility of his erring in his private capacity; still less does it preserve him from personal sin.

The promises of Christ, however, were made to the whole Church in the person of Peter and a properly constituted “General Council” therefore, sitting under the presidentship of “Peter,” is also believed to be infallible. In cases where such a Council has sat, the Pope does no more than ratify and confirm the decisions which, it is believed, are also safeguarded from error by the same promises of Christ. To the Pope also belongs supreme jurisdiction, and from him every bishop and priest draws his right to act in his official capacity. Most of these acts are valid, though irregular, even when exercised in defiance of, or separation from, the Pope; some of them — for example, absolution or the Power of the Keys — are invalid as well as irregular under those conditions.

The Church Is Dispenser Of Grace
The second great function of the Church is that of Dispenser of Grace. The Incarnation and the Atonement, as has been seen, are believed to have released an infinite torrent of grace for the salvation of all mankind; but this grace must, normally, be applied to the individual through certain channels and agents. Chief among these channels are the Sacraments; chief among these agents is the Sacerdotal Hierarchy; and the second is, normally, the dispenser of the former.

The Sacraments are seven in number: Baptism; Penance; the Eucharist; Confirmation; Holy Order; Holy Matrimony; and Extreme Unction. First, however, the Eucharist should be considered, as it is more than a Sacrament.

According to the doctrine of the Atonement, Christ offered on Calvary the one perfect and adequate Sacrifice for the sins of the world. A Sacrifice is commonly believed to involve two things: primarily the offering and death of a Victim, and secondarily an Union with God to whom the Victim is offered by means of a feast upon its Flesh. Two things therefore are involved in the Atonement wrought by Christ: there is first the Sacrifice proper; there is next Communion with God by feeding upon the Divine Victim.

Now Christ spoke of these two things expressly in one sentence, “The (Living) Bread which I will give is My Flesh which I will give for the life of the world”; and again, “Except you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you.” Further, He instituted a Rite by which (1) the Sacrifice once offered should be continually re-presented to God; (2) the Flesh and Blood, thus sacrificed, should be made accessible for human food. This Rite is called the Eucharist.

The Eucharist
In the Eucharist, by Divine Power exercised through the priest, the “elements” of Bread and Wine are changed substantially (though not accidentally) into the very Flesh and Blood of Christ. This is called the dogma of Transubstantiation, and signifies that while the externals or “accidents” of the elements — those qualities accessible to the senses — remain unchanged, the substance — that in which the “accidents” inhere and by which, for instance, the bread is bread — is changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ. In the transubstantiated elements there is no actual separation of Body and Blood; the Host and the contents of the chalice are, alike, Christ whole and entire (since a real separation would involve another death of Christ); but the two different elements are used in order to signify and to re-present, mystically, that actual separation which took place on Calvary.

Here, then, in the Eucharist, is, first, the Sacrifice of the Mass — the re-presenting, that is, under another mode, of the Sacrifice of Calvary; then in the Communion, the Body and Blood of the Sacrificed Divine Victim are assimilated by the participators. Lastly, in Catholic Churches, the “Blessed Sacrament” is preserved in the Tabernacle, and both here, and in the service of Benediction, is adored by Catholics. The Eucharist, therefore, pre-eminently above the other Sacraments, is sometimes referred to as the “extension of the Incarnation,” though all the Sacraments are this also in their degree. But in the Eucharist, according to Catholic belief, the Human Nature of Christ is always present on earth — dwelling in the Tabernacle, sacrificed in the Mass, and assimilable in Communion.

Baptism is the Rite ordained by Christ for the washing away of original sin; and Penance (or Absolution) for the further washing away of sins afterwards contracted.

Baptism therefore is the first sacrament received by the individual. Since man is not pure spirit, but spirit incarnate, the supreme means of grace also have something of this double nature — an external visible part, and the interior grace conveyed by it and Baptism (which, like matrimony, does not necessarily require a priest for its valid administration) is an outward ablution accompanied by certain words, which whole Rite raises the catechumen to the supernatural life, removes his sins, original and actual, and infuses certain graces into the soul. It is “necessary to salvation”; yet the Church has always held that the “Baptism of Desire” — i.e. God’s response to a perfectly pure and good intention of pleasing Him, accompanied by an implicit wish to conform in all things to His Will and therefore inclusive of a desire for baptism, if the necessity of such were known to the individual — confers the grace of the sacrament upon those who are unable actually to obtain it.

Penance is the sacrament instituted by Christ, by which post-baptismal sins are forgiven through the ministry of a priest acting judicially, in virtue of Christ’s words to His apostles, ” Whosesoever sins you forgive they are forgiven.”

Confirmation, Holy Order, Holy Matrimony, Extreme Unction
Confirmation is the sacrament by which certain gifts of the Holy Ghost — seven in number — beyond those received in baptism, are conveyed to the individual, primarily for his strengthening in the battle of life.

Holy Order is the sacrament by which men are raised to the ministry, and made sharers in and administrators of the Royal Priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Holy Matrimony is the sacrament by which a man and a woman are united before God in such a manner that what would, without grace, be merely a contract terminable or dissoluble, becomes a mysterious uniting of the two that nothing but death can sever. The Church entirely denies divorce, and refuses the sacraments to those who have profited by a legal “divorce” to marry again in the lifetime of their surviving partners.

Extreme Unction (“The Last Anointing”) is the sacrament by which the sick in danger of death are frequently restored to health, or, if not, purified and made ready for death.

Lastly, on the point of the Sacraments, it must be added that three of them — Baptism, Confirmation, and Order — confer “Character,” or an indelible seal upon the soul; and these three sacraments therefore can be received but once. These are also the three sacraments in which the Holy Ghost acts directly upon the soul and is “given” to her.

The Sacraments are, as has been seen, dispensed by the Church, and for five of them the ministry of a priest is essential for validity; further, for two of these five (for Order absolutely, and for the administration of Confirmation, with certain rare exceptions) the Episcopal order is necessary. For Extreme Unction too the use of oil blessed by a bishop is necessary. In Baptism any rational human being can act as minister; in Holy Matrimony the ” ministers,” strictly speaking, are the contracting parties, though by recent legislation the presence of the parish priest is, as a matter of fact, also necessary.

The Hierarchy Of The Church
All Priesthood, it is taught, comes from Jesus Christ, who is alone the Supreme and Absolute Priest. But He has raised men to be not only His representatives, but actually the agents by whom that “Melchisedech” priesthood is exercised on earth. He conferred this gift upon His Apostles at the Last Supper, and gave them also the power of passing it on to their successors, under certain restrictions and safeguards: and this Priesthood includes primarily the power to offer the sacrifice of the Mass by consecrating the Eucharist, as well as the power to forgive sins in His Name, to bless, and to administer other means of grace.

There are seven orders in the Hierarchy. First the three Major Orders; the Priesthood (which in its plenitude is present only in the Episcopate), the Diaconate, and the Subdiaconate: then the four Minor Orders; the offices of Doorkeeper, Reader, Exorcist, and Acolyte. The reception of the “tonsure,” by which a man becomes an ecclesiastic or “clerk,” precedes that of the Minor Orders, but is not an order in itself. Now the four Minor Orders do not necessarily preclude a man from returning to ordinary lay life in the world: he remains always an ecclesiastic, but he is not bound to wear ecclesiastical dress or to remain unmarried. Usually however, in our own days, the reception of Minor Orders is but a preliminary to the Major ; and when the Subdiaconate has once been received it is impossible without a special dispensation, exceedingly difficult to obtain, to return to lay life. Henceforward the man is bound to be a celibate, to say the Divine Office every day, and to dress as an ecclesiastic. (A slightly different discipline prevails, however, in the Churches of the East that are in communion with Rome, by which a married man may become a priest, although a priest may never marry.)

It is by this Hierarchy therefore, governed locally by bishops, and supremely by the Pope, that the dispensing of grace, the preaching of the faith, and the preserving of the Tradition undefiled, are effected and it is an essential of the Catholic Religion that this should be so. It is indeed possible for souls who, without their own fault, are unable to have access to a priest (whether that inability is virtual or physical), to obtain from God direct all necessary graces. An act of “perfect contrition,” for example, removes the guilt even of mortal sin without the ministry of a priest, under such circumstances; and it is exactly for this reason that the Church never presumes to declare the final fate of any individual soul outside her pale, since God only can know the dispositions of such a soul. Persons may, that is, belong to the “Soul” of the Church who, for no fault of theirs, have been excluded from the “Body.” Yet wilfully to reject the ordinance of Christ — to refuse Baptism or Penance, for example, when the Institution by Christ of these sacraments is known and their efficacy recognized — is to forfeit all claim on obtaining in other ways the graces conferred by them; to lose their place in the “Soul” of the Church as well as in the “Body.”

Other Means Of Grace
First, there are those things or rites which she calls Sacramentals, resembling the Sacraments in their double nature, as well as in the fact of their conferring grace (though, theologically speaking, in a slightly different mode), yet not instituted by Christ Himself. Such a sacramental is Holy Water. Holy Water is water, with a small infusion of salt, blessed by a priest in virtue of his general powers to bless, and used by the faithful for the purifying away of lesser stains of guilt, for their protection against spiritual assaults, and for the disposal of their mind towards Divine things. Blessed ashes and palms are other examples of sacramentals; and all these depend for their efficacy not only on the blessing that they have received, but on the fervour and the disposition of those who use them.

Next, there is Prayer, or the lifting up of the heart to God with attention and intention, whether the aspirations are vocally expressed or not. And there is perhaps no department of the Catholic system more minutely or exhaustively treated than is that of Prayer.

Prayer is of two main kinds. First, there is Vocal Prayer, especially that form of Vocal Prayer stereotyped in the Mass and in the Divine Office. All Religious and all ecclesiastics above the rank of Subdeacon are bound under pain of mortal sin to “recite office,” except where special exemptions are given to the illiterate or to those otherwise physically or morally incapable of fulfilling the obligation. So high is the value attached to this exercise that among monks it is called Opus Dei — The Work of God — and is the supreme duty of their daily life. Further, it must be said aloud, or, in the case of private recitation, with at least the deliberate movement of the lips; and, in Enclosed Houses, it forms the chief occupation of every day: a large proportion of it is recited, in choir, in such houses during the hours of the night.

Secondly, there is Mental Prayer; rising at last into Contemplation; and this, though practiced widely by the faithful everywhere, reaches, as a rule, its perfection only in Religious Houses, where its cultivation is brought to the highest possible pitch. In one Order, for example, only partially “enclosed,” Mental Prayer or Meditation on the subject of the Passion of Christ is enjoined on all members for two hours every day.

Lastly, the Church regards as means of Grace all good actions done with a pure intention to God’s glory; and she names the principal of these, Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.

Corollary Doctrines And Practices
So far the Catholic Religion has been described in a few of its barest essentials only: and it need hardly be said that a vast number of doctrines and practices — corollaries even further detached from those that have been mentioned — have not been touched upon at all. Such are the Church’s teaching upon eschatology, beyond what has already been said, devotion to Mary and the Saints, the “Religious Life” in general, the place of Miracles, together with a less formal consideration of the system of faith and life as a whole. It will perhaps be better to treat of these now, separately. Their connection with what has already been said will easily be seen.

It has been remarked that the Catholic recognizes but one probation here on earth, closing with the “Particular Judgment” that takes place immediately after death; and but two final states or places to which the individual Soul can come. Yet he recognizes a third intermediate state, not final, through which the vast majority of souls who are, later, to attain the Beatific Vision must pass. This place is named Purgatory; and in Purgatory the temporal debt due for forgiven sin is paid, as well as the punishment for venial sins in which the soul has left the body.

For the forgiveness of mortal sin (as in Penance, for example) does not, obviously, involve the remission of all penalty. A drunkard, for instance, who turns from his sin and is forgiven, does not, as a matter of fact, receive his health back again immediately. The guilt is forgiven; there is no longer, that is to say, any obstacle between his soul and God; he is restored to the life of grace; and the eternal punishment due to him becomes merely temporal. It is conceivable therefore, and indeed practically certain, that many souls whose sins have been few and whose sufferings many, pay that debt in this life, and do not, therefore, go to Purgatory. But with the vast majority of souls the case is not so. Many spiritual sins, for instance, have little or no perceptible penalty attached to them in this life. Such sinners as these, therefore, as well as those whose sins are out of all proportion to their sufferings, pay the balance due to such sins in the pains of Purgatory.

Two practical corollaries follow from this dogma.

First, there follows the utility and the duty of praying for the departed that they may be purged from their pains quickly and pass to their eternal joy; and for this purpose also the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for them on earth. For if, as Catholics believe, intercession avails with God, in such a way that the pleading of a soul in grace, on behalf of another, helps and forwards that other soul while still on earth, so too will it avail for souls departed.

The Doctrine Of Indulgences
Secondly, there follows the doctrine of Indulgences — a doctrine that has given rise, probably, to more misunderstanding than any other, yet one that is perfectly consistent and inevitable, if the Catholic teaching on Sin and its penalties, and on the common supernatural life enjoyed by the baptized, is once understood.

Briefly the doctrine is as follows:

A soul that has sinned and has been restored to grace yet owes, as has been said, a temporal debt to God; and this temporal debt is, for the most part, paid only in Purgatory. Now all that such a forgiven soul is obliged to do, if she would enter heaven, is to remain in the “state of grace” while still on earth. If then she does more than she is obliged; if she undertakes, let us say, some heroic work for the poor or the suffering; if she strips herself, for the love of God and in reparation for her sins, of her temporal possessions; if she devotes herself to austerity and prayer — it is quite certain that such efforts and reparations on her part must count before a Just God as payment of her debt; and such is of the more value before Him, as she undertakes such acts voluntarily and lovingly.

Now the whole doctrine of Indulgences is, in its essence, nothing more than a systematization of this very reasonable idea. The Church runs to help, so to speak, a generous soul such as this, and not only directs her in her efforts and gives her special aids and privileges, but further, showers upon her a portion of the superabundant merits of all souls, from the Soul of Christ downwards, who, like her, have done far more than their absolute duty obliged them to do. For so deep and intimate is the interior union between soul and soul in grace, and so authoritative the commission uttered to the Church by Christ to the effect that what she “binds on earth shall be bound in heaven,” that the Catholic Church claims to have a kind of “impetratory” (vocab: obtaining by petition or entreaty) authority over such transactions, and to be able to help one soul that is struggling heroically and lovingly upwards, by the merits of other souls that have striven yet more heroically and lovingly in the past.

The “Treasury of Merits” is the phrase used of that vast community of meritorious actions and lives which is placed, in a sense, at the disposal of Christ’s Representative and Vicar on earth.

It is hardly necessary to add, then, that “Indulgences”(that is, a remission of future Purgatorial pains) can only be gained by souls that are not only in grace, but in the possession of good and fervent dispositions.

Corollary Doctrines And Practices: Devotion To Mary
When once the doctrine of the Incarnation is grasped, as well as that of the Virgin-Birth of Christ, devotion to the Mother of God is seen to be inevitable. And it is extremely significant that where this devotion ceases, sooner or later the doctrine of the Incarnation grows obscure or is even denied. In fact, the use or the disuse of the phrase “Mother of God” is a tolerable guide to the more fundamental doctrinal belief of those concerned, since the phrase is, to the Catholic, nothing but a simple statement of the Divinity of Mary’s Son.

Now devotion to Mary, and dogmatic statements as to her Person and office and attributes, are matters of extremely careful and well-tested theology. They are very far from being, as is sometimes thought, the result of popular and rhetorical sentiment. Their origins are found, for example, in the Church of the Catacombs, at which period she was depicted in the attitude of intercession, and given the title of “Advocatrix.” Parallels were also drawn, in very early days, between Mary the Mother of the Redeemed and Eve the mother of the fallen.

By the disobedience of the one the way was made open for the first Adam to ruin the race at the Tree of Death; by the obedience of the other the way was made open for the second Adam to redeem the race at the Tree of Life: and all subsequent “Marian” theology takes its rise and form and is limited by her function as an “Assistant,” so to speak, of Redemption, not as a source of Redemption. It is not believed by Catholics that Mary is more than this; she can intercede, but she cannot, strictly, “give”; there is offered to her a veneration higher than that offered to any other creature, since she stands towards God, in virtue of her Motherhood and of the privileges He has given her, in an absolutely unique position; yet this veneration never approaches and never can approach, even when offered by the simplest and most uneducated believer, that supreme and unique adoration which is offered to God alone.

It is not only that Sacrifice is offered to God alone; there is also another kind of prayer — the outcome of the relation of the Creature towards the Creator — which is given to God and to God only. All the rhetoric of the lovers of Mary, all the devotions performed in her honour, all the sounding titles bestowed on her with or without authority — these can no more be taken to imply an assertion of her Divinity, than the adding together of finite numbers can attain to infinity.

Corollary Doctrines And Practices: Devotion To The Saints And Angels
Following upon this devotion to Mary comes devotion to the Saints and Angels, and, most of all, towards those Saints more intimately associated with the event of the Incarnation — such persons, for example, as St. Joseph, Spouse of Mary Ever-Virgin, and St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ. Devotion to these is natural and inevitable, for the same reason as to Mary, though all the honour paid to them can never equal that paid to the actual Woman of whom God Incarnate was born, and who, as Catholics believe, was specially prepared for her high destiny by being conceived in the womb free from the taint of original sin. There is, in fact, no difference in kind between the honour given to such saints as St. Joseph or St. John the Baptist and the honour given to those later and other friends of God who, by the sentence of canonization, are declared certainly to have attained the Beatific Vision, and to be proper objects for the veneration of the faithful.

For, to Catholics, the grace of God is as powerful as ever, and the stream of “saints” therefore can never cease. There always have been, and always will be, souls that live lives so heroic, for motives so pure, as to merit this title. Some few of these are detected by the Church, and, at some period after their death, are publicly proclaimed, after an exceedingly searching inquiry, to have reached the technical standard of “sanctity”: the vast majority, no doubt, succeed in evading the honours from which their humility would naturally shrink.

It is to souls that have been publicly proclaimed as “saints” that public veneration may be paid, though privately any Catholic may invoke the prayers of any soul or even of all the “holy souls” in Purgatory: and this public veneration is, of course, in a line with the whole main thought of Catholicism in which the Humanity of Christ, and not merely His Divinity, is believed to be the instrument of Redemption. Once again it is directly from the full Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation that the veneration of saints springs, since by the Incarnation man is united to God potentially, and by the sanctity of the individual this potentiality becomes actual. It is then merely as from intercessors and advocates that Catholics seek the assistance of the saints, not as from men who have become part of the Deity, and who therefore merit Divine honours.


On Tiger’s Passion

December 21, 2009

One of things that always surprised me about the passion was the prominence given to the ridicule Christ had to endure. It is something every schoolchild can associate with and is placed in the context of real physical abuse. The beating, the crowning of the thorns are also part of  being dressed in a “robe,” given a “scepter” and then being led around while his jailers jeered and ridiculed Him. And this stuff follows Him all the way to the Cross.

The gospels seem to be reminding us that this kind of abuse can be just as painful as the physical pain inflicted up our Lord. In fact, I don’t think it really has to tell us this, as deep within our hearts we all know this is true. Our most vulnerable part is our puny egos and for all of us who “creep our days, guarding our hearts from blows,” fated to die obscurely, the savagery of the ridicule our Lord endures makes the passion the most unendurably painful event in world literature. Everything else is mere prolix.

One wonders about the sanity of Tiger Woods these days – an intensely private and proud man of biracial ancestry, now unable to pass on to his children what his father gave him – a sense of pride and simple honesty. While the mass media calculates the losses in income to his “bottom line,” I can almost guarantee you that wherever Mr. Woods is hold up (reading comics and playing night golf according to last reports) the one thing he wants back is what he has lost forever.

For that assiduously burnished byproduct of his fame (“Nothing is more important than family”), meant more to him than all else. He could give a flying hoot about the money, believe me. However Tiger is forever in the public memory now proclaiming that the most important thing in life is skanks performing at your command.

Pity his wife and children. That’s all he is thinking about now. Which is why the appearance on Oprah and a sobbing mea culpa is pretty much a forgone conclusion. Yet when you think about who he is and his character, that appearance will crush him. TomCruise? He’d be on the couch bearing his tortured soul in a New York minute. Tiger Woods? I don’t think we have ever seen him.

But the question here also is what of us? We who deal in the endless Tiger jokes and guy banter. When is enough enough? When does Tiger become Christ like? We teach our children in school about bullying but then ceaselessly provide them with adult examples. What kid old enough to understand Jay Leno doesn’t take away the power of ridicule and its effectiveness at demeaning an opponent? This is why repentance works in America. It lets us off the hook, we’re the ones who need it.

Can there be anything farther from St. Thomas’ definition of love: “Loving the other as other.” With complete disregard for our own selves, truly letting the other be completely free to fulfill themselves. Ridicule is an almost exquisite extreme of this Christian view of love – it turns the other into caricature and object. Nowhere do I see this more fully played out in my experience than on so-called internet “Discussion Forums.”

And I am guilty more than most of using the sarcastic barb against those who jeer and use invective against the Catholic Church. I demand others listen to me as a Catholic and chafe when they misunderstand and accuse me of fundamentalist or Calvinist distortions. Rather than redouble my efforts to listen better to others or to more patiently explain my Church I clamor for my right to be heard and understood. Yes, there are those who throw rocks and ridicule Catholic teachings but they are the god-haters who have always been there but the more you truly listen the less of them there are.

Or am I being overly rosy here? Must be Christmas week.


Questions and Caricatures of Isolated Minds

December 18, 2009

the infamous jayd808

I participate in several forums on the net. One is at LibraryThing where my presence has become synonymous with the KKK. The sheer invective and vitriol seemed deserving of its own discussion forum which I recently launched there.  The initial post follows:

“Hey as long as many of the forums I contribute to dissolve into attacks on me, why not have a forum topic devoted just to why I am such an asshole and all the “half-assed shit” I produce on my website?

Questions and Caricatures of Isolated Minds

The Unquestioned Life:

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and skeptics question the source of this authority.
If a person or group is going to make claims about empirical truth, then I’m going to ask for reliable evidence for those claims, especially if the claims are extraordinary or harmful in some way….

There appears to be an assumption at work here (or in the unquestioned life) that Christians are at work to undermine the freedoms of others or to cause harm. Perhaps even that they are a source of evil in the modern world (Dawkins). Yet Christians specifically associate their God with goodness. At least Catholics do, which is what I am. Somehow this has been transformed in the modern atheist mindset as a source of all modern evil.

Michael Novak has written:

“I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find atheists and skeptics giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art — in music, architecture, .painting, and poetry — in the human patrimony.

And why do they overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person” “community” “civitas,” “consent” “tyranny” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta?

Dawkins (for example) in the few pages on the founding and nourishing of his beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons is mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous universities of Europe (and the Americas)?

He writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor.

Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past — often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations — during long centuries in which there were no printing presses.

Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology.”

Alan Mittleman writes that “God plays a role in a way of speaking that is constitutive of a way of life, without which the world would be poorer and darker. The work it does is not to name a mysterious being who may or may not exist.

The word God does not make a claim about the furniture of the universe. Rather, to speak of God is to underwrite a form of life that allows us to respond with love and courage and hope to the mystery out of which we come and toward which we progress.” All that Novak recites above bears testament to the legacy of that Christian underwriting. THIS IS WHAT GOD MEANS to many faith communities and their believers.

Why aren’t atheists cognizant of their fundamental ungratefulness? They are like those who villify the military while using the very same rights to free speech that their soldier ancestors fought and died for.

Mittleman continues: “That some of our ancestors took the language of God in a mythological way, as a set of existence claims, is undeniable, although even here great ancestors, such as Maimonides, saw the problems that inhere in such naivete.

Wittgenstein taught us that language belongs to groups, not to isolated minds. Language reflects communal practices. Much of the reality that terms mark out is specific to the communities that use the terms.

As any learner of a foreign language knows, reading a newspaper in that language requires learning about social and political realities specific to another culture. The abstract question “Does God exist?” is the question of an isolated mind. It tears God out of the context of communities who pray, celebrate, and serve, and it reduces the term to a cipher.”

Yet atheist secularists put these communities under assault — threatening to close down such communities by eliminating tax shelters if gay marriages are not performed in sacraments. Or forcing Christian charities to close if orphans are not handed over to gay couples.

What holidays would we celebrate if we were an atheists? What kind of community could atheism sustain? What degree of continuity, if any, could a perfectly atheist Western civilization sustain with its own past?

This is not to suggest that religion is warranted only on account of the social, functional tasks that it performs. All sorts of false and pernicious things can enhance social solidarity and mobilization. Rather, it is to point toward a truth: As communal beings, we have constitutive ways of speaking that locate us in a meaningful universe and give moral contours to our shared form of life.

An adequate conversation between a person of faith and an atheist cannot afford to neglect the questions of what we can celebrate, what we can hope for, what we must remember, what stories we can tell our children, and why we should bring children into the world.”

Let me suggest that this is a conversation that will never begin on these forums as long as the snarky atheists who lurk in the LT grasses cling to these caricatures of Christian life.

I have no problem with any of you as atheists or skeptics. My “problem” (some see it as anger) is directed at your narrowness, your bigoted Homosexualism against my gay Catholic brothers and your glacially olympian know-it-all attitudes (never proven and rooted as they are in a crippling ignorance, I might add). I am not a homophobe or a racist, a member of the KKK or Christian fundamentalist. Yet many have accused me of being such.

So here is your chance. Feel free to chip in and tell me my problems. If you have evidence of my homophobia or fundamentalist mindset or other KKK material, please cite examples and let me have it.

your friend in Christ,



Book Recommendation: “Catholicism” By Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

December 17, 2009

Mgr. Robert Hugh Benson

Robert Hugh Benson
(1871-1914) Benson was educated at Eton College, and then studied Classics and Theology at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1890 to 1893. In 1895, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England by his father, Edward White Benson, who was then Archbishop of Canterbury – a prince of the Anglican Church.

His father died suddenly in 1896, and Benson was sent on a trip to the Middle East to recover his own health. While there, he began to question the status of the Church of England and to consider the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. His own piety began to tend toward the High Church variety, and he started exploring religious life in various Anglican communities, eventually obtaining permission to join the Community of the Resurrection.

Benson made his profession as a member of the community in 1901, at which time he had no thoughts of leaving the Church of England. But as he continued his studies and began writing, he became more and more uneasy with his own doctrinal position, and on 11 September 1903 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church – in its time, perhaps one of the most shocking conversion.

He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1904 and sent to Cambridge. He continued his writing career along with the usual elements of priestly ministry. He was appointed a Monsignor by Pope Pius X, and died in 1914 due to heart problems brought on by overwork, and pneumonia, being buried in the grounds of his home, Hare Street House, at Buntingford, near London.

If you would like a look at his home and the lovely chapel on its grounds (now a country estate for the Archbishop of Westminster) check out this blog.

Describing Religion
A man’s religion is, in its essence, that system of faith and morals by which he believes that he can enter and remain in right relations with God. In a description therefore of any religion in particular, three main points must be eminent:

(1)     the account given of God by that religion — His Being, His Nature, His Action;

(2)    the account given of man — his being, his origin, his nature, his final end;

(3)    the system by which it is hoped to bring about and to sustain right relations between God and man.

It is along these three main lines, therefore, that the following post will run. They will close with a few detached paragraphs on particular points that cannot well be dealt with in the course of the sustained exposition.

God In The Catholic Religion
The account given, by the Catholic Religion, of God is capable of literally endless expansion, since Infinity is the first thing predicated of Him. Every word or epithet, therefore, applied to God, is only applicable to Him in an analogical or derived sense. When He is called “Just” or “Holy,” He is so called since no better words are at our disposal; yet no word so applied to Him signifies exactly the same as when applied to man, since man is finite and God Infinite.

The Being of God
t is believed by Catholics that God is Eternal, that He has had no beginning and will have no end, that He is in Himself immutable, knowing no progress since He has always been Himself final and ultimate Perfection. His “essential glory” then can have no addition or diminution; it is His “accidental glory” only to which created wills can minister. He alone subsists of Himself; all else exists only by Him. He is “Personal,” yet without the limitations associated with that idea.

Three Persons
In the Divine Nature, however, there are Three “Persons,” all co-eternal and co-equal; and the names by which they are known to man are “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Ghost.” There is no inferiority between them, as the “Arian” heresy maintained; neither are they merely three various Actions or Aspects, as the “Sabellians” taught. They are distinct one from the other; yet they are one. A far-off analogy is sometimes used with regard to this “Mystery of the Blessed Trinity” — by which the union and yet the distinctness of the Memory, the Will, and the Understanding in man is thought to bear a certain resemblance to the relations of the Three Persons in the One God.

Another suggestive analogy is the consideration of the three things necessary to any action or any agent. There must be the Agent, the Action, and the Acting: the Lover, the Beloved, and the Loving; and a further suggestion as to the value of this analogy is to be found in the Christian term “The Eternal Word” as applied to the Second Person. Under this aspect it may be said that the “Father” is the Originator and Source, the “Son” the Word eternally uttered or “generated” by Him, and the “Holy Ghost” the personal Link between the two, “proceeding from both.” Yet it must be remembered that each is a “Person,” and each is equal to each; — in other words, that no analogy is exhaustive, or even perfect so far as it goes.

Finally, it must be said that every epithet and attribute that predicates goodness or beauty or truth can be applied fully and infinitely and ultimately to God alone. “There is none good save God.” All other persons and things are “good” only in proportion as they approach the Perfection of the Divine Will.

The Creation
So far the outline of God-in-Himself only has been considered — the outline, that is, which Catholic Dogmatic Theology lays down as revealed. Beyond that outline — beyond, that is to say, the numerous dogmas that further develop and safeguard the main Facts which Catholics claim have been revealed by God Himself — there remains a literally infinite field for speculation, beyond even those points on which theologians have disputed in the past. The knowledge of God in its entirety, so far as that is open to creatures, is only possible in the “Beatific Vision” Itself The next point, then, to consider, is the manner in which Catholics believe the universe to have come into existence.

The word used by the Church is Creation, by which she intends deliberately to rule out either that the Universe is a kind of emanation from God in such a sense that the word “Divine” can be applied to its nature; or that it has existed co-eternally along with God. She further explains her meaning by adding that God created all things that are or have been, out of nothing. It was in no sense by a necessity of His Being that He created the Universe; neither was it by any kind of evolution from Himself that it came to exist. He created all things out of nothing by a free act of His own Sovereign Will. And if it be asked, Why did He so create? it can only be answered, humanwise, that He saw that more “good” — more, that is, to His own “accidental” glory — would be the result than if He had not so acted. His Foreknowledge is perfect; yet it must be remembered also that the Catholic Church entirely denies Calvinistic teaching to the effect that that Foreknowledge constrains any will that He has created free. The situation may be tolerably summed up by saying, God foreordained because He foreknew; He did not foreknow because He foreordained.

Now this Act of God, called Creation, first brought into being an unknown number of beings purely spiritual, like God Himself. These are named generally Angels, and are divided into Nine Orders. It is further believed that these Angels underwent a certain probation; they possessed, therefore, free-wills; and in the event a certain proportion of these beings “fell.” There has been in the past much speculation among theologians as to the nature of the trial they underwent: yet nothing is dogmatically defined on the subject.

Following the creation of the Angels, there came at some unknown period that of the world in which men live; and, finally, of man himself. So far, however, definition is of the slightest. It is to these main dogmas only that the Church authoritatively witnesses. An enormous latitude is permitted to Catholics as regards the time and the place and the circumstances and even the interpretations of the events of which these doctrines speak. It is at the next point that a far more precise defining begins.

A More Precise Definition Of Man
Man, unlike the Angels, is not pure spirit: he is spirit incarnate. He was created innocent, with a certain knowledge of God, though not that full knowledge of which he is capable, and enjoyed Grace. Like the Angels, however, he was created free, and like the Angels who fell, he too fell.

Now this is an exceedingly significant doctrine, for upon it depends, in a sense, the entire system known as the Catholic Religion. If man were merely a creature struggling upwards always, the most fundamental Catholic dogmas would be evacuated of meaning. Certainly it is open to a Catholic to believe that a certain kind of evolution had place in the process of man’s creation, that his body, for example, was gradually fitted by selection and generation to be the habitation of an immortal rational soul. But it is an essential of the Catholic Faith that man’s spirit when first created was both free and innocent, and that it fell from innocence by the abuse of its own free-will.

Man was created, then, to know and serve God in this world and to enjoy Him for ever in the next world. Yet man’s first parents fell from this destiny, and transmitted that fallen nature to their descendants. And it is only possible for fallen man to regain his position by the aid of God’s Grace — that is, by free gifts from God of light and strength. Further, the Sin of Man is so great an outrage against God that nothing but an adequate sacrifice can compensate for it, or can win for man that access to Grace by which alone he can rise again to a state of friendship and union with his Creator. As to what this Sacrifice proves to be, and as to the various methods and channels by which Grace comes, we shall consider later.

This, then, the Church teaches, is the state in which the natural man finds himself in this world. He is fallen, but he is not (as Calvin taught) absolutely corrupt: he has still a conscience — that is, a faculty by which he can discern good and evil; he has still aspirations after good, and, by the mercy of God, a certain power of choosing it: he is still “free,” though his freedom is enormously hampered by that downward tendency that is the result of the Fall.

Further, it is taught, every man has sufficient grace for salvation — sufficient help, that is, from God, to regain the destiny for which God made him, and to avoid the final doom to which sin naturally leads. He is faced by two final states, and two only; and he has but this one life on earth for his probation. If he “corresponds” sufficiently with the grace that God gives him he passes gradually upwards to that union with God of which he is capable, and in Heaven enjoys eternally the “Beatific Vision” — a state in which he at once preserves his own individuality and yet is united to God.

If, on the other hand, he fails to correspond with grace, and yields to the downward drag of his fallen nature in such a degree as to be, when his probation closes with death, in a state of “enmity” with God, he passes to that state which he himself has, in effect, freely chosen, and in hell is excluded eternally from the presence of his Creator. Only, it must be noticed in passing, never yet on any individual has the Catholic Church uttered a decision of final condemnation, since the interior dispositions of a man at the time of his death can be known only to God.

No excommunication or anathema can be more than an approximate attempt to deal with the soul so far as she falls under the Church’s jurisdiction, and such are issued with the express hope of awakening such a soul to her own condition of danger. Neither does the Church for one moment dare to dogmatize as to the state of those who die outside her pale; for even though, as will be seen later, she claims to be the One Ark of Salvation, this does not in any sense derogate from God’s Sovereign right and power to deal with souls in His own way.

Central Doctrines
So far much that has been said is applicable to nearly all Theistic belief. It is as to the nature of the system by which fallen man may be restored that the differences begin to manifest themselves more particularly.

The central doctrine of the Catholic Religion is that of the Incarnation. This doctrine teaches that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity at a certain moment in history was “made man” in such a sense that He assumed complete Human Nature, both body and soul, yet without ceasing to be God or suffering any essential change, that He was born of a woman, lived a human life, and after His death reunited again in the Resurrection both Body and Soul, and finally took back in the Ascension that human nature with Him, perfected and transfigured, to the “Throne” of God. It is by this Incarnation, this “Hypostatic Union” between God and Man in Jesus Christ, that God and man are reunited. Intimately bound up with the doctrine of the Incarnation is that of the Atonement, in which it is believed that the free offering by Jesus Christ of Himself to God — an offering consummated in His Crucifixion on Calvary — constituted the Sacrifice which alone is adequate to compensate for the Sin of Man.

Innumerable interpretations of these doctrines, especially of that of the Incarnation, have been successively rejected by the Church under the name of Heresies. It is necessary to touch on a few of these, since it was by their rejection that the Catholic doctrine itself has more precisely emerged. It must be remembered, however, that in the Catholic view all dealings of God with man — of the Infinite with the finite — are bound to be enveloped largely in mystery. The Church claims to state and safeguard the facts revealed by God, not always to reconcile and elucidate them exhaustively.

Two Classes of Heresies
Heresies on the Incarnation fall roughly into two classes namely, those which minimize, respectively, the Human Nature or the Divine Nature of Jesus Christ. The former, and the earlier in point of history, regarded the Human Nature of Christ as either so drowned in the Divinity as to be practically negligible, or as phantom-like and unreal.

In opposition to this the Catholic Church teaches that the Human Nature was completely real and that therefore the sufferings and needs of that Human Nature were also real. Without this reality the Sacrifice of Calvary would be no more than a drama acted for men’s imitation or admiration. Christ had, in fact, a Human Will also, and was capable therefore of feeling the stress of temptation, though Himself actually incapable of sin.

The later heresies, largely adopted at the present day by many who claim the name of Christian, minimize the Divinity of Christ, using that word only to denote either a superhuman quality of goodness or a human quality raised to the utmost intensity; and in opposition to this the Church teaches that the Person of Jesus Christ was, and has always continued to be, the Eternal Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, immutable and unchanged; that He possessed therefore all the attributes of the Deity since He Himself was God even further, that His Human Nature, so intimate was its union with God, enjoyed always and unceasingly even upon earth the Beatific Vision; and, in virtue of that same union, was and is a proper object of adoration.

It will be seen plainly then that the doctrine of the Atonement depends absolutely upon the doctrine of the Incarnation. If the Human Nature of Christ were in any sense unreal, the Incarnation would be unnecessary. If the Divinity of Christ were not absolute, His Sacrifice would, at the most, only differ from the death of martyrs and saints in degree but not in kind; and again the Incarnation would be unnecessary. As perfect God and perfect Man, however, He accomplished what neither God nor man could accomplish separately: He united real Humanity to real Divinity; and by His Sacrifice consummated that union, and atoned for that for which man alone was incapable of atoning.

Other Foundational Doctrines
This, very briefly, then, is the foundation of the Catholic Religion, and has been, at any rate, until comparatively recently, the foundation of all Protestantism as well. It is claimed, however, by Catholics that certain other doctrines follow inevitably (and were actually so revealed by Christ), and that the rejection of these doctrines by Protestantism has led to obscurity and even to positive heresy on the fundamental dogmas themselves.

First, then, the Catholic Religion teaches that the Grace and Spiritual Power released by the Incarnation and the Atonement need, and were supplied with, means by which such grace should be perpetually applied to the individual. Certainly the individual, where such means fail, can, by the mercy of God, interiorly apprehend the grace necessary for his salvation; but, it is claimed, Christ, who wrought these things under terms of time and space, has provided means also under terms of time and space by which such grace is applied.

Secondly, it is claimed that the truths revealed by Christ need in every age a Living Voice by which vital questions may be answered, and an infallible Authority by which such truths may be safeguarded. A Revelation enshrined in a written book ceases, by the variety of interpretations applied to it, to be a positive or certain Revelation at all, unless there he an authoritative and infallible Teacher on Earth to decide between such interpretations. The Catholic Church, therefore, unlike Protestantism, while she regards the Bible as the Word of God and as one fount of Truth, adds as a second and equally important fount of Truth, the Tradition committed to her by Christ, in the guardianship of which she believes herself divinely safeguarded.


Reading Selections From “Detractors and Defenders of Dostoevsky’s Art” by Victor Abbas

December 16, 2009

 You will see scattered about Paying Attention To The Sky numerous references to Dostoevsky. Fr. Neuhaus recommended Victor Terras’  seminal work “Reading Dostoevsky”  and we used reading selections from it and Henri de Lubac in a previous post on  the Grand Inquisitor legend in the Brothers Karamazov. This is another selection that takes Dostoevsky’s critics as the point of departure to offer an comprehensive view of his writings.

No Time For “Stylistic Niceties?”
In his lifetime, Dostoevsky was not blessed with laudatory reviews. With time, he became defensive about the artistic quality of his work and made the excuse that he had had to write hurriedly, with no time to pay attention to stylistic niceties. Anybody familiar with Dostoevsky’s notebooks, drafts, and galley proofs knows that this was hardly true. But generations of critics have used Dostoevsky’s remarks to corroborate their negative assessment of his art.

Negative Opinions About Dostoevsky’s Work

  1. Most negative opinions about Dostoevsky’s art boil down to an assertion that, while his works are of some interest psychologically or philosophically, their artistic quality is low. Thus, N. A. Dobroliubov, in an otherwise positive review of Dostoevsky’s novel The Insulted and Injured, “Downtrodden People” (Zabitye liudi, 1861), said in fact that it was “artistically below criticism.” Some more recent critics, such as Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov, concur. To be sure, much negative criticism was and still is caused by the critics’ disagreement with Dostoevsky’s ideological positions or his general ethos (“good, but pretentious,” said Chekhov).
  2. As regards novelistic structure, some critics have seen Dostoevsky’s plots as chaotic and disorganized, while others have found them “Gothic” and aimed at cheap effects. Still others have charged Dostoevsky with excessive psychologizing (his rival Turgenev found it intolerable) and with overly pronounced naturalism (“copying court records”).’ Many critics have found Dostoevsky’s characters unrealistic, schematic, and contrived. The observation that they all talk alike — like the author — is heard often.
  3. Even more intense is the criticism leveled at Dostoevsky’s stylistic craftsmanship. From the very beginning, critics found his style prolix, repetitious, and lacking in polish. Often enough Dostoevsky was also found to be obscure, artificial, and sentimental, Finally, he has been found to lack balance, restraint, and good taste. In a word, whatever the merits of his oeuvre as a whole, its aesthetic value was found to be slight or nonexistent.
  4. Great moral flaws have also been found in Dostoevsky’s works. The charge heard most often is that of pessimism. Almost as often, the outré, hysterical, and morbid nature of Dostoevsky’s works is held up to censure, The label of a “cruel talent” has stuck to him ever since N. K. Mikhailovsky’s essay of that title (Zhestokii talant) appeared in 1882, Dostoevsky’s fascination with the extremes of the human condition is condemned by many critics. Less common are charges of insincerity, unctuousness, and “rosy Christianity.”
  5. The truth content of Dostoevsky’s works has been often challenged as well. In particular, he is said to have pursued the exceptional instead of the typical. Tendentious distortion of reality is a common charge. In an age of realism, Dostoevsky’s penchant for the fantastic, the paradoxical, and the mystical met with much disapproval.

Analysis Of Structure
These opinions, each voiced by critics of note, maybe assumed to be representative of a substantial body of readers and deserve attention not only as a record of Rezeptionsgeschichte, but also as an avenue to an analysis of Dostoevsky’s works.

As regards the structure of Dostoevsky’s novels, the critics’ dissatisfaction is well founded. If the ideal is a well-spaced and economically developed linear plot, a Dostoevskian novel with its multitude of minor characters and subplots, inserted anecdotes, philosophical dialogues, and the narra tor’s essayistic and other digressions is hardly “well structured.” It must be considered, though, that this linear — or syntagmatic — view ignores the wealth of paradigmatic structures that may do quite as much to integrate the text as an elegant linear plot would: leitmotifs, situation rhyme, recurrent imagery, mirroring and doubling, symbolic foreshadowing, parallelism, literary echoes and outright quotations, and other such devices are all plentiful in Dostoevsky’s novels. Their effect tends to be subliminal, and their presence has been demonstrated only through the efforts of generations of literary scholars.

His Greatness As A Novelist
Claims for Dostoevsky’s greatness as a novelist must be staked in connection with the Bakhtinian sense of the novel as an all-inclusive, wide-open expression of the fullness of life in a world in flux. The pattern of a tightly structured tragic plot may be discerned within this loose texture. Isaiah Berlin was, I believe, deeply wrong when he called Dostoevsky a monist “hedgehog” whose art is all about a single issue, rather than a “fox” with a bagful of tricks. A great novelist in this Bakhtinian sense must be a pluralist. Dostoevsky is a pluralist in a variety of ways. He has been aptly called a “romantic realist.” He has been thought, certainly in the West, to be the most Russian of novelists; yet his greatest impact has been on Western readers. Dobroliubov considered Dostoevsky a champion of the “downtrodden;’ and his art is decidedly demotic, yet it came to be appreciated by the intellectual elite of the twentieth century, the Prousts, Gides, and Hermann Hesses.

All these contradictions are enhanced by what Bakhtin called the polyphonic quality of Dostoevsky’s art: the presence in his texts of a persistent “other voice,” generated by devices such as an ironic narrator, often himself the unwary butt of the implied author’s irony, frequent “inner dialogue,” multiple ambiguities, and an incessant stream of literary and journalistic quotations, echoes, and allusions. Dostoevsky’s texts contain many semantic levels. Their narrative level, itself many-faceted, is synchronized with a moral or political argument, such as the antinomy of human and divine justice in The Brothers Karamazov; an allegorical message, say, the prophetic anticipation of the Russian Revolution in The Possessed; and metaphysical symbolism, such as the theme of resurrection in Crime and Punishment.

Dostoevsky’s Skill As “Devil’s Advocate.”
Dostoevsky’s novels encompass antagonistic philosophies and value systems. He is an excellent “devil’s advocate.” Sophisticated readers have mistaken for his own ideas what Dostoevsky was in fact trying to refute. Dostoevsky’s negative characters, his losers, scoundrels, and villains, are presented with as much empathy as his tragic heroes. Bakhtin drew attention to the carnivalistic strain in Dostoevsky’s novels, where a tragic plot may develop from what was initially a scandalous incident or a bad joke. Burlesque comedy is interspersed with tragic action. Serious ideas are advanced by disreputable types, buffoons, or characters who are clearly wrong about things that are dear to the writer’s heart. Often Dostoevsky’s most cherished thoughts appear in travesty: Lebedev, a disreputable character, praying for the soul of the Countess Du Barry is in fact living up to Father Zosima’s principle of universal guilt and responsibility.

Dostoevsky’s Skill As A Master of Detail
Dostoevsky’s novels have been called ideological.” His heroes may be perceived as ideas incarnate and his plots as conflicts of ideas. But then, too, Dostoevsky “aimed at concreteness all his life,” as Viktor Shklovsky put it. A wealth of concrete detail, both incidental and significant, is to be found in his novels. Mundane concerns appear throughout in the most concrete terms. Dostoevsky is a master of the realistic detail évocateur. Sonia’s plaid shawl, Stavrogin’s little red spider, Arkady’s white-and-blue checkered handkerchief, Iliusha’s toy cannon, Aliosha’s sausage sandwich, and hundreds of such details are remembered by the reader.

Dostoevsky’s novels are ambiguous even structurally. On the one hand, they leave openings to “real life” in a variety of ways (including allusions to contemporary events and concerns, and especially to contemporary literature). On the other, they are structured artifacts by virtue of the presence in them of abstract ideas that are brought home through various artful devices. A tragic plot in which ancient mythical themes have been detected may be embedded in what is recognizably an old-fashioned family novel with many feuilletonistic digressions, as is the case in The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov.

Featuring Exceptional Human Beings In Extreme Situations
The charge that Dostoevsky’s novels have Gothic traits and feature high or perverse passions, intrigue, murder, and suicide is of course valid. Dostoevsky’s main characters are exceptional human beings in extreme situations. Yet it must be understood that they live in a world populated by crowds of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. The saints, fanatics, murderers, and tragic sufferers of Dostoevsky’s novels live among men and women who pursue their mundane concerns in familiar ways. This does not invalidate the charge, however, and Dostoevsky’s answer to it was that extreme types and situations were more revealing of the human condition than the so-called “average?”3 This is a fundamental question on which Dostoevsky disagreed with most of his contemporaries. Maximilian Braun has wisely suggested that the crises, rare but still real, of human life were precisely Dostoevsky’s forte, while he had less of an eye and ear for every-day life: courtship and marriage, making a living, raising a family, and such. Which area one considers more important depends on one’s Weltanschauwig.

Dostoevsky’s Naturalism
The charge of “naturalism” is also justified. This goes both for Dostoevsky’s use of topics and details of current journalistic interest and for his frequent depictions of the seamy side of life and distasteful aspects of personal appearance and behavior. Dostoevsky offended not only Victorian sensibilities in this respect. As for Dostoevsky’s characters, it is true that many of them are based on identifiable real-life prototypes. It is also true that these, as well as some other, apparently imaginary characters, are readily perceived as “types,” which was Dostoevsky’s intent. The portraits of, say, Turgenev in The Possessed or of G. Z. Eliseev in The Brothers Karamazov are indiscreetly recognizable and quite cruel. They are also drawn satirically, as social types. But this can hardly be considered an aesthetic blemish, unless one clings to a narrow conception of realist art that excludes satire on the grounds that it distorts reality.

Dostoevsky’s Idealist Belief In The Freedom Of The Human Spirit
More serious is M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s charge that The Idiot contains, on the one side, characters full of life and truth, but on the other, some mysterious puppets whirling madly as though in a dream, made by hands trembling with rage.” Similar impressions come from other reputable critics who were at odds with Dostoevsky’s political views. They tended to find Dostoevsky’s characters contrived and carelessly executed. For instance, Mikhailovsky calls the nihilist figures in The Possessed, including Stavrogin, Piotr Verkhovensky, Shatov, and Kirillov, “puppets” and “pale, pretentious, and artificial.” Tolstoi’s identical charge refers to The Brothers Karamazov as a whole. These opinions are to be explained by the fact that the characters perceived as artificial and contrived were in fact created as ideas incarnate. They owe their existence to the ideas that possess them. Their social and psychological Gestalt is a function of these ideas. The disagreement between Dostoevsky and critics who would rather see ideas as a function of a character’s social identity is of a basic nature. It is a disagreement between a positivist social determinism and Dostoevsky’s idealist belief in the freedom of the human spirit.

Another violation of strict realism may be seen in Dostoevsky’s tendency to give many of his characters the gift of imaginative expression. Too many of them talk and think well, or at least interestingly, to be altogether believable. Homer, Dante, and, Shakespeare, to name only the greatest, take the same risk. The gain is in expressiveness. It is this form of poetic license that energizes Dostoevsky’s texts and makes them so memorable.

Dostoevsky’s Characters Talk Like The Author
The most damaging of the charges, that all Dostoevsky’s characters talk like the author, has been heard often since V. G. Belinsky first leveled it, and from as authoritative a reader as Tolstoi. It clashes with Bakhtin’s polyphonic conception of the Dostoevskian novel. How is this patent contradiction to be resolved? It is a fact that Dostoevsky, never a writer “from the notebook” (in the literal sense, that is), is not a very careful stylist when it comes to creating a social, regional, or occupational idiolect for his characters. He also lets some of his characters express thoughts which appear to be “over their heads” and which may be a part of the author’s ideological argument. Furthermore, more than most novelists, Dostoevsky likes to introduce a literary subtext into his dialogue, a trait that runs the danger of deconstructing its realism, as the reader’s mind is directed to the text quoted or alluded to and away from the situation at hand. The justification for this practice is that Dostoevsky’s novels are not primarily novels of manners, or even realistic social novels, but are rather in many ways close to the tradition that began with the Platonic dialogue. They are novels about ideas as much as about people.

Dostoevsky’s texts are alive, rather than lucid, well written, or elegant. They present the narrator’s and the characters’ speech in living flux, rather than as a finished product. An undercurrent of emotion or thought-in-progress is constantly present. The text is energized by an ever-active “inner form,” by which I mean any kind of verbal content beyond direct routine communication, or, in other words, any active ingredient added to the message by its medium. Metaphoric expression, such as podpol’e, “underground,” nadryv, “rupture,” or besy, “demons;’ is the most obvious example. “Inner form” may be generated also by rhythm, dialogic expression (as in irony, ambiguity, allusion, innuendo), over- and understatement, poignancy, solemnity, strangeness (through quirkiness, buffoonery, slang, idiolect, catachresis), challenging the reader by open partisanship, provocation, suspense, or novelty, and the narrator’s and everybody else’s unflagging personal interest in the action. “Inner form” makes the reader see things by making them concrete. For instance, the first chapter subtitle in The Brothers Karamazov might have been “The Story of a Family:’ which would have been routine communication without inner form. Instead, it is Istoriia Odnoi Semeiki– “The (Hi)Story of One Nice Little Family.”

A Reputation As A Poor Stylist
A reputation as a poor stylist has accompanied Dostoevsky since the publication of his first works. The critics’ opinion is the result of a misunderstanding that has been removed by Bakhtin’s insights. Bakhtin showed that Dostoevsky’s text creates a polyphonic concert of living voices, one of which is the narrator’s (which itself may well be dialogic!), rather than a homophonic narrative dominated by the narrator’s voice, Hence a controlled, economical, and well-integrated narrative style is not what Dostoevsky pursues. He will write elegantly only when the voice in question demands it. If one disregards the “polyphony” argument, Dostoevsky’s highly uneven narrative style, often distinctly colloquial, often journalistic, sometimes chatty, then again lyrical, solemn, or pathetic, places his work with the roman-feuilleton and may be legitimately seen as an aesthetic flaw. Today it is commonly seen as an innovative trait, adopted by Céline, Faulkner, Grass, and other leading novelists of the twentieth century.

Dostoevsky’s Religious Thought
The alleged moral flaws of Dostoevsky’s works are a function of the critic’s Weltanschauung. I believe that a Christian view close to Dostoevsky’s lets these flaws disappear. This is also true of Dostoevsky’s alleged pessimism. Thus, it is often said of The Idiot that the Good, personified in Prince Myshkin, is wholly ineffectual, and the ideal that the Prince stands for quite incompatible with life. Such criticism is invalid from Dostoevsky’s Christian viewpoint, for a Christian’s hope and joy are nurtured not by any earthly “and they lived happily ever after:’ but by faith in resurrection. A similar defense may be advanced against the charge that the atmosphere Dostoevsky created is sickly, hysterical, or outré (as he said himself). Nietzsche once called the evangelic world a mixture of the sickly, the childlike, and the sublime. The fervent excitement that permeates Dostoevsky’s world is shared with every ambience of religious or political ferment.

Ways In Which Men Live And Die With Or Without God
Dostoevsky’s religious thought is concerned with the ways in which men live and die with or without God. The solipsist antihero of Notes from Underground, the would-be Nietzschean Ubermensch Raskolnikov, l’homme revolte Kirillov of The Possessed, burnt-out Byronic heroes like Svidrigailov and Stavrogin, sensualists like Fiodor Pavlovich Karamazov, crude cynics like Smerdiakov, and even god-builders like Ivan Karamazov or Versilov of A Raw Youth – they are all humanists who believe that man can stand alone, without God — or against God. Dostoevsky’s peculiar approach to existence without God made him a forerunner of Existentialism. He asked not whether or not there is a God, but what living with or without God means for the existence of modern man. Despite his efforts to discredit atheist humanism, Dostoevsky became a prophet of the “death of God.” He certainly defined the condition of man without God with great power, though this achievement may have lost some of its provocative edge in our godless age.

Those of Dostoevsky’s characters who are with God, holy men like Tikhon, Makar Dolgoruky, or Zosima, simple souls like Sonia Marmeladov, Prince Myshkin, or Aliosha Karamazov, humble sinners like Marmeladov or Dmitry Karamazov, are no less memorable. Their state of grace is not determined by good deeds, or even by the fruits of their striving, but entirely by their unquestioning acceptance of God’s fatherhood. This position is complemented by a doctrine, stated most clearly by Father Zosima, of human solidarity in sonhood, which lets every human bear guilt and responsibility for every sin of humanity.

Dostoevsky’s Beliefs
Dostoevsky believed that a Christian’s progress is a struggle against human nature. Man is sustained in this struggle by epiphanies of divine grace, Father Zosima’s “contacts with other worlds,” which intrude upon man’s mundane existence. This position, and Dostoevsky’s rejection of ethical rationalism, are in accord not only with Orthodox doctrine, but also with some strains of romantic idealism. Dostoevsky’s religious philosophy is generally in tune with Russian Slavophile thought. Important as Dostoevsky’s religious ideas and Kulturkritik may be, to see his greatness mainly in these terms may divert us from an appreciation of his genius, simply because today, as in the writer’s lifetime, many readers will reject these ideas out of hand.

Nabokov’s Criticism
As for the cruelty of Dostoevsky’s talent, a charge raised by V. P. Burenin even before Mikhailovsky’s celebrated article, and reiterated by Nabokov, who speaks of Dostoevsky’s “wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity,” this too depends on the critic’s point of view. A remark by Saltykov-Shchedrin, rather to the same effect, may put this trait in the right context. Speaking of Notes from Underground, Saltykov-Shchedrin suggests that the point of this work is to show that every man is trash; nor will he ever become a good man until he is convinced that he is indeed trash. He then adds: “In the end, he moves on to the real subject of his musings. He draws his proofs mostly from St. Thomas Aquinas, but since he fails to reveal this, his readers may think that these thoughts are the narrator’s own.” The meaning of this Aesopian comment is that Dostoevsky has taken his hero to the depths of abjection only in order to lead him thereafter to faith and salvation. From a Christian viewpoint there is nothing wrong with this. But it is difficult for a reader who does not share Dostoevsky’s Christian convictions to see it this way, or, for another example, to see Marmeladov, that image of abjection and degradation, as an edifying example and perhaps the most positive character of Crime and Punishment, discounting Sonia, who is a saint.

A Rosy Christianity?
Other charges related to the moral aspect of Dostoevsky’s works are also a matter of ideology. Such are the charges of unctuousness and “rosy Christianity.” The former is a matter of faith: a nonbeliever like Nabokov will find the reading of the Gospel that brings together “the murderer and the harlot” to be simply in bad taste. The believer will find it moving and edifying. Leontiev’s charge of “rosy Christianity,” shared with some conservative Orthodox churchmen, may well be valid for some of Dostoevsky’s writings, though not for his total oeuvre.

The Truth Content Of Dostoevsky’s Works
Turning now to the truth content of Dostoevsky’s works, the foremost charge is that he deals with the exceptional, rather than with the typical: a serious charge, considering Dostoevsky’s insistence that he was a realist, albeit “in a higher sense.” V. G. Belinsky said that madmen — Dostoevsky’s Goliadkin, hero of The Double (1846), is the case in point — being atypical, “belong in lunatic asylums, not in novels.” Dostoevsky, in commenting on his novel years later, said that he had heralded, precisely in this character, a new social type of importance. So Goliadkin’s madness was typical after all. Analogous disagreements between author and critics were repeated in connection with almost every work. Dostoevsky was confident that the future would prove him right: his “exceptional” characters would one day be recognized as prophetic of Russia’s future, while those of Goncharov, Turgenev, and Tolstoi would appear as what they were, even at their appearance: representations of Russia’s past. The last word may not yet have been said about Dostoevsky the prophet and religious thinker. His analysis of the mentality that caused the Russian Revolution was profoundly correct, yet he was wrong, judging from the present point in history, in assuming that Russian spirituality would prevail over the demons of godless humanism and nthilism.

The charges of outright distortion of reality relate mostly to Dostoevsky’s understanding of the mood and moral attitude of the young generation of the Russian intelligentsia. It would seem that he was overly optimistic when he hoped that Kolia Krasotkin would follow the example of Aliosha Karamazov, rather than that of Rakitin.

Dostoevsky As A Keen Psychologist
Since the 1840s, Dostoevsky has had a reputation as a keen psychologist. Even then some critics found his psychologism excessive. In the 1860s and 1870s, such charges were heard frequently, and it was suggested that Dostoevsky’s morbidly self-conscious and self-lacerating characters were unrepresentative of Russian society, but were, rather, projections of the author’s own diseased mind. Unquestionably, Dostoevsky had a deep understanding of humans under conditions of great stress caused by want, suffering, frustration, rejection, and despair. He understood the psychology of poverty, humiliation, resentment, jealousy, cynicism, and cruelty better than most. Whether he had a balanced view of the Russian men and women of his age is a different question. Excellence as a psychologist is hardly the measure of his greatness, however, especially because Dostoevsky himself often spoke disparagingly of “scientific” psychology.

As for the charge that Dostoevsky developed his psychological dramas in a vacuum, neglecting to give them a natural and social background, I believe that it is unfounded. A careful reader will find that each scene of a Dostoevskian novel is provided with ample and aptly chosen detail that acts as a proper setting for the scene. Some critics have said that mundane details, such as food and drink, clothing and land- or city-scape, are missing from Dostoevsky’s novels. This is simply not true. There is ample material for an article on “Food and Drink in The Brothers Karamazov,” for example, or on “The Topography of St. Petersburg in Crime and Punishment.”


Book Recommendation: “Jesus, The Man Who Lives” by Malcolm Muggeridge

December 15, 2009

Salvador Dali "Christ of St. John of the Cross"

Tolstoy On The Gospels
An idea becomes close to you only when you are aware of it in your soul, when in reading about it it seems  that it has already occurred to you, that you know it and you are simply recalling it. That’s how it was when I read the Gospel. In the Gospels I discovered a new world: I had not yet supposed that there was such a depth of thought in them. Yet it all seemed so familiar; it seemed that I had known it all long ago, that I had only forgotten it.
Tolstoy, As recorded in Bulgakov’s Diary 18 April 1910

The Revelation’s Impetus
..the revelation Jesus provided, in his teaching, and in the drama of his life, death, and Resurrection, of the true purpose and destination of our earthly existence, seems to me, even by comparison with other such revelations, to be of unique value and everlasting validity. The fact hat I happen to have come into the world myself at a time when the revelation’s impetus in history gives every sign of  being almost spent, and when western Man is increasingly inclined to reject and despise the inheritance it has brought him, only serves to make me the more appreciative of it and awed by it. In the same sort of way the last notes of the Missa Solemnis seem to contain the whole beauty of what has gone before, or the light of a June evening to hold all the glory of the day that is ending.

The key to this seeming disparity between Pascal the scientist, scrupulously observing facts and weighing their relevance, and Pascal the Christian, bowing his head, bending his knees, humbling his proud mind, before the Virgin Mother of Jesus, lies in the one word “faith”…”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”[Paul, Epistle to the Hebrews] Faith that bridges the chasm between what our minds can know and what our souls aspire after; faith which so dwarfs whatever we may consider ourselves to have achieved, or been, that it makes all men —- the humblest, the simplest, the most, in worldly terms –foolish — our equal, our brothers; faith which so irradiates our inner being and outward circumstances that the ostensible exactitudes of time and measure, of proof and disproof, lose their precision, existing only in relation to eternal absolutes which everything in the universe proclaims, and in which all life has its being – the stones and the creatures, the pigs grunt and the nightingale’s song, the trees and the mountains, the wind and the clouds, height and depth, darkness and light, everything that ever has been, or ever will be, attempted, or done, till the end of time — all swelling the chorus of faith.

Fantasy, Truth And The Eye
I want to cry out with the blind man to whom Jesus restored his sight: One thing that I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see. How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before? How not have understood that the grey–silver light across the water, the cry of the seagulls and the sweep of their wings, everything on which my eyes rest and my ears hear is telling me about God.

This life’s dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’, the Eye.

Thus Blake distinguishes between the fantasy that is seen with the eye and truth that is seen though it. There are two clearly demarcated kingdoms; and passing from one to the other, from the kingdom of fantasy to the kingdom of reality, gives inexpressible delight. As when the sun comes out, and a dark landscape is suddenly glorified, all that was obscure becoming clear, all that was incomprehensible, comprehensible. Fantasy’s joys and desires dissolve away and in their place is one joy, one desire; one Oneness — God.

In this kingdom of reality, Simone Weil tells us, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy as goodness; no desert so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. There we may understand what St. Augustine meant when he insisted that ‘though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone, and how, in  the light of this realization, all human progress, human morality, human law, based, as they are, on the opposite proposition — of the intrinsic superiority of the higher over the lower — is seen as written on water, scribbled on dust; like Jesus’ scribble while he was waiting for the accusers of he woman taken in adultery to disperse.

Approaching Jesus Through Art
Jesus’ story is a drama, not documentation, and the word whose flesh he became is every true word ever written or spoken; every true note ever sounded, every true stone ever laid on another, every true shape molded, or true color mixed. The whole creative achievement of Man is comprehended in it. Look for it in the light shining in El Greco’s faces; listen for it in the notes of Plainsong; marvel at it in the spire of Salisbury Cathedral rising so exquisitely into the sky; read it in Blake’s Song of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Hold it in your hand in a grain of sand; in your mind in the universe, with all its planetary systems within systems and ultimate vistas of everlasting space; in your soul in the contemplation of the creator of it all, the spirit which animates it all the beginning and the end of what has not beginning and no end — God. Then pinpoint it all, bring it all to a focus, concentrate it all in a Man and that Man – Jesus

The Meaning of The Incarnation
The perfection of Jesus’ divinity was expressed in the perfection of his humanity, and vice versa. He was God because he was so sublimely a man, and Man because, in all his sayings and doings, the grace of his person and words, in the love and compassion that shone out of him he walked so closely with God. As Man alone Jesus could not have saved us; as God alone, he would not. Incarnate, he could and did.

If, I remember reflecting as a child, and perhaps asking some unfortunate teacher, this or that had to be done to fulfill a prophecy, how was it a prophecy at all? Surely, prophesying meant foreseeing something that was going to happen, not so arranging things that it happened. Subsequent experience of life, and brooding thereon, made me understand that two parallel processes are at work – prophesying, and surrendering to the logic of events whereby the prophecy comes to pass. Built into our mortal circumstances here is what Blake called a Fearful Symmetry –

Tyger Tyger buring bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Western Man Has Decided To Abolish Himself
It has become abundantly clear in the second half of the twentieth century that Western Man has decided to abolish himself. Having wearied of the struggle to be himself, he has created his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, his own vulnerability out of his own strength; himself blowing the trumpet that brings the walls of his own city tumbling down, and, in the process of auto–genocide, convincing himself  that he is too numerous, and laboring accordingly with pill and scalpel and syringe to make himself fewer in order to be an easier prey for his enemies; until at last, having educated himself into imbecility, and polluted and drugged himself into stupefaction, he keels over, a weary, battered old brontosaurus, and becomes extinct.

Determinism, Freedom And Prophecy
In their exposition of the fulfillment of the prophecy the Gospels faithfully reflect the mysterious blend of determinism and freedom which governs our lives. What happens, they tell us, has to happen, but still need not; we must bend our knees and bow our heads and say Thy will be done, while none the less knowing, as Jesus did in his darkest hour in the Garden of Gethsemane, that it is open to us to follow our own wills. The demons of the ego are allowed to enter into us, as they were allowed to enter into the Gadarene swine, and can send us similarly leaping to destruction…

The imagination can relate these two seeming opposites — determinism and freedom — into a wholeness which partakes of both and is greater than either. Hence art. Watching a performance of Macbeth, we know perfectly well that Macbeth will murder Duncan, and all the tragic consequences will ensue, and yet hang breathlessly on Macbeth’s words as he summons up his resolution to fulfill the witches’ prediction…

Prophecy belongs to the domain of the imagination, not of the intellect; its truth lies in the inescapable necessity to fulfill it; its strength, in our sense that we are free to fulfill or not as we think fit. This is why, especially at moments of great crisis in our individual lives or in history, we often seem to be following a preordained course, and yet choosing, whether grudgingly, heroically, or in desperation, to follow it.

Where Shall Wisdom Be Found
Where shall wisdom be found and where is the place of understanding? [Job 28:12] Not, certainly, in what passes for being the documentation of this or any other age, whether recorded by a Josephus, elegantly recorded by a Gibbon, laboriously assembled by a Namier, dispersed in clouds of rhetoric by a Churchill, or reflected in the fabulous distorting mirror twentieth — century technology has devised to take in every detail and aspect of our contemporary scene — the television screen. This last, least of all; nothing is less actual that its actualites.

Only mystics, clowns and artists, in my experience, speak the truth, which, as Blake was always insisting, is perceptible to the imagination rather than the mind. Thus an animist groveling naked in the African bush before a painted stone may well be nearer to the heart of things than any Einstein or Bertrand Russell, and a painted clown riding a bicycle round and round a circus ring more attuned to the reality of life than a Talleyrand or a Bismark can hope to be. Jesus was making the same point when he insisted that God has revealed to the foolish what is hidden from the wise.

A Religion Of Slaves
Simone Weil describes…There was a full moon, and the wives of the fishermen were going in procession form ship to ship, carrying candles and singing ancient hymns of a heart — rending sadness. As she listened to them, here own sadness lifted, and she suddenly had a joyous conviction ‘that Christianity is preeminently a religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.’

Sinners’s Knowledge, Garnered In Sinlessness
This is like asking why the Word needed to become flesh in the first place; why it did not suffice just as Word. The point is that, to exist for us in time, the Word had to be spoken, and that the Incarnation was God’s way of speaking it. Or, as it is put in the Fourth Gospel in becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, the Word dwelt among us. Thus though Jesus’ coming into the world was divinely ordained, and represented God’s deliberate intervention in history, it was still the case that he had to live in the world as a man among other men. In this capacity, he heard and heeded John’s call to repentance and accepted John’s hands, just as later, he accepted crucifixion at Pilate’s.

In this capacity too, he understood, fully and perfectly, the nature and driving force of sin. How otherwise could he have insisted that just to look after woman to lust after her is to commit adultery? This is sinner’s knowledge, as all sinners at once recognize. How otherwise would he know that the insatiable ego ever raising its cobra head will not be coaxed or persuaded or indulged into quiescence, but must be struck down once and for all? That to live we must die, experiencing the ultimate sweetness of life, the final fragrance and music of it, only in its final rejection. That when we at last know that life is worthless, then only do we truly live; that when we have absolutely nothing more to hope for  —- no dream, however exalted, of delighting or uplifting our fellows, no vista of fulfilled love or of silver evening light falling serenely across our last days – then, at last, we can hope?  That when the heart is empty, the mind dry, the soul blown away in dust, and the sheet of white paper that has to be covered stares back at us glassy-eyed, then, and only then, a flame leaps up of certainty, absolute and everlasting, that God awaits with outstretched arms to welcome us into the eternity whence we came? This is what Jesus knew — sinners’s knowledge, garnered in sinlessness.

Salvation For Individuals No Collective Cures
Jesus never used his miraculous powers to promote any general or collective purpose. The salvation he offered was for individuals not collectivities; for a person, not for an idea. Though the sick crowded around him there were no collective cures or blanket dispensations.

Fulfilling His Mission While Accepting Mortal Existence
…While he was incarnate he insisted on being regarded in every respect as a mortal man. Had he done otherwise, the focus and climax of all his teaching, the Cross, would have lost its point. For a man to die on the Cross for other men was sublime, where for God to be crucified would be nothing – like someone who is immortal serving a prison sentence. If the Devil had succeeded in persuading Jesus to exploit his miraculous powers to his own greater glory in the eyes of the world, his mission would have been emptied of its content. To fulfill his mission he had to accept all the limitations, fallibilities and inadequacies of our mortal existence and relate these to our immortal destiny, thereby enabling men to draw near to God, and God to make Himself accessible to men….

After his colloquy with the Devil it was to be abundantly clear to him that always and in all circumstances he must eschew the three pillars of earthly authority – marvels, affluence and the exercise of power. It was not for him to turn stones into bread, however plentiful the stones and scarce the bread, but rather to sacramentalize bodily into spiritual sustenance; not for him to draw men to him by calling on God for a sign, but rather to light with his truth their way to God and God’s way to them. Above all it was not for Him to look for help or support to any Caesar, actual or aspiring; still less to become one. He was to be no Fuhrer, no mythical resistance leader; there was poetry , but no rhetoric, in the words wherewith he would reveal to men how God would have them live together and do His will.

Adam And Jesus
As one man, Adam, had estranged men for God, so another man, Jesus, would reconcile them to God; as Adam’s disobedience necessitated Moses’ Law, so Jesus’ obedience opened up a new dispensation of love transcending Moses’ Law in relations between man and man, and between men and God…Jesus’ sacrifice undoes Adam’s sin; the Old Man with his deeds is put off, and the New Man, reborn in the spirit is put on; and all mankind, Jew and gentile, bond and free, conjoined together in one body, in one fellowship, with, and in, Christ. This was the new heaven and the new earth prophesied in the Scriptures…

C.H.Dodd On Truth In The Gospels
There are particular moments in the lives of men and in the history of mankind when what is permanently true (if largely unrecognized) becomes manifestly and effectively true. Such a moment in history is reflected in the Gospels. The presence of God with men, a truth for all times and all places, becomes an effective truth. It became such (we must conclude) because of the impact Jesus made; because in his words and actions it was presented with exceptional clarity and operative with exceptional power. Jesus himself pointed out the effects of his work as signs of the coming of the kingdom: If by the finger of God I drive out devils, then be sure the Kingdom of God has come upon you.

The Messiah Of The Prophecy And Jesus
The Messiah of the prophecy was for the Jews exclusively, and his Kingdom an Israel restored to a greatness and glory; the messiah in the person of Jesus is not for a Chosen People, but for all who will accept Him, and His Kingdom is not of this world at all. It is, at once, within us, and located beyond the confines of space and time and mortality.

We carry about it with us in our inner being, infinitely precious, as it might be some locket containing he likeness of a beloved face. At the same time, like Augustine’s City of God, it is high above us out of our reach — Isaiah’s land that is very far off; but still, for those who have eyes to see, discernible from our earthly city and the destination of our earthly pilgrimage.

It is both here and now, available to everyone for the asking, and to be vigilantly expected — as the wise virgins awaited the coming of the bridegroom, with their lamps full of oil, unlike the foolish ones who had used up their oil and then, when the bridegroom came , had no means of replenishing their lamps.

The Christian Life: Tasting Eternity In Time
As Shakespeare put it in his famous seven stages of man, we come into the world as babies mewling and puking in our nurse’s arms; then pass from childhood to youth, to mature manhood, until finally we peter out in second childishness and mere oblivion. Where in this process is there a place for being reborn? Yet it happens. Out of the dark womb of our own willfulness and carnality some force of spiritual creativity can push us into another birth. We emerge into the same world we have grown accustomed to, to find it now made new; its colors shining and translucent, its shapes sharpened and wonderful in their grace, its men and women moving like angels, and all its creatures disclosing a beauty hitherto secret.

So, seeing with new eyes, I see a new world; understanding with heart and mind and soul, truth breaks upon me, not thought or sensation or realization but in one comprehensive enlightenment. As a child with its first yawn or smile measures up to Time, I, reborn, and become a child again, measure up to Eternity. Who can doubt that this is the everlasting life Jesus promised – what is eternal in life becoming manifest eternally; each joy forever in its joyfulness, each woe likewise in its woefulness, and the two inextricably intertwined; in Blake’s words ‘woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.’…

[Jesus’ Kingdom] offered salvation to men and women living in the world; holding out to them the possibility of a way of life on quite different terms from any hitherto envisaged. Tasting eternity in time; experiencing heavenly ecstasies while still walking the earth; carrying love, not just to the ultimate requirements of the Law, of morality, of human affections, but far, far beyond that — into the crazy extravagancies of God’s love, which knows no limits; which is poured out indiscriminately on all His creation, flooding it all in beauty, and making all its sounds — the grunts, the cries, the songs, the screeches – somehow melodious, not to mention words, which fill and billow like a sail to his Breath, and glow with his translucence. …

[Imagine] Paul breaking into song while living in and for Christ in Nero’s world…The joy and wonder  were to continue unabated through all the troubles and pitfalls that lay ahead. In the world ye shall have tribulations: but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world – how often I have said over to myself with feelings of inexpressible comfort these words Jesus spoke to his disciples, knowing that when the test came they would scatter and lose heart, and regret ever having been associated with him . Jesus had indeed overcome the world, and forever…He had overcome the world by revealing its true nature, its reality contrasting with the layer upon layer of fantasy which the human ego is endlessly constructing out of itself, like a monstrous coral reef. The revelation was Jesus’ good news, the kingdom he came to proclaim. In its light, we may know ourselves to be displaced persons, who yet are given eyes, if we care to use them, capable of seeing here on earth, all the contours and of our true habitat and dwelling–place–to–be. Thus St Augustine’s preaching…after hearing the news of the sack of Rome:

You are surprised that the world is losing its grip? That the world is grown old and full of pressing tribulations? Do not hold on to the old man, the world; do not refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you: the world is passing away, the world is losing its grip, the world is short of breath. Do not fear, thy youth shall be renewed as an eagle.

Christianity Is An Experience
The war goes on; and suddenly in the most unlikely theater of all, a Solzhenitsyn raises his voice, while in the dismal slums of Calcutta a Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity go about Jesus’ work of love with incomparable dedication. When I think of them, as I have seen them at their work and at their devotions, I want to put away all the books, tear up all the scribbled notes. There are no more doubts or dilemmas; everything is perfectly clear.

What commentary or exposition, however eloquent, lucid, perceptive, inspired even, can equal in elucidation and illumination the effect of these dedicated lives? What mind has conceived a discourse, or tongue spoken in it, which conveys even to a minute degree eh light they shine before men? I was an hungred, and  ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me – the words come alive, as no study or meditation could possibly make them, in the fulfillment in the most literal sense of Jesus’ behest to see in the suffering faces of humanity his suffering face, and in their broken bodies, his.

The religion Jesus gave the world is an experience, not a body of ideas or principles. It is being lived that it lives, as it is in loving that the love which it discloses at the heart of all creation becomes manifest. It belongs to the world of a Cervantes rather than a Wittgenstein; to Rabelais and Tolstoy rather than to Bultmann and Barth.

Our Transformation At Death
So at last I may understand, and understanding believe; see my ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter, muddy and marred with being trodden underfoot, and hover over it, myself, like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away. Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth — crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely pained wings? If told, do they believe it?

Is it conceivable to them that so constricted an existence as this should burgeon into so gay and lightsome a one as a butterfly’s? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads — no, it can’t be; it’s a fantasy, self–deception, a dream. Similarly,  our wise ones. Yet in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clocks tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of grey, I hear those words; I am the resurrection, and the life, and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace.

Two Great Propositions
Jesus summarized all his teaching for us in two great propositions which have provided Christendom with, as it were, its moral and spiritual axis. The first and great commandment, he said , was: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and the second , like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these commandments, he insisted, hang all the law and the prophets. His manner of presenting them indicates their interdependence; unless we love God we cannot love our neighbor, and correspondingly, unless we love our neighbor we cannot love God.. Once again , there has to be a balance; Christianity is a system of such balanced obligations –To God and Caesar, to flesh and spirit; to God and our neighbor, and so on. Happy the man who strikes the balance justly; to its imbalance are due most of our miseries and misfortunes, individual as well as collective.

What Does Loving God Mean?
We can love the world he created and the universe which is its setting…All this we can love; but still it is not loving God…We may love the godly works of man…all this can be loved as emanating from God, and yet not even this is God. Yet again there are Man’s own particular and private loves, all of which pertaining to love partake in some degree of God’s love…how beautiful in old age to note in the grandchild newly born some trait remembered form long ago …like the echo of a distant bell…yet this is still not God…How is God to be found and loved? Not as philosophically conceived as a first cause or Categorical Imperative…still less are we capable of loving God as scientifically conceived…the life force which has triumphantly carried our species form primeval slime to Professor Ayer…the simple fact is that to be truly loved God has to become a Man without thereby ceasing to be God. Hence Jesus who provides the possibility of loving God through and in him.

Thus the two commandments become one; to be celebrated in a Man – Jesus —- who died and sanctified in a Man — also Jesus — who goes on living.. As out of Jesus’ affliction came a new sense of God’s love, and a new basis for love between men, so out of our affliction we may grasp a the splendor of God’s love and how to love one another. Thus the consummation of the two commandments was on Golgotha; and the cross is at once their image and their fulfillment. “It is affliction itself.”

Simone Weil writes, ‘that the splendor of God’s mercy shines; from its very depths, in the heart of its inconsolable bitterness.’ We feel ourselves to be forsaken, as Jesus momentarily did on the Cross; and if then we persevere in our love, we end by coming into contact with something which is neither joy nor sorrow, something necessary, pure and essential; something apart form the senses, partaking of both joy and sorrow. Then, at last , triumphantly, we know what it is to love God and looking outwards from within this love, we see our fellow men, all of them, the sick and the well, the beautiful and the plain, the stupid and the clever, mongols and beauty queens, and  imbeciles and athletes, every variety and category of humankind; see them all as brothers and sisters, members of one family, at once enfolded in God’s love and chained together by it, as though they were His galley–slaves, and this servitude their perfect freedom.

Jesus And Jerusalem
In his [Jesus’] only recorded personal outburst, he cried out at his first glimpse of Jerusalem in the distance, set amidst the hills, so strangely and beautifully aloof, as though floating in the sky, and more like a visionary city than an actual one: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

The Cloud Of Unknowing: Quotation
Love is such a great power that it maketh all things to be shared. Therefore love Jesus, and all things that he hath, it is thine. He by his Godhead is maker and giver of time. He by his Manhood is the true heeder of time. And he by his Godhead and Manhood together, is the truest judge and the asker of account of the spending of time. Knit thee therefore to him, by love and by belief.

And Judas?…Was he the most skeptical of them all about Jesus’ Messianic pretensions and the powers that went therewith, and so the readier to be a paid renegade? Or was he the most understanding of them all, the one with the greatest certainty that Jesus was indeed all he claimed to be, Incarnate God, which made Judas feel he must at all costs get rid of him The method he chose suggests as much – betraying Jesus to the Sanhedrin gang for a paltry sum of money, thirty pieces of silver, which at the then market rate was less than the cost of a mediocre slave.

As does also the manner he chose to identify Jesus — with a kiss. After all there were plenty of other means of identification than a kiss; such as pointing Jesus out and pronouncing a Devil’s version of Ecce Homo—Behold the Man! Surely that kiss was an indication that Judas betrayed Jesus, not because he hated him, but because he loved him.

A Stupendous Riddle
They call him Master and rightly so, but in washing their feet the Master deliberately abases himself in order to demonstrate that greatness lies not in self–assertion, but in self–abnegation. Earthly authority displays itself in giving orders, in magnificent apparel, in hordes of servitors, in sycophantic addresses; the authority  Jesus disposes of is, by contrast, spiritual, and expresses itself in serving, not in being served, in seeking to be the least instead of the greatest, the last instead of the first, in finding wisdom in the innocence of children and truth in the foolishness of men rather than in those who pass for being sagacious and experienced in the world’s ways. When we want to adulate men, we say they are godlike; but when God became Man, it was in the lineaments of the least of men…

If the greatest of all, Incarnate God, chooses to be the servant of all, who will wish to be the master? If he receives orders, who will venture to give them? If those who climb are descending, and those who descend, climbing, who will aspire after eminence? These are the questions Jesus leaves with us; not to answer — because they have no answer — but to live with and by. Christianity is a stupendous riddle without a solution; a stupendous joke without a point; a stupendous song without a tune; a stupendous waking dream that we lose in sleeping; a death in life and a life in death.

The Way, The Truth, The Life
Thomas, the doubter, asked, not unreasonably, how, if they did not know where Jesus was going, they could possibly be expected to follow after him. It was then that Jesus came out with one of his greatest sayings — that he was himself  the way, the truth, and the life. For his followers, to know him is to know where they’re going, and why they are going there, and to be vouchsafed the strength to follow the way to the end where Jesus awaits them. There are many signposts, but he is the way. There are many words and meanings, but he is the truth; there are many ways of living and dying, but He is life itself.

The Trinity
First God the Father who is everywhere and nowhere; the oneness of all things rather than any particular thing. It is material or temporal beauty? Surely not. Not the brilliance of earthly light, the sweet melody of harmony and song, the fragrance of the flowers, and perfumes; not manna or honey or limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is none of these he loves when he loves his God. Yet, in loving God he also loves them; but in his inner self, when the soul is bathed in illimitable light, when it breathes fragrance not borne away on the wind, listens to sounds that never die away, clings to an embrace not severed by desire’s fulfillment.

What then is his God? He asks the earth, and it answers: I am not God. Likewise he asks the sea, the winds that blow, the sky , the sun, the moon and the stars, all things that can be admitted by the door of the senses, and the answer is of one and all is the same – they are not God. Where then is God And the answer is at the very core of creation, and in all its parts God is creation’s soul, and because we have souls which are components of His as the tiniest particle of moisture in sea spray is a component of the ocean, we are one with God and God is one with us.

So Augustine triumphantly concludes: ‘He is the life of the life of my soul.’ …Between the earthly city and the heavenly city there is a deep impassable chasm ….Jesus is the suspension bridge to God the Father. Through him we may know God truly as a Father; through him the universal becomes the particular, the immanent becomes the transcendent, the implicit becomes the explicit. Always becomes now. The pure of heart are blessed because thy may know God the Father; but thanks to God the Son, so may the impure of heart through knowing Jesus.

It was for this purpose – to open up a way for sinners to know God – that Jesus came amongst us. By the same token, this was the offense for which he was crucified. God the Son is God the Father’s probation officer to a fallen world, who, by his death on the Cross, expiated Adam’s sin, and reversed the fall. Under the dispensation of God the Father, Adam brought death into the world; under the dispensation of God the Son, Jesus abolished death….

Then there is the Holy Spirit…this is the conception the most nebulous, but in terms of experience, the most actual. The Holy Spirit first descended upon the disciples in the Acts of Apostles, on the first Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, on what is celebrated by Christians as Whit Sunday…Whatever may have been the precise intimations and nature of the experience, it s certainly the case that thenceforth these hitherto easily scared, rather quarrelsome and confused men became worthy and effective servants of their Master; propagandists of genius and martyrs of indomitable heroism…


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