Archive for December, 2012


Happiness: Blessed are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness — Peter Kreeft

December 31, 2012
Nothing more conspicuously distinguishes us than our lack of courage, our lack of passion. Courage is when there is no other option.

Nothing more conspicuously distinguishes us than our lack of courage, our lack of passion. Courage is when there is no other option.

Christ’s fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” cuts to the rotten flesh at the heart of the modern world.


It shows a striking difference between our culture and all others, especially our own culture’s past. As Solzhenitsyn said in his great and shocking 1978 Harvard commencement address, nothing more conspicuously distinguishes us than our lack of courage, our lack of passion.

You see this strikingly when you live in another culture, or even when you read the writings of another culture, like the Middle Ages or ancient Israel. Kierkegaard says in Either/Or,

Let others complain that our age is wicked; my complaint is that it is wretched, for it lacks passion. Men’s thoughts are thin and flimsy like lace; they are themselves are pitiable like lace makers. The thoughts of their hearts are too paltry to be sinful. For a worm it might be regarded as a sin to harbor such thoughts, but not for a being made in the image of God.

Even their lusts are dull and sluggish, their passions sleepy. They do their duty, these shop-keeping souls, but they clip the coin a trifle. … They think that even if the Lord keeps a careful set of books, they may still cheat Him a little. Out upon them!

This is the reason my soul always turns back to the Old Testament and Shakespeare. Those who speak there are at least human beings: they hate; they love; they murder their enemies, and curse their descendants throughout all generations; they sin.

The greatest good, according to our culture’s primary prophets, is self-esteem, self-satisfaction. Christ shocks us by blessing dissatisfaction, not the dissatisfaction with our place in the world, not worldly ambition, the profit motive, the American Dream, hunger for glory, honor, fame, power, wealth or success, but hunger and thirst for righteousness, for sanctity — dissatisfaction with our sins, passionate thirst for a sanctity we know we do not have, and know we must have.

There is one thing in the lives of all the saints that turns us off, and cuts of off, from perhaps the single most effective evangelistic weapon in the Church’s arsenal — using the lives of the saints — and that is the saints’ passionate insistence that they are great sinners, and their insistent passion for holiness. It’s not that we do not admire holiness; it’s that we do not admire the passion for holiness, the hunger and thirst for righteousness.

What Christ blesses, we curse as fanaticism, our soft, sophisticated culture’s worst insult. But this is Christ’s blessing. More than a blessing, it is a requirement. It is what our Lord requires us to be in order to be his, that is, to be a saint, that is, a fanatic, to love one thing infinitely, to put all our eggs in his basket. It contains only one pearl of great price. He uses a shocking word for our Laodicean [vocab: Lukewarm or halfhearted, esp. with respect to religion or politics] niceness: “Because you are neither hot nor cold I will spit you out of my mouth.”  He is content with us only if we are discontent with ourselves.

Freud wrote that our civilization’s success in seeking contentment has produced instead greater discontent — a profound question, but he did not know the answer why. I think that was the profoundest thing he ever wrote, only one step from Augustine’s great answer, that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Pascal, on the other hand, knew why, for his patient, unlike Freud’s, was himself, and his psychoanalyst, unlike Freud’s, was not himself, but Christ. And therefore he knew why we multiply our passions for little things, and decrease our passion for great thing, why we multiply diversions, and cultivate indifference, especially to death and our eternal destiny. He knew where this disease came from. He wrote,

The fact that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their whole being and the peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature. With everything else they are quite different: they fear the most trifling things. They foresee them and feel them. The same man who spends many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office, or some imaginary affront to his honor, is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death, but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest. It is an incomprehensible spell, a supernatural torpor that points to a supernatural power as its cause.

Many thinkers have written sentences that begin like this: “There are only two kinds of people” or “There are only three kinds of people”. In fact, one version goes like this: “There are only two kinds of people, those who believe there are only two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” But Pascal’s version is the best I have ever heard. He writes, “There are only three kinds of people: those who seek God and have found Him — these are wise and happy; those who seek God and have not yet found Him — these are wise and unhappy; and those who live without either seeking God or finding Him — and these are both unwise and unhappy.” You see, it is the seeking, the hungering and thirsting, that makes all the difference, in fact, the eternal difference. Jesus said it even more succinctly than Pascal (Jesus spoke more succinctly than anyone ever): “Seek and you shall find,” implying that non-seekers do not find.

The Pharisees were non-seekers, like the pop psychologists, full of self-esteem. Therefore he said to them that he had come on earth to save everyone but them. He said, “Those who are sick need a physician, not those who are well. I came to call not the righteous, but sinners.”

Socrates said the same thing: on the intellectual level, there are only two kinds of people, fools who believe they are wise, and the wise who believe they are fools. Pascal says: “There are two kinds of people: sinners, who believe they are saints, and saints, who believe they are sinners.” Jesus says that the wise “fools” and the saints are right, and the clear empirical test for the difference between them is the hunger and thirst, the passion, the discontent.

When Christ says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that is, for sanctity, shall be satisfied, does he mean they shall be satisfied only in the next life? I think he means they will begin to be satisfied even in this one. Already in this life the saints have a peace and a joy that the world cannot give. They are at the same time dissatisfied and satisfied, like Romeo with Juliet, like you listening to a great symphony, or watching a great storm at sea.

By a wonderful paradox, the refusal to accept self-esteem turns out to be the highest self-esteem. To accept the title “sinner” means you are the King’s kid acting like an ape. To refuse that title and accept yourself as you are means that you are only a clever, successfully evolved ape, even when you act like a prince. What a privilege to sing, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” No ape, however evolved, can rise to the dignity of being a wretch. Only one destined for infinite, unending, and unimaginable ecstasy in spiritual marriage to God can bear the dignity of being a wretch. Only the betrothed is wretched until united with the Spouse.


Happiness: The First Three Beatitudes — Peter Kreeft

December 28, 2012
As Chesterton said, “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ's philosophy seems upside down." We are looking at the earth and kicking up in rebellion against the heavens.

As Chesterton said, “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.” We are looking at the earth and kicking up in rebellion against the heavens.

Christ proposes a vision of happiness which is the exact opposite of what everyone in the post-Christian West assumes to be the sources of the greatest happiness in life.


Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
We say how blessed we are as individuals or as a nation when we have wealth. He says no, you are blessed when you are poor. Poor not only in your bank account, but even more than that, not less, poor down to the depths of your heart, poor in spirit, detached from riches, whether you are physically rich or poor.

When Harvard University invited Mother Teresa to give a commencement address, she shocked them by taking issue with the gracious invitation they sent to her, as “the most famous person in one of the world’s poorest nations, to address the world’s richest nation.” She said no, “India is not a poor nation; India is a very rich nation. She has a wealth of riches, true spiritual riches. And America is not a rich nation. She is a poor nation, in fact, a desperately poor nation. She slaughters her own unborn children.”

Why? Because the mother fears those children will be poor, or will make her poor. The mother fears that she will not be able to afford to have these children, as if children are like cars or computers, calculable items in the household’s economy, consumer goods rather than consumers, objects rather than subjects, part of the circle rather than the center of the circle.

The supposed insanity of Christ’s saying thus turns out to be an illusion of perspective. In a lunatic asylum, from the lunatics’ point of view, it is the sane outsider who is insane. How useful to have a continual supply of outsiders, the saints, to remind us of where we live: east of Eden, in a lunatic asylum. Christ gives us a map to show how far east of Eden we are. The poor in spirit, of course, are not the weak-spirited; they are exactly the opposite. They are strong enough to be detached from riches, that is, from the whole world. They are those who are strong enough not to be enslaved to their desires for the things of this world.

Blessed are Those who Mourn
Well, what could Christ possibly mean by his second beatitude? Weeping and mourning is certainly not an expression of contentment, of the painless state that we all long for as part of happiness. Yet Christ tells us that those who mourn are blessed. How ridiculous for some Bible translations to translate makarios by ‘happy’ in this verse, in a society that means by ‘happy’ simply subjectively satisfied or content. That translation would make Christ say, “Those who weep are content,” which is not a meaningful paradox, but a meaningless self-contradiction.

Mourning is the expression of inner discontent, of the gap between desire and satisfaction, that is, of suffering. Buddha founded an entire religion on the problem of suffering, or dukkha, and its cause, tanha, or greed, and its cure, the Noble Eightfold Path leading to nirvana, the abolition of both suffering and its source.

Unlike Buddha, Christ came not to free us from suffering, but to transform its meaning, to make it salvific. He came to save us from sin, and he did so precisely by embracing the suffering and death that are the result of sin. It must sound as absurd to a Buddhist to say that suffering is redemptive, as it would sound to a Christian to say that sin is redemptive. Each religion must accuse the other of the most radical practical error: confusing the problem with the solution.

The reason Christ gave for declaring mourners blessed is that they shall be comforted. For in hope this future is made present. It’s true that “one foot up and one foot down, that’s the way to London Town,” whether one is going to London to be crowned king or to be hanged on Traitor’s Gate. But the future destiny of the journey makes everything in the journey itself different, not just accidentally, but essentially, and not just extrinsically, but intrinsically. A journey to be hanged is tragic, even if it is in a comfortable coach. A journey to be crowned, even if it is in an uncomfortable wagon, is glorious.

St. Teresa said, “Looked at from the viewpoint of heaven, the most horribly painful earthly life will turn out to be no more than one night in an inconvenient hotel.” And Christ has the viewpoint of heaven. Christ is the viewpoint of heaven. Christ is heaven. In giving us himself, he gives us heaven, and its viewpoint, that is, his.

Blessed are the Meek
The meek who will inherit the earth, whom Christ calls blessed — who are they? They are not well-known. They do not thirst for honor, fame or glory, and do not usually have it.

We all want to be known. But God, who is supremely blessed, is anonymous. He works by nature most of the time. He hides instead of constantly showing his glory. He came as a baby, and died as an executed criminal, and lets himself be ignored. He lets himself be eaten daily, as what looks like a little piece of bread. He is utterly meek, and utterly blessed. If we are utterly meek, we will be utterly blessed. If we are half meek, we will be half blessed. If we are not meek, we will not be blessed, for God is the source of all blessedness, and God is meek. And the effect cannot be the opposite of the cause.

The meekness that Christ calls blessed in his third Beatitude is indeed in sharp contrast to the desire to conquer nature that Francis Bacon declared to be the new summum bonum, the new meaning of life on earth, and to the desire to conquer fortune that was Machiavelli’s new summum bonum. But it is not the contrast that the world thinks. It is not a blessing on wimps, sissies, dishrags, wallflowers, shrinking violets, worry-warts, Uriah Heeps, nebbishes, nerds or geeks. The meek are those who do not harm, who do not see life as competitive, because they understand the two premises from which this conclusion logically follows.

  1. First, that the best things in life are spiritual things, not material things. That life’s meaning is to be found in wisdom and love and creativity, in understanding and sanctity and beauty, rather than in money or power or fame or land or military or athletic conquest.
  2. And they understand the second principle, too, that spiritual things are not competitive. That they multiply when shared, while material things are divided when shared. Since happiness depends on understanding the best things in life, and since the best things in life are spiritual, and since spiritual things do not diminish when shared, and since what does not diminish when shared cannot be obtained by competition, and since competition is the alternative to meekness, therefore meekness makes for happiness.

We should not be surprised that Christ the Logos is at least as logical as Socrates. Or that we are not. That’s why his pure reason sounds outrageously paradoxical to us. As Chesterton said (it’s impossible to stop quoting Chesterton; that’s like stopping eating potato chips), “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.” We are looking at the earth and kicking up in rebellion against the heavens.


True Love and the Wisdom of Cole Porter — Derek Jeter

December 27, 2012


I am a hopeless romantic and nowhere does it manifest itself more than in the movies and the old film stars. I gulp back tears for Grace Kelly, our American Princess of Hollywood who abandoned us all and went to her dismal end with her dark prince in Monaco. Oh, if she had only stayed on that yacht with Bing.

Suntanned, windblown
Honeymooners at last alone
Feeling far above par
Oh, how lucky we are

While I give to you and you give to me
True love, true love
So on and on it will always be
True love, true love

For you and I have a guardian angel
On high, with nothing to do
But to give to you and to give to me
Love forever true

For you and I have a guardian angel
On high, with nothing to do
But to give to you and to give to me

One of the wonderful things about Loving Luisa is that, as an atheist, she is almost an anti-romantic. She will have no knowledge of this song and I will tell her how lucky she is when I sing it to her. I can imagine her at 60, long after I am gone, poor and destitute. Will she ever be reminded of my promise of marriage, how my disability pension would have looked after her as surviving spouse? One day she will hear this song and remark to a friend:

Yes, I had a man sing that to me once. I cut him off at that guardian angel bullshit – should have seen the look on his face, poor deluded Catholic nitwit, couldn’t believe anyone would shit on his precious Grace Kelly. I think I broke his heart and he died a few years later. You can still read his blog though, Paying Attention to the Sky.

Ah, Life is so unfair, My Jesus. And thank God I don’t exaggerate when I write about these things. And I’m not given over to spasms of self-congratulatory regard. Not me. Never.

But didn’t Cole Porter create this song so utterly perfect? With the opening images of “Suntanned, windblown Honeymooners at last alone,” the two lovers alone on a beach on the outer Cape, accessible perhaps by a small sailboat, a beetlecat. Then the witless “Feeling far above par,” the combination of love as a feeling and the moronic sport of golf (pardon to all you golfers out there), the knuckle dragging ape with the club pursuing a small white ball. What more can one say?

But follow that up with the cry “Oh, how lucky we are!” Aren’t we just? Aren’t we just?

That’s the same cry of recognition we find in Dorothy Day’s autobiography when she looks at her infant child playing in the sunlight on her porch and recognizes a need so deep in herself of thankfulness. This is the happiness not of the hap of happenstance but as Peter Kreeft pointed out in yesterday’s post of eudaimonia, or makarios in Greek or beatitudo in Latin, meaning true, real blessedness. For blessedness creates in us a need to thank God. It just bubbles up in the human heart.

And such blessedness. “For you and I have a guardian angel On high, with nothing to do.” To have a guardian angel who has nothing but time on his hands because God is radiating within you the very love you feel for each other. Your love, true love, is the essence of His love, forever true, and the light of his face smiles on you. And just so you don’t miss it, Cole gives you the ten words that sum up the self-emptying kenosis of our loving God: “While I give to you and you give to me.” With all your heart, and all your soul and all your might, let me add.

It’s just a perfect song and a perfect screen moment. You need to draw someone close and say “Honey, shut up and watch this with me.”

Hopefully she is not an atheist and won’t crush your dreams with “Jesus, Guardian Angels, what will you come up with next?” Such snarkiness…

A Prayer In Time Of Trouble

Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.

Lord, listen to my prayer:
turn your ear to my appeal.
You are faithful, you are just; give answer.

Do not call your servant to judgment
for no one is just in your sight.
The enemy pursues my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead, long forgotten.

Therefore my spirit fails;
my heart is numb within me.
I remember the days that are past:
I ponder all your works.
I muse on what your hand has wrought
and to you I stretch out my hands.

Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you.
Lord, make haste and answer;
for my spirit fails within me.
Do not hide your face
lest I become like those in the grave.

In the morning let me know your love
for I put my trust in you.
Make me know the way I should walk:
to you I lift up my soul.

Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies;
I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will
for you, O Lord, are my God.

Let your good spirit guide me
in ways that are level and smooth.
For your name’s sake, Lord, save my life;
in your justice save my soul from distress.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.


Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.


Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness – Peter Kreeft

December 26, 2012
We all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason.

We all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason.

Adapted from a lecture by Dr. Kreeft, who is a treasure of the Catholic Church:


My topic today is Jesus’ concept of happiness. And we must begin with the dullest and most necessary preliminary: defining our term. Nearly everyone, from Aristotle to Freud, agrees that we all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason. We argue about other things, but not about happiness. We may say, “What good are riches if they don’t make you happy?” But we don’t say, “What good is happiness if it doesn’t make you rich?” This is clear, to both ancients like Aristotle and moderns like Freud.

But there is a very significant difference between the typically ancient and the typically modern meaning of happiness. Ancient words for happiness, like eudaimonia, or makarios in Greek or beatitudo in Latin, mean true, real blessedness, while the modern English word happiness usually means merely subjective satisfaction, or contentment, so that in modern English, if you feel happy, you’re happy. It makes no sense, in modern English, to tell someone, “You think you’re happy, but you’re not.”

But that is precisely the main point of the most famous book in the history of philosophy, Plato’s Republic: that justice, the all-inclusive virtue, is always profitable, that is, ‘happifying’. And injustice never is. Thus, that the just man, even if like Socrates, he has nothing else, is happy. And the unjust man is not, even if he has everything else, like Gyges, or Gollum, with his ring of power and invisibility. Thus, we should distinguish the ancient concept, which is really blessedness, from the modern, which is really contentment. I shall be talking about blessedness here.

  1. Blessedness differs from contentment in four ways, all of which can be seen by analyzing the Greek word eudaimonia. First, it begins with the prefix eu, meaning good, thus implying that you have to be good, morally good, to be happy.
  2. Second, daimon means spirit, thus implying that happiness is a matter of the soul, not the body and its external goods of fortune. The word happiness, by contrast, comes from the Old English word hap, meaning precisely fortune, luck or chance, which was the one Pagan thought category Christianity subtracted. In all other cases, Christianity added to Paganism. As Chesterton said, summing up all spiritual history in three sentences: “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world. Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small.” If blessedness is spiritual, it is free. You are responsible for your eudaimonia, but happiness just happens.
  3. Third, eudaimonia ends in ia, which means a lasting state, something permanent. Contentment is for a moment, blessedness for a lifetime. So much so that Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics could not make up his mind whether to agree or disagree with the saying “call no man happy ’til he is dead.” That is, wait for the end of the story to judge it.
  4. Fourth, and most important of all, the state of eudaimonia is objective, whereas contentment is subjective. When we say happiness, we usually confuse these two meanings, the ancient and the modern. And that is not wholly unwise, because within the ancient concept of happiness, in a secondary way, there is also present the modern one: the need for some contentment, peace of mind, pleasure and at least a modicum of the gift of fortune. While within the modern concept of happiness, that is, within subjective contentment, there is also present, in a secondary way, a feeling for the need of something of the typically ancient ingredient, the need for at least some virtue and the feeling that the happiness, to be deep and lasting, ought to be real and earned and true happiness, whatever that may be.

We are about to explore Christ’s concept of happiness. It is typically ancient (blessedness) but it also includes the above ambiguity or doubleness of meaning: subjective satisfaction as well as objective perfection.

Our Concept of Happiness
Let’s look first at our concept of happiness. When I speak of our concept, who is us? I mean our culture, the mental landscape we all inhabit, even when we feel like aliens here, most generally the modern, post-Christian West, but most specifically contemporary America, as it would appear on opinion polls.

If an opinion poll were to ask Americans to list the nine most important ingredients in the happy life, they would probably give an answer pretty much like the following:

  1. First, the most obvious, though not the profoundest ingredient, is probably wealth. If you notice your friend has a big smile on his face today, you most likely would say to him, “What happened to you? Did you just win the lottery?” If that’s what you’d say, it must be because that’s what would put the biggest smile on your face. And let’s face it; money can buy everything money can buy, which is a lot of stuff.
  2. Second might be our culture’s most notable success, the conquest of nature and fortune by science and technology, allowing each of us to be an Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world.
  3. Third would probably be freedom from pain. I think few of us would disagree that the single most valuable invention in the entire history of technology has been anesthetics.
  4. Fourth would probably be self-esteem, the greatest good, according to nearly all of our culture’s new class of prophets, the secular psychologists — and secular psychologists are among the most secular of all classes in our society.
  5. Fifth might be justice, securing one’s rights. Justice and peace summarize the social ideals of most Americans, the ideals they want for themselves and for the rest of the world.
  6. Sixth, if we are candid, we have to include sex. To most Americans, this is the closest thing to heaven on Earth, that is ecstasy, mystical transcending of the ego — unless they’re surfers.
  7. Seventh, we love to win, whether at war, at sports, at games of chance, in business, or even in our fantasies. Our positive self-esteem requires the belief that we are winners, not losers. We want to be successful, not failures.
  8. Eighth, we want honor. We want to be honored, accepted, loved, and understood. In our modern egalitarian society, we are honored, not for being superior, but for being one of the crowd. In most ancient societies, one was honored for being different, better, superior, excellent. But we still crave to be honored. Some even want to be famous. All want to be accepted.
  9. Ninth, we want life, a long life and a healthy life. Thomas Hobbes is surely right in saying that fear of violent death, especially painful and early death, is very, very powerful. Your life is not happy if it’s taken from you, obviously.

This all seems so obvious and so reasonable as to be beyond argument. Higher ideals than these are arguable. Some of us seek them and some of us do not. But these nine would seem to be firm and impregnable, universal and necessary. Whoever would deny that they form a part of happiness would be a fool. Whoever would affirm that happiness consisted in their opposites would be insane.

Christ’s Concept of Happiness
Let us now perform a fantastic thought experiment. Let us suppose that there was once a preacher who did teach precisely that insanity, point for point, deliberately and specifically. Perhaps you cannot stretch your imagination quite that far, but I’m going to ask you to stretch it even one step farther. Imagine this man becoming the most famous, beloved, revered, respected, and believed teacher in the history of the world. Imagine nearly everyone in the world, even those who did not classify themselves as his disciples, at least praising his wisdom, especially his moral wisdom, especially the single most famous and beloved sermon he ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of his moral wisdom, which begins with his 180 degree reversal of these truisms.

Perhaps you find this far too incredible to be imaginable. It would be a miracle harder to believe than God becoming a man. It is hard enough to believe that anyone would believe the strange Christian notion that a certain man who began his life as a baby, who had to learn to talk, and ended it as an executed criminal, who bled to death on a cross, and in between got tired and hungry and sorrowful, is God, eternal, beginningless, immortal, infinitely perfect, all-wise, all-powerful, the Creator.

But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness. Perhaps we do not really believe them after all. Perhaps we only believe we believe them. Perhaps we have faith in our faith rather than faith in his teachings.

For, of course, I am referring to Christ’s eight beatitudes which opened his Sermon on the Mount, the most famous sermon ever preached, and the one part of the New Testament that is still held up as central and valid and true and good and beautiful even by dissenters, heretics, revisionists, demythologizers, skeptics, modernists, theological liberals, and anyone else who cannot bring himself to believe all the other claims in the New Testament or the teachings of the Church. These people strain at the gnats but swallow the camel. So let’s look at the camel that they swallow. Perhaps they only seem to swallow it. Perhaps they swallow only their own swallowing, gollumping like Gollum.

To our desire for wealth, Christ says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To our desire for painlessness, he says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” To our desire for conquest, he says, “Blessed are the meek.” To our desire for contentment with ourselves, he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” To our desire for justice, he says, “Blessed are the merciful.” To our desire for sex, he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” To our desire for conquest, he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” To our desire for acceptance, he says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” And to our desire for more life, he offers the Cross. And now this man carrying his cross to Calvary even dares to tell us, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”


Our Christmas Posts 2012

December 25, 2012


I’m allowed to have a couple of traditions after plugging away for almost 4 years here. Repeating Fr. Barron’s retelling of the nativity in Luke is one of them and this Christmas prayer is another.

Listen to Fr. Barron retell Luke’s story:

And steal this Christmas prayer and use it sometime Christmas Day:

Merry Christmas 2013!



How Old is Santa Claus?

December 24, 2012

Haddon Sundblom was the artist commissioned by The Coca-Cola Company in 1931 to create a ‘wholesome’ version of Father Christmas, and it’s his jolly image that any kid asked today to draw Santa Claus would approximate, giving rise to the popular theory that ‘Coca-Cola invented Christmas’.

Haddon Sundblom was the artist commissioned by The Coca-Cola Company in 1931 to create a ‘wholesome’ version of Father Christmas, and it’s his jolly image that any kid asked today to draw Santa Claus would approximate, giving rise to the popular theory that ‘Coca-Cola invented Christmas’.

St. Nicholas rescued sailors, saved women from brothels, and was patron saint to pawnbrokers. Ms. Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”


Haddon Sundblom
It’s a question many children wonder at this time of year: just how old is Santa Claus?

The answer of course depends on which version of him you’re talking about. For most people today there is only one: the round-bellied, rosy-cheeked man in red who announces himself on our televisions every November with a convoy of Coca-Cola lorries and the hushed promise that ‘Holidays are comin’. That Santa, you can tell any inquisitive youngsters, is 80 years old this winter.

Haddon Sundblom was the artist commissioned by The Coca-Cola Company in 1931 to create a ‘wholesome’ version of Father Christmas, and it’s his jolly image that any kid asked today to draw Santa Claus would approximate, giving rise to the popular theory that ‘Coca-Cola invented Christmas’.

In fact, it wasn’t the first time they’d latched on to the legend of St. Nick to sell more soft drinks. Coca-Cola had been refining the idea since the 1920s when their first Santa ad featured a stern-faced man who more closely resembled Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast’s Union-supporting elf-Santa that first appear in Harper’s Weekly in 1862.

But by the ’30s, the penny had dropped — if Santa Claus looked like the very incarnation of happiness, then by association, a bottle of Coke would start to seem like the incarnation of happiness too.

Sundblom set to work, drawing inspiration from the real inventor of modern Christmas, poet Clement Clark Moore, whose 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas – better known today as The Night Before Christmas – described Nick thus:

His eyes  –  how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow

Soon, arguably the most famous advertising icon in history was born as Michigan-born Sundblom spent the next 35 years painting the Father Christmas Coca-Cola still uses to this day. While earlier artists were first to give Santa a face, or even paint him as cheery, Sundblom was the first to give the world a consistent version of the man in the sleigh.

As Joanna Berry, Lecturer in Marketing at Newcastle University Business School, explains: “Whilst Sundblom didn’t invent Santa as the jolly, white haired rotund old man we all now expect, he certainly did more than anyone to imprint that image onto our minds in relation to Coca-Cola in one of the most enduring brand images ever to have been created.”

Sundblom had his racier side.

Sundblom had his racier side.

Despite this wholesome association, Sundblom had his racier side. He regularly took breaks from Santa Claus to paint pin-ups and glamour pieces for calendars, including his final assignment, a painting for the cover of Playboy’s 1972 Christmas issue. But to label him a one-character painter or simply a purveyor of saucy caricatures would, according to Berry, be doing him a disservice.

“Roger T. Reed wrote that ‘More than any artist including Norman Rockwell, Sundblom defined the American Dream in pictures, proved by his work for virtually the entire Fortune 500′. I think it’s important to remember that ‘Sunny’ was about a lot more than Santa.

“His ensuring legacy includes not only his body of work but also the many artists who went through his studio and came out influenced by his very clear style – including Howard Terpning, Gil Elvgren, Earl Blossom and Morgan Kane.”

Nevertheless for most of us, Sundblom will always be remembered for the modern day St Nick.

Seeking to create an advertising program that links Coca-Cola with Christmas, artist Haddon Sundblom created his first illustration showing Santa Claus pausing for a Coke. For the next three decades, from 1931 to 1964, Sundblom paints images of Santa that help to create the modern interpretation of St Nick.
Sam Parker in the Huffington Post

The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus
Nearly everyone knows that Santa Claus — the obese, old gent who squeezes himself down the chimney every Christmas Eve — is the American alter ego of St. Nicholas. Slimmer and less overtly jolly, St. Nicholas roams about Western Europe showering children with presents on his traditional feast day of Dec. 6. In the Netherlands and parts of Germany, children expect a visit from a white-bearded, ecclesiastically garbed “Sinterklaas” (his Dutch name), who decides whether they have been naughty or nice before handing out treats from his sack.

Dutch and German immigrants brought St. Nicholas to America in the early 19th century, and he began a process of assimilation, trading in his bishop’s miter and crosier for a fur-trimmed red suit and cap. The Santa we now know was the creation of poet Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), the author of “The Night Before Christmas”; cartoonist Thomas Nast; illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell; and the magazine ads for painted by Sundblom starting in 1931, in which Santa took a break from the arduousness of setting up junior’s electric train by pausing to have a coke.

In “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,” Adam English, a religion professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, doesn’t spend much time exploring the various practices and traditions associated with this festive figure. Rather, Mr. English is in search of the man himself. He notes that the real St. Nicholas — if he even existed — is obscured not only by the trappings of Santa Claus but by the layers of medieval folklore that had grown up around him in earlier centuries. In one legend, Nicholas miraculously brings back to life three boys whom an evil innkeeper has murdered, chopped into pieces and thrown into a pickle barrel — hence Nicholas became the patron saint of children.

Another favorite story, first told by the eighth-century monk Michael the Archimandrite, concerned a once-wealthy man who lost his fortune and decided to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he couldn’t provide dowries. Nicholas, whose own parents had left him a large inheritance, sneaked up to the man’s house in the dead of night and threw three bags of gold through the window, enabling the girls to find respectable husbands. He thus became the patron saint of spinsters and of pawnbrokers (for whom he became a “guarantor of payment”); the three balls on pawnshop signs are stylized versions of Nicholas’s bags of gold.

“In this endearing and enduring story, we see all the raw materials for the magical Santa Claus tale,” Mr. English writes, “a mysterious night visitor who silently enters the home to bestow wonderful gifts to children.” Mr. English notes that Nicholas gives from his own pocket, secretly, and with a purpose of encouraging moral behavior.

Nicholas of Myra is believed to have been born around 270 A.D. and died in 343. Unlike other church fathers, he left no writings, and the first mention of him dates from only the sixth century. In 325 he supposedly attended the Council of Nicaea, the gathering of churchmen that affirmed the divinity of Christ. There, according to legend, Nicholas was briefly imprisoned for slugging the heretic Arius in a fit of righteous rage. But the earliest lists of attendees don’t mention a “Nicholas,” and many historians of Christianity have concluded the saint never existed.

Mr. English nonetheless builds a convincing case that there really was a St. Nicholas. Around the middle of the fourth century, he points out, the name “Nicholas” (a combination of the Greek words for “victory” and “people”), hitherto virtually unknown in public records and ledgers and on tombstone inscriptions, suddenly became popular in Asia Minor and elsewhere. A still-extant tomb at Myra (modern Demre), a Mediterranean coastal town in southwestern Turkey, dates archaeologically to the right period.

When the Seljuk Turks, who were Muslims, swept through western Asia Minor in 1087, Italian sailors transported the bones that were in the tomb to Bari, on the heel of Italy, where they are venerated to this day. The bones seem never to have been carbon-dated, but imaging tests conducted in 2004 revealed that they belonged to an elderly man who had suffered a broken jaw — perhaps as a result of that scuffle with Arius, or torture in the vicious persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire during the early fourth century.

On this hair-slender historical record, Mr. English attempts to reconstruct a biography of the historical Nicholas and uses data from the ancient world to argue that at least some of the legends that grew up around St. Nicholas might have been based on fact.

He suggests that the story of the sisters saved from prostitution plausibly reflects fourth-century social realities. The practice of destitute or debt-ridden parents selling their offspring to brothels or slave-traders was so common that the Emperor Constantine made public funds available to families so that they wouldn’t abandon their children.

The author seeks a historical basis for other St. Nicholas tales: his miraculous appearance aboard a foundering ship that guided it to safe harbor (an incident that made him the patron saint of sailors) and his intercession via a dream that prompted Constantine to spare the lives of three Roman military officers unjustly condemned to death. But while these stories might have some grounding in the perils of ancient sea travel or the vicissitudes of ancient justice, they reflect the devotion of the faithful toward a beloved holy man more than anything that might have actually occurred in fourth-century Myra.

In the end, the “true” St. Nicholas is as unknowable, and possibly as fictional, as a shopping-mall Santa. But does it matter? Whether historical, fantastical or a combination of both, he meant so much to those who revered him that he became forever associated with the gift of love that is Christmas. Today is a good day to eat a speculaas (the traditional St. Nick’s Day cookie in the Netherlands and Belgium), or slip a pre-Christmas gift into our children’s shoes — and consider just why we buy all those presents every December.
Charlotte Allen, The Real Father Christmas from the WSJ



Spirit by Frank Sheed

December 21, 2012
Sebastiano Bombelli:The Dove of the Holy Spirit

Sebastiano Bombelli:The Dove of the Holy Spirit

Frank Sheed had a distinguished career as evangelist, publisher, lecturer and writer. He and his wife, Maisie Ward, founded Sheed & Ward, the publishing house in London, introducing such Catholic giants as Dorothy Day, Jacques Maritain, François Mauriac and G.K. Chesterton to the world. The man never wrote a bad sentence and his power as an apologist was a parade of scholarship: “he wrote simply but never simplistically, in the clarity of thought which is the thought of the Church.”


Spirit Knows, Loves, Is Powerful
When I was very new as a street-corner speaker for the Catholic Evidence Guild, a questioner asked me what I meant by spirit. I answered, “A spirit has no shape, has no size, has no color, has no weight, does not occupy space.” He said, “That’s the best definition of nothing I ever heard.” Which was very reasonable of him. I had given him a list of things spirit is not, without a hint as to what it is.

In theology, spirit is not only a key word, it is the key word. Our Lord said to the Samaritan woman: “God is a spirit.”  Unless we know the meaning of the word spirit, we do not know what he said. It is as though he had said “God is a  – .” Which tells us nothing at all. The same is true of every doctrine; they all include spirit. In theology we are studying spirit all the time. And the mind with which we are studying it is a spirit too.

We simply must know what it is. And I don’t mean just a definition. We must live with the idea, make it our own, learn to handle it comfortably and skillfully. That is why I shall dwell upon it rather lengthily. Slow careful thinking here will pay dividends later.

We begin with our own spirit, the one we know best. Spirit is the element in us by which we know and love, by which therefore we decide. Our body knows nothing; it loves nothing (bodily pleasures are not enjoyed by the body; it reacts to them physically, with heightened pulse, for instance, or acid stomach; but it is the knowing mind that enjoys the reactions or dislikes them); the body decides nothing (though our will may decide in favor of things that give us bodily pleasure).

Spirit knows and loves. A slightly longer look at ourselves reveals that spirit has power, too. It is the mind of man that splits the atom; the atom cannot split the mind, it cannot even split itself, it does not know about its own electrons.

Spirit Produces What Matter Cannot
Mind, we say, splits the atom and calculates the light-years. It is true that in both these operations it uses the body. But observe that there is no question which is the user and which is the used. The mind uses the body, not asking the body’s consent. The mind is the principal, the body the instrument. Is the instrument essential? Must the mind use it to cope with matter? We have evidence in our own experience of mind affecting matter directly. We will to raise our arm, for example, and we raise it. The raising of the arm is a very complicated anatomical activity, but it is set in motion by a decision of the will. And as we shall see, the direct power the human mind has over its own body, mightier spirits have over all matter.

This mingling of spirit and matter in human actions arises from a fact which distinguishes man’s spirit from all others. Ours is the only spirit which is also a soul — that is to say, the life principle in a body. God is a spirit, but has no body; the angels are spirits, but have no body. Only in man spirit is united with a body, animates the body, makes it to be a living body.

Every living body — vegetable, lower animal, human — has a life-principle, a soul. And just as ours is the only spirit which is a soul, so ours is the only soul which is a spirit. Later we shall be discussing the union of spirit and matter in man to see what light it sheds upon ourselves. But for the present our interest is in spirit.

We have seen that in us spirit does a number of things; it knows and loves, and it animates a body. But what, at the end of all this, is spirit?

We can get at it by looking into our own soul, examining in particular one of the things it does. It produces ideas. I remember a dialogue one of our Catholic Evidence Guild speakers had with a materialist, who asserted that his idea of justice was the result of a purely bodily activity, produced by man’s material brain.

Speaker: How many inches long is it?

Questioner: Don’t be silly, ideas have no length.

Speaker: O.K. How much does it weigh?

Questioner: What are you doing? Trying to make a fool of me?

Speaker: No. I’m taking you at your word. What color is it? What shape?

The discussion at this point broke down, the materialist saying the Catholic was talking nonsense. It is nonsense, of course, to speak of a thought having length or weight or color or shape. But the materialist had said that thought is material, and the speaker was simply asking what material attributes it had. In fact, it has none, and the materialist knew this perfectly well. Only he had not drawn the obvious conclusion. If we are continuously producing things which have no attribute of matter, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is in us some element which is not matter to produce them. This element we call spirit.

Oddly enough, the materialist thinks of us as superstitious people who believe in a fantasy called spirit, of himself as the plain blunt man who asserts that ideas are produced by a bodily organ, the brain. What he is asserting is that matter produces offspring which have not one single attribute in common with it, and what could be more fantastic than that. We are the plain blunt men and we should insist on it.

Occasionally a materialist will argue that there are changes in the brain when we think, grooves or electrical discharges or what not. But these only accompany the thought; they are not the thought. When we think of justice, for instance, we are not thinking of the grooves in the brain; most of us are not even aware of them. Justice has a meaning, and it does not mean grooves. When I say that mercy is kinder than justice, I am not comparing mercy’s grooves with the stricter grooves of justice.

Our ideas are not material. They have no resemblance to our body. Their resemblance is to our spirit. They have no shape, no size, no color, no weight, no space. Neither has spirit, whose offspring they are. But no one can call it nothing, for it produces thought, and thought is the most powerful thing in the world — unless love is, which spirit also produces.

Spirit Is Not in Space
We have now come to the hardest part of our examination of spirit. It will have much sweat and strain in it, for you, for me; but everything will be easier afterwards.

We begin with a statement that sounds negative, but isn’t. A spirit differs from a material thing by having no parts. Once we have made our own the meaning of this, we are close to our goal.

A part is any element in a being which is not the whole of it, as my chest is a part of my body, or an electron a part of an atom. A spirit has no parts. There is no element in it which is not the whole of it. There is no division of parts as there is in matter. Our body has parts, each with its own specialized function; it uses its lungs to breathe with, its eyes to see with, its legs to walk with. Our soul has no parts, for it is a spirit. There is no element in our soul which is not the whole soul. It does a remarkable variety of things — knowing, loving, animating a body — but each of them is done by the whole soul; it has no parts among which to divide them up.

This partlessness of spirit is the difficulty for the beginner. Concentrate on what follows: a being which has no parts does not occupy space. There is hardly anything one can say to make this truth any clearer; you merely go on looking at it, until suddenly you find yourself seeing it. The most any teacher can do is to offer a- few observations. Think of anything one pleases that occupies space, and one sees that it must have parts; there must be elements in it which are not the whole of it — this end is not that, the top is not the bottom, the inside is not the outside. If it occupies space at all, be it ever so microscopic, or so infinitesimally submicroscopic, there must be some “spread.” Space is simply what matter spreads its parts in. But a being with no parts at all has no spread. Space and it have nothing whatever in common; it is spaceless; it is superior to the need for space.

The trouble is that we find it hard to think of a thing existing if it is not in space, and we find it very hard to think of a thing acting if it has no parts. As against the first difficulty we must remind ourselves that space is merely emptiness, and emptiness can hardly be essential to existence. As against the second we must remind ourselves that parts are only divisions, and dividedness can hardly be an indispensable aid to action.

As against both we may be helped a little by thinking of one of our own commonest operations, the judgments we are all the time making. When in our mind we judge that in a given case mercy is more useful than justice, we hardly realize what a surprising thing we have done. We have taken three ideas or concepts, mercy, justice, and usefulness. We have found some kind of identity between mercy and usefulness; mercy is useful. This means that we must have got mercy and usefulness together in our mind.

There can be no “distance” between the two concepts; if there were, they could not be got together for comparison and judgment. If the mind were spread out as the brain is, with the concept mercy in one part of the mind, and the concept usefulness in another, they would have to stay uncompared. The concepts justice and usefulness must similarly be together and some identity affirmed between them, the judgment made that justice is useful. That is not all. All three concepts must be together, so that the superior usefulness of mercy can be affirmed. The power to make judgments is at the very root of man’s power to live and to develop in the mastery of himself and his environment. And the power to make judgments is dependent upon the partlessness of the soul — one single, undivided thinking principle to take hold of and hold in one all the concepts we wish to compare.

One further truth remains to be stated about spirit. It is the permanent thing, the abiding thing.

Spirit Is Always Itself
As we have seen, a steady gaze will show us that a being which has no parts, no element in it that is not the whole of it, cannot occupy space. Continue to gaze, and we see that it cannot be changed into anything else; it cannot by any natural process be destroyed. We have at last arrived at the deepest truth about spirit — spirit is the being which has a permanent hold upon what it is, so that it can never become anything else.

Material beings can be destroyed in the sense that they can be broken up into their constituent parts; what has parts can be taken apart. But a partless being lies beyond all this. Nothing can be taken from it, because there is nothing in it but its whole self. We can conceive, of course, of its whole self being taken out of existence. This would be annihilation. But just as only God can create from nothing by willing a being to exist, so only God can reduce a being to nothing by willing it no longer to exist; and for the human soul, God has told us that he will not thus will it out of existence.

A spiritual being, therefore, cannot lose its identity. It can experience changes in its relation to other beings — e.g., it can gain new knowledge or lose knowledge that it has; it can transfer its love from this object to that; it can develop its power over matter; its own body can cease to respond to its animating power and death follows for the body — but with all these changes it remains itself, conscious of itself, permanent.

The student to whom all this is new should keep on thinking over these truths, turning back to them at odd moments — on the way to work, for instance, or in periods of insomnia. He should keep on looking at the relation between having parts and occupying space till he sees, really sees, that a partless being cannot be in space. He should keep on looking at the relation between having parts and ceasing to exist, till he sees as clearly that a partless being cannot ever be anything but itself.

We should try to bring together, to see together, all these separate truths about spirit. One way is to concentrate upon our own soul, the spirit we know best — wholly itself, forever itself, doing each thing that it does with its whole self. Yet the human soul is the lowest of spirits. The least of the angels is unimaginably superior in power (those baby angels, all cute and cuddly, which disfigure our children’s books, have nothing whatever to do with angels).

The philosophers tell us that angels could, so powerful are they, destroy our material universe if the mightier power of God did not prevent them — as that same power will prevent man from destroying it until God wills that it should end.

It is not enough to have learned what spirit is. We must build the knowledge into the very structure of our minds. Seeing spiritual reality must become one of the mind’s habits. When it does, we have reached the first stage of maturity. Materialism, however persuasively argued, can no longer take hold on us. We may not always be able to answer the arguments, but it makes no difference.

Materialism is repulsive; all our mental habits are set against it. It is as if a scientist were to produce arguments in favor of walking on all fours: we should find the idea repulsive; all our bodily habits would be set against us. That indeed is no bad comparison. The man who knows of the universe of spirit walks upright, the materialist hugs the earth.


The One Church and the Divided People of God — Fr. Louis Bouyer

December 20, 2012
The Byzantine development of the richly decorated east wall as “liturgical east” as illustrated by the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

The Byzantine development of the richly decorated east wall as “liturgical east” as illustrated by the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

Father Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was one of the most respected theologians of the 20th century. Born in France, Bouyer was a Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism. He was a member of the Oratorians in France, he authored many major theological works, and his ideas contributed greatly to the Second Vatican Council. His other works include The Word, Church and Sacrament in Protestantism and Catholicism and Newman: An Intellectual & Spiritual Biography of John Henry Newman. A post [reading selection] on PayingAttentiontotheSky from the latter work is here. Note that part 2 follows the part1post.


We have not yet come to the most serious stigma in the body of Christ the sin of its members, including (perhaps above all) the sin of her visible leaders. Accordingly, we want to speak about the present division of the People of God.

It is important to differentiate carefully between “schisms” and “heresies”, inevitable accompaniments of the development of the Church, which essentially are not sins of Church members, who remain with her, but of unfaithful members who separate themselves from her and from the majority of divisions that afflict the People of God at present. These divisions are the result of sins, and persistent sins, of supposedly faithful members, and particularly of responsible leaders in the Church.

This is why all attempts at Catholic ecumenism, however well intentioned, that are meted to proposing radical change in the Church’s attitude toward schisms and heresies are irreconcilable with Catholic tradition, starting with the New Testament, and especially St. Paul and St. John. It must be said that ecumenists put aside the question and, despite generous plans, misconstrue the positive value of Protestantism, to say nothing of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox are not in general schismatics, nor are the Protestants agile heretics, like Valentinus or Arius. To ignore this, while working (our purpose also) to make rapprochement easier, is not to see the real question. We are sorry to point out such an error, even with an author so open to Protestantism as H. Kung. Cf. The Church, 42ff.]

Certainly, the distinction is not always easy to make in practice. It can even be supposed that no or scarcely any schisms or heresies could have developed without the presumed or actual existence of culpable inadequacies in faithful (or supposedly faithful) Christians, and especially in their leaders. For example, deeper Christian reflection in the early Church might have prevented, or at least considerably limited, the Gnostic and, later, the Arian crises.

Yet these crises lasted for one or two generations because churchmen did not more forcefully reassert the truths misunderstood by the Gnostics and the Arians, although they were able to understand the gravity of the problems the latter had posed and poorly resolved, and to give them satisfactory solutions. The misunderstandings were soon clarified, and all that remained of these ancient heresies was their errors, and all men of good faith rapidly abandoned them, so that they were extinguished “automatically”.

Nothing like this followed the schism between the Church of the East and the Church of the West, nor even the proliferation of undeniable heresies in which, later, the Protestant movement became involved, dividing itself against itself as well as from the Church. Of course, the problems in these latter cases were not so simple as the problems in the former; but are we right in thinking that, in such a situation, the initial faults must have been widely shared on both sides for there to have been no conciliation, after so many centuries? In the Church herself, did the faithful and their pastors not know how, or not want, to correct their faults?

This suspicion becomes a certainty when we observe that those who separated from us, and remain separated, have produced results of undeniable holiness. They are quite capable of positive missionary endeavor. In fact, they continue to develop essential elements of the Catholic tradition which today, with Catholics themselves, have only a dwarfish existence or a barely visible survival. In such cases, it is clear that comparison of the schismatic or the heretic with a detached branch of the trunk condemned to swift death if its connection with the stock is not quickly restored (as verified in the schisms and heresies of antiquity, and in others since), has no or hardly any application. It must be acknowledged that even the possibility of such a situation poses a problem that menaces the faith.

Could it be possible, then, that the Church that Christ establishes unity, as his own body, in which his Spirit lives and to which he assured survival until his return, might be fallen from this unity? But this unity is so constitutive that to say that the Church has ceased to be one, to be the one Church of Jesus Christ, would come down to saying there is no longer any Church in the New Testament sense and that Jesus’ work in history has therefore failed. If this were the case, not only would there no longer be a Christian Church, a Catholic Church that is worthy of name; we would have to say that there never will be any. For if the Church founded by Christ fails, if her very existence ceases, no one other than Jesus Christ, returning into our history before his time (which seems unthinkable), could resurrect her.

Consequently, we must believe that, despite all contestations, the Church still subsists, is still one and unique. That she could subsist in a series of social bodies, independent and different from one another, and even in endemic conflict, is absolutely contrary to the vision of the New Testament and the ancient Church. The contrary idea, that, whatever her vicissitudes, there is not and will never be but one Church of Jesus Christ, is therefore essential (and rightly so) to Catholic tradition. It is no less essential to Orthodox tradition. Neither, without denying themselves, could abandon it.

Orthodox and Catholics
It is precisely here that the first major difficulty arises — the first and perhaps the greatest scandal for the faith. On first sight, there are two Churches: the Catholic Church, whose distinctive sign is communion with the successor of Peter, and the Orthodox Church, which no longer has (or seems to have) this communion. But each claims for itself, in equally exclusive fashion, this identification with the una, sancta, catholica, which both confess in the same Credo.

It would seem that one or the other might be right, but not both at the same time. After so many centuries, their apparent incapacity to reconcile themselves may suggest that one or the other is in error and that the una, sancta, catholica has simply disappeared from earth.

This is the greatest scandal given by members of the Church, by men of the Church”, charged with the highest responsibilities, so that it becomes very difficult for the faith itself not to see this scandal of the Church, her preeminent scandal: the Church teaching her unity as the greatest gift of God but, in fact, seeming to be divided (against God’s will).

There seems to be only one answer: the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, though dreadfully tempted by the spirit of division, remain one Church, in fact and by right, despite contrary appearances. This is verified by the most thorough historical investigation of this problem, however painful it may be. In fact, neither the conflict and reciprocal excommunications of the patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert, nor the scandalous Crusade, redirected toward Constantinople, and its consequences, nor even the fruitless attempts at reconciliation at Lyon and Florence, which merely embittered the oppositions, suspended all communion between the Church of the East and the Church of the West.

To the end of the eighteenth century, limited incidents of inter-communion between the two Churches are innumerable. Not only (as a general rule) were all baptized and communicating members of one received in the other on the same basis, without abjuration, but priests and even bishops passed from one to the other or, more exactly, occasionally “moved through” both without encountering major difficulties. However violent and acrimonious the polemics, they were only disputes of particularly spirited schools, and not necessarily more spirited than those that occasionally arose among Easterners or Westerners themselves, without in break in communion as the result.

The policy among the great sees of Christendom, despite spasmodic outbursts of violent reproaches (though not one of them seemed to justify a schism), was to ignore one another absolutely in mutual embarrassment, rather than to condemn one another absolutely. In fact, at least per conniventiam, Rome — like Constantinople and Moscow — did not concern itself with preventing communion, which remained the rule where there was untroubled opportunity to meet and cooperate.

Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century did Latin missionaries, moved by unfortunate zeal, take it into their heads to apply to Orientals the canons decreed by Trent against Protestants, and, through a regrettable but understandable twist, that Orientals (particularly Greeks in permanent conflict with Latins in the islands of the Peloponnesus or elsewhere) did the same.

On both sides, then, people developed outrageous practices, such as repetition of baptism or ordination, in certain cases of contact. Also on both sides, theologians for the first time treated not only bishops or theologians of the other side as schismatics, but the totality of the two blocs, accusing each other of heresies with a systematization unknown until then (except in brief and local flushes of intolerance).

To all of these procedures and to those responsible for them, we must apply Christ’s prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not they do!” If their sly maneuvers made any sense, it could only be rejection of the Church they defended, as well as the one they attacked, as schismatic or heretical. For all these wretched polemics suppose, on both sides, a confusion of tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, with an artificial partisanship that, for this very reason, is adulterated, which is precisely the process whereby people normally go from schism into formal heresy. The primary question, then, is: How did we arrive at a situation as deplorable as it is absurd? Obviously, once this question has been answer complementary question can be broached: How are we to get out of it?

What is primarily responsible for preventing the East from returning to full and lasting communion with the Christian West is this hypertrophy and, consequently, this deformation of authority we have analyzed. However, what obliges us to acknowledge that responsibilities for the division are shared on both sides is the undeniable fact that Church authority in the West involved itself in a near-fatal evolution from a healthy and originally necessary reaction against encroachments of the supposedly Christian empire on the Church, of the secular authority on the ecclesiastical authority, to which, on the whole, the East became too easily resigned.

On the other hand, it is only right to acknowledge that if the endeavors of ancient popes, such as St. Leo and St. Gregory the Great, to regain or defend the independence of the Church, were in principle unassailable and, in fact, were never assailed in the East, bishops of the East, such as St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, were never less clear or less courageous for the same cause. Consequently, in this conflict the de facto failings (in the opposing sense) of both East and West were never improperly canonized. At the time when the first conflicts threatened, the Byzantine doctrine of the Epanagogē was firmly articulated (as we have seen) with the doctrine uttered by Pope Gelasius. Even long after the apparently consummated division, the episcopate of the East, even when subjugated by basileus or tsar, never made a dogma of this situation — any more than Boniface VIII dared do with the more than doubtful vision that the famous bull, Unam Sanctam, proposed for relations between the two authorities. For a stronger reason, the Christian West, in its totality, was far from making such a view its own.

It is true, however, that alienation of the apostolic authority in the East, in contrast with its cancerous development in the West, permitted the liturgical function, more than the function of the magisterium (threatened, along with authority itself, with being taken over by the secular power), an autonomous development which was not entirely beneficial. Orthodoxy became, or aspired to become, “heaven on earth” — above all, if not exclusively, in liturgical and sacramental celebration.

Without doubt, this celebration retained substantial richness, and even had lasting and fecund developments, which had scarcely any equivalents in the West, where, as we have seen, the-aggrandizement of authority tended to reduce worship to a court ceremonial. Tending to develop more and more outside real life (monastic life apart), the liturgy in the East, instead of remaining in this sacramental world (which should be intermediary between the eschatological world of the risen Christ and the concrete universe of our daily life), would, always be tempted to become a world in itself — a dream world enclosed within itself — wishing to substitute itself for the real world but without the power to do so; indeed, concealing its reality, which has remained in great part pagan. Undoubtedly, as their best modern thinkers are the first to acknowledge, this was the major sin of the Orthodox as the major sin of Catholics of the West was their clerical imperialism.

Thus a twofold orbit was accentuated in the life of the Church and determined, over the course of centuries, a de facto separation, tending more and more to opposition in principle between Christian realities should be conjoined in unity.

Confusing the papal function with its exercise or its more or less excessive theoretical justifications, the East, unlike the West, never developed its whole significance, implied in the deeds and texts of the New Testament and the early Church. What is worse, the East tends, if not to reduce its import unduly, to forget the attestations of its own past. Reciprocally, the West neglected and more and more misunderstood the irreplaceable value of the traditions it received from the Fathers and the Church of the East; and in believing it could build itself independently of this heritage, it unconsciously risked cutting itself off from its roots.

Thus, on both sides, undue identification of the truth as Catholic Orthodox became dangerously confused with a merely partial form of its expression and with cultural nationalism: Orthodoxy and Byzantinism Catholicism and Latinism (or, later, Romanism).

Today, the first remedy to this situation, now that sufficient historical awareness of these errors (which are above all, moral faults) has been assumed or is in process of being assumed on both sides, is escape from religious nationalism and the unilateralism it crystallized. Finally, it would be necessary to deny the obvious negation of “catholicity”, of sobornost; (to use a term the modern Orthodox have developed, often fortuitously). Beginning with this, rediscovery and reestablishment of full unity would become possible on both sides, or rather in common.

Recuperation of doctrinal harmony in the apostolic ministry between its function of pastoral authority and its liturgical function, would come about in common renewal of its magisterium. However, renewal of two inseparable units of the Church, finally coming together, could happen open only in symphony with a common rebirth of living witness to the truth of love by the entire (now fraternal) life of all Christians, Orthodox and Catholic.

Then, the unity of the Church Catholic and Orthodox — which we believe has never ceased, though many clouds have obscured. it — would reappear. Reappearing, she would immediately flourish and fructify in the special manifestation of charity and holiness that the modern world expects from the Church of Christ, which she will never bring it so long as this basic reunion is not effected.


The Shadow Of The Cross Falling Upon The Stable At Bethlehem — Anthony Esolen

December 19, 2012
Moonlight over Montmartre, 2002

Moonlight over Montmartre, 2002

Mr. Esolen, a professor at Providence College, is the author of “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.” You can find more of his writings under the category Anthony Esolen. This particular essay, coming as it does on the heels of Fr. Norris’ essay on Person Being and St. Thomas shows how the phrase “ground of being” needs to be further explicated for the Church to make herself known in the world. This review was recently featured in the WSJ.


Imagine touring the Sistine Chapel with someone who has done more than merely read some learned commentary on the paintings of Michelangelo. He has looked at them, pondered them, loved them, even waited upon them to reveal their inner harmony, and now he seeks to hand on to you what he has found. Imagine listening to a master organist, not playing the whole St. Matthew Passion but showing you, as he touches a chord here and makes a progression there, some hint of the grandeur of Bach’s composition that you might miss in the overwhelming storm of its performance. Then you have an idea of what Pope Benedict XVI has attempted in his three-volume work on the life of Jesus, but most humbly and sweetly in the “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.”

Modern men too often see things only by the guttering firelight of politics. Pope Benedict, who wrote many works of deep scholarship while simple Joseph Ratzinger, also served as the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, earning him a reputation among the ignorant as combative — “God’s Rottweiler.” It may surprise some, then, to read that Pope Benedict has written about one topic all his life long. Love is the key to his work, as it is the theme and lesson of this work. Indeed, the Pope has written that in Jesus, the man and the mission are one, and the mission is the holiness of love — of being entirely for and with God, and for and with mankind, without reserve. Now Benedict shows how this understanding of Jesus is manifest from the beginning, in his conception, his birth and his childhood.

Any scholar who would write on the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke faces two problems. The first is the opinion that the narratives about the birth of Jesus are add-ons, not central to the mission and the person of Jesus. The second is that we are too familiar with them. We have heard the carols and seen the crèches. We do not see the shadow of the cross fall upon the stable at Bethlehem.

Benedict addresses both problems at once, affirming the historicity of the narratives and showing that the question of who Jesus is hinges upon the question of whence he has come. People who encountered Jesus, whether they chose to follow him or not, claimed that they knew exactly where he came from, the no-account village of Nazareth. Yet they did not know where he came from — whence he derived his authority. The early Christians, by contrast, saw the life of Jesus as a coherent whole. The end of Matthew’s Gospel, says Benedict, when Jesus commissions his disciples to go forth to the ends of the earth, baptizing all nations, is present in the beginning, in the genealogy that links Jesus with Abraham and God’s promise of universality. Abraham is the essential wayfarer, Benedict writes, whose “whole life points forward,” a dynamic of “walking along the path of what is to come.”

Even to those who think themselves familiar with these texts, every page of “Jesus of Nazareth” will present some pearl of great value, something that should have been obvious but that has been passed over in haste or inattention. For example, when Luke places Jesus’ birth in the context of the Augustan empire, and notes that Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to register for the tax, he expects his readers, Benedict argues, to compare one “prince of peace” with another, for that is what Augustus styled himself (“Princeps Pacis”).

The epithet was more than propaganda, Benedict says. It expressed a heartfelt longing in the people of the time, racked by the Roman civil wars and conflicts between the Roman empire and her rivals to the east. We might see how seriously it was taken if we study Augustus’s Altar of Peace in Rome, consecrated a few years before Jesus’ birth. It was so placed that on the emperor’s birthday, between morning and evening, the sun cast the shadow of an obelisk, says the Pope, along a line that struck the very center of the altar, where Augustus himself was portrayed as supreme pontiff.

But Augustus belongs to the past, Benedict notes, while Jesus “is the present and the future.” That is because the salvation we yearn for is not simply a truce, with some economic prosperity, but the healing of our very selves. Man is “a relational being,” Benedict writes, by which he means that we only know ourselves when we give ourselves away in love. More to the point, Benedict teaches, God allows us to know Him by giving Himself in love to us. This gift, though grand, is necessarily also secret and humble, seeking not to overmaster but to invite.

In speaking of an intimate love, all the Gospel writers speak the same language, Benedict explains, whether it is Matthew showing that the birth of Jesus occurs outside of and against the predilections of the grand court of Herod, or Luke stressing the quiet interior life of Mary, or John saying that God has pitched his tent among us, submitting to the infirmities of the flesh, and to rejection.

This love is no mere sentiment. It is the ground of our being. Yet Benedict points to the gospels themselves for examples of how often we seek less than love, even while we believe we are seeking more. Jesus’ own disciples believed that he would reestablish the earthly kingdom of David — and Matthew takes trouble both to establish Jesus’ descent from David (it is why Joseph had to travel to the city of David, Bethlehem) and to show that this kingship is wholly new, and not of this earth.

Thus Joseph is told that the child’s name will be called Jesus, a name derived from the Hebrew word meaning “to rescue,” because “he will save people from their sins.” That seems at once too little and too much, Benedict says. He compares the verse with the episode of the paralytic in Luke, who hears Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven.” But he wanted to walk — and the Jews wanted freedom from their overlords. The paralytic would indeed rise up and walk, but the point is clear: The gospel calls people to no less than complete love of God and neighbor — to the surrender of illusions that we can heal ourselves.

“The Infancy Narratives” is a short volume but for that very reason may be an ideal introduction to Benedict’s writings, and for that matter Jesus’ message of love.


The Discipline of Suffering

December 18, 2012



Off again-On again image BS — click on the above and you will see what I am trying to relate to the following.

“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children — “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.

Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”
Hebrews 12:4-13


A direct appeal to the readers’ experience of suffering leads off this section. Having exhorted them in the previous section to cast off the burden of sin, the author now acknowledges that they have been engaged in a struggle against sin — but it is the sin of others, who have imposed suffering on them. The reference recalls the earlier reference to their “struggle with sufferings” in 10:32-34. Whatever form the persecution took, it most likely involved some form of social dislocation or harassment. The readers may have been treated harshly in Rome in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Thus the author can say that they had not resisted to the point of bloodshed. As they were exhorted to endurance in that previous section (Hebrews 10:36), so also here.

Their struggle is not necessarily explained, nor is it dismissed, but the author attempts to place it in the context of the tradition of discipline. Perhaps he feels that were the readers to understand their sufferings as discipline they would be more likely to endure them. To that end the citation of Scripture may help. The text from Proverbs 3:11-12 elevates ordinary parental discipline to the level of divine discipline in an effort to show that discipline does not preclude love. Rather, the fact that the readers suffer so is a manifestation of their status as children of God. To deny the importance of discipline or to escape it altogether would be tantamount to accepting the status of illegitimate children. This, of course, is not possible for the readers, who have already been joined in fictive kinship with one another as brothers and sisters of Christ (Wisdom2:11-17; Wisdom 13:1).

The argument is advanced in a way typical of the author’s style. Interweaving parental and divine discipline, he constructs an a fortiori argument to show the inherent worth of divine discipline. Even though he appeals to the readers’ former relationship to their parents, he does so in the past tense. They “had” parents and they “respected” them. It is as if they have left the natural parental relationship behind in order to enter into fictive kinship in the Christian community, where God now functions as the spiritual parent.

If natural children respect their parents because as children they are subjected to them, then the spiritual parent, God, is worthy of much more respect, as holiness is a goal superior to any object of mere parental discipline. The analogy between parental and divine discipline is designed to enhance the image of God in the readers’ minds as well as to encourage them to endure their sufferings for a greater good.

Parents may discipline their children at will and perhaps according to their own whim but God’s discipline is always for the person’s good in advancing the individual toward holiness. Were there a simple correspondence between parental and divine discipline, the readers’ sufferings might have beer trivialized as nothing more than what any child would have to endure it the normal course of his or her relationship with a parent. The author constructs the argument, however, to show God’s care for them, which exceeds the obligation of a parent to the extent that it is also an invitation to share in God’s holiness.

The argument regarding discipline concludes in verse 11 with an observation from human experience. It is a commonplace that discipline is painful at the time it is being administered. With hindsight, however, a lesson can be drawn and the hardship may be seen to have produced some good. As with the example of Jesus, who endured suffering for the sake of the joy that was set before him (Wisdom 12:2), the readers are encouraged to look forward to the goal of discipline, specified here as the peaceful fruit of righteousness. The author returns to the athletic metaphor by specifying that the ones who receive the peaceful fruit of righteousness are those who have trained for it. The blending of athletic training and discipline is natural in moral exhortation, since both require the endurance of hardship for the sake of a future goal.

This section of the chapter closes with further scriptural allusions to Isaiah 35:3 in verse 12 and to Proverbs 4:26 in verse 13. The image of drooping hands and weak knees suggests the picture of someone who has been worn down by an athletic contest (Koester, 540). “Straightening” in the LXX comes in the form of divine aid. Here, however, the readers are to straighten themselves, somehow to lift themselves out of their weakened state. They need also to straighten the paths on which they walk so as not to do further harm to their limbs, but rather to progress on the path of healing. There may be an allusion to the athletic metaphor in the image of keeping on the straight path to the goal (Koester, 540), but it is more likely that the author is shifting to images associated with righteousness and moral virtue at this point. As indicated in the Notes above, moral exhortation among Hellenistic philosophers employed medical metaphors of treatment, surgery, and healing in their efforts to help individuals advance in progress toward achieving their moral purpose.

The role of suffering in our lives is hard to understand, especially when the innocent suffer. This question was no less difficult to answer in Hellenistic Judaism in the post-exilic era (Job 2:11-13; 33:29-33). Like Judaism, Christianity found meaning in suffering based on noble examples, in the case of Christians the example of the suffering and death of Christ. Hebrews contributes to that tradition by presenting Jesus “who learned obedience through what he suffered” (Wisdom 5:8).

Alluding, then, to his example, the author engages the readers’ real sufferings so as not to trivialize them. Speaking of them as a form of “discipline,” he wants his audience to know that they are not the cause of what they have to suffer. Rather, he places their hardship in a wider context that was shared by Jesus as well. As suffering was constitutive of his sonship, so also it is a sign that the readers are sons and daughters of God. Knowing that one cannot explain another’s suffering, the author prefers to show how suffering is related to God and to Christ. The readers, then, are drawn to understand the meaning of their own suffering in view of a larger goal.


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