instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"What Christmas is as we grow Older"
Welcome, everything! Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to your places round the Christmas fire, where what is sits open- hearted! In yonder shadow, do we see obtruding furtively upon the blaze, an enemy's face? By Christmas Day we do forgive him! If the injury he has done us may admit of such companionship, let him come here and take his place. If otherwise, unhappily, let him go hence, assured that we will never injure nor accuse him.

On this day we shut out Nothing!

"Pause," says a low voice. "Nothing? Think!"

"On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing."

"Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying deep?" the voice replies. "Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe? Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?"

Not even that. Of all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us. City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, thy people who are dear to us!

... Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!
Charles Dickens


Thursday, December 21, 2006

That immanent joy

Do you ever think that maybe we over-spiritualize the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousnes, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
And not without reason. Blessedness is the state of the saints in heaven, not of us wayfarers in this valley of tears. The beatitude Jesus was referring to is obviously not the casual happiness of the man who finds things copacetic today.

And yet, Jesus says, "Blessed are these people," not, "Blessed will these people be. It has been pointed out that the poor in spirit (and, by the same argument, they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness as well) have now the kingdom of heaven. Those insulted because of Christ are flat out told to rejoice and be glad, not, "You'll rejoice and be glad one day."

So let's allow that the Christian can be joyful and glad in his hardships, because he lives now in Christ, and Christ in him, and in the future he will become as He is. Is such supernatural joy and gladness convertible to natural happiness, to the spirit of cheer associated with next week's secular holiday?

In the past, when I've thought about such things, I've always been quick to downplay the connection between the spiritual and the physical. You can be both sad and joyful, I've repeated, and everyone agrees that no one is expected to be in a good mood every moment of every day -- all the more so the more we read about the effects of things like diet, sleep, and heredity on brain chemistry.

But, having read an essay on "Dominicans and Happiness" by Fr. Paul Murray, OP -- reprinted in his excellent book, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness -- I'm now thinking that I've been underestimating the effect our faith ought to have on our cheerfulness.

When St. Dominic is portrayed in the Nine Ways of Prayer asking
for himself and his brethren something of that transcendent joy which is found in living the beatitudes, praying that each would consider himself truly blessed in extreme poverty, in bitter mourning, in cruel persecutions, in a great hunger and thirst for justice, in anxious mercy towards all,
I suspect such transcendent joy can't help but be manifest in the countenance and mood of those who have found it. Perhaps it's less than I'd thought a matter of a person suffering cruel persecutions surprising me by turning out to be joyful, and more a matter of a joyful person surprising me by turning out to be suffering cruel persecutions.

In his Libellus, a history of the beginnings of the Order of Preachers, Bl. Jordan of Saxony (second Master of the Order) describes both St. Dominic's good humor and its source:
But more splendid than the miracles were his sublime character and burning zeal.... His mind always retained its usual calm, unless he was stirred by compassion and mercy; and, because a joyful heart begets a cheerful face, he manifested the peaceful harmony within his soul by his cordial manner and his pleasant countenance...

During the day, none was more affable, none more pleasant to his brethren or associates. At night none was more instant in prayer or watching. In the evening, tears found a place with him and, in the morning, gladness. The daytime he shared with his neighbor, but the night he dedicated to God, for he knew that, in the daytime, God has commanded His mercy, and a canticle to Him in the night.
The "unless he was stirred by compassion and mercy" answers the Pollyanna objection, but I particularly like the parallel Bl. Jordan draws between night/God/prayer/tears and day/neighbor/affability/gladness. His calm mind and cheerful face were buoyed up by a deep reservoir of prayer and vigil. Whatever sadness of his own he had, he brought before God at night, the better to join natural pleasantness to the supernatural Gospel joy he preached.

A cordial manner and a pleasant countenance sound like very minor things in a saint's catalog of virtues; in fact, these are quite likely to be dismissed as merely good secular manners, or even as masks for vices. Surely, though, the mercy God has commanded in the daytime extends to the whole of the persons we meet, and to be cordial and pleasant is to meet a natural desire that only we can meet (no one can be pleasant for you). While fasting might not make many of us more cordial and pleasant, we might ask ourselves whether a little more prayer might be in order.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Three roads diverged

Bl. Cecilia Cesarine, OP, a Dominican nun who "took the habit from St Dominic's own hands," left us an invaluable Legend of St. Dominic, which includes the only contemporary record of the saint's personal appearance.

It also includes a memorable anecdote titled, "How the Devil Upset the Lamp Without Spilling It, During His Sermon":
...One day, after preaching and other deeds of charity, [St. Dominic] came when it was late to the sisters.... As they were sitting together behind the grille, and his brethren were likewise seated beside him, he began to preach to them once more about the wiles of the enemy, showing how Satan, for the sake of deceiving souls, transforms himself not merely into an angel of light, but assumes the shapes of the vilest creatures to hinder preaching and other good works, sometimes even taking the shape of a common sparrow.

The venerable father had scarcely said the word ere the enemy of mankind came on the scene in the shape of a sparrow, and began to fly through the air, and hopping even on the sisters' heads, so that they could have handled him had they been so minded, and all this to hinder the preaching.

St Dominic observing this, called Sister Maximilla, and said: 'Get up and catch him, and fetch him here to me.'

She got up and, putting out her hand, had no difficulty in seizing hold of him, and handed him out through the window to St Dominic. St Dominic held him fast in one hand and commenced plucking off the feathers with the other, saying the while: 'You wretch, you rogue!'

When he had plucked him clean of all his feathers amid much laughter from the brothers and sisters, and awful shrieks of the sparrow, he pitched him out, saying: 'Fly now if you can, enemy of mankind! You can cry out and trouble us, but you can't hurt us!'

The sparrow hopped once more through the window into the church, while all the sisters sat down to hear the sermon, then climbing up to the brass vessel, suspended by chains, which held the oil lamp, he broke the chains with a strong wrench and overturned the vessel. The lamp fell out, but not only was it not damaged or extinguished, but went on burning upside down. The sisters all looked up at the crash of the upset, and saw the lamp standing without any support in mid-air....

The sparrow which flew in that night disappeared, and no one saw whither he went.... Dominic wrought this laughter-stirring miracle by the window in St Sixtus' church, in the presence of Sister Cecilia, who saw and heard all that had been said, and of the other sisters of St Sixtus who were also present.
And the question is: Now that we know this story, what are we supposed to do with it?

One tack is to naturalize the story, perhaps along these lines: Once, when St. Dominic was talking about the devil with the nuns, a sparrow flew into room and acted the way somewhat tame sparrows act when inside rooms. Mistaking the sparrow for the devil -- a real possibility in medieval times -- St. Dominic grabbed it and pulled its feathers off. Then -- maybe that night, maybe that visit, maybe some other time -- an oil lamp in the church fell off its chain, but didn't cause a fire or even much of a mess, and this was attributed to him as a miracle.

Another tack is to psychoanalyze the story: The devil appears in the midst of a group of religious (albeit under a benign enough appearance, and whatever the actual nature of the bird what matters is what those present thought it was). Their reaction? "Much laughter" while their founder plucks it clean of feathers amid its "awful shrieks." Surely there's some sort of group pathology at work when people laugh at [what they believe is] the devil instead of fearing it. (And the less said of St. Dominic's manic, impromptu turn as the Clown to the devil's Policeman, the better.)

For my part, though, I'm inclined to take the tack of accepting the story on its own terms. Not to look for evidence of the "historical Dominic" by way of a sort of higher criticism, not to read it as a case study of medieval behavior, but to take it as a story told by an elderly nun about a real live saint she knew personally.

On those terms, the story is a parable of the foolishness of devils and the wisdom of saints. Those who see by the light of Christ can see through the deceptions of the enemy, and when seen through and exposed the deceptions are, literally, ridiculous.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How Dominicans say, "Merry Christmas!"

"Here's a book I thought you'd like."

As a Christmas present to Disputations readers, I will give out a copy of each book published by Zaccheus Press.

The books arePlease check out the descriptions of the books. If any of them interest you -- I particularly recommend Our Lady and the Church and A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist -- send me an email listing your interests in order. I'll choose five emails at random on or about Christmas Eve and arrange for delivery.

And of course if you want to give one of these books as a present to someone else, please do.


Josephology in six minutes

Fr. Basil Cole, OP, gives a brief talk on video about the role of St. Joseph in the Incarnation and our redemption.


νυν καιρος ευποσδεκτος

Every day, we make countless choices, and each choice we make either draws us closer to God or drives us farther away from Him.

Though, strictly speaking, we don't make countless choices. Our choices are, in principle, countable; we simply don't count them.

And actually, our choices aren't merely countable in principle, they are counted in fact, by God. And it certainly sounds like we get to go over each of them with Him at the Last Judgment; I sort of hope that will be mostly a matter of formality and ritual.

Nowadays, we tend to have a Newtonian concept of time, as something that moves forward in evenly spaced ticks, measured by some object like an hourglass or a caesium oscillator. But we could also think of time as something that ticks along with each of our free choices. That's not something we can measure, as a practical matter, but it's certainly more relevant to our own lives than the fact that yet another 9,192,631,770 cycles of Caesium-133 radiation have been detected at NIST.

So the sequence of our choices produces our personal moral chronology, what we're up to at each moral instant.

Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I answer you, on the day of salvation I help you.
And St. Paul proclaims,
Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
The difference between our personal "moral instant" and the "now" that is a very acceptable time is the old chronos-kairos distinction. It's not an either/or distinction, though. A moral instant and the acceptable time can coincide within a person; when this happens, we can say the chronos or marked or counted time is graced with God's eternal kairos.

We speak of Advent as a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ, both in our hearts at Christmas and at the end of time. But all of these times -- Advent 2006, Christmas 2006, the Second Coming -- are all perceived as points in a chronology, as sets of moral instants. What St. Paul tells us is that the moral instant of Incarnation -0004 means that any or all of our own moral instants can coincide with the acceptable kairos.

Yes, Christ will come again, in some future instant. But He is also here now; God's present is in contact with all of our instants. Whether we want that contact to be realized in our persons, whether we want our instant -- this instant, the one you're spending reading this sentence -- to be graced with God's eternal kairos, is the choice that will characterize this instant in the record of our moral chronology.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Seasonal significance

I've been struck this season by how sacramental Advent is.

As St. Thomas writes:
...a sacrament is a sign that is both a reminder of the past, i.e. the passion of Christ; and an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ's passion, i.e. grace; and a prognostic, that is, a foretelling of future glory.
Each sacrament unites those three points in time: Christ's death on the Cross; the current moment; and the Last Day. We speak in particular of the Eucharist making present Christ's sacrifice on the altar, but we should always recall it as a pledge of future glory as well.

In a similar way, Advent makes present to us the past and the future. The past, in the form of the promises of a Messiah, culminating in the journey to Bethlehem and echoed in the ministry of St. John the Baptist. The future, as we look forward to the Messiah's return.

And the present? What are the graces that indicate of that which is effected in us, by Christ's passion, in terms of these preparations? Answering that question, you might say, is what Advent is for.


Monday, December 11, 2006

The Feast of the Immaculate Condamasus I, Pope

It looks like the post I had planned for last Friday will have to wait until next year. A shame, too; it was crackerjack.

But time marches on, and such missed opportunities are normal. "Normal" in the statistical sense, I conjecture, with most of our three score and ten Solemnities of the Immaculate Conception being average, with a few exceptional and a few exceptionally bad.

I'm not sure what it is, exactly, that is usually average but sometimes exceptional. Maybe something like "openness to God" or "disposition toward contemplation." Something, in any case, that you'd like to have a lot of.

Having a lot of pretty much anything all the time doesn't come to us naturally. From our daily cycle of sleep and wakefulness to the arc of our whole lifespan, we change according to more or less regular patterns -- normal patterns, even.

You might say -- though you probably wouldn't, so I will -- that the point of living through a whole series of liturgical years is to move the average up, so that this decade's exceptional become next decade's (God grant it) average.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

The solution

I woke up this morning with the answer to all life's problems running through my head:
A life of charity, fed by prayer and fasting.
The charity in question is the full concentration, greatest of the three things that endures, infused theological virtue: God's own love acting through you. A life of charity is one best described by the constant stream of acts of charity performed. Prayer draws one toward God; fasting pushes away what is not God.

Worth noting is that this solution is a solvent, not a magic potion. You apply it to your problem, and it works on it, but there's no guarantee of an instant clean-up.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

You're not one of them

Amy Welborn writes, about armchair Crusaders:
And...if the Pope had starting preaching in the Blue Mosque...who would have suffered? The Pope? Of course not. You know who would have suffered, and you're not one of them.
For $8.95 a month, people can sit on their butts in the safety of their home and tap out for all the Internet to see their anger that popes and bishops do not live according to their own paltry fantasies.

Is it the Spirit of the Most High speaking through them? Test the spirit and find out.


Friday, December 01, 2006

A disproportionate response

The claim has been made (never mind the context) that, from the teaching of Veritatis Splendor, it follows that the following two statements cannot both be true of the same act:
  1. The act is intrinsically evil.
  2. The act is specified as a "disproportionate" instance of a more general act.
Very briefly, the argument goes something like this:

VS 80 says intrinsically evil acts "are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances."

But whether an act is "disproportionate" necessarily depends on the circumstances, and possibly on the intentions also.

Therefore, no act specified by being a disproportionate type of a more general act can be intrinsically evil.

Or, even more briefly: The object of an act cannot be specified by it being disproportionate.

I don't buy this argument.

First, I will admit that I can't see that Veritatis Splendor adds much to the Catholic moral tradition, to which the encyclical often refers. Well, there's a certain level of additional Magisterial authority being placed behind the Church's moral tradition, and the specific condemnation of teleological and proportionalist theories contrary to the tradition, but I think the blessed John Paul II was simply restating and applying the tradition, not developing it.

In VS 78, for example, he refers to "the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas" about what makes a human act good or evil. So I think I can get away with using St. Thomas to refute the non-VS-related version of the argument -- viz, that the object of an act cannot be specified by it being disproportionate.

To that end, here are couple of quotations from ST I-II 18, "The good and evil of human acts, in general," the question containing the article referred to in the footnote on that statement from VS 78:
Although external things are good in themselves, nevertheless they have not always a due proportion to this or that action. And so, inasmuch as they are considered as objects of such actions, they have not the quality of goodness. [a. 2, ad 1.]
External things lacking a due proportion can be considered as objects of actions. More directly against the idea that being "disproportionate" cannot specify the object of an act:
A circumstance is sometimes taken as the essential difference of the object, as compared to reason; and then it can specify a moral act. And it must needs be so whenever a circumstance transforms an action from good to evil; for a circumstance would not make an action evil, except through being repugnant to reason. [a. 5, ad 4]
Since, then, St. Thomas allows that a circumstance can specify an act's object, and Pope John Paul II allows that St. Thomas's analysis is still valid today, an intrinsically evil act can, in fact, be defined as a more general act performed in a disproportionate manner.