instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I have built my life on Christ

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary, happy Feast of St. Catherine of Siena!


Monday, April 28, 2008

How to receive Holy Communion

As a last post on the letter from St. Catherine of Siena to Ristoro Canigiani (here, then search for it), let me present her comparison of Passover and Holy Communion.

Exodus 12 contains the LORD's instructions to Moses and Aaron on how to observe the first Passover:
"Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth of this month every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household...

"You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present, it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight. They shall take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb. That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. It shall not be eaten raw or boiled, but roasted whole, with its head and shanks and inner organs. None of it must be kept beyond the next morning; whatever is left over in the morning shall be burned up.

"This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the LORD."
Okay, we know all that (more or less), and we know that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that the Passover meal prefigures the Eucharist.

St. Catherine moves beyond the "what" of the Passover meal to find spiritual significance in the "how." We are to receive the Eucharist in the same manner as the Hebrews ate the Passover lamb:

"not... boiled, but roasted"not with "the water of self-love," but "straight from the fire of divine charity"
"with your loins girt""girt with the girdle of [a clean] conscience"
"sandals on your feet" (i.e., standing)"our heart and mind should be wholly faithful and turned toward God"
"your staff in hand""the staff of the most holy Cross"
"None of it must be kept beyond the next morning""eat it whole... we should contemplate not only the Humanity in this sacrament, but the body and soul of Christ crucified, wrought into unity with Deity, all God and all Man"
"take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house""We must take the Blood of this Lamb and put it upon our forehead--that is, confess it to every rational being, and never deny it, for pain or for death"

"Thus sweetly it befits us to receive this Lamb," St. Catherine concludes, "prepared in the fire of charity upon the wood of the Cross."

Scholars and theologians might discuss whether the LORD really directed the Hebrews to eat with their staffs in their hands in order to prefigure the cross on which His Son would die. St. Catherine's interest is the altogether practical end of getting Ristoro to receive Communion worthily, which she does in part by connecting an ordinary staff with the Cross.

The more we turn our minds to the mysteries of the Faith, the more such connections with the ordinary will suggest themselves, and then the more the ordinary will recall the mysteries of the Faith to our minds.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Starting over

Let me return to the first paragraph of St. Catherine of Siena's letter to Ristoro Canigiani (the one I've been quoting in the last few posts). It opens with these words:
In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest son in Christ sweet Jesus:

I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious Blood: with desire to see you free from every particle of self-love, so that you may not lose the light and knowledge which come from seeing the unspeakable love which God has for you. And because it is light which makes us know this, and false love is what takes light from us, therefore I have very great desire to see it quenched in you. Oh, how dangerous this self-love is to our salvation! It deprives the soul of grace, for it takes from it the love of God and of its neighbour, which makes us live in grace. It deprives us of light, as we said, because it darkens the eye of the mind, and when the light is taken away we walk in darkness, and do not know what we need.
All very Catherinian, just the sort of thing a Fourteenth Century Italian mystic would write, nothing we didn't already know.

But that doesn't mean we can't learn from it.

For example, I've been thinking of one particular way self-love takes from the soul the love of God and of neighbor: How, when we speak in the service of others, we use language in order to please ourselves even though it interferes with our service.

I personally find it very difficult to instruct the ignorant without at the same time entertaining myself at their expense. I mean, lighting a lamp in darkness is all well and good, but a real zinger shot into tender parts adds some real zest to life, especially when others are watching appreciatively.

And I suspect the reason I feel that way is because I love my self -- or not even my self, but my self-image -- more than I love God and neighbor. To make the extrication that much harder, I'm pleased that I actually do [usually] [try to] love my neighbors enough to rarely weigh in with "you're an idiot"-type comments, even though an "oh isn't that charming" is just as certain to shut down conversation.

Now, before anyone tells me it's entirely possible to tell someone in charity that they're an idiot: It's entirely possible to tell someone in charity that they're an idiot. But it has to be done in charity, which is to say in friendship, not merely done without ill will.

And for myself, my best bet for speaking in charity to someone I don't already know and love well just may be to love my self less.

Maybe the goal of being free from every particle of self-love has a practical payoff long before its perfectly achieved.


A caution for imprudent laymen

So should Ristoro Canigiani receive Communion even though he doesn't feel contrition for his sins?

After laying the groundwork of how to seek the kingdom of Heaven prudently, St. Catherine finally takes up the question directly. Well, relatively directly:
We should not use a foolish humility, as do secular men of the world. I say, it befits us to receive that sweet Sacrament, because it is the food of souls without which we cannot live in grace. Therefore no bond is so great that it cannot and must not be broken, that we may come to this sweet Sacrament. A man must do on his part as much as he can, and that is enough.

How ought we to receive it? With the light of most holy faith, and with the mouth of holy desire. In the light of faith you shall contemplate all God and all Man in that Host. Then the impulse that follows the intellectual perception, receives with tender love and holy meditation on its sins and faults, whence it arrives at contrition, and considers the generosity of the immeasurable love of God, who in so great love has given Himself for our food.

Because one does not seem to have that perfect contrition and disposition which he himself would wish, he must not therefore turn away; for goodwill alone is sufficient, and the disposition which on his part exists.
After a brief digression into Passover as an image of worthy reception of the Blessed Sacrament, she adds:
I said that it did not befit us, nor do I wish you, to do as many imprudent laymen, who pass over what is commanded them by Holy Church, saying: "I am not worthy of it." Thus they spend a long time in mortal sin without the food of their souls.

Oh, foolish humility! Who does not see that thou art not worthy? At what time dost thou await worthiness? Do not await it; for thou wilt be just as worthy at the end as at the beginning.

For with all our just deeds, we shall never be worthy of it. But God is He who is worthy, and makes us worthy with His worth. His worth grows never less. What ought we to do? Make us ready on our part, and observe His sweet commandment.


A review for continuers

Our story so far: Ristoro Canigiani has received sound counsel from St. Catherine of Siena.

Now, though, he's feeling scrupulous about receiving Holy Communion, because he doesn't feel contrition for his sins.

How does St. Catherine answer him?

She begins at the beginning:
What do we need to know? The great goodness of God, and His unspeakable love toward us; the perverse law which always fights against the Spirit, and our own wretchedness.
From this follows the need to ask God for what we need. And that leads directly to the obvious question:
But you will say to me: "... But how comes it that many a time I ask, both contrition and other things, and they seem not to be given me?"
St. Catherine is ready with this answer:
It may be it is through a defect in him who asks, asking imprudently, with words alone and not with his whole heart--and of such as these Our Saviour said that they call Him Lord, Lord, but shall not be known of Him--not that He does not know them, but for their fault they shall not be known of His mercy.

Or, the man who prays asks for something which, if he had it, would be injurious to his salvation. So that, when he does not have what he asks, he really has it, because he asks for it thinking that it would be for his good; but if he had it, it would be to his harm, and it is for his good not to have it; so God has satisfied the intention with which he asked it.

So that on God's side we always have our prayer; but this is the case, that God knows the secret and the open, and is aware of our imperfection; so He sees that if He gave us the grace at once as we ask it, we should do like an unclean creature, who, rising from the sweetest honey, does not mind afterwards lighting on a fetid object... Therefore, God sometimes does not give us what we ask as soon as we should like, to make us increase in the hunger of our desire, because He rejoices and pleases Himself in seeing the hunger of His creatures toward Him.

Sometimes [as seems to be the case with Ristoro] He will do us the grace by giving it to us in effect though not in feeling. He uses this means with foresight, because He knows that if a man felt himself to possess it, either he would slacken the pull of desire, or would fall into presumption; therefore He withdraws the feeling, but not the grace.

There are others who both receive and feel, according as it pleases the sweet goodness of our Physician to give to us sick folk; and He gives to everyone in the way that our sickness needs.

You see, then, that in any case the yearning of the creature, with which it asks of God, is always fulfilled.
If Sig. Canigiani had been expecting a postcard reply of, "Don't be silly! Of course you can receive Communion!," he wrote to the wrong lady.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A rule for beginners

Among her students, Dr. Benincasa has a reputation for high-flown mystical language. She's given to giving advice like, "Drown and bathe in the Blood of Christ crucified." A man as smart and as holy as Bl. Raymond of Capua admitted he often didn't understand the things she told him.

But St. Catherine of Siena did not always speak in such advanced terms. For example, a letter she wrote to Ristoro Canigiani, a Florentine gentleman who sought her spiritual guidance, is eminently practical. In places, it reads like a paraphrase of the current Rule of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic:
Again, it is needful for you, if you wish your soul to preserve grace and grow in virtue, to make your holy confession often for your joy, that you may wash your soul's face in the Blood of Christ. At least once a month, since indeed we soil it every day. If more, more; but less it seems to me ought not to be done.

And rejoice in hearing the Word of God.

And when the season shall come that we are reconciled with our Father, do you communicate on the solemn Feasts, or at least once a year: rejoicing in the Office, and hearing Mass every day; and if you cannot every day, at least you must make an effort, just as far as you can, on the days which are ordered by Holy Church, to which we are bound.

Prayer must not be far from you. Nay, on the due and ordered hours, so far as you can, seek to withdraw a little, to know yourself, and the wrongs done to God, and the largess of His goodness, which has worked and is working so sweetly in you; opening the eye of your mind in the light of most holy faith, to behold how beyond measure God loves us; love which He shows us through the means of His only-begotten Son.

And I beg that, if you are not saying it already, you should say every day the office of the Virgin, that she may be your refreshment and your advocate before God.

As to ordering your life, I beg you to do it.

Fast on Saturday, in reverence for Mary.

And never give up the days commanded by Holy Church, unless of necessity.

Avoid being at intemperate banquets, but live moderately, like a man who does not want to make a god of his belly. But take food for need, and not for the wretched pleasure it gives. For it is impossible that any man who does not govern himself in eating should keep himself innocent.

But I am sure that the infinite goodness of God, as regards this and all the rest, will make you yourself adopt that rule which will be needful for your salvation.
That last thought in particular is eminently practical. A rule of life, formal or informal, is never an end in itself, but always only a means to the end of eternal life through, with, and in Christ sweet Jesus (as St. Catherine calls Him). The value we place in that end will be reflected in the value we place in those means.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Time to retreat

Start tonight, and you'll finish right on time. (Unless it's already tomorrow where you are.)


The Pope speaks

For what it's worth, here's a PDF of Pope Benedict's speeches and homilies during his visit to the United States.