Saturday, September 29, 2007

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, archangels

Readings: Rev. 12, 7-12ab; Ps. 138,1-5; Lk 1,47-51

It is easy in our day to and age to dismiss belief in angels, who are one part of the invisible order of creation that we pass over so quickly in our recitation of the Creed, as superstitious. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church continues to insist on the reality of this invisible order of creation. As Hamlet says to Horatio: "There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy" (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5). Like belief that there is something, or someone beyond our existential experience, belief in angels and spirits is a very human belief. This belief certainly predates Christianity and even Judaism, which began with Abraham, our father in the faith. Among modern Catholic theologians, even some in whose writings we may find it surprising, the consensus remains that angels, in their varied orders exist.

According to our understanding, angels are spiritual beings in that they do not have bodies, are not material, and, hence, do not occupy space. Nonetheless they are very much like us in that they possess memory, will, and understanding. In our first reading today we read about angels exercising their free will and rebelling against God. It is important to consider for a moment the importance and necessity of free will. Such a consideration takes us back to creation. We are created out of love and for love. So fundamental is this that our Lord teaches us that all that is required of us is to love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as our self. Just in case there is any doubt about who is our neighbor, he tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan. Love requires freedom.

We have probably all had the experience, perhaps as young people, of having a "crush" No doubt, this was heart-breaking. In this we learn that we cannot force somebody to love us, it has to be a free choice on their part to love in return. While feelings certainly constitute part of the reality of our human experience of love, they are only one dimension of this multi-dimensional reality. At root, love is a choice, an act of the will. It is our refusal to love as we should that links humanity with the rebellion in heaven. After all, original sin, the disruption of communion, was also brought about by a serpent.

That is why, as many of us moved through life and found a person who we love and who loves us, love is the joy that it is, the joy of our life. It is no different with God. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, creates out of love in order that we might return this love, as well as love one another. God leaves us, and the angels, free because the choice to love must always be made in freedom. That is why we go through so much effort in preparing men and women for the sacrament of matrimony to ensure that when they give their consent before the Church it is clearly understood and freely given. Unlike people, we can trust that God's love for us is always already assured and is the very cause of our reciprocation. That is why faith is a theological virtue, or, stated more simply, a gift from God. Faith as a gift from God, however, does not accurately describe it because it is the gift of God's very self in the person of His beloved Son who we receive in Eucharist and for whom we render a loving thanks to God.

Traditional Greek icon of Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael


So, the angels who rebelled were cast out of heaven by Michael and the heavenly host in this battle that occurred before the foundation of world. This is why we still look to St. Michael the Archangel as our defender in battle. The other two archangels are also powerful heavenly intercessors. First there is Raphael, the least known among the three archangels who we commemorate and celebrate today. We encounter him in the Book of Tobit. In this story which, like Job, is a morality tale, albeit with oriental trappings, Raphael comes to the aid of both Tobit and Tobiah, by removing the cataracts from Tobit’s eye, allowing him to “see God’s sunlight,” and facilitating the marriage of Tobiah to Sarah, and then driving “the wicked demon Asmodeus” from Sarah (Tob. 3,17). Gabriel, as we all know, is important in the economy of salvation as he is the one who announces the births of both St. John the Baptist and of our Lord himself, thus fulfilling the role of angel as a messenger from God (Lk 1,19.26).

While there is another day on the liturgical calendar dedicated to them, let us not fail to call to mind our Guardian Angels. This is another belief and practice that we hold dear as Catholics. What a wonderful outpouring of the love of God that each one of us has a heavenly guardian. It is such a joy for me, when putting my seven year-old daughter to bed, to recite with her the prayer to our guardian angels. Indeed, this was the first prayer, along with the Glory Be, that we learned as children and that we prayed with such great trust. This is one way that we are called upon now to become child-like for the Kingdom of God.

In today's Gospel Jesus tells Nathanael (sounds a lot like Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael) that he will see "the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (Jn 1,51). Angels do a play a role in Jesus' life and ministry, angels support him in during his forty days in the desert, angels attest to his divinity in his Transfiguration, and angels ask his disciples why they are standing there looking up into heaven at his Ascension. Indeed, Nathanael, in Hebrew means "God has given". Michael, also Hebrew, means "who is like God?" So, all you Michaels out there, your name is question and one we should all ask ourselves often. Raphael is the Hebrew word for "God heals", which is appropriate given Raphael's role in the story of Tobit. Gabriel means "strong man of God". The three together point us to Christ, the One who is not only like God, but is true God from true God, the God who heals us, especially the ultimate healing from physical death, and the One who is stronger than sin and death because He loves us.

On this their feast day and all days let us call upon the archangels, our heavenly defenders and helpers. May St. Michael the Archangel, Prince of the Heavenly Host, continue defending us and the Church in the battles of life as we seek to make present God’s kingdom on earth and as we make our pilgrim way to the heavenly Jerusalem.


(Homily preached this morning at Holy Family Catholic Church with some ex post facto additions)

This is my 500th post on Καθολικός διάκονος

Friday, September 28, 2007

B'ness as usual in Myanmar

As expected violence trumps peaceful protest as "Troops take back control in Myanmar". This is just a sad commentary on the state of the world right now. Not that things are necessarily worse than in the past, but that no matter how much we desire it, we do not seem to make much progress.

"At the center of the earth is the parking lot . . ."





WARNING: "THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT, THIS IS ONLY A TEST" SERIOUSLY- THIS IS WILL NOT APPEAL TO ALL MY USUAL READERS AND IS NOT FOR EVERYBODY. IT ALSO CONTAINS SOME EXPLICT LANGUAGE

This song, in five parts, appeals to the desire about which I preached yesterday and how this gets frustrated and truncated in society, especially in broken families and other societal ills and family dysfunctions brought on in very large part by a situation in which, instead of being people, we become consumers, who, in turn, serve the so-called economy. This is backward. The economy, as such, should exist for the person. Green Day's music speaks to me on so many levels and over quite a few years now. That about which we might disagree becomes, at least to my mind, very secondary bordering on inconsequential given what we would be in solidarity about. So, while they may have mainstreamed punk, thus paving the way for groups like Rancid and The Offspring, they have watered nothing down, as the album on which Jesus of Suburbia appears, American Idiot, demonstrates, nor lost their senses of irony and humor. After all, "I don't care if you don't care" is a double negative. Hence, I care, but don't care if you don't.

This song appeals to me at the gut-level. It overflows with desire and passion. It also speaks to the need to be authentic and real, not silly and sentimental in this "land of make believe that don't believe in me". Needless to say, the Jesus of Suburbia is not the real Jesus, but an idol of our own making and one that is unique to the U.S. and who is something of an anti-Christ. A good pick for a day of penance and abstinence, Jesus of Suburbia constiutes part two of our Friday Καθολικός διάκονος lectio.

Friday in the Church and being Church for the world

Each morning, at the end of the intercessions for Morning Prayer, I pray for a number of intentions. Among these intentions are prayers for the Church throughout the world, for the Holy Father, for our local Church, the Diocese of Salt Lake City, for our bishop, and for my parish and our pastor. It occurred to me that this morning's reading, taken from Ephesians, chapter four, verses twenty-nine through thirty-two, is apropos of this intention, giving it shape and form. I was particularly struck this morning by the positive exhortation in verse thirty-two: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."

Dear friends, apart from actually living in the manner described, it doesn't get anymore concrete than what we read in this passage. So, let this serve as part one of the Καθολικός διάκονος lectio for this Friday. I will post a video later, but this post, of necessity, must precede it because I need to express what it really means to follow Jesus, at least as far as I understand it (which is far from comprehensively), before posting the video, which is about following a false god, and the all too real personal and societal consequences of so doing, not to mention the negative effects of bad Christian witness. It has often been observed that Christians are the best reason not to become a Christian. Sadly, I must plead guilty at times to being that kind of disciple, the kind about whom Mahtama Ghandi observed to missionary E. Stanley Jones, who mentioned that Ghandi frequently quoted Christ, "Oh, I don't reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ". Of course, as a Hindu, Ghandi had no problem accepting Jesus as an avatar, which is not, at least in the first instance, "an Internet user's [virtual] representation of himself or herself".

In our current society the most devastating form this bad witness takes that makes Christianity so unattractive to so many is a mistaken notion of holiness as rule-keeping, instead of as loving perfectly. This bad witness is summed up beautifully by the Holy Father in Deus Caritas Est: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (par. 1). Put simply, I do not want my intention in posting the video to be misunderstood. While I am on the subject of discipleship, I want to draw attention to something written by Michael, the internetmonk, on what it means to follow Jesus Christ. His post is entitled Dumb Up, Brother: A Spirituality of Ignorance

Anyway, I hope all of this gives us a good focus for Friday meditation as we abstain, fast, perform charitable works, or however we choose to observe this Friday, during which we remember that which made it possible for God to forgive us in Christ, His crucifixion.

On this Friday, I also want to draw attention to something over on Sharon's space that struck me as regards the Church. It is about one man's response to God's love, a love for which Son Jong Nam is willing to suffer to the laying down of his life in imitation of our Lord. Please pray for our brother.

Hierarchy Update

The Cathedral of Crookston, MN

Today the Holy Father named Msgr. Michael J. Hoeppner of the clergy of the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota to succeed Bishop Victor Herman Balke as bishop of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota. Bishop Balke's resignation, submitted over a year ago when he turned 75, was accepted by the Holy Father. Bishop Balke served as bishop of Crookston for thirty-one years. In this day and age that is incredible and wonderful. With Hoeppner's appointment, unlike other recent episcopal appointments, no new vacancy is created.

However, the number of vacant dioceses remains at ten. Sede vacante dioceses in the U.S. are: Charleston, South Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; Green Bay, Wisconsin; the Military Archdiocese; Des Moines, Iowa; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Shreveport, Louisiana; Great Falls/Billings, Montana; Little Rock, Arkansas; New Ulm, Minnesota. But, the number of ordinaries serving beyond the mandatory retirement age of 75 shrinks to nine.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Twenty-fifth Thursday in Ordinary Time, Year I. Memorial of St. Vincent de Paul

Readings: Hg. 1,1-8; Ps. 149,1-6a.9b; Lk 9,7-9

Today’s readings speak to us of desire, human desire, of our longing for the transcendent. The prophet Haggai speaks first to King Darius, the ruler of Persia who had conquered Israel, and to the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, a Jew who is King Darius’ agent in the holy land. The desire of which Haggai speaks is the desire of the people of Israel for the Lord’s presence among them, which the Jerusalem Temple housed. It is a note of history that Darius allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple.

Haggai also speaks to Israel about desire. He urges them to consider their ways. Hence, we are urged to consider the ways we seek to live our lives, how we set out to accomplish all of our undertakings and endeavors. By calling people to such a consideration, the prophet seeks to bring his hearers to the realization that none of our undertakings, no matter how worthy or meritorious, satisfies our longing, our desire, for something more.

It is easy, especially in our time and in our society, to fall into the trap of believing that things or accomplishments will satisfy our deepest desires, but, as anybody with any experience of life knows, especially people who have achieved some success, no matter what we achieve or acquire, we still long for something more. To quote the great bishop of Hippo, "our hearts remain restless".

The good news is, as the Psalmist tells us, “The Lord takes delight in his people”. In other words, our desire is met by an even greater, infinite, desire - God’s desire for us. Unlike our human longing, God’s longing is certain, unambiguous, unbounded, as well as unrelenting.

St. Vincent de Paul
Today’s Gospel shows us that even someone as disordered as Herod, whose fleshly appetites were apparently insatiable, shares our human longing. This is why, whether Herod understood it or not (it is quite clear, from what we know about him, that he did not), “he kept trying to see Jesus” (Lk 9,9). In St. Vincent de Paul, whose memorial we observe today, we see the same longing as we see in Herod, but a very different method and outcome in satisfying this desire. In St. Vincent we see someone who came to the realization that Jesus is not just a curiosity, but the One who satisfies our deepest longing. St. Vincent, like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, did not merely try to see Jesus; he saw the face of the Lord in the poor he served.

Jesus satisfies our longing, our desire, quenches our thirst and feeds our hunger by giving Himself to us in the communion we are gathered here to share. He is present among us in several ways, in our very gathering together in His name, in our reading of scripture and, above all, in the bread that has become His Body for us. It is through the Eucharist that He literally comes to be present in us. Through His presence in each of us, we are joined together as His mystical Body so that we can make Him present to the world.

It is because we have found our hearts’ true desire that all of our endeavors become more satisfying, which they are not in and of themselves. Our undertakings become satisfying because we, God’s priestly people, consecrate ourselves and all we do to Him.

(A homily preached at Holy Family Parish this morning)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

To love is to suffer, or passion=desire

It is certainly a cliché to write that we must be willing to suffer for that which we love. It is worthwhile, however, to unpack this truism a bit. We suffer in relation to our parents, who, for most of us, are the first people to whom we stand in relation in the world. I remember a conversation I had with my own mother ten years ago or so, during which, speaking about her relationship to her mother, she said: "At some point, we have to forgive our parents." This certainly made sense to me at the time, but only from the perspective of my need to forgive my parents. Now that I have been a parent myself for almost fourteen years, I still see the truth of her insight, but from a different perspective arising from my own experience.


While we have no need to forgive our Lord, we do need to stand willing to suffer for our love of Him who IS love made flesh, just as He suffered for love of us. This links back, at least in my mind, to yesterday's two hallmarks of authentic Christian witness: visible community and its link to authority. If to love means to stand willing to suffer, not for our love, which can all too easily become an abstraction, but for the people we love, then perhaps we have discovered another authentic hallmark of visible Christian community, along with its necessary link to authority. The need to endure in suffering manifests itself in several ways, first among which is by a willingness to forgive and to be reconciled. Put concretely, if we walk away from community, be it our spouse, our family, friends, a small intentional group of Christians, our parish, or the Church the first time our love is the cause of suffering, then the question poses itself as to the nature of our attachment. In other words, did we really love, or just experience some nice feelings? If we leave when the experience of the nice feelings is replaced by different, less enjoyable feelings, then the question about the nature of the attraction remains an open question.

"Our encounter with a vital Christian community or a Christian who is striking," observes Fr. Giussani, occurs "because he or she says something to us that we feel to be true, has an incomparable newness, freshness, and value" (The Journey to Truth Is an Experience 95). This constitutes, to translate it into a recognizable category, an "experience of an encounter". Such encounters are experiences "of freshness whose depth is proportional to our awareness of its being rooted in a long history" (95). The long history in which this uniquely Christian encounter, either in the form of a community or a person, if it is authentic, is rooted in tradition. "This is to say that the encounter with that community or that [person] brings us tidings that spring from a life lived through the centuries, through tradition" (95). Therefore, we have to "educate ourselves to love this past life that has moved through the centuries to reach us with the visage of our life today" (95). This education in the tradition constitutes the larger context of our community and relationships today. This education also prepares each of us to "become an 'encounter' for companions and friends" (95).

If the Buddha was right that to live is to suffer, then Christ brings us a deeper, more important, truth: to love is to suffer even more than merely to live. What is more important about the truth of Christ is that our suffering is not in vain, but for a purpose. This purpose is the very reason we exist, love. So, it is not the point of existence to rise above suffering by seeking to extinguish ourselves and enter into nirvana, but to become fully ourselves in relation to others through love, which is ultimate happiness both in this life and the next.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Mystery of Christ: Church and Kingdom

This post is the convergence of my experiences of yesterday, specifically the meeting of The Cathedral of the Madeleine Book Club, during which we discussed Jesus of Nazareth, by Pope Benedict XVI, and a Baptism I was privileged to perform, along with my morning reading. To me, it verifies that the journey to truth is, indeed, an experience, a convergence of experiences.

The Mystery of Christ is ever present and all pervasive. A witness to Christ's mysterious presence "is only authentically Christian insofar as it has two factors at heart" (The Journey to Truth Is an Experience 89). The two factors any authentically Christian witness must possess are, according to Fr. Giussani, "visibly expressed unity and the link to authority," specifically the bishop, through whom the visibly united community's authenticity is ensured, as is "its integration into the mystery of the Mystical Body", which integration, incorporation, allows the community "its participation in [Christ's] redeeming power" (89).

On this account, "Even the most astute or generous social dynamism, open cultural expression, or dignified moral stance are ambiguous testimonies if not qualified" by these two factors (89). It is only through a visible community linked to authentic authority that "Christian Reality" is made objective (89). Lacking these two factors, which make the Christian witness concrete, "observers will all too easily identify the value of a witness with the specific person who accomplishes it, and will ascribe this achievement to an exceptional group or a modern movement with praiseworthy personalities and their own determined ideas" (89). Indeed, we observe this all the time, even within the Catholic Church.

Lacking an "expressed reference to the community and authority, a [witness] can easily be reduced in the heart of an observer to an example of gentlemanly conduct, modernity of spirit, or social sensitivity; that is, to an idea or a way of life and not to a reality outside ourselves" (89-90). In other words, lacking the two factors of authentic Christian witness (i.e., community and authority) the witness becomes attributed "to the 'glory' of man and not of God, to another form of man's kingdom, not the Kingdom of God" (90). The Kingdom of God is not merely that which is ushered in by Christ, but is Christ, as the Holy Father, taking his cue from Origen, writes in Jesus of Nazareth.

"We can identify three dimensions in the Church Fathers' interpretation of [the kingdom] (49). The first of the three dimensions of God's Kingdom taught by Christ is what Origen "called autobasileia, that is, the Kingdom in person. Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he" (49). In this dimension "Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God's presence" (49).

The second dimension the Holy Father calls "the idealistic or mystical interpretation" (49). In this interpretation "the essential location of the Kingdom of God" is in the individual human being's "interiority" (49). Of course, this comes from Jesus' own words as relayed to us in Luke (Luke 17,21). For this dimension the Pontiff also looks to Origen, specifically his work On Prayer, in which he wrote: "those who pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God pray without any doubt for the Kingdom of God that they contain in themselves, and they pray that this Kingdom might bear fruit and attain its fullness. For in every holy man it is God who reigns" (50). His Holiness inserts a comment after the words "it is God who reigns", "exercises dominion, is the Kingdom of God" (50). "So," Origen continues, "if we want God to reign in us"- another pontifical comment his Kingdom to be in us"- then sin must not be allowed in any way to reign in our mortal body (Rom 6,12)" (50). Indeed, at Baptism we "reject sin so as to live in the freedom of God's children". Also in Baptism we "reject the glamor of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin" (The Rites 427).

So, we start with Jesus as the Kingdom of God and move to God's Kingdom reigning in us. Hence, we move to the third dimension, which represents a theological progression that takes us back to the beginning of this post, the two necessary factors for authentic Christian witness, visible community and authority. "The third dimension of the interpretation of the Kingdom of God we could call the ecclesiastical: the Kingdom of God and the Church are related in different ways and brought into more or less close proximity" (Jesus of Nazareth 50). I like this explanation, "close proximity" instead of total identification of the Kingdom of God and the Church because the Kingdom of God, even within us and among us, is already and not yet.

Monday, September 24, 2007

God's power revealed on a Monday morning

"Christianity," Fr. Luigi Giussani wrote, "is not born as the fruit of our culture or as the discovery of our intelligence." Neither does Christianity "communicate itself to the world as the fruit of modern or effective initiatives." How, then, is Christianity communicated to the world? According to Fr. Giussani, "God's power reveals itself in facts, events which constitute a new reality in the world, a living reality; in movement, and this in an exceptional and unforeseeable chronicle within the history of humanity and things."

The Church is how God "extends" Himself in space and time, "assimilating . . . persons and things". This extension of God, through Christ, via the Church "is the very basis of being" (The Journey to Truth Is an Experience, pgs. 87-88).

This speaks directly to the persistent temptation of seeking God somewhere other than the concrete circumstances of our lives, or always locating the Church as a living reality somewhere else and not in my poor parish, in my religious education class, in this Mass, in this parish gathering, among these weak, struggling people about whom I know so much and to whom I belong.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

". . . the beauty of an encounter"

Pippo from Italy writes in the current issue of Traces about some workers who attended CL's meeting with the Holy Father back in March. These workers attended when nobody from his parish, despite being invited, did. This leads him to observe that "the real Christian is not he who follows a moral code or a doctrine, but he who follows the beauty of an encounter".

Of course, the beauty of an encounter can be an encounter with beauty, with truth, with real goodness, not the media manufactured, sentimental variety that can never compare with a true encounter. I had a weekend-long encounter myself, which was a tremendous blessing. God-willing (insha'Allah) it will bear some good fruit.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Monsters having fun



This is how I begin the morning with my two year-old son. Besides, don't we all have days during which we ride an emotional roller-coaster? Of course, this is "take" on REM's Shiny Happy People, which my youngest son also asks for, usually in the afternoon. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Original Sin: a briefer look


In Christ Jesus, the Holy Father writes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, "the delusion of false emancipation, which marked the beginning of of mankind's history of sin, is overcome. Adam, heeding the words of the serpent, wants to become God himself and to shed his need for God" (pgs. 138-9). Through Christ, we become God's children. Being "God's child is not a matter of dependency, but rather of standing in the relation of love that sustains [our] existence and gives it meaning and grandeur" (pg. 239).

A few words to ponder for a Tuesday

In descrbing the purpose of his wonderful book Do Nothing To Change Your Life: Discovering What Happens When You Stop, Stephen Cottrell, Anglican bishop of Reading, England, writes: "out of patient attentiveness to the present an eternity can be grasped".

Monday, September 17, 2007

Original Sin: The Need for Justification

Among the least understood dogmas of the Christian faith, especially among Christians, is original sin. It is one of those necessary doctrines, like the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation, without which, or even improperly understood, faith fails to make sense and cannot be translated into a mode of life. Perhaps one reason this teaching is so misunderstood is the use of the word sin. Typically and correctly, when we think of sin we think of an act that we know is wrong and choose to perform it anyway. If this is the understanding of sin we bring to original sin we are left with only two options, both of which are misunderstandings. The first misunderstanding is confusing original sin with actual, or personal, sin. Put simply, this view sees each one of us as guilty, personally culpable, for the state into which we are born. There is no personal culpability with regard to original sin. This issue arises often in the preparation of parents and godparents for the baptism of infants and small children. The second possible misunderstanding does not see us as guilty of original sin, but holds that we are being punished for it nonetheless. This means believing that we are being punished for somebody else’s sin. Both of these understandings indicate that God is neither just nor merciful. According to the second article of faith of the religion in which I was born and raised, Mormonism, which rejects the doctrine of original sin, “men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression” (Smith, Pearl of Great Price 60). This article of Latter-day Saint faith sums up nicely the second possible misunderstanding that results from putting too much weight on the word sin in the formulation original sin. Original sin is best understood as a dysfunction in the human family. As such it is passed on just as dysfunction often passes from one generation to the next in specific families, our families of origin.

To gain an appreciation of just what it is that the term original sin refers to, it is necessary to turn to scripture, specifically to the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. Before doing so it is useful to point out that one short-coming of the second possible misunderstanding mentioned above (i.e., that we are being punished for the sins of another person) is that it is rooted in a literalist interpretation of the narrative of the fall, or, better stated, humanity’s disobedience. When interpreted literally, as a narrative not about the why of creation, but about the how, the Genesis narratives are drained of much truth value. This siphoning off of meaning results is theological errors, like the explicit rejection of original sin, which, as Malcolm Muggeridge is said to have observed, is the most empirically verifiable fact in the world! That original sin is believed almost universally is borne out by a fact that has already been mentioned: Redemption is a major theme in all the world’s great religions because alienation is the existential experience of humankind. This means that original sin is the two word answer to the question, often posed in jest, about the reason for man’s existential angst.

In the second creation narrative that immediately precedes the story of humanity’s disobedience, after making the woman from the rib of the man; we see that there are three basic harmonies that exist. These harmonies are constitutive of the communion that God brought about in creation, what has been termed as original grace. The first harmony is between God and human beings. This harmony is depicted in the narrative as God communicating freely, in an immediate way, with the man and the woman and the two people speaking in the same way to God. In the dialogue that takes place between the two people and God it is God who speaks first. This is quite different from how we think about speaking with God through prayer, which we too often see as an initiative we undertake, and not as a response to God. The second harmony is between the two people. Their relationship is steady, even, and shows no sign of discord. The third harmony is between people and nature. They are free to eat the fruit of any tree of the garden, except the tree in the middle of the garden. They do not need to hunt or cultivate in order meet their needs because the garden has all they need. The tree is highly symbolic of our limitations, our ontological status as contingent beings, though ones created, male and female, in the divine image. Stating it simply, the tree and the command to leave it alone points us to the necessary relationship between truth and freedom.

Truth limits freedom, but not in a dictatorial way. Freedom not oriented to truth is the surest path to slavery. It is by abusing our freedom and giving in to temptation that we break communion and disrupt harmony, fall from grace, which is nothing less than our participation in the Trinitarian life of God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Freedom is necessarily limited because we are limited.

In the first instance we are created, contingent beings. Even in human society we recognize the need for both freedom and necessary limits on freedom. For example, here in the United States the first amendment guarantees us, among other things, the right to free speech. The vast majority of people agree that free speech is necessary for a free society and that a free society is the best kind of society. The question quickly arises, however, about whether this freedom is absolute, or whether reasonable restrictions must be placed on it. To grab a quick and pedestrian example, is one free to yell "Fire" in a crowded theater, thus causing a stampede in which people are either injured or killed? So, we recognize that there must be limits, even if broadly construed.

It is also true that by nature, we do not like restrictions. The original sin was humanity giving in to the temptation to be “like God” (ESV Gen. 3,5). What does it mean to be “like God?” It means being self-determining, deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil, being morally autonomous.

These harmonies are disrupted when the serpent tempts the woman by telling her that if she eats the fruit of the forbidden tree she will be “like God, knowing good and evil” (ESV Gen. 3,5). Indeed, there is really only one temptation from the beginning of the world. It is this temptation to be "like God" in our own right, determining for ourselves what is right and wrong, what is good and what it is evil. Of course, the woman is eager to share this new knowledge with her husband. So, she offers him some of the fruit, which he accepts and eats.

In the aftermath of this event, God comes looking for the man and the woman, who, after realizing that they were naked and upon hearing God, quickly stitched together some garments and try to hide. But, God, who sees all, cannot be hidden from. Upon finding them, God asks the man, "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat" (ESV Gen. 3,11)? To which, instead of taking responsibility for his own actions, the man responds, "The woman whom you gave me to be with, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate" (ESV Gen. 3,12). Then, when questioned by God, the woman blames the serpent. “The serpent tricked me, and I ate” (ESV Gen. 3,13). The disobedience results in the alienation of humanity from God, the blaming results in the disruption of harmony between people and between people and nature. Thus, communion is broken and the state of original grace is lost.

How original sin is transmitted is the same way that family dysfunction is transmitted, which is not genetically, but through the dynamics of human relationship, which were disrupted. We can no more avoid being born into a state of alienation from God than we can be born not needing to breathe air, or be born into a life not defined by our mortality, which necessarily includes our dying, which is another consequence of our fall from grace. Original sin is where salvation begins. In The Exsultet, which contains a soteriological density almost unrivalled in the Church’s liturgy, the deacon sings of this “Felix culpa,” the "happy fault," the "necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer" (The Roman Missal 184).

(A section from a recent paper, which is taken from a class on Baptism which I have taught for 10 years, but have never written down.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Stephen Colbert interviews Fr. Jamie Martin, S.J. about Mother Teresa



Stephen Colbert, who is, as many of you know, a practicing Catholic, interviews Fr. Jamie Martin, S.J., author of My Life with the Saints and Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton And Other Saints. This will constitute our Friday Καθολικός διάκονος traditio video and also provide us a lectio. Enjoy! Being the holy person she is, I can't help but think that Blessed Teresa, now in beatitude beyond her doubts and fears, was laughing with the rest of us. I think when Fr. Martin says that Blessed Teresa may speak more to a post-modern world precisely because of her dark night, we gain a very small insight into why God sometimes does what God does, which is very often not only what we do not expect, but the very opposite of what we expect.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.


Fr. Martin, who is a remarkable observer and commentator on contemporary spiritual life, wrote a lovely OpEd piece for the New York Times, entitled A Saint's Dark Night, which is well-worth reading. His article also appears in America, the Jesuit Catholic weekly magazine of which Fr. Martin is an associate editor. To read the article in the NY Times you must be a subscriber or pay $4.95. To read it in America, you must also be a subscriber. Of the many Catholic periodicals on offer, many of which are outstanding, I would have to rank America up near the very top. Subscribing, either to the print edition, which also gives you complete on-line access, or to the web edition only, which is less expensive, is not a bad choice.

The Triumph of the Cross

Today we observe The Triumph of the Cross. This feast falls on 14 September each year. It is certainly apt that this year it falls on Friday. We observe Fridays as days of abstinence, days of penance, a little Good Friday preceding Sunday. Sunday, of course, is Dies Domini, Day of the Lord, on which we celebrate, rejoice, and jubilate in the resurrection of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. All of this makes each Sunday a little Easter. So, while Fridays are days of austerity, Sundays are always feast days, even during Lent!

Goya, Christo Crucificado



"In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4,10). It is also fitting to point out, after a couple of long meditations on Job, that the Cross is the answer to Job's question about suffering. May we be like St. Paul, who wrote to the Church at Corinth: "know nothing among . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2,2).

Eternal Son of the Father, you came to cast fire on the earth and you longed to see its flame kindled in the hearts of all people,
-grant that through holiness of life we may come to share in the undying light of your glory

Thursday, September 13, 2007

More on Job's submission

It response to Bildad the Shuhite's charge that Job is being punished either for the sins of his children, on whose behalf Job "would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all," acknowledging "It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts" (Job 1,5), or because of his own failures, Job replies:

"But how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand times." This is so because God "is wise in heart and mighty in strength- who has hardened himself against him and succeeded? - he who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in his anger, who shakes the earth out of its place and its pillars tremble" (Job 9, 2-6a). Despite acknowledeging the short-comings of all people before God, Job rejects Bildad's accusation, relying still on God's great mercy: "Though I am in the right, I cannot answer him; I must appeal for mercy to my accuser" (Job 9,15). "Though I am in the right," Job continues, "my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse" (Job 9,20).

How much self-justifying do we engage in, presenting our righteousness, or our good intentions, which, it has been sagely observed, pave the road to hell, before God and others, instead of acknowledging our failures? Like Job, let's get real and be honest. Like Job, we must also recognize that we are not being punished by God, especially in light of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, suffering, as our Sunday readings from Luke's Gospel have aptly demonstrated over these past several weeks, plays a role in our sanctification. With Job, may we also recognize that "My days are swifter than a runner; they flee away; they see no good" (Job 9,25).

Rosh Hashanah



I am very sorry that I missed the opportunity to wish all of our Jewish elder brothers and sisters l’shana tovah, or, Happy New Year, yesterday, prior to its beginning today. This High Holy Day marks the beginning of the year 5768.


In the declaration of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, which we looked at yesterday as regards Islam, we read of Israel: "As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock. Thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God's saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ-Abraham's sons according to faith -are included in the same Patriarch's call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people's exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles. making both one in Himself" (para. 4).

It is not too much to say Jesus Christ makes no sense outside the context of Israel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A note on Islam

Once again, just as I did last fall when reading a lot of Orhan Pamuk, I feel the need to explain that there is much that is good, true, and beautiful in Islam. Extreme groups, like Al-Q’aida, distort the Qu’ran, the hadiths, even shar'ia. How would we Christians like being defined by the most obnoxious, closed-minded, fundamentalistic groups of Christians, like some white supremacist group, just to take one example? If the answer is, I wouldn't like that at all, then why would you define somebody else's religion that way?

Here is what the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote with regard to Islam: "The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting" (Nostra Aetate para. 3).

Indeed, Islam means submission or total surrender to God. The word Muslim means one who has submitted or totally surrendered to God's will, which is often, as Job found out, inscrutable. The word Allah is the Arabic word for God. Semitic-speaking Christians, like the Maronites, an Eastern Church in communion with Rome, call God Allah in their liturgies. In fact, the Aramaic word for God is Alaha. It is here that root of Allah can be uncovered. Many Eastern Christians in the seventh century, when Islam began to spread, did not think it a new religion, but a Christian heresy. The Muslim form of prayer is believed to be derived from early Christian communal prayer, during which people prayed toward Jerusalem, our holy city.

What Job teaches us, or lessons from a Muslim

Marc Chagall, Job Praying
Just what is this morning’s quote from the mouth of Job a response to? It follows Job tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling to the ground in worship. What, in turn, causes Job to do all this? News that his 500 oxen and 500 donkeys had been taken by force by certain Sabeans, who also killed his servants working in the fields with these animals, except the one who escaped to tell him; that "The fire of God" falling from heaven had burned up his 7,000 sheep and the servants attending them, except the one who survived to tell him; that certain Chaledeans, formed into three groups, had stolen his 3,000 camels and killed his servants, except the one lived to tell him. Finally, the lone surviving servant runs to tell him that while his seven sons and three daughters, their spouses, children, and, presumably some servants, were gathered in the house of his oldest son, a "great wind wind" blew "across the wilderness,” causing the house to collapse and kill them all" (Job 1,13-19). According to this wisdom book, what was the cause of all these misfortunes?

This misfortune was caused by Satan telling God that Job was only faithful because God had “put a hedge around him and his house” and around all that Job possessed. God, according Satan, had “blessed the work of [Job’s] hands.” “But,” Satan says to God, “stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” This God then allowed Satan to do anything to Job he wished, except kill him (Job 1,6-12).

Now, Job contains an incomplete theology. This bears mentioning as we prepare to celebrate on Friday, 14 September, the liturgical feast of The Triumph of the Cross. However, there is much to be learned here. It is not just the quantity of what Job teaches, but the quality. Job is a true Muslim, one who submits, or surrenders, himself to God's inscrutable will. By contrast, I think most of us would qualify as God’s spoiled children, who throw tantrums and doubt God’s very existence when bad things come our way. As Rich Mullins once observed about sorrow and suffering in a lovely song to Jesus, our Lord: "I know it would not hurt any less/Even if it could be explained ".

Perhaps I am projecting, but I doubt it. Let’s each one ask ourselves honestly, Am I only faithful and grateful when things go well for me? Think back to when you were a child, or for the parents among us, to our own experience of our children. When were we, or are our children, most likely to tell our parents that we love them, that they are the best Mom or Dad in the whole world? When they gave us something we wanted. Conversely, when were we most likely to say horrible things, like you are the worst Mom or Dad in the world and perhaps even to tell a parent, a person who gave us life, who fed us, clothed us, and provided shelter, we hate them? When have been denied something we wanted, even if for good reasons, like it is unsafe, unaffordable, etc. As a parent, or, as an adult looking back on your own childish fulminations, how do we feel in such moments? There is a reason that the commandment about honoring our parents comes immediately after the three commandments by which we honor God and just before the commandments about honoring other people. Then, let us each ask, in light of this first reflection: Does my relationship with God bear resemblance to the immaturity I so shamefully exhibited in my youth? Do I curse and shake my fist at God in my struggles as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death? What happened to Job in the story happens in the real world, almost everyday. How many of us, when something bad happens to us, or, to somebody close to us, falls to the ground in worship, declaring our gratitude to God?

Today I finished a book that has deepened my faith more than any book I have read this past year, except two- Dr. Cynthia Crydale’s Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today and Dr. Rowan Williams’ Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel- Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner. In the character of Hassan, the Hazara servant and illegitimate son of the novel’s main character’s father, known as Baba, we have a new, this time Islamic, Alyosha, who is immortalized in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. While waiting in the hospital for news of the condition of Sohrab, Hassan’s orphaned son, who has attempted suicide in Islamabad after having been rescued from Taliban-controlled Kabul, Amir, in the process of redeeming his past, prays for the first time in fifteen years on a make shift jai-namaz, or, prayer rug, which is but a single bed sheet, on the floor of the hospital:

"I get on my knees, lower my forehead to the ground, my tears soaking through the sheet. I bow to the west [the direction of Mecca from Islamabad] ". . . I have long forgotten the words [the appropriate suras of the Qu’ran]. But it doesn’t matter, I will utter those few words I still remember . . . I see now that Baba was wrong, there is a God, there always had been. I see Him here, in the eyes of the people in this corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find him . . . There is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need, I pray that He is as merciful, benevolent, and gracious as His book [the Qu’ran] says He is. I bow to the west and kiss the ground and promise that I will do zakat [the Islamic version of tithing- giving 2.5% of one’s income to the poor], I will do namaz [prayer, which Muslims perform five times a day], I will fast during Ramadan [the month during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, even from drinking water] and when Ramadan has passed I will go on fasting, I will commit to memory every last word of His holy book, and I will set on a pilgrimage to that sweltering city in the desert and bow before the Ka’bah [the giant black rock in the middle of the Great Mosque in Mecca] too. I will do all of this and I will think of Him every day from this day on . . ." (pgs. 345-6) [all bracketed explanatory notes are mine]

Again, in the book, it is Hassan, who at this point is dead, who is the holy fool, like Alyosha, like Francesco Bernadone, not Amir, who is the one praying in this passage. Neither can Amir, at this point, be said to be a Job because, unlike the Job, Amir seeks to bargain with God. "I will do all of this if only He grants me this one wish" (pg. 346). His one wish, the petition of his prayer, is that Sohrab lives. In His mercy and goodness, God grants Amir's petition. It is only in the manner of the life he and his wife, Soraya, live with Sohrab that Amir grows beyond this bargaining. As far as one can tell, Amir keeps his pledge to God. However, Sohrab is so traumatized that, once in the U.S., he does not speak for over a year. By the end of the book, while flying a kite in a park, something Amir and Hassan did as children in Kabul, Sohrab smiles when Amir offers to run the cut kite for him. To which Amir responds:

"It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn't make everything all right. It didn't make" anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of startled bird's flight" (pg. 371). It is here that we measure the change: "But I'll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting" (pg. 371).

God's best gift

Life, which is constituted by the time between our birth and our death, is God's most precious gift to us. Let us give Him thanks, even on our most difficult days. Job is rightly revered for his patience, but the Book of Job is considered to be one of the Wisdom books of holy writ. So, Job should also be revered for his wisdom: "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I go back again. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!" (Job 1,21).

He asks his wife, who is telling him to curse God for tragedy that has befallen him, "We accept good things from God; and should we not accept evil?" (Job 2,10b).

Monday, September 10, 2007

. . .all sins are failures in being realistic"

Over on his blog, Inhabitatio Dei, which has been over on my links list for awhile, Halden has been conducting a reading of Herbert McCabe that is well-worth following. Plus, I am in the midst of finishing a paper on soteriology. So, I am not in a position to compose anything, let alone something worthwhile. What makes this quote, mined by Halden from McCabe's writings, worth posting here on Καθολικός διάκονος is that it complements in an extraordinary way what I have been writing on spirituality of late. So, without further adieu, here is the quote posted yesterday:

"The root of all sin is fear: the very deep fear that we are nothing; the compulsion, therefore, to make something of ourselves, to construct a self-flattering image of ourselves we can worship, to believe in ourselves - our fantasy selves. I think that all sins are failures in being realistic; even the simple everyday sins of the flesh, that seem to come from mere childish greed for pleasure, have their deepest origin in anxiety about whether we really matter, the anxiety that makes us desperate for self-reassurance. To sin is always to construct an illusory self that we can admire, instead of the real self we can only love. It is because we fail in realistic self-love that we fail in love for others. So sin, too, means being terrified of admitting that we have failed."

Herbert McCabe, God, Christ, and Us (New York: Continum 2005), 17-18.

In his teaching, Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, this is why humility is not self-abnegation, self-abasement, or grovelling (Lk. 10,27).

Friday, September 7, 2007

"Tramps like us, baby we were born to run..."



The real deal- The Boss with the original E Street Band. How wonderful and real!

"Someday girl I don't know when were gonna get to that place/Where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun/But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run"! In its existential longing for the transcendent, this song also has a passion reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

"In return and rest you shall be saved"


"For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies. But this you did not wish. In return and rest you shall be saved" - Isaiah 30:15

"When was the last time you had a real day off? Ditched the 'to-do' lists. Switched off the phone. Had a lie-in. Sat in the bath until the water went cold?

"Most of us live at break-neck speed. Busy lives - work, family, friends, endless tasks - leave us with little time to sleep, never mind stopping and reflecting.

"We urgently need to learn to nurture our inner slob."






We need to affirm life, to live by practical wisdom, to . . . well . . . just live.

We need to learn to the prayer of rest, through which God puts us "in the eye of the storm," the storm's surprisingly calm center. "When all around is chaos and confusion, deep within we know stability and serenity. In the midst of intense personal struggle we are still relaxed. While a thousand frustrations seek to distract us, we remain focused and attentive" (Prayer, pg. 93). We can be of tremendous help to one another in cultivating serenity, "For the kingdom of God," St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome, "is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy Spirit; whoever serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by others. Let us then pursue what leads to peace and to building up one another" (Rom. 14,17-19).

Begin thinking about Friday, our weekly day of abstinence, of penance. Tomorrow is a first Friday. So, think about praying the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary and attending Mass.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Stepping Stones to adoration of God, which, in turn, leads to genuine gratitude

In order to adore God we must move, Richard Foster tells us, "across the waters of our narcissism" (Prayer, pg. 88). In order to cross these waters, which often run swift and deep, we must take a first step. As we step, we find stepping stones.

It is a rank truism to state that we must always start where we are. Nonetheless, there is no other possible starting point! So, we start, Foster tells us, "in the nooks and crannies, the frustrations and fears, of ordinary life" (Prayer, pg. 87). False starts can all too easily occur. If we are honest, it does not help when are sad to count our many blessings, or to reflect on God's goodness. It is important not to reject these realities when we are down, but there are times when rehearsing these truths is not helpful and not even possible.

We do not learn adoration on a "grand and cosmic scale" right off the bat. Foster wisely tells us that to begin on such a scale "wears us out and defeats us" from the get-go (Prayer, pg. 87). "We learn about the goodness of God not by [first] contemplating God's goodness but by watching a butterfly" (Prayer, pg. 87). In other words, we start by paying attention to creation. Specifically, to those parts of creation that surround us, that are immediately available to us. We begin by just observing "the birds, the squirrels, and the ducks" without studying or analyzing them (Prayer, pg. 87). We watch and do not evaluate.

I like this image that Foster presents very much: "Go to a brook and splash some water on your burning face. In that instant do not seek to solve all the problems of pollution and the ecosystem: just feel the water. Most of all, do not try to find God in the water or to make yourself be thankful for the water. Simply allow the cool wetness to refresh your skin. Now sit back and and listen to the sound of the brook. Watch the branches overhead swaying back and forth. Note the leaves fluttering in the breeze - notice their shape, their color, their texture. Listen to the symphony of rustling leaves and scampering chipmunks and twittering birds" (Prayer, pg. 88). Do not analyze, just notice, attend to what is happening before your eyes, your ears, your nose, your fingertips.

Attentiveness, then, is the first stepping to adoration, to gratitude.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Our Communion of the heart and the communion of saints

I was introduced to the concept of forming a community of the heart by Deacon Owen Cummings, who has taught me so much over quite a few years now, at the retreat for my diaconal class back in 2004, shortly before our ordinations. I was reminded of how this community works and how it overlaps and intertwines with the communion of saints by Clariy's post Mary Schabert (later Sister Rose Marie). Do yourself a big favor and stop in at Clarity's Place everyday. In a world that too often seems hard and unrelenting, she will stun you with beauty!

While I am writing about interesting blogs, my friend Marie is taking her sabbaticial and going back to Ethiopia. She is chronicling her experience via a blog: Marie's Project. You will find the link to this, along with the link to Clarity's Place, over to the right on this blog.

A quick note on a previous post

I have been ruminating on Saturday's post since Saturday night. I make no apology for over-simplifying matters theological because I actually want people to read my blog. Even in being a bit overly simplistic, it is important not to be inaccurate, or to misrepresent. I do not think I did that on Saturday. Nonetheless, I feel that I need to make a disclaimer about my post on the theological anthropologies of Sts. Augustine & Thomas Aquinas. While I do believe their views about the human person are not as disparate as they are often made to seem, there are some unavoidable disparities. Thomas writes in a straightforwardly systematic manner and is optimistic regarding the orientation of the human person to the good, to God. Augustine, on the other hand, being a bishop and pastor, writes in a far less systematic and less optimistic manner. This is not to insist that Augustine is incoherent in the least. He is remarkably coherent and cohesive, especially given the length of time across which he wrote and the sheer volume and diversity of his writings.

I am a stickler for making important distinctions and recognizing differences. At the end of the day, Augustine's view of the human person is more consonant with my experience as a human being and my experience of other human beings, as well as the moral complexity of human life and the persistent problem of evil, that is such a stumbling block for so many. Put simply, it is crucial not to read Augustine as being a proponent of total depravity. This is precisely the point of convergence between these two giants I want to set in relief.

On Labor Day, Why Faith Matters


This is a section of the USCCB's document for this Labor Day, entitled Labor Day 2007: A Time to Remember; A Time to Recommit. The entire document is well worth reading and pondering. In too many places Labor Day, like Memorial Day, is just another day off to have fun. We must remember that even the time-off we enjoy, especially for workers/employees, which most of us are, are the hard won fruits of this country's labor movement.

Recalling Catholic Teaching

"Just as we need to remind ourselves as Americans that Labor Day is about workers and their unions, it is also important to remember as Catholics that the dignity of work and the rights of workers are central elements of Church teaching that continue to challenge all Catholics. For more than a century, the Church has insisted that 'human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question (Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 3). Our tradition has defended the right of workers to join together to secure decent work, wages, and a voice in economic life.

"This year is the 40th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s powerful encyclical, Populorum Progressio– On the Development of Peoples. He called Catholics to defend the lives and dignity of poor and vulnerable workers in our own societies and around the world. Paul VI called us to be in solidarity with those who seek to 'escape from hunger, misery, endemic disease, and ignorance' (Populorum Progressio, 1).

"This message of solidarity and the pursuit of the global common good builds on the tradition begun by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum in 1891 and extends through the Twentieth Century in a powerful series of papal encyclicals. It was embraced and expanded by the prophetic words and witness of Pope John Paul II, an apostle of solidarity, who constantly stood with workers and the poor. His writings called for a society of 'work, of enterprise, and of participation' (Centesimus Annus, 35) and insisted that unions and other worker associations are an 'indispensable element of social life.'(Laborem Exercens, 20)

"Our present Holy Father, Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, has placed the Church’s social doctrine in the context of God’s love for us and our duty to love the 'least of these.' '[W]ithin the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.' (Deus Caritas Est, 20)

"Our Bishops’ Conference has outlined A Catholic Framework for Economic Life that seeks to
summarize this essential part of Church teaching as 'principles for reflection, criteria for judgment, and directions for action.' Among the key principles, these are especially appropriate for Labor Day:

· The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
· A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are
faring.
· All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g.
food, clothing, shelter,
education, health care, safe environment, economic security).
· All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just
wages and benefit, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join
union or other associations.

"These principles and related moral criteria outlined in the framework ought to guide our actions and choices in economic and public life."

Saturday, September 1, 2007

A tale of two (complementary) theological anthropologies: Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas

Last night, after re-watching the entire second season of the original U.K. television series The Office, which makes me realize what an absolute comic genius Ricky Gervais is, prior to drifting off to sleep, I opened the most recent issue of Christianity Today, the premiere evangelical magazine in the U.S., that I look forward to receiving each month. Among the several good articles I read one stood out, The Good Life: Augustine says we must love the very best the most, by Daniel H. Williams. This article really brought home to me why I am a more of an Augustinian than a Thomist. Now, I do not want to take an absolute stance because there is much in the Angelic Doctor's unsurpassed synthesis that is of great value and that, frankly, is indispensable for any Christian who is seeking to understand her/his faith.

St. Thomas Aquinas
In Philosophy, even in this day an age, one is, at least to some degree, either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. So, in Christian theology even now, one is either primarily an Augustinian or a Thomist. Of course, the Plato/Aristotle distinction is operative in the Augustinian/Thomist dichotomy; with Augustine being the Platonist and Thomas the Aristotelian. Perhaps what distinguishes Pope Benedict XVI and his dear friend, whose closest collaborator he was, Pope John Paul II, is that John Paul had a primarily Thomistic outlook, while Benedict is an Augustinian through-and-through. One of the issues most central to this theological split is anthropology, the nature and orientation of the human person. Jesuit theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, was a Thomist. In fact, he called his theological method "transcendental Thomism." In his CT article, Williams writes of Rahner's theological anthropology, that he "held that human beings have a fundamental orientation toward goodness, truth, and love, and that at the soul's bottom there exists an orientation toward God." For Rahner, according to Williams, "people merely have to be reminded of the good, and they will seek it."

Augustinians, such as myself, while not necessarily dismissing the fundamental goodness at the bottom of the human soul, see that people do not always seem to be oriented toward the good, toward God. Some Augustinians, Calvinists, to take but one example, argue for the total depravity of the unredeemed human soul. It is not too much to insist that the facts on the ground often seem to support this thesis. Human history shows us, Williams observes, that "letting humanity choose whatever works to its own advantage results in the primacy of self-interest and personal gain." Further, unless we are obliged "as well as enabled to see what is good, [we] will not freely choose it, because it will not immediately seem to be in [our] self interest."

Augustine certainly seems to be more in tune with St. Paul, especially in the theology expressed systematically in his letter to the Romans. Williams uses Romans 3,10-12, in which Paul quotes Isaiah, to make just this point: "There is no one just, not one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have gone astray; all alike are worthless; there is not one who does good, (there is not) even one."

St. Augustine

Williams is correct to point out that Augustine though "often thought of as a philosopher and theologian," was actually "a pastor for most of his life." Therefore, dealing with matters like "sustaining faith, practicing Christian virtues, and teaching the truth were especially important to him, just as they are for believers today.". Whereas, St. Thomas was a professional theologian who spent his life in either cloistered or academic settings. By acknowledging these facts I do not want to push the ivory tower vs. the street argument too far, but I do think it is an important aspect to keep in mind on this point concerning our orientation to the good. Nonetheless, as Catholics we are et, et, not either/or, reasoners. One can easily see these two perspectives as mutually enriching. They are certainly not mutually exclusive. As one engaged deeply in pastoral ministry, I can honestly write that sometimes, in my ministry to people, my sight of the forest is obscured because of the trees. In such cases, looking at things from a bigger perspective is not only important, but crucial.

Cutting to the chase, Williams notes what Augustine writes, in a somewhat proto-Thomist manner (i.e., using a syllogism), in his book On the Nature of the Good: "Every nature is good, and every good thing is from God. Therefore, all nature is from God." For Augustine "no physical object or thing can be good or bad in itself." From this Augustine reached two conclusions: "(1) that it is our will that takes good things and makes them bad by our absorption with them and thus our perversion of them, and (2) the relation of our affections to the sensible world can only be determined by having a proper relation to all physical things in light of their Creator."

All-in-all a great article for me right now, especially in light of my recent writings about matters spiritual that reveal a definite Augustinian sensibility. I hope that in these writings I achieve a balance and do not obliterate the reality (i.e., by insisting that we become who we already {really} are) that we possess, because we are created in imago dei, which sin never completely obliterates, though it can obscure and hide it well, a fundamental goodness.