Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Readings: Deut 4:32-34.39-40; Ps 33:4-6.9.18-19.20.22; Rom 8:14-17: Matt 28:16-20

I believe that because we are (understandably) slow to simply let go of the glory of Easter, this week the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, known more simply as Trinity Sunday.

Our Gospel reading for this solemnity is a passage from the last chapter of St Matthew's Gospel known as the "Great Commission." It is our response to the risen Lord's Great Commission that makes the Church apostolic, that is, those who are sent. We're sent not only to baptize, but, prior to baptizing, to "make disciples." If the Rite of Christian Initiations of Adults (RCIA) is, or ought to be, anything, it is disciple-making.



Grace is God's gratuitously sharing divine life with us. It is through Baptism that we come to share in the very life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Baptism the nature of our relationship with God is changed (by God) from one of creature to Creator (albeit much loved and even sought after creature) to one of adopted child of God through Christ Jesus, which adoption is effected by the power of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a better way of stating this is that in Baptism God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - makes explicit what is implicit in each every human being, each one of us being constituted by the divine image we bear.

This morning I read the first chapter of Daniel Speed Thompson's book The Language of Dissent: Edward Schillebeeckx on the Crisis of Authority in the Catholic Church, entitled "Human Experience, Knowledge, and Action: Schillebeeckx's Epistemological Framework." Thompson begins this chapter by recounting the nearly forgotten philosophy of Dominicus De Petter, a Louvain philosopher who greatly influenced Schillebeeckx when he was a young Dominican friar just out of the novitiate in the mid-1930s.

According to Thompson, De Petters was a Thomist engaged in "rethinking" the Angelic Doctor "in relation to contemporary philosophy" (Language 14). More specifically, De Petters sought to draw from phenomenology, arguing for what he called "implicit intuition," a pre-conceptual kind of knowledge that comes prior to any conceptual form of knowledge and that undergirds and provides the basis for,conceptual knowledge (I am not certain how these might relate to Kant's categories other than they are more dealt with more existentially, one might even say more subjectively, than Kant's categories, which are ontological).

Thompson writes very cogently about implicit intuition: "Prior to their knowledge and use of concepts, human beings have an epistemological link with the world around them" (14). At least in my view, this succinct statement along goes a long way towards toppling the at times seemingly insurmountable subject/object distinction, which philosophical problem is usually and, at least in my view, quite rightly, blamed on Descartes, which Husserl sought not so much to do away with, which doing away would merely be to land squarely in some kind of idealism or monism, but to clarify. While in the hands of some philosophers phenomenology has veered off in idealistic directions, I see it as not only very compatible with, but complementary to Thomistic realism.

St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor

For further explication of De Petters' epistemology, Thompson turns to an article by Philip Kennedy that appeared in New Blackfriars: "Continuity Underlying Discontinuity: Schillebeeckx's Philosophical Background":
[De Petters'] theory asserted that human knowledge involves more than concepts. He explained a non-conceptual element in knowledge by claiming that intuition forms an intrinsic part of the human intellect. Intuition is here conceived as a contemplative or spiritual link between an individual subject and the reality which is external to the subject. Intuition is thought to be a direct experience of objective reality as well as a participation in the absolute meaning of reality (Language 14)
The last phrase from the excerpt of Kennedy's article takes me back the definition of grace I invoked above. To share in the divine life of God - Father, Son, and Spirit - is nothing other than to participate in the absolute meaning of reality. So, this implicit intuition not only links us to the world, but to God. The sacraments (the Church herself being a sacrament), which are liturgical celebrations, mediate God's grace to us. Along these lines, if our human intuition is implicit, then expression of it has to be mediated by concepts, by language and symbols that serve as signs.

In what does our participation consist? St Paul, in our second reading, taken from his Letter to the Romans, tells us: "The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom 8:16-17).

Without going to deeply into it, I think it also bears noting that one thing our first reading demonstrates is that, at least in part, our implicit intuition of God, which is nothing other than what Msgr Luigi Giussani constantly reiterated - the human person is a direct relationship with the Mystery - is what we might call a moral intuition.



Building on this basic outline of De Petters' basic epistemic insight, Thompson seeks to apply this to human knowledge of God: "Knowledge of God... has both a positive aspect - the direct grasp on God's reality provided by implicit intuition - and a negative aspect - the recognition that all human concepts used to express this intuition themselves do not directly apply to God and fall well short of capturing the divine reality" (Language 14-15).

This seems to fit quite nicely with something written recently by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:
Because God is not a finite object over against you as a subject, you cannot simply turn away towards ‘something else.'; He is the ground and end of all desire and knowledge as such, the Good in itself. You cannot choose or not choose God the way you would choose or not choose a cup of coffee. You desire anything because of your original desire for God as the transcendental Good and Beautiful; you know anything because of your original intellectual appetite for God as the transcendental Truth as such. Even in desiring to flee God, you are desiring God as the ‘good end’ you seek in godlessness (see "David B. Hart on Universal Salvation and Human Freedom" on Fr Kimel's blog Eclectic Orthodoxy)
This is also what the Catechism seeks to set forth:
God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God --"the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable"-- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God (par 42)
With this, we bring May to a close.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dante's birthday

Dante Alighieri's birthday is reckoned to be 29 May 1265. Making tomorrow the 750th anniversary of the great poet's birth. My becoming aware of this event, along with the publication of Rod Dreher's book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem, prompted me recently to re-read the Divine Comedy.

Last Thursday, Great Britain's Independent newspaper published on article on the Divine Comedy by Ian Thomson. In his piece, Thomson provides a compelling and comprehensive overview of the deep influence this epic has had on Western culture, at least up until about 45-50 years ago.

Dante's deathmask- how very Beckett-like


In my very first post on Dante (May has been very Dante-intensive, due to my reading), I mentioned how deeply Bl Pope Paul VI was influenced by the Divine Comedy (see "Dante Alighieri and 'esperienza'"). In his article, Thomson mentioned Dante's influence on Samuel Beckett, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, T.S. Eliot (whose work, like Dante's, I did not engage until I was in my 40s), Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Primo Levi, among others.

Yes, Pope Francis, in his message to the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Ravasi, which was read to Italian Senate, quoting from Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter on Dante, Altissimi cantus, which he promulgated at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, wrote- "Dante is ours! Ours, meaning of the Catholic faith." Thomson's article, in my view, helps us to see what we must always mean when we invoke the term "Catholic," which, despite the fervent efforts of many, can never be authentically understood in a narrow, sectarian way. It should be clear that to employ it narrowly is a contradiction, like "squared circle."

Given my deep engagement with and affinity for the work of Samuel Beckett, I can't help but note that, in his Introduction to the Divine Comedy, Robin Kirkpatrick noted that "Beckett died with a copy of the Commedia at his bedside. Throughout his writing career he had taken, as his own alter ego, the character of the indolent Belacqua who appears in Purgatorio [Canto] 4’ [lines 88-139]. Above all, Beckett’s concern with ‘waiting’ as a condition of human existence exactly mirrors a dominant theme of the early Purgatorio. Resisting the dualistic claims of Cartesian thought, Beckett looks, as Dante always does, at the incalculable shifts of word and physical movement that, in the experience of waiting, so vividly animate even the most indolent mind. Here, like Dante, he reclaims the body as a comic determinant of human identity."

Belacqua Shuah, of course, is the central figure in Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks, his first published work of fiction. More Pricks Than Kicks consists of 10 linked stories. Just last year an eleventh story, originally rejected by the publisher for inclusion in the collection, "Echo's Bones," was published by Grove Press. This story should not be confused with either Beckett's poem or his collection of poetry also entitled "Echo's Bones." According to the publisher's webpage, while Beckett tried to have the story included, it "was politely rejected by his editor and excluded from the collection, as it was considered too imaginatively playful, too allusive, and too undisciplined; qualities that are now recognized as quintessentially Beckett." Earlier in the book, Belacqua dies and is brought back to life by the author for this story.

Belacqua
I said: ‘O my sweet sire, set your eyes on that one, who appears lazier than if Sloth were his sister.’ Then he turned to us, and listened, only lifting his face above his thigh, and said: ‘Now go on up, you who are so steadfast.’ Then I knew who he was, and that effort, which still constrained my breath a little, did not prevent me going up to him, and, when I had reached him, he hardly lifted his head, to say: ‘Have you truly understood why the sun drives his chariot to the left?’ His indolent actions and the brief words, moved me to smile a little: then I began: ‘Belacqua, I do not grieve for you now: but tell me why you are sitting here? Are you waiting for a guide, or have you merely resumed your former habit?’

And he: ‘Brother, what use is it to climb? God’s winged Angel, who sits at the gate, will not let me pass through to the torments. First the sky must revolve, round me, outside, for as long a time as it did in my life: because I delayed my sighs of healing repentance to the end: unless, before then, some prayer aids me, that might rise from a heart that lives in grace: what is the rest worth, that is not heard in Heaven?’ (Purgatorio, Canto IV, lines 109-135)
Indeed, the Divine Comedy says something to me about my life. I believe it has a lot to say to a lot of us, especially now, when the transcendent dimension of our humanity (i.e., what constitutes us as being human) is under such violent assault. As Thomson noted, "If Dante speaks to our present condition, it is because he wrote the epic of Everyman in search of salvation."

Therefore, our slightly day-early Friday traditio is Robin Kirkpatrick briefly reading and discussing the Divine Comedy:




As Pope Francis noted in the final paragraph his letter,
Dante is therefore a prophet of hope, a herald of humanity’s possible redemption and liberation, of profound change in every man and woman, of all of humanity. He invites us to regain the lost and obscured meaning of our human journey and to hope to see again the bright horizon which shines in the full dignity of the human person

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day: a somber reflection

In the United States we have three days during which we focus on our military: Memorial Day, the day we remember those who died fighting on behalf and at the behest of the United States; Armed Forces Day, the day we thank those who are currently serving; and Veteran's Day, the day we thank those who have served. It seems that we often garble the meaning of these days, that is, we mix them up and they congeal into a big celebration sponsored by potato chip and beer companies.

For Christians in the West, "memorial day," if you will, the day we remember all of our beloved dead, falls on 2 November- the Feast of All Souls, which comes at the tail end of the three day festival that begins on All Hallows Eve, and also includes All Hallows (i.e., All Saints).

It seems to me that Memorial Day should be a very sober and solemn observance. It ought to cause us to reflect deeply on the terrible cost of war in human terms, not only on our nation, but other nations as well. Yes, I just used both "should" and "ought," which many stylists hold should practically never be used. Without in any way exaggerating my exploits, I am a veteran and a combat veteran.



Today, as we contemplate the terrible wreckage that extends from the Maghreb, across the Levant, to Mesopotamia, let's not wax rhapsodic about combat. It is horrible. As Pope St John Paul II, speaking specifically to the drum beat leading up to the 2003 Iraqi War, said, "War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity." Indeed, the first precept of Just War theory holds that going to war is only justified after all peaceful options are considered and exhausted. In other words, war is to be a last resort and not just over any old squabble between parties.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not a pacifist. I believe there are just for which it is morally acceptable to fight (i.e., kill and die for). However, I have a deep respect for others who do not share my view on principle. Just war criteria not only helps us to determine when war-making is justified, but gives us moral guidance on how military force is to be used. Here is an overview, a primer, of Just-War Theory.

Today, I pray that the souls of all those who died in combat fighting on behalf the United States rest in peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Year B Pentecost

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104:1.24.29-31.34; 1 Cor 12:3b-7.12-13; John 20:19-23

Very often when we think about the major observances of the liturgical year we recognize Easter and Christmas as very important. Beyond that many of us might be a little puzzled about how other solemnities and feasts rank in order of importance. This is why I think it is necessary to point out that there is no more important Christian observance than Easter, which means there is no more important liturgy than the Easter Vigil, which marks the conclusion of the three-day long liturgy that is the Triduum.

While you can’t have one without the other, Easter trumps Christmas, but so do Ascension and Pentecost. The first Christian Pentecost marked the beginning of the Church, the age of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit came upon the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles in the upper room, appearing to them as tongues of fire, and filling them to overflowing, they responded by preaching the Gospel, what we call the kerygma, which is a Greek word for the original proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If we read Acts 2 further than the ending of our first reading, we learn from Peter’s proclamation the original kerygma, which remains the fundamental message of the Church: “God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses. Exalted at the right hand of God, he received the promise of the holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth, as you (both) see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).

It is correct to speak of “the first Christian Pentecost” because Pentecost was originally a Jewish feast, which is why there were Jews from all over the known world in Jerusalem, who became hearers of Peter’s Spirit-filled preaching. “Pentecost” is the Greek name for the Jewish feast of Shavu'ot, also known as the Festival of Weeks. What Jews commemorate during the Festival of Weeks is God giving the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 31:18).

Properly speaking, as Christians, we are not a “People of the Book.” Rather, we are the people of the resurrected and risen Lord, empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us what St Augustine insisted we are - an Easter people, the people of “Alleluia!” As the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, set forth: “God gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and established them as the Church that for each and all it may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity” (par 9). In other words, Jesus did not write a book. He established the Church, which is to be a Spirit-filled community that persists in time and space until He returns. In other words, we were not given a written law, but hearts filled with the Holy Spirit, who is the personification of the love between the Father and the Son, with whom He is “adored and glorified.”

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 3:7-8), St Paul asked, “Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the Israelites could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?”

Grasping the identity, the “personhood,” of the Holy Spirit is very difficult. Therefore, it is helpful to keep in mind, “The Holy Spirit is the mode of Jesus’ resurrection presence” in us and among us (Luke Timothy Johnson, Living Jesus 15). In other words the Holy Spirit is the way Jesus remains present in the world between His Ascension and His glorious return. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the sacraments, the Church Herself being a sacrament.



There is a part of the Eucharistic Prayer we call the epiclesis. The word epiclesis is a Greek word meaning “to call down.” The epiclesis sounds something like this: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

More than words, the world needs witnesses of the new life that only Christ can give, the life we have received in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist, the life that is restored, resurrected, in the Sacrament of Penance. This life is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit through the mediation of the sacraments. We are not given the Holy Spirit simply for ourselves, to keep and bury like the chastised recipient of the single talent. We are given the Holy Spirit to empower us to communicate Jesus to others, by loving them selflessly. Archbishop Wester came last Sunday, which was Ascension Sunday, and administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to 17 members of our Eucharistic community. We should see this as our participation in and extension of the first Christian Pentecost.

Being sent is what makes the Church, makes us, apostolic. As recipients of the same Spirit that came down upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Peter, and the other disciples, we are sent to proclaim the same message, the same Paschal mystery, which is the mystery of faith – “Save us, Saviour of the world; for by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.”

If the Holy Spirit is the mode, or the way, Jesus remains present in the world, then, in a similar way, we are the mode, or the way of the Holy Spirit. It’s important to point out that we don’t only, or even most convincingly, bear witness to Christ by our strengths, by our trying to highlight how good, obedient, or righteous we are. This method of communicating the Gospel, in addition to being joyless, often leads to a lot pretense, a lot of genuine hypocrisy.

We must be honest and realize that it is almost always more effective to bear witness that there is Someone who is greater than sin and death by our weakness rather than by our strength. As Msgr Luigi Giussani noted, “God was moved by our betrayal, by our crude, forgetful, and treacherous poverty, by our pettiness.” Giussani went on to insist that it is precisely this that “the Church brings to the world, and certainly not because of its members’ merit, goodness, or even less because of their coherence: God’s compassion for our pettiness [is infinitely] greater than our limitations.” “If we don’t start from here,” he warned, “we cannot understand at all; everything goes mad, literally.” Let’s be mindful of the Lord’s words to St Paul, which were spoken in response to the apostle’s plea to remove some unspecified weakness or defect, which he called “a thorn in the flesh” - “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

My sisters and brothers, every Sunday is Easter, every Sunday is Ascension, and every Sunday is Pentecost- this is the mysterium fidei in which we participate. Hence, every Sunday, even Sundays during Lent, we gather together and say, “Lord, send out your Spirit, and, through us, renew the face of the earth.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

"You bring healing to my soul"

Last night a post by Joanne McPortland on her delightfully named blog, Egregious Twaddle, caught my attention. The title of her post is "Depressed and Catholic: Learning It's Okay to Live." In this piece Joanne summed up well the plight of many:
The pull of self-erasure can be particularly awful for people of faith, who feel the shame of not measuring up, not trusting in God enough, not being grateful enough, not being good enough. We’re likely to be more terrified when the abyss looks back if we feel the loss of God’s presence and consolation. Depressed Catholics don’t need to be reminded to beat our breasts in the Confiteor—it is always, for us, through our most grievous fault that we dare to exist
This was timely for me because earlier in the day, while mowing the north side yard of my house, upon turning the corner into our backyard I saw the statue of St Thérèse that belonged to my friend Casey, who took his own life last summer. I received the statue from Casey's Mom a few days after his memorial service last July, but waited until St Thérèse's feast to place it in the garden, after I prayed her novena (see "Keeping a promise on the Memorial St Thérèse").

St Thérèse of Lisieux in our backyard

Upon spying the statue, which I put in our garden on I began pleading with our Blessed Mother and the Little Flower for him, that, despite his manner of death, he might find the health and wholeness he so desperately wanted and just could not find. He tried.

For anyone who suffers in this way, I can't recommend highly enough Catholic Guide to Depression.

I am grateful that I have learned that whenever I turn in on myself, by grace and cooperating with God's grace, usually with the help of friends, I am able to turn to Jesus. He reassures me that He loves me regardless of anything I have done or failed to do. Time and again His love slays my inner Pharisee, silences the sometimes non-stop voice of my accuser. One of the meanings of the Hebrew word "satan" is "accuser." Jesus acquits me, wraps me in the cloak of His love and mercy, which makes the Eucharist indispensable for me. Because I know several amazing priests, I also find the Sacrament of Penance to often be a significant source of strength and reassurance.

All of this is why Kari Jobe's "I Am Not Alone" is our Friday traditio:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Balthasar & Dante: compassion and a sacrament sans grace

Yesterday evening I finished reading the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy. After completing the Inferno, I read Hans Urs Balthsar's theological commentary on it in the third volume of Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. As one might expect, both Dante's poem and Balthasar's theological reflection were magnificent. By "magnificent" I mean both "excellent" and "impressively beautiful, elaborate, or extravagant; striking."

Referring to a work by German literary scholar Hugo Friedrich, in English entitled The Metaphysics of Law in the Divine Comedy, which seems to supply the basis for his look at the Inferno, Balthasar, after noting that Friedrich sought to demonstrate that Dante is dependent upon the same cosmology ("of order and law") as Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, observed: "Guilt or sin is contrary to right, and because it is the disruption of that ordered right or right order (rectitudo) implanted by the Creator in the nature of things, it contains its own punishment" (83). Hence, "the sinner himself presses toward the place of his punishment and eagerly embraces its particular form" (86). To support this, Balthasar cited Canto III, lines 124-126. I think it makes sense to back up to line 121:
"My son," the gentle master [the Roman poet Virgil, his guide through hell] said to me,
"all those who perish in the wrath of God
assemble here from all parts of the earth;

they want to cross the river [presumably Styx], they are eager;
it is Divine justice that spurs them on,
turning the fear they have into desire"
(all translations of the Inferno by Mark Musa from The Portable Dante)
"This," Balthasar insisted, "is why there is a confessional at the entrance of Hell [Canto V, lines 4-9]: "for the acknowledgement of one's own guilt... before the judge of Hell, Minos, and the apportioning of suitable punishment [instead of penance]; confession in the full sense, but without any love or absolution, a sacrament without grace" (86).

La Porte de l'Enfer (i.e., Gates of Hell), by Auguste Rodin (uncompleted)-
began in 1885 and worked on until the sculptor's death in 1917

Because it is the subject of much imaginative distortion, perhaps even including Dante's, Hell is difficult to contemplate."For Dante," Balthasar went on, "progress through Hell would... mean initiation into pure objectivity and his weaning away from an excessively human [as opposed to Divine, not Vulcan] compassion not yet in conformity with the supreme order of of the world" (87). Pointing once more to Friedrich, who, Balthasar observed, showed that compassion, which, for Augustine, is "subordinated" to "and rigorously brought into line by reason" (87), he insisted that, for Dante, compassion is only truly compassion "when the movements of the passions correspond to law and justice" (87). On this view, as a feeling, or emotion, "compassion in itself is neither good nor evil" (87). To be true, or truly good, compassion "must first allow itself to be guided by the cor rectum ["right heart"] to the rectitudo [literally "rightness," but better "right order"] of divine order."

As Balthasar went on to highlight, Virgil upbraided Dante for feeling pity for the damned in Canto XX, lines 25-30:
Indeed I did weep, as I leaned my body
against a jut of rugged rock. My guide:
"So you are still like all the other fools?

In this place piety lives when pity is dead,
for who could be more wicked than that man
who tries to bend divine will to his own
"The standard by which all these emotions are measured," Balthasar explained, "remains the will of God ruling over the damned. It is into the mystery of that [divine] will that the poet is initiated, and it is there that every human emotion finds its measure and limit. This is apatheia, which surpasses the apatheia of the Buddhist, for whom compassion is the supreme norm of morality..." (89).

It's interesting that yesterday I also came across this insight written by theologian Paul Evdokimov in his book Orthodoxy on Fr Kimel's blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, in a post entitled "Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was"- "The question remains open, the answer depending perhaps on human charity. St Anthony’s explanation is one of the most profound: apocatastasis, the salvation of all, is not a doctrine, but a prayer for the salvation of all except me, for whom alone hell exists." Of course this echoes Balthasar's own view set forth in Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, which, at least in my view, has rightly been described as "one of the most misunderstood works of Catholic theology of our time."

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Oh, Say What Is Truth?"- Joseph Smith, Jr and polygamy

Stated rather crudely, people of strong religious faith have at least two very general characteristics in common. First, we tend to believe that truth is objective. Second, we tend to believe that we have apprehended, even if only partially, the truth. While I believe faith and reason working together is the only way to humanly comprehend truth, there is still an element of risk in believing in someone or something. Such belief presents an issue of trust. Awareness of this risk often makes the religious believer slow to accept anything that calls his belief into question.

For about 160 years the LDS church vehemently denied that Joseph Smith, Jr, despite his claim of having received a revelation authorizing its practice, engaged in the practice of plural marriage, commonly called "polygamy". However, a recent essay that appeared on the official LDS church website, "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo," retracted this denial by freely admitting, "The first plural marriage in Nauvoo took place when Louisa Beaman and Joseph Smith were sealed in April 1841. Joseph married many additional wives and authorized other Latter-day Saints to practice plural marriage." Records indicate that Smith "married" two others before "marrying" Louisa: Fanny Alger and Lucinda Morgan Harris in 1833 and 1838 respectively.

In addition to marrying Emma Hale, his first and lawful wife, it seems that Joseph Smith, Jr "married" 33 other women (for a list and brief biographies of each see The Wives of Joseph Smith). As previously noted, the first of these "marriages" occurred in 1833 when Smith, then in his late 20s, "married" the 16 year-old Fanny Alger. Looking more closely at these 33 women it is interesting to note that 11, or fully one-third of them, were already married to and living with their husbands at the time of their "marriage" to the self-proclaimed prophet. Nearly another third (10) were in their teens, ranging in age from 19 to 14. In addition to the 16 year-old Miss Alger, while in his late 30s, Smith married another 16 year-old, Flora Ann Woodworth, as well as two fourteen year-old girls: Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester. He "married" these two teens while in his late 30s.

To complicate matters even further, Smith's first wife, Emma, while being interviewed by her own children later in life, years after Smith's death in Carthage jail, adamantly denied that Joseph practiced plural marriage or even approved of it:
There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that, in a chat about plural wives, he had said, 'Well such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven. No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband's death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of." Question: "Did he not have other wives than yourself?" Answer: "He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have" (Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith 301- see "Did Emma Smith approve of polygamy?")
In short, it seems that she was partially self-deceived about this and partially duped by her husband.


I recently came across another interesting piece of well-documented research concerning Joseph Smith, Jr's behavior towards women in a post on the Mormon Research Ministry's Mormon Coffee blog - "A Mormon 'Detective Story.'" Apart from stating that it contains unchallenged testimony in a church proceeding involving a LDS church member, Joseph Ellis Johnson, stating he personally witnessed Smith having sexual relations with his mother-in-law, Mary Heron Snider, who, it seems, Smith did not even bother to "spiritually marry," I will simply direct readers to the post.

There is an interesting note concerning one of Smith's "spiritual wives," Lucinda Morgan Harris, who was one of the women who "married" Smith already having a husband (known as polyandry). According to Todd Compton, in his book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, sometime after Smith's death Lucinda divorced her husband George and "afterward joined the (Catholic) Sisters of Charity, and at the breaking out of the civil war, was acting in that capacity in the hospitals at Memphis Tennessee..." (see "Lucinda Morgan Harris").

Now, consider all of this from the perspective of Christian marriage. If the marriage between a Christian man and a woman is to be a sacramental sign, that is, a visible and tangible representation, of the relationship between Jesus Christ and His one and only Bride, the Church (Eph 5:31-32), then how can polygamy even be a possibility, let alone the divine order of things? But keep in mind that it has also been taught by LDS apostles (Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, and Jedediah Grant, to name three), all of whom are held by Mormons to be "prophets, seers, and revelators," that Jesus was not only married, but had plural wives (see "LDS Church on the Marriage(s) of Jesus"). Moreover, when one considers the teaching of our Lord Himself on marriage, by which He raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament (see Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12), along with His teaching on adultery (see Matthew 5:27-30), these truths about the life and teaching of Joseph Smith, Jr can be put into perspective and be seen as in no way compatible with a Christian understanding of either marriage or chastity.

Here's the second verse of the Mormon hymn, "Oh Say, What Is Truth?"- "Yes, say, what is truth? 'Tis the brightest prize/To which mortals or Gods can aspire./Go search in the depths where it glittering lies,/Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies:/'Tis an aim for the noblest desire." Our noble desires often take the form of less noble desires. This precisely where reason comes into play.

For a Mormon is there any way around this? I can see only one, but it's a way that was rejected early on by the Mormon leadership. This rejection is well-documented in the first volume of D. Michael Quinn's The Mormon Hierarchy. The best expositor of this way is Harold Bloom, the self-described Jewish gnostic literary scholar. He does this in his books The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post-Christian Nation (I heard Bloom lecture on Joseph Smith at the University of Utah prior to the book's publication) and Omens of the Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. This way consists of conceiving of Mormonism as gnostic and, therefore largely a-historical (how does one seriously defend the Book of Mormon as an actual history of the Americas from 600 BC to 400 AD?). By doing this one simply removes Mormonism's achilles heel (i.e., its historical claims). Clearly, as conceived by Smith's own practice of spiritual wivery, this gnosticism is of the Valentianian variety, but with a Lucretian twist.

Nowhere, apart from here, did I attempt to spell p-i-n-e tree.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

We're not called to stand gazing heavenward

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3.6-9; Eph 4:1-13; Mark 16:15-20

Without any grousing or griping (my view on this is "on-the-record") this Sunday in our diocese, along with several other dioceses around the country, we're celebrating Jesus' Glorious Ascension into Heaven.

Whenever I read Luke's account of the Ascension, which is our first reading for this solemnity, I am always struck by the fact that, even as they walk with Him to the Mount of Transfiguration, the apostles, despite having experienced His earthly ministry, His passion, death, and resurrection, and even after receiving what Jesus taught them during the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, they still don't get it. They ask Him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus, even before the angel levels their gaze as they stare at Jesus ascending, replies- "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:7).

What strikes me about this is not, "How could His closest disciples be so stupid?" I am struck because in them I see myself. Jesus gives me the same patient answer He gave them. After all, in Confirmation, I received the very same Spirit- the Holy Spirit who is the personification of the love between the Father and the Son- that the Blessed Virgin and the apostles received at the first Christian Pentecost. Hence, I am called be His witness. Bearing witness by how live, by what we do and say, selflessly serving others for Christ's sake, this is what it means for the Church to apostolic. Just as the disciples could not rely on Jesus to re-establish the earthly kingdom of King David, I cannot expect to Christ to reign by means of worldly political power. These powers do not save, but they can surely damn.

Ascension, by Francisco Camilo, 1651

The Church, the assembly of those chosen and sent by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, is either apostolic or it is not the Church. This is what we're told in our second reading when we read that some are given a ministry in the Church, a ministry to the assembly of those chosen, "to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry" (Eph 4:12). The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, outlines well "the work of ministry" for which "the holy ones" are equipped"
the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity (par 31)
As Pope Francis said, "It is better to have a Church that is wounded but out in the streets than a Church that is sick because it is closed in on itself." A sick Church closed in on itself is badly in need of a fresh infusion of the Holy Spirit.

As we celebrate this glorious event, which is part of the great Paschal Mystery, let's hear and heed Christ's call anew. What is His call? "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:15-16). In light of this one might well ask, how much more will those who believe and have been baptized, but who do not proclaim the Gospel, be held to account? As St Paul wrote in his magisterial Letter to the Romans: "For the scripture says, 'No one who believes in him will be put to shame'... 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?" (Rom 10:11-14).

We're not called to stand "looking at the sky" (Acts 1:11). Rather, we're called and empowered to usher in the reign of God as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Don't dismiss Jesus' promise that signs will accompany those who believe and heed His call. In our Gospel today, we hear Mark's more detailed and specific way of expressing what Matthew, in his account of the Lord's ascension, says more concisely: "I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Stated succinctly, we heed His call and Christ, by power of the Holy Spirit, equips us with what we need to carry it out.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Dante Alighieri: the poetics of an existential theology

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, in the third volume of his theological aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord, in which he treats lay theological styles, beginning with Dante, insisted that the Divine Comedy is "not just one of the transcendental adventure stories of the Middle Ages" (50). Why? Because, he asserted, "There is nothing about the Comedy of that curiosity found in the visionary literature of this and later periods" (50). Dante's Divine Comedy, he emphatically insisted, "is existential theology" (50).

Apart from how the Divine Comedy stands out from "the visionary literature" of Dante's time and what followed, Balthasar points to how it is by grace that the poet is granted "nothing less than that special grace of certainty of salvation" (49). The grace received is mediated to the Pilgrim by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Balthasar pointed to the prayer Dante placed on the lips of St Bernard, the Doctor Mellifluous, in the final Canto of the Comedy: "Thou, Lady, art so great and so prevailing that whoso would have grace and does not turn to thee his desire would fly without wings ... in thee is mercy, in thee pity, in thee great bounty, in thee is joined all goodness that is in any creature" (Paradisio, Canto XXXIII, lines 13-15 and 19-21). In addition to graces being mediated by "the mediatrix of graces," according to Balthasar, in the Divine Comedy, grace is also mediated by the whole of the 'Jerusalem above', by the community of saints, who were and are entirely real, historical human beings, and from whose midst arises a multitude of helpers, guides and intercessors, each of whom, in his own way, expresses the community of love in its totality" (50).

St Lucy

As a real person known to Dante from his childhood, Beatrice, Balthasar noted, "formed by God as the poet's eternal beloved, has, without doubt, the same degree of of reality as the other saints" (50). At least for Dante, according to Balthasar, Beatrice "is no allegory or symbol" (50). Rather, as Balthasar insisted, "we are simply dealing with the laws of the communio sanctorum," which "fact," he continued, "constitutes the foundation of the Divine Comedy" (50). In light of this it's easy to see why, in his message to the Italian Senate, written to observe the 750th anniversary of Dante's birth, Pope Francis invoked Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter, Altissimi cantus, stating emphatically, "Dante is ours! Ours, as in of Catholic faith."

Keep in mind that at the very beginning of the Divine Comedy, in Canto II of the Inferno, it is the Blessed Virgin who summons St Lucy, who, in turn, calls upon Beatrice, who then prevails on Virgil, to beckon the poet on his pilgrim way. Perhaps the fact that the Divine Comedy, unlike the dj in the Smith's song, still says something to us about our lives is the strongest argument in support of Balthasar's insistence that Dante's poem "is existential theology."

As you might've guessed, or perhaps not, our Friday traditio is The Smith's "Panic"-

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

To rejoice is to evangelize

No sooner did I post on the New Evangelization and Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (i.e., “The Joy of the Gospel”) than I encountered a talk given by Fr Raniero Cantalamessa earlier this month to a Leadership Conference of the Alpha Course held in London. For those who do not know, Fr Cantalamessa serves as Preacher of the Papal Household. He is an internationally recognized New Testament and Early Church scholar. Without a doubt, he is the most prominent charismatic Catholic in the world. The subject of his talk, entitled "Proclaiming Together the Joy of the Gospel to a Troubled World," was that the essence of evangelization is joy.

It is a teaching of the Second Vatican Council that all validly baptized Christians, those baptized not only in the name of the Holy Trinity, but with faith in the God who is and can only be Tri-une, already belong to Christ and, so, to each other (Unitatis Redintegratio par 3). This is the basis of ecumenism, which remains distinct from inter-religious dialogue, or relations with semi-Christian sectarian groups, with which the U.S, religious landscape is littered. Our unity arises from baptism only insofar as the baptism received has its basis in, flows from, the Most Holy Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Unitatis Redintegratio par 22). 

Citing the opening lines of Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel, Cantalamessa seizes on Pope Francis’ call, given to “the Christian faithful,” “to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy’ (par 1). What “this joy”? It is nothing other than the joy of knowing Jesus. Cantalamessa continued- “If we do not want the words to remain only words, we must ask ourselves a question: why do we say that the Gospel is a source of joy? Is the expression only a comfortable slogan or does it correspond to truth?”



The only truth to which joy can correspond that matters to evangelization is the existential fact of how we live our lives as those who have encountered the risen Lord and received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Cantalamessa noted the source of true joy, the truth of which is expressed by joyful living: “Christianity does not begin by telling people what they must do to be saved, it begins by telling people what God has done to save them!” Anything and everything else flows from this. The love of God for us in Christ is primary.

Cantalamessa went on to explore in historical detail the reasons that Christians have lost their joy, concluding- “Where then is the particular lacuna in our western soteriology which obscures the joyful character of the Gospel? It lies in the fact that grace, inasmuch as it is exalted, has ended up in practice being reduced only to its negative dimension as a remedy for sin, at the expense of transforming grace, consisting in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the whole Trinity in us.” Joy, the joy of knowing Jesus, the joy that flows from living the truth out of love, not out of fear, the joy that only God can give and that we usually designate as “grace,” is the New Evangelization, which, again, why we cannot take a programmatic approach. This does not mean we do nothing. Among the things we need to do are refocus and re-shape our faith formation along the lines set out by people like Dallas Willard, who, in his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, provided a sound basis for "making disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19).

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Evangelization: Have you ever been experienced?

It's easy to forget that Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was the post-synodal exhortation for the XIIIth Ordinary Synod of Bishops, held in the autumn of 2012. The subject of this synod was "New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith." It seems to me that this New Evangelization is a subject we often address with a lot of sentimentality and very many good intentions, even while failing to grasp the enormity of the challenge and the only response to this provocation (see "Papa Francesco calls on the Church to emerge").



I read three things recently about the Church in Ireland that, I believe, help us scope out, as it were, the challenge provoking us to the New Evangelization. But before proceeding to those I want to examine our situation in the United States a bit. While there are significant cultural differences between Ireland and the United States, despite the fact that people from the U.S. are often viewed and depicted in Ireland, Great Britain, and Western Europe as naïvely and even gullibly Christian, here, too, Christianity has begun a steep decline. A recent Washington Post piece noted "the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years to about 71 percent." Over the same period "the share of those who are not affiliated with a religion has jumped from 16 percent to about 23 percent ..."

When one factors in the the inability of many Christians in the U.S. to distinguish between being Christian and being "an American," the kind of thing that leads to what Hank Hanegraff refers to as "the Osteenification of American Christianity," a cross-less, often Christ-less variant, it's easy to predict an even steeper decline in the coming years as people realize the hollowness and downright falsity of such a "faith".

As far as Catholicism in the U.S., as anyone who has spent time in pastoral ministry can tell you, like in Ireland and other places, it is not really a way of life to be taken seriously and lived for many people. It's more of a cultural marker for some who come from ethnic backgrounds that are traditionally Catholic, or merely a non-demanding way of identifying one's self when asked, "What religion are you?" Having spent the last 20 years pouring enormous energy into RCIA, I never ceased being amazed at the number of people who went through the lengthy process of becoming Catholic only to quickly lapse into non-practice. The lapsing of converts is not merely a local phenomenon, but a national one.

The first of the three items is a review of Irish writer Lisa McInerney's first novel The Glorious Heresies. It was reviewed by Elena Seymenliyska for The Telegraph. I have not yet read McInerney's novel, but I certainly plan to do so. I was struck by two things from the novel that Seymenliyska shared in her review. The first is a quote by the character Jimmy Phelan, the boss of Cork's criminal underworld (the city in Ireland in which the novel is set), described in the review "as a wistful Celtic Don Corleone" - "If we lived in a world where good deeds meant anything I’d have played along but this isn’t that kind of world."



The second thing that struck me in the review of The Glorious Heresies was an excerpt from a confession made by Jimmy's mother, Maureen, to a priest. Maureen conceived Jimmy out-of-wedlock and so was exiled, which was often the fate of pregnant young women in Ireland at the time. Her exile left Jimmy to be raised by her "churchy" parents, about whom Seymenliyska, presumably taking her cue from the novel, wrote, turned Jimmy, "born a little cherub out of wedlock... into a veritable monster..." "Times were tough," Maureen tells the priest, "and the people were harsh and the clergy were cruel." She continues, "The most natural thing in the world is giving birth; you built your whole religion around it. And yet you poured pitch on girls like me and sold us into slavery and took our humanity from us."

McInerny, who rose to prominence as a blogger (of all things) with her blog Arse­­­ End of Ireland, published an article recently in The Irish Times on Catholicism in contemporary Ireland. This is the second piece that struck me. What she wrote in her article compares favorably with the third piece, which appeared in the Catholic Herald: Jon Anderson's "Post-crash Ireland desperately needs the faith."

McInerny began her piece by pointing out that, according to the 2011 Irish census, 84.2% of people in the Irish Republic "self-identified as Roman Catholic, which would make anyone unfamiliar with our idiosyncrasies assume that we’re a fairly devout bunch." She went on to note curtly, "We are not." She provided a catalogue to support her contention:
Irish people are in favour of divorce, contraception, abortion, marriage equality, IVF, pre-marital sex, the ordination of women priests, Father Ted, and having a few scoops on Good Friday. We also tend to be sceptical of the existence of Hell, the need for celibate clergy, the idea of a virgin birth, transubstantiation, the tenet that we are born in a state of sin, and the assumption that the only way to deal with paedophilic priests is to move them to the next county and hope no one notices
She then proceeded to observe that for her, and a good number of her Irish compatriots, the Church holds nothing but "outdated notions of tradition and creed." Indeed, on 22 May the Irish Republic will hold a national referendum to amend the constitution in order to permit same-sex marriage. What Anderson noted supports McInerny's case: "All the polls are suggesting that the measure will pass easily."

In her newspaper article, McInerny addressed something Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin dealt with several years ago: baptism (see "Archbishop Martin on acting in accord with conscience"). "We want our newborns baptised," she wrote, "but not a hope in Hackballs Cross are we bringing the scamps to Mass. And if we do we’re definitely ducking out as soon as the priest is distracted by Communion formation."

Anderson began his piece by noting that even though the Republic of Ireland has been in a steep economic decline since 2008 and more recently rocked by political corruption scandals that threaten its once-stables government, the Church "has been so battered by its own scandals that it has had little to say on the state of the nation" and, anyway, it is not "clear that the nation wants to listen to it." He noted a 2013 survey indicated that 34% of Catholics in the Irish Republic attend Mass weekly. While this may seem a promising figure in light of the even lower numbers throughout much of Western Europe, it "is in stark contrast to the figures of over 90 per cent in the 1970s." In the Archdiocese of Dublin weekly Mass participation "currently stands at around 18 per cent." But in the poorest parts of the city, "it is much lower still." He cited Archbishop Martin to the effect that some areas weekly attendance at Mass is as low as 2%.



Circling back to Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, we see from the very beginning that above all else the New Evangelization requires repentance, metanoia, a change of heart and mind:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ" (par 2)
The first two sentences of Evangelii Gaudium tell us why the New Evangelization can never be a metericized, corporately-managed, program, or, worse yet, another marketing and/or "branding" enterprise: "The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew"(par 1). Joy is what seems to be lacking in the experience of so many when it comes to the Church.

Towards the beginning of Pope Benedict's first encyclical, Deus caritas, he wrote something else that I think is key: "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). In other words, to be "evangelized" is to have an experience. Therefore, only those who have been experienced can be evangelizers. Hearkening back to Von Balthasar's brief exposition of esperienza in Dante's Divine Comedy, which, he asserted, Dante used frequently "oscillating between its ancient meaning of 'mystical experience of God,' the even more ancient Irenaean sense of 'experience of grace through experience in the flesh of its opposite' and a third, new sense - 'experiential exploration of reality' - which looks towards modern times" (The Glory of the Lord, Vol III, 12), we have a sound base on which to build- everyday human experience. Only in this way can we hope to overcome what Anderson observed in his article, namely that many Catholics, not just in Ireland, but also in the U.S., "believe in Jesus in the same way that Hindus believe in Gandhi, as an interesting historical figure who said inspiring things."

Who do I think can serve us well as models for the New Evangelization? I propose Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Jack Kerouac. In addition to Evangelii Gaudium, Johannes Baptist Metz's The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Post-Bourgeois World can serve as a guide for the New Evangelization.

Great, now I want to watch "Father Ted," about which show Will Gore recently wrote for the Catholic Herald:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"God is love" and some implications

Reading: Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

Our second reading for this Sixth Sunday of Easter, at least to my mind, is perhaps the best scriptural proof of the Blessed Trinity. In this passage we are told, "God is love" (1 John 4:8). This phrase is repeated again eight verses later (1 John 4:16). Lest it become narcissism, love, at a minimum, requires a lover and a beloved. But love that is really love is profuse, that is, not closed in on itself. Therefore, the result of genuine love between two persons is a third person. In Roman Catholic theology, the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son personified, which is why we confess the Spirit's double procession - "who proceeds from the Father and the Son." It is on this basis that the family (father, mother, and child) is seen as one of the best icons of the Most Holy Trinity.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta appraised by Dante and Virgil, by Ary Scheffer, 1835


In what is probably the most famous vignette from the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Inferno (Canto V, lines 74-141, to be exact), Dante, guided by the great Latin poet Virgil, while in the Second Circle of hell where the lustful are punished, encounters the lovers Paolo and Francesca.

In life Francesca was married to Paolo's older brother Giancotto, who was physically deformed. After finding them, most likely in flagrante delicto, Giancotto killed them both. According to Dante, it was because of their burning lust for one another that they were condemned to be alone together forever. In three brief stanzas, consisting of a mere eight lines (lines 100-107), Dante brilliantly places on the lips of Francesca a description of what condemned them to walk exclusively together forever
Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,
seized this one for the beauty of my body,
torn from me. (How it happened still offends me!)

Love, that excuses no one loved from loving,
seized me so strongly with delight in him
that, as you see, he never leaves my side.

Love led us straight to sudden death together.
Caïna awaits the one who quenched our lives (Caïna, a lower part of hell, awaits Paolo's brother, Giancotto, for murdering them- translation by Mark Musa from The Portable Dante, pg 30)
Such an obsessive and closed in relationship is not love, or even really a pale imitation of authentic, self-giving, sacrificial love. Since I quoted from Von Balthasar in my previous post (see "Dante: finite love as a passage to the infinite") to the effect, "Why should a Christian man not love a woman for all eternity and allow himself to be introduced by that woman to a full understanding of what 'eternity' means?", I must clarify what distinguishes love from lust. Put most simply, what differentiates love and lust is the same thing that distinguishes selflessness from selfishness.

Jesus, in today's Gospel, tells us that to love Him is to keep His commandments. First among His commandments is that we love each other as He loves us. He loved us by laying down His life for us. It was the power of love that also brought about His Glorious Resurrection. We love each other as He loves us primarily by sacrificing for the good of each other, laying own interests aside. Genuine, authentic love is never a quid pro quo. Rather, it is complete and utter giving of oneself expecting nothing in return.

Crucifixion, by Anthony van Dyck, ca. 1622


Here's the really challenging and counter-intuitive part: only by loving after the manner of Jesus will your joy ever be complete. To experience complete joy is the very reason for which you were created and redeemed. Experiencing Christ's love first-hand and, in turn, loving selflessly is how you are sanctified, made holy, conformed to the image of Christ.

You're on the right track if you're thinking, "This is hard, maybe even impossible for me." Keep in mind what Jesus told His His disciples as they contemplated the prospect of a camel passing through the eye of a needle: "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God" (Mark 10:27). Also, remember what we heard Jesus say to us last Sunday: "without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5b).

Friday, May 8, 2015

Dante: finite love as a passage to the infinite

Immersing myself this afternoon and this evening in reading about Dante I came across a passage in the third volume of Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Glory of the Lord, concerning Beatrice's role in the Divine Comedy. Her role is nothing less than leading Dante (the pilgrim and poet) to God. In the poem she is something like divine wisdom and revelation personified. Balthasar dismissed as "ridiculous" the idea that, while "enriched with symbolic content," Beatrice's role in Dante's masterpiece can be reduced to "only a symbol or allegory" (30). He asserts, "Only dusty academics could fall for something as abstruse as that" (30).

His explanation of the central role Dante's love of Beatrice plays in the Divine Comedy is nothing short of beautiful:
No, the figure of the beloved is a young Florentine girl of flesh and blood. Why should a Christian man not love a woman for all eternity and allow himself to be introduced by that woman to a full understanding of what 'eternity' means? And why should it be so extraordinary - ought one not rather to expect it - that such a love needs, for its total fulfillment, the whole of theology and Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell?

Beatrice and Dante behold God, Paradisio Canto XXII, by Gustave Doré

One can surround the real figure of Beatrice, as also Dante's real life of love, with as many question marks as one wishes. Nevertheless, the principle is established for the first time , and never again so magnificently: for the sake of infinite love, it is not necessary for the Christian to renounce finite love. On the contrary, in a positive spirit, he can incorporate his finite love into that which is infinite - but at the cost of terrible sufferings, as Dante shows us (30)
Keep in mind that Beatrice was not Dante's wife. Dante had a wife with whom he had at two sons, Pietro and Jacopo, and at least one, possibly two, daughters. Dante's wife's name was Gemma. As for Beatrice, she was the wife of another man. However, Dante's marriage to Gemma and, most likely, Beatrice's marriage were arranged marriages. It seems that Dante knew Beatrice from the age of 9. Beatrice died quite young and became for Dante the personification beauty, truth, and goodness. Like friendship in the classical sense, the kind of love Dante had for Beatrice is extremely rare, especially in the West, if not altogether extinct.

Our late Friday traditio is Francis Poulenc's Gloria from his Mass in G Minor:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Dante Alighieri and "esperienza"

More important than yesterday being "Star Wars Day" ("May the fourth be with you" and all that) was the fact that, in the Italian Senate, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who serves as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, read a letter (currently available only in Italian- you can read the Vatican news story here) from Pope Francis commemorating the 750th anniversary of the birth of il Sommo Poeta (i.e., "the Supreme Poet"), Durante degli Alighieri, known simply as "Dante". Indeed, reckoning from the evidence that is available, it is believed that Dante was most likely born in 1265, but that is not certain.

I did not know until today that Pope Benedict XV wrote an entire encyclical on Dante: In Praeclara Summorum. This encyclical, subtitled, "On Dante to Professors and Students of Literature in the Catholic World," was promulgated 30 April 1921, to mark the 600th anniversary of the Supreme Poet's death (we're rapidly approaching the 700th anniversary in 2021). Then there was Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter Altissimi cantus (available only in Latin). Papa Montini promulgated this letter on 7 December 1965, the day before he formally closed the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

La Divina Commedia di Dante, by Domenico di Michelino, 1465, fresco in the cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore


In his letter, Pope Francis recommends reading the Divine Comedy as a way of observing the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy he will inaugurate on 8 December 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which, this year, will mark the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. In his letter to the Italian Senate, the Holy Father wrote, "the Comedy may be read as a great itinerary, or rather as a true pilgrimage, both personal and interior, and communal, ecclesial, social and historical. It represents the paradigm of every authentic journey in which humanity is called upon to leave what Dante defines as 'the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious' to attain a new condition, marked by harmony, peace and happiness. And this is the horizon of every true humanism."

So, with the help of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who began the third volume of his theological aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord: Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles, with Dante Alighieri, and Rod Dreher, whose recently published book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem, I just picked up, I plan to follow the Holy Father's recommendation and seriously re-engage The Divine Comedy. I am not going to wait until December, however.

It is worth citing Von Balthasar extensively on Dante:
Others may have been caught up to God in ecstasy, but no one else has undertaken a methodical exploration of Paradise or acquired esperienza of the hereafter. This last word - esperienza - recurs frequently, oscillating between its ancient meaning of 'mystical experience of God,' the even more ancient Irenaean sense of 'experience of grace through experience in the flesh of its opposite' and a third, new sense - 'experiential exploration of reality' - which looks towards modern times. There is, of course, a long tradition, both in Antiquity and in the Christian era, of journeys to the hereafter, of transcendental adventure stories and reports of ecstatic experience. However, Dante should be seen in stark contrast to this whole literary tradition because of his awareness, both theological and aesthetic, that he was setting down something that had never existed before and that in its own way is inimitable, a work that raises him high above his own age, plants him in the future (s'infutura la tua vita), in eternity itself (s'eterna) (Glory of the Lord, Vol III, 12)
This article from the Holy See's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, which appeared on St Patrick's Day this year, "The poet of theologians and the theologian of poets: Giovanni Battista Montini and his passion for Dante," noted, "A clear sign of Paul VI’s passion for Dante is the gift he gave to the conciliar Fathers at Vatican ii: a special edition of the Divine Comedy."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Year B Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 9:26-31; Ps 22:26-28.30-32; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

In our Gospel today we heard Jesus say- “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4b). Of the many questions prompted by our readings for this Fifth Sunday of Easter, it seems to me that perhaps the most urgent question we need to explore is, How do we remain “in” Jesus?

Yesterday, I explained to our 17 First Communicants that the word com- union means “union with.” Holy Communion is how Jesus unites us to Himself by the power of the Holy Spirit. To receive Holy Communion also means being united with each other by the power of that same Spirit. We have one word to describe everyone who is joined together by Christ in Holy Communion and that word is “Church”. So, the primary means of being “in” Christ are the sacraments. All of the sacraments flow out from and back to the Eucharist. Without the nourishment we receive by participating in and partaking of the Eucharist frequently, we are like branches cut off from the vine, which, as we all know, quickly wither and dry up.



Many of our non-Catholic Christian sisters and brothers talk about the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus. As Catholics we ought to agree with them about this. Can you think of how you might possibly have a more personal, more intimate, relationship with our Lord than by receiving Him in Holy Communion? But the Eucharist demonstrates that our relationship with Christ also has a communal dimension. After all, we don’t celebrate Mass alone. We come together to celebrate what the Father has done for us in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We read the Scriptures, pray for our needs and those of our parish, especially those who are sick or in need, as well as for those who have died. We also pray for our diocese, the whole Church, and the whole world.

In addition to being primary way we love with all our heart, might, mind, and strength, it is our participation in the Eucharist that enables and empowers us to keep Jesus’ second commandment- to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

In our second reading, from the First Letter of John, we learn what it means to keep Jesus’ commandments and so do what pleases Him. “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). This, too, is how we remain “in” Christ, but in order to love “in deed and truth,” we need the grace we receive in and through the sacraments.



Grace is a word we hear a lot in Church. Sometimes when we use words a lot the meaning is lost, or becomes watered down, through frequent repetition. Grace is nothing other than God sharing divine life with us. When we receive Holy Communion with a clear conscience, that is, a conscience unburdened by serious sin, which unburdening happens in the Sacrament of Penance, we are infused with divine life. By this infusion we are filled with the Holy Spirit. As Jesus tells us in our Gospel, the vine bears branches and the branches, in turn, bear the fruit. According St Paul, the fruits of the Spirit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a very concrete example of how to love through what we do. Before becoming a Christian, which happened as the result of the resurrected Lord appearing to him while he was on his way to Damascus, Saul, who we also know as Paul (Saul was likely his given, Jewish, name and Paul his name as a Roman citizen), persecuted Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. His persecution of Christians there culminated with the stoning of St Stephen, the Church’s first martyr and one of the first seven deacons selected by the apostles to assist them in ministry. The reason Paul was going to Damascus was to continue his persecution there.

Based on this, it is easy to see why, when Paul returned to Jerusalem from Damascus, the Christians there were both scared and suspicious of him. But Barnabas, who became a close friend and associate of Paul during his first missionary travels, loved Paul and trusted God by giving Paul the benefit of the doubt and taking his side. Barnabas had Paul meet with the apostles and vouched for the authenticity of Paul’s conversion, mentioning how Paul “had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus” while in Damascus (Acts 9:27), and no doubt assured the apostles that their former persecutor was not pulling some elaborate ruse by only pretending to be converted in order to then turn around and persecute the Church more effectively.

After being accepted by the apostles, Paul began move around Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of Jesus, as he had done in Damascus. In doing so, he ran afoul of the Hellenists. In an ironic twist, these Hellenists are the same group with whom Stephen argued. As one commentator put it, Paul came “back to Jerusalem to finish the argument with the Hellenists that Stephen had started,” by so doing, Paul provoked “the same violent response” as had Stephen (Loveday Alexander, “Acts,” The Oxford Bible Commentary, 1040). In the face of this danger, not only Barnabas, but the entire Christian community in Jerusalem came to the aid of their former persecutor. They removed him from harm’s way by taking him to the Mediterranean coast and booking him passage back to his hometown of Tarsus. This is an example of loving our enemy, as Jesus taught us to do.

St Barnabas

Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, who, like Paul, experienced a very dramatic and unlikely conversion, once observed, “there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.” While these are words with which we would all agree, we all know how truly difficult it is to love someone, to forgive someone, who has harmed us.

How do we receive the strength to live, the strength to love, in this grace-filled way? We receive the strength to live and to love by being connected to our life-giving branch, Jesus Christ. Our reception of the sacraments, especially of the Eucharist, is what unites us to Him and to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Because of this we can rejoice, as we did in our Psalm response- “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.”