Saturday, February 20, 2021

A Reminder: We MUST Change

It happened again: I was reading through a gospel passage I'd been through a hundred times before, and the Holy Spirit emphasized two words - just two words!- that completely set my mind going in a new direction. First, the passage: "Jesus said to them in reply, 'Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.'” 

For my entire life I've read that passage and taken tremendous consolation, and rightfully so, in knowing that Jesus came to call a sinner like me, "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners." But this morning, what jumped out at me were the two words my mind hadn't seemed to register, "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners." It's something we all know from various other places in the New Testament, but it's also right here in one of the great announcements of mercy.

Yes, God loves us, even in our sin; but He loves us too much to let us stay there! And the sad truth is that we'd often be more than happy to remain in the mud. But that's not the life of heaven. We're called to union with a Being whose beauty, purity, and greatness are beyond all our powers of comprehension. And for that very reason we must, "Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). God takes this incredibly seriously. Because He love us as His children, He disciplines us. Scripture tells us, "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed" (Heb 12:11-13). Take in that image: God is pushing us forward, toward heaven; if we dig in our heals, the force is such that our limbs will be dislocated!

And what happens if we continually fight Him, if we refuse to be changed by the action of His grace? Jesus, in his loving mercy, was terribly blunt: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me" (Jn 15:1-4). Jesus comes to us sinners and calls us to "repent" - to literally (in Greek) turn around and begin walking with Him in the opposite direction. We don't earn this call, this mercy; it is all grace. But it is not cheap; and there is this terrible, prevalent distortion that grace is.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor and theologian who did so much to oppose the Nazi regime wrote:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. The essence of grace, we [wrongly] suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…. [It] means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace, [on the other hand], is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him… It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. (The Cost of Discipleship, p.45-48)

So today the Holy Spirit reminded me - and I dare say wishes to remind you - of Jesus's beautiful, merciful, sober words: "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners." That's me, that's you - but, thanks be to God, it doesn't have to be for all eternity. Lent is the perfect time for the Spirit to remind us.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Redemptive Suffering & the Early Church

In Part 1 of this series we looked at the Epistle of James’s revolutionary teaching on the value of suffering upon our souls, and in Part 2 we saw how St. Paul expands upon this insight to show how our sufferings also benefit the souls of others. In this final article we want to explore these apostolic insights were faithfully communicated to the next generation of Christians.

Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, Syria, wrote of suffering and martyrdom during his transport to Rome, on his way to die in the Colosseum (AD 110). Many of Ignatius’s statements echo Paul’s teaching on suffering. In Ignatius’s Epistle to the Ephesians he wrote, “My spirit is in sacrificial service for the cross, which is a scandal to unbelievers [1 Cor 1:18]”; and he told the Magnesians, “If we do not willingly embrace dying for his passion, neither is his life in us [Rom 8:17].”[1] When Ignatius wrote to the Christians in Rome, he asked that they not attempt to intervene on his behalf: “Permit me to be an imitator of the sufferings of my God. If anyone possesses [Christ] in himself, let him consider what I want and let him suffer with me.” Like Paul, he saw his life being poured out as a “libation,” a drink offering (Phil 2:17; 2 Tim 4:6). He linked his martyrdom to the offering of Christ, re-presented to the Father in the Church’s Eucharist: “Permit me to be food for the beasts, through them I will reach God. I am the wheat of God and I compete through beasts’ teeth to be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius’s sacrifice consisted of more than the act of martyrdom. It had already begun in the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his Roman captors (Rom 5:1). Kenneth Howell, in his masterful translation and commentary on Ignatius’s epistles, highlights the bishop’s use of antipsuchon, or “substitute soul.”[2] Appropriating Paul’s words to the Colossians, Ignatius knew that his suffering benefitted more souls than just his own. He told the Smyrneans: “My spirit and my bonds are your substitute soul”; and their bishop Polycarp, “I and my bonds that you love are your substitute soul in every way.” To the Trallians he wrote, “My spirit makes you pure not only now but also when I attain to God.” He expounded upon Paul’s theology of the mystical body in his letter to the Philadelphians, “My brothers, I am being completely poured out for love of you and with exceeding joy I try to make you secure. It is really not I but Jesus Christ who does so. In him, as a prisoner I am all the more afraid because I am still incomplete. However, your prayer will make me complete for God so that I may obtain a share in the lot where I received mercy.” Ignatius made it clear that it was Christ who accomplished all of this in his body. Union with Christ would make the Philadelphians’ prayer for Ignatius efficacious and his perseverance in suffering meritorious for them.

The early Church knew that God’s providence extended to every area of their lives. The Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (c. AD 100), directed readers to “accept as blessings the casualties that befall you, assured that nothing happens without God.”[3] Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) taught that God made use of calamity to correct the erring; but he also recognized some sufferings as no more than the consequence of life in a fallen world: “[W]e are all, good and evil, contained in one household. Whatever happens within the house we suffer with equal fate, until, when the end of the temporal life shall be attained, we shall be distributed among the homes either of eternal death or immortality.” It is our union with Christ that injects meaning and purpose into these common sufferings.

The Church’s meditation upon suffering has continued down through the centuries. In the thirteenth century, for instance, St. Anthony of Padua sagely remarked, “God sends us afflictions for various reasons: First, to increase our merit; second, to preserve in us the grace of God; third, to punish us for our sins; and fourth, to show forth his glory and his other attributes.” In our own time, Pope St. John Paul II reflected deeply upon the subject in his apostolic letter Savifici Doloris, or On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. John Paul was intimately acquainted with suffering. His mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father and brother before he turned twenty-one. He lived decades of his life under Nazi and Soviet occupation. He survived an assassin’s bullet and endured the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. John Paul descended into some of the darkest experiential places known to man, only to discover that he was not alone; the Crucified was there, awaiting him:

Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross.” Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the sufferings of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.[4]

This is the wisdom of the Cross (1 Cor 1:23–24)—the rich fruit borne of the Epistle of James’s admonition to “count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (1:2). The Church of the twenty-first century needs to re-appropriate this wisdom. Praise be to God, who gives generously to all who ask (James 1:5).

This article was adapted from James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021).


[1] Kenneth Howell, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna: A New Translation and Theological Commentary (Zanesville, OH: CHResources, 2009); all subsequent quotations from the epistles of Ignatius were taken from this source.

[2] Kenneth Howell, Ignatius of Antioch, 14.

[3] Johannes Quasten, ed., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabus, the Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papias, the Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers, trans. James A. Kleist (New York: Paulist Press, 1948).

[4] John Paul II, Savifici Doloris, 26.

St. Paul in the Garden of Gethsamene

In an earlier post I looked at the Epistle of James’ revolutionary teaching on the value of suffering. In this article we want to build upon those insights, seeing how closely St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” paralleled the Lord Jesus’s experience in Gethsemane (2 Cor 12:7-10). Take a moment to unpack this with me, because it ties directly into our own experiences of suffering.

In Gethsemane we see Jesus as we’ve never seen him before. He collapsed to the ground and cried through tears, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:35–36; Heb. 5:7). Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus repeated this prayer three separate times. “Sorrow” pushed him to the point of death (Mark 14:34). Jesus had stepped into the place of sinners, taking, as it were, the weight of our sins upon his shoulders. He witnessed every betrayal, slander, rape, and murder from history’s dawn until its end and offered the Father all the sorrow and contrition that mankind should feel, but does not. He offered the Father the love of which those sins robbed Him. An angel was sent, not to whisk Jesus away but strengthen him so that his body and soul could endure more than humanly possible. The Son learned what it was to put one foot in front of the other in painful obedience; and his Passion redeemed us. The Epistle to the Hebrews goes so far as to say that Jesus was “made perfect” by this obedient acceptance of suffering (Heb 5:8-9). It was the means by which his humanity was “perfected” (teleioō  in Greek, “completed,” or “brought to fullness”); the “indestructible life” of the Resurrection was reached by way of the Cross (Heb 7:16).

Now look at Paul’s account of his “thorn in the flesh.” Although Paul does not spell out the difficulty, a number of commentators suggest a chronic physical ailment. Whatever its nature it must have been a source of great pain for Paul to have characterized it as “a messenger of satan meant to buffet me and keep me from becoming puffed up” (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul petitioned the Lord to remove the thorn – not once, but three separate times. And like Jesus’ three petitions, Paul’s were not met with a cessation of pain but an infusion of strength – and not from an angel, but Jesus himself. The Lord spoke to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This revelation led Paul to say, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).

Saint Paul reveals another element of the mystery: Not only can suffering be redemptive for us personally, but the grace we receive at such moments spills over to other members of Christ’s mystical body. Many Christians are unacquainted with this belief, but it is grounded in Scripture and Tradition. From prison Paul wrote the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24). First, let us be clear that Paul was not placing a limit on the redemptive scope of Christ’s Passion. Paul held Jesus’s sacrifice to be absolutely sufficient. Christ, and he alone, has redeemed us from the guilt of our sins and united us to the Father. Second, we have also seen Paul’s conviction that we must suffer with Christ if we are to be raised with him (Rom 8:16–17) and that it is in times of suffering that Christ imparts additional grace to the soul and advances us toward final justification (2 Cor 12:9; Phil 3:10–12; Acts 14:22).

These two truths harmonize to explain how Paul’s sufferings could benefit the Colossians: Christ’s obedience in suffering paid the eternal debt of sin and won redemption for the human race. United to him, the sufferings of his Church are a divinely ordained means for appropriating the grace of redemption. Grace descends not just upon the individual bearing his or her suffering, but upon other Christians. That is what Paul communicated, in a shorthand way, when he told the Colossians that he rejoiced in the sufferings he underwent for their sake. This is but another facet of Paul’s well-known teaching that Christ and the Church form one mystical person, wherein each member enriches the others (1 Cor 12:12–27; Eph 4:11–16).

Jesus is the redeemer, and baptism unites us to him. He lives in us, and we live in him. This makes it possible for our sufferings to be drawn into his and offered to the Father. It is a mystery analogous to that of the Eucharist: Christ presents us to the Father, “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” If Christ’s obedience while suffering the Passion merited the redemption of our race, then his suffering in us—the trustful surrender to the Father that he produces in our souls—can merit the application of redemptive graces to our brothers and sisters. The Redeemer makes the sufferings of his members redemptive. This teaching in no way denies Christ’s position as the sole mediator between God and man. As members of his body, we Christians intercede from “within” him (1 Tim 2:1–5). The thought that we play a role in others’ salvation may seem scandalous to some, but it is thoroughly biblical. Did not God make the world’s salvation dependent upon the preaching of the apostles? They extended Christ’s teaching ministry beyond the borders of Israel: “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20; cf. Rom 10:14; 1 Tim 4:16; Jude 22–23). If the Church can participate in this aspect of Christ’s redeeming work, then why not his work of suffering?

Christ unites our earthly sufferings to his and transmutes them into spiritual sacrifices. The Father accepts such sacrifices and reciprocates with unmatched generosity: “[give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be put into your lap” (Lk 6:38). All of this explains why Paul could rejoice in his experience of Gethsamene: it was a priestly offering, supernaturally valuable, and beneficial for his brothers and sisters.

This article was adapted from James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021).

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The End: Be Sober, Be Hopeful

I am struck by the way Jesus ascended into heaven. The apostles had been staying in Jerusalem, but Jesus “led them out as far as Bethany, and…he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:50-51). Jesus led them out of the earthly Jerusalem to witness his ascent to the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22; Rev 21:22). It was a graphic reminder that these two cities were not to be confused. And yet, one of Jesus’ final directives to the apostles was that they were to return to the earthly Jerusalem, the city in which he had been crucified, to await the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). Jesus had passed over from this world to the Father and was preparing a place for them (Jn 13: 1; 14:2-3); but their work – the continuation of his redemptive mission – was just starting, and this fallen world was their mission field.

Unlike me, the apostles never seemed surprised when they faced resistance. Seeing the treatment Jesus suffered, they had no illusions about what was to come. Jesus had also, after all, directly told them that they would be ostracized from family and polite society, publicly flogged, and even put to death (Mt 10:16-25). This knowledge, however, was unable to cripple them. They had seen the Risen One. Death was no longer something to be feared; Jesus had broken its hold and he extended this freedom to them (Heb 2:14-15). The only fear Christ would permit them to entertain was that they might prove unfaithful in loving and obeying him – a fear that kept them constantly returning to private and communal prayer for fresh infusions of grace (Lk 12:4-9; Lk 21:36; Jn 6:57-58; Heb 10:23-31).

The Apostle Paul stressed that, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We too must follow Jesus in death and resurrection (Phil 3:10-11). The Lord was blunt, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). It’s true for each individual, and it is true for the Church as a whole. The Church has passed through cycles of turmoil and rebirth; but never forget that her most challenging period still lies ahead:

“Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers….The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil…[taking] the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.” (CCC 675, 677)

This truth, this reality, should keep us sober during our time in the world. This is not our homeland. We “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). And we can never become so emotionally enmeshed in it that we are left reeling when it turns on us. We know how flimsy this world is, how easily it breaks – from refrigerators and cars all the way up to nations.

The Lord allows us to experience these difficulties. They are our participation in his Cross. The little disappointments, borne with his strength, prepare us for the ever greater struggles that lie ahead – our personal ends and The End. Recall what we heard on the First Sunday of Advent:

“The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire…But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.” (2 Pet 3:9-10, 13-14)

If we put anything before Christ, then we are fools. But the culture in which we live increasingly says just the opposite – that we are fools because we put Christ before everything else. It was the same in the beginning (1 Cor 1:20-31), and it will certainly be so at The End. Let’s not pretend otherwise and be caught off guard. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that God has abandoned us. The Father was just as united to Jesus on the Cross as he was to him in the glory of the Transfiguration, and he is to us, too! Obedience to God in the midst of suffering is rewarded with the glory of the Resurrection (Phil 2:8-11; 3:10-11).

Faith is the gift that makes the Christian life possible. It is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Even in the midst of a pandemic, even knowing of the Church’s future Passion, we have joy and hope, because the eyes of our hearts are fixed upon Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).

 I’ve started telling myself something at the start of each day: “Today, I will be crucified” – there’s the sobriety – with Christ – and there’s the hope. May the Lord fill us with joy as we live each day, awaiting his return and the world that is to come.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Do I Really Believe This?

Meditating upon the gospel account of Jesus' healing the paralytic who was lowered down to him through the roof, I was struck by the priority that Jesus placed on forgiving the man's sins. The man's separation from God was the focus of Jesus' healing; that was the illness that had to be overcome, because the man's eternal destiny, the totality of his life hung in the balance. The subsequent healing of his legs was an outward sign of what had occurred in the man's soul, a message to those who doubted Jesus' ability to grant divine forgiveness ("But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth" - he said to the paralytic, "I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home" [Mk 2:10-11].)

The question now becomes, "Do I really believe this?" Have I grown numb, do I take for granted the miracle of my sins being forgiving? Do I truly believe that the forgiveness of my sins - my soul's union with God - is greater than paralyzed limbs being healed? Does union with God outweigh relief from any worldly suffering or difficulty? Because if we truly believe that it does, our lives will be completely changed. We will become free of fear...fear of anything but separating ourselves from God. We can obtain a peace that no one and no situation can take from us, because we will be grounded in the deepest Reality. Lord, increase our faith; your words are life.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Metaphysi-WHAT, now? Wrapping My Head Around Thomistic Metaphysics

The Lord has allowed me to write a few books on Scripture, spirituality, and apologetics; but He has also left me with a glaring weakness: I find reading St. Thomas Aquinas to be extremely difficult. His vocabulary - specifically the philosophical vocabulary he makes use of in his theology - has been a barrier for me (e.g., essence, substance, matter and form, potency, act). I know what the words mean in modern, American English; but Thomas uses them in what appears to be a completely different sense. Theologically, I have still been able to benefit from his insights; but they've come to me through the mediation of others (predominantly via my brilliant friend Kevin Vost, who has written a number of books on Thomas' thought). Even so, when I return to Thomas for myself, the semantic block remains.

I thought that a college course, "Philosophy for Theologians," might help me to finally overcome this hurdle. It was taught by an eminently-gifted Dominican priest, who provided a sweeping introduction to the field. We read Ralph McInerny's St. Thomas Aquinas and A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II's Faith and Reason. The course agave me a better grasp upon how human beings come to know and what sets human intelligence apart from that of other animals. I was taught that the study of physics (change and movement) led Greek philosophy to the recognition of an immaterial, Uncaused Cause (God) and thus the need for metaphysics, the science of "being as being." I also learned how relativism and the murky theology of the past century could be traced back to Immanuel Kant's rejection of an "objective metaphysics." Now, the scope of  the class was far too wide to go into these matters in any great depth and the assigned readings honestly didn't do much in terms of helping me read Aquinas. At least I left, however, with a better grasp of what knowledge I lacked - metaphysics!

Afterward, I came across a couple of Fulton J. Sheen's early works that had just been reprinted, The Philosophy of Science and God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. It seemed like a God-send, given Sheen's talent for making complex subjects intelligible to the layman. Both were advertised as Sheen using St. Thomas to expound upon the objective basis of human knowledge. The description was accurate, but I found myself reading the young Doctor Fulton J. Sheen, just graduated from the University of Leuven and flexing his philosophical muscle, as opposed to the later television host and writer addressing working-class Americans. I made few gains in my quest to understand St. Thomas' metaphysical underpinnings.

I had just registered for another college course when I happened upon Facebook post from the prolific and always trustworthy Mike Aquilina:
"I had the metaphysical itch when I was very young, but found most books on metaphysics unreadable...Then I met the metaphysician Michael Torre who, to teach his intro classes, had written his own textbook, which he would print out from his dot-matrix printer and reproduce for his undergrads. I read the book and was astonished....I begged Michael to send it off to a publisher. He said he’d think about it. We continued that conversation for 25 years, but now, AT LAST, THE BOOK IS IN PRINT. If you’ve always wanted to read philosophy, but always choked by page 10, you now have your book: WHAT IS: Introductory Reflections on Thomistic Metaphyscis."

I ordered it the next day, and after just a few pages realized that it was exactly what I had been looking for. Professor Torre cuts to the chase. What is metaphysics? Aristotle said that it was the investigation of "being insofar as it is being." Torre helpfully translates this to mean the investigation of "the most basic and fundamental principles of anything that exists." Its goal is to arrive at "the first and ultimate cause of all things." (Spoiler: When metaphysics is done well, such as by Aristotle and Aquinas, that cause is "God.") Now, with such a controversial end, metaphysics must also show students, "how to defend its conclusions against skeptical attack...Hence it takes up the first principles of knowing...the possibility of knowledge and of certitude." 

The truly beautiful thing, as Torre repeatedly demonstrates, is that metaphysics - despite the terminology - doesn't require that you come to it with any specialized knowledge; by using our senses to take in the every day world around us, we can reason to an objective knowledge of WHAT (the nature of things) IS (their existence). In the span of 267 pages Professor Torre led me from foundational truths all the way to arguing the existence of God from causality, to discussing the problem of evil. To make a long story short: I just finished that second college course I mentioned above...and I thoroughly enjoyed reading extensive portions of Thomas' Summa Theologica as part of it! My sincere thanks to Professor Michael Torre and his WHAT IS.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Mystery of the Visitation and Christ's Resurrection

Archbishop Sheen noted how the Cross cast its shadow backward over Our Blessed Lord’s entire life. I believe the same is true regarding the light of his Resurrection, and I would suggest that we see just such an instance in Jesus’ visitation to Mary and John (while within his mother’s womb). We find Jesus acting there, through the instrumentality of the Blessed Mother, the same way he will in his first post-Resurrection visit to the apostles; and these mirrored events are instructive regarding the Church’s prayer and celebration of the sacraments.

Let us begin with Jesus visitation of the apostles:

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’” (Jn 20:19-22)

Note the significant elements: Jesus’ arrival with a greeting of “Peace” (the standard Jewish greeting “Shalom”) and the imparting of the Spirit.

Don’t we find the same elements in Luke’s account of the Visitation?

“[Mary] entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! …Behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. (Lk 1:40-44)

There is of course a difference between the two events. In the visitation to Mary and John, Jesus’ bestowal of the Spirit was tied to his mother’s words. It was Christ acting for only he can impart the Spirit; but he did so from within Mary. It was as if Jesus granted a quasi-sacramental character to Mary’s greeting of “peace.” It points ahead to Jesus visit to the apostles and institution of the sacrament of reconciliation: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (Jn 20:22-23). There is a beautiful symmetry.  

But there’s another element we shouldn’t miss – and that is the reaction of Elizabeth, John, and Mary to being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” as well as the apostles’ reaction at Pentecost. John, while still in utero, “leaped for joy” and Elizabeth “exclaimed” God’s work “with a loud cry”; and the Blessed Mother sang her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,/ …for he who is mighty has done great things for me,/ and holy is his name./ And his mercy is on those who fear him/ from generation to generation./ He has shown strength with his arm,/…He has helped his servant Israel,/ in remembrance of his mercy,/ as he spoke to our fathers,/ to Abraham and to his posterity for ever” (Lk 1:46-51, 54-55).

We see the same reaction when the apostles and Mary were “filled” with the Spirit at Pentecost. They “began to speak in other tongues,” of “the mighty works of God…as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4,11). All of this is the action of the Spirit upon the human heart. As Christ is the source of the Spirit, so is he the author of the Church’s prayer. He inspired Mary to cry out in the Magnificat and he inspires us to cry out in the Our Father, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6).

The glory of the Resurrection and its life-changing affect upon the Church - it’s already foreshadowed Jesus' Marian visitation to Elizabeth and John.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

What Can James Teach Us About Suffering? (Part 1)

Martyrdom of James the Just
James places redemptive suffering, this revolutionary element of the gospel, right at the beginning of his epistle. “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4).

Like the books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Sirach, James reminds us that difficulties have always been part believers’ lives. In speaking of “various trials” that test our faith, he speaks of not just religious persecution but sickness, crime, loneliness, poverty – whatever tests our faith in God’s love, goodness, and justice. What is revolutionary in James’ statement, however, is the idea that Christians should look upon trials with intense joy. The Greek text helps us understand his rationale: “Joy” is charan, from the root word charis, or “grace.” Our trials are occasions for joy precisely because God’s grace is at work to bring us successfully through the period of testing and perfect the image of Christ in our souls. When James says that the testing of our faith produces “steadfastness,” or “endurance,” he uses the Greek term hypomonēn. Etymologically, it points to “remaining under” a heavy load. This load is Christ’s Cross that, like the Master, we must carry (Mt 16:24) if we are to become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:4).

We Christians are not masochists. We don’t embrace suffering as an end in itself. Rather, through it, we embrace our crucified Lord so as to arrive with him at the glory of the Resurrection. James continues, “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (1:12). When we persist in faith in the Father’s love for us, committing our lives into his hands despite the pain we endure, it is then that we most resemble the Lord Jesus – and that is what makes our suffering redemptive for us personally.

You see, when an Israelite was ordained to the priesthood, his hands were anointed with oil. In the Greek translation of the OT, teleioō was used in place of the Hebrew idiom, “fill up the hands” (Ex 29:29, 35; Lev 8:33; 16:32; 21:10; Num. 3:3). With this in mind, Hebrews 5:8-9 takes on added significance, “[Jesus] learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect [teleioō ] he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:8-10). Jesus was consecrated to the priesthood via obedience in the midst of suffering! Hebrews applies the same term, teleioō, to the spirits of the just in heaven (Heb 12:24) – the same spirits the Book of Revelation shows participating in Christ’s priestly intercession before the Father’s throne (Rev 5:8; Heb 7:25).

As members of his Mystical Body, the Church participates in Christ’s self-offering to the Father. For those of us still on earth, Christ unites our earthly sufferings to his and transmogrifies them into spiritual sacrifices. Further, we recognize that the Father accepts such sacrifices and reciprocates with unmatched generosity; “[G]ive, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be put into your lap” (Lk 6:38). We receive abundant grace and take on the image of our Crucified Lord – the very goal of discipleship.

I would further suggest that the manner in which we endure our trials – committing ourselves, via the movement of grace, into the Father’s hands with our eyes fixed on the resurrection – is an important way that our faith is manifested in works. James tells us that it was Abraham’s response to testing that brought his faith to completion (2:22). Abraham placed his son upon the wood of sacrifice – in effect, joining himself to the Cross – with faith that God could raise the dead (Heb 11:19). We embrace the Cross in the same conviction! Therefore, as James says, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4).

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll look at how Paul builds upon James’ insight, rejoicing not just in the value suffering had upon his own soul, but the benefit Paul’s sufferings had upon the souls of others. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

James, Paul, and Justification at the Council of Trent

Justification means being put into right relationship with God; or as the Council of Trent declared, it is “the change from the condition in which a person is born as a child of the first Adam into a state of grace and adoption among the children of God through the Second Adam, Jesus." A great number of people, both inside and outside of the Church, are confused as to how we believe this comes about. One of my goals when writing James: Jewish Roots, Catholic Fruits was to show how James’ view of justification is in agreement with St. Paul’s and how this biblical teaching is exactly what the Catholic Church enunciated in Trent’s Decree Concerning Justification (DCJ hereafter). While a chapter allows me to go into much greater detail, I at least wanted to put together a meaty summary for blog readers, showing how justification is a process with a beginning, middle, and end – with every stage completely dependent upon God’s grace.


Initial Justification

God is the source of our justification. The Father sent his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to announce and enact the gospel of our salvation. Faith in the gospel is the beginning of our salvation. James tells us, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” Paul is of the same mind: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:9). And Trent could not be more emphatic: “[N]one of the things that precede justification, whether by faith or works, merit the grace of justification. For, if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the Apostle says, grace is no more grace [Rom 11:6].” (DCJ, 7); and again, “in adults the beginning of that justification must proceed from the predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ…without any merits on their part, they are called” (DCJ, 5).

We cooperate with this predisposing grace and receive baptism, the sacrament of faith: “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). Baptism is our birth into the family of God.


Progress in Justification

Once born, we are expected to grow; and that requires our cooperation. Just as physical growth requires proper nutrition, the normal functioning of the muscles, and avoidance of danger; so growth in the supernatural life requires attentiveness to prayer, the willingness to live as Christ, and the avoidance of grave sin. Without these, we whither. James asks, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead “(2:14-17). This actually continues St. Paul’s thought from above, “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:9-10).

Every good work originates in God but is actualized in us, and thus requires our cooperation. That is why Paul tells the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). The Council of Trent says the same: “For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches [Jn 15:1], continually infuses strength into the justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies, and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God……[F]ar be it that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself and not in the Lord [1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17], whose bounty toward all men is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits” (DCJ, 16).

Martin Luther famously saw conflict between James’ statement that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24) and Paul’s “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom 3:28); but this simply isn’t the case. James wrote to Jewish Christians who he had reason to believe were lax in living their faith. Paul, on the other hand, wrote to mixed communities in which Jewish believers insisted that Gentiles who came to faith in Christ were not truly justified until they were circumcised and began living under the Mosaic Law’s cultic and dietary stipulations.

Christians do live under a law, but it is not the Law of Moses. It is what James calls “the royal law,” or law of the kingdom (2:8-9) and what Paul calls the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21). Paul makes a distinction between “works of the law” and other “works” which must be manifest if one is to obtain final salvation:

[God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…. it is not the hearers of the [Mosaic] law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law [of Moses] do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:6–7, 13–16)

Paul makes the same point in Galatians: “[T]hrough the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:5-6). There is no true conflict between Paul and James. They even make the same distinction between those who hear and those who do (Rom 2:13; James 1:22)!

We progress in justification as we remain faithful to Christ in the midst of trial and temptation. Listen to James: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him…[E]ach person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.” (1:12-15). “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war” (4:1-2). Paul called this our struggle against “the flesh” (Rom 7:21-23; 8:12-13). But as James assures us, we receive power to overcome, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind…Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. (James 4:6-10).

The Council of Trent wrote of these same realities: “[I]n the one baptized there remains concupiscence or an inclination to sin, which, since it is left for us to wrestle with, cannot injure those who do not acquiesce but resist manfully by the grace of Jesus Christ; indeed, he who shall have striven lawfully shall be crowned [Eph 4:22, 24; Col. 3:9]. This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes calls sin [Rom 6-8; Col. 3], the holy council declares the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is of sin and inclines to sin” (Decree Concerning Original Sin, 5).

“Venial” sins impede the flow of Christ’s life within us but do not completely sever our union with the Lord. James says, “For we all make many mistakes” (3:2); and Trent notes, “during this mortal life, men, however holy and just, fall at times into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, they do not on that account cease to be just, for that petition of the just, forgive us our trespasses [Mt 6:12]” (DCJ, 11). Venial sins, if not repented of, can lead us into mortal sin; or as James says, “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (1:15). Paul lists such deadly sins in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21, warning that “those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (And yes, “modern” world, sexual sins are among them.)

“But God, who is rich in mercy,” will restore every child who repents (Eph 2:4). James writes, “whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20). This healing is normally effected through the sacrament of reconciliation, or penance; and James may well make reference to the public celebration of the sacrament when, after his discussion of presbyters anointing the sick, he counsels readers to “confess your sins to one another” (5:16; Cf Jn 20:22-23). Trent highlights the role of grace in reconciliation: “Those who through sin have forfeited the received grace of justification, can again be justified when, moved by God, they exert themselves to obtain through the sacrament of penance the recovery, by the merits of Christ, of the grace lost” (DCJ, 14).

The bottom line is that we must grow in the divine life. As Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12).

Final Justification

Our perseverance in grace will be rewarded when we stand before Christ the judge and receive the fullness of justification in the resurrection of our bodies. James tells us, “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:7-8); and Paul writes, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17). Trent insists that even this result of grace:

“…with regard to the gift of perseverance, of which it is written: He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved [Mt 10:22; 24:13], which cannot be obtained from anyone except from Him who is able to make him stand who stands [Rom 14:4], that he may stand perseveringly, and to raise him who falls, let no one promise himself herein something as certain with an absolute certainty, though all ought to place and repose the firmest hope in God's help. For God, unless men themselves fail in His grace, as he has begun a good work, so will he perfect it, working to will and to accomplish [Phil 1:6; 2:13]” (DCJ, 13).

So there you are my friends, a scriptural and magisterial “cheat sheet” on the doctrine of justification.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Quick Thoughts on the Transfiguration

In my writing I've reflected upon Jesus' transfiguration a fair amount. Our Lord is an infinite Person and so the events of His earthly life are an inexhaustible source of revelation. This was brought home to me again this morning as I prayed through Matthew's account (17:1-8) of the Transfiguration. A quick list of what jumped out at me today:
"Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them" (1-2)  Even in our intimacy with the Lord, we always come to Him as members of His Church. (Heb 12:1, 22-24).

"...a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him" (5).  The cloud, or God's presence, emits light; but it is divine light. It blocks out the natural light of the sun, the "light," or so called "wisdom of the world," to impart true wisdom. This is also an image of what John of the Cross calls the dark night of the senses, where God deprives the soul of the natural joys it used to take in created things to drive it toward Him.

"He was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him" (2-3).  It is in Christ's light, that the apostles are able to see Moses and Elijah and hear them conversing with Jesus. It is only in Jesus' light that they were able to fully understand the Law and the Prophets (Lk 24:44-45).
So there you are - after 34 years of reading and reflecting upon this event, I am reminded of how much more there is yet to see.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Book Review: "Secrets From Heaven"

Catholic Answers Press, well known for its apologetic works, continues to widen the scope of its mission. Their latest  offering, Secrets From Heaven, ventures into biblical interpretation - specifically the interpretation of Jesus' parables, healings, and select teachings. The author, Fr. Sebastian Walshe, holds a master's degree in theology and doctorate in philosophy and serves as the dean of studies at St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado, CA. After reading this book I find myself envious of his students, as Fr. Walshe's work is replete with insights I have not seen elsewhere.

We Christians really are so blessed to be part of the Church. The Father allows us to grow beyond our own limited power of understanding by learning from our siblings, endearing us to one another in the process. Secrets From Heaven contains Fr. Walshe's wonderful exegetical insights as well as the spiritual interpretations of the Church Fathers.

The best way to explain way to illustrate the power of this book is to simply take you through a chapter. I've chosen "Jairus and the Woman with the Hemorrhage. The chapter begins with Luke's account of the event (Lk 8:40-56). If you need a quick refresher: Jesus was approached by Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, to come and heal his twelve year old daughter who was dying. While on the way, a woman who had suffered with a flow of blood for twelve years touched the hem of Jesus' garment and was healed. By the time Jesus arrived at Jairus' home, the child had died; but the Lord raised her.

Father Walshe begins by looking at the events in relation to what has already occurred in Luke's gospel, contrasting Jairus with the centurion seeking healing for a servant in Luke's previous chapter:
"Both come to Jesus seeking the cure of a dying child. Both are rulers...Whereas the centurion has perfect faith, and so does not need Jesus to come to his home, Jairus has a weak faith, and so needs Jesus to come to his home" (p.113).
Father Walshe sees a powerful lesson here: 
"The weakness of Jairus' faith increases his own suffering. Had his faith been perfect like that of the centurion, there would have been no long and anxious journey back to his home, and his daughter would not have died along the way. 
        Our own defects in faith end up adding unnecessarily to our suffering in life. Often, Jesus wants to solve our problems right away, and he wants us to have confidence that they are solved as soon as we ask him (even when we can't see yet that they are solved) so that we can go about our lives in peace and joy. But we are the ones who limit his goodness: we insist on seeing the results we want right now; we insist on feeling Jesus' constant presence along the way; and consequently we pay the price" (p.113).
After a memorable personal illustration of that point, Father Walshe then delves into the literal sense of the text, or what Luke, writing in Greek in the first century, meant to communicate to his readers. And Fr. Walshe has a keen set of eyes! He begins with the "coincidence" of Jairus' daughter being twelve, the same number of years the woman had suffered from the flow of blood:
"[C]onsider this: in the same moment that Jesus says to the woman, Daughter, your faith hath made you whole, Jairus receives the news that his daughter has died. Read the passage again: [Jesus] said to her: Daughter, your faith hath made you whole; go your way in peace. As he was yet speaking, there came one to the ruler of the synagogue, saying to him: Your daughter is dead, trouble him not...If you had been present at the scene you would have heard it like this: 'Daughter your faith has made you whole...your daughter is dead'" (p.115).
WOW - what an incredible insight! Luke is my favorite gospel and yet, as many times as I've read it, I never made that connection. But there's more. (Pardon my underlining):
"[This] is the only time in all the Gospels that Jesus calls someone his daughter. Why here? Why now? In order to call Jairus's attention to the fact that he was not the only person there who had a daughter in need of healing. Twelve years before, this woman began to hemorrhage. As a result, the woman would have been made ritually unclean by her flow of blood, and therefore would certainly have been excluded from participating in the worship at the synagogue where Jairus was an official, lest she contaminate anyone who had the duty of sacred worship. Indeed, it seems likely that it was Jairus himself who excluded her from the worship at the synagogue, since he was the ruler there. For twelve years this woman was excluded from the house of her Father, while for twelve years Jairus enjoyed the company of his own daughter in his house....What was going on in [Jairus'] heart at this moment? Was he angry at [this woman] for holding Jesus up?...By causing Jairus to reflect on the condition of his own daughter, and upon the pain he now felt at being separated from her, Jesus willed to arouse in Jairus a new sense of compassion for this woman whom he had not recognized as God's daughter."
Fr. Walshe draws an application from this:
"[I]n our prayers we often ask from God the thing that we deny to others. And it is only when we recognize this fact that God will hear and answer our prayers...We ask for health, but we do not comfort the sick. We ask for friendship, but we do not offer friendship" (p. 116).
He sees other lessons for us, but for the sake of space I'll limit myself to one more - what caused Jairus and the woman to respond to Jesus with an imperfect faith:
"[They] seem to have some reason why they can trust in their own merits. Unlike the centurion, Jairus is a member of the Jewish people, and even a ruler of the synagogue; the woman is someone of substance who apparently started out with a lot of money that she ended up spending on doctors. They had something to hang their hat on other than the mercy of Christ. And so for them Jesus was not their first resort but their last resort.
        To the degree that we rely upon our own talents, natural gifts, worldly wealth, or status, to the same extent we will put Jesus last and end up resisting the seed of the word that Christ wants to plant and bear fruit in our hearts. And yet in the face of all this, we should take some consolation in this fact: that in spite of their imperfections, Jesus does eventually give them what they need" (p.117).
After plumbing the literal sense, Fr. Walshe turns to the spiritual sense as expounded by Sts. Bede and Ambrose:
"According to this allegory, Jairus, since he is the leader of the synagogue, represents the Jewish leaders. His daughter represents the Jewish people, and the woman with the hemorrhage represents the gentile people. Jairus daughter has lived for twelve years in the home of her father, and this signifies that the Jewish people have lived withing the Jewish church during the whole time of the covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex. 34:27). On the other hand, the gentiles were excluded from this covenant (unlike the covenants made with Adam and Noah that included all their descendants, Jew and Gentile alike). Thus, the woman is said to have a flow of blood for twelve years, to signify that during the time of the Mosaic covenant the gentiles were unclean and excluded from the assembly of God. During this time they spent all their substance on physicians, that is, they sought in vain for salvation from philosophy or false gods" (p.119).
Father Walshe goes into this allegory in some depth, and it is beautiful. He brings the chapter to a close by considering how we should personally be evangelized by this episode from the gospels and how we should take these lessons under consideration when sharing the Gospel with others.

Secrets From Heaven is a spiritual gem. I'll keep my eyes peeled for Fr. Walshe's next offering.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Book Review: Cardinal Newman's "Meditations on Mary, Our Mother"

I jumped at the chance to review this book. Two decades ago, I read TAN Book’s Mary: The Second Eve, a compendium of Newman’s apologetic writings on the Blessed Mother and was mesmerized by the way he showed that the earliest post-apostolic writings simply made explicit what was already present in the text of Scripture. His knowledge of the Fathers was voluminous. This new work assembled by TAN’s editorial team casts its net wider to bring together key points from Newman’s apologetics with his devotional thought.

As with all of his works, Meditations on Mary, Our Mother reminds us that Newman was a master of the English language. When we turn from him to modern works, we are reminded of how far we've fallen:
"[The saints'] acts, callings, and relations below, are types and anticipations of their present mission above...The only question is whether the Blessed Virgin had a part, a real part, in the economy of grace, whether, when she was on earth, she secured by her deeds any claim on our memories? If she did, it is impossible we should put her away from us, merely because she has gone hence, and should not look at her still according to the nature of her earthly history, with gratitude and expectation." (p.41)
Yes, Newman would have been a thorn in the side of many a modern editor. "But John, you have to remember that most books are written at a fifth grade level!"

Like TAN's previous compilation, Meditations on Mary, Our Mother displays Newman's brilliance as an apologist. It does not, however, contain the lengthy quotations from the Fathers present in the earlier work. Instead, as the title of this new collection indicates, we are treated to Newman's devotional thoughts, his effusions of love in honor of Our Lady:
"We must not only pray with our lips, and fast, and do outward penance, and be chaste in our bodies; but we must be obedient, and pure in our minds. And so, as regards the Blessed Virgin, it was God's will that she should undertake willingly and with full understanding to be the Mother of Our Lord, and not to be a mere passive instrument whose maternity would have no merit and no reward. The higher our gifts, the higher our duties. It was no light lot to be so intimately near to the Redeemer of men, as she experienced afterwards when she suffered with Him." (p.23)
Newman's apologetic thought circles around Mary's identity as the New Eve. He finds it in both Scripture (Genesis 3, John 19, Revelation 12) and the Church Fathers:
"...the parallelism is the doctrine of the Fathers, from the earliest times; and, this being established, we are able, by the position and office of Eve in our fall, to determine the position and office of Mary in our restoration." (p.17)
Newman notes this identification in the works of Justin Martyr (150 A.D.), Irenaeus (180) and Tertullian (200), men from different geographic regions. From this, he carefully reasons that this understanding had to form part of the original apostolic deposit. And from it he deduces a host of important points:
"Eve made room for Adam's fall, so Mary made room for our Lord's reparation of it. Thus, whereas the free gift was not as the offence, but much greater, it follows that, as Eve co-operated in effecting a great evil, Mary co-operated in effecting a much greater good." (p.19) 
"I do not see how anyone who holds the Catholic doctrine of the supernatural endowments of our first parents has fair reason for doubting our doctrine about the [immaculate conception of the] Blessed Virgin Mary...I ask: Have you any intention to deny that Mary was as fully endowed as Eve? Is it any violent inference, that she, who was to co-operate in the redemption of the world, at least was not less endowed with power from on high, than she who, given as a help-mate to her husband, did in the event but cooperate with him for our ruin?....There was war between the woman and the Serpent. This is most emphatically fulfilled if she had nothing ot do with sin - for, so far as anyone sins, he has an alliance with the Evil One." (p.67, 65, 72)
I could go on and on, but it's far better to read this gem of a book for yourselves. Reading Meditations on Mary, Our Mother is akin to ascending a height via an upward, circular path. Themes are revisited and built upon as you progress through the meditations. It is spiritual reading appropriate to any time in the liturgical year.