Sheer Poetry

JMJ

The reason, however, why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvelous.
– St Thomas Aquinas

WHEN THIS QUOTE Surfaced in my Twitter timeline this morning, there was first an urgent recourse to Google. The reader is strongly advised to Google any random quotation: so many float around and around with no citation and no original source. Did you know that St Francis ever said nor wrote that bit about “use words if necessary”? Really. There is no source at all – except the internet. Google everything. Anyway… there was recourse to Google. This one is authentic. It comes from St Thomas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 1, Lesson 3. For a better context:

Further, he points out that perplexity and wonder arise from ignorance. For when we see certain obvious effects whose cause we do not know, we wonder about their cause. And since wonder was the motive which led men to philosophy, it is evident that the philosopher is, in a sense, a philo-myth, i.e., a lover of myth, as is characteristic of the poets. Hence the first men to deal with the principles of things in a mythical way, such as Perseus and certain others who were the seven sages, were called the theologizing poets. Now the reason why the philosopher is compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonders.

Note that there is “concerned with wonders” instead of “the marvelous”. That seems to be a translation into English done by whoever translated Josef Pieper’s On Leisure into English. I don’t have the book handy, just this context from Wikiquote:

And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics [I, 3]: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the “wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation towards the “wonderful” (the mirandum — something not to be found in the world of work!) — on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the “wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return
.
– Pieper, J. (2015). Leisure: The Basis of Culture. United Kingdom: Ignatius Press.
(The translation itself is from 1963. I don’t own the book, so I’m not sure, but it’s possible the second half of the book, The Philosophical Act, is a different text? This Aquinas quote with “wondrous” is also the Epigram for the Philosophical Act.)

Update, my friend R. indicates The Philosophical Act “Was Heißt Philosophieren?” was a series of lectures delivered around the time he wrote Leisure, so they’ve been published together in English (as Pieper recommended).

Pieper says it’s not easy to fathom why poets come in here. Your host does not fancy himself a philosopher, but would love to be tagged with St Thomas’ phrase, “theologizing poet” and he has heard at least one philosopher divide between theology and philosophy. Perhaps Aquinas turned a corner here where Pieper was out of his ken.

So, venturing into Theology, let’s turn a corner ourselves to the Epistle of St James. In 1:22, James invites his readers to “be doers of the word, not hearers only”.

First, there’s Word, λόγος Logos. Logos here is the same word as is used in John 1: “The Word”. It’s the mind, the thought/plan/pattern behind everything. It’s the Wisdom of God active in the world and in each thing in the world. Every thing in the world has its own logos, it’s own participation in God’s wisdom. Contemplating the logoi (plural) in God’s creation eventually brings us to contemplation of The Logos, that is, Jesus himself.

Then, consider Doer which here does not mean “someone who hears the gospel and responds with actions”. It’s a verb serving as a noun. It conveys the same difference as between, “you love me” and “you are my lover”. This is important because the word, in Greek, is ποιητής poietas, a maker or a poet. In today’s internet lingo we would say “creator”.

St James’ whole phrase, in Greek, is Γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου ginesthe de poietai logou: Become poets of the Logos.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting: poets are not always the Good Guys in philosophy. St Thomas must have known that Plato had banished almost all poets from the Republic. The reason being that poets tell mythological lies – think Homer, here. Poets that teach virtue can stay, though. These poets ov virtue are, perhaps, the ones to which Aquinas is comparing philosophers. But, of course, Aquinas is also a theologian. Thomas knows that poets of virtue are welcomed in the Heavenly Kingdom, but he does not know Greek so he doesn’t know about “poets of the Logos”. Yet, not only can we see the philosophers of the past and present as poets of virtue – dealing in the wondrous – we can also see them now as poets of the Logos as well. Yet there’s more here: for St James calls us all to do that. This poetic action is the vocation of all Christians! In fact, to not do so is to have failed to live the faith fully.

This means the Philosophical Act of Poetry is part of our Christian Action in the world: we are called to mark out the threads of Christian Poetry from the past (as I mentioned in my post yesterday) but also to weave those threads of wonder into the on-going tapestry of time today and going forward. We are creating soul for the world. We are not permitted to escape this duty. It is the real evangelism: to make the good news incarnate around us.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

From a letter to Diognetus

Cheap Thomism

JMJ

When I first converted to Orthodoxy, entering the Church in 2002, I asked Fr Victor Sokolov (Memory Eternal!) to bless my apartment. Upon arrival, he did a sort of brief inspection of my space including a long perusal of my bookshelves. At that time my library was much larger than it now is, containing the accumulated reading of a couple of decades. (I sold my books slowly to used bookstores, including one massive, $600 buyout during a yard sale that paid for my relocation to Asheville, NC.) On the shelves at that time was a section I called “scripture” which, in addition to a KJV Bible, a JPS Tanakh, and several patristic texts, also included a Tao te Ching and a copy of The Book of the Hopi. Also on the shelf were The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Father – who knew my spiritual peregrinations – took the Narnia boxed set off the shelf and said “This is the Orthodox Truth. We say, ‘taste and see’ and no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search.” He was referring to the Narnian story of Emeth, a young Calormene soldier who, despite never having worshiped Aslan a day in his life, finds himself in Aslan’s eternal Paradise. Aslan says to him, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash [the false god]… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” The Wiki adds, Aslan’s comment can be understood as a development of Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” That verse will come back in a few paragraphs.

This whole incident came to mind in a conversation with a friend, R., who was schooling me in a subject I’ve never studied: Philosophy. This is of particular importance as I’m now taking my first class in the topic. Reading the textbooks, I’ve noticed that I have read works by many of the philosophers involved, but not as topics. Rather, I read for instruction: one of the books on my “Scripture” shelf was Number LXXI of the Bollingen Series: The Collected Works of Plato. I remember once, after reading the Phaedrus, that I was at work in a bookstore. A man purchased a copy of the same text and I tried to engage him in conversation about it: he was horrified to discover I had read the text for Plato’s (Socrates’) ideas about love (usages of which appear some 230+ times in the text, depending on the translation). Rather, he insisted, you should read the text to learn about rhetoric. I’m still not sure about that, but the idea of reading a text to only learn the style or means of the text – and not the actual content – seems silly. I read the Presocratics and the Pythagoreans in College, but I read them to “try them on”. What was it like to think this way? What does it mean that the Cosmos is based on Number? I have always read books that way. What if the answer really is 42? Another friend once asked me on Twitter, “Is there any religion you have not tried?” And yes, there are rather a lot, but the journey through my quest has been fifty-six years long.

Yet the style and means (if those are the right words) are important as well as the content: this all came up in a conversation on hermeneutics. This involves the interpretive framework.

When I was reading these works in college, trying them all on, seeing what worked for me, the interpretive framework was, exactly, me. I wanted to construct a system and a map that worked for me. At this time, wrestling with issues of morality and personal praxis, I wanted a religio-philosophical system that made room for all the choices I was making in that struggle. If I decided XYZ was good, I wanted my “religion” to support me. So, a bit of this, a bit of that, add a pinch of Plato and some Taliesin, and all was good… for a little while. Then, suddenly, something was off. So I would weave in some of the Vedas, and perhaps a soupçon of Hopi, with a large side of Mary Daly. Howsabout a bowl of Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and maybe some Táin Bó Cúailnge? Why don’t we try adding some Sufism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Fr Matthew Fox, OP, (as he then was)?

At any point, as you might expect, I came out of the buffet line with a plate piled higher than my eyeballs with stuff, but no way to eat it except all at once. If you’ve ever been to a Golden Corral you know just exactly what I mean here. I’d eat it all – or toss it out – and start again. Sure, none of this was intended to fit together, but it was all true in a way. The one thing needful was a binder or mortar. Imagination can provide that or any one of several newagey text books. In situo this was a Quest for the Holy Grail, but – as I came to realize – it was really the spiritual version of Hoarding. With myself as the only measure of what was true or not, I would pick up anything that would fit and hope that later it would be possible to iron it all out into something fabulous. Later never comes though, and at a certain point, you get tired of making up stuff.

So I dropped it all. Only to find myself reading some of them again in class. Confusing, to say the least. The last time I read The Republic it was to imagine a better world. The last time I looked a Pythagoras it was to learn Sacred Geometry – as if it were true, mind you, not as a way to make really nice pictures. (The Cloisters Apocalypse as well as almost all pre-modern Christian Cathedrals are designed using these methods, for example.) What is going on now?

So last night’s phone conversation with R.

Is there Truth in there at all? Then it is our, Catholic truth. This is not some newagey relativism. This is the Catholic Faith from the earliest days:

But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.
– St Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 46, From the 2nd Century

And St Thomas Aquinas too – pulling in the “Emeth” verse I mentioned above:
Commenting on the text, “And no man can say the Lord Jesus…” (1 Cor. 12:3), Ambrose says: “Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit.”
Augustine says: “The true is that which is.” But every act of existing is from God. Therefore, every truth is from Him.
Just as the one is interchangeable with being, so is the true, and conversely. But all unity is from the first unity, as Augustine says.
Therefore, every truth also is from the first truth.

Questiones Disputatae de Veritate Q1. Article VIII. Is every other truth from the first truth?

Let’s run with that Ambrose line… Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit. Omne verum, a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est. In my Freshmen year Western Civ class at King’s College a group of students argued with the professor that only Christianity had any truth, and I said, “If a Hindu man tells me it’s raining, I’m going to take an umbrella with me.” That was before I even knew what Church Fathers were, or went off on my religious hoarding phrase.

The proper framework, though, is not oneself but rather Truth – that is to say – the Church’s teaching, Christian Orthodoxy. The Truth: Jesus. We do not read someone in a vacuum, to learn how to become a follower of Philosopher X. Rather we read X in the light of the fullness of Truth revealed in Christ and known to the Church. We read to see if Philosopher X may lead us into deeper truths or to see how other people – from outside of the church – grasped hints of the Truth later revealed. It seems some writers have nothing to offer because they start from horribly mistaken assumptions (such as “there is no truth at all”). Yet, even then, if we read them from within the interpretive framework of the faith we may find something of value. Or not.

St Thomas Aquinas did this work for us already. The Summa is, of course, predicated on the work of Aristotle. To understand Aristotle, though, Aquinas spoke with Muslims and Jews in his day and learned from them. He also critiqued them. Pagan, Jewish, and Muslim thought went into St Thomas’ brain and out popped Christian theology. That’s not all. His work is a summation, yes: it documents the Sine Qua Non of Catholic theology. But it’s not the faith itself. It’s not a schematic to which all things must conform.

There are two ways to work with St Thomas, then. Here’s the cheap Thomism of the title: You can study his content, or you can work with his interpretive framework. You can cite chapter and verse in the Summa (Cheap) or you can take what you learn there and go do things with it (Valuable). The latter gives us a way forward while the former seems to be inimical to the spirit in which St Thomas worked and to the spirit of his teachings. Yes, cite the truth in his content and grow, but also his style, and his means. We need to see that Thomas is writing about Love, but also we need to see how he is writing, and what work he does to get there. We need to emulate all of this process. This is costly work – and of great value.

There are those who leave the church (or refuse to come in) for a lot of reasons that have more to do with “rejection” than with “seeking Truth”. There are a lot of things out there that call to them: pleasure, money, power, and perceived freedom. In our conversation, R. noted that the faith is an organic composition, like a tree growing wider and branchier, leafier and fruitier with every day. In contradistinction, creating one’s own framework for things requires an ongoing manual process, a continual work of construction: a techne rather than a fide. Every inbound item must be edited, simplified to fit into the framework we’re building. We must constantly organise and evaluate. The end result may be a well-constructed edifice but it will be infinitely more an “organized religion” than Catholicism. It can be laid out in spreadsheets and analyzed for data. It’s a mental map forced into reality: a pattern of things seen filtered through one’s own, very personal, very subjective choices; tables of correspondence that are meaningless to others and communicate nothing.

In the organic and divinely biological framework provided by the Incarnation of God, what some of my more hippie forebears called “The Christ Event”, the entire world is an “Old Testament” leading mankind to Truth or, to paraphrase The Bible Project, we believe that all of human culture and history is a unified book that leads to Jesus. Like Father Victor said, no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search. Jesus takes all truth to himself – for he is the Truth. Only taste and see: you cannot help but be drawn deeper into his Love. If you set out for Truth, at first your choices don’t matter one bit: you’ve made the ultimate choice already and all other things must fall in line. Eventually, you’ll find that every little choice is conformed to that initial act of your will. Find the Truth. Your freedom to do whatever you want becomes the Freedom to Achieve the Truth. Having decided to seek the Holy Grail, you find Jesus.

Where we go from there is entirely up to us: as long as we have that framework, we are resting in the Everlasting Arms, safe and secure from all alarms.

St Thomas, pray for us!

St Louis & Adelphopoiesis

JMJ

By way of Introduction: this paper was for Church History with Dr Kevin Clarke. The assignment was to imagine I was teaching RCIA at a parish named for a “controversial” saint. A member of the class raises an objection to that saint, how do I respond? Further, the same person feels that (pick a common objection from Church history) is very important and wants me to address it. Some possible examples were the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc. As I did not understand the reasons people disliked King St Louis that was my pick for the Saint. I had decided to go with dispelling a common myth about “the Burning Times” (which didn’t happen) when, as I was writing the paper, the CDF dropped a document. The Responsum triggered a memory of reading bad history – John Boswell’s Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe – and I pictured my RCIA challenger citing Boswell’s quotations of actual church liturgies and asking why we couldn’t do these rites now. The assignment limited me to 2,000 words with a 200 margin either way. I made it at 2195, but my first draft of the St Louis section was 3,000 words long. There is so much more to say about St Louis and the Talmud! But the accusation of Islamophobia seemed more realistic a question at this time as much as the question about same sex unions seemed more realistic in San Francisco today than the one about the Burning Times. This is how papers are born, I guess.


SPEAKING ABOUT THE BIG statue of St Louis riding a horse on Art Hill in St Louis, MO, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in that city  says “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” (Haaretz 28 June 2020) Dislike for St Louis the king is focused in St Louis the city, there are echoes of the protest in other places. The objections to him are that he was antisemitic and anti-Isalm. We will have time tonight to look at the issues around Islam. 

The crusades are the entirety of the argument for the “Islamophobia” of our Patron Saint. Louis was fighting Muslims. It is very easy to see this as a badge of what we understand to be racism today. It carries quite clear marks of it: fighting Muslims because they are Muslims. This idea of branding as evil all Muslims because they are Muslims is one we should oppose. But it’s not one that we can use against Louis. 

Our patron saint is renowned for his piety, his charity, and his bravery. He is also known for his skills as a governor and a diplomat. He is devoted to his wife. An article in Christianity Today says he called his wife a “girl of pretty face, but of prettier faith” which I really like, but I can’t find a source for that anywhere else for that quote. The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent says he always followed his mother’s advice  I would rather see you dead at my feet than guilty of a mortal sin. And they cite him as saying The peace and blessings of the realm come to us through the poor. He took his family with him on the crusade. The Church teaches Louis’ holiness in that she has named him a Saint. 

Beggars were fed from his table, he ate their leavings, washed their feet, ministered to the wants of the lepers, and daily fed over one hundred poor. He founded many hospitals…. a man of sound common sense, possessing indefatigable energy, graciously kind and of playful humour, and constantly guarding against the temptation to be imperious. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Our secular age teaches us “religion” and “everything else” are different categories. This was not so for King Louis IX: there are times when we want to say he was “acting religious” when, in fact, he would not see it that way. Founding hospitals and feeding the poor are works of charity, certainly, but they are also acts of government. They are “secular”. But not in France at this time. For another example, while he was on Crusade, he allied with some Muslims – helping out some Muslim kingdoms if they would help him. He also reached out to the Golden Horde, pagan Mongols who were part of the invasion/migration from the east seen as enemies by all the peoples in Europe and the Middle East. These could be seen as political choices. But they are also religious.

In the 21st Century, we see Louis as a “Christian King” of “the Nation of France” while imagining 13th Century France to be the same as today: a cultural and economic center, diverse and largely “like us”. That is, we think of 13th Century France as a secular state ruled by – almost by accident – a Catholic King, just as we may elect a Catholic President or a Masonic one. However, France was not a modern, secular state ruled by a leader who was accidentally (if very piously) religious. Pick up a copy of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, by Andrew Willard Jones (Emmaus Academic, 2017). There’s an entirely different worldview here: one where the whole understanding of things is religious.  

Muslim states today and in Louis’ time work in the same way: systems where “sacred” and “secular” are woven as tightly together as they were for Louis’ France. Yet we often imagine them as mirrors of our modern, secular way of life where there just happens to be a Muslim veneer as we have a Christian one. We visualize the Muslims of the Middle Ages in their peaceable kingdoms attacked by Christians from the west. The image is one of trying to win converts by the sword. 

Yet Louis was not out to convert Muslims. Neither was the war about eradicating their religion, nor one of territorial expansion. St Louis’ crusade was one of liberation

In Syria, Muslims had conquered some Christian towns and were enslaving the people there. Louis decided (on advice from allies) to conquer some Egyptian towns and hold them for ransom: to make a trade. This is very much a modern war tactic, still: Israel traded Palestinian prisoners for one soldier in  2011. It’s secular politics, sure, but this also sounds like the charism of the Trinitarians who were always Louis’ spiritual advisors: To the Glory of the Most Holy Trinity and to Ransom Christian Captives. We might wonder at the means the King chose for his ends, but see the weaving of political and religious here: how hard it is to dissect them. He is fighting “systems of oppression that we are living under” using the best means of his day – diplomatic alliances (even with “bad people”) and ransom.

Jones offers a very brief account of a conflict between Louis and some bishops asking him to enforce some declarations of excommunication. The king said he would look into the issue and enforce it if the action was just. The bishops replied that to let him investigate that way would be to “give the king cognizance of what pertained to [the Bishops]” – letting him snoop in on religious matters. But Louis replied that for him to act without first determining the justice of the matter would be to “give [the bishops] cognizance over what pertained to” the king. The idea of “church and state” is not valid when we look at Louis’ France. Louis is not imposing Catholic ideals on a secular order, but rather embodying the ancient idea of Sacred Kingship as a Catholic. The State is seen as sacral, as part of God’s plan for working out our salvation. Louis acts as a Catholic king, sacramentalizing his actions. 

Viewing Louis through our modern eyes we miss something of what CS Lewis called (in his The Discarded Image, 1962) the Medieval Synthesis “the whole organisation of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe.”  Lewis thinks of this Model as sharing equal standing with Aquinas’ Summa and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three form a Map for a reality we can no longer see or even imagine in our world. We can see, though, these three pillars of this reality – the Summa, the Comedy, and the Model of reality – as manifestations of our Catholic Faith. 

Catholic means whole. Our faith seeks an integral whole. One of the ancient Eucharistic Prayers, going back to the 2nd Century (maybe the 1st) refers to the bread as coming from grain “scattered on the hillsides” and gathered into one loaf (Didache). We like things in separate boxes not touching each other: the work box, the God box, the leisure box. Life can’t be divided that way. My life is not 8 hours of customer service for a website and then a couple of hours for God. I’d break: and so will all of us. So will our world if we divide it only further. Catholicism seeks to bring it all together into one loaf to offer it to God in thanksgiving (Eucharist).  Let us ask for the intercession of our Saint Louis to help us see the world we are seeking to offer to God, not cut up into parts, but offered as one whole in Christ.

——

Rabbi Talve said, “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” It’s important to realize that we are part of the “oppression” she indicates: the idea that Christianity is the fullness of God’s Truth and that we – as Christians – are not only morally obligated to act as such, but that we believe in our hearts that doing so will make everything better for everyone – including those who reject our ideas or Truth. Allowing the world to drift away from Christ’s Kingdom through our inaction or because we’re afraid of what people will say allows things to fall apart.

The question we received was about John Boswell’s 1994 book, “Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” wherein he posits the idea of a liturgical tradition of blessing same-sex couples. These rites exist: they are called “Adelphopoiesis” or “brother-making”. Common in the whole church until the 14th Century,  continuing in the East until the 20th, the rite is a blessing whereby two people of the same sex adopt each other as siblings, usually two brothers but sometimes two sisters. Boswell argues that the rite of Adelphopoiesis was a cultural continuation of the sexually intimate (mostly male) couples of ancient Greece and Rome. He implies that the Church simply adopted this cultural practice and that modern opposition to such couples is a relatively recent development in theology. The book includes English translations of the rites.

This week the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document called a Responsum (Response) answering a Dubia (doubt or question). This document was called, Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex, and it was answering the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The Responsum never says “Adelphopoiesis” it reads as if whoever posed the original question was holding the book and asking, “Can we do these rites?” Tl:dr Negative. Then the fewmets hit the windmill.

The use of Adelphopoiesis rites in the past to bless what we would call “gay relationships” assumes that our ancestors had these relationships to bless.  Boswell makes a leap many moderns do assuming (with a wink) that these were obviously sexual unions, even though this goes against the teachings of the Church. Boswell reads our modern assumptions into the past: a person’s identity is based on their desires. This is a type of what CS Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery” in Surprised by Joy: we know better than our ancestors about things like sex and know more about our ancestors than they did – especially in areas like sex. We know that when those people did these things they really were doing what we do even if they didn’t have the words for it. Critics of Boswell point out the use of these rites as political tools, ways to cement family alliances, and also ways to officially recognize reconciliations between opposing factions. Theological critics point out the historic teachings of the church on sexuality.

The modern idea of “sexual desire = identity” trips us up. If one’s desire defines oneself then should not the Church allow for the self to be celebrated? The theological response to that question is not our topic tonight but it is important to see that it is a new question

While there were women and men engaging in such actions, some arguing them to be good or neutral, the idea that these actions constituted a different type of person is very new – only about 100 years old. David F. Greenberg’s 700-page tome, The Construction of Homosexuality (University of Chicago, 1988) argues that  “homosexual” is a category that we have now as a result of the rise of market economies. Greenberg suggests the idea of “gay” is very modern. The only thing more recent than “gay” is “straight” which was formed in reaction to gay as a label. In 2014, First Things magazine published an article called “Against Heterosexuality” that rehashes much of this: worth a read.

Try reading ancient writers commenting on the morality of sex without reading  our ideas of identity into them. Paul did not condemn “alternative identities” nor did Jesus ever talk about “gay relationships” because those things did not exist as social categories. We cannot imagine their silence to indicate their approval any more than we should imagine their silence on television to be a sign of approval of Game of Thrones. Jesus and Paul discussed sexual sin.

This idea of “sin” is one that causes great concern in today’s society. It seems to be one of the “systems of oppression”: simply a way in which the church tries to control people. In fact, many Catholics seem to believe this as well. 

The Church sees her teachings on the human person as liberation. Being “honest about our history” includes being honest about the history of human sin. We remember that the Church’s teaching is freedom is not the ability to do whatever one wants but rather the ability to do the good. As Catholics, the culture of do whatever you will is the system of oppression from which we seek liberation. 

The Mystery of Reality

JMJ

This is part of a series of posts on the invocations of the Jesus Psalter. There is a menu of these posts at the bottom. The invocations will be considered thematically.

Jesu, Jesu, Jesu,
grant me grace to remember my death
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu,
send me here my purgatory

BE CAREFUL what you pray for, the old saying/joke goes, for you may get it. I’m calling these two invocations the mystery of reality because we often live in denial of both of them. The reality is we will die and most of us will do some time in purgatory. But we also die daily, and purgatory can be here instead of later, so I think it’s helpful to understand both death and purgatory.

“Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended…”

When a Christian contemplates death it is with a three-fold realization: on the one hand, we do so in the hope for to fall asleep here is to wake with Christ. On the other hand we do so in fear and awe or we will come face-to-face with the judge who knows everything and judges justly. Also, “Media vita in morte sumus quem quaerimus adjutorem nisi te, Domine, qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris?” This Antiphon, from Advent in medaeival usage, reminds us In the midst of life we are in death of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Even in our daily life we are surrounded by death. Death is the part of this world that was not intended (as far as we can understand). It is the result of sin. We allowed death into the world and, like kudzu in the south, it’s everywhere now. We don’t see it: we think it’s part of the natural order. It’s so common, but it’s literally the only thing that is not natural. It’s so common that sometimes when we indulge in things and feel like “really alive” we’re actually only dealing in death and more death.

All such cases are sin: disordered use of God’s creation. We are offended by that idea of “disorder” but all sin is disorder. All sin is a misuse of God’s creation. We are in the midst of death. This is the reality we refuse to see. This is the reality we pray to have grace to remember.

With death comes judgement, the final moment. This happens outside of time in God’s eternity and therefore it is a mystery. For us on Earth and inside time it is a sadness to see Soul separated from Body as was never intended. But in eternity where things do not change I’m not sure it’s quite like that. Seems to me there cannot be two moments of time in eternity – one of death and one of judgement. Do we needlessly complicate things when we insist on seeing them both? In the sense that the final judgment place out in eternity there is some wibbly wobbly timey wimey way where I must even now be standing before the judgement seat watching my life play out. Holy Angels and Saints praying for mercy and all the prayers, including mine, ascending and affecting my life now. This present moment is in some way the shockwave of the Eschaton – flowing forward to that final climax.

In being mindful of Death, we pray to be mindful of judgement. It’s also around us, each moment of death is also a moment of judgement. As the moment passes it is judged. It can never be redone and it can never be undone. We feel this passing as pain and, markedly, we don’t like pain. We run from pain. We dodge it at every turn. While pain (as it I hit my thumb with a hammer and it hurts) is not something to be sought, it is also a part of life. In our process of avoiding pain, we often just run to things that make us feel good: and so often, that’s a disordered misuse of God’s creation. A sin. We become addicted to sin – it makes us feel good. We even craft “identities” around sin. And so, we need purgatory to pull us away. We need to pain to purge us.

David the King asks God to “purge me with hyssop” in Psalm 51. Hyssop is a laxative. David’s asking to be cleansed inside and out. Our sins need that level of cleansing – they have that sort of hold on our lives: constipation can be a spiritual reality as it is a physical one. Purgatory which we pray for here, is this spiritual laxative.

We are asking God to purge us: to remove our blockages or hangups around sin. But more: the same Psalm speaks of healing bones which God has broken. If you’ve studied anything around the human body you know that sometimes you have to break bones again to allow them to heal. Yes, this can happen if the bones have healed poorly, but it’s a process used in other parts of medicine like orthotics. If a child’s feet have matured in the wrong shapes, they may be broken so as to give them a chance to heal in the correct way. Or in physical therapy: if muscles have formed in the wrong way, it is a painful process to reform them by constantly re-training them to move correctly. Any discomfort, any pain in a doctor’s office could be cause for a lawsuit. Even Therapists are mindful of causing emotional discomfort. This is how far we are from reality: I had a dentist apologize repeatedly for cleaning my teeth. Being mindful of death and accepting pain – even asking for both – puts us face to face with a reality that most people in the world today not only avoid, but take active steps to deny.

When we ask for purgatory here, we are asking God to take the time we have devoted to sin, and turn it into a time of healing. It’s a brave step: one that asks God to take over now and begin a process that in our theology requires fire. But that fire is God. It is his love purging us. And, while we know this in eternity, asking for it now means also asking for the faith to accept it as part of the reality of a Christian. We are asking for pain: it may be spiritual or physical, it could be mental or emotional. It could be all of the above. But it will be real.

Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi, Jesu.

Jesus Psalter Menu
Introduction
The Mystery of Mercy
The Mystery of Relationship
The Mystery of Reality

7LW: Father

JMJ

This is the final post in a series on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.

WITH GOD AS OUR Father brothers all are we.” That’s a line from the 1955 song Let There be Peace on Earth, composed by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller. It’s a bit treacly, but it was intended for a children’s choir so that’s ok. It’s the Father line I want to call out. Man is created by God. In that respect, God is our Father as Geppetto can be said to be the father of Pinocchio. God is the Father, in this respect, of all creation: all of existence is equally from the hand of the same God. It matters not if you believe in creationism or some form of theistic evolution where God tends us as we evolve. God is the source of all that is, and so a Father. This is certainly no scandal at all. Addressing the Creator as Father is a concept going way back. In some cultures it’s not only the creator that gets this title, it’s every “elder being” if you will, or anything higher up the spiritual food chain.

Jesus’ experience of God as Father was different though. The clergy and people who came to hear him talk called him out on this. John 5:18 says, “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” To use a modern phrase, they saw what he did there. This became a stumbling block for both Jews, who felt it blasphemous against monotheism and, later, for Gentiles who while allowing deities to have children, felt the child of a peasant stock who died a traitor to Ceasar and a common criminal was clearly not one of The Family. But, dear reader, this is not the real scandal, nor even that we Christians worship this dead criminal.

We claim that through this dead criminal we, too, have the same relationship to God. The theological term is “filiation” or “son-becoming”. When the spirit of Christ resides in us we call God by a personal name, Abba. Not a title, not a status, but by relationship which we enjoy by participation in the Body of Christ. That is a scandal. We actually claim a relationship that others – who place themselves outside of the Body of Christ – do not have. We claim kinship with God.

And so this prayer of Our Lord, Father, into thy hands..., must become our prayer at every moment. Over and over we must commend to the Father ourselves and one another and all our lives as the Byzantine Liturgy phrases it. This last word must be our first word and, indeed, our only word. The more we pray it the more we must make use of it to pray it all the more: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.

Spirit here is the Greek word, πνεῦμά, pneuma and it gets used twice in this verse, although we miss it because we’re not reading the Greek. The last word in the verse is ἐξέπνευσεν exepnusen he “breathed his last” one might also render it “he spirited his last” and I think St Luke intends us to hear it both ways at the same time. Jesus is not handing over his “ghost” to the Father: the Son and the Father aspirate the Holy Spirit between them. Jesus is disconnecting here. And he will sink into hell itself to free us all.

We are called to render every breath to God the Father, through the Son (in whose body we participate) in the communion of the Holy Spirit. We are made sons in Christ not as mere creations but as Children of our Heavenly Father.

Sin is a damage to this relationship. I was listening to Gomer and Dave talk about this topic in their episode on Divine Filiation. Gomer pointed out that we’re so used to thinking of Sin as a breaking of a rule: venial sins are little rules, mortal sins are big rules. But sin is a shattering of this relationship of son-ness with Father. It destroys us, literally, as sons of God. We do this in other ways in our culture too: we “identify” as things that are not what God made us to be. In fact, we deny science to do this, and make stuff up. But our pretend “identities” are not who God can save: God can only save who we are, and can only raise us to what he intends us to be: the body of his Son. Our venial sins may never add up to one mortal sin, but they damage us too, our perceptions, our minds, our spiritual vision, can no longer see the road before us. And we all the more easily fall into mortal sin, then.

So every action: every breath you take, every move you make… every step you take must be rendered to God. Into thy hands I commend…

Accompanying

JMJ

WHEN I ENTERED the Church in 2002 my Spiritual Father, Victor Sokolov (may his memory be eternal!) heard my life confession which included my sexual past. He didn’t ask questions as I read off several pages of text I had written up for this. I followed a preparation for confession that I found online, drawn up by St Cosmas Aitolos, a Greek Monk who died in 1779. I remember it mostly because it asks (among all the other questions), “Did I smoke too much?” It seemed funny to me, an ex-smoker, that there must be smoking not-too-much. It’s that question, though, that we’ll keep coming back to. Did I smoke too much? I had been a pack-a-day smoker in college. Although by this time I was pretty much done, sorta, with smoking. When the Confession was over, Father pointed to the pages and said, “Now, burn those and forget that ever happened.” Would that it was that easy for smoking or any of the other sins on the list.

A Spiritual Father (in the Eastern Church) is rather like a Spiritual Director in the west: someone who shines a light on the way, who taps you on the shoulder and calmly suggests another way to proceed. There are some who seem to think they must require “obedience” of their spiritual children, but that’s an unhealthy bond. Fr V told me one “I’m no starets. If you want one of those, go to a monastery.” Starets means “Elder”. What he was, though, was a Father to me who (like all good fathers) was able to let one make mistakes in order to learn how not to make them any more.

My experience over the last 20 years (thank God for his patience) has been that a couple of sins have come back over and over. Smoking is one – although that’s more of a class of sins: damaging the temple of the body that God gave me: bad stewardship of a generous gift. I’ve gone from over-indulgence to judgmentalism and scrupulosity on this, back and forth across a spectrum until I have reached a place where my conscience is at peace both with those who smoke and with the occasional pipe or cigar on my own part: all God’s gifts are good, when used as they should be. Addiction is not using a gift as it should be used. It’s letting passion take over. We cannot heal that, cannot return the gift to its rightful place until we let reason take over our passions and let the virtue of temperance be inculcated in our heart by the Holy Spirit.

The close reader will notice that I used language from the Catechism there. All of our falls from grace function the same way: a good gift from God is used in ways that it should not be, doing so inflames our passions, and quickly the misuse of the gift becomes an addiction. The Catechism uses this language, speaking of Temperance, in ¶2341 while discussing Chastity.

¶2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. the alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”

¶2340 Whoever wants to remain faithful to his baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer. “Indeed it is through chastity that we are gathered together and led back to the unity from which we were fragmented into multiplicity.”

¶2341 The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.

¶2342 Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.

¶2343 Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. “Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”

¶2344 Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.

¶2345 Chastity is a moral virtue. It is also a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort. The Holy Spirit enables one whom the water of Baptism has regenerated to imitate the purity of Christ.

Rather than rules, the discussion is one of growth, of acquisition of virtue, and of respect for the process working out in the person’s life.

Such sins are another that haunt me. Within a year of confessing to Fr Victor I was living with a partner and had come to terms with the mental and theological gymnastics it took to make that happen. Then I said to Fr Victor I had to leave SF: because this part of my past kept calling me back. Notice please that I didn’t feel a need to do anything except to move away to fix the issue. For a very long time (several years) I was pretty safe in the Mountain Fastness I had selected (Asheville, NC) but the Internet was also getting more and more social. Eventually, I “met” someone online and the whole game was once again afoot.

The life of Saint Mary of Egypt (d. AD 522) is read as part of Matins in the Byzantine and Orthodox churches on Thursday of the 5th week of Lent. Her life was written down by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), from older stories passed down in his monastic community. The original reporter was the monastic elder, St Zosimas, who heard the story from the Saint’s own lips. What follows is not the liturgical text – available online in many places. This is my own retelling. It’s ingrained in my heart.

Saint Mary was born sometime in the early to mid 5th century. We know nothing of her family or background. I imagine that she was poor because she is not averse to manual labor. She busied herself with spinning flax, basket weaving, and other such jobs. She says at the age of 12 she discovered sex: Mary went off to the big city of Alexandria and began to enjoy herself. At this time and culture marriage often took place at the same age, and in those days life expectancy was not then what it is now. Mary is not a child here. She is a girl in her sexual prime doing what youth often do.

In telling the story, Mary was at pains to say she was not a prostitute. She did not want to sell what she enjoyed as she did not think it was fair to be paid for it. She lived this life for 17 years in Alexandria. “This was life to me,” she says. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.”

One day Mary saw a group of young men getting ready to get on a boat. In response to her questions about where they were going and why, the men explained that they were going to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which happens in mid September. Mary asked to go with them not for any pious pursuit, implying rather that it seemed like a fun idea to be the only woman on a boat filled with young men. On the boat ride and during their time in the city of Jerusalem leading up to the feast day, there was nothing she didn’t do. She says that sometimes she even had sex with the young men when they were not willing to do so.

Then came the feast. With all of her new friends-with-benefits, she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. No matter how many times she tried to get in, she was prevented from entering the church. It was not that the crowds prevented her: she would shove along with everybody else. Yet each time approaching the door she found force holding her back and pushing her off to the side until finally she was alone on the porch of the church, looking at the open door, unable to enter.

Then she turned and saw an icon of Mary the Mother of God. She realized she was not alone and grace cause it to dawn on her why she could not enter. So she prayed and asked the Blessed Virgin to help her enter the church. If she could but enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross, she prayed, she would make amends and change her life, embarking on the path of repentance for the rest of her days. Then, in her greatest Act of Faith, she turned and walked into the church – and she was not held back. She knelt and kissed the holy wood whereupon hung the price of all of our lives and souls and, most dearly, hers.

As she left the church, someone thought she was a beggar and gave her coins, which she used to buy a small amount of food. Then, hearing a voice promise her comfort, she went to the Jordan River and crossed it into the desert, which for the next 17 years became the arena of the Angelic Conquest of her passions.

Mary reports that emotions would sometimes stir her; sometimes lust would catch hold of her, sometimes her cravings for food would drive her wild, and sometimes she would find herself singing songs that she used to sing about sex and vulgarity. At these times she would throw herself on the ground and beg for God’s mercy where she would wrestle with the demons that tormented her. There she would beg to be freed from her passion. After her long battle, one day there came from God an inner peace.

She had lived alone for another 40 or so years when she met Fr Zosima, a priest from a monastery on the Jerusalem side of the Jordan River. He was wandering through the Jordan desert on his Lenten fast.

The priest reported that when he begged her to pray for the Church and she hovered above the sandy floor of the wasteland while praying. She was illiterate and had never been taught scripture yet she could quote it fluently. From her inner sight, she knew Fr Zosima’s name and that he was a priest. She had won her struggle, receiving so much grace from God that she lived in this world partly as the Angels do in the next. She had grown – over decades – into Self Mastery.

She asked the priest to meet her after Easter with the Holy Eucharist. As he came to her from his monastery, he saw her walk across the Jordan to receive the Eucharist from him and then walk back across the water.

A year later, when he went to find her, he found her body lying on the sand. Unable to dig into the hard ground to bury her, he prayed. A lion came and helped him dig.

The Golden Legend is a collection of the Lives of the Saints, compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, a priest from Genoa. In it are hundreds of stories collected from around the Church. The entry on St Mary the Egyptian closes with these words:

And Zosimus returned to his abbey and recounted to his brethren the conversation of this holy woman Mary. And Zosimus lived an hundred years in holy life, and gave laud to God of all his gifts, and his goodness that he receiveth sinners to mercy, which with good heart turn to him, and promiseth to them the joy of heaven.

Then let us pray to this holy Mary the Egyptian that we may be here so penitent that we may come thither.

Every year during Orthodox Lent, when the Life of St Mary of Egypt would be read in liturgy, I was moved to tears. I saw in her so much of my own journey: the discovery of sex, the enjoyment of sex, and the life of someone devoted to finding “every kind of abuse of nature”. This was life to me: in fact I identified “myself” as this very thing. Her story had always told me there was hope, a way out, there was not only the chance of change but also the grace-filled reality of it. Then, one year, doing the liturgical service of a lector, I came to the part where she said, “I am amazed, Abba… that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.” And it hit me that I was speaking for myself. I was unable to finish my reading and a friend seeing my distress stepped in while I went to the corner and wept.

Had I really gone (at that point) nearly 15 years since entering the Church without realizing my sins were selfish, causing the fall of others as well as myself?

Yes.

Was God really merciful, desiring not the death of a sinner but his conversion?

Yes. And more.

The Church recognizes that to cut someone off from her sacraments because they are not pure enough is to desire the death of sinner as certainly as it would be to bless them in their sins. Both are taking the easy way out, failing to believe in and support the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those he seeks to convert. Beginning with Fr Victor, no priest has ever sent me away: each instead has called me to conversion in love – even when I refused to understand or pretended to be ignorant of what that conversion meant. This is how Fr V and so many other priests have accompanied me on my journey: carefully making sure I stayed on my journey, although I am no where near finished. They call me to

Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life… though self-knowledge, practice of an ascesis adapted to the situations that confront him, obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, and fidelity to prayer.

There are those in the Church who respond to sexual sins in one of two ways: they either ignore these sins by condoning them or they demand instant resolution and purity. Either these sins do not matter, or else they matter too much. We want someone to be “fixed” before they enter the Church, or we say such language is outdated and must be changed. We want to refuse admittance to those who do not fully understand the consequences of their reception. We deny the power of the sacraments, of Christ himself, working in the lives of the persons so rejected. And we refuse to see the working out of salvation, wanting people to be cured before they ever enter the hospital. Both of these groups are afraid of risk.

Those who fit into the first group often want to justify other things as well: their own sins or other changes to doctrine and tradition. They may disguise it as a need for “justice” but what they want is to be Anglicans who can pick and choose from a list of doctrines as they would from a buffet table at the Golden Corral. They may even want to pick things up for now but put them back later ad libitum. They are afraid to risk the possibility that the ancient ways might be truth – that they may, themselves, be required to follow them. They also fear our secular world’s confusion of “tough love” with hate. Those in the second group are afraid that they will be contaminated by impurity. They are also afraid that by letting in “Those People” the church will be made to change her teaching – as if that was possible at all. They are afraid they will be damned for loving too much as if there was such a thing. For love – real Love – can never be “too much”. Both groups, in their risk aversion, will only love so much: only to a point. Both groups trip up the weaker brother who need conversion and can only get there by love.

We need Christians that will love so much that they teach what the Church teaches, and are not afraid either to say those teachings out loud. Nor are they afraid to forgive those who do not yet fully embody those teachings. We need Spiritual Fathers and Mothers, elder Brother and Sisters in the faith. This is real accompaniment: to walk with, equally guiding and guarding in love, bringing the Christian to self-mastery.

The Undragoning

JMJ

IAM CRUCIFIED with Christ,” said St Paul. “Yet I live, not I but Christ who lives in me.” What is “I” here? Who is crucified? Certainly St Paul had endured a lot in his life after conversion – scourgings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger, homelessness, long labors. I’m sure there were nights of hunger on the road as well, and times of loneliness. The Epistles document some emotional turmoil as well: riffs with friends and coworkers, trouble with disciples and the Church. If Paul had an Irish mother she would say, “Offer it up!” But Paul says, “I am crucified”. What gets nailed down?

In CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader there is the story of Eustace, the boy who was turned into a dragon. Finally, Eustace is saved from being a dragon by Aslan, the savior lion. Aslan takes Eustace-the-Dragon to a lake to bathe and, for a while he lets the dragon wash himself and scrape off the old scales. Then finally, Aslan takes matters into his own paws and begins to rip the dragon-ishness off of Eustace, layer by layer. At the end of the “undragoning of Eustace” he’s a boy again, finally able to rejoin his friends as a human. He’s been helping them as a dragon up til now, though – flying around and lifting heavy things like a dragon can do, starting fires to keep people warm, and the like. But now, as a boy, he can return to them as an equal. Thing was, he didn’t want to be a dragon: although he was one for ever so long. He wanted to be human again.

Only humans can be crucified with Christ: dragons cannot be.

When you were conceived your father’s sperm joined your mother’s egg. They fused together, and in that instant, God created for you a spirit which flamed to life and, from that moment you are half Mom’s DNA and half Dad’s DNA and 100% God’s. This is your heart: it’s always with you. Your beingness is this. In the last day, your body and spirit will still be. This cannot be undone for, for God, un-being is a quality he cannot have. And since your being arises in him, being you shall always be. This is the heart of humanness: this union of spirit and body that is half Mom, half Dad, and fully God. The thing is, from that moment, for all of us, there is something that keeps us from connecting to it, something that keeps us from entering this heart and doing the one thing that we need to do – which is offer it to God. Yes, God is there, dwelling at the core of our being, like it or not, for it cannot be otherwise for any being. (The demons know this about themselves and loathe the knowledge and their very selves.) But God, at the core of our being, waits for us to come to him.

To do so we must be undragoned.

Some of our dragon layers are things we made up: ideas about who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. Some of these layers are things the world did to us: our parents, schools, pop-science, bad theology, and politics. Some of these layers are the results of our sins: fake ideas of self built on false foundations, then facades added, and layers of plaster to hold the facade in place, and huge flying buttresses to hold the plaster, and then finally giant works of art applied to the outside to make everything look pretty. We are Gothic cathedrals of fake selves. When we come to Christ, we hope to worship God in this temple – God welcomes us just as we are! But we soon discover this temple we built is the first thing that has to go. We take some art down, we take some arches away and say, “Now it’s ok”. But God says, “More.” OK, let me open the doors and rearrange the seating. But God only says, “More.”

Eventually, we realize that we must offer the whole thing to the Divine Demolition Artist and he begins to tear it down. Each removal, each destruction will hurt like hell. It will feel like we’re finally being crucified. We’re finally offering everything to God. But dragons (our fake selves) cannot be crucified. Only humans can be. Each removal is only preparation for more demolition, each departure of some well-beloved thing of merely-sinful beauty is only the prepwork.

This can take forever. It’s the whole purpose of Purgatory: but we can let God start on this now, if we dare.

In the end, and only by God’s power, we can be fully undragoned. Only then, devoid of our false layers, can we be crucified.

7LW: Telos

JMJ

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post.

It is finished.

Perelandra Is CS Lewis’ brilliant and engaging meditation on the Fall. It takes place on Venus in the 1940s where God is making a new race of persons and they are again being tempted to fall away from him. The action plays out through human intervention: God sends an earthman there to act for good since an earthly scientist is already going there in a spaceship, unwittingly to act as the agent of evil. I say “unwittingly” because the scientist believes in nothing: neither good nor evil. The man that is sent, Dr Ransom, is a believer in Christianity but it’s not the Christian faith he’s sent to bring to Venus. Over the course of the novel, Ransom actually plays out more of the role of St Michael than of Christ, defending the Venusian Eve from the wickedness and snares of the devil (being channeled by the scientist). Provided with a tempter and a defender, Eve, must undergo the trial and make her choices. No real spoilers here, but there are deep thoughts in the book about what humanity would have been like without The Fall or the need for redemption.

Man is created in God’s “image and likeness”. What does this mean? The Church Fathers have tossed the question back and forth since while acknowledging that we are fallen now so we cannot know for certain what it would have been like before. But there are some key signs: like our creator we have Free Will. Like our creator we, too, are creators. These hallmarks are damaged in the fall. There is a third, I think, and Lewis draws it out fully in Perelandra. As Children of one divine Father, we are meant to be in as intimate communication with him as God the Son is with his Father, offering back our love in the communion of the Holy Spirit and participating in the Divine life, even as we have our own, individual actions and lives here. In the Fall our ability to do so is lost. We hear other communications, other voices – our passions, from the world around us, our fallen affections and sex drives, our desires, and temptations. Our communication skills are so damaged that many of us hear those other voices and assume they are god. Some hear those other voices and don’t think of them as divine but follow them anyway. Even the devout are torn: we cannot hear the will of God as easily as we can talk to a friend in Slack or Zoom.

We are lost. We don’t hear God (or we think we do when only an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”). Our creative skills turn inward to make golden idols, and our free will is damaged so that we usually pick the wrong things. Yet, God loves us. God dies for us.

It is finished.

This sometimes gets played up like it might mean the debt for our sins is paid by Jesus, or that our redemption is accomplished here – when it’s not: the resurrection and the ascension are both part of our salvation-in-process. Yes, the blood of Christ saves us, but not from some cosmic debt we cannot pay, so God paid himself by his own blood.

It is finished. What? Fr John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death offers an extended meditation on this question: What is finished? He follows the Patristic tradition as does CS Lewis’s work. The Greek word gives the clue: Τετέλεσται tetelestai, fulfilled – brought to its proper conclusion or use.

Adam and Eve were not yet “adult” in the Garden. All of human history was thrown off by, in essence, two teens letting their hormones get the best of them. Think Romeo & Juliet as not a romance but rather, “two teens disobey their parents, do what they shouldn’t do and a lot of people die”. The Garden is not about two adults making choices, it’s about two kids failing to grow up.

The Cross is God dragging us out of puberty into adulthood, bringing us to our Telos. We can decide to keep running around doing whatever we want, or, now we have the option to reconnect to God. To open our hearts to the same level of intimacy enjoyed by the Son with his Father, to have our creativity restored to its rightful use to glorify God, to have our passions put in right order, to have God as our Father, not just our creator.

It is finished: we’ve been reconnected, rewired. We now have our freedom to respond. Time to grow up, to reach our telos which is only possible through the cross.

7LW: Thirst

JMJ

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. I used this same text last year: but I was limited to a five-minute talk. This is the director’s cut, slightly up-dated because it’s a year later. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post. I’m late on this one. I had a term paper for Church History. Sorry!

I thirst.

MANY OF US as children have woken up at night and asked for a glass of water. Maybe as a parent our child wakes up and asks: Mommy, can I have a glass of water?

These words of our Lord, “I thirst” sound like that same cry.

We wake at night, in the dark, alone, afraid: and we really want Mommy. But “I’m thirsty” is what we say: it makes sense, it’s the feeling we have: our mouth is dry, our throat constricted. As a child, in the night, we don’t have exact words for it so I must be thirsty. But as adults we know what causes it: in the middle of the night, fear is what wakes us up.

No adult says, at that point, “Mommy, can I have some water?” Adults lay in bed and have a panic attack or get out of bed and take more meds: we have to get up to work tomorrow. We deal with the fear in our ways, looking out in the darkness and letting the tapes play over and over in our head.

I thirst.

The eternal, Triune God, in the Second Person in Human Flesh, is crying out because of a dry mouth, part of the whole Flight or Fight thing that the same God built into us for our protection.

This is God’s human weakness. Flight or fight, impossible with both feat and hands nailed down. Unable to even care for one’s needs like a child.

The God who made water. Who made mouths. Who made the nervous system. This God is afraid. This God is thirsty. This God… is about to die.

Was one of the first words ever taught to the Baby, the Word learning words, “yisemeh” – the Aramaic for “Thirsty”? His mother, standing there at the foot of the cross, hears her own baby again crying out “yisemeh”.

There is an icon, much beloved, called “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” In the East it is called the Theotokos of the Passion. In it the child, Jesus, is held in Mary’s arms. About his head, two angels holding the instruments of the passion fly. One sandal is flopping loose because he didn’t tie it on. The story is that Jesus, the child, had a dream of his passion and cross and, waking up in fear. He ran to his mother for protection.

Eemma…Mommy… Yisemeh!

There is another, not so well known icon, the Akhtyr Icon of the Theotokos. Mary has much the same posture as in the Perpetual help icon, but Jesus is not in her arms.

Yisemeh!

Brothers and Sisters. This is love.

In this time of danger.
In this time of death.
In this time of fear.

God knows… we are all thirsty. We cannot have the chalice. Some of us still cannot even come to mass. We cannot touch to hug, to hold, or shake hands. This is a crucifixion for us. Some do this for safety, but we do not do this out of fear: rather it is out of love for our neighbor, for those who are weakest among us, for those who are most vulnerable.

Our hands are held back, our heart breaks, our love restrains us. Touch – when touch is most needed…

We thirst! We cry out to our mother, the Church who stands by watching and weeping for us.

Our God knows and understands: this is love.

In this time of danger.
In this time of death.
In this time of fear.

Christ our God has been here before us. Become of love, he has faced in mortal flesh, fear and death.

And Jesus has the victory.

We thirst with him today…
He will make us victorious with him.

7LW: Eloi

JMJ

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Seven Last Words of Our Lord from the cross. There is a menu and a posting schedule at the bottom of this post. I’m late on this one. I had a termpaper for Church History. Sorry!

My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken me.

ONE Hears That when you die, your “life passes before your eyes”. I have wondered about Jesus’ memory on the Cross. What was he thinking there, at that time. Put aside the spiritual issue of salvation and the theological issues of the God-Man and passion. In the excruciating pain of steal in your hands and feet and side, of raw wood ripping at the open wounds on your back, of the gashes on your head; in the derision of the masses, the blood and sweat burning in your eyes that you cannot touch, the nakedness of your body before gentile soldiers laughing at your circumcision, and your mother horrified before you and weeping, what the actual can you be thinking? Did Jesus life pass before his eyes?

As a human baby with no words and a gelatinous brain, Jesus would have no memory of that first night in the cave, of the angels singing, of the shepherds, of the Magi. My earliest memory is at about 14 months, so I’ll project that on the God-Man as a child: so maybe, by the time Herod dies? Jesus might remember leaving Egypt for Nazareth. Then there are sketchy memories from 1.5 years to 1st Grade. I don’t remember 2nd and 3rd grade at all, although I remember things at home in that time. By 4th Grade, though, I have a more concrete collection of memories and this continues up through college, pretty much, although a friend or two will point out (as I blog) that my memories are not always the same ones they have.

Jesus has a human memory. What passes through his mind now? Does Jesus think back and wonder, Where did I go wrong? Were things much simpler in Egypt? Things were easier in Nazareth. I was making good things happen in Capernaum.

I have a tendency to flash back to earlier times and think, “What if I could go back there and fix this?” The other day I had sort of a mental flashback to the mid 90s when the tv show Absolutely Fabulous was very popular. It was also controversial because it was too dark and a bit risque for television. I was not a fan because it highlighted all of our darker sides and created anti-heroes out of the two main characters and, eventually, out of literally all the show. But that’s nowhere near as dark as the evening news, now. Remember when times were that simple? Everything has been downhill since AbFab. Actually, for me, the proper time of TV is in the 70s, with MASH, Mary Tyler Moore,and All in the Family. Maude was pretty brilliant, too. And all of those were pretty risque for their time. But in today’s world of fantasy fetish porn Game of Thrones and sex-murder cult American Horror Story, and death soap-operas, Walking Dead and True Blood (you can tell when I stopped watching current TV now) even the cop dramas of the 70s feel like Sunday School material.

Times were simpler then – and for me. The worst I had to worry about was, Had I done my homework and will Mom notice I only rinsed the dishes and wiped them before I put them away? Time to watch Mork and Mindy!

Why did I ever leave Nazareth? Right now, pierced hands and feet, blood, sweat and tears, what is going trough Jesus mind?

Before college, the summer after graduation, I had a breakdown. Mom found me sitting in a dark office crying. The last thing I wanted to do was leave home. I think it’s the last time I remember being “Mom-ed” as she came over and held me, and just let me cry. 39 years later, I know things were simpler before that time. Mom’s computer on which I typed all my college term papers, was orange text on a black screen. Although it was only set up to be a word processor, I could make it do other things by writing programming in basic. To the amazement of my mom’s boss, the list of all 6 digit numbers that could be pulled in the lottery filled pages and pages of text proving, “the lottery is a tax on the mathematically challenged.” We still pull only 6 numbers (some things never change) but no one bats an eye at a $4,000,000 pot anymore.

I could have stayed in Bethany. Lazarus is a good friend, no one would care if I took up fishing with Peter… but I don’t like fishing. I could have stayed wood working with Dad.

But I have this thing to do.

College was a huge mistake – expensive, unneeded, and undirected. My 30 years in customer service have taught me much more than all the classes I took except for my classes in Western Civ and Religion. I learned how to research and argue my points in those classes – skills that I have needed all along. And, in a class on Judaism, I learned that Jesus would have been able to eat cheeseburgers – because the whole meat and dairy thing wasn’t a thing yet. Even ancient religions evolve.

Lazarus makes good cheeseburgers.

We all have this mission though. St Thomas refers to the processions of the Word and of Love in God. The Word proceeds from the Father, and the Love proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Word incarnate in the world, the Love flowing out through all of us who are now the Body of the Son. We, too, process. Mission is the action of Love in the world through the Body of the Word.

Nothing is simple. At all. We try to discern through consolations, though peace, through “knowing this is the right thing to do…” but that’s not the answer. I should go until God tells me to stop… would have had Jesus not on the cross. Goodness gracious, I would still be in the 70s watching Brady Bunch and eating Pilsbury Food Sticks. (I used to twist together the orange and chocolate ones.)

If we rip out our desire for peace, for comfort, for consolations that make us feel good, though, where does that leave us? We bravely walk forward on Mission and God never tells us to stop.

And then we die.

And still we die.

Did Jesus remember everything or was some of it a bit fuzzy now, and more so with the lack of oxygen. Did he realize the only way forward is to just keep walking?

And die.

I don’t hear Jesus’ cry as one of despair or even loss. It’s a teaching moment.

This is where all of us humans end up – sometimes daily. We have to reach a point beyond which all we have is faith.

Then we have to keep walking as we realize the only choice is turning back (not possible, really, and still likely to lead to death) or go forward (and die).

Let’s roll.