Monday, March 31, 2014

Fr. Victorino Osende on Detachment from All Things and Union with God

In order to assimilate and make the divine gifts his own, therefore, man must cooperate with the action of God; in other words, he must be faithful to grace and second its impulse in order to be capable of enjoying the divine life in its plenitude.

How does one accomplish this? By self-denial and detachment from all that is not of God. A great spiritual master (Tauler) has well said: Perfection does not consist in doing great things, but in allowing God to be great within us. That is, it consists in making room for God, in giving Him the greatest possible space in our heart. This is done precisely by fostering the action of grace without offering any resistance (for grace itself inclines and impels us to it), letting ourselves be led by this supernatural movement and cooperating with it as much as we can. [...] Nothing so enlarges the heart and increases its capacity to love as does suffering.

It is not enough that a heart be divested of all if that "all" is of little worth. It must be a total and complete despoliation of all the goods which we esteem highly and whose surrender will wound us in the innermost depths of our soul and tear at the very roots of our heart. That is why in the purification of souls God inspires profound and ardent affections and afterwards exacts their renunciation. Moreover, the more intensely and profoundly He wishes to purify a soul and the higher the degree of sanctity to which He wishes to elevate it, the more occasion does He give it for self-renunciation and suffering.

Thus, He first exacts the renunciation of the love of the base pleasures of this world, then the love of life and health, then the more elevated love of parents, relatives, friends, and perhaps even of country. Afterwards comes the renunciation of moral goods such as the love of renown and the desire to be respected and loved; then the spiritual values in their endless gradation. To this end God sends sicknesses, humiliations, temptations, desolations, fears, and, in short, the whole series of interior sufferings which St. John of the Cross calls the "dark night of the soul." He does this in order to give the soul a realization of the vanity of all temporal things and to inspire it to practice mortification and penance. However, it is not necessary that a soul undergo each of these sufferings in particular; all do not need the same purgation because all do not have to be purged of the same defects, vices, and attachments. But what is necessary for all, however innocent they may be, is the martyrdom of love. The Blessed Virgin herself, though pure and immaculate, had to suffer this martyrdom, and with a greater intensity than all the saints together.


Source: Fr. Victorino Osende, Fruits of Contemplation, trans. by a Dominican Sister of the Perpetual Rosary (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1963), 72-73.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Fr. Antonio Royo Marin on Attachments and Discernment

We should consider frequently that the Holy Ghost dwells within us through sanctifying grace. If we were able to detach ourselves completely from all earthly things and withdraw to the silence and recollection of our own interior, we would undoubtedly hear the voice of God speaking within us. This is not a question of an extraordinary grace; it would be something completely normal and ordinary in a Christian life that is lived fully. Why then do we not hear the voice of the Holy Ghost? In the first place, because of our habitual dissipation. God is within us, but we live outside ourselves. The interior man, as Thomas à Kempis says, is recollected very quickly because he never diffuses himself completely to the exterior. The Holy Spirit himself says that he will lead us to solitude and will speak there to our hearts (cf. Hos 2:14).

God could speak to us in the depths of our souls and be heard above the noise of our distractions and attachments, but he does not choose to impose himself nor to take form us our own initiative. Consequently, God is not heard amidst the noise and distractions of a sensate soul. If he finds that a soul is occupied with many other earthly things, he stands at the door and waits. He does not force himself upon the soul; he does not enter if he is not wanted. And even if the soul is in the state of grace and enjoys the indwelling of the Trinity, God's presence is silent and hidden until the soul itself turns to him with love and attention.

Another reason why we do not hear the voice of God within us is our own sensuality [NB: the author here means sensuality literally as our physicality and our giving ourselves to physical things]. We are flesh and bone, and unless we are careful we shall have a taste only for the external and sensate things. The animal man, says St. Paul, does not perceive the things of the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:14). For that reason it is absolutely indispensable that we cultivate and preserve a spirit of mortification. The sensate man does not hear the voice of God; indeed, one of the first things that is lost by the person who gives himself over to the things of the world, and especially to sensual delight, is a taste for prayer and the things of God.

The third reason why we do not hear the voice of God is our own disordered affection. So weakened is human nature as a result of original sin that, even in seeking God, a man may deceive himself and actually seek himself. It is not at all unusual to find persons who are externally very pious and observant in their religious duties, but inwardly filled with egoism and self-complacency. The disorderliness of our affection is readily seen when it is a question of the passions of love and the bodily instincts, but we should not forget that the will itself can easily deviate from God and seek self as the object of love. Christ warned his followers several times that it is impossible to love God and a creature on the same level of love; one must necessarily be subordinated to the other. He likewise warned that he did not want a lukewarm and tepid love, but that he would vomit it out of his mouth.

It is easy to see, therefore, why those who seek themselves first, and even subordinate God to themselves, hear only the voice of their own desires, while God remains silent. It follows that we must detach ourselves from every created affection and subordinate all things, including ourselves, to the God who dwells within us.


Source: Fr. Antonio Royo Marín, The Theology of Christian Perfection, trans. by Jordan Aumann (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 582-584.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas on Offending the Wicked in Preaching

Objection 1. It would seem that Christ should have preached to the Jews without offending them. For, as Augustine says (De Agone Christ. xi): "In the Man Jesus Christ, a model of life is given us by the Son of God." But we should avoid offending not only the faithful, but even unbelievers, according to 1 Corinthians 10:32: "Be without offense to the Jews, and to the Gentiles, and to the Church of God." Therefore it seems that, in His teaching, Christ should also have avoided giving offense to the Jews.

Objection 2. Further, no wise man should do anything that will hinder the result of his labor. Now through the disturbance which His teaching occasioned among the Jews, it was deprived of its results; for it is written (Luke 11:53-54) that when our Lord reproved the Pharisees and Scribes, they "began vehemently to urge Him, end to oppress His mouth about many things; lying in wait for Him, and seeking to catch something from His mouth, that they might accuse Him." It seems therefore unfitting that He should have given them offense by His teaching.

Objection 3. Further, the Apostle says (1 Timothy 5:1): "An ancient man rebuke not; but entreat him as a father." But the priests and princes of the Jews were the elders of that people. Therefore it seems that they should not have been rebuked with severity.

On the contrary, It was foretold (Isaiah 8:14) that Christ would be "for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offense to the two houses of Israel."

I answer that, The salvation of the multitude is to be preferred to the peace of any individuals whatsoever. Consequently, when certain ones, by their perverseness, hinder the salvation of the multitude, the preacher and the teacher should not fear to offend those men, in order that he may insure the salvation of the multitude. Now the Scribes and Pharisees and the princes of the Jews were by their malice a considerable hindrance to the salvation of the people, both because they opposed themselves to Christ's doctrine, which was the only way to salvation, and because their evil ways corrupted the morals of the people. For which reason our Lord, undeterred by their taking offense, publicly taught the truth which they hated, and condemned their vices. Hence we read (Matthew 15:12, 14) that when the disciples of our Lord said: "Dost Thou know that the Pharisees, when they heard this word, were scandalized?" He answered: "Let them alone: they are blind and leaders of the blind; and if the blind lead the blind, bothfall into the pit."

Reply to Objection 1. A man ought so to avoid giving offense, as neither by wrong deed or word to be the occasion of anyone's downfall. "But if scandal arise from truth, the scandal should be borne rather than the truth be set aside," as Gregory says (Hom. vii in Ezech.).

Reply to Objection 2. By publicly reproving the Scribes and Pharisees, Christ promoted rather than hindered the effect of His teaching. Because when the people came to know the vices of those men, they were less inclined to be prejudiced against Christ by hearing what was said of Him by the Scribes and Pharisees, who were ever withstanding His doctrine.

Reply to Objection 3. This saying of the Apostle is to be understood of those elders whose years are reckoned not only in age and authority, but also in probity; according to Numbers 11:16: "Gather unto Me seventy men of the ancients of Israel, whom thou knowest to be ancients . . . of the people." But if by sinning openly they turn the authority of their years into an instrument of wickedness, they should be rebuked openly and severely, as also Daniel says (Daniel 13:52): "O thou that art grown old in evil days," etc.


Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, trans. by English Province Dominicans,, accessed March 27, 2013, 3.42.2,

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Semiotics: Irreducible to an Ideology

[Logical positivism, Russell's "Theory of Descriptions," Behaviorism]: these "methods" did not merely implement a point of view, but paraded the point of view itself in the guise of a method, thereby objectifying the sign processes on which they relied in such a way as to make it appear, or at least enable one to pretend, that no other point of view on the objects considered could have legitimacy.

I distinguish then, first of all, a point of view from a method, and I want to say that semiotics, like logical positivism or behaviorism, is a point of view rather than a method. But, at the same time, unlike positivism or behaviorism, semiotics in its doctrinal foundation is not an ideological standpoint that can be disguised as a method of inquiry while in reality closing inquiry down. [...]

To be ideological and to be historically conditioned, therefore, are not necessarily the same. The latter is true of every attempt at inquiry, including semiotics. The former is true of semiotics only to the extent that and whenever the perspective proper to the sign is traded for something else in the subjectivity of the inquirer. But then this trade will inevitably reveal itself objectively in the public deployment of consequent sign-systems (for example, in the speech or writing of the inquirer), where it will become visible to others in the community of inquirers and subject to criticism with appropriate revision or rejection.

Thus, even the "method of verification", like the "method of dialectics", had need of some signs in order to deny other signs. Its illegitimacy lay not in the signs it used but in the signs it refused, to wit, the signs that would have carried the discourse beyond the arbitrarily stipulated boundaries and were covertly relied upon in order to assert the illegitimate boundaries in the first place.

What, then, are we to say the semiotic point of view is? And how is it that this point of view, unlike others, cannot properly be reduced to or converted into an ideology? To answer the questions in order: The semiotic point of view is the perspective that results from the sustained attempt to live reflectively with and follow out the consequences of one simple realization: the whole of our experience, from its most primitive origins in sensation to its most refined achievements of understanding, is a network or web of sign relations. This point of view cannot be reduced to an ideology without losing what is proper to it for the reason that its boundaries are those of the understanding itself in its activity of interpreting dependently upon the cognate interpretations of perception and sensation.


Source: John Deely, Basics of Semiotics (Tartu, Estonia: Tartu University Press, 2009), 15-16.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Common Non Sequitur with Priests

There is a common non sequitur used towards priests/theologians' arguments, especially regarding sexuality, and it goes like this: "Because priest/theologian x has never been married/is a virgin/been in a relationship/had children/etc., therefore priest/theologian x cannot speak about matters concerning sexuality/marriage/abortion/contraception/etc."

Often the "fluffing" around the antecedent statement goes like: such experience would allow the priest/theologian x to see that not everything is black and white; things are more complicated than that; fuzzier.

But how is this premise that one has to directly experience something in order to speak correctly about it true, which in some cases it actually is not (for some men who become priests were married, had children, got divorced, etc., etc.)? There is an extent to which it is true—we can't meaningfully speak of what we don't know. I can't use many slang words that my co-workers use because I simply don't know what they mean (and even if I did know them, most of them I wouldn't use anyway probably). But actually, this premise is balanced by another, for really there are two ways for men to come to know things: 1) by direct experience; 2) on the authority of others.

We experience many things directly, but there are far more things that we never directly experience. The vast majority of what we know depends firstly on the authority of others, whether that be a parent, a teacher, a scientist, a neighbor, the media, a government/country, an institution, the pope, a priest, a customer, a coworker, a boss, etc. That authority could even be the description on the back of a food package, an internet article, or an email.

And if we were to trace back all of what we know from others, we could hardly pinpoint the exact authority and source. Most of what we take for granted of what we hear from others becomes a jumbled mess that collectively forms how we view the world. And because some of this information we sometimes apply in our direct experience and find that it "works" (e.g. looking up a "how-to" article online and doing it), we tend to casually assume that the rest of what we hear is also true. We assume that Tibet exists because there happen to be so many people talking about it. We assume that there is global warming because the media and scientists and political lobbyists say so—or at least there seems to be a big fuss about it. But unless we actually go to Tibet, how would we know? And how would an individual really come to know that global warming is in fact happening?

Regardless, there are undoubtedly these two ways of coming to know things: 1) direct experience; 2) the authority of others.

Ah, but I neglected to mention the third, and most human, way: 3) REASON. Now, reason is a special way of coming to know because it isn't exactly like the first two ways. The first two ways of direct experience and indirect authority are strictly "input"—they give us knowledge, data, that we didn't possess nor really could have possessed on our own before. But reason gives us more data only after it takes 1) and 2) and applies them to argumentation and logical analysis. Reason examines direct experience and what others say and begins to form propositions and conclusions; it then tests these products against 1) and 2). For example, a coworker x tells me that another coworker y is supposed to come into work today (this is an example of type 2) of gaining knowledge through the authority of another). I can check this claim against a schedule sheet that lists all the employees and their schedules for the week. If that coworker y isn't listed at the time that I was told (this is REASON applying the data to argumentation), then I know that the coworker x who told me that information was either 1) wrong or 2) lying. I can then form further conclusions and test them.

Now, to return to the point: why must a person directly experience these "difficult" experiences of sexuality, marriage, and such before being allowed to talk about them? Ah, and here we see: there really isn't any reason. What does direct experience of such matters really add to philosophical reasoning? After all, we are speaking about what gives a person the authority to make valid philosophical arguments regarding this experience. It seems to me almost purely arbitrary that a person must directly experience such things in order to speak on them.

But EVEN if this premise were granted—that a person must have direct experience of such things to speak validly on them—, it STILL forms a non sequitur because a proposition is either true or false, and an argument is either valid or invalid, and these hold even if the person advancing the argument does not have the epistemic authority to personally speak on such matters. For what if the person ISN'T speaking from personal experience but presenting what many others have presented? What if the argumentation is based on a survey, interviews, or some other means of gathering information?

The counter is a non sequitur because at the end of the day, we still have these propositions and arguments about sexuality that must be addressed on their own merit, regardless of the person presenting the argument. And in fact, this counter then reveals itself to be a kind of genetic fallacy, which brushes aside the truth of a proposition or the validity of an argument because of the origins or genesis of those propositions or arguments. It is true or false regardless of their origins although origins normally help to justify or warrant the propositions.

And even further: the assumption behind this counter is that priests are ignorant about such muddled, painful, dark, difficult, or even joyful matters as sexuality and family life because they are celibates. Now this is a HUGE assumption that simply cannot be backed. I recall a passage from one of G.K. Chesterton's short stories "The Blue Cross" that illustrates my point quite clearly:
"No, no," said [Father] Brown with an air of apology. "You see, I suspected you when we first met. It's that little bulge up the sleeve where you people have the spiked bracelet." 
"How in Tartarus," cried Flambeau, "did you ever hear of the spiked bracelet?" 
"Oh, one's little flock, you know!" said Father Brown, arching his eyebrows rather blankly. "When I was a curate in Hartlepool, there were three of them with spiked bracelets. [...] I rather wonder you didn't stop it with the Donkey's Whistle."

"With the what?" asked Flambeau. 
"I'm glad you've never heard of it," said the priest, making a face. "It's a foul thing. I'm sure you're too good a man for a Whistler. I couldn't have countered it even with the Spots myself; I'm not strong enough in the legs." 
"What on earth are you talking about?" asked the other. 
"Well, I did think you'd know the Spots," said Father Brown, agreeably surprised. "Oh, you can't have gone so very wrong yet!" 
"How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" cried Flambeau. 
The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent. 
"Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose," he said. "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest." 
"What?" asked the thief, almost gaping. 
"You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."
And really, that's what these counters come down to: an attack on reason itself because these counters are themselves unreasonable and refuse to listen to reason. Of course, then, theology is rejected. People caught up in the "fuzzy," "grey," and "down-to-earth" stuff about sexuality actually are usually simply defending their pride and their sinful attachments. Theology is always too "pure" and "lofty" for such people, and therefore always "high tower," "black and white," etc. Well, there is a black and white at the end of the day, and it's called heaven and hell, and you're going to only one of those places.

Priests have abundant experience in such matters because almost daily they talk to people about them. They hear things that even spouses won't dare tell each other in a million years, that parents won't tell their children, or children, their parents. They hear these things in great detail, sometimes even exhaustively so. They deal with people who suffer from the whole range of mental and spiritual disorder, and yes, some of them are trained in psychology and counseling. If anything, priests are the most qualified to talk about such matters due to their combined education, pastoral experience, and typically higher and more developed abilities of reflexivity, critical analysis, and empathy. Of course, not every priest is stellar, and many are not. Nevertheless, when compared to the average person who has only so many romantic relationships over a long period of time, the priest faces people in these situations constantly. Only the person who has such breadth of experience can, through reflection, come to notice patterns of behavior and draw conclusions about human relationships, nature, and fulfillment. The priest is in the best position to do this.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Reason NOT to Clericalize the Laity

I was reading some statements that Pope Francis recently made against clericalizing the laity. In one instance, a priest half-jokingly said that a certain layman should be ordained a deacon because he was so helpful. And here is one main reason given today in so many different forms for clericalizing the laity: they are helpful, i.e. it is convenient to do so. I heard the exact same-old stuff from an old Jesuit priest and theologian at a recent talk that I attended.

This is a huge argument for women priests: so many women are already running parishes and their administrations, sacristies, schools, hospitals, religious education, music, etc. So many women are just as good at public speaking if not better than men. So many women are just as educated if not more. So many women are x, y, x equal to or more capable than men at doing a, b, and c. But this is all on the NATURAL level. The priesthood is strictly governed by the laws of the supernatural.

In other places, the argument is made that there should be more extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and female altar servers because there is some sort of shortage, i.e. it is convenient for them to help.

As an aside, here I think is a huge reason for the failing vocations to the priestly and religious life in the past 60 years: the liturgical reason. Yes, vocation directors may have been doing a poor job at defining what the religious or priestly lives are about (cf., but it may also be that once the external center of Catholic life, i.e. worship, becomes dictated by what is "convenient," then what appeal is there left to dedicate one's life to that? To convenience?

As with all clericalization, there is a fundamental premise: there is something "better" about being a priest that the layfolk do not have. Now, this "something" is usually presented as some form of power or influence. The cleric has the power to do things that the laity do not. And also usually therefore it is argued that the cleric can serve more than the laity.

But this premise regarding the power to do more or serve more is always disassociated from a more fundamental premise, one that upholds both the clerical and lay state alike, namely, the purpose for Church structure in the first place. The purpose of Church structure is directed by the nature of the Church herself and her mission, which is the salvation of souls, and the salvation of souls occurs only through the supernatural. All service in itself is meaningless for salvation unless it is in accordance with the New Law, which is the law of grace, which is the law that flows from God's inner nature of love, and this law, when applied concretely to our order, is necessarily hierarchical.

The hierarchy is "ordained" to salvation, and hence with respect to salvation, cleric and lay are equally vital for the life of the Church, considered as a whole (to deny this premise of equality with respect to salvation would open up the priesthood to women, among many other things). This premise of equality with respect to salvation, regardless of sex, gender, state, etc., was one of the distinguishing traits of Christianity, especially from Judaism before it. It is only in certain respects that the clerical state is superior to the lay state, such as with respect to the sacramental power to forgive sins or to consecrate the Eucharist, all through the power of Christ. Likewise, it is only in certain respects that the lay state is superior to the clerical state, such as with respect to the direct raising of children within a Catholic family or the more direct engaging of culture. But with respect to salvation, the efficacy of each state for sanctification is determined solely by God's calling of each individual to this concrete state and that individual's response to and cooperation with that vocation.

Therefore, the push to clericalize the laity out of some kind of necessity or shortage or convenience is precisely a reduction of the supernatural order to the natural, the law of grace to the law of politics or a zero-sum game, all presented behind the mask of "service."

The true solution is not to force politics against the supernatural structure but to trust that the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against the Church (Mt 16:18) and that God will supply (cf. Gen 22:8; Phil 4:19). Let the priest be as best as possible as priest, and let the layfolk be best as possible as layfolk, and everything will sort itself out.

Finally, with respect to salvation, the best state is the religious state (which may embrace both clerics and laity alike, be it noted) because the evangelical vows are precisely ordained to the sanctification of the individual. If we really cared about saving souls in this quasi-political, quasi-selfless quest, then we would be saying to priest and layman alike, "You should enter the religious life." But that only reveals the whole lie of the push to clericalize the laity because it will be responded, "Then nothing will get done! There will be no more society!" Etc. etc.

The whole purpose behind this agenda is to "do" something, forgetting that we must first "be" children of God, sanctified, and from that holiness flows the ministry or apostolate proper to each state.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas on Living Water

Jesus replied and said: “If you knew the gift of God, and realized who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ You perhaps would have asked him that he give you living water" (Jn 4:10).
And we should say that water signifies the grace of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this grace is called fire, and at other times water, to show that it is neither one of these in its nature, but like them in the way it acts. It is called fire because it lifts up our hearts by its ardor and heat: “ardent in Spirit” (Rom 12:11), and because it burns up sins: “Its light is fire and flame” (Sg 8:6). Grace is called water because it cleanses: “I will pour clean water upon you, and you will be cleansed from all your uncleanness” (Ez 36:25), and because it brings a refreshing relief from the heat of temptations: “Water quenches a flaming fire” (Sir 3:33), and also because it satisfies our desires, in contrast to our thirst for earthly things and all temporal things whatever: “Come to the waters, all you who thirst” (Is 5 5:1 ).

Now water is of two kinds: living and non-living. Non-living water is water which is not connected or united with the source from which it springs, but is collected from the rain or in other ways into ponds and cisterns, and there it stands, separated from its source. But living water is connected with its source and flows from it. So according to this understanding, the grace of the Holy Spirit is correctly called living water, because the grace of the Holy Spirit is given to man in such a way that the source itself of the grace is also given, that is, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, grace is given by the Holy Spirit: “The love of God is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). For the Holy Spirit is the unfailing fountain from whom all gifts of grace flow”One and the same Spirit does all these things” (1 Cor 12:11.). And so, if anyone has a gift of the Holy Spirit without having the Spirit, the water is not united with its source, and so is not living but dead: “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:20).

578 Then we are shown that in the case of adults, living water, i.e., grace, is obtained by desiring it, i.e., by asking. “The Lord has heard the desire of the poor” (Ps. 9:17), for grace is not given to anyone without their asking and desiring it. Thus we say that in the justification of a sinner an act of free will is necessary to detest sin and to desire grace, according to Matthew (7:7): “Ask and you will receive.” In fact, desire is so important that even the Son himself is told to ask: “Ask me, and I will give to you” (Ps 2:8). Therefore, no one who resists grace receives it, unless he first desires it; this is clear is the case of Paul who, before he received grace, desired it, saying: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” (Acts 9:6). Thus it is significant that he says, you perhaps would have asked him. He says perhaps on account of free will, with which a person sometimes desires and asks for grace, and sometimes does not.

579 There are two things which lead a person to desire and ask for grace: a knowledge of the good to be desired and a knowledge of the giver. So, Christ offers these two to her. First of all, a knowledge of the gift itself; hence he says, If you knew the gift of God, which is every desirable good which comes from the Holy Spirit: “I know that I cannot control myself unless God grants it to me” (Wis 8:21). And this is a gift of God, and so forth. Secondly, he mentions the giver; and he says, and realized who it is who says to you, i.e., if you knew the one who can give it, namely, that it is I: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth ... he will bear witness to me” (below 15:26); “You have given gifts to men” (Ps 67:19).

Accordingly, this teaching concerns three things: the gift of living water, asking for this gift, and the giver himself.


Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint John's Gospel (Super Evangelium S. Joannis lectura), trans. by James A. Weisheipl, DHS Priory, accessed March 23, 2014,, chapter 4, lecture 2, verse 10, nn. 577-579.

St. John of the Cross on Loving What You Don't Know

It should be known that the teaching of some about the will's inability to love what the intellect does not first know ought to be understood naturally. Naturally, it is impossible to love without first understanding what is loved, but, supernaturally, God can easily infuse and increase love without the infusion or increase of particular knowledge.

This is the experience of many spiritual persons; they frequently feel they are burning in love of God, with no more particular knowledge than before. They understand little but love a great deal, or understand a great deal but love little. As a matter of fact those spiritual persons whose understanding of God is not very advanced usually make progress according to their wills, while infused faith suffices for their knowledge. By means of this faith God infuses charity in them and augments this charity and its act, which means greater love, although, as we said, their knowledge is not increased. Thus the will can drink love without the intellect again drinking knowledge [....]


Source: St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), 26.8, 576-577.

Friday, March 21, 2014

John Ruskin on the Competent Assessment of Tradition

The following is a brilliant and lucid description of the formation of proper assessments of tradition. The author applies it in his original context to art and literature, but I think its application go far beyond those two fields.


If it be true, and it can scarcely be disputed, that nothing has been for centuries consecrated by public admiration, without possessing in a high degree some kind of sterling excellence, it is not because the average intellect and feeling of the majority of the public are competent in any way to distinguish what is really excellent, but because all erroneous opinion is inconsistent, and all ungrounded opinion transitory; so that while the fancies and feelings which deny deserved honour and award what is undue have neither root nor strength sufficient to maintain consistent testimony for a length of time, the opinions formed on right grounds by those few who are in reality competent judges, being necessarily stable, communicate themselves gradually from mind to mind, descending lower as they extend wider, until they leaven the whole lump, and rule by absolute authority, even where the grounds and reasons for them cannot be understood. On this gradual victory of what is consistent over what is vacillating, depends the reputation of all that is highest in art and literature. For it is an insult to what is really great in either, to suppose that it in any way addresses itself to mean or uncultivated faculties. It is a matter of the simplest demonstration, that no man can be really appreciated but by his equal or superior. His inferior may over-estimate him, in enthusiasm; or, as is more commonly the case, degrade him, in ignorance; but he cannot form a grounded and just estimate. [...] It is sufficiently evident that there is no process of amalgamation by which opinions, wrong individually, can become right merely by their multitude.[1] If I stand by a picture in the Academy, and hear twenty persons in succession admiring some paltry piece of mechanism or imitation, in the lining of a cloak, or in the satin of a slipper, it is absurd to tell me that they reprobate collectively what they admire individually; or, if they pass with apathy by a piece of the most noble conception or most perfect truth, because it has in it no tricks of the brush nor grimace of expression, it is absurd to tell me that they collectively respect what they separately scorn, or that the feelings and knowledge of such judges, by any length of time or comparison of ideas, could come to any right conclusion with respect to what is really high in art. The question is not decided by them, but for them;—decided at first by few; by fewer in proportion as the merits of the work are of a higher order. From these few the decision is communicated to the number next below them in rank of mind, and by these again to a wider and lower circle; each rank being so far cognizant of the superiority of that above it, as to receive its decision with respect; until, in process of time, the right and consistent opinion is communicated to all, and held by all as a matter of faith, the more positively in proportion as the grounds of it are less perceived.[2]

But when this process has taken place, and the work has become sanctified by time in the minds of men, it is impossible that any new work of equal merit can be impartially compared with it, except by minds not only educated and generally capable of appreciating merit, but strong enough to shake off the weight of prejudice and association, which invariably incline them to the older favourite. [...] When, as peculiarly in the case of painting, much knowledge of what is technical and practical is necessary to a right judgment, so that those alone are competent to pronounce a true verdict who are themselves the persons to be judged, and who therefore can give no opinion, centuries may elapse before fair comparison can be made between two artists of different ages; while the patriarchal excellence exercises during the interval a tyrannical—perhaps, even a blighting, influence over the minds, both of the public and of those to whom, properly understood, it should serve for a guide and example. In no city of Europe where art is a subject of attention, are its prospects so hopeless, or its pursuit so resultless, as in Rome; because there, among all students, the authority of their predecessors in art is supreme and without appeal, and the mindless copyist studies Raffaelle, but not what Raffaelle studied. 



1. The opinion of the majority is right only when it is more probable with each individual that he should be right than that he should be wrong [....] Where it is more probable, with respect to each individual, that he should be wrong than right, the opinion of the minority is the true one. Thus it is in art.

2. There are, however, a thousand modifying circumstances which render this process sometimes unnecessary,—sometimes rapid and certain—sometimes impossible. It is unnecessary in rhetoric and the drama, because the multitude is the only proper judge of those arts whose end is to move the multitude, (though more is necessary to a fine play than is essentially dramatic, and it is only of the dramatic part that the multitudes are cognizant). It is unnecessary, when, united with the higher qualities of a work, there are appeals to universal passion, to all the faculties and feelings which are general in man as an animal. The popularity is then as sudden as it is well grounded,—it is hearty and honest in every mind, but it is based in every mind on a different species of excellence. Such will often be the case with the noblest works of literature. Take Don Quixote for example. The lowest mind would find it in perpetual and brutal amusement in the misfortunes of the knight, and perpetual pleasure in sympathy with the squire. A mind of average feeling would perceive the satirical meaning and force of the book, would appreciate its wit, its elegance, and its truth. But only elevated and peculiar minds discover, in addition to all this, the full moral beauty of the love and truth which are the constant associates of all that is even most weak and erring in the character of its hero, and pass over the rude adventure and scurrile [sic] jest in haste—perhaps in pain, to penetrate beneath the rusty corslet [sic], and catch from the wandering glance, the evidence and expression of fortitude, self-devotion, and universal love. So again, with the works of Scott and Byron; popularity was as instant as it was deserved, because there is in them an appeal to those passions which are universal in all men, as well as an expression of such thoughts as can be received only by the few. But they are admired by the majority of their advocates for the weakest parts of their works, as a popular preacher by the majority of his congregation for the worst part of his sermon.

The process is rapid and certain, when, though there may be little to catch the multitude at once, there is much which they can enjoy when their attention is authoritatively directed to it. So rests the reputation of Shakspeare [sic]. No ordinary mind can comprehend wherein his undisputed superiority consists, but there is yet quite as much to amuse, thrill, or excite,—quite as much of what is in the strict sense of the word, dramatic, in his works as in any one else's. They were received, therefore, when first written, with average approval, as works of common merit: but when the high decision was made, and the circle spread, the public took up the hue and cry conscientiously enough. Let them have daggers, ghosts, clowns, and kings, and with such real and definite sources of enjoyment, they will take the additional trouble to learn half-a-dozen quotations, without understanding them, and admit the superiority of Shakspeare without further demur. Nothing, perhaps, can more completely demonstrate the total ignorance of the public of all that is great or valuable in Shakspeare than their universal admiration of Maclise's Halet.

The process is impossible when there is in the work nothing to attract and something to disgust the vulgar mind. Neither their intrinsic excellence, nor the authority of those who can judge of it, will ever make the poems of Wordsworth or George Herbert popular, in the sense in which Scott and Byron are popular, because it is to the vulgar a labour instead of a pleasure to read them; and there are parts in them which to such judges cannot but be vapid or ridiculous. Most works of the highest art,—those of Raffaelle, M. Angelo, or Da Vinci,—stand as Shakspeare does,—that which is commonplace and feeble in their excellence being taken for its essence by the uneducated, imagination assisting the impression, (for we readily fancy that we feel, when feeling is a matter of pride or conscience,) and affectation and pretension increasing the noise of the rapture, if not its degree. Giotto, Orgagna [i.e. Orcagna], Angelico, Perugino, stand, like George Herbert, only with the few. Wilkie becomes popular, like Scott, because he touches passions which all feel, and expresses truths which all can recognise [sic].


Source: John Ruskin, Modern Painters I (Lancaster: Lancaster University, 2002), accessed Marcy 21, 2014,, 1-4.

Religious vs. Spiritual: St. Thomas Aquinas on Approaching God

I went to a brilliant lecture last night given by Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett of the Order of Preachers on being "religious" vs. "spiritual" and what St. Thomas Aquinas's conception of both are as well as how we approach God. The talk got me thinking about how part of the difficulty with today's meaning of "religion" and "religious" are tied with the other dichotomy between religion vs. secular, a political concept. I don't know enough on the topic to comment further, so I leave this here as a reminder to myself to look into it the future...


Here's a breakdown of Br. Thomas's presentation (from what I remember, so I hope to re-present the material as accurately as possible):

Today, spirituality often refers to affective experience in the presence of the transcendent. Because these experiences are to be found across religions and systems of thought, spirituality connotes "openness" to other religious experience and doctrine. Spirituality emphasizes the personal (i.e. a personal relationship to the divine rather than an impersonal one). Spirituality is a way of living. Spiritual people will say things like, "I put God (or my relationship with God) above religion/Church/the Bible/doctrine."

Religion is thought of as a "thing," a structure or organized body, either of beliefs or the institution that upholds those beliefs. It connotes tradition, ritual, dogma. Religion is often compartmentalized in the typical life of a modern person, on equal plane with other activity, such as work. Religious people will say things like, "It is the truth of faith that matters, and this must be practiced consistently, no matter how I feel," or "We know God only through the Bible/the Church/religion/doctrine, etc."

Typically, people who emphasize the spiritual more than the religious are "liberal" (in a loose sense of the word). People who emphasize the religious more than spiritual are "conservative."

Interestingly, there are not an insignificant number of people who try to have the "best of both sides," of spirituality and religion, and see aspects of both as necessary.

Preface to how Aquinas would respond to the religion/spirituality dichotomy: it's impossible to talk about one thing in Aquinas because all things are organically united in a whole. To speak about religion, it is necessary to speak about the moral life, through which humans attain their proper happiness and flourishing. Furthermore, how we understand religious and spiritual today was not at all how St. Thomas did. It will be necessary to understand first what St. Thomas meant by these terms before we apply them to the contemporary discussion.

Spiritual for Aquinas = non-physical; thus the realm of intellectual being and activity proper to God, angels, and men.

Religion for Aquinas = a virtue, either acquired or infused (or both), specifically, the potential part of the virtue of Justice that renders to God what is due to Him, namely, honor and reverence, which has two internal acts ((1) devotion, (2) prayer), and several external acts, divided into: 1) bodily reverence, 2) offerings, and 3) the receiving of things.

One is "religious" insofar as one has the virtue of religion. Virtue is a habit, which is an interior disposition of the soul to do good, according to the dictates of right reason (and for infused religion, we must qualify, right reason enlightened by faith). Virtue makes what is good easy, prompt, and joyful to do. But notice, a virtue becomes such in us only insofar as it becomes part of our being, insofar as it is we accomplish the good as though it were second nature, not a struggle. When we are struggling to make a good act, we know that the virtue is not yet ingrained in us.

Devotion, which is the promptness of the will to serve God, is the soul of religion; by prayer, which is the lifting of the mind to God, according to St. John Damascus, we subject ourselves to God and confess our dependence on Him.

It should be clarified that latria (λατρεία, a Greek term that Latin Christianity kept in its integrity as its sacral language developed) literally means "service." Our proper worship of God is our proper service under His command, doing His will. Further, devotion, or the willingness to serve God, is not merely some intellectual aptitude but incorporates the best in the human sensitivity to what is true, good, and beautiful—all the stirring and moving experiences of life and nature, the comedic and tragic, that point us most poignantly to God—these are incorporated into devotion in its full intellectual and affective whole.

Without these internal acts, all exterior acts of religion, whether acquired or infused, are rendered sterile.

Infused religion comes through sanctifying grace and is closely related to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. By infused religion, we may transform our actions to give them sanctifying and meritorious efficacy (Br. Thomas didn't use these words since the talk was at the popular level); by this virtue, we transform our actions into a kind of perpetual worship, offering all to the Triune God, and receiving Him above all in the Sacraments and in supernatural prayer.

Infused religion also adds a very specific difference to acquired, or natural, religion: sacred revelation shows us how to worship God properly, and we learn how through the Church, who hands on this revelation as a sacred deposit. Although all humans can potentially worship God properly, only Catholics with infused grace may activate that potential through the exercise of the infused virtues.

Therefore, the short answer for Aquinas would be that being religious is more important than being spiritual because true religion already incorporates all that is best in being spiritual anyway under its interior acts of devotion and prayer. Acquired religion focuses our innate spiritual desires into concrete action, which even in the natural world has in every society up until ours incorporated elements like ritual, tradition, sacrifice, and myth. Infused religion is best because it specifies exactly how latria is to be rendered to God because it is God Himself Who communicates to us how to serve Him properly.

Religious are called religious because they offer their entire lives under the vows of religion. Married people also offer a specific form of worship by raising children in Matrimony to the end of glorifying God.

All the baptized are called to practice the virtue of religion.

Three specific ways to grow in the virtue: 1) meditation, especially on God's goodness and our sinfulness (St. Thomas recommends these two general topics as the best for mental prayer); 2) receiving the Sacraments; 3) prayer (Adoration, Contrition, Supplication, Thanksgiving), which makes us go out of ourselves and humbles us before God.

When we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving the very purpose of our life, which is worship of God. St. Thomas notes that we are to be messengers of revelation, of the unveiling of God's glory in the universe, and thus every time we make an act of religion, we change the entire fabric of creation by making present God's glory in a way that was not previously present. Hence, our bodily reverences, such as genuflections and making the Sign of the Cross, should be reverent and visible because they are not only internal acts of humility before God but are also outwardly humbling, insofar as they reveal to those who happen to see us for Whom we stand (or genuflect, if you want to be literal).

Finally, how to tell if you're growing in this virtue: the presence (or absence if you're not growing in it) of spiritual joy. Spiritual joy is not sensible joy although it may be accompanied by sensible joy. Spiritual joy refers to the presence of something good that we desire, and in this case, it is the spiritual good of God. Spiritual joy is the mental vigor that empowers and follows the soul's proper activity, such as in a realization, a recognition, an insight, or the doing or completion of a properly human act. We recognize this vigor when we are engaged in, focused on some task or topic; it can be an intense surge or a continuous stream of concentration, like a spiritual electricity running through us. The greater we desire God, and the further we realize that God is present to us by grace, the greater shall be our joy in serving Him. The ease, the promptitude, the joy with which we serve God will indicate to us how rooted the virtue is.

John Ruskin on Vulgarity, Sensitivity, and Tradition

Having thus faithfully listened to the great teachers, that you may enter into their Thoughts, you have yet this higher advance to make;—you have to enter into their Hearts. As you go to them first for clear sight, so you must stay with them, that you may share at last their mighty Passion. Passion, or "sensation." I am not afraid of the word; still less of the thing. You have heard many outcries against sensation lately; but, I can tell you, it is not less sensation we want, but more. The ennobling difference between one man and another,—between one animal and another,—is precisely in this, that one feels more than another. [...] Being human creatures, [sensation] is good for us; nay, we are only human in so far as we are sensitive, and our honour is precisely in proportion to our passion.

You know I said of that great and pure society of the Dead, that it would allow "no vain or vulgar person to enter there." What do you think I meant by a "vulgar" person? What do you yourselves mean by "vulgarity"? You will find it a fruitful subject of thought; but, briefly, the essence of all vulgarity lies in want of sensation. Simple and innocent vulgarity is merely an untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind; but in true inbred vulgarity, there is a dreadful callousness, which, in extremity, becomes capable of every sort of bestial habit and crime, without fear, without pleasure, without horror, and without pity. It is in the blunt hand and the dead heart, in the diseased habit, in the hardened conscience, that men become vulgar; they are for ever vulgar, precisely in proportion as they are incapable of sympathy,—of quick understanding,—of all that, in deep insistence on the common, but most accurate term, may be called the "tact" or "touch-faculty," of body and soul: that tact which the Mimosa has in trees, which the pure woman has above all creatures; fineness and fulness of sensation, beyond reason;—the guide and sanctifier of reason itself. Reason can but determine what is true:—it is the God-given passion of humanity which alone can recognize what God has made good.

We come then to that great concourse of the Dead, not merely to know from them what is True, but chiefly to feel with them what is just. Now, to feel with them, we must be like them; and none of us can become that without pains. As the true knowledge is disciplined and tested knowledge,—not the first thought that comes, so the true passion is disciplined and tested passion,—not the first passion that comes. The first that come are the vain, the false, the treacherous; if you yield to them they will lead you wildly and far, in vain pursuit. . . . So the anxiety is ignoble, with which you linger over the course and catastrophe of an idle tale; but do you think the anxiety is less, or greater, with which you watch, or ought to watch, the dealings of fate and destiny with the life of an agonized nation? Alas! it is the narrowness, selfishness, minuteness, of your sensation that you have to deplore in England at this day;—sensation which spends itself in bouquets and speeches: in revellings and junketings; in sham fights and gay puppet shows, while you can look on and see noble nations murdered, man by man, without an effort or a tear. . . .

No nation can last, which has made a mob of itself, however generous at heart. It must discipline its passions, and direct them, or they will discipline it, one day, with scorpion whips. Above all, a nation cannot last as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity,—it cannot with existence,—go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence. Do you think these are harsh or wild words? Have patience with me but a little longer. I will prove their truth to you, clause by clause.

(I.) I say first we have despised literature. What do we, as a nation, care about books? How much do you think we spend altogether on our libraries, public or private, as compared with what we spend on our horses? If a man spends lavishly on his library, you call him mad—a bibliomaniac. But you never call anyone a horsemaniac, though men ruin themselves every day by their horses, and you do not hear of people ruining themselves by their books. [...] What position would [our nation's] expenditure on literature take, as compared with its expenditure on luxurious eating? [...] No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armoury, or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store. Bread of flour is good; but there is bread, sweet as honey, if we would eat it, in a good book; and the family must be poor indeed, which, once in their lives, cannot, for such multipliable barley-loves, pay their baker's bill. [...]

(IV.) You have despised Nature; that is to say, all the deep and sacred sensations of natural scenery. The French revolutionists made stables of the cathedrals of France [and today, I may add, consumerism has made bookstores, cafés, cafeterias, etc. of the same cathedrals:]; you have made race-courses of the cathedrals of the earth. Your one conception of pleasure is to drive in railroad carriages round their aisles, and eat off their altars. [...]

Our National wish and purpose are only to be amused; our National religion is the performance of church ceremonies, and preaching of soporific truths (or untruths) to keep the mob quietly at work, while we amuse ourselves; and the necessity for this amusement is fastening on us, as a feverous disease of parched throat and wandering eyes—senseless, dissolute, merciless. How literally that word Dis-Ease, the Negation and impossibility of Ease, expresses the entire moral state of our English Industry and its Amusements!

When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower;—when they are faithfully helpful and compassionate, all their emotions become steady, deep, perpetual, and vivifying to the soul as the natural pulse to the body.


Source: John Ruskin, "Of King's Treasuries," in The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings (Victorian Literature and Culture Series), ed. by John D. Rosenberg (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2000)303-312.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Holiness is like an Overflowing Fountain, not a Pipeline

I attended a talk the other day on theology and culture, and one of the speakers shared an experience he had speaking with his spiritual director. He told his spiritual director that he had an insight that we are to be holy, and in effect, our holiness is a kind of pipeline through which God's grace pours out onto other souls for their sanctification; he also compared this to how the image of God within us shines through most effectively when it is Christ (the image of God) that is seen rather than our ego (the image we put up). The spiritual director said that a better "image" is a fountain that overflows since a pipeline keeps nothing for itself and hence isn't "holy" itself. I was a bit surprised by the response since it's exactly what St. Bernard said in one of his sermons (perhaps the spiritual director was/is familiar with it!).

I copy the sermon below in its entirety for the benefit of the reader since it is not a very long sermon. Imagine hearing this on Sunday! It's a brilliant compendium of the entire spiritual life and the apostolate that flows from contemplative love. One thing I'm struck by in this sermon is how many times St. Bernard insists that we are safe to undertake apostolic work only after and insofar as we have been fully penetrated by the love of the Holy Ghost. Then, he says, will apostolic works be performed "truly and safely," implying before we reach such a state, we do these works at our spiritual peril. And yet one can already hear the cascade of objections amounting to especially, "But then nothing will get done!"

Well, take it from the Mellifluous Doctor, or leave it.


"Your name is oil poured out." Of what truth of our interior life does the Holy Spirit wish to assure us by means of this text? He refers to the experience of a twofold operation, one by which he inwardly strengthens the virtues that lead us to salvation, the other by which he outwardly endows us with serviceable gifts. The former is of benefit to ourselves, the latter to our neighbors [NB: these are the charismatic gifts, some of which are listed by St. Paul in his letters; St. Thomas Aquinas expands on them in his Summa Theologiæ]. For example, faith, hope and charity are given to us for our own sake, without them we cannot be saved. But the gift of wise and learned speech, the power to heal, to prophesy, and endowments of this kind without which we can fully achieve our own salvation, are undoubtedly meant to be used for our neighbor's salvation. And these operations of the Holy Spirit, that we take note of either in ourselves or in others, are named from their method of functioning: we call them infusion and effusion. To which of them may we suitably apply the words: "Your name is oil poured out"? Is it not to effusion? If he had meant infusion he would have said "poured in." When the bride says: "Your name is oil poured out," she refers to the perfumes sprinkled on her breasts, attributing their scent to the Bridegroom's name, as if it were an unguent poured on her breasts. Any man who perceives that he is endowed with an exterior grace enabling him to influence others, can also say to the Lord: "Your name is oil poured out."

2. At this point we need to be warned not to give away what we have received for our own welfare, nor to retain for ourselves what must be expended for others. For example, you keep for yourself what belongs to your neighbor, if along with your full endowment of interior virtues you are also adorned with the external gifts of knowledge and eloquence, and, through fear or sloth or ill-judged humility, smother this gift of speech that could be of help to so many, in a useless and even pernicious silence; for "the people's curse is on the man who hoards the wheat." On the other hand, you squander and lose what is meant to be your own if, before you are totally permeated by the infusion of the Holy Spirit, you rashly proceed to pour out your unfulfilled self upon others; you contravene the law which says: "You must not put the first-born of your herd to work, nor shear the first-born of your flock." You deprive yourself of the life and salvation which you impart to another if, lacking right intention and inspired by self you become infected with the poison of worldly ambition that swells into a deadly ulcer and destroys you.

3. The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself. He knows that a curse is on the man who allows his own property to degenerate. And if you think my opinion worthless, then listen to one who is wiser than I [NB: the Saint here is subtly appealing to the authority of the Holy Ghost in confirming his teaching by quoting Him as speaking through Solomon]: "The fool," said Solomon, "comes out with all his feelings at once, but the wise man subdues and restrains them." Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare [NB: Bernard spoke these words in the 1130s!]. So urgent is the charity of those through whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us, that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves.

I am convinced that no degree of the charity that leads to salvation may be preferred to that suggested by the Wise Man: "Have pity on your own soul, pleasing God." If I have but a little oil, sufficient for my own anointing, do you suppose I should give it to you and be left with nothing? I am keeping it for myself, utterly unwilling to proffer it to anyone except at the Prophet's bidding. And should any of you, thinking me to be better than I seem or than my words suggest, insist on asking for it, here is my answer to him: "There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves." But charity, you reply, does not seek what is its own. And do you know why? It does not seek what is its own precisely because it has it. Who seeks for what he possesses? Charity never lacks what is her own, all that she needs for her own security. Not alone does she have it, she abounds with it. She wants this abundance for herself that she may share it with all; and she reserves enough for herself so that she disappoints nobody. For charity is perfect only when full.

4. But you, my brother, your salvation is not yet assured; your charity as yet is either non-existent or so meager and reed-like that it bends with every breeze, puts its trust in every spirit, and is carried along by every wind of doctrine; or it is so great that you transcend the limits of the commandment by loving your neighbor more than yourself, or yet again so unsound that, contrary to the commandment, it bows to flattery, flinches under fear, is upset by sadness, shriveled by avarice, entangled by ambition, disquieted by suspicions, tormented by insults, exhausted by anxieties, puffed up by honors, consumed by envy. If you discover this chaos in your own interior, what madness drives you to insinuate yourself into other people's business? But listen to what a prudent and vigilant charity advises: "This does not mean that to give relief to others you ought to make things difficult for yourselves: it is a question of balancing." "Do not be over-virtuous." It is enough that you love your neighbor as yourself; this is the balancing to which the Apostle refers. David says: "My soul will feast most richly, [and after feasting, then shall there be] on my lips a song of joy and, in my mouth, praise." To preclude a mere empty yawning, he wishes that infusion should precede the effusion, an infusion to the fullest capacity that gushes out. In this he shows prudence, his relieving of others does not embarrass himself; and he has a right intention, since he imitates him of whose fullness we have all received. You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God. The reservoir resembles the fountain that runs to form a stream or spreads to form a pool only when its own waters are brimming over. The reservoir is not ashamed to be no more lavish than the spring that fills it. And so, he who is the primal Fountain of life, full in himself and filled with himself, gushed forth and danced into the secret places of the heavens about him, to fill them all with his favors. And having endowed these remotest heights and recesses, he burst upon our earth, saving men and beasts through his munificence, multiplying his mercies everywhere. When he had first filled up the secret places, his teeming mercies billowed over; they poured upon the earth and drenched it, to multiply its riches. You must imitate this process. First be filled, and then control the outpouring. The charity that is benign and prudent does not flow outwards until it abounds within. "My son," said Solomon, "do not let yourself drift away." And the Apostle says: "We ought then to turn our minds more attentively than before to what we have been taught, so that we do not drift away." See what is involved here. Are you holier than Paul, wiser than Solomon? [NB: Or St. Bernard, for that matter?] Besides, I cannot see myself being enriched by your wasting of your powers. For if you are mean to yourself, to whom will you be good? Help me out of your abundance if you have it; if not, then spare yourself the trouble.

5. But I wish to remind you now of the principles necessary for our salvation and how to apply them, the truths that must be infused into us and their order of importance, before we can presume to pour ourselves out. Circumstances oblige me to be as brief as possible, for the time's quick passage demands that I bring this sermon to a close. Just as a doctor comes to a wounded man, so the Holy Spirit comes to the soul. Is it possible to find any person whom the devil's sword does not wound, even after the wound of original sin has been healed by the medicine of baptism? Therefore, when the Spirit draws near to a soul that says: "My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness," what is the first thing he should do? Before all else he must amputate the ulcerous tumor that has grown upon the wound and prevents its healing. This ulcer, caused by inveterate bad habits, must be sliced away with the scalpel of piercing sorrow. The pain will be bitter, but it can be alleviated with the ointment of devotion which is nothing other than the joy born of the hope of pardon. This in turn springs from the power of self-control, from victory over sin. Soon the victor is pouring out words of thanks: "You have loosed my bonds, I will offer you the thanksgiving sacrifice." He then applies the medicine of penance, a poultice of fastings, vigils, prayers, and other tasks that penitents perform. And as he toils he must be fed with the food of good works that he may not falter. We are not left in doubt about what the necessary food is: "My food," said Christ, "is to do the will of my Father." Hence works motivated by love, that are a sure source of strength, should accompany the performance of penances. For instance it is said: "Alms is a most effective offering for all those who give it in the presence of the Most High." Food causes thirst, therefore one must drink, so let the food of good works be moistened with the beverage of prayer, that a work well done may rest quietly in the stomach of conscience and give pleasure to God. In prayer one drinks the wine that gladdens a man's heart, the intoxicating wine of the Spirit that downs all memory of the pleasures of the flesh. It drenches anew the arid recesses of the conscience, stimulates digestion of the meats of good works, fills the faculties of the soul with a robust faith, a solid hope, a love that is living and true; it enriches all the actions of our life.

6. The sick man has had his food and drink; what should he do now but take his ease and let the sweat of his labors dry while he enjoys the quiet of contemplation? Falling asleep in the midst of his prayer he dreams of God; what he sees is a dim reflection in a mirror, not a vision face to face. However, although it be but a vague apprehension and not an actual vision, a fleeting glimpse of the sparkling glory as it passes, utterly delicate in its impact, yet he burns with love and says: "At night my soul longs for you and my spirit in me seeks for you." A love like this is full of zeal; it is a love becoming the Bridegroom's friend, the love that must inspire the faithful and prudent servant whom the Lord appoints over his household. It fills the soul's capacity, grows heated and brims over, gushing with abandon into streamlets. This is the love that cries out: "Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is scandalized and I am not inflamed?" Let such a man preach, let him bear fruit, let him show new signs and do fresh wonders, for vanity can find no toehold in the man whom charity totally possesses. A total love is the law in all its fullness, it can effectively fill the heart's capacity. Finally God himself is love, and nothing created can satisfy the man who is made to the image of God, except the God who is love, who alone is above all created natures. The man who has not yet attained to this love is promoted to office at the gravest risk to himself, no matter how distinguished he be with other virtues. Even if he knows everything, if he gives all his goods to the poor and lets his body be taken for burning, without charity he is worthless. See how precious the graces that must first be infused, so that when we venture to pour them out we may dispense them from a spirit that is filled rather than impoverished.

We need first of all compunction of heart, then fervor of spirit; thirdly, the labor of penance; fourthly, works of charity; fifthly, zeal for prayer; sixthly, leisure for contemplation; seventhly, love in all its fullness. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, accomplished by the process called infusion [NB: to reiterate, all of the above form the process of personal sanctification; afterwards comes "effusion," or in modern terminology "apostolate" or "evangelization"]; and, in so far as it has taken place those services called effusion can be truly and hence safely performed to the praise and glory of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the same Holy Spirit lives and reigns, God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Source: St. Bernard, "Sermon 18 on the Song of Songs: The Two Operations of the Holy Spirit," Pathways of Love, accessed March 19, 2014,

"Nothing to Create Worth Making"

A good quotation:

"[...] if you have no spirit, education, or beauty in your soul, you will have nothing to create worth making."

Source: ThomasRanieri, comment, November 22, 2013, on Sean Fitzpatrick, "A School Without Screens," Crisis Magazine, November 20, 2013, accessed March 19, 2014,

Dr. Timothy J. William's "Using Fiction to Vindicate the Gospels"

Any good student of literature can recognize the hallmarks of great fiction. It is nothing if not consistent, conceived as a whole, seamless and artful, thus artificial. Every detail of the work is determined and arranged by the author, and has purpose and relevance. And even if the author decides to include extraneous details, these non-sequiturs are only apparent, for they too play a role in revealing the author’s overarching esthetic stance. The analogies, the metaphors, the similes are all crafted and positioned just so, to reinforce motivation and action, to move the story inexorably toward a predetermined conclusion. If a writer’s intention is too obvious, too heavy-handed, too clumsy, too cliché-ridden, we relegate his works to second-rate status. But all writers follow more or less the same creative procedures. [...]

Paradoxically then, the greatest works of pure fiction can impart a sense of “reality” during the act of reading. [...]

The Gospels, on the other hand, are living documents, each a specific but incomplete testimony of something true, not a work of the imagination. The chronicles are episodic, the seams show everywhere, and the authors are not concerned with creating a smoothly flowing narrative, because what they have experienced or investigated is too powerful, too immediate, too real to require or permit any artful recasting. The Evangelists do not hesitate to interrupt their own narratives with extraneous events and details, including things whose significance they themselves do not seem to understand. They are obviously afraid of adding anything uncertain, or omitting anything known. This is the hallmark of reliable testimony, of four different people telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, without concern for how the testimony appears or is received. [...]

The Gospels also contain that other mark of honest testimony, the odd non sequitur that leaves you wondering why more was not said, or more left out. The classic example is the narrative of the adulterous woman about to be stoned to death, and Jesus’s composed distractedness before he disarms the crowd with a few words of astonishing simplicity and revolutionary morality. In the most ancient manuscripts of the fourth Gospel, John tells us twice that Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (John 8: 6, 8) but he does not tell us why, nor what Jesus wrote, nor whether we should even care about this odd gesture at a moment of great anticipation. [...]

No great writer of fiction, nor even a mediocre one, would ever have mentioned this detail without telling us what Jesus wrote in the sand. Indeed, the well-intended “corrections” found in later manuscripts but ultimately excluded from the Bible – namely that Jesus wrote “the sins of each of them” – merely point out what is humanly unsatisfying in the passage. [...]

It is impossible to tie all the loose threads together, to weave into an artfully seamless whole the many stories a man capable of fascinating and converting both Luke the Greek, the learned physician, and Saul of Tarsus, the militantly anti-Christian Jew. That is why the multifaceted nature of the Scriptures surpasses in realism the very greatest works of fiction.


Source: Dr. Timothy J. Williams, "Using Fiction to Vindicate the Gospels," Crisis Magazine, Janurary 20, 2014, accessed March 19, 2014,

"A Woman Has a Right to Do with Her Body as She Wishes"

Be sure to store the following tidbit regarding a common objection in defense of abortion in your "memory palace" for future retrieval if ever needed:
The common objection tends to arise: “But a woman has a right to do with her body as she wishes.” Yes, a woman—and in this she is no different from a man—has freedom and the ability to do what she wishes with her body. But this freedom and right is not absolute, and is rather a limited freedom or a conditional right. The just limits of that right include not causing harm to another innocent human being when exercising one’s bodily freedom. So while a woman can do with her body as she sees fit, she cannot do whatever she wants to another human being’s body without his or her free consent. Since the embryonic or fetal human being is a member of the human species, she cannot justly cause harm to that child. As the popular retort to this objection goes, “Her rights end where another person’s body begins.” Ultimately this objection is both a red herring and non sequitur.
Source: Arland K. Nichols, "Birth of Twins Highlights Evil of Abortion," Crisis Magazine, February 12, 2014, accessed March 19, 2014,

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Making a Big Deal Out of Everything

There's a certain sense in which for the Christian everything is a BIG deal. Yet on the other hand, there's another sense in which everything is, in the big scheme of things, pretty inconsequential. Christianity super-focuses our inherent sense of wonder and curiosity; it sensitizes us to the smallest "flickerings." But it also gives us a broad perspective of things, a deep tranquility in the trust that all things are guided by Providence, that "the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).

My suffering at the hands of another was a big enough deal for God to die for me, to suffer with me. At the same time, my suffering is something quite small, "not worthy to be compared" to what awaits me. It is something to be faced honestly, but in facing it honestly, we find that it's not really a big deal. Pride wants to puff it up, which is what pride does. Pride wants the slight to turn into a vendetta, ending in streets flowing with blood. Acknowledging the pain in honesty allows us to actually deal with the pain and to realize its smallness and be content with that.

My tendency to make things a big deal flows from my pride, my unwillingness to accept that I am a creature, dust. I want to be more than that, and in trying to be more, I cause chaos. It is only when I give up trying to be more and accepting what I am that God shines through in His full splendor. The humble creature is actually more.

The Rejection of Love

Aren't all the manifestations of sin in the world manifold ways of saying, "It is absurd that there could be a God of infinite love Who would go to such lengths to save us from ourselves"? How could it be that I'm loved, especially when I don't feel it or notice it in any tangible way? Modern life is much more palpable, and can I really trust the promise of the mystics who say that the love they experience is so real that they would even suffer the worst torture rather than betray it? That promise seems so distant and ethereal.

I'm hoping for some vigorous surge of emotion to accompany this realization that God loves me, but there isn't any there. And why is it that the only way for me to embrace this love, to let it enter into my life fully, and to reciprocate it feels like a burden, an obligation dropped unfairly on me? It's simply easier to believe that there is no such thing as a God of infinite love; it's easier to give mere lip service ("I'm devout!"; "I'm a real Catholic!"); or rather it's easier to live as if God never existed at all.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Tattoos, Labels, and Social Identities

Leviticus 19:28: "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD."

Why are tattoos wrong? Because they originate from, form, and encourage a self-imposed social identity, placed by the hand of man on the the body, which belongs not to ourselves but to the Holy Ghost. 

On the other hand, the Lord put a mark on Cain (Genesis 4:15); He had those who lamented over the sins of Israel marked with the Thau to protect them from destruction (Ezekiel 9:4); and He marks the redeemed with a seal on their foreheads (Revelation 7:3-8). In Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, the soul is signed with an indelible mark, placed there by God, establishing an unbreakable relation to God that did not exist beforehand, the relation of being a son of God. These are sealed in the Holy Ghost (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). It is by the hand of God that this mark is placed, not on the body, but on the soul. God alone gives us our true identity, individual and social, and death, so showed the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, reveals the fraud of all human-created social identities.

The image in human constructs goes out to the Other so as to attract the gaze of the Other back to the image. It is fundamentally egoistic. It matters not what the image is; that is besides the point. The psychological function of the image transcends the image and the intention of the Subject, which in Lacan's terminology is mostly unconscious of itself and of its actions (I capitalize "Subject" simply as a reminder of its specialized usage here). This psychological function of the image, we can say, establishes a relation between the Subject and the Other, a relation existing suprasubjectively

So too does the relation between God and the soul marked by the hand of God. In the former case, we establish the relation; in the latter, God is the initiator and terminus of the relation, the Alpha and the Omega. In the former case, there is a kind of unconscious attempt at salvation by human hands ("the work of human hands"), an attempt to "prove" that I am God's—"see? I even put this image on me to show you—to show them—to show God—to show myself." And what does it really prove? Once the body rots and has been resurrected, will the tattoo be there? What has been accomplished? In the end, it's like the Tower of Babel, doomed to failure, for there is an infinite chasm between us and God.

Then we like to find justifications, even the smallest, for our actions; it is always a matter of whether this action is "OK" in the eyes of God. We like to think that if it's a "small" tattoo, then that's all right—as though God would become more upset by consideration of size! This is being a Pharisee. No, we offend God through sin, which is an act of the spiritual will working through our physical bodies; size is irrelevant—it's the fact that we willed to do something that was wrong.

But the Church's vast tradition of spiritual and mystical teaching shows us that we clearly hear God's voice in our lives only on the condition and to the extent that we are detached from our own wills and committed to doing the will of God. So if you want to know whether getting a tattoo would be "favorable" in God's sight, ask yourself, after detaching yourself from all creaturely loves according to the teachings of the Saints, whether you discerned God was telling you to get a tattoo or whether you just want to have one.

But God gives us some "labels" by which He desires us to be identified: sons and daughters of God, the people of God, the mystical Body, the Church, Christians, saints, co-heirs, and all the other Biblical images. 

But everything that is said about a tattoo, even a so-called "devotional tattoo," applies just as well to self-imposed lingual identities—with the significant difference being lingual identities do not leave a mark on the body.

Here we find the crucial difference between being called (something) and calling myself (something). Our vocation is precisely where God calls us and, then, concretely calls us what our state in life is: cleric, religious, lay, consecrated, but foundational to all of these, holy. (As an aside, notice how religious habits are given and worn as a sign. Our uniform, although in itself meaningless, ought to be a truthful representation of what we are and hence what we do, but our uniform is determined by our state in life and, due to fashion, open to a certain amount of variety at least for layfolk.) We do not "call ourselves"; we accept our calling and hence what we are called. Our action is cooperative, not initiative. Anything else in the order of salvation is futile and arrogant. To prove this, simply imagine trying to defend on your judgment day in front of Christ that your label somehow aided in your sanctification and in being a disciple of Christ. See where it gets you...

Whatever label I may use to describe my faith is ultimately meaningless and in a radical way inspired by the pride of the Fall—the grasping of a forbidden fruit, an identity that I take on for myself rather than what is given to me by grace, i.e. by gift from God. It may be convenient during a conversation, for a survey, or for debate, but it is meaningless for my salvation. After all, Christ said, "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Those who cooperate with grace enter the Kingdom. Anyone who cooperates with grace will fulfill the commandments, will serve Christ in "one of these my least brethren" (Matthew 25:40), will be like those "that heareth these my words, and doth them, [and] shall be likened to a wise man" (Matthew 7:24).

Sunday, March 16, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas on Christ's Presence Among Us

Christ is with us in many ways. 

(1) First as a brother by his participation in our nature, (Cant. 8:1) "O that you were like a brother to me, that nursed at my mother’s breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you."

(2) Second as a spouse by the bond of love, (Jn 14:15) "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

(3) Third as a shepherd by the comfort of interior consolation, (Rev 3:20) "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and him with me."

(4) Fourth as a savior by the help of his defense (Jer. 30:10) "Then fear not, O Jacob my servant, says the Lord, nor be dismayed, O Israel: for lo, I will save you from afar."

(5) Fifth as a leader by the example of his works (Ex. 32:12) "The Lord alone did lead him."


Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, 7.2.

Hypocrisy and the Grounds for Belief

Many (you can find examples all over the place if you're paying attention) remark that they will not come back to the Church, that they will leave the Church, etc., if the Church doesn't change its position on this or that issue. This attitude measures the grounds of faith against a political agenda, reducing faith to the natural from the supernatural. It is very similar to attributing to the demonic the works of the Holy Ghost (something Christ called an "unforgivable sin" (Mt 12:31-32; Mk 3:28-29)) because God Himself proposes to us faith as the means of salvation, and we must believe Him on His authority. Hence to reduce faith to anything else is to reject Him and His authority, at least implicitly (i.e. without full awareness of what one is rejecting or doing).

This basic reason of rejecting the faith also is used in relation to the sex-abuse scandal of the Church. It is claimed that because the (priests/bishops of the) Church has committed grievous evils not only in the abuse itself but also in its systematic cover-up, therefore faith is rendered impossible. This twist is interesting because it often mixes psychological reasons under an intellectual-political guise. Usually it is unclear what is impossible to accept—the object of faith, namely, God and all that He has revealed; or faith's corollaries, such as the dogmatic, teaching authority of the Church (usually this one especially and all that it applies to). Either way, faith is measured by man's standards, and not even man as man but man as fallen.

There is a certain incongruity in most peoples' minds between the claim to hold the fullness of God's self-revelation, the "fullness of truth" however it may apply but especially in the area of morality, and the fact that most in the Church do not live in accordance with that revealed fullness. But this was Plato's error, namely, that the cause of moral evil is ignorance and that once we know what is right and how to do it, we will do the right thing.

But what is there left to the intuition that people who claim to have the fullness of moral truth should at least live in a noticeably more morally-upright manner than those around them? I think that the intuition should point us not to the falsity of revelation but to the deep extent of sin's influence on the human condition, an influence far deeper than anyone usually suspects. It is why we are hardly ever really scandalized by the Crucifixion—sin has numbed and hardened our hearts to the point where what should be the most heart-wrenching sight possible in human experience is simply placed as decoration between women's breasts ("crucifix cleavage" is a sacrilege).

And this blindness to the depths of sin is to be expected, especially in first-world living, where daily comfort very conveniently hides the ugliness of the rest of the world and even the evil in our midst—in sports, politics, entertainment, academics, science, religion, etc.

Instead of thinking that this intuition proves the falsity of revelation or the falsity of the Church's claim to the fullness of truth or the nonexistence of moral absolutes or the impossibility of our being able to discover and know those moral principles, this intuition should rather remind us more and more clearly of the ease with which we deceive ourselves on a daily basis from the truth that is right in front of our faces most of the time.

Debate and contradiction on what is moral does not in itself prove that there are no moral absolutes nor that we cannot know them (to prove such should require much more philosophical argumentation than what can be condensed into a slogan supporting relativism). It simply proves that it's difficult for humans to adjudicate the false from the true when left to ourselves. St. Thomas Aquinas made this same point: divine revelation was necessary because without it, a few alone could come to a knowledge of the truth but only through great argument, over a long span of time, and with the admixture of many errors (cf. Summa Theologiæ 1.1.1).

Hypocrisy doesn't prove the falsity of (the object of) belief; it merely proves the falsity of adherence to that belief.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Brief History of "Morning Has Broken"

[Originally written in an email to some seminarian friends who were interested.]


Here are the details on the hymn "Morning Has Broken" that I said I would look up for you.

The hymn melody "BUNESSAN" comes from a village on the Scottish island of Mull. Mary Macdougal Macdonald (1789-1872), who was born near Bunessan, a composer, and was the daughter of a Baptist cleric, wrote Gaelic lyrics for a Christmas carol using a local traditional tune, which would be the original melody that would eventually become what we now have.

Lachlan Macbean (also McBean), another composer, translated Macdonald's hymn from Gaelic to English (it's called "Child in the Manger") and published it in a Scottish hymnal in 1888, called Songs and Hymns of the Gael.

The English author Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), who was relatively well established during her literary career, was asked by the Anglican priest and composer Percy Dearmer to write a "poem to fit the lovely Scottish tune" because there was need for a children's thanksgiving hymn suitable for each day of the year. The melody had been discovered in Macbean's hymnal, and Dearmer, along with a few others, including the noted Ralph Vaughn Williams, were compiling a new hymnal to supplement the popular English Hymnal (1906) used in Anglican churches. This new hymnal, the editors hoped, would be popular for "Low Church" services and especially among children (Farjeon wrote poetry and literature for children as well, which was probably why she was asked to collaborate on the hymn). This new hymnal was published as Songs of Praise (1925), which quickly became popular and well used, but the actual hymn with the text "Morning Has Broken" and the Gaelic tune would not appear until the second edition in 1931. The hymn itself was written for children.

English (i.e. British) Roman Catholic hymnals shortly after used the tune for some alternative lyrics from popular hymns by the well-known Anglican composer Charles Stanford. Eventually the Scottish Jesuit James Quinn would write "This day God gives me," inspired by Charles Stanford's famous arrangement of the St. Patrick's Breastplate in a hymn called "I bind unto myself today" (

As an aside, Farjeon became a Catholic in 1951.

The song "Morning Has Broken" became popularized in society when the folk singer Cat Stevens did a rendition in the early '70s. Since then the song has been unfortunately associated with the hippy culture and has become interpreted in a blandly pluralistic way (as evidenced in some of the comments of this video of Stevens's rendition:; Stevens would shortly afterwards infamously become a Muslim, named Yusuf Islam), but originally it appeared in a relatively reverent context (Low Church services, especially used for children, and soon after found suitable for adoption by Catholic hymnals). Here's a nice performance of the piece: