Category Archives: Theological

The New Man

The New Man

by Thomas Merton (1961)

This is the least informal writing I have yet seen from Merton. And the most philosophical. Neither trait hurts the book, but I did find myself taking longer than usual to decide whether I would finish the book. Then about a third of the way through I began to start realizing that this could be one of his strongest works ever.

The topic is about Adam vs. the New Adam, Christ. And the Fall. And Baptism. It does not sound all that original, as St. Paul covers this quite well in his epistles. But in his usual fashion, Merton finds something new to say, and a way of saying it that holds the reader’s interest.

Let’s supply some excerpts to demonstrate the point. From the chapter “Life in Christ”:

Everything that has the power to make us real, to bring us to the fulfilment of our destiny, to perfect happiness, and peace with ourselves and one another, is contained in God’s will for us: first His will as implanted in our very nature, and then His will as supernaturally revealed. To want to know something besides this one great good, to desire to add the knowledge of evil to the knowledge of good by turning away from God, is to turn away from life itself and from reality. We die the death.

(pg. 185)

And again from the same chapter:

[T]he patience of the charitable man [is not] merely a hidden weapon by which he shames and defeats his enemies. It is the strength which knows the difference between good and evil, and which knows how to overcome evil with good. Without this strength, this alchemy which silently and inexorably destroys evil, the passive aspects of Christian charity would have no reason for existence. They are never really negative. They are the negation of evil, and evil is a negation. Hence even the passive elements in charity are positive, constructive forces. Very often they are more constructive than the more obvious and affirmative acts of the charitable man.

(pp. 191-192)

So as not to spoil it for you, I will omit the part where Merton gives the best explanation I have ever seen as to why Adam (and we along with him) lost his immortality.

 

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Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration

by Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI (2007)

This book could be Pope Benedict’s version of “What I did on my summer vacation.” True. When it comes to theology this pope was a trekkie in every sense of the word. And I love him for it. I love that he didn’t let his job as the keeper of the papacy hold him down. He just had the good taste to make sure he did this stuff on his own time.  Not that he let that give him an excuse for shoddy workmanship. This book was world class all the way.

My favorite parts are the entire chapter on The Lord’s Prayer and the chapter on the parables, with particular mention to his treatment of The Good Samaritan. Another tip of the hat goes to the part called “The Dispute Concerning the Sabbath” in the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount.

From the last chapter, Chapter Ten, “Jesus Declares His Identity”, we have an excerpt from a section called “The Son of Man”:

Let us turn now to the scriptural passages themselves. We saw that the first group of sayings about the Son of Man refers to his future coming. Most of these occur in Jesus’ discourse about the end of the world (cf. Mk 13:24-27) and in his trial before the Sanhedrin (cf. Mk 14:62). Discussion of them therefore belongs in the second volume of this book. There is just one important point that I would like to make here: They are sayings about Jesus’ future glory, about his coming to judge and to gather the righteous, the “elect.” We must not overlook, however, that they are spoken by a man who stands before his judges, accused and mocked: In these very words glory and the Passion are inextricably intertwined.

Admittedly, they do not expressly mention the Passion, but that is the reality in which Jesus finds himself and in which he is speaking. We encounter this connection in a uniquely concentrated form in the parable about the Last Judgment recounted in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46), in which the Son of Man, in the role of judge, identifies himself with those who hunger and thirst, with the strangers, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned–with all those who suffer in this world–and he describes behavior toward them as behavior toward himself. This is no mere fiction about the judge of the world, invented after the Resurrection. In becoming incarnate, he accomplished this identification with the utmost literalism. He is the man without property or home who has no place to lay his head (cf. Mt 8:19; Lk 9:58). He is the prisoner, the accused, and he dies naked on the Cross. The identification of the Son of Man who judges the world with those who suffer in every way presupposes the judge’s identity with the earthly Jesus and reveals the inner unity of Cross and glory, of earthly existence in lowliness and future authority to judge the world. The Son of Man is one person alone, and that person is Jesus. This identity shows us the way, shows us the criterion according to which our lives will one day be judged.

– pp. 327-328

Not everything in this volume is as readable as the passage above, but the entire thing is worth the challenge.

 

 

Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment

Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment

by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (1977)

In this book, Fr. Dubay attempts to map out a way for people to discern truth from error, in groups and alone. As always, he uses the gospel and the Church as his guides, so he is reliable and worthy of the reader’s trust. This book is his least informal and most academic of the ones I have read by him. It is a deceptively strong work. Appearing to be dry, long, dense, and pedantic, it turns out to be none of those. I found it to be extremely lucid, practical, insightful, and vibrant. And worthy of at least one additional reading.

It would probably require more than one excerpt to demonstrate the appeal of this book, but let one lengthy citation suffice. The book has four large divisions, the first of which is “Concepts and Problems”. Chapter 3 is “How Does God Speak?” and here are two sections from that chapter:

Experience of God: A Privilege

When we reflect on the endless gap between infinite and finite, we glimpse at least vaguely how remarkable it is that man should encounter God, should experience something of how he experiences himself, should be able somehow to detect his mind in this encounter. Since discernment does at least in its loftier occurrences imply this experience of God, we ought not to assume that the classical feeling of peace is humanly produced. If perfect discernment demands perfect holiness, it demands what we have been talking about. A deep contact with God bestows a deep perception of his mind. How sublime this contact may be we may illustrate with a few snatches from a single page flowing from the pen of a mystic: “This loving inflow. . . this inflaming and urgent longing of love. . . something immensely rich and delightful . . . this divine fire . . . a living flame . . . this enkindling of love . . . a certain touch of divinity . . . so sublime an experience.”

In the sobering remarks I shall be making about the likelihood of illusion among many who feel they are listening to the Spirit, I should not want the impression to be given that genuine experience of God is extraordinary, a thing not to be talked about. Quite the contrary, experiencing the divine is so important that we seek to receive it, yes, but we also wish to deflect counterfeits from it. Since it is the same John of the Cross who will furnish us with strong warnings about deception, we may also allow him to assure us at this point that there do indeed exist remarkable experiences of God indwelling.

Noting that we are called to delight in God in a manner transcending all knowledge and capacity to explain, John issues the invitation: “Come, then, O beautiful soul! Since you know now that your desired Beloved lives hidden within your heart, strive to be really hidden with Him, and you will embrace Him within you and experience Him with loving affection.” In this union, says the saint, one experiences a great closeness to God and is instructed in his own wisdom and mysteries. The saint uses all sorts of expressions to articulate some little of what he means: “secret touches of love . . . cauterized by the fire of love . . . it burns up in this flame and fire of love . . .wholly renews it. . .changes its manner of being”. He speaks of a “touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity” that cannot be continual or prolonged, for if it were, the person would die. As it is, one “is left dying of love”. John feels that so lofty is this experience that only he who has had it can understand it well, and even the recipient cannot explain what he has felt, and so he calls it an “l-don’t-know-what”.

Authenticity of the Experience of God

We are going to consider in our next chapter illusions and errors as both possible and probable in alleged discerning of the Holy Spirit. We shall likewise devote still other chapters to the revealed signs of who is led by the Spirit and who is not. Nonetheless, we may make several needed observations at this point. And the first is to note how an experience of God may be distinguished from mere emotion. There are several differences. First of all, an emotion originates in some human or finite cause, whereas the experience of God does not. The latter is divinely given and lies beyond the control of the human person (though he can prevent it by neglect or sin). Secondly, the one is heavily of sense, while the other is spiritual, even though the latter can overflow into one’s feelings. Thirdly, an emotion never becomes continual, whereas the perception of God does become continual when one has grown fully in him. Fourthly, even the best of emotions do not necessarily produce a new knowledge of God or insight into his economy, while a genuine encounter with him does. Fifthly, emotions are usually neither indelible nor ineffable, while deep experiences of the divine are often both. Sixthly, emotions are not always peaceful, whereas meetings with God carry an inner calm with them. Lastly, emotions are not necessarily accompanied by moral goodness, while experiences of God do bring a growth in gospel living.

It will be interesting to note that what we are saying here will be said in biblical thought patterns when further on we study the signs of authentic discernment. Not everyone who thinks he is feeling the Spirit is feeling the Spirit.

The question may then be asked whether one can have a founded certitude that he has met God. Catholic teaching excludes an absolute certainty (unless one has a revelation) of one’s being in grace and of final salvation. Scripture tells us that we are to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and that we are to hold on to the grace we have received in reverence and awe (Heb 12:28). The person who considers himself safe should beware lest he fall (1 Cor 10:12). Yet at the same time theology does allow for a reasonable assurance that one possesses the indwelling presence. What I am calling a reasonable assurance others term a moral certainty or a practical certitude.

How then do we explain the mystic’s certainty that God dwells within him and that he has really encountered this God? One answer given is that a deep experience of God can be equivalent to a revelation and thus can yield an absolute certitude. Another response is that the experience does not yield absolute certitude but only the well-founded reasonable assurance, the moral certitude that excludes reasonable doubts.

– pp. 74-77

 

The Science of the Cross

The Science of the Cross

by Edith Stein (1983; original delayed publication in 1950; written 1942)

Edith Stein (a.k.a. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote this shortly before she was taken to her death by the Nazis. She was a brilliant philosopher before she converted from atheism to Catholicism almost overnight, when she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila while staying at a friend’s home one night. The keen intellect of this Carmelite nun is on display in this work, which is no easy read, but not impossible. She takes the reader through the writings of John of the Cross, quoting him liberally, but doing it in an organized sequence, elucidating much that would escape the casual uninitiated reader of St. John.

Here is a substantial excerpt from Chapter 6, “Purgation through Hope”:

The perfect purgation of the soul is received passively from God. All the soul has to do is prepare herself to receive it: whatever the senses present “must not be stored in the memory…but she must leave them immediately and forget them, and put as much effort into this as one would to remember other things. No image of remembrance should remain in the memory, as though these things  had never existed. The memory should be left completely free and unhindered, and one must not seek to engage it in any meditation on heavenly or terrestrial things. . . . One should leave . . . these things and remain forgetful of them, counting them but a hindrance on the way.”

A spiritual person, on the contrary, who “still wishes to make use of natural knowledge and discursive reflection of the memory in the journey to God” will experience three kinds of harm. She will suffer from manifold miseries concerning things of the world, “for instance, falsehoods, imperfections, appetites, inclinations to criticize, waste of time, etc. . . . ” If one allows the memory to occupy itself with what has been perceived through the senses, one falls “into imperfections step by step. For some emotion will cling to these sensory objects, now of sorrow and fear, soon of hate and vain hopes of vainglory, which will remain in the soul. . . . all things that hinder the perfect purity of the soul and perfect union with God. . . . These imperfections are better overcome all at once through complete denial of the memory.” It is best “to learn to silence and quiet the faculties of the soul so that God may speak to her.” Then “a river of peace will descend on her . . . and . . . in this peace, God will remove all the misgivings, suspicions, disturbances, and darknesses which awakened in her the fear that she is already lost or is near to being lost.”

Further harm comes from the intervention of the devil. He “can add to the soul’s knowledge new impressions, ideas, and reasonings, and by means of them move her to pride, avarice, anger, envy, and so on, and thus seduce her to unjust hatred and vain love . . . By far, most of the great delusions and evils that the devil causes in the soul spring from the knowledge and thought processes of the memory. When therefore, this faculty is shrouded in the complete darkness of forgetfulness and its activity is halted, the gates remain locked against the diabolical influence . . . and this leads to great blessings for the soul.”

The third kind of harm to the soul consists in this: the natural content of the memory can be “an impediment to moral good and deprive one of spiritual good.” The moral good “consists in bridling the passions and curbing the inordinate appetites, and then in the soul’s resulting tranquility and peace, as well as in the moral virtues engendered in her.”

All confusion and disturbance in the soul is caused by the contents of the memory. The soul that lives in restlessness, and that gets no support from moral good, is “incapable of receiving any spiritual good, for the spiritual good can abide only in an even-tempered and peaceful soul.” Should the soul value the contents of the memory and turn to them, “it is impossible for her to be free to receive the Incomprehensible, Who is God.” If she wishes to go to God, she must “replace the mutable and comprehensible by the Immutable and Incomprehensible.”

Then in place of the harm so far described, the soul will gain the opposite advantages: rest and peace of spirit, purity of conscience and of soul, and therewith the best preparation “for the reception of human and divine wisdom and virtues.” She is preserved from many suggestions, temptations, and disturbances caused by the evil enemy, for whom those thoughts provided a handhold. The soul becomes receptive for the motivation by and inspirations of the Holy Spirit.”

– pp. 82-84

(NOTE: The soul is referred to in the feminine pronouns, but only in the same way that ships are, not because the author is female–in fact, most of these references are from John of the Cross–but only because all creatures, and indeed creation itself, are seen as feminine in relation to the Creator.)

If you are interested in a well done movie on the the life of Edith Stein, The Seventh Chamber, starring Maia Morgenstern (who played the mother of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ), is a worthwhile film. It is in Italian with English subtitles.

The Spirit of the Liturgy

The Spirit of the Liturgy

by Pope Benedict XVI, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (2000)

This book is where Cardinal Ratzinger suggests what you may have seen at some churches: the altar with a crucifix facing the priest. Some have dubbed it the “Benedict arrangement” or some such terminology. It’s an interesting proposal.

Beyond getting into some of the trickier theological questions about the liturgical changes since Vatican II, this book is written in a spiritual prayerful style compared to a lot of Ratzinger’s other theological output. It is definitely worth a read if you are interested in getting deeper into the liturgy as well as understanding some of the differing approaches that various people are in favor of or against.

While the sections on Sacred Space and Sacred Time are particularly strong, they are too long to quote. Instead, here is something from the first chapter, “The Question of Images”, of Part Three, “Art and Liturgy”:

The icon of Christ is the icon of the risen Lord. That truth, with all its implications, now dawned on the Christian mind. There is no portrait of the risen Lord. At first the disciples do not recognize him. They have to be led toward a new kind of seeing, in which their eyes are gradually opened from within to the point where  they recognize him afresh and cry out: “It is the Lord!” Perhaps the most telling episode of all is that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Their hearts are transformed, so that, through the outward events of Scripture, they can discern its inward center, from which everything comes and to which everything tends: the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They then detain their mysterious companion and give him their hospitality, and at the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way. In the icon it is not the facial features that count (though icons essentially adhere to the appearance of the acheiropoietos). No, what matters is the new kind of seeing. The icon is supposed to originate from an opening up of the inner senses, from a facilitation of sight that gets beyond the surface of the empirical and perceives Christ, as the later theology of icons puts it, in the light of Tabor. It thus leads the man who contemplates it to the point where, through the interior vision that the icon embodies, he beholds in the sensible that which, though above the sensible, has entered into the sphere of the senses. As Evdokimov says so beautifully, the icon requires a “fast from the eyes”. Icon painters, he says, must learn how to fast with their eyes and prepare themselves by a long path of prayerful asceticism. This is what marks the transition from art to sacred art (p. 188). The icon comes from prayer and leads to prayer. It delivers a man from that closure of the senses which perceives only the externals, the material surface of things, and is blind to the transparency of the spirit, the transparency of the Logos. At the most fundamental level, what we are dealing with here is nothing other than the transcendence of faith. The whole problem of knowledge in the modern world is present. If an interior opening-up does not occur in man that enables him to see more than what can be measured and weighed, to perceive the reflection of divine glory in creation, then God remains excluded from our field of vision. The icon, rightly understood, leads us away from false questions about portraits, portraits incomprehensible at the level of the senses, and thus enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in him, of the Father.

– pp. 120-122

Journey to Easter

Journey to Easter: Spiritual Reflections for the Lenten Season

by Pope Benedict XVI (2005; originally as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1987 (English) & 1985 (Italian))

This book opens with the text of homily-like talks that Cardinal Ratzinger delivered to Pope John Paul II and members of the Curia in a retreat that took place during the first full week of Lent in 1983. That alone makes this book remarkable and unique. Ratzinger is extraordinarily consistent: whether it is a formal academic work or the saved text of a speech, the quality and depth is characteristically world class. He can be a bit challenging to read at times, but this book is not one of them.

An excerpt from Chapter 12, “The Paschal Mystery”, should help solidify the point:

The Pasch was celebrated at home. Jesus did so too. But after the meal he got up and went out, went beyond the limits of the Law by crossing the brook Kidron, the boundary of Jerusalem. He went out into the night. Not fearing chaos, nor hiding from it, rather he went into its depths, even into the jaws of death. “He descended into hell, ” as we say in the Creed. He went out. And this means to say accordingly, though the ramparts of the Church are the faith and love of Jesus Christ, the Church is not a fortified citadel but an open city. And hence to believe means also to go out with Jesus Christ, not fearing chaos, because he is stronger, because he has gone there, and we, as we go out into it, are following him. To believe means to pass beyond the wall and into the midst of the chaotic world, to create with the strength of Jesus Christ a space for faith and love.

The Lord went out. This is a sign of his strength. He went out into the night of Gethsemane, into the night of the Cross, the night of the tomb. He went out because his love bears within it the love of God, which has greater power than the forces of destruction. It is therefore precisely in this going forth, along the way of the Passion, that the victorious deed lies, and already in this mystery is to be found the mystery of paschal joy. He is the stronger; there is no power which could resist him and no place which he is not. He calls us to attempt the way with him because where there is faith and love, there he is, and there too is the strength of peace which overcomes death and emptiness.

– pg. 109