Tag Archives: Cultural Analysis

Crossing the Threshold of Hope

Crossing the Threshold of Hope

by Pope Saint John Paul II (1994)

John Paul II will be canonized on April 27, 2014 — just inside four weeks from now. Now might be a good time to pick this one up and read, or reread it.

This was intended originally to be an in-person broadcast interview, but because of the Pope’s busy travel schedule, it had to be cancelled. But the interviewer-to-be, Vittorio Messori, had sent John Paul the list of questions beforehand. The Pope thought they were good questions, worthy of thoughtful answers, so he developed answers to them in his spare moments, sending them back through his secretary, with a suggested title, which Messori kept.

Thus this book came to be. It is a bit of a one of a kind work. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (and later as Pope Benedict VXI) sat for similar book length interviews, but this one was done in isolation — a virtual interview of sorts, that reads more like a live chat might today. If the person live-chatting was the visible head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here are a couple segments from early in the book. First, from “Praying: How and Why” (all emphasis original):

One can and must pray in many different ways, as the Bible teaches through a multitude of examples. The Book of Psalms is irreplaceable. We must pray with “inexpressible groanings” in order to enter into rhythm with the Spirit’s own entreaties. To obtain forgiveness one must implore, becoming part of the loud cries of Christ the Redeemer (cf. Heb 5:7). Through all of this one must proclaim glory. Prayer is always an opus gloriae (a work, a labor, of glory). Man is the priest of all creation. Christ conferred upon him this dignity and vocation. Creation completes its opus gloriae both by being what it is and by its duty to become what should be.

In a certain sense science and technology also contribute to this goal. But at the same time, since they are human works, they can lead away from this goal. In our civilization in particular there is such a risk, making it difficult for our civilization to be one of life and love. Missing is precisely the opus gloriae, which is the fundamental destiny of every creature, and above all of man, who was created in order to become, in Christ, the priest, prophet, and king of all earthly creatures.

Much has been written about prayer, and further, prayer has been widely experienced in the history of humankind, especially in the history of Israel and Christianity. Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer. The history of mystical prayer in the East and West attests to this: Saint Francis, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and, in the East, for example, Saint Serafim of Sarov and many others.

-pp. 16-17

The second excerpt is from ‘What Does “To Save” Mean?’:

Christianity is a religion of salvation. The salvation in question is that of the Cross and the Resurrection. God, who desires that man “may live” (cf. Ez 18:23), draws near to him through the death of His Son in order to reveal that life to which he is called in God Himself. Everyone who looks for salvation, not only the Christian, must stop before the Cross of Christ.

Will he be willing to accept the truth of the Paschal Mystery, or not? Will he have faith? This is yet another issue. This Mystery of salvation is an event which has already taken place. God has embraced all men by the Cross and the Resurrection of His Son. God embraces all men with the life which was revealed in the Cross and in the Resurrection, and which is constantly being born anew from them. As indicated by the allegory of “the vine” and “the branches” in the Gospel of John (cf. Jn 15:1-8), the Paschal Mystery is by now grafted onto the history of humanity, onto the history of every individual.

-pp. 70-71

In some ways, the theme of hope found in these pages seems to have made its way into Benedict’s encyclical Saved in Hope.

 

 

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 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

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy

by G. K. Chesterton (1908)

I am reluctant to say much about this book (as I unconsciously also was about The Everlasting Man, apparently), because discovering what it’s about is too enjoyable to spoil for you. I will say that I cannot think of another book that has such an ostensibly off-putting title and then turns out to be as every bit as lively and open-minded as the title appears to suggest only dullness and rigidity. That is quite a triumph. And a thoroughly delightful one indeed.

One thing that I cannot omit: Chesterton was about 100 years ahead of his time. Lucky for us. He is so very readable today.

One more thing: I have seen mentioned somewhere that this is a companion piece to GKC’s Heretics, which preceded this book by a couple years.

I will again give a taste of this great work with a couple of quasi-brief excerpts.

First, from Chapter VI, “The Paradoxes of Christianity”, this is without a doubt my favorite quotation on courage:

[T]ake the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.

– pg. 94

And following on the heels of that, a couple of lines later, comes this sublime passage:

And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism–the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them.

It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both. In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny–all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard. When one came to think of one’s self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go–as long as he let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say that a man, qua man, can be valueless. Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

– pp. 95-96

UPDATE: I have tagged this as Anglican, though I believe Chesterton himself was already a Catholic in his heart by the time this was published. He would wait more than a decade before making his Catholicism officially explicit. By the time The Everlasting Man was published, he was formally a Catholic.

 

Back to Virtue

Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion

by Peter Kreeft (1992; originally as For Heaven’s Sake , 1986)

Dr. Kreeft (pronounced “crayft”) is a Boston College philosophy professor and C. S. Lewis enthusiast/scholar. And he is one heck of a writer. He has a talent for clearing up a confusion the reader was not aware they even had, until he cleared it up for them. That is quite an achievement. It takes somebody of both talent and advanced education to accomplish that, without making the reader feel inferior or without introducing yet another confusion in the process.

The strongest part of the book is the latter half where he pits the Seven Deadly Sins against the Beatitudes in a match-up whose outcome is clearly never in doubt, but also never lacking in interest to the reader.

Here are a couple excerpts from Chapter Seven, “Poor in Spirit vs. Proud in Heart”:

Pride is not the same as vanity. In fact vanity, though it is a sin, shows some humility. For if I think I need your admiration, then I do not feel wholly independent of you, above you. The truly proud person couldn’t care less of what others think of him.

– pp. 99-100

In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis says that God appears to us like an uncle to a slum child playing with mudpies in the street, offering us a vacation at the seaside, but we stick to our mudpies. We are too easily content. Poverty of spirit is not mediocrity and cheap contentment; it is exactly the opposite; it is detachment from the mudpies for love of the sea. The Buddhist and the Stoic and the “peace of mind addict” teach detachment for the sake of tranquility or nirvana, but the Christian wants to be unclothed with the world and the goods of the body and the body itself only to be reclothed with Heaven and the resurrection body. Christ opposes selfish desire only to replace it with unselfish desire, not with emptiness. We are to be spiritually poor only for the sake of becoming spiritually rich, detached from what we can own so that we can be attached in a different way to what we cannot own, detached from consuming so that we can be consumed by God.

– pg. 106

The Everlasting Man

The Everlasting Man

by G. K. Chesterton (1925)

There can be no imaginable higher praise for this book than to point out that C. S. Lewis credited this book for his conversion to Christianity.

With that, let’s give an excerpt that opens the second half of the book:

This sketch of the human story began in a cave; the cave which popular science associates with the cave-man and in which practical discovery has really found archaic drawings of animals. The second half of human history, which was like a new creation of the world, also begins in a cave. There is even a shadow of such a fancy in the fact that animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night. It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravanserai had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passers-by, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born. But in that second creation there was indeed something symbolical in the roots of the primeval rock or the horns of the prehistoric herd. God also was a Cave-Man, and had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously coloured, upon the wall of the world; but the pictures that he made had come to life.

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this, that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it; especially one of the sort that seems to take a long time to see a joke, even his own joke.

– pp. 169-170

(For a good short commentary on the book, see Chesterton biographer Joseph Pearce at The War of the Wells: Bellocian Bellicosity vs. Chestertonian Charity.)

UPDATE: In the post for Orthodoxy, I state that GKC was about 100 years ahead of his time. One of the best examples is found in this book–and it falls only one page later than the above quotation:

Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanisation of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a new-born child. You can not suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a new-born child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a new-born child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

– pg. 171