Wednesday, November 26, 2003

All about Eastern Christianity and Jewish Mysticism

Apparently, the practice of the Jesus Prayer is extremely ancient, even more ancient than Jesus himself! Or rather, the mantra-like repetition of the name of God has its roots in Judaism. You can read all about it on a page put up by Father Alexander Golitzin, a professor of theology at Marquette University, and also the former teacher of Mrs. Athanasius.

I'm downloading a work on Apraphat, the Persian Sage by said Fr. Golitzin this very minute. It should be some good Thanksgiving reading.

P.S. My wife tells a story about class with Golitzin: she was very quiet in the class, and Fr. Golitzin didn't know who she was. Then they took the first test, and Mrs. Athanasius, as usual, aced it. Fr. Golitzin asked a question in the next class: "Who can answer this? How about, oh, Miss Smith (not her real maiden name)?" Thus he found out who the smart quiet girl was.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving

But you better enjoy it while you can, since someday the ACLU is going to figure out that "to thank" is a transitive verb.

Monday, November 24, 2003

The promise of future blogs

I'm a bit busy right now. No, scratch that. I'm extremely busy right now. Blogging will be scarce. But I promise, more goodies to come. I've been thinking about why it is that the ancient Church Fathers spent so much time fighting over orthodoxy, and why we shrug about it today. Hint: I blame Martin Luther. But stay tuned to find out why.

Friday, November 21, 2003

A sign of the times

My wife went on the walk-through of our new house on Friday, and the builder was schocked to discover that Mrs. Athanasius and I don't have a cable television outlet in the bedroom.

What freaks we must be.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Now that I've talked about fasting,

It's time for the Christmas List!

Note that these gifts are a bit pricy, and are completely unnecessary. But they would be fun. Socks, sweaters, and ties (and mortgage payments) are always appreciated.

Item #1
The Ukrainian Catholics have translated the Divine Office from Slavonic to English. I would like a copy so that I could make some attempt to pray a portion of it every day. This book is available here for the not-very-low price of 100$. Imagine: 1373 pages of Byzantine goodness!

Added benefit: if idle hands are the devil's workshop, then this book will help me not to have idle time. The Byzantine Office, if prayed fully, takes all day. I won't have any idle time.

Item #2

I play lots of musical instruments. Unfortunately, I only play one at a time. (That's not quite true: I did play trumpet and piano at the same time once for a talent show.) The Tascam US-122, available from The Woodwind and Brasswind, is a usb audio interface for the computer. This would make it much easier for me to record my own music on the computer, and thus imitate my hero, Victor Lams. This gift would allow me to explore a whole new world of funkitude.

Other than that, give me world peace, faithful bishops, good liturgies, and holy and healthy family members.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

More on Christmas fasting

Go look at Nathan's suggestion.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Admit it

When you first started blogging, you dreamed of being like Peter and Valentine Wiggin from Ender's Game.


Short Primer on the Jesus Prayer

My sister-in-law Susan, otherwise known as the Rosary Fascist, AKA Mrs. of Nyssa (wife of my brother Gregory of Nyssa (not his real name)) asked in a comment below what the form of the Jesus Prayer is.

Here it is:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

You can abbreviate if you like, even making it as short as "Jesus." Repeat as needed, or in other words constantly. There is a way to combine it with one's breathing, but Sean Roberts pointed out correctly that one should probably not do that without the advice of a spiritual director. Mrs. Athanasius says it is better than counting sheep.

There is a wonderful book about it called The Way of the Pilgrim. I would give my copy to Mrs. of Nyssa at Thanksgiving, but I've already given it away to someone else.

Monday, November 17, 2003

'Tis the season to be fasting

Falalalala, lalala.

Seriously. Advent, contrary to popular practice, is a time of preparation for the arrival of our Lord. What would you do if someone important was coming to visit your house? Wouldn't you clean things up? Why would you not do the same to your spiritual house when Christ is coming? So, rather than searching for Christmas presents or putting up the tree (which, strictly speaking, shouldn't go up until Christmas Eve), why not pray and fast?

Prayer and fasting are linked together. If you only pray, then you will not make any spiritual progress. To progress in the love of Christ, one must discipline one's body. The way to do this is by foregoing good things (food) for the greater good (God). Have you ever read the stories of the early Christian martyrs? How were they able to bear such terrible burdens for the faith? They were able to stand firm where we crumble because they had died to self through fasting, and were thus able to choose God when every fiber of their earthly being said to submit to the world.

Listen to what St. Jerome says about fasting, in a letter to a young girl who was seeking to lead a virginal life: After you have paid the most careful attention to your thoughts, you must then put on the armour of fasting and sing with David: "I chastened my soul with fasting," and "I have eaten ashes like bread," and "as for me when they troubled me my clothing was sackcloth." Eve was expelled from paradise because she had eaten of the forbidden fruit. Elijah on the other hand after forty days of fasting was carried in a fiery chariot into heaven. For forty days and forty nights Moses lived by the intimate converse which he had with God, thus proving in his own case the complete truth of the saying, "man doth not live by bread only but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord." The Saviour of the world, who in His virtues and His mode of life has left us an example to follow, was, immediately after His baptism, taken up by the spirit that He might contend with the devil, and after crushing him and overthrowing him might deliver him to his disciples to trample under foot. For what says the apostle? "God shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly." And yet after the Saviour had fasted forty days, it was through food that the old enemy laid a snare for him, saying, "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread." Under the law, in the seventh month after the blowing of trumpets and on the tenth day of the month, a fast was proclaimed for the whole Jewish people, and that soul was cut off from among his people which on that day preferred self-indulgence to self-denial. In Job it is written of behemoth that "his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly." Our foe uses the heat of youthful passion to tempt young men and maidens and "sets on fire the wheel of our birth." He thus fulfils the words of Hosea, "they are all adulterers, their heart is like an oven;" an oven which only God's mercy and severe fasting can extinguish. These are "the fiery darts" with which the devil wounds men and sets them on fire, and it was these which the king of Babylon used against the three children. But when he made his fire forty-nine cubits high he did but turn to his own ruin the seven weeks which the Lord had appointed for a time of salvation. And as then a fourth bearing a form like the son of God slackened the terrible heat and cooled the flames of the blazing fiery furnace, until, menacing as they looked, they became quite harmless, so is it now with the virgin soul. The dew of heaven and severe fasting quench in a girl the flame of passion and enable her soul even in its earthly tenement to live the angelic life. Therefore the chosen vessel declares that concerning virgins he has no commandment of the Lord. For you must act against nature or rather above nature if you are to forswear your natural function, to cut off your own root, to cull no fruit but that of virginity, to abjure the marriage-bed, to shun intercourse with men, and while in the body to live as though out of it.

Note: Adam and Eve lost paradise because they broke the fast! If we are to live the life of angels while still in this present life, we must discipline ourselves, and fasting is the preferred way. In fact, Christ himself fasted for forty days: do you think he needed to do it, or rather that he did it as an example to us?

Let me invite you to join us Byzantine Catholics in the traditional St. Phillip's Fast, which starts forty days before Christmas. It is a mild fast, not like Lent, but still should be productive in preparing the soul for Christmas. Here's how to do it: abstain from meat and dairy products on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It's that simple! No meat, no cheese, no milk, no cream. Can you do that for God?

Think about it this way: if you are unable to fast, how can you expect to break habits of sin?

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Somebody came to this page searching for

"Mortal Sin, confession saturday soon."

I hope you find a place to go to confession. Most parishes have it on Saturday. You can check out Masstimes--just input your zip code and it will tell you what parishes are near and what their confession times are. You might try your local cathedral parish--they tend to have confessions more often than just Saturdays.

But, here's a bit of advice: don't wait until Saturday. Just start calling the local parishes and asking if the priest is available to hear your confession. Or, go to daily Mass in the morning and talk to the priest afterwards. Very few priests will ever say no if you ask them in person. If you are in a state of mortal sin, getting to Confession is the most important thing on your schedule of things to do. Don't delay.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Clarification on the previous post

I don't mean, of course, that one can't do ethics without understanding that the final goal of human beings is union with God. One just can't do ethics correctly. All such attempts will ultimately break apart on the Gibraltarian rock of human dignity. In other words, what answer can they give to the question of "Why not kill the inconvenient, sick, very young, very old, disabled, or stupid?" Arguments can be made that it helps the general utility, that these people have no chance of eudaimonia anyway, that they are just members of the great mass of useless ordinary non-ubermenschen, and so can be disposed. These arguments have been made. Just read history. The only way to do ethics that properly respects human beings is to have a proper understanding of what a human being is: a creature of God, created for union with God. This fact changes everything.

The difficulty is in figuring out how to talk to people who don't share one's own starting points. We could congratulate them when they come up with the right answer (accidentally), but such praise has the danger of reaffirming their mistaken starting points. That is why I proposed relying on Augustine or Nietzsche to show just how empty their systems are. The way to talk to others about ethics will have to be destructive, a process of tearing down what they've done in order to expose their starting points and correct them.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Thomistic Reflections

(Don't you love when a lecture or article is titled "reflections?" What that means is that there will be no discernible structure to the lecture. You have been warned.)

I've been reading lots of Aquinas recently, especially the Prima Secundae of the Summa. Aquinas makes the point repeatedly that the end or telos in practical reason plays the role of first principles in speculative reason: "For in morals the end is what principles are in speculative science." (link) Just as in mathematics we start with certain axioms about number in order to draw conclusions, in morals we start with the end to be gained, and then draw conclusions about particular actions that lead to the end.

Now, as Aquinas says in De Ente et Essentia, "parvus error in principio magnus est in fine" (A small error in the beginning is a great error in the end), any error in the determination of the principle of morals, the human end or telos, will lead to great errors in determining what the content of morality is.

Now, if the end of human beings is union with God, any system of ethics that fails to recognize this end must necessarily be false, mustn't it? If what Aquinas says is true (which it seems he believed it to be, since he starts writing on morals with figuring out the human end), then any attempt to figure out what is right and wrong without explicit reference to God is doomed to failure.

Now, this has consequences for people such as Finnis and Grisez, who think that a natural law ethic can be developed without talking about God, on the basis of certain self-evident goods. But the way to instantiate these goods will have ultimate reference to the end, wouldn't it? Such an attempt would fail before it started, because the whole goal of human action (union with God), wouldn't be recognized.

Question: if all this is true, what is a philosopher to do? How can a Christian confront a secular world, a world that rejects common starting points? This is the root of our disagreements: we argue over conclusions such as how to treat Terry Schiavo, where Christians argue on the basis of the intrinsic dignity she has as a child of God destined for union, and the world argues on the basis of maximizing utility or pleasure and minimizing pain. We may occasionally reach the same conclusions as the seculars, but our ways of reaching conclusions are radically incompatible. This incompatibility is based on the fact that we start from different principles. What to do?

I suspect an Augustinian approach may be necessary: one must do what he does in the Confessions (go read it): show the utter poverty of a world without God. Nietzsche may be helpful as well, to show the ultimate consequences of the positions the world advocates.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

I want to be an advice columnist

The Tribune has a new advice columnist, and, though she is better than Ann--keep-indulging-whatever-destructive-vice-you-have--Landers, I think I could do better. I would just give advice such as the Church Fathers would give. Here's how it would work:

Dear Athanasius, I have a problem with my boyfriend. He doesn't seem to want to get married. I told him this morning as I made him breakfast that if he doesn't shape up, I might have to do something drastic, like quit having sex with him.

Athanasius: Have you tried prayer and fasting?

Dear Athanasius, I don't know what to do about my job. I can't seem to make ends meet. What should I do?

Athanasius: Have you tried prayer and fasting?

Dear Athanasius, do you have any hints for how I could quit smoking?

Athanasius: Have you tried prayer and fasting?

Dear Athanasius, I've been depressed recently. I have a good job, good prospects, a beautiful girlfriend, but somehow everything seems empty. What am I here for? Why should I bother working hard and making money, when it all ends in death?

Athanasius Have you tried prayer and fasting? And maybe reading my Life of Antony?

See how easy it would be? (Note: this was inspired by Disputations.)

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Rational Thought in the Chicago Tribune!

Go read John Kass on abortion rights and euthanasia.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Speaking of the Church confronting the State

Here is a quote from Basil the Great (not my brother) when confronted by a minion of an Arian emperor:

Then indeed the prefect became excited, and rose from his seat, boiling
with rage, and making use of harsher language. "What?" said he, "have you no
fear of my authority?

"Fear of what?" said Basil, "How could it affect me?

"Of what? Of any one of the resources of my power."

"What are these? "said Basil, "pray, inform me."

"Confiscation, banishment, torture, death."

"Have you no other threat?" said he, "for none of these can reach me."

"How indeed is that?" said the prefect.

"Because," he replied, "a man who has nothing, is beyond the reach of confiscation; unless you demand my tattered rags, and the few books, which are my only possessions. Banishment is impossible for me, who am confined by no limit of place, counting my own neither the land where I now dwell, nor all of that into which I may be hurled; or, rather, counting it all God's, whose guest and dependent I am. As for tortures, what hold can they have upon one whose body has ceased to be? Unless you mean the first stroke, for this alone is in your power. Death is my benefactor, for it will send me the sooner to God, for Whom I live, and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I have long been hastening."

50. Amazed at this language, the prefect said, "No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus." "Why, perhaps," said Basil, "you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defence of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this--that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible."

From Gregory Nanzianzen, Oration 43.

I love the line "Well, perhaps you have not met a Bishop!" It sounds like a super hero line. I can imagine Apocalypse saying that he'd never heard such language to the Green Lantern, and the Green Lantern replying, in the same tone of voice, "Well, perhaps you have not met a member of the Justice League!"

Alls I'm saying is

a more adversial relationship between Church and state may be productive. Caesar hasn't been doing too well recently, and could use a smackdown.

And, Robert, you are right: it should have been "The Interfaith Value of Excommunication."

Think St. Ambrose versus Theodosius.

The Ecumenical Value of Excommunication

I heard a lecture this past Sunday from a Catholic woman who works as an advocate before the Bangladesh Supreme Court. It was interesting to hear a perspective on the challenges and opportunities of the Church in Asia. One thing she mentioned has stuck with me: the fact that so many Muslims consider Christianity to be a Western religion, and furthermore, they consider it to be the religious arm of American hegemony. Christians in Asia "breathed a sigh of relief" when the pope opposed the war in Iraq, because it meant likely that their churches wouldn't be burned down in retribution.

Now, obviously those Muslims are incorrect. They would know this if they lived in America and saw exactly how secular our nation is. To think that the US government or even US culture is at all concerned with Christian love is laughable. Furthermore, they should recognize that Christianity is an Asian religion, since Jerusalem is, after all, in Asia. But maybe things aren't so clear from 6000 miles away.

This is where a few well-placed excommunications of politicians could be helpful, as well as some full-throated opposition to the destructive policies of the governments they belong to. Making public statements that certain politicians could no longer consider themselves Catholic would help to make it clear that Church and state are separate in the West. Making clear that the West is not Christian would perhaps have beneficial effects: first, it might awaken the West to the fact that they are no longer Christian, thus clearing the stage for a new evangelization. Second, it may make it clear to Islam that Christianity does not equal abortion, sexual license, Hollywood, war, and economic growth at any cost. This too would help, since it would enable Muslims to see Christianity as a real faith in God, worthy of respect, instead of just an imperialist tool of degenerate westerners.

Monday, November 03, 2003


I was poking around through Newman's The Church of the Fathers, and noticed this interesting fact: St. Gregory Nanzianzus, the witty, poetic, and brilliant archbishop of Constantinople, decided at the age of 53 that he couldn't manage his tongue well enough, and gave up talking for Lent.

If you are thinking of doing graduate work in philosophy

you might want to consider the Institute for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

And I'm not just saying that because they gave us all free bottles of wine at the ACPA meeting last weekend.