Sunday, December 17, 2006

Some thoughts on Apocalypto

First, the title. It doesn't mean, as Gibson claims, a "new beginning." It means an unveiling, a revelation, which, of course, could mean "new beginning," if in fact it is the revelation that allows or enables the new beginning. More on that later.

The movie opens with scenes of a hunt of a tapir, rather bloody. They chase the beast down, kill it, and disembowel it, and Jaguar Paw hands parts off to his friends according to their personality. The liver goes to one, the heart to another, and the testicles go to his chubby, impotent friend, who doesn't know that it is a joke simply to get him to eat testicles. Nevertheless, the treatment of the tapir is a little gut-wrenching to those of us who are used to getting our meat nicely wrapped in plastic.

Why would this scene be in the movie? There are two reasons, one obvious and one not: to show us the main characters and get us to see that, despite the bones through their noses and earlobes, they are not very different from us, but also, I think, to show us a prefiguring in the animal of the later mistreatment of humans. Jaguar Paw holds out a heart of a tapir, whereas the high priest holds out the still-beating heart of a man. The meaning is clear: the Mayans have come to see man as expendable, as a beast just like the tapir, to be hunted, enslaved, or killed as circumstances warrant.

Jaguar Paw returns to his village with his father and friends, and scenes of domestic life are shown. We are introduced to his son and his wife, Seven, played by the beautiful Dalia Hernandez, who is near-term pregnant. Later that night, they listen to one of the elders tell a story, which sets the theme for the entire movie. I will paraphrase as I remember it: Man asked for gifts from all the animals, and got sight from the vulture, strength from the bear (I can't remember the details), etc. But the animals were dismayed when the owl said that man had a hole in him, and that no matter how much he received, he would always seek for more, until the earth itself declared that she had no more to give. This parable matches exactly the contrast between the villagers who hunt to support their families, and the Mayans, who enslave to build cities, and then kill to appease the gods to save the cities they have built, killing ever more and more people, so much that they have to raid other nations and peoples to supply their sacrifices.

At this point, a Mayan raiding party captures the men and some of the women of the village. I don't care to go into detail about what happens, but Jaguar Paw manages to secrete his wife and child down in a pit, but goes off to help in the defense of his village. He sees his father killed before him, but his father is able to give him one last word: "Do not be afraid." It is advice that comes ultimately from Christ, but were notably the first words in the first sermon of Pope John Paul II.

Here begins a long march to the Mayan capital. Of interest is the contrast between the Mayan captain and his underling (I didn't get the names), who is willfully cruel to the prisoners. The Captain is all business, and is almost admirable in the way he goes about transporting his prisoners to their death, whereas the underling, who I will call Mean Guy, does all he can to make the journey painful and humiliating. It is an interesting contrast. Mean Guy enjoys his job, but because he is a bad man. The Captain enjoys his job, not because he is a bad man, but because he things his work helps his people. He is a competent workman who takes pride in the work of his hands, and there are even tender moments as he encourages his son to do well in the profession. The Captain is the chief villain of the piece, but he is not portrayed as someone purely evil or as a caricature, but as a good family man who does his duty, as he perceives it.

I note that as the abandoned children of the village follow their parents and the captors, having nowhere else to go, one of the women prays to Ixchel, "mother of mercy", to protect them from harm. "Mother of Mercy" is one of the titles of the Virgin Mary, found in the prayer Salve Regina.

Once they arrive at the capital, through scenes of the blight of the surrounding region (which to my mind recalled the grail story, where the whole land suffers because of the wound of the king), and a leprous girl who, when spurned, prophesies the doom of the Mayan nation, we see the men prepared for sacrifices. They are painted blue (as the old wall-paintings show), and ultimately brought to the top of the pyramid to have their hearts cut out and fed to the idol of the god Kukulkan, and then to be decapitated and flung down the steps. The purpose was to ease the blight by appeasing the blood-lust of the god. Many of the people take part eagerly in the bloody festival, but the royal family and many others are bored.

It is fortuitous that I saw this movie on the same day that I read a story about the possibility of Ukrainian babies being killed after birth to provide stem cells to cure adults. The parallel is obvious: the Mayans (and the Aztecs) had to conquer neighboring peoples to remove the blight on their crops, whereas modern man has to kill children (preferably in the womb) to satisfy his appetites, either for convenient sex or in the hope of immortality. Other humans are reduced to the status of the hunter tapir in order to provide the needs of the powerful. I think that's clearly one of the major themes of the movie, that in a decadent society people are reduced to animals, to mere means to an end, to fodder for the gods or to serve whatever ends others have.

Jaguar Paw makes a miraculous escape from the pyramid, and alone survives to return to his forest, where his wife and child await in the pit. It is quite a thrilling chase. Suffice it to say that he does eventually beat his pursuers and rescue his family. He does this because the last pursuers are distracted by the arrival of the Spanish ships on the beach.

The movie ends with Jaguar Paw, Seven, and the two boys making their way into the forest. Seven asks if perhaps they should go meet the newcomers, but Jaguar Paw says that they should go into the forest, to make a new beginning. At this point we finally get the title of the movie and the credits.

Could you read this movie as a defense of the Spanish conquistadors? I don't think so, especially given the words of Jaguar Paw, that it is better to go into the forest. Nevertheless, the parallel of "new beginning" with Apocalypto shows that there is a Christian undercurrent to the movie. One should also note the lines in the credits "In remembrance of Abel." Abel was the first murder victim, starting a cycle of killing that has continued ever since. The Spaniards and the Mayans are not much different, except that there is the Cross and Resurrection, which, for those who accept it, provides just the new beginning that is needed, a release from fear, and from the rapacious desire attributed to man by the Owl in the old man's story. How is one to make a new beginning? I quote from another Mel Gibson film, where Jesus, when he meets his mother on the path to Golgotha, says through his pain "See how I make all things new!"

That should suffice for now. In summary, a very interesting film.

I'm still here!

I haven't abandoned the blog. It's just been sleeping.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Transfiguration College now offering classes

of a sort. We are offering non-credit evening seminars on Plato and on the Church Fathers, in Aurora, IL. Go to the link for more information, and sign up--it should be fun, and, since the classes are moderated by me, how could it not be fun?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The arguments of the pro-choice side

Today, we continued the Face the Truth Tour in Chicago, and the counter-protestors were out. Let me give you the arguments they gave me:

1) Our pictures are fake. Those are really full-term babies. I asked some follow-ups:
a) Where'd we get the pictures? "You people killed the babies, then took pictures of them." Another fellow said "Those are Iraqi babies, killed by your idol, George Bush!"
b) I asked one woman "Would it make a difference to you if you thought the picture was real? "No." Then why claim that it's a fake? "To show what wackos you people are."

2) Numbers 5 is a theraputic abortion. So said a passerby. I pulled out my bible and read the passage in his presence. He said "See? Therapeutic abortion!" Go read it yourself, and see if his tendentious reading is correct. When I attempted to chat with him about it, he told me to go find someone who read Hebrew. Then he called me a psycho and walked away, even after I invited him to lunch to discuss the issue. His loss--I would have paid.

3) A man dressed in black with a Roman collar and a pectoral cross came by. He said that he had an open mind on the abortion issue. I, of course, love open minds, since one can then have a good debate. I attempted to bring up some bible passages, such as Jeremiah and the Visitation, when John the Baptist leapt in his mother's womb at the presence of Christ. He said "Don't talk to me about the bible! I studied the bible for five years in seminary!" I said "Ok. I studied it too. Let's talk about it!" He then said "I read the bible in Greek!" I said "So do I." He refused to listen or even converse with me in any way, and wouldn't even tell me which church he belonged to.

4) A woman told me that I should support birth control since I am opposed to abortion. When I asked her about the detrimental effects that contraceptive sex has on relationships and marriage, she said "Marriage is a sh*t institution designed by the patriarchy to oppress women!"

All these conversations are reported nearly verbatim, subject to the constraints of my memory.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tales from the Front

This week I am helping out with the Pro-Life Action League's Truth Tour, where we hold graphic signs on the side of busy streets. There has been much controversey over whether our method is proper, whether anyone should have to see such horrible images, and whether some other method (ultrasounds) might work better. I don't know about all of that, but want to tell you two stories from the last two days:

1) A woman came up to us with tears in her eyes and said that she was pregnant three years earlier when she saw our signs, and it caused her to decide to have her baby. Little Arianna is three years old, the light of her mother's life.

2) Today a boy of fifteen walked by our demonstration and told my friend Pat that his girlfriend was pregnant, that he didn't know what to do, but that he had prayed for a sign. He got it today.

Every day I help out with the tour something like this happened. Earlier this year a woman came up to me crying, and said "I've had six abortions. Do you have any literature I could have?" Would she have sought healing if not for us? Maybe. These questions are open to debate. But she did seek healing, and a boy and his girlfriend are going to have their child, and little Arianna is three.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Constitution, Schmonstitution.

See what I did yesterday: Photo.

Go here for more.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A short note from St. Basil the Great

I was listening to "On the Holy Spirit" while I jogged the other day. (I like to make the text files into mp3 files. It beats listening to pop music. Yes, I am a church nerd.) Basil commented about the passage from John's gospel where Jesus tells the woman at the well that soon people will worship "In Spirit and in truth", that this is to show the woman that God is not a local god, but spirit, without place or time.

This is a refreshing way of understanding that passage, which is used problematically by those who say "Dude, I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual!"

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

St. John Chrysostom on Contraception

Given that Sam and Bethany Torode are using John Chrysostom as the Church Father who allows contraception, perhaps one ought to look at what he said about it:

Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where there are medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well…it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you contemn the gift of God and fight with His laws? What is a curse, do you seek as though it were a blessing?… In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks…

[I]n truth, all men know that they who are under the power of this disease [the sin of covetousness] are wearied even of their father's old age [wishing him to die so they can inherit]; and that which is sweet, and universally desirable, the having of children, they esteem grievous and unwelcome. Many at least with this view have even paid money to be childless, and have mutilated nature, not only killing the newborn, but even acting to prevent their beginning to live.

Taken from the wonderful Stephanos Project website.

A Cartoon Augustine

If you haven't read St. John Chrysostom On Marriage and Family Life, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, you should. But you might want to skip the introduction by Catherine Roth, unless you want a nearly perfect example of the Orthodox caricature of Augustine and the Western position on marriage. She writes, “Some writers, especially those in the tradition of St. Augustine of Hippo, have spread the opinion that sexual relations are evil in themselves but tolerated within marriage for the purpose of procreation. This is not the general Orthodox view.” (9) It is not Catholic view either, and it isn't the view of St. Augustine of Hippo. It would have been helpful of Roth to name the nameless writers who say that sex is bad. I haven't found them, but since I don't know whom she is talking about, I will defend St. Augustine on this matter.

Augustine does not write anywhere that I've been able to find that sexual relations are bad. Not ever. He does write that lust is bad, and that sexual relations as practiced by most people in a fallen state are to some degree defective, but never that sexual relations are “evil in themselves.” To prove my point, let's take a look at some passages from On Marriage and Concupiscence. Augustine begins complaining of just the sort of thing that Roth has done:
OUR new heretics . . . are constantly affirming, in their excessive hatred of us, that we condemn marriage and that divine procedure by which God creates human brings by means of men and women, inasmuch as we assert that they who are born of such a union contract that original sin of which the apostle says, "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for in him all sinned;"

Augustine even in his time is being accused of thinking that marriage and sex (“the divine procedure”) is evil. The accusation is nothing new. Let's see how he answers it. In Chapter 5, Augustine gives a clear summary of his position: “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring.” Sexual relations are good in themselves, or otherwise marriage would be an evil thing. Lust is sinful, not sex. Adam and Eve were naked and “were not ashamed,” Augustine points out, which shows that marriage can and has existed in purity. Lust arises as a result of sin, but it is accidental to marriage and to marital relations, not essential to it. One must understand lust here as being desire against reason, or as Wojtyla would have said, desire that forgets the dignity of the human person who is desired.

This is not to say one need agree with Augustine in everything he says about sexual relations. There is little of the unitive role in his writing. But to say and to repeat, as so many Orthodox writers do, and as the Torodes echo, that Augustine thought sex was bad, is to misrepresent his thought. It is a caricature, and if it is intentional, a lie.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fr. Meyendorff and Contraception

Sam and Bethany Torode, the couple who made a bit of news a few years back by supporting the Catholic position on contraception while they were protestants, have, as you may have heard, joined the Orthodox Church and repudiated their former position. They have given an explanation of sorts here ( On that page, they claim:

For starters, we joined the Greek Orthodox Church and are now in agreement with what some Orthodox have written on this topic (see The Sacrament of Love by Paul Evdokimov and Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective by John Meyendorff).

The Meyendorff book is an excellent book, well worth reading, but not for the section on Humanae Vitae, which has some real problems. Fr. Meyendorff himself adopts the typical caricature of St. Augustine and places the blame for distorted Western Christian thinking on him, arguing that Augustine believed “Marriage, therefore, was itself sinful in as much as it presupposed sex, and could be justified only ‘through childbirth.’ Consequently, if childbirth is artificially prevented, sexual intercourse--even in lawful marriage--is fundamentally sinful.” (60) This is not quite true. Marriage was not sinful, and neither was sexual intercourse. In fact, Augustine takes pains to defend marriage from those who would call it sinful. It was lust, the disordered appetites that so often accompany sexual intercourse, that was sinful. I will write more on that in the future. For now I wish to focus on Fr. Meyendorff’s reaction to Humanae Vitae.

Fr. Meyendorff says about Humanae Vitae that it “should not be dismissed simply because it is papal,” which line, coming from an Orthodox theologian, always makes me chuckle. Meyendorff argues that, although procreation is a duty which man has, it is not a strict duty because of the necessity to raise children well. One has a responsibility for the physical well-being of one’s potential children. This is true. Meyendorff then brings up the topic of birth-control, and says the following:

Total continence is one radical way of birth control. But is it compatible with true married life? And is not continence itself a form of limiting the God-bestowed power of giving and perpetuating life? However, both the New Testament and Church tradition consider continence as an acceptable form of family planning. Recent Roman Catholic teaching also recommends periodic continence, but forbids the ‘artificial’ means, such as the ‘pill.’ But is there a real difference between the means called ‘artificial’ and those considered ‘natural’? Is continence really ‘natural’? Is not any medical control of human functions ‘artificial’? Should it, therefore, be condemned as sinful? and finally, a serious theological question: is anything ‘natural’ necessarily ‘good’? For even St. Paul saw that continence can lead to ‘burning.’ Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health? (62)

Let’s take these points, one by one. First, is continence compatible with true married life? Of course it is. Continence is not always chosen, but is sometimes thrust upon one. What do we do if our spouse becomes incapable or undesirous of sexual intimacy? Do we cheat? Divorce? Of course not. Continence must be compatible with true married life, because the Church doesn’t dissolve marriages based on a lack of sex. In fact, many saints of the early Church decided to live in perpetual continence, while married. Men who were ordained in the early years of the Church lived in continence afterward, even if they were married. So, continence is compatible with married life.

Is continence a form of limiting the God-bestowed power of giving life? Of course. But the problem with contraception isn’t that it limits the power of giving life, since it is not an absolute duty that one must give life. Rather the problem is with the form, the way in which one limits the power of giving life.

Fr. Meyendorff than asks whether or not there is a real difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial,’ asking whether all artificial activities are sinful. Wouldn’t an aspirin be an unnatural response to a headache? Here I think there is a confusion over the words ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’, a confusion that is very common, but one which shouldn’t have escaped so great a scholar as Fr. Meyendorff. What the Catholic Church means by ‘natural’ is not what most people mean. Most people think that organic foods or forests are natural, and chemicals and industries are not. That’s a view of nature that I think ultimately derives from ancient nature worship, although perhaps it comes to us through Rousseau, that anything non-human or non-civilized is natural, and anything human and civilized is unnatural. It’s most certainly not the way the Church uses the term. Look at the Summa Theologiae, I-II.92.2:

Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the mostexcellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident bothfor itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it hasa natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal lawin the rational creature is called the natural law. Hence the Psalmist after saying (Psalm 4:6): "Offer up the sacrifice of justice," as though someone asked what the works ofjustice are, adds: "Many say, Who showeth us good things?" in answer to which question he says: "The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us": thus implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It
is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law.

To call something unnatural is, in Catholic theology, to call it contrary to the law of God. Things aren’t contrary to the law of God because they are unnatural, but they are determined to be unnatural because they are contrary to the law of God. Contraception is said to be contrary to the natural law, ‘contrary’ because it is against the law of God, ‘natural’ because it is able to be known, presuptively, by human reason. The key here is ‘reason’. Contraception isn’t wrong because it puts chemicals or rubber in places that are unnatural, it’s wrong because it is contrary to the dignity of the human person. An airplane is not unnatural just because it is made of aluminum and runs on kerosene. Neither is an aspirin, since both are usually used consonant with the dignity of the human person.

So, Fr. Meyendorff asks “Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health?” Certainly. And such interventions would not be unnatural, unless they are contrary to the dignity of the human person. He gives food as an example: one may, for good reasons, not want to take in as many calories as one has appetite for. There are various ways to go about this. One may diet, one may exercise to burn up excess calories, or one may vomit up one’s food after eating it. Only one of these is “unnatural,” and only one of them is morally wrong. The argument is that periodic continence is more like going on a diet, and using the pill or a barrier method is more like bulimia.

Now is not the time to give the positive arguments for why contraception is wrong. Sam and Bethany Torode know these, having written books about the Theology of the Body. But if they are going to use Fr. Meyendorff’s excellent but flawed book as a reason to repudiate their former beliefs, they should know the flaws in Fr. Meyendorff’s thinking.

Monday, May 01, 2006

God is good!

I've received some very good news. No, I'm not telling you, not yet. Be assured that God is very good.

By the way, I know I've promised some work on Augustine and sex, and also on Fr. Meyendorff. Patience! I'm just starting to grade final papers, and after that come exams. I've got some thoughts already jotted down, but it may take a few days.

Christ is risen!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A New Blog!

I'm going to be writing for a new group blog of the Byzantine Evangelization and Mission Association, which may be found here. Go visit!

Friday, April 28, 2006

NFP is Hard

The Torodes, famous for writing, as protestants, a book supporting the Catholic position on contraception, have now jettisoned their former beliefs. Now they are Greek Orthodox, and are delighted to find a Church, or at least a spiritual father, that lets them have sex more often, sometimes with condoms. On the way, they adopt uncritically some typical Orthodox caricatures of Augustinian theology. But, more crucially, they are making the mistake of thinking that one may do evil so that good may come.

I think I will have to go borrow Meyendorff's book on marriage in Orthodoxy and critique it, since Mr. and Mrs. Torode cite it in support of their new position. I will report back to you. If I recall, Fr. Meyendorff begins his treatment of contraception by conceding that one shouldn't reject Humanae Vitae simply because it is papal. Then he goes on to completely misunderstand the notion in nature in Western theology. But I will have to get the book before I write more.

P.S. NFP isn't particularly hard. Loving one's enemies--that's hard. Doing good to those who hate you is hard. Forgiving others seventy times seven is hard. Going without sex sometimes, or even most of the time, is not hard.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

St. John Chrysostom on How to Read Scripture

In Chrysostom's first homily on the statues, he does a homiletic tour de force, taking a simple and oft ignored passage "Drink a little wine for thy stomach's sake, and thy often infirmities." from 1 Tim. 23, and preaching for an hour brilliantly on everything from the proper attitude to drink, the limits of fasting, why it is that the good suffer, to the problem of evil. It's wonderful stuff, as usual from St. John, but the reason why he does it is perhaps more interesting.

1 Tim. 23 is a minor verse, a little snippet of medical advice from St. Paul to St. Timothy. It seems to be merely a kind little personal detail brought into a letter, similar to my comments about the Green Bay Packers in conversations with my father-in-law. Can't we disregard it? St. John says that we cannot, since the whole of scripture is inspired, and takes it as his task to show that even such an uninteresting passage can contain great treasures.

Well then, let us employ the whole of our discourse upon this subject; and this we would do, not for the love of praise, nor because we study to exhibit powers of oratory (for the things about to be spoken are not our own, but such as the grace of the Holy Spirit may inspire); but in order that we may stir up those hearers who are too listless, and may convince them of the greatness of the treasure of the holy Scriptures; and that it is neither safe, nor free from peril, to run through them hastily. For if indeed a text so simple and obvious as this one, which seems to the multitude to contain nothing that need be insisted on, should appear to afford us the means of abundant riches, and openings toward the highest wisdom, much rather will those others, which at once manifest their native wealth, satisfy those who attend to them with their infinite treasures.

If one believes in the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit, then nothing in it is boring or insignificant. Every passage is in the bible because God wants it to be. All is important, even the gastrointestinal advice.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A terrible crime

happened in my church last week. Someone stole four silver-covered icons. They stole holy images of Christ and the Theotokos. This makes them guilty of sacrilege, and if they sell the icons, they are guilty of simony. These are grave, terrible sins. I think they may even result in latae sententiae excommunications. In any case, stealing from a church is very, very bad.

So, I ask you to pray with us for the thieves:

Thou who didst pray for them that crucifed thee, O Lord, Lover of the souls of men, and who didst command thy servants to pray for their enemies, forgive those who hate and maltreat us, and turn our lives from all harm and evil to brotherly love and good works: for this we humbly bring our prayer, that with one accord and one heart we may glorify thee who alone lovest mankind

As thy first martyr Stephen prayed to thee for his murderers, O Lord, so we fall before thee and pray: forgive all who hate and maltreat us and let not one of them perish because of us, but all be saved by thy grace, O God the all-bountiful.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Seven hours of liturgy!

Last week, those of us using the new calendar prayed the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This is a lengthy penitential matins that always occurs during the fifth week of the Great Fast. The odes contain reflections on instances of penitence throughout the Old Testament, contrasting it with the lack of penitence of us. Here is a sample:

By straying far from you, * I have imitated our first parents;* and like Adam, I have been deprived of your divine grace and unending kingdom * because of my sin.

Alas, O my poor soul, * why do you imitate the first Eve? * Your look was evil and you were bitterly seduced; * you have touched the tree and tasted the fruit, * the bitterness of sin.
In place of the Eve of former times, * a spiritual Eve surges up in me; * it is the thought of carnal desires, * recounting sensual pleasures * and unceasingly relishing the bitterness of sin.
Justly was Adam dispelled from Paradise for one sin, O my Savior; * but what shall my punishment be, * for I have unceasingly rejected your life-giving word?
I have followed in the footsteps of Cain, * I have chosen to become a murderer; * for I have led my poor soul to death, * by living according to the ?esh * in the wickedness of my deeds.
O Jesus, how is it that I could not follow the path of the just Abel, * that I could not present to you pure offerings, * holy deeds and an unblemished sacri?ce, * by the purity of my life?

This goes on for about three and a half hours, tracing out all the examples of sin and repentance in the scriptures, and connecting them directly to the state of the soul of the one singing the Canon. The Canon is scripturally based, and both presumes and provides a detailed knowledge of the bible. It doesn't read it as if the bible is some sort of dead text merely to be analyzed, but as a living appeal to the soul of all Christians. After praying the Great Canon, one has the sense that everything that has gone before has happened for the sake of one's own soul. The bible becomes personal and, to use a favorite phrase of the day, becomes relevant. Toward the
end of the Canon, after the participant has reminded himself in great detail of how little good he has done, the figure of Christ appears, giving hope and the possibility of forgiveness:

Christ has become a little child; * he was united to my ?esh* to voluntarily ful?ll the entire human condition, * except for sin.* He shows you, O my soul, * the example and image of condescension beyond description.
Christ has become incarnate, * calling the thieves and harlots to repentance; * repent, O my soul, * for the gate of the Kingdom opens, * and the pharisees, publicans and repentant sinners go in ahead of us.
Christ has saved the Wise Men and gathered the Shepherds;* he called the innocent children to martyrdom; * in the Temple, he glori?ed the Elder * and the Widow in her latter years. * O my soul, you have not imitated the deeds of their lives; * woe to you, for you must undergo judgment!

Christ appears, transforms the tragic history of man, and glorifies it. The scriptures and the life of each human being find their fulfillment in the person of Christ. After these odes, we conclude the liturgy with the psalms of praise, thus experiencing in the space of three hours (or
more) the entire drama of salvation.

And I got to do it twice, since I helped another parish with their singing in the morning, and then cantored at my parish in the evening. Seven hours of liturgy!

By the way, for other reactions to the Great Canon from some bloggers that prayed it with me, see Eric, Renee, and John. One of these days I'll add them to my bloglist.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Last year, I participated in a pro-life demonstration. I was quite nervous about it, afraid I would get yelled at, as I held my graphic sign. It wasn't too bad, but I still wondered at times whether or not I should be holding signs up of the bloody reality of abortion on a public thoroughfare. Today in class I had an experience which confirmed me that this is the right thing to do.

We were discussing conscience in my ethics class. I was making the point that the fact that we respect conscience doesn't fit with the notion that cosncience is merely an expression of feeling; if it were, why would it deserve respect? Conscience is a judgment of intelect about moral truth. One of the students brought up the issue of abortion, where there are conflicting judgments of conscience. So, I decided to explore just what it is.

Professor Karl: Who here knows what the state of abortion law is in the United States?
Pregnant student: I think you can't get them after the sixth month.
PK: No. Let's try this again: are there 1) no restrictions, 2) some restrictions, or 3) lots of restrictions on abortion in the USA?
Students: Ummmm, 2? Some restrictions?
PK: There are no restrictions at all. Abortion is legal at any time, for any reason, in any pregnancy.
Students: ?!#$%!@?
PK: That's right. [to 7-month pregnant student] You are pregnant, correct? Seven months? Do you feel the baby kick? It's neat, isn't it?
Pregnant student: Yes, it is.
PK: Let me tell you what is legal. That baby, up to nine months in pregnancy, can be delivered up to a certain point, leaving the head inside, and then scissors can be jammed into its skull, killing it.
Students: Gasp!
PK: That's the state of the law in the USA.

The fact that none of my students knew what the real state of affairs was in our fair country confirms me in my decision to participate in more pro-life demonstrations this summer. Yes, the signs are disturbing. But people really don't know what is legal.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Unseemly eagerness

My home town paper (the Chicago Tribune) recently published an article by Dennis Byrne, who is understandably upset at the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. He laments the times when oversight failed, when rules were not followed. But then, he shifts direction, and wonders whether the teaching of the Church is responsible for the problem:

"The recommended reforms are precise, so there can be no more excuses. But they are procedural only; the abuses have been so persistent, it's reasonable to ask if they are the result of something systemic about the church. Here the church must be willing to look at fundamental questions that are empirical, not necessarily theological, in nature: Are clergy more prone to child abuse? Are they more prone to same-sex abuse? Do other denominations have this problem and to what extent? If they don't, is there something specific about the Roman Catholic priesthood that leads to greater incidence of child sexual abuse? Is the something related to the vow of celibacy? Does it have something to do with the priesthood's male-dominated environment? Is it an institutional problem, flowing from the authoritative, hierarchical structure of the church?

The church hierarchy has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that issues of celibacy and female priests have anything to do with these questions. (We're told that "church tradition," not theological certainty, already has provided answers.)"

Never mind that he didn't do any research to look into studies of these problems. He was eager, very eager, to use the scandal to beat the Church up about the male priesthood, as were the commentors on his blog. One wonders if the reason why the sexual abuse in the Church is focused on so much isn't because of outrage over sexual misconduct (there's plenty of it in other denominations, in the schools, everywhere) but because of the teaching of the Church on human sexuality--it is so demanding, so countercultural, that any chance to tear it down will be seized. So, rather than attributing the sins of priests to, well, sin (that's the systemic problem), we attribute it to dogma or discipline. Pristes screw around (with boys! (not that there's anything wrong with that!)), and so they can't tell me I shouldn't abort/contracept/have sex with members of my sex!

I don't know what Byrne's position is on the teachings of the Church, but I would take more seriously the outrage of those who call on Cardinal George to resign if they were supporters of Church teaching, like St. Catherine of Siena, rather than Garry Wills.

The Darkening of the Sun

on Good Friday: Augustine makes an interesting point in The City of God: we know the event wasn't natural because the Jewish Passover is held at the full moon, and eclipses never happen when the moon is full.

Those ancients weren't dummies.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

There is nothing new under the sun

Take a look at Augustine's description of the attitude of Romans toward their government, and see if it isn't identical to most Americans' attitude. The social contract skewered, courtesy of Augustine of Hippo.

But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man's property, than of that done to one's own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshippers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperilled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind. What sane man would compare a republic such as this, I will not say to the Roman empire, but to the palace of Sardanapalus, the ancient king who was so abandoned to pleasures, that he caused it to be inscribed on his tomb, that now that he was dead, he possessed only those things which he had swallowed and consumed by his appetites while alive? If these men had such a king as this, who, while self-indulgent, should lay no severe restraint on them, they would more enthusiastically consecrate to him a temple and a flamen than the ancient Romans did to Romulus.

City of God, II.20

Monday, March 20, 2006

Augustine on why people love "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

(which, by the way, doesn't say anything about admonishment, which is commanded to us.)

"For often we wickedly blind ourselves to the occasions of teaching and admonishing [the wicked], sometimes even of reprimanding and chiding them, either because we shrink from the labour or are ashamed to offend them, or because we fear to lose good friendships, lest this should stand in the way of our advancement, or injure us in some wordly matter, which either our covetous disposition desires to obtain, or our weakness shrinks from losing."

Augustine, City of God I.9

Monday, March 06, 2006

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Ah. That felt good.

Those of my readers in the Roman Church are doubtless a bit scandalized that I shout "Alleluia!" from my web-soapbox. Isn't it Lent? Aren't we not supposed to say it? It's a forbidden word until the Easter Vigil in the Latin Rite. But, you see, I am a Byzantine Catholic, and I can say Alleluia all I want. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

I'm not sure what the particular reasons are for the absence of "Alleluia" in the West. The woman on Relevant Radio this morning said that it was because "Alleluia" betokens joy, and Lent isn't a time of joy. This struck me as odd, and an area where the Eastern Church can enlighten us. What could be more joyful than a life of peace and repentance? To turn away from sins, especially those that have long held us in chains, is an occasion for great joy. To fast, to discipline one's body so that the needs of the soul may be better attended to, is an occasion to shout "Alleluia!" In our liturgy the deacon prays on our behalf: "That we may spend the rest of our life in peace and repentance, let us beseech the Lord." That's the goal of life, to spend it in a constant metanoia, a constant turning of ourselves back to God. In Lent we focus on this more, and so, in the Eastern Churches, we sing "Alleluia" more often than outside of Lent.

There must be a better reason for foregoing "Alleluia" in the Latin Rite than simply because it is too joyful. Lent is a time of exceedingly great joy.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Does your church have icons and statues of Christ and the saints?

If not, your church may be heretical iconoclasts. Consider this from the second council of Nicea:

To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.

The fathers of the council declared that we should have pictorial representations of the Gospel to emphasize that what we say happened really happened.

If you think it is a mere matter of taste, and that St. Hoozitz is free to have a church as bare as a barn, look at this canon of the council which has never been abrogated: We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.

If your church doesn't have pictures, it isn't really a Catholic church.

Thanks to the excellent Karl Thienes for the link to the council documents. Go here to read them.

Note: the previous post is a reprint. Having this blog for five years, I've written at least five times about every topic.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

"I won't give money to the Church anymore!"

That's the reaction of many in the wake of the clergy sex scandals. Let me ask you this, you who refuse to give to the Church unless she is free from sins: would you like it if God treated you similarly?

"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Scariest line in all of scripture.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Eros and Thanatos

I was listening to the Met broadcast of Aida today, and it got me thinking about death and love. Why is it that lovers in opera, plays, and poetry have to die so often? Then I thought that perhaps it is the only consummation possible for Eros if it is not procreative. Sexual desire or longing for the other should be somehow attached to the creation of new life; that is its proper fulfillment. Boy sees girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy seeks girl, [boy and girl get married], boy "gets" girl, [boy and girl raise a family]. The parts in brackets are the parts left out of the operas and movies. The operas replace the last bracket with "boy and girl die", whereas the movies just end, leaving the audience with the uncomfortable feeling that the lovers in the movie will soon grow tired of each other and break up, only to find others, like James Bond finding a new girl in each installment. Dying would be preferable!

A love story without a marriage and a family is bulimic by nature--it is a story about longing without consummation, eating without nutriment, a race without a finish line, a prayer without a god, a mere phantom without substance. Death at least gives some sort of a conclusion to it. That's why Romeo and Juliet had to die. That's why Wagner wrote of Tristan and Isolde's love-death. It's also why Jane Austen's novels are so good: one always has the impression that the principals will raise lots of kids on their country estate.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Tattoos and Transcendence

I went to a lecture last night on Robert Spaeman, and he was reported to have said that it is only because of human transcendence that we are able to self-mutilate. In other words, it is only because we go beyond the body that we are able to treat the body as an object and draw pictures on it or poke holes in it. If we were mere animals instead of persons, we would not get tattoos.

This is not to say that tattoos are morally neutral--I think that they are best a venial sin--but that they are evidence of the greatness of human beings.

I wonder what my students will make of this thought?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Socratic Reflections

I teach Plato for a living. One of the main points to be made from any reading of the early Socratic dialogues is the benefits of confusion. Socrates doesn't pretend to know what piety is, but he knows that he doesn't know, and he wants to get Euthyphro to join him in a productive confusion. He doesn't claim to know what virtue is or if it can be taught, but he wants to play torpedo fish and get Meno as confused as he is. This is because confusion is better than confident ignorance. I diagram it like this:

Confident Ignorance

Wisdom is the best state, of course, and confusion is good because it is directed toward wisdom. Once I know that I don't know, I will ask questions in order to know. The slave boy doesn't know the answer to the geometry problem, butas long as he thinks he knows, he will never really know. Confident ignorance is the worst state, since one is likely wrong, and will never come out of the ignorance because of the confidence. "Yes, I know all about piety. Just ask me!" says Euthyphro. As long as he thinks this, he will always remain ignorant about piety, and will never have any hope of wisdom.

I was thinking about this the other day, and I think I have made a discovery. We do not have many people in states of Confident Ignorance anymore. No-one claims to know anything about the forms, about moral matters. We all claim confusion. In fact, we are Confidently Confused. We don't know anything except that it is impossible for us to know anything. It is, as Cardinal Ratzinger put it somewhere, the unquestioned dogma of the age.

Confident Ignorance was better, because Socrates could shock people out of that state by dismantling their confidence. What would Socrates do today, when people are so confident that they are confused? To reduce them to confusion via the Socratic method only confirms what they already think!

I don't know the solution. How does one puncture dogmatic doubt? Perhaps like the rabbi who, when confronted by an atheist, says "Despite all that, perhaps it is true." (I get the rabbinical story from Cardinal Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity, where he quotes Martin Buber.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Feeling good about yourself? Haven't been to confession in years?

You've come to the right place!

People don't go to confession much anymore. Why is that? I think this has its roots in the legalistic mentality of the western world. Strictly speaking, confession is not necessary unless one is in a state of mortal sin. Most Catholics today think that the only person who ever committed a mortal sin was Judas, or maybe Hitler. Mortal sins are so awful and terrible that ordinary people just don't commit them, right?

Wrong. Consider me your prosecutor, Mister-legalistic-US-Catholic.

For a sin to be mortal, all that is required is that the matter be grave (the sin must be something serious in its nature), that knowledge be full (you need to know it is wrong), and consent must be given (you need to want to do it). See the Church's teaching here. Let's start in reverse order and look at these requirements:

1. Consent: You don't need to make a contract in blood with Beelzebub in order to commit a mortal sin. You just need to have a complete consent, sufficient to make the sin a personal choice. You make personal choices all the time. Here are some examples: what to eat for dinner, what book to read, what clothes to wear. All very simple, everyday choices, but choices. So consent is not hard to give.

The CCC says (1860) the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest. So, it is possible that one can be carried away by passion, and in such a case the sin may be less. But then the question is: why are you the sort of person who gets carried away by passions in such an irrational way? You have a duty to form your character--if it is your fault that you give into passions habitually, then you have already failed in that grave duty to form one's character.

2. Full knowledge. Perhaps, you may say, I didn't really know it was that bad! How much knowledge is required for a sin to be mortal? Again, the Catechism sets a low bar: (1859) It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. You need to know that the act is sinful. It doesn't say that you need to understand the full depths and ramifications of the nature of the sinful act; you only need to know that it is sinful. Further, if you say that evil 1970's nuns didn't teach you correctly, you still don't have an excuse: (1860) But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.

By nature, we have at least some knowledge of right and wrong. Even non-theology PhD's are capable, it seems, of committing mortal sins.

3. Grave matter. "But I've never murdered anybody!" Jesus says in Matthew 5:21You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So, one need not actually twist a knife in the guts of another in order to sin mortally. Insults could be mortal, as Jesus says.

The Catechism says that grave matter is determined by the content of the ten commandments. If you act against a commandment, it is possible that such an act is about grave enough matter to be mortal. But you might say that the commandments are vague. Luckily for you, the Church gives more specific direction. The following list was culled from the Vatican online edition of the catechism, by looking up the word "grave." It isn't complete, but gives the sorts of things that are objectively grave matter. If you've done any of these things with knowledge and consent, you need to get to confession.

2. Divorce
3. Fornication
4. Hatred
5. Drunkenness that puts the safety of others at risk.
6. Scandal--behavior that leads others to sin.
7. Suicide. (Presumably none of my readers have committed this sin.)
8. Abortion.
9. Murder. Most people seem to think that this is the only possible case of grave matter. It's one of many.
10. Missing Mass on Sunday. Yup. It's still grave matter. Sleeping in rather than going to church could put you in hell.
11. Blasphemy! If you talk bad about God, you could be committing mortal sin. Test: what would you say if you dropped a brick on your foot? That might be blasphemy.
12. Sacrilege, a very common sin these days. This consists in treating sacred things as if they weren't sacred.
13. Masturbation.
14. Pornography.
15. Homosexuality. If you indulge in homosexual pornography (I hear that all-female films are popular), you've got an act that is three-times grave matter.

Note, that this is just the result of a quick trip through the Catechism's search engine. It is not an exhaustive list--for example, contraception is also grave matter, although it didn't show up in this simple and quick search.

I dig all of this up not to make any individual judgments--I myself am convicted by the same list. The point of this post is to get rid of the foolish, devilish notion that mortal sin is impossible. It is very possible. In fact, I think that mortal sin is likely extremely common, given the Church's criteria for it.

Now go get yourself to confession!

(Note: the above post is a repost of something I did years ago.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Introduction to Christianity

is a great book, at least so far,full of insights and memorable phrases. Here's one, quite reminiscent of Deus est Caritas: "We are also coming to understand more and more clearly that the apparent liberation of love and its conversion into a matter of impulse means the delivery of man to the autonomous powers of sex and Eros, to whose merciless slavery he falls victim just when he is under the illusion that he has freed himself. When he eludes God, the gods put out their hands to grasp him; he can only be liberated by allowing himself to be liberated and by ceasing to try to rely on himself." (p 114)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Waldenbooks sells pornography to minors

I went for a walk in the Orland Park Mall today with my two little daughters in order to get some exercise, and I stopped in Waldenbooks to browse for a little while. They have a new sign outside the front of the store proclaiming "Waldenkids", inviting families and children to come view the books for youth. So we walked around, looking at what they had to offer. Then, I noticed something disturbing: on the shelf directly next to the poetry and classic literature, Waldenbooks was selling Penthouse Letters and other explicitly pornographic fiction.(If you are unfamiliar with Penthouse Letters, they are extremely explicit descriptions of sexual activity. Everything from an X-rated movie except the pictures.) These books, with lurid covers of lingerie-clad models, were placed on the ground level, where any child or teen could browse through them. In addition, there were no restrictions on who could buy them.

I asked to speak to the manager, and he wouldn't address my concerns, except to give me a letter from Waldenbooks, and refer me to his district manager. Here is the letter:

Policy Statement in regard to Sale of Adult Materials

Dear Customer:

As a responsible company, Waldenbooks is sensitive to both the needs of its customers and the public at large. Waldenbooks is proud of its atmosphere as a first class family bookstore. Waldenbooks, however, cannot act as a censor in regard to the sale of material found in our stores. To do so would present a serious encroachment on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

We, therefore, have a specific policy on regard to the sale of adult magazine titles. These magazines are displayed on the top shelf of our magazine fixtures as close as possible to the cash wrap (register) area. Waldenbooks does not allow minors, defined as anyone under the age of eighteen (18) years, to browse through or purchase materials of this nature.

Waldenbooks does not offer for sale any publication which has been deemed obscene by any court of competent jurisdiction. Waldenbooks does comply with all local ordinances regarding display and sales of adult magazine titles.

We trust that you, who have inquired as to our policy, can understand the balance that must be reached in regard to such matters and appreciate the actions taken by Waldenbooks to be responsive to your concerns. Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us in writing, addressing your inquiries to the attention of our President. Our store management can provide you with the address of our Corporate Office.

We appreciate you [sic] patronage of our store and hope that you will continue to purchase at Waldenbooks.


You, as an intelligent reader, will have noticed the misrepresentations and inconsistencies in this letter. First of all, I complained about the placement of pornography (writing about porneia) and was given a letter about the placement of pornovideo (images of porneia). I wasn't complaining about the shameful magazines, but about the shameful books; the letter does not apply. Second, the First Amendment does not require stores to sell such things. Barnes and Noble, for example, and the Daughters of St. Paul don't sell such things. The appeal to the U.S. Constitution is a red herring. Third, Waldenbooks does in fact engage in censorship: it won't let minors buy Hustler. But it will allow (and even encourage, by its placement in the store) minors to browse and purchase Penthouse Letters. Why not place Hustler on the rack for the kids? Is there a qualitative difference between a picture and a story?

I was invited to call the district manager. He hasn't called me back. I will keep you posted. Waldenbooks, of course, is the same as Borders, which is the same as Amazon. What a wondrous web we weave.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Deus Caritas Est,

First impressions.

This is Benedict XVI's first encyclical, issued on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, but delayed in publication for a month. It consists of two parts, the first entitled “The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History,” and the second, entitled “The Practice of Love by the Church as a `Community of Love,'” which gives some apparently uncontroversial comments on the way the Church practices charity. I confess that I was much more interested in the first part, but, as I read, I started to feel guilty that I was a little bored with the concrete details of charity. In fact, I take this to be the point of the encyclical: that charity is, along with the preaching of the Gospel and the sacramental life of the Church, essential. One cannot be a Christian who does not love.

Benedict starts with an exploration of the concept of love. “Love” is a word with many meanings and uses, all of which have at best a tenuous connection. I love my wife, my new fountain pen, my baseball team, pizza, my children, Notre Dame football, and God. Is there some unity to these concepts? Benedict suggests that there is: “Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness.” (2) This is a striking way of describing love in its erotic dimension: why do we seek the other, often at great expense and difficulty? Because we have glimpsed in her face, in her being, a promise of happiness. “With her, I will be happy,” we may think. Love promises joy.

But isn't it the case, Benedict argues, that the Church restricts this joy? That it encumbers it with rules and “thou shalt not's?” No. Not so. In fact, this desirous, ascending love (called eros in Greek) is a very dangerous thing. When left to itself, it is self-destructive. If one gives in to the passions, one will lose the joy. Benedict speaks of the ancient custom of temple prostitutes, in the days when Eros was a god: “Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing `divine madness'; far from being goddesses, they were human beings being exploited.” (4) This exploitation is the constant danger inherent in eros. If desire for the other is not purified, it becomes degraded, or, to put it crudely, it ceases to be desire for the other and becomes desire for the other's posterior. The insistence on a higher love is the only way to preserve eros as desire for the other.

The Church presents a different love, called agape, that moves beyond the joy that the other person gives to the self. Rather, it is a complete self-giving to the other, exemplified by Christ on the Cross.

Can these two different loves, eros and agape, be unified? There is a tendency in modern philosophy deriving from Kant to sunder the two. If I help others because it makes me happy, then my actions are not genuinely moral. True love of neighbor should be thoroughly disinterested, in order to be a true example of a good will. Benedict does not mention Kant by name, but It seems to be in the background of his thinking. Can eros and agape be separated? It's another way of asking the question whether being good is the same as being happy.

Benedict answers that they can be united, and, in fact, must be united. He calls eros “ascending love” and agape “descending love”, in that it descends to the other and bestows love. Eros or desire for the other that never matured into concern for the other would be incomplete, and agape without joy would die. “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).” Thus the two loves must go together.

Christianity is unique in that it presents us with the person of Christ, with God made man who incarnates love, and guarantees its possibility. One reaction to the concept of agape is “What's in it for me?” Another is “That's nice, but impossible; people aren't really like that.” But Jesus shows us that it is, and then motivates our love and gives it efficacy. First, we experience the love of Christ. We are not the first movers, but are moved by Him who loves us, that the Byzantine liturgy repeatedly calls philanthropos, the lover of mankind. “In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives.” (17) God loves us, and in our experience of that love we desire to respond with love of God.

This love of God then becomes the basis of all agape, of all love of neighbor. If I love God, “Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend.” (18) The other person is not just a human, just a person, but is loved by God who loves me. Since true love involves a communion of wills, I should love him whom God loves. “If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God.” (18) All reductionism in morality has its root in a failure to acknowledge the other as loved by God.

From this point Benedict talks about the practice of love in the Church, noting that charitable service is present from the beginning, in the establishment of the order of the diaconate (“deacon” means “servant” in Greek) to serve the needs of the poor, through the charitable work of bishops and laity throughout the ages. One thing of note is his continual presentation of three main activities of the Church: Word, sacrament, and charity. Generally I think of Christian life more in terms of the first two than the latter, but it is true that to be a Christian is love.

Does this mean that the gospel and the liturgy can be neglected? No. In fact, to try to love correctly without praying or believing correctly, without nourishing oneself with the Eucharist, will lead to disaster. Our faith in Christ will give us sure hope that all are in God's hands. There is a temptation, when confronted with poverty, to despair of helping, or to embrace revolutionary tactics to do in our time what God does in His time, doing unspeakable things to humans out of love for humanity. “At such times, a living relationship with Christ is decisive if we are to keep on the right path without falling into an arrogant contempt for man, something not only unconstructive but actually destructive, or surrendering to a resignation which would prevent us from being guided by love in the service of others.” (36) The guarantee against these temptations is prayer. Those who would love well must pray well. I am reminded of the saint who said “If you don't have time to pray, you don't have time for anything else.”

The pope ends with a wonderful reflection on Mary's charity, the love she shows by visiting Elizabeth in the final days of her pregnancy, by her tactful intervention at Cana, and by her humble withdrawal from the stage during Jesus' ministry. She is able to do this because her thoughts are imbued with the Word of God; Benedict uses the Magnificat as proof this, since the entire prayer is drawn from the Scriptures. It shows Mary wills as God wills, and it is this co-willing, this union with God, that ultimately makes genuine human love possible.

So much for my summary. I may have more reflections on it later, but I think it is a solid explanation of the Church's teaching on love, and is perhaps motivated by a desire to reach those in Western Europe and the Americas for whom the Church and religion are seen as something joyless, always saying “no” to love. It is the case, as Benedict teaches, that the situation is exactly the opposite. It is only the Christian who can genuinely love. Christians make better lovers, someone could put on a T-shirt. As it is, the encyclical proposes no new norms or disciplinary directives, as many expected would be forthcoming from Benedict. But it does set the stage nicely for all sorts of actions, since it emphasizes that love (eros) is not enough. Augustine says “Love and do what you will,” but that statement is only true if love is complete, a union of eros and agape, and that only comes about by a purification or ascesis of eros. You have to love in the right way, in order to love well.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Why is it, when men won't become priests

because they want to get married, is it that so many married men complain about their wives?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Fr. Shane thinks I should post more

so here's a juicy tidbit from Vladimir Solovyov, concerning the failure of "moderation in all things" as a moral guide:

Why should I renounce the "inscrutable delight" [of pleasures] for the sake of dull well-being? Passions lead to destruction, but prudence does not save from destruction. No one by means of prudent behaviour alone has ever conquered death.

It is only in the presence of something higher that the voice of passions may prove to be wrong. It is silenced by the thunder of heaven, but the tame speeches of good sense are powerless to drown it.

--Vladimir Solovyov

The point is, I think, that moderation in all things still leaves one ultimately as dead as a doornail. So why not screw around? Enlightened self-interest is still futile. Only God saves.