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Posts Tagged ‘Prayer’

 

Although you probably won’t hear him mentioned at daily Mass, Hermanus Contractus, or, less sensitively,  Blessed”Herman the Cripple,” has a place on today’s liturgical calendar.

I wrote about Herman and one of the prayers attributed to him, the Salve Regina, in The Words We Pray. Here’s that chapter.

I have copies of the book here if you’d like to order.

Or get it online almost anywhere, I think. Or request it from your local Catholic bookstore.

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This is a reprint from last year. Haven’t changed my mind on any of it – so here you go. 

I spent some time today reading about and trying to sort out St. Rose of Lima.  I knew the basics that most of us know, and not much more: mystic, extreme ascetic.  When I was a girl, I remember reading about how she drove her metal-spiked crown of thorns into her scalp. That was, not surprisingly, my main takeaway.

So today, I decided to dig deeper. I read through most of this 19th century biography – a translation into English from French. I read what chapters I could (the first two) of this reassessment and psychological unpacking, and finally settled in a more comfortable place than either of those with a chapter from Four in Heaven (1962) by British author Sheila Kaye-Smith.

What to make of her, the first saint of the Americas, this young woman who engaged in such extreme mortifications that even some of her contemporary confessors and other observers, including her mother,  thought she was going too far?

It might be tempting for us moderns to dismiss figures such as Rose. She was, we might gently suggest, mentally ill.  She was a victim and product of a guilt-ridden Catholic culture who could not simply accept the grace of God, but thought she had to abnegate herself in order to merit it.

But we shouldn’t do that. It is not helpful or right, in a Catholic context, to be so dismissive. Nor is it necessary to uncritically embrace all the hagiography. We must also always remember that in the Catholic view of saints, we bring two perspectives: to imitate st. rose of limaand to admire. We are not called to imitation of every action of every saint, because we live in different cultures, with various personalities. So not feeling the pull to jam a crown of metal thorns into our scalps should not cause anxiety. It’s okay.

In thinking this over, this struck me: it seems to me that even the saints who pursued extreme ways of personal asceticism did not indicate that everyone do the same.

St. Catherine, in her many letters, does not advise her correspondents that the solution to their spiritual problems was to live as she did, on a single grain of rice a day and sleeping on a board (when she slept). There might be a call to change, to repent, and perhaps to embrace some small mortification, but mostly what we read in her writings, at least, is an urgent invitation to realize how deeply Christ loves us and to live in that light, not the darkness the world offers.

They seem quite aware of the uniqueness of their own path, and do not suggest that theirs is the standard by which all others should be judged. In fact, the saints seem to take the opposite tack: as stubborn as they are about their own mortifications, they tend to keep them secret as much as they are able and are uncomfortable with “followers” who are following them rather than following Christ.

In trying to understand St. Rose, these thoughts come to mind.

She sensed a call to belong to Christ alone. In her culture and her family circumstance, she had to go to extremes to make sure that was clear to everyone and she would not be forced into marriage. Perhaps you can see this as manipulation, or you can see it as a strong rejection of the world in a most personal way.

It is interesting and important to note that hardly anyone knew of these mortifications during her life. The people of Lima who flocked to her funeral by the thousands certainly did not – they came because this young woman radiated the love of Christ.

 

St. Rose would say that her mortifications were in fidelity to her call to conform herself completely to Christ. Christ sacrificed himself. Christ’s supreme act of love was his Passion and death.  Many of us think of this call differently today: to accept what sufferings happen to come our way in a sacrificial spirit, in imitation of Christ, rather than to create them ourselves. Perhaps the experience of St. Rose can expand our own approach by helping us understand that living as a disciple does, indeed mean conforming ourselves to the Crucified Christ, accepting that the Cross will be a part of whatever path we follow, but that if we do find ourselves conforming to the world instead, it is time to take action and be more intentional – to make sacrifices in addition to accepting them as they come.

I also wondered, based on the minimal reading I did on this, if perhaps Rose knew herself and we should trust her. Perhaps she knew that she had a tendency to vanity. Perhaps she knew that even if she gave up marriage and lived as sort of anchorite, intensely focused on Christ, that she would still draw attention and that attention, even if it is directed at spiritual rather than physical beauty, would be a temptation to her. Perhaps her extreme mortifications were directed at keeping herself conformed to the humble Christ in the most radical way, a way that she knew, for herself, would be at risk as people were drawn to her. Perhaps she wanted to keep herself radically open to Christ in her physical weakness so that she would always remember it was Jesus, not her, that the people of Lima desired and sought.

I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

It comes down to this. Different culture, but same Jesus, same faith. We are tempted to dismiss it, but that’s not Catholic. Instead, we dig deeper, realize our own cultural limitations, and listen. Because, you know, she’s not wrong.

It’s a mystery, but suffering can be beneficial and bear tremendous fruit. She’s not wrong.

Christian discipleship is about conforming ourselves to Christ. She’s not wrong. 

The world is beautiful (Rose grew flowers!) but can stand between us and God if we don’t know how to love properly.  She’s not wrong.

“Success”  in the spiritual life can lead to an inflated sense of self and hubris.

She’s not wrong.

*****

Unrelated: Today you can find me in Living Faith.  (and yesterday, too, if you go back a day)

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Born in 1925, if she were still alive, she’d be 92. A year younger than my own mother, which is always odd for me to think about.  And given her mother’s longevity (Regina died at the age of 99 in 1995), if lupus hadn’t taken her, she might well still be alive, indeed.

I’ve written quite a bit about Flannery over the years.  Most recently, I’m in Catholic World Report today, commenting on a new documentary that’s been produced about her – the only one out there at the moment. 

I was in the area, and was hoping to go to Andalusia yesterday, on the way from Florida back here. But fortunately, I checked the opening hours and saw that the farm is only open Thursdays – Sundays. And it didn’t seem a great use of time to haul everyone off I-75 just to visit her grave, even though it was the day before her death anniversary. So we went to some Indian mounds instead. 

Some other posts and writings on Flannery O’Connor:

This one on the collection of her book reviews for the Atlanta Archdiocesan paper. 

Most of what O’Connor reviewed was non-fiction, and she did not like most of the fiction she did review – J.F. Powers, Paul Horgan and Julien Green being the unsurprising exceptions in the otherwise flowerly garden of pietistic fiction she endured.

The non-fiction choices are fascinating, although not a surprise to anyone familiar with the contents of O’Connor’s personal library and the scope of her reading we can discern from her letters. She was very concerned with the intellectual life of American Catholics and indeed saw what she was doing for the papers as in some way an act of charity in which readers might be encouraged to read beyond the pieties.

She was especially interested in Scripture, dismayed that Catholics did not read more of it, and quite interested in the Old Testament, especially the prophets. Again, perhaps not a surprise? She was, as is well-known, quite interested in Teilhard de Chardin, and reviewed a few books by Karl Barth, as well.

“The Enduring Chill” played a part in my last visit to my parents’ house after I’d sold it:

Secondly, the association of the breaking through of the Holy Ghost with coldness.  A chill. An enduring chill.  There are a number of ways to look at it,  since the “chill” is of course a reference to fever,  but  this morning I couldn’t stop thinking about Flannery’s continual argument against the modern expectation that “faith” is what brings us  contentment and satisfaction.  In the Gospel today,  Jesus says Peace be with You.  But that’s after the crucifixion, you know.

Image result for flannery o'connorAlso on Asbury’s mind- primary, really – was his mother.  How he blamed her for his own failure as a would-be artist, and how what he wanted to do most of all was make her see this.  To give her an enduring chill that would be the result of her awareness of what she had done to him.

He would hurt her, but that was just too bad.  It was what was necessary, he determined, to get her to see things as they really are. Irony, of course, comes to rest on him in the end as the Holy Ghost descends.

So I read and talked about this story about parents, children, disappointment, blame,  pride and being humbled.

Then I drove up to Knoxville, alone, thinking about Asbury, about that Holy Ghost, about peace be with you and doubt no longer.

I drove up to see my father’s house for the last time and sign the papers so someone new could live there now.

Tears?

Sadness that my father died six months ago, that my mother died eleven years ago, that my husband died three years ago. Sadness for my dad’s widow.  But then tempered, as I stood there and surveyed the surrounding houses and realized that almost every person who lived in those houses when we first moved in, is also dead.

Remembering that forty years ago, my parents were  exactly where I am now, watching the preceding generation begin to die off, absorbing their possessions, making sense of what they’d inherited – in every sense – and contemplating where to go from there.

There’s nothing unique about it.  It’s called being human. Not existing for a very long time, being alive for a few minutes, and then being dead for another very long time.

And in that short time, we try.  I’m not going to say “we try our best” because we don’t.  It’s why we ask for mercy.  Especially when we live our days under the delusion of self-sufficiency, placing our faith in ourselves and our poor, passing efforts, closed to grace…when we live like that…no, we’re not trying our best.  We need it,  that  Divine Mercy. We need it, and as Asbury has to learn, we need it to give, not just to take.  More

A summary of a session I lead on “The Displaced Person”

There is a priest in the story, the priest who brings the family (the Guizacs) to the farm, and then continues to visit Mrs. McIntyre. He is old and Irish, listens to Mrs. McIntyre’s complaints about her workers and the difficulties of her life with a nod and a raised eyebrow and then continues to talk to her about the teachings of the Church.

He is seen by the others as a doddering fool, talking about abstractions, not clued into the pressing issues of the moment, telling Mrs. McIntyre, for example, about what the Son of God has done, redeeming us,  “as if he spoke of something that had happened yesterday in town….”

And at the end, as Mrs. McIntyre watches the black figure of the priest bend over a dead man ” slipping something into the crushed man’s mouth…” we see why he spoke of it that way.

It did happen yesterday in town. It happens today.

He’s here.

The priest, too, is the only character who recognizes transcendence.  Every time he comes to the farm, he is transfixed by the peacocks (see the header on the blog today), a fascination the others think is just one more symptom of foolishness and “second childhood.”

You must be born again….

And here is the “irony.” Although steeped in Catholic faith and sensibilities, we know it is not ironic – but to the world’s eyes, it is. That the priest who expresses the mysteries in such matter-of-fact, “formulaic” ways, ways which even theologians today fret are not nuanced or postmodern enough, which they would like to dispense with in favor of…what, I am not sure, unless it is one more set of windy journal articles…this priest is, as I said, the only character who can recognize beauty and the transcendent reflected there. And the one who embodies Mercy.

Flannery O’Connor always said that she found the doctrines of the Church freeing – and this is what she means.

And the story ends:

Not many people remembered to come out to the country to see her except the old priest. He came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs and, after he had fed these to the peacock, he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.

A couple of interviews I did with KVSS on Flannery.

And….my piece “Stalking Pride” – which I think is a decent introduction:

Robert Coles answered the question well when he wrote of O’Connor, “She is stalking pride.” For Flannery O’Connor, faith means essentially seeing the world as it is, which means through the Creator’s eyes. So lack of faith is a kind of blindness, and what brings on the refusal to embrace God’s vision — faith — is nothing but pride.

O’Connor’s characters are all afflicted by pride: Intellectual sons and daughters who live to set the world, primarily their ignorant parents, aright; social workers who neglect their own children, self-satisfied unthinking “good people” who rest easily in their own arrogance; the fiercely independent who will not submit their wills to God or anyone else if it kills them. And sometimes, it does.

The pride is so fierce, the blindness so dark, it takes an extreme event to shatter it, and here is the purpose of the violence. The violence that O’Connor’s characters experience, either as victims or as participants, shocks them into seeing that they are no better than the rest of the world, that they are poor, that they are in need of redemption, of the purifying purgatorial fire that is the breathtaking vision at the end of the story, “Revelation.”

The self-satisfied are attacked, those who fancy themselves as earthly saviors find themselves capable of great evil, intellectuals discover their ideas to be useless human constructs, and those bent on “freedom” find themselves left open to be controlled by evil.

What happens in her stories is often extreme, but O’Connor knew that the modern world’s blindness was so deeply engrained and habitual, extreme measures were required to startle us: “I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see.”  More

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No, this isn’t the real one, but an imagined redesign, which I like very much.  More on that here.  

It’s ironic that a stamp issued in honor of a writer who was determined to present reality as it is – prettifies the subject to the point of making her unrecognizable. 

Everybody, as far as I am concerned, is The Poor.

-Flannery O’Connor

 

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St. Ignatius was in my Loyola Kids Book of Saints, and you can read the entire chapter here:

Because he had spent all those months in his sickbed, Ignatius got bored. He asked for something to read. He was hoping for adventure books, tales that were popular back then: knights fighting for the hands of beautiful ladies, traveling to distant lands, and battling strange creatures.

But for some reason, two completely different books were brought to Ignatius. One was a book about the life of Christ, and the other was a collection of saints’ stories.

Ignatius read these books. He thought about them. He was struck by the great sacrifices that the saints had made for God. He was overwhelmed by their love of Jesus.

And Ignatius thought, “Why am I using my life just for myself? These people did so much good during their time on earth. Why can’t I?”

Ignatius decided that he would use the talents God had given him—his strength, his leadership ability, his bravery, and his intelligence—to serve God and God’s people.

While Ignatius continued to heal, he started praying very seriously. God’s peace filled his heart and assured him that he was on the right path.

When Ignatius was all healed and ready to walk and travel again, he left his home to prepare for his new life. It wasn’t easy. He was 30, which was considered old in those days, and he was getting a late start in his studies for the priesthood. In those days, the Mass was said only in Latin, and Latin was the language all educated people used to communicate with each other. Ignatius didn’t know a bit of Latin. So for his first Latin lessons, big, rough Ignatius had to sit in a classroom with a bunch of 10-year-old boys who were learning Latin for the first time too!

That takes a different kind of strength, doesn’t it?

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Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

In The Words We Pray, I wrote about the Suscipe Prayer. That chapter is excerpted here:

The more you roll this prayer around in your soul, and the more you think about it, the more radical it is revealed to be.

One of the primary themes of the Spiritual Exercises is that of attachments and affections. Ignatius offers the account of “three classes of men” who have been given a sum of money, and who all want to rid themselves of it because they know their attachment to this worldly good impedes their salvation.

The first class would really like to rid themselves of the attachment, but the hour of death comes, and they haven’t even tried. The second class would also like to give up the attachment, but do so, conveniently, without actually giving anything up.

Is this sounding familiar at all?

The third class wants to get rid of the attachment to the money, which they, like the others, know is a burden standing in the way. But they make no stipulations as to how this attachment is relinquished; they are indifferent about the method. Whatever God wants, they want. In a word, they are the free ones.

The prayer “Take Lord, receive” is possible only because the retreatant has opened himself to the reality of who God is, what God’s purpose is for humanity, and what God has done for him in a particularly intense way.

A Response to God’s Love

The retreatant has seen that there is really no other response to life that does God justice. What love the Father has for us in letting us be called children of God, John says (1 John 3:1). What gift does our love prompt us to give?

In ages past, and probably in the minds of some of us still, that gift of self to God, putting oneself totally at God’s disposal, is possible only for people called to a vowed religious life. Well, God didn’t institute religious life in the second chapter of Genesis. He instituted marriage and family. I’m not a nun, but the Scriptures tell us repeatedly that all creation is groaning and being reborn and moving toward completion in God. Every speck of creation, everything that happens, every kid kicking a soccer ball down a road in Guatemala, each office worker in New Delhi, every ancient great-grandmother in a rest home in Boynton Beach, every baby swimming in utero at this moment around the world—all are beloved by God and are being constantly invited by him to love. And all can respond.

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This is life right now:

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I am just not a fan of this stage of life: living with a new driver. He’s careful and is doing well, but nonetheless: it’s nerve-racking.

But it’s a stage of life that’s very good for the prayer life, so there’s that.

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The image above is downloaded from Instagram Stories – you can only see it on a phone, though, not on the browser. I do use Instagram Stories and like it – mostly putting up odd or interesting things I see over the course of the day. I’m assuming that I’ll be able to use my phone in Guatemala, so there will be lots of Instagram action once we get there in a couple of weeks.

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Work: I had devotionals in Living Faith twice this week, but you won’t see me there again until August. I’m currently waiting on a contract for the fall’s writing project, and mulling over smaller projects to publish independently.

Reminders: Look for The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories to be published in a couple of months.

The feast of St. Mary Magdalene is coming up in a couple of weeks (July 22) – get up to speed on all things MM with the free download of the book I wrote on her, now out of print, but available as a free pdf here.

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Made this – it’s a chimichurri sauce, probably very familiar to many of you. It’s a simple IMG_20170706_163631South American condiment – most recipes center on parsley, oregano, red pepper, garlic, vinegar and olive oil, while some add cilantro and/or some type of citrus and onion. I had it last week at a restaurant and liked it so much I wanted to try it at home. I guess it turned out well, and was far better when the flavors melded with the steak than just testing it straight up.

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Getting ready:

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I really don’t know if stuffing our system with probiotics in this form, or in yogurt or whatever form actually helps, but better safe than sorry, I suppose. We’ve been to Mexico twice and been very careful and had no problems, but still – we are going to be in Guatemala for a week with very specific travel goals, and I would hate for any of it to be derailed by GI issues. Also ordered super-strong insect repellent, so there’s that.

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Thinking education: This is an excellent article in City Journal about “Vocational Ed, Reborn.” 

If you, like me, have a 16-year old child who is facing a near-future of all day in the classroom, following a curriculum that meets his needs and interests about half the time, and who would much rather be spending that other half working, making money and honing those types of skills, this article might give you hope, if not for your own kid’s situation, at least in general.

There is hope, too. I have a relative who just graduated from high school – except he hadn’t taken but one class in the actual high school since he was a sophomore. The program in which he was involved (in a public high school) was oriented towards medical career-training. It was intensive academic work at the high school for two years, and then transferring over to the local community college for the rest of the time. Result: by age 17, a high school diploma, an AA degree, qualified to be an EMT (or close) and a young person who is highly employable and ready to move on to a higher level of education.

What irritates me (and this is addressed in the article) is that this path is often envisioned as one for students from “lower” socio-economic groups and with “less academic potential” – which is nonsense. More educational choices for more students is what we need  – the model of Sit in a classroom for 4 years and build a high school resume so you can become part of an institution that wants you to feel that it’s a privilege for you to go into debt just to be a part of them…that model needs to be disrupted. It’s hopeful to see the small ways in which this is happening.

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There was a big gathering of Catholics in Orlando this past weekend, organized by the USCCB, emphasis on evangelization and mission. Folks were fired up, and that’s great. But I still can’t wrap my head around the concept of having a gathering like this on a holiday weekend – the thing didn’t actually even end until the day of July 4. I’m guessing that the bishop’s group wanted it to coincide with the Fortnight for Freedom push, and to leave people revved up for that? I suppose, although that strikes me as cynical and manipulative. But still – it says something important and sad that Catholic leadership believes it’s a good thing to invite people to take holiday time at the height of summer away from their families to come instead to talk about churchy things with other churchy people.

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A better place.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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This is a very link-ish quick takes. I’m writing other things, thinking about other things, so I’m just going to toss out links to recent reads and listens.

But first, let me bring a bit of sunshine to your day, via a wallpaper mural in the basement of a home in which an estate sale was held last week:

 

 

What would you say? Late 70’s?

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Planned Parenthood’s Brutal Century – a good synopsis of the deeply embedded anti-human eugenics presumptions of not only Planned Parenthood but so much of “enlightened” American intellectual culture of the late 19th through mid-20th century.

 

 

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You have perhaps heard the story of little Charlie Gard, born with a rare and fatal genetic disease. 

Charlie Gard suffers from a very rare genetic condition, and is now living in Great Ormond Street Hospital with the help of a ventilator. When doctors there determined that they could not save his life, the hospital made a decision to remove the ventilator. His parents objected, and raised enough funds to transport the child to the US for experimental treatment. But their right to find treatment for their child was rejected in a series of court decisions. This week the European Court of Human Rights, the parents’ last hope for relief, ruled that the experimental treatment offered “no prospects of success” and the baby was “being exposed to continued pain, suffering, and distress.”

The court affirmed the hospital’s right to remove life support. “Our parental rights have been stripped away,” protested Chris Gard, the child’s father. The parents reported that Great Ormond Street Hospital had refused their request to have Charlie brought home for his last night, or to allow him to die peacefully in a hospice.

The English bishops and the Pontifical Academy for Life have issued statements on the case. Neither statements addresses the issue of state power over medical decisions. 

The injustice is that Charlie will die when the hospital administration wants, and where the hospital administration wants. His parents have been deprived of their right to supervise his case. They could not take him the US for experimental treatment. They could not take him home, to die in peace. As one of our readers observed, Charlie was essentially kidnapped, so that the authorities would be sure that he died on schedule.

Two tepid statements, from the local bishops’ conference and from the Vatican, might have been appropriate if the discussion had centered on the decision to turn off the ventilator. But they missed the essential point of the controversy entirely. The state—the hospital, the courts—had seized the power to preside over a child’s death, regardless of the parents’ wishes. Sadly, the Catholic hierarchy did not protest.

Catholic Hierarchs yesterday: An individual’s and family’s right to make decisions regarding freedom, justice and a living supersedes a State’s civil arrangements and legal borders.

Catholic Hierarchs today: A State’s civil arrangements supersedes a family’s authority to make decisions regarding the life of its members. 

I mean, I thought bridges were better than walls, and we’re not supposed to erect walls to keep people from exercising their freedom.

Pick one, guys. Pick one.

Another commentary:

John Paul II was well aware of the ways in which governments can steal the legitimate authority of parents and families: in “Familiaris Consortio” he affirmed that “the church openly and strongly defends the rights of the family against the intolerable usurpations of society and the state.” One would imagine that one such “intolerable usurpation” would be a government denying two parents the right to try to save their baby boy’s life. And one would imagine that an institution entitled “the Pontifical Academy for Life” would recognize that.

 

 

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On a more cheerful note, our local new source, the Birmingham News, has given good coverage this week to Catholic matters: the ordination of two priests last Saturday, and the celebration of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form last night in honor of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Here’s the story of one of the new priests.

And the other.

And the Mass. 

You can view the list of music from the Mass here (it’s a pdf – scroll down for 6/29) at the part of the parish website where orders of worship eventually get posted. 

 

— 5 —

I found this interesting – Does God want you to spend $300,000 for College? …in which a NYTimes reporter asks Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins about the moral implications of high tuition. In my opinion, he’s not tough enough on Jenkins. The question has implications, not just for Catholic higher education, but Catholic education at all levels.

 

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Related, by the same author in the same article series on faith and money: The Monk Who Left the Monastery to Fix Retirement Plans. 

So has Mr. Lynam concluded that his former colleagues need him more than his former students? Not exactly. “I’m not irreplaceable in the classroom,” he said. “But I did not see another company serving teachers in the way that I can serve them. It’s not that one form of service is higher or lower.”

It is a very different role, though — one he describes as being a “suffering prevention specialist.” His professional conversations now feel a lot like confession, he said, with people sharing stories of unpaid debts, betrayals and sure things that were far from it. He listens, and then he must hold the mirror up to those who may not want to see the truth.

“Perhaps one of the cardinal sins that I see the most, though it’s not a popular one to talk about, is sloth,” he said. “Some people are afraid but also a little lazy, and they don’t really want to do the hard work of facing their mistakes or lack of organization and knowledge on these subjects and take responsibility.”

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This week’s In Our Time listen – in between all the rain – was on Pushkin’s poem, Eugene Onegin.  

Well, that’s it. That’s all I have left, folks!

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For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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First…why?

Why highlight these saints so often when there is so much…news happening?

Simple: Because through the saints, we learn how to be disciples. We learn how rich, textured and diverse Catholic life is. Because saints lived in the past, when we make reflecting on the life, work, witness or writing of a saint part of our day, we situate our faith more properly than we do if we situate our faith only in the present moment.

In short: We grow more from a few moments of being quietly attentive to the real world around us, consciously situated in the greater cosmic context of traditionally-centered faith, than we do from one more session of racing through scads of information and opinion via a screen. I know I do, at least.

So, St. Irenaeus. We’ll start with Mike Aquilina:

St. Irenaeus is a giant. Pay no mind to the modern academics who portray him as a meanie nun out to rap gnostic knuckles with a crozier-sized ruler. St. Irenaeus was a scholar’s scholar, a biblical theologian of the first rank. He was a global diplomat who actually
succeeded at making peace. And he was a holy, plain-speaking, and truth-telling bishop. If today’s gnostic resurgents don’t like him, it’s because, after eighteen centuries and more, his critique is still right as rain and still raining all over the gnostic parade.

Then, B16:

 

Irenaeus was in all probability born in Smyrna (today, Izmir in Turkey) in about 135-140, where in his youth, he attended the school of Bishop Polycarp, a disciple in his turn of the Apostle John. We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but his move must have coincided with the first development of the Christian community in Lyons: here, in 177, we find Irenaeus listed in the college of presbyters. In that very year, he was sent to Rome bearing a letter from the community in Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. His mission to Rome saved Irenaeus from the persecution of Marcus Aurelius which took a toll of at least 48 martyrs, including the 90-year old Bishop Pontinus of Lyons, who died from ill-treatment in prison. Thus, on his return Irenaeus was appointed Bishop of the city. The new Pastor devoted himself without reserve to his episcopal ministry which ended in about 202-203, perhaps with martyrdom.

Irenaeus was first and foremost a man of faith and a Pastor. Like a good Pastor, he had a good sense of proportion, a wealth of doctrine, and missionary enthusiasm. As a writer, he pursued a twofold aim: to defend true doctrine from the attacks of heretics, and to explain the truth of the faith clearly. His two extant works – the five books of The Detection and Overthrow of the False Gnosis and Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching (which can also be called the oldest “catechism of Christian doctrine”) – exactly corresponded with these aims. In short, Irenaeus can be defined as the champion in the fight against heresies. The second-century Church was threatened by the so-called Gnosis, a doctrine which affirmed that the faith taught in the Church was merely a symbolism for the simple who were unable to grasp difficult concepts; instead, the initiates, the intellectuals – Gnostics,they were called – claimed to understand what was behind these symbols and thus formed an elitist and intellectualist Christianity. Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became increasingly fragmented, splitting into different currents with ideas that were often bizarre and extravagant, yet attractive to many. One element these different currents had in common was “dualism”: they denied faith in the one God and Father of all, Creator and Saviour of man and of the world. To explain evil in the world, they affirmed the existence, besides the Good God, of a negative principle. This negative principle was supposed to have produced material things, matter.

Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of creation, Irenaeus refuted the Gnostic dualism and pessimism which debased corporeal realities. He decisively claimed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh no less than of the spirit. But his work went far beyond the confutation of heresy: in fact, one can say that he emerges as the first great Church theologian who created systematic theology; he himself speaks of the system of theology, that is, of the internal coherence of all faith. At the heart of his doctrine is the question of the “rule of faith” and its transmission. For Irenaeus, the “rule of faith” coincided in practice with theApostles’ Creed, which gives us the key for interpreting the Gospel, for interpreting the Creed in light of the Gospel. The Creed, which is a sort of Gospel synthesis, helps us understand what it means and how we should read the Gospel itself.

In fact, the Gospel preached by Irenaeus is the one he was taught by Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and Polycarp’s Gospel dates back to the Apostle John, whose disciple Polycarp was.
The true teaching, therefore, is not that invented by intellectuals which goes beyond the Church’s simple faith. The true Gospel is the one imparted by the Bishops who received it in an uninterrupted line from the Apostles. They taught nothing except this simple faith, which is also the true depth of God’s revelation. Thus, Irenaeus tells us, there is no secret doctrine concealed in the Church’s common Creed. There is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly confessed by the Church is the common faith of all. This faith alone is apostolic, it is handed down from the Apostles, that is, from Jesus and from God. In adhering to this faith, publicly transmitted by the Apostles to their successors, Christians must observe what their Bishops say and must give special consideration to the teaching of the Church of Rome, pre-eminent and very ancient. It is because of her antiquity that this Church has the greatest apostolicity; in fact, she originated in Peter and Paul, pillars of the Apostolic College. All Churches must agree with the Church of Rome, recognizing in her the measure of the true Apostolic Tradition, the Church’s one common faith. With these arguments, summed up very briefly here, Irenaeus refuted the claims of these Gnostics, these intellectuals, from the start. First of all, they possessed no truth superior to that of the ordinary faith, because what they said was not of apostolic origin, it was invented by them. Secondly, truth and salvation are not the privilege or monopoly of the few, but are available to all through the preaching of the Successors of the Apostles, especially of the Bishop of Rome. In particular – once again disputing the “secret” character of the Gnostic tradition and noting its multiple and contradictory results – Irenaeus was concerned to describe the genuine concept of the Apostolic Tradition which we can sum up here in three points.

a) Apostolic Tradition is “public”, not private or secret. Irenaeus did not doubt that the content of the faith transmitted by the Church is that received from the Apostles and from Jesus, the Son of God. There is no other teaching than this. Therefore, for anyone who wishes to know true doctrine, it suffices to know “the Tradition passed down by the Apostles and the faith proclaimed to men”: a tradition and faith that “have come down to us through the succession of Bishops” (Adversus Haereses, 3, 3, 3-4). Hence, the succession of Bishops, the personal principle, and Apostolic Tradition, the doctrinal principle, coincide.

b) Apostolic Tradition is “one”. Indeed, whereas Gnosticism was divided into multiple sects, Church Tradition is one in its fundamental content, which – as we have seen – Irenaeus calls precisely regula fidei or veritatis: and thus, because it is one, it creates unity through the peoples, through the different cultures, through the different peoples; it is a common content like the truth, despite the diversity of languages and cultures. A very precious saying of St Irenaeus is found in his book Adversus Haereses: “The Church, though dispersed throughout the world… having received [this faith from the Apostles]… as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world” (1, 10, 1-2). Already at that time – we are in the year 200 – it was possible to perceive the Church’s universality, her catholicity and the unifying power of the truth that unites these very different realities, from Germany, to Spain, to Italy, to Egypt, to Libya, in the common truth revealed to us by Christ.

c) Lastly, the Apostolic Tradition, as he says in the Greek language in which he wrote his book, is “pneumatic”, in other words, spiritual, guided by the Holy Spirit: in Greek, the word for “spirit” is “pneuma”. Indeed, it is not a question of a transmission entrusted to the ability of more or less learned people, but to God’s Spirit who guarantees fidelity to the transmission of the faith.
This is the “life” of the Church, what makes the Church ever young and fresh, fruitful with multiple charisms.

For Irenaeus, Church and Spirit were inseparable: “This faith”, we read again in the third book of Adversus Haereses, “which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also…. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace” (3, 24, 1). As can be seen, Irenaeus did not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always enlivened from within by the Holy Spirit, who makes it live anew, causes it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church. Adhering to her teaching, the Church should transmit the faith in such a way that it must be what it appears, that is, “public”, “one”, “pneumatic”, “spiritual”. Starting with each one of these characteristics, a fruitful discernment can be made of the authentic transmission of the faith in the today of the Church. More generally, in Irenaeus’ teaching, the dignity of man, body and soul, is firmly anchored in divine creation, in the image of Christ and in the Spirit’s permanent work of sanctification. This doctrine is like a “high road” in order to discern together with all people of good will the object and boundaries of the dialogue of values, and to give an ever new impetus to the Church’s missionary action, to the force of the truth which is the source of all true values in the world.

Repeating what I said yesterday, if you have a mind to study the Church Fathers via these talks either as an individual or as a parish study group, feel free to use the free pdf of the study guide I wrote for OSV.  For example the reflection questions for the section on Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen

1. These thinkers of early Christianity did not shy from engaging with non-Christian thinking. How would you describe their relationships to it? What seems to you to be their standard for what elements of non-Christian thinking to accept or reject?

2. Apologetics is still an important part of Christian expression. What issues have you experienced as being areas in which you or others you know are called upon to offer an “apologia”? Are there any resources you have found particularly helpful?

3. All of these thinkers — and most in this book — emerged from the East, the birthplace of Christianity. What do you know about the Eastern Catholic churches today? Have you ever attended an Eastern Catholic liturgy?

4. Irenaeus battled Gnostic heresies in which only an elite had access to the ultimate saving spiritual knowledge. Can you see any currents of this element of Gnostic thinking in the world today? Do you ever catch yourself thinking along these lines?

5. These thinkers were engaged in very creative work, but work that was very faithful to the tradition they had been handed by the apostles. What kind of creative, faithful ways of teaching and expressing faith are you aware of today? If you were in charge of evangelization  for the Church in your area, what kinds of approaches would you encourage?

6. Justin Martyr felt that certain elements of his pagan life had actually worked to prepare him for his Christian life. Are their any elements of your life before your fuller coming to faith that you feel have prepared you for deepening your faith today?

7. Ignatius and Origen both longed for martyrdom. What do you think about that?

8. Several of these thinkers indicate the importance of the bishop of Rome. How do you see the importance of the papacy expressed in the Church and the world today?

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