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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Just a bit more travel before the gates clang shut. M and I went down to south Alabama last DSCN0786Saturday (blogged about here) and today we’re in Charleston. I had thoughts of seeing Some Things, but dear heavens, it’s hot. I have an enormous tolerance for and affection for hot weather, but 96 degrees in the city while leading a posse of an 11-year old, 15-year old, 24-year old and 2.5 year old…..is too much.  No complaining, but the red faces and general discomfort made anything beyond an hour downtown not enticing. Tomorrow we might try the beach or an indoor museum…

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(Snapchat – amywelborn2)

 

— 2 —

Recent reads:

Still working on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which my high schooler is doing for school summer reading. I had never read it, so this was a good opportunity.

My advice? You should read it. I’ll blog more about it when I’m finished, but the bottom line is that it’s such an important part of American history (sold 300,000 copies the first year – galvanized the nation), is a fascinating exercise in social activism – in a time in which social issues of different sorts still divide our country – and is very easy to read. I had envisioned a lot of dense Victorian text, but Stowe had written for newspapers and magazines before she started this novel, and wrote in a very accessible, popular style – too popular  – as in sentimental – at times. The treatment of the races is challenging to get through. I am not sure I would require young people who are black to read it. It’s hard.I’m an advocate of Huckleberry Finn, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin is different. Twain’s writing was more layered and his authorial point of view does not strike me as racist at all, but with Stowe, even though she was an abolitionist and wrote to convince the reader of the humanity of slaves, much of the narrative perspective is tinged in our contemporary eyes, with racism – all slaves are human, we are told, but the norm of what it means to be human is presented primarily in a European paradigm – how can you not accept Eliza’s humanity? She has such lovely light skin!

But…more later.

 

— 3 —

Rachel Ray, which is not a biography of a Food Network star, but rather an 19th century novel by Anthony Trollope. It was talked up on some blogs I ran across as an undiscovered gem, and it was, of course, free, and I do like Trollope, so I dug in.

 

 — 4 —

 

It’s a very simple story – of a young woman’s rocky engagement to a young man.  So what else is new in 19th century literature? It wasn’t the most fascinating book I’ve ever read – and it’s not among even the better half of Trollope, but it was fairly entertaining in parts.  What made it a challenge was that its original serial nature was quite evident in protracted passages in which characters contemplate – in detail – the events that were related – in detail – in the previous chapter. I did a bit of skimming.

— 5 

But making it worthwhile were Trollope’s insight into human nature and motivation – even if we do get a character’s motivations described several more times than necessary.  In this story, the community – family, church and town – play an enormous role in managing expectations and behavior between a man and a woman.  The balance Trollope creates is pretty interesting – yes, the young man and woman, it is implied, need and deserve more freedom than the community wants to give them – but also, yes, perhaps the restraint and boundaries have some value.

I was most interested in two specific areas that Trollope brings into the novel – beer and religion. For one of the families involved in the story runs the local brewery, which, it is universally agreed, produces just terrible beer.  But that is just the way it is – and Luke Rowan the young man who wins Rachel’s heart – has, by inheritance, obtained a share of this brewery run by Mr. Tappitt, and wants more for the purpose of actually making decent beer. The tussle over this issue was very amusing, and, of course, a metaphor for the young people at the heart of the story, straining for freedom from the community’s restraints, for reasons that no one can really fathom, because isn’t everything working so smoothly now?

The tantrums spoken of were Rowan’s insane desire to brew good beer, but they were of so fatal nature that Tappitt was determined not to submit himself to them. 


…That anything was due in the matter to the consumer of beer, never occurred to him. And it may also be said in Tappitt’s favour that his opinion — as a general opinion — was backed by those around him. His neighbours could not be made to hate Rowan as he hated him. They would not declare the young man to be the very Mischief, as he did. But that idea of a rival brewery was distasteful to them all. Most of them knew that the beer was almost too bad to be swallowed; but they thought that Tappitt had a vested interest in the manufacture of bad beer — that as a manufacturer of bad beer he was a fairly honest and useful man — and they looked upon any change as the work, or rather the suggestion of a charlatan.


Mr Tappitt was not a great man, either as a citizen or as a brewer: he was not one to whom Baslehurst would even rejoice to raise a monument; but such as he was he had been known for many years. No one in that room loved or felt for him anything like real friendship; but the old familiarity of the place was in his favour, and his form was known of old upon the High Street. He was not a drunkard, he lived becomingly with his wife, he had paid his way, and was a fellow-townsman. What was it to Dr Harford, or even to Mr Comfort, that he brewed bad beer? No man was compelled to drink it. Why should not a man employ himself, openly and legitimately, in the brewing of bad beer, if the demand for bad beer were so great as to enable him to live by the occupation? On the other hand, Luke Rowan was personally known to none of them; and they were jealous that a change should come among them with any view of teaching them a lesson or improving their condition.

6–

As for religion. It plays a great role in the book, as Rachel’s mother turns to her pastor, Rev. Comfort, for advice on her daughter’s situation, and her other daughter – a widow – spends much of the novel contemplating a more permanent alliance with another clergyman – a Dissenter – whom she respects but does not quite trust. She has her own money and a marriage would require her to give control of this money over to her new husband…which she is not quite comfortable with.

Trollope has much to say about religion, but I particularly liked this passage, in which he digs into the tormented soul of Mrs. Ray, Rachel’s mother. Has this type of spiritual response disappeared with the genteel 19th century novel? I don’t think so..

And it may be said of Mrs Ray that her religion, though it sufficed her, tormented her grievously. It sufficed her; and if on such a subject I may venture to give an opinion, I think it was of a nature to suffice her in that great strait for which it had been prepared. But in this world it tormented her, carrying her hither and thither, and leaving her in grievous doubt, not as to its own truth in any of its details, but as to her own conduct under its injunctions, and also as to her own mode of believing it. In truth she believed too much. She could never divide the minister from the Bible — nay, the very clerk in the church was sacred to her while exercising his functions therein. It never occurred to her to question any word that was said to her. If a linen-draper were to tell her that one coloured calico was better for her than another, she would take that point as settled by the man’s word, and for the time would be free from all doubt on that heading. So also when the clergyman in his sermon told her that she should live simply and altogether for heaven, that all thoughts as to this world were wicked thoughts, and that nothing belonging to this world could be other than painful, full of sorrow and vexations, she would go home believing him absolutely, and with tear-laden eyes would bethink herself how utterly she was a castaway, because of that tea, and cake, and innocent tittle-tattle with which the hours of her Saturday evening had been beguiled. She would weakly resolve that she would laugh no more, and that she would live in truth in a valley of tears. But then as the bright sun came upon her, and the birds sang around her, and someone that she loved would cling to her and kiss her, she would be happy in her own despite, and would laugh with a low musical sweet tone, forgetting that such laughter was a sin.

And then that very clergyman himself would torment her — he that told her from the pulpit on Sundays how frightfully vain were all attempts at worldly happiness. He would come to her on the Monday with a good-natured, rather rubicund face, and would ask after all her little worldly belongings — for he knew of her history and her means — and he would joke with her, and tell her comfortably of his grown sons and daughters, who were prospering in worldly matters, and express the fondest solicitude as to their worldly advancement. Twice or thrice a year Mrs Ray would go to the parsonage, and such evenings would be by no means hours of wailing. Tea and buttered toast on such occasions would be very manifestly in the ascendant. Mrs Ray never questioned the propriety of her clergyman’s life, nor taught herself to see a discrepancy between his doctrine and his conduct. But she believed in both, and was unconsciously troubled at having her belief so varied. She never thought about it, or discovered that her friend allowed himself to be carried away in his sermons by his zeal, and that he condemned this world in all things, hoping that he might thereby teach his hearers to condemn it in some things. Mrs Ray would allow herself the privilege of no such argument as that. It was all gospel to her. The parson in the church, and the parson out of the church, were alike gospels to her sweet, white, credulous mind; but these differing gospels troubled her and tormented her.

 

 

— 7 —

And now, for the first time in many years, I’m returning to Muriel Spark – The Girls of Slender Means. Tight, dense and acerbic. I’ll report when I’m done. If I don’t melt in Charleston on Friday.

Follow on Instagram and Snapchat (amywelborn2) to see how that turns out…

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

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The Greater one…

Patron of Spain and pilgrims.

Let Benedict XVI give you the basics:

We are continuing the series of portraits of the Apostles chosen directly by Jesus during his earthly life. We have spoken of St Peter and of his brother, Andrew. Today we meet the figure of James. The biblical lists of the Twelve mention two people with this name: James, son of Zebedee, and James, son of Alphaeus (cf. Mk 3: 17,18; Mt 10: 2-3), who are commonly distinguished with the nicknames “James the Greater” and “James the Lesser”.

These titles are certainly not intended to measure their holiness, but simply to state the different importance they receive in the writings of the New Testament and, in particular, in the setting of Jesus’ earthly life. Today we will focus our attention on the first of these two figures with the same name.

The name “James” is the translation of Iakobos, the Graecised form of the name of the famous Patriarch, Jacob. The Apostle of this name was the brother of John and in the above-mentioned lists, comes second, immediately after Peter, as occurs in Mark (3: 17); or in the third place, after Peter and Andrew as in the Gospels of Matthew (10: 2) and Luke (6: 14), while in the Acts he comes after Peter and John (1: 13). This James belongs, together with Peter and John, to the group of the three privileged disciples whom Jesus admitted to important moments in his life.

Since it is very hot today, I want to be brief and to mention here only two of these occasions. James was able to take part, together with Peter and John, in Jesus’ Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and in the event of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Thus, it is a question of situations very different from each other: in one case, James, together with the other two Apostles, experiences the Lord’s glory and sees him talking to Moses and Elijah, he sees the divine splendour shining out in Jesus.

On the other occasion, he finds himself face to face with suffering and humiliation, he sees with his own eyes how the Son of God humbles himself, making himself obedient unto death. The latter experience was certainly an opportunity for him to grow in faith, to adjust the unilateral, triumphalist interpretation of the former experience: he had to discern that the Messiah, whom the Jewish people were awaiting as a victor, was in fact not only surrounded by honour and glory, but also by suffering and weakness. Christ’s glory was fulfilled precisely on the Cross, in his sharing in our sufferings.

This growth in faith was brought to completion by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so that James, when the moment of supreme witness came, would not draw back. Early in the first century, in the 40s, King Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, as Luke tells us, “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the Church. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword” (Acts 12: 1-2).

The brevity of the news, devoid of any narrative detail, reveals on the one hand how normal it was for Christians to witness to the Lord with their own lives, and on the other, that James had a position of relevance in the Church of Jerusalem, partly because of the role he played during Jesus’ earthly existence.

A later tradition, dating back at least to Isidore of Seville, speaks of a visit he made to Spain to evangelize that important region of the Roman Empire. According to another tradition, it was his body instead that had been taken to Spain, to the city of Santiago de Compostela.

As we all know, that place became the object of great veneration and is still the destination of numerous pilgrimages, not only from Europe but from the whole world. This explains the iconographical representation of St James with the pilgrim’s staff and the scroll of the Gospel in hand, typical features of the travelling Apostle dedicated to the proclamation of the “Good News” and characteristics of the pilgrimage of Christian life.

Consequently, we can learn much from St James: promptness in accepting the Lord’s call even when he asks us to leave the “boat” of our human securities, enthusiasm in following him on the paths that he indicates to us over and above any deceptive presumption of our own, readiness to witness to him with courage, if necessary to the point of making the supreme sacrifice of life.

Thus James the Greater stands before us as an eloquent example of generous adherence to Christ. He, who initially had requested, through his mother, to be seated with his brother next to the Master in his Kingdom, was precisely the first to drink the chalice of the passion and to share martyrdom with the Apostles.

And, in the end, summarizing everything, we can say that the journey, not only exterior but above all interior, from the mount of the Transfiguration to the mount of the Agony, symbolizes the entire pilgrimage of Christian life, among the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, as the Second Vatican Council says. In following Jesus, like St James, we know that even in difficulties we are on the right path.

Hmmm…that might be a good start for a discussion, yes? It’s got some good content, then veers over into some personal reflection. What a good idea!

Back when he was giving these addresses, various publishers collected them into book form and sold them. You can still find those, but of course, since all these talks are online, you don’t have to pay a dime for them. You also don’t have to pay for a study guide on these talks on the Apostles – the one I wrote for OSV is available here in a pdf form.

The unapologetic reflex of Catholic parishes to charge fees for religious education is unfortunate and a hindrance to evangelization. One answer is to encourage a culture of parish stewardship that says, “We don’t want to charge anyone a fee for catechesis or formation. Let’s all give enough so that we don’t have to.”  Another is to find quality free source materials…and here you go.

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Happy feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. In case you haven’t been around, all week, I have been posting big chunks of the book I wrote on her a while back (now out of print, so it’s okay), De-Coding Mary Magdalene.  

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

Chapter ten: Mary and the Mystics

— 2 —

You can access the entire book, in pdf form here. 

As far as I know, it’s the only book-length popular treatment of Mary Magdalene put out by a Catholic publisher in recent years, and I remain mildly bitter that it was put out of print. A little more creative marketing and a title that wasn’t so tied to a particular moment (The Da Vinci Code) might have helped.

— 3 —

Summer chugs along. For us, the end is sadly near – school in the South starts super early – August 8 for the high school, which means the week before for orientation and so on.

So, because of that and a couple of scout trips our family travel has been pretty low-key. Memphis last week for me and the kid left at home, next week a couple of days in Charleston, and that will be about it.

 

 — 4 —

That same younger son has been given most of his piano repertoire for the coming year, and I’m buying stock in Kleenex or Puffs or something. I mean…his teacher has been instructing him for two years and has a Master’s in this stuff and knows what he’s doing (M won the state concerto competition in his age group last spring) but still. Is he really going to be able to play this in eight months or so? Plus other stuff??

So weird (and good)  when your kid surpasses you in things like this…

— 5 

Here’s a new book!  Colleen C. Mitchell’s Who Does He Say You Are? is very good – honest and true and substantive. It would be great for a parish study group this fall..or any time.

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6–

Oh, we did go to a water park this week. I am not a fan of such places – I don’t like to spend the money, the concrete and the mess get to me – it was so hot, the pool of which we are a member had lost its appeal for that day, and we hadn’t been in a couple of years, so…off we went.

It was fine. The place has come under new ownership since the last time we had gone. It was much cleaner, they didn’t charge for parking (that always sets me off), and they had somehow gotten a handle on the wasp issue, which was huge last time we were there – attracted by both the water and trash, it was a big, annoying problem.

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— 7 —

Tomorrow I think that the younger son and I (since older son is off scout-ing) will head down to the southern part of the state for a little adventure. Follow on Instagram and Snapchat (amywelborn2) for more of that..

 

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

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Today is the feastday of St. Bonaventure.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had a lot to say about this saint, beginning with his academic formation:

Benedict XVI himself gave us an idea of this intellectual background in a speech he gave to a group of scholars several years ago, before he was Pope.

He said this: “My doctoral dissertation was about the notion of the people of God in St. Augustine. … Augustine was in dialogue with Roman ideology, especially after the occupation of Rome by the Goths in 410, and so it was very fascinating for me to see how in these different dialogues and cultures he defines the essence of the Christian religion. He saw Christian faith, not in continuity with earlier religions, but rather in continuity with philosophy as a victory of reason over superstition. …”

So, we might argue that one major step in Ratzinger’s own theological formation was to understand Christianity as “in continuity with philosophy” and as “a victory of reason over superstition.”

Then Ratzinger took a second step. He studied Bonaventure.

“My postdoctoral work was about St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian of the 13th century,” Ratzinger continued. “I discovered an aspect of Bonaventure’s theology not found in the previous literature, namely, his relation with the new idea of history conceived by Joachim of Fiore in the 12th century. Joachim saw history as progression from the period of the Father (a difficult time for human beings under the law), to a second period of history, that of the Son (with more freedom, more openness, more brotherhood), to a third period of history, the definitive period of history, the time of the Holy Spirit.

“According to Joachim, this was to be a time of universal reconciliation, reconciliation between east and west, between Christians and Jews, a time without the law (in the Pauline sense), a time of real brotherhood in the world.

“The interesting idea which I discovered was that a significant current among the Franciscans was convinced that St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order marked the beginning of this third period of history, and it was their ambition to actualize it; Bonaventure was in critical dialogue with this current.”

So, we might argue, Ratzinger drew from Bonaventure a conception of human history as unfolding in a purposeful way, toward a specific goal, a time of deepened spiritual insight, an “age of the Holy Spirit.”

Where classical philosophy spoke of the eternity of the world, and therefore of the cyclical “eternal return” of all reality, Bonaventure, following Joachim, condemned the concept of the eternity of the world, and defended the idea that history was a unique and purposeful unfolding of events which would never return, but which would come to a conclusion.

History had meaning.

History was related to, and oriented toward, meaning — toward the Logos … toward Christ.

This is not to say that Ratzinger — or Bonaventure — made any of the specific interpretations of Joachim his own. It is to say that Ratzinger, like Bonaventure, entered into “critical dialogue” with his overall conception — that history had a shape and a meaning — that he, like Bonaventure, took it quite seriously

(You can, of course, purchase the published version of the dissertation.)

On July 15, 2012, he spoke about Bonaventure at the Sunday Angelus:

Jesus Christ is the inspiring centre of St Bonaventure’s entire life and likewise of his theology. We rediscover this centrality of Christ in the Second Reading of today’s Mass (Eph 1:3-14), the famous hymn of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. The Apostle thus shows in the four passages, that all begin with the same words: “in him”, with reference to Jesus, how this plan of blessing was brought about. “In him”, the Father chose us before the creation of the world; “in him” we have redemption through his blood; “in him” we became his heirs, predestined to live “for the praise of his glory”; “in him” all those who believe in the Gospel receive the seal of the Holy Spirit. This Pauline hymn contains the vision of history which St Bonaventure St. Bonaventure helped to spread in the Church: the whole of history is centred on Christ, who also guarantees in every era new things and renewal. In Jesus, God said and gave all things, but since he is an inexhaustible treasure, the Holy Spirit never ceases to reveal and to actualize his mystery. So it is that the work of Christ and of the Church never regresses but always progresses.

And then, as part of his lengthy series of General Audience talks on great figures of Christian history and thought (beginning with the Apostles), he had three sessions on Bonaventure:

Part 1 (3/3/2010) offers an outline of his life

In those years in Paris, Bonaventure’s adopted city, a violent dispute was raging against the Friars Minor of St Francis Assisi and the Friars Preachers of St Dominic de Guzmán. Their right to teach at the university was contested and doubt was even being cast upon the authenticity of their consecrated life. Of course, the changes introduced by the Mendicant Orders in the way of understanding religious life, of which I have spoken in previous Catecheses, were so entirely new that not everyone managed to understand them. Then it should be added, just as sometimes happens even among sincerely religious people, that human weakness, such as envy and jealousy, came into play. Although Bonaventure was confronted by the opposition of the other university masters, he had already begun to teach at the Franciscans’ Chair of theology and, to respond to those who were challenging the Mendicant Orders, he composed a text entitled Evangelical Perfection. In this work he shows how the Mendicant Orders, especially the Friars Minor, in practising the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were following the recommendations of the Gospel itself. Over and above these historical circumstances the teaching that Bonaventure provides in this work of his and in his life remains every timely: the Church is made more luminous and beautiful by the fidelity to their vocation of those sons and daughters of hers who not only put the evangelical precepts into practice but, by the grace of God, are called to observe their counsels and thereby, with their poor, chaste and obedient way of life, to witness to the Gospel as a source of joy and perfection.

Part 2 focuses on Bonaventure’s theology, and is important to read – it’s still applicable:

In a special way, in St Bonaventure’s day a trend among the Friars Minor known as the “Spirituals” held that St Francis had ushered in a totally new phase in history and that the “eternal Gospel”, of which Revelation speaks, had come to replace the New Testament. This group declared that the Church had now fulfilled her role in history. They said that she had been replaced by a charismatic community of free men guided from within by the Spirit, namely the “Spiritual Franciscans”. This group’s ideas were based on the writings of a Cistercian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202. In his works he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm in history. He considered the Old Testament as the age of the Fathers, followed by the time of the Son, the time of the Church. The third age was to be awaited, that of the Holy Spirit. The whole of history was thus interpreted as a history of progress:  from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative freedom of the time of the Son, in the Church, to the full freedom of the Sons of God in the period of the Holy Spirit. This, finally, was also to be the period of peace among mankind, of the reconciliation of peoples and of religions. Joachim of Fiore had awakened the hope that the new age would stem from a new form of monasticism. Thus it is understandable that a group of Franciscans might have thought it recognized St Francis of Assisi as the initiator of the new epoch and his Order as the community of the new period the community of the Age of the Holy Spirit that left behind the hierarchical Church in order to begin the new Church of the Spirit, no longer linked to the old structures.

Hence they ran the risk of very seriously misunderstanding St Francis’ message, of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church. This error entailed an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole….

…..

The Franciscan Order of course as he emphasized belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the apostolic Church, and cannot be built on utopian spiritualism. Yet, at the same time, the newness of this Order in comparison with classical monasticism was valid and St Bonaventure as I said in my previous Catechesis defended this newness against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris:  the Franciscans have no fixed monastery, they may go everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. It was precisely the break with stability, the characteristic of monasticism, for the sake of a new flexibility that restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.

At this point it might be useful to say that today too there are views that see the entire history of the Church in the second millennium as a gradual decline. Some see this decline as having already begun immediately after the New Testament. In fact,”Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”:  Christ’s works do not go backwards but forwards. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the spirituality of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and so forth? This affirmation applies today too: “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”, they move forward. St Bonaventure teaches us the need for overall, even strict discernment, sober realism and openness to the newness, which Christ gives his Church through the Holy Spirit. And while this idea of decline is repeated, another idea, this “spiritualistic utopianism” is also reiterated. Indeed, we know that after the Second Vatican Council some were convinced that everything was new, that there was a different Church, that the pre-Conciliar Church was finished and that we had another, totally “other” Church an anarchic utopianism! And thanks be to God the wise helmsmen of the Barque of St Peter, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on the one hand defended the newness of the Council, and on the other, defended the oneness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.

Part 3 on other aspects of Bonaventure’s theology, again, still applicable:

His defence of theology is along the same lines, namely, of the rational and methodical reflection on faith. St Bonaventure lists several arguments against engaging in theology perhaps also widespread among a section of the Franciscan friars and also present in our time: that reason would empty faith, that it would be an aggressive attitude to the word of God, that we should listen and not analyze the word of God (cf. Letter of St Francis of Assisi to St Anthony of Padua). The Saint responds to these arguments against theology that demonstrate the perils that exist in theology itself saying: it is true that there is an arrogant manner of engaging in theology, a pride of reason that sets itself above the word of God. Yet real theology, the rational work of the true and good theology has another origin, not the pride of reason. One who loves wants to know his beloved better and better; true theology does not involve reason and its research prompted by pride, “sed propter amorem eius cui assentit [but is] motivated by love of the One who gave his consent” (Proemium in I Sent., q. 2) and wants to be better acquainted with the beloved: this is the fundamental intention of theology. Thus in the end, for St Bonaventure, the primacy of love is crucial.

Consequently St Thomas and St Bonaventure define the human being’s final goal, his complete happiness in different ways. For St Thomas the supreme end, to which our desire is directed is: to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary.

Instead, for St Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness.

Along these lines we could also say that the loftiest category for St Thomas is the true, whereas for St Bonaventure it is the good. It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith: one, in the diversity of its expressions.

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Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Norcia.

Buy some beer!

Listen to some music!

Pray!

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There is much talk about St. Benedict these days, as people consider how to live in a culture increasingly hostile to the Gospel. You might come away from these conversations thinking that Benedict and the Benedictine Way is essentially about “withdrawal.”  I don’t think that is correct.  Looking at the origins of Benedictine monasticism might help understand why.

Christian monasticism did, indeed, begin with withdrawal from the world. In the 3rd century men and, to a lesser extent, women, began heading to the desert to live in solitude. But even these anchorites did not shut themselves off from interaction with others, as they accepted visitors seeking to benefit from their wisdom and assist them.

But Benedictine monasticism was different, of course. Cenobitic, as opposed to anchorite, monasticism, was a call to live in community, together, with brothers. But is this “withdrawal?”

In fifth century Europe, most people lived their lives in small communities of extended family and small settlements. Most people did not travel far from where they had been born, unless driven to do so by war or natural catastrophe. As towns developed, they built walls, and in general, one could not just pop into any walled settlement you happened to be passing by. The walls were there for a reason, and access to all communities  was guarded and controlled.  These kinds of restrictions on travel and entrance into unfamiliar towns is not just a feature of medieval life, either. Last year, I read a history of hotels and tourism in the United States, and was quite interested to see how serious travel restrictions were even in the US, up to the mid-19th century and the development of the railroad. The traveler, in short, was usually viewed with suspicion before welcome.

My point is this, moving back to 4th and 5th century Europe. Benedictine monasticism developed on a  continent in serious, violent transition, parts under constant siege, and it was radical and transforming, but the basic instinct – to form a community with a strong sense of self-identification vis-a-vis the outside world was a fundamental paradigm of social organization of the period. 

One could even say that during this period, all communities that valued their survival and identity were, in a sense, semi-cloistered, guarded against the influence of the outside world. 

The difference is that Benedictine monastic communities were intentional, with ties rooted, not in family or geography, but in brotherhood in Christ. A new family, a new community in a continent of other communities formed out of different paradigms.

I also think the argument could be made that Benedictine communities, while they were certainly withdrawing from worldly influence in terms of turning from marriage, familial ties and the political arrangements of the world, they were probably more open to the world than your average family-based walled settlement down the valley from the monastery. They were more open to learning, more open to visitors from other areas, more cosmopolitan and just as economically engaged – at least before the growth of commerce.  

So to position Benedictine monasticism as an option that, at heart, is a means of protection from the world, period, is a simplistic misunderstanding of the origins of this movement that misses the opportunity to explore what St. Benedict and his monks really have to say to us today. It is about community, yes. It is about cutting ties with some aspects of the world and intentionality, yes. It is about expressing the instinct that human beings are made, fundamentally, for communion with God and that aspects of the world actively work against spiritual growth and fully human life as God desires. That is fundamental to Christian spirituality, as we can see from St. Paul on. But withdrawal from everything, pushing away and closing-off? No. 

From Pope Benedict XVI, in 2008:

Throughout the second book of his Dialogues, Gregory shows us how St Benedict’s life was steeped in an atmosphere of prayer, the foundation of his existence. Without prayer there is no experience of God. Yet Benedict’s spirituality was not an interiority removed from reality. In the anxiety and confusion of his day, he lived under God’s gaze and in this very way never lost sight of the duties of daily life and of man with his practical needs. Seeing God, he understood the reality of man and his mission. In hisRule he describes monastic life as “a school for the service of the Lord” (Prol. 45) and advises his monks, “let nothing be preferred to the Work of God” [that is, the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours] (43, 3). However, Benedict states that in the first place prayer is an act of listening (Prol. 9-11), which must then be expressed in action. “The Lord is waiting every day for us to respond to his holy admonitions by our deeds” (Prol. 35). Thus, the monk’s life becomes a fruitful symbiosis between action and contemplation, “so that God may be glorified in all things” (57, 9). In contrast with a facile and egocentric self-fulfilment, today often exalted, the first and indispensable commitment of a disciple of St Benedict is the sincere search for God (58, 7) on the path mapped out by the humble and obedient Christ (5, 13), whose love he must put before all else (4, 21; 72, 11), and in this way, in the service of the other, he becomes a man of service and peace. In the exercise of obedience practised by faith inspired by love (5, 2), the monk achieves humility (5, 1), to which the Rule dedicates an entire chapter (7). In this way, man conforms ever more to Christ and attains true self-fulfilment as a creature in the image and likeness of God.

The obedience of the disciple must correspond with the wisdom of the Abbot who, in the monastery, “is believed to hold the place of Christ” (2, 2; 63, 13). The figure of the Abbot, which is described above all in Chapter II of the Rule with a profile of spiritual beauty and demanding commitment, can be considered a self-portrait of Benedict, since, as St Gregory the Great wrote, “the holy man could not teach otherwise than as he himself lived” (cf. Dialogues II, 36). The Abbot must be at the same time a tender father and a strict teacher (cf. 2, 24), a true educator. Inflexible against vices, he is nevertheless called above all to imitate the tenderness of the Good Shepherd (27, 8), to “serve rather than to rule” (64, 8) in order “to show them all what is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words” and “illustrate the divine precepts by his example” (2, 12). To be able to decide responsibly, the Abbot must also be a person who listens to “the brethren’s views” (3, 2), because “the Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best” (3, 3). This provision makes a Rule written almost 15 centuries ago surprisingly modern! A man with public responsibility even in small circles must always be a man who can listen and learn from what he hears.

Benedict describes the Rule he wrote as “minimal, just an initial outline” (cf. 73, 8); in fact, however, he offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today. By proclaiming St Benedict Patron of Europe on 24 October 1964, Paul VI intended to recognize the marvellous work the Saint achieved with hisRule for the formation of the civilization and culture of Europe. Having recently emerged from a century that was deeply wounded by two World Wars and the collapse of the great ideologies, now revealed as tragic utopias, Europe today is in search of its own identity. Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic and juridical instruments are important, but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise a new Europe cannot be built. Without this vital sap, man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself – a utopia which in different ways, in 20th-century Europe, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, has caused “a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity” (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990). Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.

 

 

 

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Benedict4Today, we celebrate a great, fascinating saint. First entry today will be alerting to you what I’ve written about him for children. Another entry will follow.

He’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints under “Saints are people who teach us new ways to pray.” Here are some excerpts – click on images to get a fuller view.

BenedictI

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— 1 —

Some of you might have heard an NPR story that ran last week about the town of Geel, Belgium. For hundreds of years, Geel has practiced radical hospitality towards the mentally ill and mentally disabled:

The integration of people with mental disorders into Geel society has fascinated scholars for centuries. In 1862, Dr. Louiseau, a visiting French doctor, described it as “the extraordinary phenomenon presented at Geel of 400 insane persons moving freely about in the midst of a population which tolerates them without fear and without emotion.” Nearly 100 years after that, an American psychiatrist named Charles D. Aring wrote in the journal JAMA, “The remarkable aspect of the Gheel experience, for the uninitiated[,] is the attitude of the citizenry.”

Early psychiatrists who observed Geel noticed that the treatment prescribed for mental patients was, in fact, no treatment at all. “To them, treating the insane, meant to simply live with them, share their work, their distractions,” Jacques-Joseph Moreau wrote in 1845. He and others advocated for that communion. “In a colony, like in Geel, the crazy people … have not completely lost their dignity as reasonable human beings.” In the next half-century, many would uphold Geel’s model as the best standard of practice for mental disorders.

This story is a very useful antidote to the current popular notion that it’s only recently that Catholics have learned how to be merciful, that in the past, the Church was all about building walls and elevating doctrine above pastoral care and looking inward.

How interesting that somehow, in this doctrinally “strict” culture in which no one supposedly understood what it really meant to follow Christ because the Mass was in Latin said quietly by the priest with His! Back! To! The! People!...this happened.

In the mid-14th century, Geel erected a church in Dymphna’s honor; it was built on the spot where she was buried. Around this time, rumors spread about disturbed individuals who were cured upon visiting Geel. As these accounts circulated, people began bringing disturbed family members, hoping for their own miracle. And many embattled souls made it to Geel on their own.

A building contiguous to St. Dymphna Church was built to accommodate the troubled pilgrims. Soon enough, the capacity of this structure was exceeded. Church authorities appealed to the citizens of Geel, who responded in a way that would eventually designate Geel as “the charitable city”: They welcomed mentally ill strangers into their homes.

The Geel community showed remarkable compassion, particularly for an era when most any sort of psychological aberration was viewed as being due to demonic influence or possession. Ronald J. Comer’s Abnormal Psychology mentions the typical techniques of the time for dealing with the psychologically aberrant. Exorcisms, of course, were performed. “Holy water” or “bitter drinks” might be administered. If these remedies failed to produce results, the ensuing therapy could consist of flogging, scalding, stretching of limbs, or starvation. It was hoped that these extreme measures might expunge the iniquity.

In contrast to these measures was the Geel way, in which the mentally ill, who were called “boarders” instead of “patients,” became a valued part of the community. Many of the boarders helped with agricultural labor. They were allowed to go about the village, and some even became regulars at local taverns. Some boarders stayed in Geel for only a few months; others stayed for the rest of their lives.

The boarder population peaked in the year 1938, when the number reached 3,736. About 1,600 remained by the late 1970s. Geel now has some 500 boarders and a total population of about 35,000.

For hundreds and hundreds of years, Geel was heavily influenced by purported miracles and the supernatural influence of Dymphna. This changed when St. Dymphna Church was closed by French revolutionary armies in 1797. Although the church would reopen, there was a paradigm shift after the French Revolution, as mental illness became the “concern of doctors, and not of pastors,” according to Eugeen Roosens, author of Mental Patients in Town Life: Geel — Europe’s First Therapeutic Community.

 

— 2 —

Here’s a nugget for the New Evangelization:

Southern Baptist congregations are also losing members who are leaving the faith altogether. The losses here are worse than to evangelical churches. Sure, some people who grew up with no religion convert and join an SBC church. But for each convert, the SBC loses three of its youth who grow up to have no religious affiliation.

Not all who leave the SBC do so for other conservative or moderate churches. There is about three percent who join liberal Protestant churches. There is also a couple percent who join a non-Christian religion. Southern Baptists rarely bring in members from either group.

The only net-gain for the SBC are from Catholics. Very few who grew up in an SBC church convert to Catholicism. Southern Baptists are able to bring in about two Catholics for every one they lose to the Catholic Church.

 

— 3 —

I may have mentioned this before, but if you are on Instagram, consider adding the African Catholics account to your feed. It will greatly expand your churchy vision.

 — 4 —

Earlier this week, we took a little Georgia foray. The boys had spent the Fourth in Florida and I went to fetch them. On the way back we stopped in Albany and Columbus.

We had stopped in Albany last year  – after our Warm Springs visit – at the Ray Charles memorial downtown. It was blistering hot, so we didn’t linger. This time, after a meal at the Yelp-recommended Pearly’s Famous Country Cooking – super friendly have a blessed day service –  we stopped at the Chehaw Park, which featured a small zoo.

And again – shockingly for midday in the beginning of July – it was super hot and the animals responded in kind. But – we didn’t pay any admission because of our zoo membership here, and I wouldn’t have stopped if we had to pay, anyway.

So it was worth a 30-minute stop that wasn’t out of the way on the journey somewhere else to see a bunch of gators, some chameleons, two beaded lizards, a few other interesting reptiles, some meerkats and a rhino. But not worth a separate trip, for sure. Especially if you ever, you know, visited a zoo before.

— 5 

Then Columbus. Well, let me explain something first.

If you are traveling from Birmingham to the not-panhandle of Florida, there are three ways you can go.

First, you can head down 65 to Montgomery, then take a state highway to Troy, then Dothan, then cross over to Florida, catch I-10 and drive east. I did that once and swore never again. Horrible. The road between Montgomery and Dothan is slow and going around Dothan is hellish. I’m convinced the Dothan city fathers and mothers keep it that way to encourage you to just give up on driving, stay a while and spend some money.

Secondly, there is a more diagonal path out of Birmingham on a highway 280 that takes you down towards Auburn, then across the border to Columbus, by Albany and then catching I-75 somewhere, perhaps Tifton. I had never taken this way because I didn’t know how fast the state roads were. I had visions of stopping at stoplights in small towns every five miles.

Last, there is straight interstate. This is the longest, mile-wise, and Google Maps hardly ever recommends it, but it’s also usually the fastest. I-20 across to Atlanta, the 75 down to Florida. Because you can go, er, 70 mph, it’s quicker than any of the others if there are no traffic issues. Recently, though, they have been doing construction south of Atlanta, and that Google Maps shows lots and lots of red in that area, which I experienced when I took them down last week, so when I returned with them, I thought we’d go the Columbus way, not only because I thought it was time to give it a chance, but also because I wanted to see Columbus.

(I had thought about doing Andersonville this trip – but ultimately decided it needed more context and time to process the awfulness, and this wasn’t the moment for that.)

As it turns out, you can go pretty fast on much of the route -the speed limit is 65 for big stretches of it. The only aggravating part of it to me was between Albany and 75, which seemed interminable on the way down, but that might be because it was dark and I was ready to stop.

6–

Anyway, Columbus.

Columbus is on the Chatahoochee River, which also flows up around Atlanta…a big river. It’s also the home of the huge Fort Benning, so there’s a substantial military presence and identity in the town. Our primary destinations were two this time: the National Infantry Museum and the riverfront.

The first is large and designed to impress. The exhibits are very well done, absorbing and not jingoistic at all. We didn’t see all of it because we didn’t arrive until 3:45 and they close at 5, but we did get a good look at their most well-known exhibit “The Last 100 Yards” and exhibit halls that traced the history of the infantry. I learned a few things – like in the days of the calvary, horses were sorted by color for different units to better identify them.

Part of “The Last 100 Yards” exhibit

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The WWI Trench exhibit was very good and helpful for understanding. 

(Note – the museum is free, but donations encouraged)

There’s also a Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, which I would like to hit next time.

Then it was down to the Riverfront, and we saw once again how the presence of water really helps a downtown – something we don’t have here in land-locked Birmingham. It’s not as park-like as the Greeneville, South Caroline riverfront and not as busy and commercially vibrant as Chattanooga, but it’s not dead either, by any means. There’s a whitewater rafting service that runs the rapids – but it didn’t seem like a very long course, unless I wasn’t understanding the set-up. The same service runs a zipline across the river, so you can zip from Georgia to Alabama, if you like.


Riverfront, white water course..on right, turbines and in background one of the many former cotton warehouses and mills that lined the river. 

 

It was nice – we might return – it’s only 2.5 miles from Birmingham, and there’s a state park nearby: Providence Canyon, which is apparently impressive, but also educational since it’s not the result of millenia of natural erosion, but of poor 19th and early 20th century farming practices. It’s also (they say) best to see it when the leaves are off the trees. And probably not so damn hot. So we’ll wait for late fall/winter for that…

— 7 —

We’ll be on another short day-or-two trip next week, so stay tuned on Instagram and Snapchat (amywelborn2) for that.

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

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