Saturday, January 10, 2015

Happy Feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa!


On a recent reading of St. John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor, I came across the following rather striking passage (from article 38), which quotes Gregory's De Hominis Opificio, Chapter IV.
Taking up the words of Sirach, the Second Vatican Council explains the meaning of that "genuine freedom" which is "an outstanding manifestation of the divine image" in man: "God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel, so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God" (Gaudium et Spes, 17; cf. Sir 15:14).  These words indicate the wonderful depth of the sharing in God's dominion to which man has been called: they indicate that man's dominion extends in a certain sense over man himself.  This has been a constantly recurring theme in theological reflection on human freedom, which is described as a form of kingship.  For example, Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes: "The soul shows its royal and exalted character... in that it is free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by its own will.  Of whom else can this be said, save a king?...  Thus human nature, created to rule other creatures, was by its likeness to the King of the universe made as it were a living image, partaking with the Archetype both in dignity and in name."

Today's image, a 14th century fresco of St. Gregory of Nyssa in Chora Church, Istanbul, comes from Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Christmas Mystery, as told by The Friendly Beasts

Although I have been known to criticize, in passing, the over-emphasis on carols at Christmas, today I'd like to draw attention to a worthy carol and some aspects of its lyrics. The song is "The Friendly Beasts," known by many people from recent recordings, though the melody and lyrics both have their roots in medieval France.

Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood
Jesus our brother, kind and good

I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown
I carried His mother up hill and down
I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town
I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown

I said the cow, all white and red
I gave Him my manger for His bed
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head
I said the cow, all white and red

I said the sheep, with curly horn
I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn
I said the sheep, with curly horn

I said the dove, from the rafters high
I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry
We cooed Him to sleep, my love and I
I said the dove, from the rafters high

Thus every beast, by some good spell
In the stable rude was glad to tell
Of the gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel

While a cute story about animals at Jesus's birth, the song also probes the very meaning of the Incarnation, the coming of God as a man. Imagine, for a moment, that the president, the pope, a famous writer, or some other person you deeply respected was coming to your home or church. Think of the excitement, both before and after. For years, you'd tell friends and neighbors, "Right there, on that corner of the deck, Pope Francis and I sat and drank a few brews together."

But consider another wrinkle: God is not merely someone you respect or even a dear friend. He is these things, but He is also your maker and judge. His power circumscribes all things. His will holds us in existence. His judgements are perfect and final, for He circumscribes even time itself. It would be with excitement, yes, but also fear and trembling that you would tell your neighbors, "God is coming to my house."

But then a curious thing happens, and it is this point where "The Friendly Beasts" really begins its reflection: God comes "not as a monarch but a child" (as an Ambrosian hymn reminds us). Almightly God is weak. And, as a consequence, He needs our help. Thus do the beasts recount their deeds of kindness to the Christ Child: "I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town.... I gave Him my manger for His bed.... He wore my coat on Christmas morn.... I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry." As if to emphasize the wonder that they, mere creatures, should render such service to their creator, each of the verses ends with a reminder that this happened to them, personally.

I'm not sure I understand how God became man. I can't explain quite why He needed our help. Indeed, the Church tells us that the Incarnation is a mystery; at its deepest core it is something we cannot fully explain. But we can revel in the wonder of it all. That is what we do at Christmas and that's what the friendly beasts do.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Note from Myself

A couple weeks ago my wife and I visited my family in Arizona. Among other things, we went to mass with them on Sunday, the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Also, I cleaned out some old school notebooks and things while I was there. Scribbled on the back of a reader from a UD History of Germany class, I found this short reflection:
Today's flight was glorious beyond description. We were in a small plane and flew low out of the Valley, due east, over the Superstition Mountains, some open pit copper mines, and a series of canyons. The landscape was so wild, and so beautiful, and so lovely that words fail me. I suspect that standing on the peak of Olympus Mons, surrounded by such barren beauty, would be rather akin to my aerial survey. I nearly cried to think that such wonders are passing away with the rest of the created universe, longing for that same redemption I seek. But I found solace in the thought of sharing such a vision, and in seeing it reborn in the hereafter.

-Sunday, November 9th, 2003
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Guy Fawkes Day Means to Me

Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Day, is a curious holiday.  It commemorates the failure on 5 November 1605 of the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme by a group of Catholics to blow up parliament and the Protestant King James I.  The plotters were betrayed, the barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords were discovered in time, and the king's life was spared.

Members of the Gunpowder Plot
I find this a curious occasion to commemorate because it conforms neither to the major trend in holidays, nor to the primary exception.  Most holidays celebrate glorious triumphs such as victories in battle (e.g. Lepanto Day / Feast of the Holy Rosary), political successes (usually independence), or momentous spiritual events (e.g. the Incarnation or the Resurrection).  Some holidays, such as Thanksgiving, do not celebrate a particular triumph, but point to successes generally.  Apart from this major trend of celebrating victory, there is an exceptional category of holidays, which recall tragic failures, either gloriously defiant (e.g. the Alamo or the July 20 Conspiracy), or horrors from which we have, broadly speaking, taken some meaning or learned some lesson (e.g. Good Friday, September 11th, or Memorial Day).

But why do the English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day?  One might say it has become little more than an excuse for fireworks and bonfires, and this is probably true, but it only pushes the question to one step remove: why this day, and not some other?  The failure of the Gunpowder Plot was as much the fault of bumbling plotters as it was as success for the Crown and its supporters.  More to the point, the Plot was defeated not in honest battle or by national effort, but by shadowy intrigue.  Hardly the stuff of most victories.

Guy Fawkes Day, Lewes, England, 2011
Sadly, the real reason Guy Fawkes Day may have caught on in England is that it offered a chance to spite Catholics.  Indeed, the centerpieces of Guy Fawkes celebrations has traditionally been the burning in effigy of Mr. Fawkes and the pope.  Although other figures are often substituted today, this makes the holiday more than a tad bit awkward for Catholics.

But I have come to see the need for a third kind of holiday, the commemoration which does not yet possess resolution.  Perhaps my recent excursions into the historical books of the Old Testament have pushed me in this direction, for they are mostly filled with rebellions, defeats, and exile, epitomized by  Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon, / there we sat down and wept, / when we remembered Zion. / On the willows there we hung up our lyres. / For there our captors / required of us songs, / and our tormentors, mirth, saying, / 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' / How shall we sing the Lord’s song / in a foreign land?"  We have a small appetite for commemorating such events when they are recent, though memory quickly fades.  But history is replete with such calamities.  The burden of history, though it need not be overwhelming, certainly rests heavy on us, if only we open our eyes to see it.

For me, Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the difficulty of living in the world but not of it.  It commemorates the confusion that results when trying to square the demands of eternal faith with the demands of temporal politics.  It commemorates well-intentioned devotion gone awry.  It commemorates the reality that my co-coreligionists have undertaken actions I cannot always explain or justify.  It commemorates divided Christendom.  This is, or should be, a painful open wound.  Although there are lessons to be learned, I do not think we are yet at the point where we can say that we have learned them.  For now, we must simply recall.  We must bear the weight of history and trust that wisdom, some day, will follow.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

St. Augustine on Music

I have recently been reading through a delightful little volume titled Augustine Day by Day (hence the recent post from his Confessions).  One of the joys found in reading these daily selections is that you start to notice certain recurrent themes and topics, such as these passages on music:
Dear friends, sing the Psalm with human reason, not like birds.  Thrushes, parrots, ravens, magpies, and the like are often taught to say what they do not understand.  However, to know what we are saying was granted by God's will to human nature.  Hence, we who have learned in the Church to sing God's words should be eager to do so.  We should know and see with a clear mind what we have all sung together with one voice. (Commentary on Psalm 18, 2) 
Indeed, Lord, the days were not long enough as I found wonderful delight in meditating upon the depth of Your design for the salvation of the human race.  I wept at the beauty of Your hymns, and I was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church's singing.  Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart.  My feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them. (Confessions IX, 6)
Today's icon of St. Augustine comes from Monastery Icons.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Because Augustine Is Always a Good Idea

A couple passages from Augustine's Confessions for your Monday:
I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he”; and everything in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above us.” I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants answered, “Anaximenes was deceived; I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars; and they answered, “Neither are we the God whom you seek.” And I replied to all these things which stand around the door of my flesh: “You have told me about my God, that you are not he. Tell me something about him.” And with a loud voice they all cried out, “He made us.” (Book X, 6)

Belatedly I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved you. For see, you were within and I was without, and I sought you out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. These things kept me far from you; even though they were not at all unless they were in you. You called and cryed aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shone, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for you. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for you peace. (Book X, 27)
From the Outlier translation, brought to you by Georgetown University.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Auden's "September 1, 1939"

Earlier this year I discovered W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939," thanks to an article in the Financial Times. The poem records Auden's reaction to the news that the Germans had invaded Poland. I found the text at this website. You can also find comments on some of the more esoteric lines here.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.