St. Paul on Respect for Authority

In daily Mass we have been reading from second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. In it, St. Paul recounts his personal history and describes his authority. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons:

  1. It shows that St. Paul did not ascend to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly but rather was formed in the community of the Church for quite some time and did not go on mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows the need for fraternal correction even of those under whose authority one falls.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation, and ascent to the office of apostle (bishop) – Many people have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references, incorrectly assume that Paul went right to work as a missionary immediately following his conversion.

Near the time of his conversion, Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen, St. Paul had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Immediately following that encounter, he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias, who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19).

At that point, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went there is not known, but it was likely to reflect and possibly to be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Scholars differ on whether he was there for several years or just a brief time, but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect, and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of one to three years would seem reasonable, but we can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus, joining the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While in Damascus, Paul took to debating in the synagogues. He was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him.

St. Paul then fled Damascus and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). He states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter because he had begun to teach and was gaining followers. Later, Paul would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles … so that I might not be running or have run in vain (Gal 2:2). While there on this first visit, Paul stayed for 15 days, also meeting James.

After this consultation, Paul returned home to Tarsus and remained there for about three years. What he did during this time is unknown.

Barnabas then arrived and asked Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). Paul stayed there for about a year.

Paul made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor.

Upon his return to Antioch, Paul (Saul) was ordained as a bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). As a result, the leaders of the Church in Antioch then laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Paul’s ordination and the source of his status as apostle (bishop).

Notice, however, that this sending forth happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we assume he spent in the desert, we are talking about 7-10 years during which Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and conferred with Peter. He was not a self-appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. Paul only undertook this going forth after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – Paul was not a “lone ranger.” He submitted what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). Paul states that to preach something other than what the Church proposes would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority.

Here was man who went forth on his missions only after he was ordained and sent.

He appointed other leaders. As they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23).

Upon completion of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence, we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was not an independent operator. He was not a self-appointed or self-ordained leader. He both respected authority and established it in the churches he instituted. He also made it clear to the Galatians and others that he had authority and that he expected them to respect it.

3. On true respect for authority – Paul clearly respected the authority of Peter: he conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that Peter had preached. However, there is also this description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. Having authority does not mean that one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. Today that is beginning to change and well it should.

Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and rebukes his practice of sitting only with Jews. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. As Catholics, we teach of the infallibility of the Pope, but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach.

Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is bolder than I would be, but he also lived in a different culture than I do. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings, Jesus and the apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jews were famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, often including a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a gentler approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated this way: “Clarity with charity.”

Clarity – We show far greater respect for authority figures by speaking clearly and directly to them than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully of them behind their backs.

Charity – The need for clarity does not exclude an accompanying need for charity and proper respect for office and age. Sadly, I have found that those who wish to correct clergy today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language; name calling; and impugning motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in these times.

St. Paul demonstrates refreshing honesty with Peter, acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to him directly and clearly, not behind his back.

This video provides a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the remark (at about the 2:55 mark in the clip) that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome and then went to Spain, but there are two traditions in this regard.

Five Lessons on Faith From Peter’s Time in Jail

On today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul it behooves us to look in detail at the first reading from today’s Mass and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading.

I. The Persecution of Faith Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warned, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

Therefore, persecution should be expected. If it is wholly absent, we may have some soul-searching to do as to whether we are witnessing to the Faith authentically.

We should not be surprised to see how the early Church was persecuted. This passage describes the persecution, driven by Herod, that breaks out in Jerusalem. During this persecution, James (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) is killed. Peter is also rounded up and slated for death. Sitting in prison, he awaits his fate.

Note the strange excessiveness of the persecution. Peter is secured with double chains and is forced to sleep between two soldiers. Outside there are even more guards keeping watch. Wow! Here’s a persecution that is strangely excessive and obviously rooted in fear!

As we look at persecution today, we notice something similar. There seems to be a very special hatred reserved for Christians, especially Catholics. In the public school system, it is permissible to speak about almost anything: homosexuality, how to use condoms, and even certain religions such as Islam. But if the name of Jesus is mentioned, or Scripture is even obliquely referenced, lawsuits are threatened, and television cameras appear! What drives this strange fear and hatred for Christ? Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and even Methodists and Episcopalians do not face such hostility!

While this animosity is somewhat mysterious, it does speak to us of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and particularly of the Church He founded the Catholic Church. Satan surely inspires special hatred for Jesus and His Church. In a certain sense, we can take it as a compliment. Perhaps it is driven by the fact that, deep down, they know that what Jesus and His Church teaches is the truth.

The prince of this world hates Jesus and has always inspired his followers to do so as well, whether they follow him consciously or unconsciously. Yes, persecution is a natural, expected ordeal for a Christian.

II. The Prayer of Faith In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos), which means “fully stretched.” The word evokes the image of a taught rope. Here is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment. Here is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Here is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time and effort are invested. This is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.

There is an expression in the African-American community, “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer in His own time. It is up to us to keep praying, to pray without ceasing, to resist discouragement and just keep on praying.

III. The Prescription of Faith In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith. We note it in five stages:

Rise! The angel says, “Get up”. Here is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life, must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.

Restrain The angel then tells him to put on his cincture (belt). The belt is traditionally a sign of chastity and of continence (restraint). The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or with other excesses of this world such as greed and gluttony. These hinder the journey; they weigh us down.

Ready Peter is also told to put on his sandals. This symbolizes readiness to make a journey. When I was young, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.” Christians must be ready to make the journey, with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on. They must be ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven: up over the hill of Calvary and into glory. Put your shoes on and get ready to go!

Righteous Peter is then told to put on his cloak. In Scripture, the cloak or robe often symbolizes righteousness. For example, the Book of Revelation says that it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of the baby’s Christian dignity. He says that the infant is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus, the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.

Run! – Finally, there is the command of the angel, “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Jesus told His disciples, simply, “Follow me.”

IV. The Procession of Faith Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter (and also to us). These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:

Not easy The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. Similarly, in our journey there are obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; there are hurdles and perils. We are not called to avoid them; we are called the face them with courage. God allows these in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but God’s grace conquers the challenge, if we only trust Him.

Narrow The text describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the path that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path, but it is the only true way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never talk about struggles and difficulties. Avoid them. The tuning fork, the A440 of the gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross. It cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to the “prosperity preachers” who exaggerate one truth and exclude all others.

Need an angel As soon as Peter emerges from the prison into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears, but until this point, he needed an angel! So do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s angels. We all have an angel assigned to us and many other angels are along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in His grace.

V. The Product of Faith There comes finally the product of faith through which Peter is able to confidently assert, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11).

Do you know this? Or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced Him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, Rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? Then tell someone! It is the product of faith!

 

When Theology Must Fall Silent: A Reflection on a Teaching from St. Bonaventure

silence and light

silence and lightSaints often say daring and even “dangerous” things. They are able to do this because their listeners and readers take for granted their orthodoxy and holiness. As a result, they are able to use hyperbole or speak with bold flourishes that a lesser person would be unable to carry off.

Consider, for example, that St. Athanasius once wrote, For the Son of God became man so that we might become God (De inc. 54, 3). Of itself, this sort of talk is dangerous; man cannot be God nor become a god. However, no one would presume that the paragon of orthodoxy, the author of the Athanasian Creed, the one who almost single-handedly saved the bishops from the Arian heresy, was himself guilty of heresy. Instead, his words were understood in the poetic and colorful way he intended them. Clearly we are “divinized” only in a qualified and subordinate sense. Only by our membership in the Body of Christ do we participate in His divine nature. St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on Athanasius’ daring declaration: The only begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods (Opusc. 57, 1-4).

Yes, saints say daring things. Today I’d like to reflect on a saying by St. Bonaventure. First, though, let’s consider a certain idiom he used, drawn from biblical times.

In Scripture there is an “absolute” way of speaking that many of us moderns misconstrue. For example, Jesus says (quoting Hosea 6:6), For I desire mercy not sacrifice (Matt 9:13). To those untrained in Jewish and biblical idioms, the meaning would seem to be, “Skip all the sacrifice; God just wants you to be nice.” However, that misses the point of the idiom, which more accurately means this: “Practice mercy without neglecting sacrifice, for sacrifice is in service of mercy.” All of our rituals point somewhere and have the goal of drawing us to greater charity for God and neighbor. Caritas suprema lex (Charity is the highest law). Although charity is the highest law, that does not mean it is the only one. The basic Jewish and biblical idiom goes like this:

“I desire A, not B.”

This means that A is the goal, not B.
However, B is not to be neglected because it as a means or a way to A (the goal).

With all this in mind, let’s consider a teaching from St. Bonaventure, who wrote something very daring—even dangerous. Because he is a saint, we must grant him the liberty that we would not give to lesser men. As a saint he ponders truth and is thoroughly reputable. In his sanctity, his thoughts go where words no longer “work.” In a sense, he must explode our categories lest we become locked in them and forget that God is greater than words or human thoughts can express.

St. Bonaventure wrote of a kind of “passover” we must make wherein we must pass from the world of words, categories, images, pictures, and preconceived notions; to God, who is mystically beyond all that. It is a moment when the “ology” (words) of our theology must step aside for the Theos (God) of our Theology. As you read this quote, remember the cautions and context we have just reviewed, especially regarding the “I desire A, not B” idiom.

For [our] passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit … inflame his innermost soul ….

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God [From The Journey of the Mind to God, by Saint Bonaventure, bishop (Cap. 7, 1.2.4.6: Opera omnia 5, 312-313)].

Unschooled readers will cringe at the apparent dichotomies: grace not doctrine, longing not understanding, sighs not research, bridegroom not teacher, darkness not daylight.

But this is why we studied the idiom beforehand. “I desire A, not B” means that B serves A, not that B is of no value. Thus, doctrine leads to and serves grace. Our teachings point to heights where words no longer suffice. Our understanding and intellect inspire the will to desire Him whom our minds could never fully contain or comprehend. Although the Lord is the great teacher and rabbi, no bride calls her husband “teacher,” or “doctor.” She calls him her beloved; the heart grasps things the mind knows not.

Thus our goal is not doctrine (precious and necessary though that this). Our goal is Him to whom the doctrine rightly points. Doctrine is the roadmap, not the destination. Follow the map! It is foolish to try to invent your own religion. Yes, follow the map! But remember, the map is not the goal; it is not the destination. God is the goal and desired destination, and He cannot be reduced to our words or categories.

The great theologian Bonaventure knew the limits of theology. Theology makes the introductions and sets the foundation, but there comes a moment for silence and a dark night of the senses and even the intellect. Now the heart and the fiery light of God’s Holy Spirit must do His work. He will not overrule doctrine but build upon and transcend it.

St. Peter speaks to this same process:

We also have the message of the prophets, which has been confirmed beyond doubt. And you will do well to pay attention to this message, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:18-19).

Yes, the prophets and the teachings must be attended to; they are like a lamp shining in a dark place. But there comes a moment when those teachings are confirmed and a greater light dawns, the Morning Star rises in our hearts. The truth of doctrine gives way to the Truth Himself, who is also the Way and the Light.

Listen to Bonaventure; listen to Peter. The Creed is essential. Memorize it and don’t you dare go off and invent your own religion! But there comes a moment when the creed steps aside and, pointing to God, says, “He is the one of whom I speak. Go to Him and sit silently at His feet.”

 

12 More Steps: Out of Pride and into Humility, from St. Bernard.

032113In yesterday’s Post we considered the 12 Steps of Pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the 12 twelve steps draw us up to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.

St. Bernard also lists the 12 steps to deeper humility (I am using the list from Vultus Dei HERE)  and it is these that we consider in this post. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is in red, but the commentary on each step are my own poor reflections. Take what you like and leave the rest. For St. Bernard’s own reflections, consider purchasing the book he wrote: Steps of Humility and Pride.

(1) Fear of God – to fear the Lord is to hold God in awe. It is to be filled with wonder and all at all God has done, and who he is.

Cringing, servile fear is not counseled here. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride.

It is a look to God, and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies, that begins to break our pride.

Scripture says The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10).  To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord, seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for his truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside and upward from myself to God.

Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.

(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to his father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). And this is what abnegation of the will means. It is to be willing to surrender my will to God’s will, to subsume my decisions under his.

Pride demands to do what it pleases, and to determine whether it is right or wrong. But in this stage of humility I am willing to look to God.

The Saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “How come I can’t have it? Its not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”

But on the journey away from pride, and having come to a fear of the Lord, now the we are more joyfully ready to listen to God, and to submit his vision will for us.

(3) Obedience – And now, having obtained to a more humble disposition of heart, we are more capable and wiling to obey. Obedience moves from the hearing to the heeding of God’s word, of God’s holy will, and of  being willing to surrender our stubborn wills. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to  execute that will, to obey and put into action the will of God. And thus the descent of the mountain of pride begins  apace, toward the freedom of the children of God, little by little.

(4) Patient endurance – , Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride and  striving to hear and understand God’s will and to obey him, one can surely expect obstacles both internally and externally.

Our flesh, that is, our sin nature, does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but continues to battle. Our flesh resists prayer, resists being submitted to anything other than his own wishes and desires. And thus, internally, we suffer resistance from our sinful nature.

But little by little we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience, and an enduring spirit and will.

Externally too, we often encounter resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps old friends seek to seduce us back to former ways. Perhaps too the structures of our pride remain standing; structures such as willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc.,  continue to draw us away from our intentions come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.

Patient endurance is often required to see such things born away. Yes, it often takes years of patient and persistent action, even decades, for the sinful world dominated by structures of sin and rebellion, to lose its grip on us.

(5) Disclosure of the heart –  Perhaps the most humble journey, as we come down the mountain of pride, is the journey in to our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).

To make this journey, requires a lot of humility as we see our sinful drives, and also many misplaced priorities.  We must often uncover unpleasant memories, and even trauma from the past, that we have experienced or have inflicted on others. And in that place of our heart we are called repentance and to show forgiveness and mercy, or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.

We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, and that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have a times been insensitive. This is a very humbling journey, but a necessary one as we continue to come down from the mountain of pride.

(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance and is a very great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguished a kind of external and internal contentedness.

External  acceptance is rooted in the capacity to live serenely in the world as it is, and to realize that God allows many things we don’t prefer for a reason and a season. Acceptance does not connote approval of everything. Indeed there are many things in the world that we ought not approve of. But acceptance is the willingness  to humbly live and work in a world that is neither perfect nor fully according to our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. And even in those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them quickly or at all right now. Jesus told a parable about the wheat and tares and cautioned not to act precipitously to remove the tares, lest the wheat be harmed. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved and part of our journey in humility is discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.

Internal contentedness is a gratitude for what we have and a freedom from resentment about what we do not have. In pride we demand that our agenda, our menu be fully followed. In our journey toward humility we come to be more content to gratefully accept what God offers and to say, “It is enough O Lord. I am most grateful!”

(7) Lucid self-awareness – In pride we are often filled with many delusions about our self, and usually think more highly of our self than we ought. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.

But as we continue down the mountain of pride, fearing the Lord, submitting our will to his in docility and obedience, being more honest about the deep recesses of our heart, our disordered drives and unrealistic agendas, we are now increasing prepared to embrace true humility.

Humility is reverence for the truth about our self. It is a lucid self awareness that appreciates our gifts, remembers that they ARE gifts. And it is an awareness also of our struggles and of our on-going need for repentance and the grace of God.

With lucid self awareness I am increasingly learning to know my self more as God knows me (cf 1 Cor 13:12). This is because, as we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be, and our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by a lucidity of self awareness where we are able to see and understand our self in a less ego-centric way. We are mindful of what we are doing, and thinking, and how we interact with God and others. But we do this in a way that strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self awareness in the context of living conscious contact with God throughout the day.

(8) Submission to the common rule – The ego-centric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good.  The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.

But as our journey down the mountain of pride continues, into deeper humility, we become more aware of the effects we have on others and how we must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than our self. Humility teaches that the world does not simply revolve around me and what I want, and that sometimes the needs of others are more important than my own. Humility helps us accept that laws exist most often to protect the common good and that, while individual rights are also important to protect, humility make me more willing to submit my personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.

(9) Silence – Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to share. The proud person interrupts frequently and quickly thinking he knows already what the other person is saying or that what he has to say is more important. But as humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.

(10) Emotional sobriety – Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and ego-eccentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened. For fear begets anger.

And, as we saw yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered.

But as we now grow deeper in humility we are less ego-centric and thus we are less fearful and less easily offended.

And having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things, also adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, rumor and so forth. We are less stirred up by the machinations of advertisers and less disturbed the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the cable news marketers. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us.

The humble person trusts God more and is thus not easily unsettled by all these mental machinations. And it is thoughts that generate feelings.

Thus as our thought life becomes more measured, and our conclusions more humble and careful, our emotions are less volatile and we attain to an emotional serenity and sobriety.

This is a very great gift to seek and cultivate by God’s grace.

(11) Restraint in speech – As we are more emotionally stable, less anxious, and stirred up, our speech and demeanor reflect our serenity. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger or be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate but are content perhaps to stay in the conversation or be content to sow seeds and leave the harvest for later or for others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking and we are more able and content to speak the truth in love, with clarity, but also with charity.

(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside – We saw in yesterday’s post on pride, the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word “hypocritas” refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role that is not really them.

The proud and the fearful are always posturing and aligning themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. But as humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty and sincerity come to full flower.

This is because, by the gift of humility, we open ourselves to be fully formed by God. Having turned our look to God, and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be, and we begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and non-pretentious way. Since, by humility we are more focused on God we are less nervously self-conscious.

By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare or compete.  Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.

Humility has now reached its goal, for humility is reverence for the truth about our self. We are sinners who are loved by God. And as we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene, and we live out of this, inner life with God are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St Benedict which has so aided in this reflection! Pray God we all are able to make the journey down form the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.

The Real St. Nicholas – Not Fat and Not Very Jolly Either.

Today (Dec 6) is the Feast of St. Nicholas. The real St. Nicholas was nothing close to the St. Nick (Santa Claus) of the modern age. He was a thin curmudgeonly man with a zeal for the Lord that caused flairs of anger. Compromise was unknown to him. The slow transformation of him into “Jolly ole’ Saint Nicholas is a remarkable recasting of him centuries in the making. Some years ago the Washington Post featured an article entitled Poles Apart: Nicholas of Myra; How a 4th-Century Bishop Achieved Fame 1,500 Years Later, With a Whole New Attitude.

On this feast of St Nicholas, I thought I might take a break from yesterday’s rather heavy topic,  and present lighter excerpts from the article that details the real St. Nicholas of Myra. It is a very engaging look at the cantankerous Saint who lived through some very tough times.

I am aware that hagiography (the study of the Saints) is sometimes more art than science. I cannot vouch for every detail in the article and would be interested if some of you intrepid hagiographers what to clarify, correct or add to the details given.

The Full Article (which details, somewhat thoroughly, St. Nicholas’ transition to Santa) can be read here: Poles Apart. I have also placed a PDF of the whole article which is more easily printed here: PDF – Poles Apart Nicholas and Nick

Enjoy this excerpt on the real St. Nicholas of Myra (aka Santa):

The year is 325. The place is Nicaea, a small town near the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Thousands of priests, 318 bishops, two papal lieutenants and the Roman emperor Constantine are gathered to face a looming church crisis…..

One of the churchmen rises to speak. Arius, from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, tells the gathering that Jesus was not divine. He was just a prophet. Suddenly, a second man is on his feet, an obscure, cantankerous bishop named Nicholas. He approaches Arius, fist raised menacingly. There are gasps. Would he dare? He would. Fist strikes face. Arius goes down. He will have a shiner. Nick, meanwhile, is set upon by holy men. His robes are torn off. He is thrown into a dungeon.

Peer down through the bars. Behold the simmering zealot sitting there, scowling, defiant, imprisoned for his uncompromising piety. Recognize his sallow face? No? Well, no reason you should. But he knows you. He’s been to your house many times….

[O]n this holiday we examine the puzzling paradox of Santa Claus. On the one hand, we have the modern Santa, a porcine, jolly man who resides at the North Pole with a woman known only as Mrs. Claus. …

On the other hand, we have the ancient Santa. Saint Nicholas. Paintings show a thin man. He was spare of frame, flinty of eye, pugnacious of spirit. In the Middle Ages, he was known as a brawling saint. He had no particular sense of humor that we know of. He could be vengeful, wrathful, an embittered ex- con….No doubt, Saint Nick was a good man. A noble man. But a hard man.

Nicholas was born in Patara, a small town on the Mediterranean coast, 280 years after the birth of Christ. He became bishop of a small town in Asia Minor called Myra. Beyond that, details of his life are more legend than fact….He became a priest at 19, and bishop in his twenties….Diocletian ruled the Roman Empire; it was the early 300s, and…began the “Great Persecution.”…. Nicholas kept preaching Christianity, and was arrested and tortured for disobeying the new laws. He spent more than a decade in jail. Among his punishments, according to Saint Simeon’s 10th-century history, were starvation and thirst. That is how Santa got skinny…. Twelve years later, AD 312, ….Constantine triumphed. Across the empire, bishops and priests returned to work and Nicholas got out of jail. He tended to local business. He was not pleasant about it. At the time, Myra was a hotbed of Artemis-worship…Nicholas prayed for vengeance, and his prayers were answered. Artemis’s temple crumbled. ” …The priests who lived in Artemis’s temple ran in tears to the bishop. They appealed to his Christian mercy. They wanted their temple restored.….Nicholas was not moved. Prison had left him in no mood for compromise. “Go to Hell’s fire,” he is said to have said, “which has been lit for you by the Devil.”

The Time of Nick In his lifetime, Nicholas crusaded against official corruption and injustice, seeing both as an affront to God. Supposedly, his intervention — through fire-and-brimstone denunciations of corrupt officials — saved at least a half-dozen innocent men from the gallows or the chopping block. He was forgiven for punching Arius and rescued from the dungeon. In the end, his views on the Trinity were vindicated by the adoption of the Nicene Creed, which declares Christ divine. Saint Nick died on Dec. 6. The year could be 326 or 343 or 352, depending whose account you rely on. Why we know the day of the year, but not the year itself, will be explained forthwith…..

……Nicholas of Myra might not seem like the kind of person who relates to kids, and few acts attributed to him involve children. There are two, though neither is exactly the stuff of sugar plums and Christmas stockings. In one tale, widely told, Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to a penniless father. The debtor dad uses the loot as dowries so his three girls do not have to become prostitutes….The second anecdote tells of the time a tavern owner robbed, murdered three children, hiding their remains in pickle barrels. …Fortunately, Saint Nicholas happened to walk through the tavern-keeper’s door….Soon, all three boys, were back home, reeking of pickle juice. What became of the shopkeeper is unrecorded…. By the Middle Ages, Nick had become the patron saint of children, and he had a new gig: gift-giving. Throughout Europe, the legend spread: He delivered trinkets to good kids and twigs to naughty ones. It was an uneasy transition — from curmudgeon to cuddle-bear. ….

🙂 As said above you can click on those links to read the full story of how St. Nicholas of Myra morphed into Santa Claus.

Here’s a Medieval Version of “Jolly old St. Nicholas.” The text is the Introit for the feast of St. Nicholas (Statuit ei Dominus) and translated says: The Lord made unto him a covenant of peace, and made him a prince, that the dignity of the priesthood should be to him forever.

Here’s the Modern Version: 🙂

Ancient Witnesses to The Catholic Faith: The Didache

The Didache is one of the earliest written documents of the Church other than Scripture itself. It was written sometime between 90 and 110 AD. It may not have had a single author but may have been compiled from the Apostolic Teaching as a kind of early catechism and a summary of the essential moral tenets of the Faith. It’s existence demonstrates that many current teachings of the faith,  often under attack by modernity, are in fact very ancient, going right back to the beginning. Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the Didache that are especially pertinent for today’s controversies. My comments are in red after the italicized quotes. The Full text of the Didache is available here: DIDACHE

Sins against life, sexual sins and abortion: You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor  kill  that which is begotten. (# 2) Hence the teaching against abortion is not recent as some have tried to suggest. It was not proposed in the 1950s, it was not proposed in the Middle Ages. It goes right back to the beginning. “Pederasty” refers to a homosexual relationship between an older man and a post pubescent adolescent boy. It is distinct from pedophilia which involves a sexual relationship between an older person and a pre-pubescent child. In the modern sex abuse scandals, proper distinctions have not always been made. Cases of true pedophila are rare compared to pederasty (male homosexual involvement with adolescent boys), and statutory rape (the sexual violation of an underaged post pubescent female by a male).  In the Greek world Homosexual activity was a widespread moral evil and the Didache’s specific mention of it (as also with Paul) indicates this. The statutory rape or sexual abuse of young females was probably more rare given the early age of marriage which took place soon after puberty for girls.

That the clergy ought to be worhty and then respected and honored – My child, him that speaks to you the word of God remember night and day; and you shall honour him as the Lord; for in the place whence lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord (#4)…..Therefore, appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money,  and truthful and proven; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Despise them not therefore, for they are your honoured ones (# 15)

That confession of sin should be frequent and precede the reception of Holy Communion and fellowship In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. (# 4) It is thus, the long standing practice of the Church that one ought to confess serious sin prior to attending Mass and surely prior to receiving Holy Communion.

That Baptism may be conferred by pouring only if immersion is not easy or convenientAnd concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (# 7) Some, among the Protestants consider that Baptism must be administered by immersion. But this text indicates that in the ancient practice, simply pouring water over the head is sufficient. Living water (i.e. moving water such as in a stream) is preferred. Cold water is preferred over warm but warm water is allowed (perhaps in winter to avoid colds?). And yet, in the end, if such arrangements are not possible a simple infusion of water over the head suffices.

An Early Eucharistic Prayer or Hymn: Now concerning the Eucharist, thus give thanks. First, concerning the cup: We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. And concerning the broken bread: We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs.  (# 9). This prayer of thanksgiving (Eucharistia) is beautifully preserved in the hymn “Father We Thank Thee.” The contents of this prayer mysteriously do not include the words of Institution (This is my Body….This is my Blood….). However, another more detailed description by Justin Martyr written around the same time does include these words (See video below). Note too that the restriction of the Eucharist to fully initiated Catholics is an ancient practice. The Eucharist, or Holy Communion was not to be shared except by those who had true communion by the Grace of God working through the sacraments. Namely, Baptism and Confirmation which both sanctified and incorporated one into and as a  member of the  Body of Christ. Holy Communion thus had to be preceded by the Communion effected by Baptism and Confirmation.

That Sunday Attendance at Mass was requiredBut every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned  (# 14) Again note that attendance is required every Sunday and that such attendance be accompanied by any necessary confession of sins. See how ancient these practices are.

That the practice of the faith must be consistent and that without the practice of it and the attendance and reception of the Holy Mysteries we shall not attain to the holiness necessary to see God. But often shall you come together, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you be not made perfect in the last time….. (# 16).  

Thus many of the current practices and teachings of the Church go right back to the beginning. Our Tradition is thus intact and ancient, reaching back to the Apostles and Jesus Christ.

Here is a video of another ancient writer: Justin Martyr who wrote just shortly after the time of the Didache. The quotes in this video demonstrate the ancient quality of our Liturgy.  Thanks to April for calling this video to my attention:

It’s Not About You

We have come to the conclusion of the Easter Cycle as we celebrate Pentecost this weekend. All through this period we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Fully the last two-thirds of Acts has focused on the Evangelical Mission of St. Paul as he made four journeys into Asia Minor and then into Greece. The final chapters of Acts deal with Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and appearance before Roman officials such as Felix and Festus, as well as Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem and Caesarea.

Paul appeals his case to Rome and is sent there on ill fated journey that shipwrecks at Malta. Finally making it to Rome, Paul is imprisoned and awaits the trial that will either vindicate him or seal his fate. The story seems to be building to a climactic conclusion and we, the readers,  are ready to see Paul through his final trial. But then something astonishing happens: the story just ends. He is the concluding line of the Acts of the Apostles:

[Paul] remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31)

But Luke! Don’t just leave us hanging! Did Paul go on trial? We he acquitted as some traditions assert and then made his way to Spain as he wanted? Or did he loose his appeal and suffer beheading right away? What was the outcome? We have seen Paul so far and now the story just ends?!

How can we answer this exasperating and unsatisfying end?

The simplest answer is that the Acts of the Apostles is not about Paul. It is about the going forth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. Luke has, to be sure, personified this going forth of the Gospel to the nations by focusing on Paul. But once Paul reaches Rome and, though under house arrest,  is able to freely preach the Gospel there (for there is chaining the Word of God(2 Tim 2:9)), the story reaches its natural conclusion. It is true, others had preached the Gospel in Rome before Paul, but since Paul has been the way Luke illustrates this going forth of the Word of God, the entry of Paul into Rome means the story has reached its goal. From Rome the Gospel with go forth to every part of the Empire, for every road led to Rome and away from it. Now that the Gospel has reached the center hub and is being freely preached, it will radiate outward in all directions by the grace of God.

But what about Paul and what of his fate? It doesn’t matter. It never WAS about Paul. It was about the Gospel. Paul himself testified to this when he said, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)

We are often focused on personalities and frequently we loose track about what is most important. And, frankly the personality we are most focused on is very often ourselves. Acts never really was about Paul. And your life is not about you. It is about what the Lord is doing for you and through you. We often want things to revolve around us, around what we think, and what we want. But, truth be told, you are not that important, neither am I. We must decrease and the Lord must increase (Jn 3:30).

Some of these notions hit hard in the self esteem culture in which we live. But in the end our true glory is not our own glory, but the glory of God radiating in us. If we decrease, the Lord increases. But that does not mean we are swallowed up and lost in Christ. Rather, it means we truly become the man or woman God has always made us to be, one who reflects the very glory of God. Perhaps it is best to let Paul himself end this:

For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of (Jesus) Christ. (2 Cor 4:5-6)

This video is of the conclusion of the Acts of the Apostles. The scene begins with Paul speaking to Jewish leaders in Rome. The epilogue in the video which shows Luke leaving Rome is not part of the Acts of the Apostles.

Ordination to the Priesthood – The Church’s Physical Link to Christ and the Apostles is”Hands On”

We are entering the season for ordinations. And perhaps a worthy reflection is to recall that one of the great glories of the Catholic Church is her historical link to Christ and the Apostles.  The Catholic link to Christ himself and the apostles is not merely some moral unity, or a kind of invisible union, it is not merely a knowledge through books and historical data, precious those these things are.  No indeed, there is more at work here. There is also an actual physical union through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In this sacrament, there is a laying on of hands that stretches right back to the Apostles and Jesus.

Unique to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – Only the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches can make the claim that they historically go back right to Christ and the Apostles. Every other Christian (Protestant) denomination lacks this antiquity. They were all founded less than 500 years ago, some even less than 100 years ago. Further, they literally severed the physical, hands on connection to Christ by casting aside the ministerial priesthood and hence the laying on of hands that signifies this sacrament.  They have ministers, but not priests. The Anglicans are an exception, in that they consider their ministers to be priests. Yet they are not considered by the Catholic Church to have valid orders since they went through a long period wherein they did explicitly abandon the intent to hand on the priesthood, hence the link was severed.   

Biblical and Patristic roots – It is clear in the Acts of the Apostles that when the apostles chose successors and co-workers to share in their apostolic ministry they “laid hands” on them. Paul and Barnabas had hands laid on them for their work as Apostles (Acts 13:3, 1 Tim 4:14 etc.). Paul later counsels Timothy to be careful on whom he “lays hands” when appointing bishops and deacons (1 Tim 5:22 etc). All the earliest documents of the Church such as the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch make it clear that this laying on of hands continued. This laying on of hands came to be known as “ordination.”

Every valid priest has “connections” – The Catholic Church through this laying on of hands actually preserves a physical link to Jesus himself and the Apostles he chose. History for us is a “hands-0n” kind of history, a “hands-on” link going back 2000 years. Every validly ordained Catholic bishop has this physical as well as spiritual link to the apostles. Every Bishop is a successor to the apostles. The priests share in this office and this link (though not in its fullness) for they too have hands laid on them by the bishop. I am often humbled to think of the “connections” I have with the early Church.

The Faith is literally handed on – So fellow Catholics, “stay connected” and rejoice in our “hands on” historical heritage. Now you know why it is said that the faith is “handed on.”

The following video shows highlights of the ordination of priests. In this case the ordination took place in Portland Oregon. I would like to show you highlights of our beautiful Washington ordinations but I am not aware of any film footage I can post. But this is a beautiful video.