“I will have Thyself, only Thyself.”

Today we celebrate the memorial of one of the great saints, perhaps the greatest, of the Aquinas iconCatholic intellectual tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas. Last semester, a colleague of mine asked a rather unique favor of me related to St. Thomas. She was writing an icon of St. Thomas and wondered what text to place in the book he would be holding. Those familiar with iconography will know, in the Eastern Christian tradition this question would never arise. Icons have types and forms, and to a certain degree they must. Otherwise, how would one be able to distinguish St. Peter (full but short hair, full but short beard) from St. Paul (balding, slightly longer beard) if their names were not written in the icon? In the West, however, those of us who appreciate this form of Sacred Art – and it really is theology via another means of communication – have no definitive content-types for Catholic saints who post-date the great age of Christian unity, i.e., roughly the Church’s first millennium. To add to this artist’s query, she also wanted a suitable text in Latin – the original language of St. Thomas’ theological masterworks. Thankfully, this artist already had one quotation in mind. On the right side of the book appears the Latin phrase: Mihi videtur ut palea. This is literally translated as: “to me it seems like straw.” The origin of this quotation is a story with which many of us may be familiar.

Although some may have the tendency to view Aquinas’ writings as mechanistic and dry, St. Thomas himself was a profoundly passionate disciple of our LORD. A friend and brother Dominican once commented that St. Thomas was able to untangle so many theological knots through prayer more than through the power of his intellect. St. Thomas’ spiritual fervor was especially directed towards the Blessed Sacrament and he could often be seen crying during the liturgy of the Eucharist. Toward the end of his life, on the feast of St. Nicolaus in 1273, St. Thomas received a mystical experience during the celebration of Mass. Afterward, when asked by his friend and secretary to continue writing, he responded: “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” This statement is not an exhortation to stop pursing God using His gift of wisdom. Rather, it is an expression of the unfathomable and ineffable depth of God’s being. God cannot be limited by what we know of Him. Even those articles of faith which we know to be true simply point us toward the mystery of God. They set us on the right path for our journey, but they are not the destination.

True to his word, St. Thomas indeed stopped writing at this point in his life, and his Summa Theologiae remains unfinished. What gives me particular delight in the icon seen here, however, is that the artist combined this quotation with two others seen on the opposite page of the book. In 1264, Pope Urban IV placed the solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Roman calendar (the Thursday after Holy Trinity Sunday). He then asked St. Thomas to compose suitable hymns to be sung on this holy day – especially necessary for vowed religious saying the Divine Office. What Aquinas composed remain the most beautiful and theologically rich Eucharistic hymns in the history of Catholic Sacred Music. Various composers throughout the centuries have set Aquinas’ words to music – some particular favorites can be found in this collection – but, often, plainchant settings can be the most affective. In this icon, the phrase O res mirabilis! (“O remarkable reality”) is taken from the hymn Panis Angelicus (“The bread of angels”) and Tantum ergo sacramentum (“So great, therefore, a sacrament”) is taken from the hymn of the same name; located in the larger cycle known as Pange lingua gloriosi (“Acclaim, my tongue, the glory”). Both of these quotations, of course, reflect Aquinas’ profound devotion to the Eucharist. The artist has even reinforced this aspect of his spirituality by placing strands of wheat atop the volume which St. Thomas is holding.

According to yet another tale, after placing a treatise he wrote on the Blessed Sacrament upon an altar, St. Thomas heard a voice emanating from the crucifix resting there. The voice said, “Thomas, you have written well concerning the Sacrament of my Body,” and then asked the friar what he would like as a reward. St. Thomas responded with the words: “I will have Thyself, only Thyself.” Though he is best remembered for his prodigious and voluminous theological and philosophical writings, Aquinas was, first and foremost, a great saint! From time to time I think it helps us to recall that the word “saint” is derived from the Latin sanctus, which means “holy.” For the Christian, holiness means “putting on Christ” (Gal 3:27). In this icon, the artist has used every image surrounding the “portrait” of St. Thomas to emphasize his union with the person of Jesus Christ. This is communicated by the quotation acknowledging that this union transcends the limits of human understanding, as well as by those reflecting St. Thomas’ Eucharistic spirituality. It is also achieved by the images of Christ’s life encircling Aquinas’ halo. By imitating the stained glass one might find in a Gothic cathedral, these scenes emphasize that the person of Christ is to be found in His Church, His Body (1 Cor 12:27). In short, this icon is thoroughly sacramental – as is the very medium of iconography. And, while gazing at St. Thomas’ wry and subtle smile, I like to think that it depicts him being given precisely what he asked for: “I will have Thyself, only Thyself.”

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

Here Is Gone

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee to we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Otsego Lake at NoonThus Catholics pray the Salve Regina. These lines reaffirm a traditional view of God the Creator who reigns over the created world. Through prayer the faithful beseech the Blessed Mother to elevate their prayers to God who, existing above and beyond time and space, does not suffer the faults, failings, and, ultimately, the finitude, of the world. The entire world belongs to God and the faithful, believing this, ask God through Mary to save us from accepting on face value that this world, with all its decay, is the only one.

Nothing surprising there—it’s a traditional view, one criticized by the likes of Marx, who believed other-worldly belief sanctioned all sorts of injustice, and Freud, who viewed all religious belief as self-deception, and the “New Brights” whom Father Robert Barron rightly criticized for their arrogance. The critics’ arguments rely heavily on the notion Sunday January 25th’s readings include in I Corinthians 7:31: “For the world in its present form is passing away.” Time, St. Paul chides the Corinthians, is running out. Those weeping or rejoicing should act as if they were not, for something new is coming.

Popular culture teems with songs about life’s illusory nature; “what you once thought was real has been shown to be unreal” sounds so philosophical, but the same point can be made quite catchy in so many ways. Traditional voices grasp this point, too. Buddhism’s Dhammapada reiterates frequently that the wise understand the world’s transience, but fools mistake the temporary as permanent. Even when surrounded by wisdom, the fool does not know, much like the spoon never tastes the soup (5:64). According to Heraclitus, we never step in the same stream twice. Still it is a hard message to take. Perhaps why that is why there are just as many songs seeking shelter or some safe harbor.

Recently Wesley Hill ascertained a “new new orthodoxy” that addresses just this particularly unwelcome reality. The twentieth century, filled with human-engineered bloodbaths, became the century of the suffering God, theologically-speaking. Not only do we humans suffer, but God does, too.  This became “the new orthodoxy,” and with it came a quick dismissal of theologies extolling divine impassibility. Hill recognizes in this rejection a thorny problem:

From another angle, defenders of the Church’s creedal heritage have worried that unqualified talk of divine suffering forfeits our reason for worshiping God as Other, as wholly and radically transcendent. If God is a fellow-sufferer with us, full stop, is God then no longer the one lauded by the Hebrew prophets as the Creator who is fundamentally unlike us?

Scripture’s testimony is clear: the God who creates in His own image, chooses Israel, and then become incarnate in Jesus—all life-affirmation actions God initiates—also possesses radical difference, infinite and qualitative as Kierkegaard and Karl Barth argued. In fact, Hill suggests, our salvation rests in God’s difference and transcendence, not immanence.

It is one thing to confess that God has seen and known firsthand what life is like in our prison cell. To be sure, there is a certain comfort in that confession. It is another thing, however, to know—as the early Church did—that in entering that cell, God brandished the key to unlock its door and lead us out. For the latter to happen, we needed not only a fellow-sufferer who understands but a Creator and Redeemer whose deity is made manifest in and through his humanity, whose power is revealed in his death and resurrection.

So maybe the Goo Goo Dolls are partially right when they sing “Here is Gone.” Hill’s review of the “new new orthodoxy” reminds us that God, though, is here, will be, and has been. The Salve Regina focuses the devoted mind and soul towards the ultimately Real, not the immediately-but-only-apparently real. “Here we have no lasting city, but we wait for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

You’re Invited!

This week (January 18-25) is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We are invited to pray for the unity of the Christian Family. Celebrated for more than 100 years, unity is more than just an ideal, for the Christian it is an obligation to be carried out in prayer and in shared commitment to building the kingdom of God.

icon_holyapostlesThe roots of praying for unity are fixed in Jesus’ prayer, near the time of his death, “… so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). The Catholic Church’s participation in ecumenical endeavors took new shape in the Second Vatican’s Council’s commitment to build stronger ties across Christian communities. Building on the work of the Council, St. John Paul II called the church to make unity an exercise of spiritual ecumenism, noting that the disunity of Christians weakens the credibility of the Gospel.

In an address to the church in Oceania he reflected “In the work of ecumenism, it is essential that Catholics be more knowledgeable about the Church’s doctrine, her tradition and history, so that in understanding their faith more deeply they will be better able to engage in ecumenical dialogue and cooperation. There is a need too for ‘spiritual ecumenism’, by which is meant an ecumenism of prayer and conversion of heart. Ecumenical prayer will lead to a sharing of life and service where Christians do as much together as is possible at this time. ‘Spiritual ecumenism’ can also lead to doctrinal dialogue or its consolidation where it already exists” (Ecclesia in Oceania, 23).

This reflection of St. John Paul echoes in the theme for this year’s celebration which is “Give me a drink.” Taken from John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), it emphasizes the importance of encountering one another in dialogue and celebrating that all Christians drink from the common well of the life-giving waters of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In our encounter with Christians, in our dialogue, in our shared ministry of charity we learn the richness of one another’s tradition and we more easily see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus; who we are and who we can become. In the Decree on Ecumenism, written at the Second Vatican Council, the unity that can be found in Christ magnifies the invitation of this year’s celebration to drink of the water Our Lord has to offer.

Before the whole world let all Christians confess their faith in the triune God, one and three in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord. United in their efforts, and with mutual respect, let them bear witness to our common hope which does not play us false. In these days when cooperation in social matters is so widespread, all men without exception are called to work together, with much greater reason all those who believe in God, but most of all, all Christians in that they bear the name of Christ. Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses the relationship which in fact already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant….All believers in Christ can, through this cooperation, be led to acquire a better knowledge and appreciation of one another, and so pave the way to Christian unity.

Decree on Ecumenism, 12

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

WAKE UP THE WORLD

“Where there are religious, there is joy,” says Pope Francis in his letter beginning the Year of Consecrated Life. And while he is addressing members of Consecrated Life, his message is for all of us – where there are Christians, there is joy! “We are called to know final_ycl_logo_en_newand show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; that we need not seek our happiness elsewhere …” (II.1) What a challenge! And yet, this is not new! In the first letter of Peter, he tells us to always be ready to account for the hope that is within us (see 1 Pt 3:15), and in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke speaks of how we are impelled to reveal the source of our joy, “for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20)

This is not to deny the trials and difficulties of daily life, “But in all these things we should be able to discover ‘perfect joy,’” says Pope Francis. He continues, “In a society which exalts the cult of efficiency, fitness and success, one which ignores the poor and dismisses ‘losers,’ we can witness by our lives to the truth of the words of Scripture: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Co 12:10)” (II. 1)

Contrary to what we hear day-in-and-day-out, efficiency and success are not our goals; a life of joy inspired by the Gospel and the following Jesus Christ which then radiates and inspires others to experience that same joy, peace, and love for God and one another, this is our goal and one that can clearly change the world, “wake up the world” (II.2) one person at a time, beginning with ourselves.

Success, at least how we are led to believe it is in our current society, is a form of ‘winning,’ at the cost of someone else ‘losing’ or not succeeding as well. We define success by comparisons to others – I am better off than this one but not as well off as someone else; only when I have bested everyone else can I say I am successful. This was also true in the time of Jesus and he turned this belief upside down: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk 18:13)

Jesus presents success as humility and hospitality (see Lk 14:7-14), simplicity and dispossession (see Mt 19:13-15 and 16-30), generosity (see Mt 20:1-16), and ultimately the recognition of the communion of the human family as the measure by which we will be judged (see Mt 25:31-46). “Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone,” Francis reminds us. (II.2) In this, he calls us to be “experts in communion,” (II.3) this communion which calls us out of ourselves to seek the good, the best, for our sisters and brothers.

“The path of charity open before us is almost infinite … No one contributes to the future in isolation, by his or her efforts alone, but by seeing himself or herself as part of a true communion which is constantly open to encounter, dialogue, attentive listening and mutual assistance. Such a communion inoculates us from the disease of self-absorption.” (II.3) Pope Francis continues, “don’t remain a hostage to your own problems. These will be resolved if you go forth and help others to resolve their own problems, and proclaim the Good News. You will find life by giving life, hope by giving hope, love by giving love.” (II.4)

wakeup callThis advice is so simple. So clear. So true. Yet so utterly challenging and radical it shakes the ground under our feet and cries: “WAKE UP!” Let us be awake and answer the challenge to wake up the world!

Sr. Kelly Connors, pm teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Signs of Your Times

I am what many would call a “cradle Catholic,” which means I was born and raised in the Faith. (More specifically, I am Byzantine Catholic, worshipping in one of the 21 Eastern Churches in communion with Rome.) My parents took my brother and me to church from the time we were babies, taught us our prayers, and showed us what it means to love God – and to be loved by Him. Like many young adults, I experienced a time of questioning, rebellion, and just plain laziness. Over several years, having found nothing in the world (or within my own self-centeredness) that satisfied, I turned my attention once again to God: that loving Father and merciful Savior to whom my parents had first introduced me. He was always there, patiently waiting for me, and ready to embrace me when I finally shook off the burdens of self-reliance and sought Him once again. Thus began for me a period of slow, steady and powerful conversion, by which God broke open my heart and restored my memory of Him as the One who loves and understands me more than anyone ever could.

The road of conversion is not easy and I am fairly block-headed (I’m speaking in the present tense because conversion is never just an event in the past, but an on-going process). During that initial stirring in my heart, I went on my very first retreat. Every woman there testified to her relationship with God and how He “speaks” to her. Their eyes shone as they recounted stories of opening the Bible to the exact verse that was an answer to their prayers. Whoa. I shyly admitted that God doesn’t speak to me. Ever. But the women all laughed and assured me that He does. “No,” I said pleadingly. “Not a word, or a whisper or a peep. God doesn’t talk to me!” I remember how the women stumbled over their words as they said, “Don’t worry dear. I’m sure He will….” Their quiet comfort was equivalent to being chosen last for a dodge ball team on the playground, but only because the teacher told the other kids they had to take me.

I resigned myself to the fact that God just doesn’t want to talk to me; not because He doesn’t have anything interesting to say, but because I was of no real interest to Him. Several months after that retreat experience I began discerning whether to apply to grad school to study theology. Having never taken a philosophy or theology course in my life, I became convinced this thought was the product of my new-found “religious zeal,” some fantasy I’d dreamed up. God could not possibly be asking me to do this; after all, it’s not like He told me to do it! One day, driving on a winding country road, I came upon an old church with a sign board outside of it. It held the usual information: the pastor’s name and service times. But in the center of the sign was a simple, yet profound message: God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called. In that moment, I knew for sure that God was speaking to me! In the midst of my discernment and doubt, God had placed the words I needed to hear right in front of me. Now, I could see it.

All of this is ultimately not about me, or about the cleverness of Protestant pastors and their sign boards, or God’s sense of humor. Rather, it’s about noticing the signs in your life: the words, the subtle messages, and the stirring of God in your own soul. Those women were right. God did speak to me, all the time. I was either not listening or not open to receiving Him in the unexpected. It took a literal sign outside of an old Protestant church on a country road to wake me up.

Today in the Eastern Churches (Catholic and Orthodox) we celebrate the leave-taking of Koshute picthe Feast of Theophany – the Baptism of the Lord. Theophany, means a manifestation of God (a sign of His presence), and at the Jordan on that day God spoke loudly and clearly: After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Mt. 3:16-17. Sometimes God makes a big statement because what He has to say is too important to be subtle. Sometimes it’s because we’re too thick-headed to get it otherwise. Most of the time, though, God speaks to us in ways that are unexpected, and designed to take us out of our comfort zone, our laziness, and our self-centeredness. He speaks through other people (friends and enemies alike); through books, music, art, the Liturgy, and even church sign boards. The point is He is speaking to you. God loves you with an intense and enduring love, and He has powerful, important and loving words for you. Friends, family members, people who love each other speak to each other; but they also have to listen. TODAY, open your heart to the signs of your times, and receive the signs and wonders He desires to share with you.

“Speak, for your servant is listening.” 1 Sam 3:10

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Peace on Earth in the New Year

Happy New Year! Many of us have established New Year’s resolutions to address self-improvement. Perhaps it’s time to take off a few pounds, or exercise more. Whatever your reasons, you are looking to self-improve. In true Christian fashion, we also take this time of year to express our hopes and dreams for improvement outside of ourselves, extending to our communities, society and the world. Many of us hope for world peace; a peace on earth that extends to all people of good will.

With every generation, we state that peace has never been needed more than today. That is because humanity, due to our concupiscence, sins. When we sin, we cause pain for ourselves and others, resulting in a deprivation of peace. When sin is allowed to permeate our lives, we crowd out Christ’s peace. For when we sin, we turn our backs on God, the giver of grace, love and all that is good.

When we look at the evils that permeate society, (wars, conflicts, human trafficking, slavery, domestic violence, murder, to name a few), we tend to feel helpless as individuals. We think that any solution is far too complex for any one person to resolve, thus the feeling of helplessness surfaces. Rather than looking outward for a solution to bring about world peace, may I suggest that you look inward? Identify your own sinfulness. Confess your sins and receive Christ’s peace. For, it is as an individual that you will find the path to peace – a peace for yourself, your community, society and the world.

peace-of-christWhen we have conformed ourselves to Christ and received His Peace, we are enabled by Him to spread His peace to others. Peace is both a virtue and a fruit of the Holy Spirit. By conforming ourselves to Christ, we embrace the virtue of peace, and allow Christ’s peace to work within us. By the very nature of our Christian witness, we shine like a beacon of peace, drawing the oppressed to the light of Christ. Our actions, in the form of kindnesses extended to others, bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit, bestowed upon humankind. As the oppressed draw near, we are able to spread Christ’s peace through our very actions.

It is very important to remember that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. The Divine Indwelling resides within every person. Therefore, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, regardless of status in life. When we disrespect another human being, we disrespect God. When we show compassion and empathy toward our neighbor, we show love for God and neighbor. It is with this love that all people of good will may demonstrate true inner peace – the Peace of Christ.

So, my friend, the path to peace starts with you! Find it within you to be that beacon of Christ’s light. Alleviate the suffering of the oppressed through small acts of kindness. Watch as the good ripples of peace emanate from your being as the fruit of the Holy Spirit blossoms. Christ’s Peace be with you!

Virginia Lieto teaches in the Catechetical Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College Online.