Who Said This Was Going To Be Easy?

Lenten discipline requires the reconsideration of our spiritual state.

Deacon Scott Dodge (a great blog to follow after the St Joseph’s College Theology blog!) provides a thoughtful connection between popular culture and classic Christian art, specifically Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpierce, here. Deacon Scott: “The failure of our own words, of our ability to comprehend and articulate the greatness, the height, length, and depth of love of God’s great love for us should drive us to God’s word.” He then quotes Romans 5:6-9, but I would rather reflect on today’s Gospel, Matthew 5:11-17:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”

Each of the four Gospels brings its own voice, comforts, and challenges to the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Among Matthew’s many gifts (e.g., 16:18-20), I find most rewarding and provocative Chapter Five’s intensifications of the Jewish Law. Thou shall not murder? Well, even if you’re angry with somebody, stop what you’re doing and seek reconciliation. Thou shall not commit adultery? That’s not enough—do not even look another lustfully. So much for the nice, domesticated Jesus we like to tell ourselves we already resemble. No, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus holds us to a higher, not lower, standard. And this is the Word of God to which Lent inexorably drives us, not a Jesus who confirms our smugly-held opinions, nor a Jesus who simply ignores our sins. As G. K. Chesterton so aptly put it, “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Who said this was going to be easy?

Bernini from St Peters domeThe Lenten stereotype depicts the unwillingly ascetic Catholic wallowing in self-abnegation. I, though, found Deacon Scott’s words about God’s greatness reminded me of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Barth often stood quite opposed to Roman Catholic theology, even as he avidly read St. Augustine and St. Anselm (among others). Good Calvinist that he was, Barth began his theology with the absolute sovereignty of God. Mankind cannot save itself; only God can do that. Barth asserted God’s NO! to all human pretensions to religious agency and self-direction. The YES that comes in the Incarnation overcomes that negation, but, Barth believed, the NO still remained. That, in part, was made grace what it was—thoroughly unmerited.  While he spent far more time and ink lambasting fellow Protestants, Barth always considered standard Roman Catholic spirituality a target of that divine NO! Thus it is seems rather ironic that Wikiquote welds Barth’s famous words of YES and NO to…Gian-Lorenzo Bernini’s Holy Spirit stained-glass window gracing the western wall of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Gone are the days when I accepted prima facie everything Barth wrote. Deo gratias! However, occasionally a little Barth reinvigorates the theological project. Barth’s insistence on divine sovereignty resonates with the Gospel image of Jesus declaring the Law’s enduring presence. Not only that, but the NO! extends to our own teaching. Since the Law remains valid, we simply cannot invent what we want and disregard what we dislike. Knowledge of the Law implies teaching the whole Law. We can’t blunt the sharp edges to make it “nicer.” With his customary brevity and sharp insight, Father Robert Barron critiques this facile presumption that being Christian means being nice. Father Barron doesn’t mention Barth—he doesn’t need to—but the point remains: God calls us to something greater than merely being nice to each other.

While it wanders off to once-current issues, this post from my own blog addresses the same point through the lens of an Augustinian critique of American evangelical eschatology. It wasn’t until I had read St. Augustine that I began to understand my dislike for Protestant eschatologies: they were too easy and too self-assured. Chapter Five of Matthew’s gospel offers the initial, damning criticism: this will not be easier—quite frankly, it will be more difficult than before! That is a tough message to hear, which perhaps is why Christian history is filled with those seeking waivers. Christian theology is filled with so many false starts because of the failure to confront honestly today’s gospel: Jesus comes not to abolish, but to uphold, the Law which, by the way, remains very much in effect. It is to such stark reminders that Lent calls us.

Quite frankly, we don’t always start where we should. I started with St. Augustine, and then only later realized that St. Augustine himself points us all back to the Gospel (and thus the Gospels). And there we find both the negation of our human pretensions and yet simultaneously the reaffirmation of God’s love for us—in the same person, Jesus. So will the Way of Jesus be an easy ride? More than likely no—in fact, it can be quite bumpy and crooked. What was that about not abolishing? Yet Jesus also tells us: “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). So it is not easy, but it will be worth it—and along the way we receive life itself.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

“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.

Jesus was a real person!

The eternal Word, born of the Father before time began, today emptied himself for our sake and became man.

Antiphon 3, Evening Prayer I
Christmas Day

A baby is born in Bethlehem, and all the world is changed. God has become man. I’ll say it again – God has become man. All religions are not the same. A baby is born in Bethlehem, and all the world is changed.

Christianity is the only religion to claim the God-Man. Other faiths claim prophets, or representations of a spiritual entity, but only Christians claim that the God they worship, the God they claim created the heavens and the earth, became a human being and lived among us in the flesh.

I can recall the first time that this fact really struck me. I was a student in Rome and was on the Scavi tour at Saint Peter’s Basilica. We were at the tomb of Saint Peter, and I was looking at his bones. Now, my family had a custom of visiting the cemetery, usually at Christmas and Easter, placing flowers at the graves of our relatives, and praying for them. As I was “visiting the grave” of Peter the Apostle, the thought occurred to me that this was similar to visiting my grandparents’ graves. Then I thought, “Oh my gosh, Peter was a real person!” Then, immediately following, “If Peter was a real person, then Jesus was a real person!” Thus began my insatiable appetite for all things theological. I just had to learn everything I could about this Jesus – this very real person who walked this earth.The_Nativity_of_Jesus_Christ_by_logIcon

The Incarnation is a doctrine of faith unique to Christianity. When this doctrine is ignored or underappreciated, Jesus can become anything from a wise prophet to Santa Claus. He is neither. He is the God-Man, the perfect, intimate unity of God and human. He is the One who, by His death and resurrection, makes it possible for all humans to be intimately united to God the Father. Therein lies our Christmas joy!

A baby is born in Bethlehem, and all the world is changed.


Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Faith and Reason

The belief that faith and reason are complementary ways of coming to know the truth, rather than antagonistic rivals or competitors for one’s allegiance, has its foundation in the NT itself and, ultimately, in a person rather than a text.

Photo by Leland Francisco

Photo by Leland Francisco

When the earliest of Christian writers were searching for ways in which to articulate the meaning of what we might call the “Jesus Event,” i.e., the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the first associations they made was between Jesus and the ‘wisdom’ [σοφία] or ‘reason’ [λόγος] of God. Drawing from the book of Wisdom, St. Paul refers to Christ as “the wisdom [σοφίαν] of God” (1 Cor 1:24). “All things were created through him and for him,” the Apostle states elsewhere, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17).

These latter remarks about Jesus, the identification of him with God’s divine wisdom, NT scholars agree pre-date St. Paul himself. They were, most likely, part of a hymn to Christ which the early Christian community used in their liturgical services. Thus, from the very beginning of Christianity, before the composition of the NT, Christians understood Jesus as the incarnation, the en-fleshment, of God’s divine wisdom; the wisdom by which God created, governs and sustains the natural world. The living embodiment of the ‘plan’ (ratio) according to which the cosmos was designed and functions.

A bit later in Christian history, around the year 90, this belief was given its classic expression in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word [λόγος], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3).

The Greek term for ‘Word’ [λόγος] in this translation can have many meanings: word, speech, language, an account or narrative, or an explanation. It can also mean, most importantly, ‘reason’ or ‘thought.’ So if we exchange translations, we can read the same passage as: “In the beginning was Reason and Reason was with God, and Reason was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” With his obvious linguistic allusion to Genesis 1:1 [i.e., “In the beginning…”], the author of the prologue is affirming the divine nature of God’s reason and wisdom. A few verses later, of course, the author takes the further step of associating this Reason with the person of Jesus: “And the Word [Reason] became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).

For the Catholic, then, as true now as was for these early Christian authors, it is in God, and especially through the person of His Son Jesus Christ, that Wisdom, Reason and Truth have their being. As Jesus said: “I am the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) and “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37).

Understanding that the world was created according to divine reason, and that the seeds of reason are to be found in the entire created order, the Catholic tradition has long affirmed the human capacity, and supported the human effort, to discover truth in the natural world by the light of human reason. It is true that the early Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked the question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (De praescr. haeret. 7). But on that matter, and quite a few others, Tertullian was departing from the established Christian thought of his time. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, acknowledges that since truth cannot be opposed to itself, the truths of the faith cannot contradict those of science or reason (cf. Aquinas SCG 1.7). Faith and reason are not competitors, but the two complementary ways in which humankind might come to know the truth.

This point has been articulated throughout the Catholic intellectual tradition and, more recently, the Second Vatican Council stated that “methodical research, in all realms of knowledge, if it respects […] moral norms, will never be genuinely opposed to faith: the reality of the world and of faith have their origin in the same God” (GS § 36). Likewise, Pope St. John Paul II stated that faith and reason are two complimentary ways of coming to the truth because “the unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear” (FR § 34).

The mutual necessity of both faith and reason is nowhere more evident than in the discipline of theology. In examining the application of reason to matters of faith, St. Augustine once wrote: intellege ut credas, crede ut intellegas (‘to understand so that you might believe, to believe so that you might understand’) (s. 43.9). More than half a millennium later, the Benedictine archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, meditating on St. Augustine’s thought, would famously define theology as fides quaerens intellectum  (‘faith seeking understanding’) (Cf. Pros. 1-2).

In attempting to sum up this intellectual inheritance, this particularly Catholic way of viewing, inter alia, the relationship between faith and reason, many writers have taken to calling this hermeneutic

the Catholic “both/and.” As opposed to looking at the world and seeing a multitude of choices which demand an “either/or” decision, the Catholic “both/and,” being sensitive to false dichotomies, sees the value – and in many instances the necessity – of each choice: nature and grace, action and contemplation, freewill and providence, invisible grace and material signs, and, of course, faith and reason. From the Catholic perspective, therefore, the relationship between faith and reason has never been an antagonistic one. Rather, the Catholic sees the proper use of one’s intellect as an activity which draws us nearer to God by seeking His Wisdom.

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