Remembering All the Martyrs of Nero

We call Abraham our father in faith. For one thing, Abraham imitated our heavenly Father in this way: He was prepared to offer his only son in sacrifice. The similarity stuns us when we read, “Abraham took the wood for the offering, and laid it on his son’s shoulders.”

The human race has always known that we make peace with God by offering sacrifice. But, by the same token, we have also never been able, by ourselves, to come up with a truly worthy victim.

Again, in this matter, Abraham acted with pure faith. Isaac asked him, “Father, where is the sheep for the offering?” Our father in faith replied, “God Himself will provide the lamb.”

God provides the peace-making lamb, the victim worthy of sacrifice to the almighty, infinitely good Father.

And in His consummate love for us, God provides this worthy victim from among our own kind. We can boast now, like proud children: ‘Look, Father, we were worthless. But then a worthy man offered Himself to You on our behalf!’

Saints Peter and Paul, and the other Apostles, explained all this to us nearly 2,000 years ago, right when it all happened. Since then, the Lord, acting with the same consummate loving kindness towards us, has provided countless lambs for worthy sacrifice from among the Christian people. Namely, the martyrs.

The Burning of Rome by Robert Hubert
The martyrs did not choose themselves; a self-chosen martyr, in fact, betrays the Gospel.

But God ripened the time, at certain moments, giving certain Christians the consummate opportunity to bear witness. And they went to their deaths singing with joy.

God ripened the time like this in Rome at the dawn of the Christian age. His choice of location was no accident. The Lord, for His own reasons, chose the city of the emperors to be the perennial capital of His Church on earth. So He moistened the earth there with the blood of His chosen witnesses at the very beginning.

When we offer our peace-making sacrifice to the Father, we sometimes refer to Abraham and also to Abel. After Cain killed him out of jealousy, Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to God as an urgent prayer.

So, even though today we recall acts of great violence and the shedding of innocent blood, we rejoice. God has taken the malice and selfishness that led to this bloodshed and turned it to our advantage. God is greater than Pontius Pilate; He is greater than the emperor Nero; He is greater than all the evil and discord that rends the history of mankind. At the holy altar of Christ and His martyrs, we find peace.

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Very Unlikely Confederates

Could two more different men than Peter and Paul possibly be found? Yes, they were both Jewish males, born in the same decade. But any similarity ends there.

Paul was bookish; Peter was a man of the sea. Paul was a city-slicker, cosmopolitan, a Roman citizen; Peter came from the quiet seaside hills. If it weren’t for Christ, Peter probably never in his life would have left the shores of the Sea of Galilee. If it weren’t for Christ, Paul probably would never in his life have spoken with a single Galilean.

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Summary of SCG 3.59

Thanking the good Lord for 41 years which have passed in what seems like a quarter of an hour, I offer you this loose paraphrase of the Angelic Doctor:

Our minds desire to know and understand. We will not be satisfied until we know and understand everything. In heaven, we will.

Except…

We cannot know and understand God Himself, His goodness, His power. He is infinite–beyond the measure of our minds. We cannot know why He made the world, you, me. We cannot understand His reasons for treating us with mercy.

So, yes: Our desire to know and understand outstrips all our other desires and defines who we really are. We can, with the help of God, clear away all our silly penchants for anything less than the truth. Then the desire to know, which moves beneath our fleeting appetites, will propel us to God.

But our acquiring minds do not move at the absolute center of our existential gravity.

In heaven, may it please Him we get there, we will delight in understanding why shrimp swim the ocean waters, why Mars has two moons, why so-and-so did such-and-such.

But the whys and wherefores will have an end. One thing, however, will have no end: our adoration of the infinite Love behind it all, Whom we will never understand.

Desire for knowledge runs pretty deep. Worship of the One Who blows our minds–that runs even deeper.

…Thank you very much for all the kind birthday wishes. The kudos there are really due to my mommy.

Right on Cue

From whom or from what will we take our cues?

On the stage, one actor begins to speak and move without a cue–namely, whoever speaks the opening lines. From then on, everything proceeds according to cues. To succeed as an actor, the first rule is: learn your cues.

Well, the Bard of Avon wrote, “all the world’s a stage.” On the stage of life, the only one who begins to speak and to act without a cue is: God, the Creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Shakespeare spoke true: We human beings resemble actors on a stage in that we live our lives following cues. None of us here started this big show. Our first rule needs to be: Stay on cue.

The question is: From whom or from what will we take our cues?

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Prospero’s Books

Now that I am growing old, I was thinking of changing my motto to “33 until I die.” But then the band played Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and I changed my mind back again to 18…

John Geilgud starred in a weird movie-version of The Tempest called “Prospero’s Books” in 1991. But that is not our subject matter here. Our subject is Prospero’s actual books.

Ironically enough, Prospero suffered miserable misfortune.

Prospero reigned as Duke of Milan, exercising his power with a philosopher’s detachment. But his ambitious brother conspired to set Prospero adrift on the sea.

The King of Naples, too, had betrayed Prospero.

But his old friend Gonzalo saved Prospero’s books and devised a means to get them to him on the deserted island upon which the exiled Duke made his home.

Like the Bard himself, Propsero grew, by reading, to godlike power. The spirits served him. The one enemy he had on his island was Caliban, the son of a witch.

When a boatload of Italians were shipwrecked on the island, Caliban tried to convince some of them to murder Prospero.

Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him,
I’ th’ afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.

Our godlike power comes from books. And, of those books, the best teach us about the sweet pity of God.

Prospero’s old enemies are among the shipwrecked. He visits mild chastisement upon his brother and the King. But then he forgives.

Prospero’s reading has filled him with the greatest of all powers: perspective.

He invokes the spirits to bless the betrothal of his daughter to a prince.

But then he admonishes the young man with this speech from the “We-Love-Weddings-But…” sub-folder of the Sister Death file:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

At the end of the play, Prospero reliquishes all his magic powers.

This is as close as we get to Shakespeare the man. He was bidding farewell to the stage. He never wrote another play after “The Tempest.”

Prospero hopes that he has pleased his audience. We have seen him use his frightening power with kindness and mercy.

Then he begs for our prayers and exits.

Hopkins Rain

The welcome rain this morning brought to mind this venerable Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet on Jeremiah 12:

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

And, speaking of us eunuchs of time, Hopkins can out-do Hamlet when it comes to identifying the quintessences of dust:

Man–we, scaffold of score brittle bones, whose breath is our memento mori.

Death awaits us all, dear friends. Have a great week!

Please Pray for Priests, Holy Father, and Me

On June 29, 1951, Joseph Ratzinger was ordained a priest.

George and Joseph Ratzinger ordination day
I had a chance to meet then-Cardinal Ratzinger in February of 2005, about ten weeks before he had to change his plans for retirement.

I was visiting Rome with a friend from Raleigh, N.C. In our brief conversation with him, Card. Ratzinger expressed interest in the region between North Carolina and Washington, D.C. He admitted to knowing little about the “upper South,” and wanted to learn.

Anyway…On June 29, we solemnize the memory of the twin patrons of the church of Rome, Saints Peter and Paul. This year, the Holy Father will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his ordination. He has asked the entire Catholic world to pray for vocations to the priesthood as a way of wishing him a happy anniversary.

It also happens that June 29 will be the day when your unworthy servant will begin my ministry as the pastor of both Franklin and Henry counties, Virginia.

My predecessor in Martinsville will be on the way to sunny Florida. My adventures up and down US 220 will begin.

Perhaps, then, dear ones, while you are praying for our Holy Father’s health, and for vocations to the priesthood throughout the world, you could also say a little prayer for this gangly numbskull.

…By the by, we have come around the three-year cycle to another “summer of Romans” (St. Paul’s letter, that is). This summer I intend to preach on Matthew 13 instead, but if you have any interest in the prattlings I made three summers ago, you can click HERE.

Baptism, Holy Trinity

Whenever we baptize someone and make him or her a Christian, we need two elements:

1. Water.

2. The words.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Everyone really ought to know these words, just in case you find yourself in a situation where someone might die unbaptized. The right thing to do under such circumstances is to baptize the person.

Generally speaking, we priests and deacons baptize people. But, every Catholic can and should minister the sacrament in an emergency, using any water available and the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Now, some scoffers might watch us baptize and say, “Well, this is really just so much superstition and magic!” Okay. Fair enough. If we Catholics just slathered water over unsuspecting babies, muttering an incantation that really doesn’t mean anything, then the scoffers would have a point.

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Monticello Monastery

Sometimes, the world-famous internet maddens you with its lacunae. One cannot read St. Augustine’s second sermon on the Apostles’ Creed in its entirety on-line. That said, it is well worth reading the parts of the sermon that Google Books offers, to prepare spiritually for Trinity Sunday…

…Upon entering the reception hall in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, the visitor espies a familiar map on the wall. Perhaps, gentle reader, you will recall the joy with which we considered the Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia a few months ago.

What made Thomas Jefferson? Can we say that, above all, he was the son of the man who had made Virginia colony’s most excellent map?

…My peregrinations have taken me to Monticello, to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and to the Cistercian Abbey of New Melleray in Peosta, Iowa, among other places.

Monticello reminds me more of New Melleray than it does of Mount Vernon. Jefferson conceived and built a hilltop cloister to house his quiet life of study and meditation.

Everything about the clever, simple, orderly way in which the necessaries of Monticello are arranged recalls the refreshing straightforwardness of the architecture of a monastery.

And, of course, the quadrangle of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson designed, feels like a brick neoclassical cloister.

Perhaps Sally Hemmings could report that Jefferson did not live his 43 widower years as a perfect monk. But there is no question that he built an edifice designed for reading, working the land, hospitality, and contemplation. This is precisely what St. Benedict directed.

It is ironic, since Jefferson despised monks. Like repels like.

Someday, perhaps, the Lord will afford me the leisure to write the book I have always wanted to write: The Untold History of the Contemplative Life in the United States.

Chapter 1 will consider Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.