St. Augustine on Grace and the Mass

At Holy Mass today, we hear St. Paul give thanks that “on receiving the Word of God,” we Christians, “received it not as the word of man, but as it truly is, the Word of God.”

Almighty God has spoken His Word by sending His Son. The Scriptures bear witness to it. And I think we can safely say: Of all the sentences recorded in the Holy Bible, two of them loom uniquely large: “This is My Body, given up for you.” And “This is My Blood, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

st-augustineNow, speaking of shepherds, St. Augustine of Hippo died 1,589 years ago today.

We mediocre people can’t exactly speak of St. Augustine’s “life’s work,” since he did more good work on any given day of his life than most of us manage in a whole lifetime. But one big part of St. Augustine’s work involved: clarifying the truth about the Redemption.

Mankind has both great freedom and dignity and great moral and physical weakness. The coming of Christ enables us to understand this mystery of human greatness and human weakness–at least to some extent.

The fundamentally important fact that St. Augustine clarified is: Holiness, goodness, virtue begins with God. God gives a fresh start to fallen man. Life as a Christian is, first and foremost, grace from God. He gives; He saves; He consecrates. Then, we undertake to co-operate.

Speaking of the Council of Trent… One thing they all had in common—that is, all the bishops and theologians gathered at Trent and Martin Luther and John Calvin: they all revered St. Augustine as an absolutely trustworthy teacher. They all sought to follow the teaching of St. Augustine.

Luther and Calvin had hostility towards the work of ordained Catholic priests. Not without good reason, since they saw around them an enormous amount of clerical corruption and ignorance, extending all the way up the hierarchy to the pope.

This led the Protestants to condemn the priesthood and the Mass, as precisely the kind of false, un-Christian religious work that Christ had come to free us from. They saw the Mass as a pagan-like ceremony, which interfered with our understanding of salvation as a pure gift. We don’t have to do these ceremonies as a sacrifice to God, they argued; we don’t need priests separated from the rest of the flock. Because Christ has already redeemed us, without us doing anything, making us a priestly people.

Ok. But in condemning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Luther and Calvin parted ways with their teacher, St. Augustine. Augustine taught the newly baptized, who had just attended Mass for the first time: the Holy Eucharist is a sacrifice in which Christ makes Himself present, in order to be recognized by faith and then received.

Luther and Calvin were right to insist that there is only one sacrifice. But the Mass isn’t another sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of the Redemption, which frees us from sin, sanctifies us, and unites us.

 

My Hero, His Mother, and Pontifical Prevarication

pope press conference

You listened to her, O Lord, and did not despise her tears, which moistened the earth, whenever she prayed. (Antiphon for today’s Memorial of St. Monica)

St. Monica. She prayed for her son… Augustine. That he would embrace Catholicism.

She prayed. And he did. He embraced our religion, big time. The Catechism quotes Monica’s son more than any other theologian. Reading St. Augustine’s sermons has given me endless inspiration and insight. There is no one whom I admire more.

What separated Augustine from the hypocrites? Maybe his slavish humility before the sacred text of the Scriptures? Maybe his total personal devotion to Jesus his Savior? Maybe his tireless readiness to seek the truth? This made him the kind of pastor who could answer questions without prevarication.

Let’s take one Augustine quote from the Catechism.

To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts.

From this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only God (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence). [CCC 1809]

There’s enough wisdom in that one paragraph to organize your whole life on.

To live well is to love God.

Loving God keeps love pure and temperate.

Loving God makes love strong, even in the face of great difficulties.

Loving God keeps love honest and just, since the Lord sits on His throne to judge everyone, with all truth.

And loving God keeps love prudent, since a brave, pure, and honest love can see through nonsense and root itself in facts, in reality.

The best reaction I have heard so far to the publication of the famous Archbishop Viganó dossier: “I am shocked above all to learn that an Italian official spent time working during the second half of August.”

augustine-bookSeriously, though. We find ourselves at a terrible impasse. Our Holy Father had a chance yesterday to deny the truth of what the Archbishop alleges. On the papal plane heading home from Ireland, a reporter asked the pope directly, “Is it true that you knew about McCarrick?”

But Pope Francis would not say, “No. It is not true. Had I known I would have acted. Acted on behalf of those victimized by McCarrick’s predations. I’m only sorry I found out about it so late, and it breaks my heart to think about all the people that this man has hurt.”

The pope could have said all this. If it were true. But he did not. He said, “You must draw your own conclusions.”

To repeat: A reporter had asked the pope about a private conversation between himself and an Archbishop. The Archbishop had written: “I told Pope Francis about McCarrick in June of 2013.” So, Holy Father, is that true? Answer: “Draw your own conclusions.”

You might have wondered what I meant above, when I used the word ‘prevarication.’ Our Holy Father’s answer to a simple Yes or No question, a question that only he can answer: “Draw your own conclusions.”

That’s what we call prevarication, my dear ones.

Happy New (Liturgical) Year! We present: the Baby Thief

If the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.  (Matthew 24:43)

Two points regarding this sentence uttered by Jesus Christ:

1. Petty thefts occurred every night in ancient Israel. Most people lived in small homes made of mud bricks. Your roof served as the bedroom. A thief could quietly claw a hole in the mud at the foundation of the house, crawl inside, and steal your valuables as you slept. Then you wake up in the morning, climb down the ladder to start making breakfast, and all your pots and pans have disappeared! Not to mention your figs and wine.

2. In this parable, the thief who breaks into the house represents…The Lord. The Son of Man. The Messiah. God’s anointed. Maybe that seems strange, God stealing things. Doesn’t mean thou shalt not steal no longer counts as a commandment. Thou still shalt not steal. But God will come like a thief. To steal what?

That appears to be the question. What does baby Jesus come to steal? Little baby Whose birthday comes in exactly four weeks, the newborn Son of Man. He came suddenly into this world–to steal something.

paul simonTo answer this question, let’s consider this: One image appears repeatedly in the first reading and psalm of today’s Holy Mass. The Temple of the Lord, the house of Jacob, the house of David, the great stronghold of the city of Jerusalem: not a mud-hut susceptible to burglars. Rather, a fortress of peace.

“May peace be within your walls! …From His holy mountain, God will instruct us in His ways, and we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” Peace.

We might complain that the western world has lost the Christian faith and no longer knows the reason for the season. But everyone knows: Christmas means peace. The newborn child comes to Bethlehem as the Prince of Peace. God Almighty, the awesome, the terrifyingly holy: He has come to the world as a defenseless baby, armed not with spears and arrows, or flaming thunderbolts, but only with ‘eyes as clear as centuries.’*

What does He come to steal, this gentle baby Son of Man? Doesn’t His arrival, in and of itself, steal our pretexts for hating each other? Doesn’t He take away our reasons for violence? Doesn’t baby Jesus invade our little egos, so as to clear out all the self-serving nonsense that we keep stored in there, that sets me against my brother?

I may find myself desperately attached to the idea of myself as a bigshot. I may base my entire worldview on “us good people” vs. “those dirty people.” Maybe I have convinced myself that I deserve all the fanciest new voice-activated gadgets, like the little canister that I can talk to and make my lawn-sprinklers come on, at my command. And I’ve decided I will use it against my annoying mailman.

wise-menBut the little baby of Bethlehem comes to dig into us, into the little mud-huts of our souls, and steal every self-aggrandizing delusion out of our egos. When I contemplate the Prince of Peace, laid in an animals’ manger; when I reflect that this is God Almighty–my sense of my bigshot self has to go out the window.

I meditate on Our Lady nursing the cooing baby, and I have to recognize: God has acted with this kind of peaceful compassion towards me. Even though I certainly don’t deserve it. Even though God really has every right to distrust me or even smack me in the face. But instead He comes in peace.

So how can I hate my neighbor? How can I lash out at that bad driver? How can I continue to pile up loot and chase after silly trifles, without giving at thought to other peoples’ struggles?

The Prince of Peace came to turn enemies into friends. St. Augustine described how we will, please God, sing Alleluia together, in heaven. Here’s how the saint put it:

O, what a happy alleluia there–how carefree, how safe from all opposition, where nobody will be an enemy, where no one will ever cease to be a friend!

A very clever thief, this baby. We contemplate Him, born of a penniless mother, in a stable with the animals. The bottomless peace of His humble birth steals every pretext I could possibly come up with to harbor resentment in my heart. He fleeces my soul of all the empty pride I have piled up there, the lies and half-truths that make me think I’m better than so-and-so. Just by being born in peace, the Son of Man steals all that and carries it away like a thief in the night.

Then, all we have left is: His divine love. These little mud-huts we have for souls can become His everlasting Temple, the stronghold of God’s peace.

____________

* from Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time”

Fathers on Matthew 13:52

The learned scribe brings forth both the new and the old. (see Matthew 13:52)

throne of st gregory
Sede of Gregory the Great

What does the Lord mean here?  What is “the new,” and what is “the old?”

Answering “the Old Covenant and the New Covenant!” or “the Old Testament and the New Testament,” puts you in good company.  St. Augustine interpreted the verse that way.

During St. Augustine’s time, and up to this very day, some Christians erroneously have dismissed the Old Testament as barbaric, flawed, and unnecessary.  So St. Augustine understood the Lord Jesus to be saying in this verse:  My disciples need to study and try to understand both the New and the Old Testaments.  We cannot grasp the divine mystery without both.

What about St. Gregory the Great?  He understood “new” and “old” differently.

The “old” truth, which is still true, is:  The human race deserves condemnation and punishment because of our sins.

The “new” truth is:  We can repent and be converted.  We can live in the sweetness of the kingdom of the Lamb.

Earthy-Homily Week Continues…

Procession St Agatha relics
Procession with St. Agatha’s relics, Catania, Sicily

Since St. Agatha won her crown of martyrdom by heroic chastity, and since she intercedes for us constantly to help us grow in chastity ourselves, and since she is the heavenly patroness of all women suffering from breast cancer, we can, I think, take the occasion of her Memorial and the great procession in Sicily in her honor—we can take this occasion to meditate on this:

God loves breasts.

Torturers mutilated Agatha’s breasts. The Lord sent St. Peter during the night to heal them.

Lanfranco, Giovanni St Peter Healing St_Agatha

St. Augustine put it like this: Christ is like the Breast of God. If I might summarize the sermon:

A baby cannot digest solid food. The mother transforms solid food into warm milk for the baby.

Our minds cannot handle the full truth of God, at least not yet. We need to be given warm milk, so that we can mature to the point where we are ready to see God.

I fed you milk, not solid food. (I Corinthians 3:2) Christ is like the breast of God.

The Son knows the Father fully. Christ transforms the solid food of divine knowledge into the babies’ milk that we need. His teaching is our breast milk.

If we consume Christ’s teaching, and live on it, we will grow to maturity. Then some day we will be able to live on the solid food of the beatific vision.

Augustine & King

Augustine_and_donatists

You received it, not as the word of man, but as it truly is, the word of God. (I Thessalonians 2:13)

Do you think that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., intentonally gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on St. Augustine’s feast day? Maybe he did. The following year, Dr. King went to St. Augustine, Florida, to conduct a non-violent civil-rights campaign.

Augustine of Hippo repented of his pagan way of life and dedicated his prodigious mental energies to ministering the liberating Word of God. I can’t hold myself out as an expert on either St. Augustine or Dr. King. But certainly they shared many things–in addition to African blood.

March on Washington August 28By leading the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King sought, as a Christian leader, to reconcile black and white America.

St. Augustine also dedicated the better part of his life to reconciling divided Christian peoples. He led the church in North Africa through the Donatist controversy, when a whole generation of baptized Christians disagreed violently with each other over who had the authority to confer the sacraments.

And both St. Augustine and Dr. King emphasized the love of God in their work of trying to unite people. Left to our own devices, we fall, we divide, we invent pretexts for hating each other. But God shares His love with us in Christ. Christ can make us loving and decent, respectful and united in the truth.

St. Augustine and Dr. King taught the gentle, forgiving love of God. The love of the Sermon on the Mount. The love Christ taught us. The love that meets evil not wth violence, but with meekness.

Dr. King himself got a kick out of the story about a black man who had been insulted by a bus driver. “I got two pieces of bad news for you,” the man said to the driver, “First, I ain’t no boy. And second, I ain’t one of them nonviolent Martin-Luther-King Negroes.”

Dr. King had friends and benefactors in New York City. Once he was riding an elevator in a skyscraper with a group of white lawyer friends. A woman got on, and, assuming that Dr. King was the elevator man, she told him what floor she wanted. He courteously pressed the button for her without saying a word. After she got off, Dr. King and his friends had a good laugh over the elevator boy who was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.

The word of love and solidarity is not the word of man. It is not the word of St. Augustine or Martin Luther King. It is the word of God. Blessed are we if we receive it as such.

As Dr. King put it, quoting the prophets Isaiah and Daniel, fifty years ago:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of God shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into the beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

“The Perfection of the Universe” Explanation

Why, on the sixth day, did God make scorpions and other nasty creatures that can kill us?

This question can be found in St. Thomas’ Summa (I q72 obj6):

Certain animals are poisonous, and injurious to man. But there ought to have been nothing injurious to man before man sinned. Therefore such animals ought not to have been made by God at all, since He is the Author of good; or at least not until man had sinned.

To defend the authority of Holy Scripture, St. Thomas does the wise thing and quotes St. Augustine:

In the words of Augustine: “If an unskilled person enters the workshop of an artificer, he sees in it many appliances of which he does not understand the use, and which, if he is a foolish fellow, he considers unnecessary. Moreover, should he carelessly fall into the fire, or wound himself with a sharp-edged tool, he is under the impression that many of the things there are hurtful; whereas the craftsman, knowing their use, laughs at his folly. And thus some people presume to find fault with many things in this world, through not seeing the reasons for their existence. For though not required for the furnishing of our house, these things are necessary for the perfection of the universe.” And, since man before he sinned would have used the things of this world conformably to the order designed, poisonous animals would not have injured him.

We could also say, I guess, that such creatures serve a necessary purpose in the food chain. An ecologist would probably offer evidence to support such a proposal. But the food-chain response would not satisfy the metaphysical and theological inquirer, who would respond to such an answer with: Well, then, why did He make the food chain work in such a way that it requires animals that can kill us?

So we must enter the realm of “the superior art of the divine craftsman” to explain some things. Why do some people die unjust and suffer eternal condemnation? Because for God to punish them contributes to the overall perfection of the universe.

A perfection that we cannot now understand.

Now, must a sober, inquiring, scientific mind dismiss such a response as facile and anti-intellectual?

Yes, if a better answer to the question at hand can be found. Why do people face the danger of death when they contract certain diseases? Because their deaths contribute to the perfection of the universe? No. They face the danger of death because particular germs and infections threaten their bodily systems. We serve the perfection of the universe by trying to figure out how to combat these germs and infections. Under such circumstances, we need anatomical and biological facts to serve the cause of effective medicine, not justifications for divine Providence.

But:

No, a reasonable person must have recourse to the mysterious-perfection-of-the-universe response, when the question truly does touch on the superior craftsmanship of the divine author of reality. If we do not have the humility to acknowledge that our minds cannot comprehend the absolute good–if we don’t accept the fact that God accomplishes good ends with events that seem terrible to us–then we risk the folly of the unskilled person who hurts himself and others with powerful tools that only the Master really knows how to use.

Thoughts?

Poem for You

Walking along the beach, trying to come up with an explanation for the Trinity, I found this, in a hole dug in the sand:

Draw Me Into the Shimmer

From this point-of-view, the ocean glistens.
Nine o’clock, and the sun presides.
The circling gulls see something else:
They search for fish I can’t see.

From my point-of-view, this is Delaware.
Europe’s over there, and Maryland to the right.
The sand-digging toddlers consult other reckonings,
plans for moats and turrets by the primordial seaside.

From my point-of-view, the day’s well-begun.
I’ve said my prayers; I have a novel and sunblock.
From the divine: yesterday never ended.
His gaze commands, well above the sun.

I think I know what day it is.
But maybe August 15th will last forever this year.
Maybe the season-turns will fade
into a slow, sweet cradle-rock.

Nap-time for toddlers, and the gulls have settled.
The heat of the day sits on the sand.
“Can’t sit here, looking at the ocean forever.”
I think I know what day it is.

O draw me into the shimmer, wise One,
a javelin in your hand, perpetually hurtling.
My point-of-view like a shaft of light
from the water.

August 15th–from this beach chair.
You see today.

No altar standeth whole? (Roman Missal IV)

No one can read chapter 11 of Book IX of St. Augustine’s Confessions without tears.

Reading St. Monica’s words so moved Matthew Arnold that he turned this sonnet:

‘Oh could thy grave at home, at Carthage, be!’—
Care not for that, and lay me where I fall.
Everywhere heard will be the judgement-call.
But at God’s altar, oh! remember me.

Thus Monica, and died in Italy.
Yet fervent had her longing been, through all
Her course, for home at last, and burial
With her own husband, by the Libyan sea.

Had been; but at the end, to her pure soul
All tie with all beside seem’d vain and cheap,
And union before God the only care.

Creeds pass, rites change, no altar standeth whole;
Yet we her memory, as she pray’d, will keep,
Keep by this: Life in God, and union there!

Indeed. But the poet has missed the mark. St. Monica begged to be remembered at the altar. Union with God–we find it at the altar.

Some of our beloved separated Christian brethren ask us, How did the Last Supper become the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

The answer is two-fold:

Continue reading “No altar standeth whole? (Roman Missal IV)”

Wholeness, Augustine, Lucrece, and Maria

Click here for a paean to St. Maria Goretti from ’09…

The virtue which makes life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will. –St. Augustine

These days everyone strives for the great goal of “wholeness.” Shop green, eat clean, yoga, the right teas…wholeness awaits.

Now, I am not trying to make fun of anyone. The ancient Romans had a saying, Mens sana in corpore sano. A sound mind in a healthy body. Bodily temperance certainly aids us in the spiritual life.

But the ancient Romans also sang songs venerating one of their fabled heroines, named Lucrece. Lucrece had commited suicide when she concluded that her body had been ruined by the violation of a hostile invader.

St. Augustine answered by making his very important point: Personal integrity is found in the soul. We pray for bodily health and well-being. But no disease or violence of any kind can make a pure heart impure. And a pure heart is the center of genuine wholeness.

By the same token, of course, no bodily exploit can make an impure heart pure.

If a soul falls into unwholesomeness, the greenest grocery store cannot provide a remedy. Going to GNC or Trader Joe’s would just be a waste of time. Only contrition and penitence can purify the soul and make it whole again, by the blood of Christ.

So the real name of soul-body wholeness is ‘chastity.’ An honest soul governs an honest body. And the true heroine of chastity is not Lucrece of ancient Rome, but St. Maria Goretti of rural Italy.

The young farm girl willed only the good. When a young man tried to rape her, she prayed for him to repent and relent. She sought only to do God’s will. She did not choose death; rather, she was martyred because she refused to consent to a sin.

St. Maria’s body lies lifeless now in her shrine, wounded by repeated stabbings. She was killed 109 years ago. The man who killed her came to visit and pray–after he repented of what he had done, served his prison sentence, and then became a Franciscan.

He came to kneel at the feet of real wholeness. No body could be more ‘whole’ than one which is wounded like that of Christ.