Imagine if our tongues were made of uakitite, or synthetic boron nitride. (Mononitride rocks, as hard as diamonds.) We could hardly taste anything, then. Or if our nostrils were lined with titanium. Couldn’t smell. Or if our hands were made of stainless steel.
St. Thomas Aquinas pondered this, by way of an explanation for our fragile mortal bodies. God made us human beings to perceive His glory, beginning with tasting, smelling, touching, hearing, and seeing things—using our five bodily senses. Which means that we need bodies forged of atoms—but atoms arranged with the kind of suppleness necessary to receive impressions from exterior stimuli.
In other words, in order to perceive reality as God made us to do, our bodies necessarily possess an inherent chemical instability. The very physical quality that makes them capable of tasting, smelling, and feeling things—it makes them mortal, also.
The elements of the human body have to fall somewhere between the hardness of quartz and the softness of eiderdown–in order to register the taste of basil pesto and the smell of the briny sea. Rocks don’t feel or smell. And rocks don’t die, either.
Now, this would qualify as a genuine tragedy—the sensing, living human being, doomed to dissipate into dust, eventually. Were it not for Jesus Christ.
All the delicate, mortal jumble of perception that a human being is—the Lord united it all with the immortal absoluteness of God Almighty.
He submitted Himself to the disorder of the desperate, sinful world—which unjustly killed Him. Why? So that all our perceiving of things could lead to God, instead of to oblivion. Jesus makes this soft flesh immortal, by the mystery of His cross and resurrection.
Holy Baptism initiates us into this: Jesus’ Christ’s 100%-human eternity.
From the desk of Snowbound Father Mark… A summary of Question 36 of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, part II-II: De Invidia.
Goodness makes us rejoice. Evil makes us sorrow.
We naturally want honor, a good name, a good reputation–and the prosperity that tends to go with a good reputation. But when we focus too much on winning the esteem of others, we grow vain.
We observe that sometimes people enjoy prosperity and a good reputation because they deserve it. But sometimes the unjust and undeserving prosper, and that makes us indignant.
When we meditate on the truths of the Christian faith, we recognize that success and prosperity in this world is one thing–relatively short lived. On the other hand, success and prosperity in the pursuit of holiness and eternal life–that’s another thing. That’s worth pursuing with zeal, with jealousy. May we all jealously strive to get to heaven.
While we do, we’ll forget about vanity. And we’ll learn to accept the fact that this world deals out rewards and punishments in an amazingly unfair way.
Divine love rejoices when anyone prospers with the truly beautiful goods of eternal life–with virtue and genuine excellence. By the same token, divine love sorrows and feels pity whenever a neighbor suffers.
When, on the other hand, we lose sight of the real goal of all our striving, and seek only success and recognition in this world, then we live in a state of competition with our peers. We sorrow at the neighbor’s achievement and excellence–because I think his or her success somehow harms me, makes me look like a loser by comparison.
Now, even good people experience twinges of envy–these twinges are venial sins. But if I forget heaven, grow vain, and let the green-eyed monster take over my my mind, I will gossip; I will tear down; I will hate. And then I will heartlessly rejoice at the misfortune of the one who has excelled me.
The rule to measure ourselves by: The loving, merciful person does not envy anyone–except the saints in heaven, whom he hopes to join. But the envious person shows no mercy.
The handouts below overlap, because we got sidetracked with discussion and never completed page 2. So page 2 always became page 1 for the following week. And we only made it as far as verse 16 (the most world-famous verse of the Bible.)
All that said, you might enjoy clicking through the links and reading St. Thomas’ reflections…
My dear mom has undergone numerous examinations and medical procedures this past fortnight. The good news of today is: Cardioversion has restored her heart to “sinus rhythm.” (Most of us take sinus rhythm for granted.) Mom thanks you for your prayers for her.
Meanwhile, I have haunted hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, with a lot of time to read. So I read Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man.
Niebuhr unfolds the “Christian distinction”–between Creator and created–with a relentless penetration. He offers an exposition of Christianity capable of withstanding every attack launched since the first Rationalist was born. Niebuhr manages to find the truth in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, while simultaneously cutting them to the quick.
Niebuhr shares an intellectual quality with my hero, St. Thomas Aquinas. He patiently endures the vast expanse of the unknown. Niebuhr, like St. Thomas, clarifies admirable yet deceptive half-truths, by affirming only the simplest, clearest facts. And the simplest, clearest fact of all is, of course: We do not know what God knows.
All this said: For all the similarities of method a reader can find in Niebuhr’s Gifford lectures and St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, one fundamental dissimilarity struck me. And comforted me.
The dissimilarity involves what St. Thomas’ Summa Theo. shares with the Catechisms of Sts. Pius V and John Paul II, and with all other definitive manuals for Christian teaching. Namely this: they start from the rough-and-tumble on-going life of Holy Mother Church.
Christ gave the Apostles a mission, and we Catholics have been at it ever since. In doing our thing, we have a distinctive vocabulary that we use. For instance, words like: God, creation, angels, heaven, Christ, Incarnation, Resurrection, Holy Spirit, Trinity, baptism, Eucharist/Mass, priest, pope, bishop, sacraments, faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, Father, Virgin, prophet, gospel, hell, incense, etc.
The Church uses these words in the course of the life She leads in obedience to Her Lord. A good teacher of Her faith knows what all these words mean, and knows how to use them well. St. Thomas wrote his Summa Theo. to help educate teachers of Christianity. So the Summa is fundamentally a dictionary, in which the Angelic Doctor gives crystal-clear definitions of the words we students of Christ use. Sts. Pius V’s and John Paul II’s catechisms offer the same.
The fact that the Church will live Her life; that She will continue to do so until the end of time; that She will use Her distinctive words, bandying them around at countless parish Masses, baby baptisms, weddings, episcopal consecrations, funerals, Bible-studies over coffee, CCD classes, Roman Synods and papal conclaves, prayers at the bedside of dying grandparents, etc., etc., etc.–this fact we do not doubt. Mother Church will live and breathe, give birth, march into the future. She cannot die or be destroyed. We know this, because it’s part of the Christian faith, which we hold, by God’s grace, as truth revealed from on high.
So that’s a comfort, at least for me.
Niebuhr valiantly undertook to meet Mr. 20th-century Existentialist on his own terms. And Niebuhr worked and prayed as a churchman. But The Nature and Destiny of Man does not involve the kind of living celebration of the truth of Christ’s resurrection that occurs at every Mass. In fact, the book amazingly does not touch on Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday at all.
Now, do we Christians face challenges, maybe even persecutions, perhaps martyrdoms in this age? May God give us the strength to endure whatever may come. I, for one, can’t quite conceive of myself as some kind of potential hero. I prefer to rest with some comfort in the certainty that the Lord will keep His Church in business, even with priests as feckless as me holding great responsibilities.
God, the eternal Son of the Almighty Father, became man, suffered, died, and rose from the dead. In doing so, He revealed to us the Father’s love, and He gave us a model of life to imitate. And He redeemed us, satisfying divine justice for all our sins, so that we don’t have to.
Facts. This is what has happened. But let’s ask this question: Did He have to do all this? Of course not. He could have left us to fend for ourselves and languish in misery forever.
Even if we presuppose God’s infinite love, and His will to redeem us and offer us heaven, He still would not have had to do it the way He did—suffering so excruciatingly for us. God could have forgiven our sins without any satisfaction having been made for them.
But then He would have failed to execute perfect justice! you say. No, not true. Because the only one to whom He owes a debt of justice, when it comes to mankind’s sins against Him, is Himself. So, He could have let it all go, without doing an injustice to anyone. And Christ would not have suffered and died and rose again, as He did.
In other words, it all could have been different. But the omnipotent One designed, in the inscrutable brilliance of His Wisdom, the plan of salvation as it has, in fact, come to pass.
Here we find what I think is the most convincing aspect of our holy faith. Christ’s Paschal Mystery does not proceed from necessity. It’s not like gravity. Gravity necessarily results in pollen covering your windshield in the morning sometimes.
But what we believe in—the Paschal Mystery of Christ—it proceeds not from necessity, but from beauty. Divine beauty. Beauty that teaches us what beautiful really is.
Nothing could be more beautiful than Jesus Christ in His Passover. This beauty, more than anything else, is what makes it all-but-impossible not to believe in Him.
Why would we keep Catholic Schools Week at the end of January? After all, the school year certainly offers other, warmer weeks—when we might have a picnic, or a Catholic-Schools-Week cookout or pool party?
Well, there’s a reason…
Who’s the heavenly patron of all Catholic schools? St…. His feastday falls on January… (28th)
But: St. Thomas Aquinas is not the only heavenly patron of Catholic education with a feastday during the final week of January.
Whose feastday falls on January 31? Right! St. John Bosco, who went out into the streets to find boys who needed an education.
And whose feastday do we keep today, on the 475th anniversary of her holy death? St. Angela Merici. She went out into the streets to find girls who needed an education.
All three heavenly patrons of Catholic Schools Week believed that a good education starts with one thing, namely Jesus Christ.
In our gospel reading at Holy Mass, we hear the Lord Jesus insist that doing the will of God is the most important thing. And in the first reading, we hear St. Paul declare: The will of God is for us to be consecrated through Jesus’ offering of His Body for us.
So we can draw a straight line: Christ ———-> the saints of Catholic education ———-> us celebrating school Mass together.
When it’s cold and blustery outside during Catholic Schools Week, that reminds us that we belong in school. We belong inside, learning about Christ, and about the wonderful things that He has designed, and made, and made beautiful.
At Roanoke Catholic School, we count ourselves thoroughly blessed to have: 1. the constant help of God, 2. the grace of the sacraments, 3. the intercession of our patron saints, and 4. the love and help that we give each other.
We belong together in school. God Himself has united us in the truly worthwhile endeavor of seeking His Kingdom and growing into the people that He made us to be.
Today, in honor of St. John the Baptist’s birth, we present: Father Versace’s Fortnight-for-Freedom jeremiad.
My spiritual life, so far as it goes, consists in: trying to do my duty as a parish priest (which includes a fair amount of praying), visiting the Blessed Sacrament as often as possible, spending a day in total solitude whenever I can, and spiritual reading and mental prayer early each morning.
I hope and pray that this lame little spiritual life will suffice to prepare me adequately to go to prison, when the time comes. Because it seems to me that the question is not whether I will have to spend time in jail. The question is: For which of the two possible reasons will I actually wind up getting arrested, in the end?
Lately, in the early hours, I have been reading St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, one chapter per day. Chapter 83 of Book IV goes a long way towards helping us understand our position in the Fortnight for Freedom. Book IV covers salvation. In the latter part of the book, St. Thomas explains life after the general resurrection.
Please God we find ourselves among the saved, rather than the damned, we will live in a state of universal brotherhood, perfectly united with God. There will be no more of a lot of things. One of the the things there will be no more of: sex.
Let’s consider universal brotherhood first.
On the news the other day, I heard a “border-security” pundit say, “The officials of this administration, in their heart of hearts, don’t believe that we have a right to keep people out of this country. People who are not murderers or drug-dealers, who just want a job.”
Then an administration official they had on the show immediately denied it. But I wanted to say to the first guy: You got it, brother! Whether or not the administration officials believe it is a secondary issue. The primary thing is: It’s true. No human authority possesses the right to keep peaceful, law-abiding migrants from moving from one place on God’s earth to another, if such be their will.
The fact that the U.S. tries to impede perfectly legitimate migration indicates a major lapse in our Christian perspective on things. It calls into question whether we, as a nation, can really claim to have a Christian perspective on things.
When people migrate into his land, a Christian does not wonder whether or not the migrants have a good reason for migrating. The Christian assumes, as a decent human being, that they must have a good reason. Why would a law-abiding person leave his or her homeland? Must have been forced by extreme hardship and/or grave danger.
So the Christian thinks, What can I do to help?
The idea that a migrant doesn’t belong here? Again, this is something that just does not occur to a Christian mind. This land belongs to God, not the Dept. of Homeland Security.
Of course, God gives us the duty of maintaining law and order. But migrants in search of a stable and peaceful life do not disturb law and order. To the contrary, they have talent and can make contributions that we need in order to have the vigorous society that we want to have.
So: What kind of trouble will we find ourselves in, brothers and sisters in the Lord, because we cannot and do not accept one of the pretensions to authority that the federal government fondles for itself? What kind of trouble will we find ourselves in because we say that the border-control juggernaut operates like an un-Christian, inhumane racket?
Forgive me. I sat in the waiting room at the detention center in Farmville last Tuesday evening, while they were bringing Enrique from the dining hall to the visitors’ area. I saw a shift-change take place. Well-meaning young officers going home, more well-meaning young officers coming on duty. I do not criticize them; they need a good job, just like everyone else.
But: Why? Why does this barbed-wire-fenced compound, holding several hundred good, hard-working people–keeping them away from their families and their jobs–why does it exist? I don’t mean to be cynical. But the border-control business is a racket.
Maybe, though, I will wind up in jail for reason #2.
In chapter 83 of Book II of Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas carefully considers whether we will have sex with each other after the general resurrection at the end of time. We will no longer need to keep the human race going by procreation, because we will no longer die. Ergo, no good reason for sex.
What about having sex just for the pleasure of it? St. Thomas replies:
To indulge in the pleasure of sex without a good reason for having sex reduces a human being to the level of animals. God made sex pleasurable, just like He made eating pleasurable, in order to encourage us to do it, when a good reason presents itself. But when there is no good reason to have sex, it is beneath the dignity of man to indulge just for the sake of fleshly pleasure.
Of course, St. Thomas has the authority of the Lord Jesus Himself behind him here. In the kingdom of heaven, saith the Lord, they will not marry; they will be like angels.
“You’re interested in having children together? Great,” say I, the priest. “Come in to my office and we’ll work on preparing you to get married!” Or: “Ok, not intending to have children? No problem. Live a beautiful single life, like so many great saints have done!”
I have no problem with “gay” people, per se; I have no problem with teenagers who claim to be in love; I have no problem with successful professionals who honestly believe the Lord has something other than baby-making in mind for them, at least for the moment. Great.
But no one in any of these situations has a legitimate reason for taking their pants off with anyone else in the same room. All of us have more important, more constructive, and more dignified things to do than engaging in fruitless sex.
From one perspective, ‘gay marriage’ and the HHS contraceptive mandate appear to present separate political problems for the Church in the United States. But it seems to me that these problems stem from the same fundamental Christian point-of-view, which St. Thomas outlined.
If someone says, “I want to be married, or do married things, but bearing children isn’t one of them,” then I, the priest, representing the Church as an institution, and as an employer, am like: “Um, no entiendo. How can you possibly imagine that I could do anything for you? Other than encourage you to repent of your sins and try to lead a more reasonable, healthy, and holy life?”
Let’s pray. I don’t particularly want to go to jail. I can’t imagine that any of you do, either.
Let’s pray that everyone will calm down and thereby see things more clearly. Let’s pray that none of us have to go to jail simply because we see life from a Christian point-of-view, which governs all our interactions with other people.
Let’s pray that all of us here on earth will receive the grace to repent of our sins and get to heaven together, where we will live in universal brotherhood, with angel-like chastity, gazing upon the unbounded glory of God.
We might well wish that He had not. We might prefer that He had remained on earth, with us, so that we could see Him. We might think that God being visible on earth would make the Christian faith considerably easier to sustain.
But St. Thomas Aquinas explains in the Summa Theologica why we should, in fact, rejoice that Christ ascended into heaven–even though, for now, it is beyond our sight. St. Thomas gives a number of reasons. One of them is this: We rejoice in Christ’s Ascension because it directs our fervor toward the invisible Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, which Christ gives us from heaven, is, to quote St. Thomas, “love drawing us up to heavenly things.” The Holy Spirit is nothing other than “love drawing us up to heavenly things.”
In other words: God is; our religion revolves around; the meaning of life is: love drawing us up to heavenly things. I would say that this may be the key concept for our spiritual lives in AD 2014, fifty years after Vatican II.
In the unlikely event that you would like to read my “Catholic Schools Week” homily, here it is:
We rejoice to come together as a school family, celebrating our membership in the great family of God, the Church.
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. (Mark 3:35)
Jesus’ statement gives us the right to call ourselves a family. And to consider ourselves part of God’s family. We become members of that family by doing the one thing we are here together to do: the will of God. Roanoke Catholic School exists for one fundamental reason: to help us learn to do the will of God. That makes us a ‘school family,’ like nothing else ever could.
Now, St. Thomas Aquinas, heavenly patron of Catholic schools… A very quiet man. Did not talk a lot. He listened a lot. And, by listening all the time, and reading quietly, he became incredibly smart, and holy.
St. Thomas’ life teaches us that God’s will for us is, above all, to learn things. The more we learn, the more we will love God and each other. The more we know about God, and about all the wonderful creatures He has made, and all the kind deeds He has done—the more we learn about this endlessly fascinating world, His creation—the more full of holy love we will be. And our very love of the truth will bring us together and make us love each other as brothers and sisters more and better.
Our heavenly patron St. Thomas teaches that everything true and good leads us towards God. Every honest effort we make to learn something brings us one little step closer to heaven.
Pray for us, Angelic Doctor! Help us to stay on the path of truth. Help us to learn something true and beautiful every day, so that we can grow in love together as members of God’s family.
…PS. Had to drive to the See city of Richmond for a meeting. Enjoyed Shakespeare’s Pericles en route. The Arkangel cast includes two familiar voices: one from the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle BBC Pride and Prejudice, and the other from All Creatures Great and Small. Christopher Timothy speaks Cleon and Christopher Benjamin voices Simonides on the CD.
Pericles amazes. Just when you think the next plot twist couldn’t possibly be any more outlandish than the preceding one…the Bard delivers. The play, though set in an altogether pagan world, represents the virtue of religion (in the person of Pericles) and also makes great hay with the dead coming back to life. It’s also very helpful for New-Testament geography.
If Pericles were up for best picture, I would turn on the tv on Sunday. As it is, I’m rooting for “Silver Linings Playbook.”