Two Visions of the Church: John O’Malley’s Grave Errors

v2People viewing first the synod, and then l’affaire Douthat, from afar may wonder how we got to this point. What is the source of these stark divisions–in the church, the synod, the theological discipline, and the laity–that cause this kind of hostility?

The answer is actually fairly simple.

One side understands that the work of the council was to produce 16 documents reorienting the eternal and unchanging teachings of the church for the modern world. This what Pope Benedict meant by a “hermeneutic of continuity.” The teachings are in perfect continuity with the teachings of the church. The council addressed praxis.

The other side practices a “hermeneutic of rupture,” which approaches the council as a kind of ongoing event, initiated in the 1960s, of ever-evolving church teachings wrapped in the fluffy gauze of the Spirit of Vatican II. This side is, of course wrong, and the precise scope of its error is encapsulated in the following quote from John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II.

Apparently, what happened was not debate between liberal and conservative wings resulting in 16 documents, but a series of seismic changes…

…from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to on-going, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to active appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.

This is madness. It’s actually embarrassing that a professor at a leading university could produce such raw nonsense. And yet this is the way a certain school of theology and church history actually sees the council, and thus their role as banner-carriers for the Spirit of Vatican II, fighting threats, coercion, legalism, exclusion, hostility, suspicion, and lack of principle. (Psss, I think they mean us, Ross.)

The mind that conceives such a paragraph not only doesn’t grasp the true history of the council (for this list is so obviously wrong and biased that only a True Believer could produce it), but has cast himself as hero of a conflict playing out in his own mind. It establishes a clear set of conflicts between us (The good progressives! Yay!) and them (The bad reactionaries! Boo!). The Other (eg, Ross Douthat, and other Catholics who take a traditional line along with St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and others) is an obvious enemy to be mocked and crushed.

And thus it was no surprise to find the first name on the list of signatories to the petition seeking the removal of Ross Douthat from the New York Times was

…yeah, you guessed it: “John O’Malley, SJ (Georgetown University).”

Does that clarify things a bit?

Pope Benedict, Creation, and Biblical Criticism

My paper “The Word in Creation: The Ratzingerian Critique of the Historical-Critical Method and Its Application to the Creation Accounts” is up at Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

Two of my preoccupations during my master’s studies were Creation (particularly the Augustinian understanding of Genesis) and the theology of Pope Benedict. This paper was where the two converged thanks to Ratzinger’s little masterpiece In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, which allowed me to explore his approach to Biblical criticism in the context of unfolding Genesis 1.

Here’s a bit of it:

Creation was not a preoccupation of the Israelites until after the Babylonian captivity, when they began looking back at their origins and—drawing on ancient tradition—developed the passages into the form we now know. What they tell the Jews is simply this: God was never just the God of one piece of land or one place. If he was, then he could be overthrown by another, stronger “god.” After Israel lost everything, and began encountering God again in their misery, they came to understand that this was the God of all people, all lands, and indeed, of all the universe. He had this power, first in Israel, then in Babylon, because he created the world and all that was in it.

In captivity, they heard creation myths such as that of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which tells of Marduk splitting the body of a dragon in two to form the world, and fashioning humans out of dragon blood. All of this dark and primordial nonsense is banished by the image of an earth “without form and void.” No more dragons, no more gods, no more violence and blood: just the pure power of creation from nothing, by a God who made man, not to suffer and struggle and die, but to walk in paradise.

There was order to creation, not chaos. It emerged from Reason, not madness. And it was spoken into being by the Word of God. Indeed, Jews believed that the Torah existed before creation. Creation happened to make the Torah known.

Furthermore, the shape of the creation account itself was meant to echo the Torah and to sanctify time and the week. Time becomes sacred in this account, with man laboring for six days in imitation of God, and resting to worship God on the seventh, in imitation of the “rest” of God Himself. The creation accounts thus build towards, and culminate in, the Sabbath, “which is the sign of the covenant between God and humankind.”24 In a very real sense, then, the creation account can be seen as liturgical: “Creation exists for the sake of worship.” That final day is a day in which humanity itself participates in the freedom of the almighty, provided to us in the covenant. We “enter his rest” (in the words of Psalm 95 and Hebrews).

Read the rest.

Understanding the Washing of the Feet

One of the most striking traditions of Holy Week is the washing of the feet at Holy Thursday mass. Once again, we are reenacting something Christ himself commanded us to do, and the somewhat awkward and uncomfortable way the tradition is performed at many modern masses does nothing to undercut the potent symbolism of the act.

(Photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

(Photo: L’Osservatore Romano)

Multiple layers of meaning and possible interpretations, from the purely cultural to the deeply symbolic, are found in John’s account of the washing of the feet (John 13:1-20). The three most obvious meanings are based upon Near Eastern customs of hospitality, Jewish customs of ritual washings, and the exemplum of Christ. There are deeper meanings as well, with suggestions of the sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation, and even a complete summary of the life of Christ.

Hospitality and Servility

At the Last Supper, Jesus would have been the “host” and the apostles the “guests.” Washing the feet of weary travelers would have been a job delegated to a gentile slave by the host. Not even a Jewish slave would be expected to wash feet. The host of a meal would certainly not lower himself to performing this vile task himself. The feet of travelers in ancient Palestine would have been shod in sandals, and thus filthy from traveling on dirt roads. However, as St. Paul says in Philippians: “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:5-7) Jesus himself tells us that the “first shall be last,” (Matt. 20:16) and in the washing of the feet he shows his willingness to take on the work of the last and the least. (1)

Ritual Washing and the Priesthood

Ritual washing was a key element of Jewish practice, with elaborate procedures and requirements for cleansing those who might become “unclean” during daily life. (2) Several times in the scripture Jesus indicates that the need for this ritual washing has ended now that the messiah has come. (cf Matt. 15, Mark 7, John 2, etc) In John 13, however, we find Jesus cleansing the feet of his disciples.

One possible interpretation is as a priestly act. In Judaism, the Kohen (a member of the priestly class) has his hands washed prior to performing the Priestly Prayer. Historically, this also included washing the feet, although today they often simply remove their shoes. It is one of the rare instances where foot washing is prescribed, following the command of Exodus 30:20-21 that the priestly class “shall wash their hands and their feet” prior to coming to the altar. (3)

The foot washing in John 13 is a prelude to Jesus’ own High Priestly Prayer in John 17. In performing these ablutions, he is thus conferring priesthood on his apostles. It is a way of extending the authority of the Aaronic priesthood to the apostles.

Exemplum

Finally, we have the reason that Jesus himself states for washing the disciples feet. They are to see this as an example to follow. They are to embrace humility at all times, and to serve one another. As St. Augustine writes: “as [man] was lost by imitating the pride of the deceiver, let him now, when found, imitate the Redeemer’s humility.”(4) This is the humble act of the Christian, set against the pride of the world.

Baptism & Confession

There is also a sacramental symbolism found in the scene. When Jesus says “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except his feet,” he calls to mind both Baptism and Confession. The person washed of sin in baptism does not need to be baptized again to be cleansed of his sin.(5) But the feet are the part of the body which carry us through the world, and the world in John is the realm of sin.(6) Our feet carry us into sin, and this sin is washed away in the sacrament of confession. (7) Thus, Jesus washes away the “world” when he washes the feet of the disciples, so that sin has no place at His Father’s table.

Summary of Jesus’ Life

Beyond these surface meanings, however, we find a more majestic symbolism in the washing of the feet. Pope Benedict XVI analyzes this in some depth in Chapter 3 of Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, calling it not only an exemplum (an example to follow) but also a sacramentum (a summary of the grace and mystery of the life of Christ). (8) Fulton Sheen, in his Life of Christ, expresses this with impressive concision:

The scene was a summary of His Incarnation. Rising up from the Heavenly Banquet in intimate union of nature with the Father, He laid aside the garments of His glory, wrapped about His Divinity the towel of human nature which He took from Mary; poured the laver of regeneration which is His Blood shed on the Cross to redeem men, and began washing the souls of His disciples and followers through the merits of His death, Resurrection and Ascension. (9)

Jesus lowered himself to serve sinful mankind, clothing himself in miserable flesh and washing away our sins through his sacrifice. Thus is the entire life of Christ contained symbolically in the washing of the feet.

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Embracing Mystery

We must not fear the unknown in our faith, but rather embrace it. There is no reason to be ashamed by the inscrutable aspects of God. Instead, we should point to these very mysteries as proof of His Being, for only when we stand in mystical awe do we truly experience the One worthy of worship.

Meditative mystical image of the Trinity, from the early 14th-century Flemish Rothschild Canticles, Yale Beinecke MS 404, fol. 40v.

Meditative mystical image of the Trinity, from the early 14th-century Flemish Rothschild Canticles, Yale Beinecke MS 404, fol. 40v.

Our finest moments in life lie beyond words: the inward tremor at a piece of music, the awe at nature’s grandeur, the silent symphony stirred within us by a work of art, the wonder of holding a newborn child, the thrill from the touch of a lover’s hand. All this and more is beyond words, beyond reason or mechanistic explanations. They are in the realm, not of emotion, but of pure experience.

There are thin places where the numinous charges the material world and makes the mystical encounter with God possible. More: their utter irreducibility to mere language points directly to God. My own mystical experience is so far beyond the ability of words or reductionist explanations that I never even speak of it directly, and words are my living. There are things beyond knowing, beyond even feeling: things that the poet grasps better than the scientist, and which neither grasps fully.

Einstein wrote:

The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms–this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.

If the source of all that is had brought forth a world that could be grasped by our unaided intellect, he would be pretty poor deity. He dwells in absolute mystery, and we shall never grasp the essence of that mystery until we see face to face. Revelation can unveil Him only in part, and even then we can only know the depths of these mysteries by analogy. Since we know God is, and we know God cannot be grasped by unaided reason, the rest of the faith flows naturally. The evidence of our reason and sense, the gradual revelation by God himself, and the ultimate act, in which God shows us His face in the incarnation.

Only mystery draws us in, inviting us to a deeper relationship with the unknown and unknowable. A mystery only inspires and drives us forward until it is solved, after which is is filed away and forgotten. God dwells in everlasting mystery, and like the veiled lover, this is why we pursue Him.

The Days of Our Glory

Darkness is a fearsome thing: concealing, obscuring, bearing with it an almost tangible sense of oppression. The promise of the savior in Isaiah is nothing less than the promise to banish the darkness: the people who walked in darkness shall see a great light.

What does the Psalmist tell us?

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for dawn,
more than those who watch for dawn. (Ps 130)

With dawn comes the light, and the end of the darkness, and that is why we wait and watch.

These days of Advent lead us, step by step, into that light, because to come into all at once is to be blinded by its brilliance. We are always told that Easter is the most important day on the calendar, because it is the promise of resurrection. Easter is the cause of our hope.

But Christmas is the cause of our glory. The incarnation is such a remarkable thing that it’s impossible grasp all at once. It is strong medicine for the fall of man, doing nothing less than divinizing flesh and enfleshing divinity.

God makes himself known in the most visible and powerful way possible. The theophanies of the Old Testament were mere foreshadowings of the incarnation. In these instances, God worked through creatures to make himself and his mighty presence known to man.

To make Himself fully known, however, he had to be visible and tangible. He had to be human. Then He could teach us. He could be our model. He could show forth his strength, goodness, power, and mercy for all humanity to imitate. And, ultimately, He could pay our debt.

He could not have done this in some other form or even through some creature, for He had to be both fully human and fully divine: the divinity (uncreated, eternal, and unchanging) showing forth the ideal, and the humanity (created, mortal, and mutable) showing what simple flesh could achieve.

By taking on flesh in the womb of Mary, He glorifies us all. We may look to Easter for our Hope, and it is right and proper to do so. But we look to Christmas for our Glory, because it is when God came among us and made our flesh–flesh that was the cause of so much distress and difficulty since man was first set down in Paradise–the very channel of our salvation.

St. Thomas Aquinas Believed in Ghosts

St. Thomas Aquinas at Prayer

St. Thomas Aquinas at Prayer

We’re coming up fast on Halloween, so I want to jump ahead a bit to see what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about ghosts. The section is found in the Summa Theologica, Supplementum Tertiæ Partis: Question 69. Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death, Article 3. Whether the souls who are in heaven or hell are able to go from there?

St. Thomas knows his answer will be pushing a bit against The Master, Augustine, and so he addresses Augustine’s argument about Monica (quoted toward the end of this post) in his first Objection/Reply:

Augustine, as may be gathered from what he says afterwards, is speaking according to the common course of nature. And yet it does not follow, although the dead be able to appear to the living as they will, that they appear as often as when living in the flesh: because when they are separated from the flesh, they are either wholly conformed to the divine will, so that they may do nothing but what they see to be agreeable with the Divine disposition, or else they are so overwhelmed by their punishments that their grief for their unhappiness surpasses their desire to appear to others.

With due respect to St. Thomas, this does not address the Augustinian argument in its fullness. (This section of the Summa was compiled from other writings, after his death, by Fra Rainaldo da Piperno, and therefore its weaknesses should not be attributed to Thomas.) Augustine isn’t talking about frequency of apparitions, but about the mere possibility of them. Augustine freely admits that God may allow his angels or saints to appear in the world for His Own purposes, but his argument is more subtle and complex, and he seems to allow this possibility somewhat begrudgingly and anecdotally.

Thomas, on the other hand, is reflecting a more developed medieval sense of ghosts who may indeed have an active role in the world, as permitted by God for the His glory or the betterment of man.

There are some weaknesses in Thomas’s argument. He makes his case that only the saints and damned may be seen upon the earth without appearing much concern by the main question that vexed Augustine: how are they seen, with what vision, and what kind of bodies are seen if the soul is immaterial?

Thomas accepts, with Augustine, that some ghosts aren’t seen with corporeal vision, but declines to develop the idea:

Thus sometimes even the living appear to others and tell them many things in their sleep; and yet it is clear that they are not present, as Augustine proves from many instances.

Thomas also makes recourse to St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues in his argument, but fails note that the most famous ghost story in that book is of neither saint nor damned, but merely a restless spirit looking for release.

Curiously, he relies upon St. Jerome rather than Augustine for his sed contra, quoting Jerome against Vigilantius:

For thou sayest that the souls of the apostles and martyrs have taken up their abode either in Abraham’s bosom or in the place of refreshment, or under the altar of God, and that they are unable to visit their graves when they will. Wouldst thou then lay down the law for God? Wouldst thou put the apostles in chains, imprison them until the day of judgment, and forbid them to be with their lord, them of whom it is written: They follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth? And if the Lamb is everywhere, therefore we must believe that those also who are with Him are everywhere.

Since the devil and the demons wander throughout the whole world, and are everywhere present with wondrous speed, why should the martyrs, after shedding their blood be imprisoned and unable to go forth?

Thomas adds firmly: “Therefore it is absurd to say that the souls of the departed do not leave their abode.”

Again, this is further than Augustine is willing to go, but reflects the more developed medieval attitudes, which allowed a place for ghosts. This paralleled the more advanced considerations of purgatory in the middle ages, and allowed for souls in purgatory to visit the living through a semi-permeable membrane between living and dead.

It’s not that purgatory was “invented” in the middle ages. (Even Jacques le Goff admits the belief is found in the Early Church.) It’s that beginning in the 12th century, we have a more elaborate theology and visionary experience of purgatory which leads it to a more central place in the life of the church. With this, we see an expansion of the ghostly literature as it becomes a kind of adjunct to the literature of purgatory.

If we are to believe the Vita of Thomas by his fellow Dominican Bernard Gui (and there’s no reason not to), Thomas himself had ghostly encounters. One was with his sister, requesting prayers for her soul in purgatory, and then again when she had been freed from purgatory. The other was with Brother Romanus, who visited Thomas to announce his own death, sojourn in purgatory, and subsequent passage to eternal life.

There’s some discomfort in this, because while many ecclesial writers eject great clouds of qualifications about ghosts only being able to do the will of God, the literature reflects a more messy reality of saints, demons, and ordinary folk. The restless spirit in purgatory was already becoming a staple around the time of Thomas, and these tales, though often given a Christianizing veneer, often had deeper roots in ghostly, often pagan, folklore.

By the time of Thomas, much of Augustine’s nuance and qualification was, for all practical purposes, discarded. The unquiet dead were a social reality and weren’t going to be banished by pure theology, so they were gradually folded into the life of the church, albeit on the margins and never “officially.”

In all my reading on the subject (and although I don’t pretend it’s anything close to comprehensive, it’s pretty extensive) I have not yet come across an official magisterial statement on ghosts. The Church, of course, allows great latitude for the actions of saints doing the will of God, but as for the power of the ordinary unquiet dead—neither blessed nor damned—to visit the living, she appears to remain silent. If someone is aware of something I’ve missed on that front, I’d love to hear about it.

More ghost posts can be found here.

To conclude, here is the full article by Thomas:

There are two ways of understanding a person to leave hell or heaven.

First, that he goes from thence simply, so that heaven or hell be no longer his place: and in this way no one who is finally consigned to hell or heaven can go from thence, as we shall state further on (71, 5, ad 5).

Secondly, they may be understood to go forth for a time: and here we must distinguish what befits them according to the order of nature, and what according to the order of Divine providence; for as Augustine says (De Cura pro Mort. xvi): “Human affairs have their limits other than have the wonders of the Divine power, nature’s works differ from those which are done miraculously.”

Consequently, according to the natural course, the separated souls consigned to their respective abodes are utterly cut off from communication with the living. For according to the course of nature men living in mortal bodies are not immediately united to separate substances, since their entire knowledge arises from the senses: nor would it be fitting for them to leave their abode for any purpose other than to take part in the affairs of the living.

Nevertheless, according to the disposition of Divine providence separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men, as Augustine, in the book quoted above, relates of the martyr Felix who appeared visibly to the people of Nola when they were besieged by the barbarians.

It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living; or again in order to seek our suffrages, as to those who are detained in purgatory, as evidenced by many instances related in the fourth book of the Dialogues.

There is, however, this difference between the saints and the damned, that the saints can appear when they will to the living, but not the damned; for even as the saints while living in the flesh are able by the gifts of gratuitous grace to heal and work wonders, which can only be done miraculously by the Divine power, and cannot be done by those who lack this gift, so it is not unfitting for the souls of the saints to be endowed with a power in virtue of their glory, so that they are able to appear wondrously to the living, when they will: while others are unable to do so unless they be sometimes permitted.

 

St. Augustine’s Rejection of Ghosts

Pope Benedict with the bones of St. Augustine

Pope Benedict with the bones of St. Augustine

Our final look at Augustine’s theology of the dead comes from On the Care to be Taken For the Dead (De cura pro mortuis gerenda), written in 421 to Paulinus, Bishop of Nola. The text was a response to a question from Paulinus, and is quite touching in places.

A woman had asked for her son to be buried near the tomb of St. Felix, and she asked if there was any benefit in this. Paulinus said yes, but then reconsidered and put the question to Augustine.

Augustine’s primary concern when addressing the subject of ghosts was to disavow pagan funerary practices, which had become lavish, absurd, and consumed by superstition. He writes against them in City of God as well, complaining that people treat the dead as though they were gods.

Remember also, in The Confessions, how he praises his mother for obeying St. Ambrose when he forbid her to bring food to graves.

The body is not important to Augustine, and the funeral rites, while they must be sensitive to the needs of the grieving, cannot become excessive. The soul alone matters. Thus, he answers the question of Paulinus in the negative:

And we must not believe, as we read in Virgil, that the unburied are prohibited from sailing and crossing the river Styx because ‘One may not cross the gloomy banks and foaming crest until his bones find peaceful rest.’ Who would open his Christian heart to these fabulous poetic imaginings, when the Lord Jesus asserts that not a hair of the head of a Christian will perish?

Yet, the bodies of the dead, especially of the just and faithful, are not to be despised or cast aside. The soul has used them as organs and vessels for all good work in a holy manner. If a paternal garment or a ring or anything else of this kind is as dear to children as is their love for their parents, in no way are their very bodies to be spurned, since they are much more familiar and intimate than any garment we put on. Bodies are not for ornament or for aid, as something which is applied externally, but pertain to the very nature of the man. Hence, the funerals of the just men of old were cared for with dutiful devotion, the processions solemnized, and a fitting burial provided.

According to Augustine, the fate of the living is of no concern to the dead, the fate of dead cannot be known by the living, and communication between the two realms is impossible. Though he doesn’t dwell on the story of Dives and Lazarus at length, this passage is at the foundation of his rejection of the idea of the dead passing back and forth to our world.

He is unwilling, however, to dismiss the numerous reports of people who saw the dead, in dreams or while awake, and received some special knowledge from them. For example, there are reports of dead people who report the locations of their bodies, which were missing and unburied, and these reports turned out to be true.

This obviously puzzles him, and he’s willing to admit his ignorance, saying “Now, if we state that these things are false, we shall seem indifferently to go against the writings of certain of the faithful and against the senses of those who affirm that such things have happened to them.”

Augustine allows that these visions, if they provide useful and true information, may be the work of angels, who might be permitted or ordered by God to convey information to the living. The dead, however, take no role in this, and it is only done to provide “solace for the living.” At other times, false visions of the dead (demonic in origin) may lead people into error and doom.

He likens ghostly visions to those times when a person appears in the dream of another, without that person’s knowledge or consent. The dead who are seen as “ghosts” are thus not the souls of the departed. Even if seen while waking, they are no more substantial than the image of a living person in the dream of a sleeper. This is the spiritual vision discussed in Augustine’s Three Types of Vision.

The only exception he may allow is for saints, as with the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, or when St. Felix is reported to have appeared during the barbarian siege of Nola.

In a poignant aside, he observes that

If the souls of the dead were taking part in the affairs of the living, and they themselves were speaking to us when we see them in our dreams (that I may be silent about others), my devout mother would be with me every night, for she followed me on land and sea that she might be with me. Far be it that she should have become for the sake of a happier life cruel to this extent, that, when anything grieves my heart, she would not console her grieving son whom she loved so fondly! She never wished to see me sorrowful. Truthfully, then, does the inspired Psalmist write: ‘When my father and my mother forsook me, the Lord received me.’ If, then, our parents have forsaken us, how do they take part in our cares and affairs? However, if our parents are not interested, who are the others among the dead who know what we are doing or what we are suffering?

Thus do we see the main thrusts of Augustine’s arguments—his rejection of any hint of pagan death customs or beliefs, and his interpretation of the story of Dives and Lazarus—colored by a very personal bit of reasoning. After all, if the dead could visit at will, where is his beloved Monica? It’s a fair question.

Since Augustine peppers his writings on the subject with stories of dreams and ghosts, I’m going to leave you with one more of his tales:

Payment of a debt was demanded of a certain son, whose father, without the knowledge of the son, had made full settlement before his death, but had not received back the original note which was now produced. The son became very sad and was wondering why his father as he was dying had not told him what he owed, since he had made a will. Then the same father appeared to his son, who was now quite anxious. While the son was sleeping his father told him where he might find the receipt which would acknowledge full payment of his original note. And when the son found this and presented it, not only did he throw off the slander of the false claim, but also recovered his father’s signature, which the father had not recovered when he repaid the loan. Here, indeed, the mind of a man is thought to have exercised a care for his son and to have come to him sleeping, that he might inform his ignorance and so set him free from a great annoyance.

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St. Augustine’s Ghost Story

St. Augustine’s Three Ways of Vision

 

St. Augustine’s Ghost Story

St. Augustine was the first Church Father to consider at length stories of ghostly apparitions that appeared in various strands of hagiography, legend, scripture, and eyewitness testimony. It’s not truly a “theology of ghosts,” but it’s a more developed consideration of the subject that anyone else, even Tertullian, had attempted, or indeed would attempt for centuries.

The Devil and St Augustine Carlisle Cathedral

The Devil and St Augustine, Carlisle Cathedral

Augustine firmly rejected the idea that the dead could return from the afterlife to make themselves visible to the living. The idea that a person who saw a ghost was seeing, essentially, the soul of the departed was impossible. He addressed the issue is his letter to his friend Evodius (Letter 158 from Evodius and Letter 159 from Augustine) and in a treatise addressed to Paulinus of Nola called On the Care to Be Given to the Dead.

Evodius was a friend and follower of Augustine who eventually became the Bishop of Uzalis. His letters to Augustine often prompted prolonged discourses. In Letter 158, Evodius tells a complicated story of multiple waking and sleeping apparitions of known dead people who come to either predict a death, or reveal the fate of someone already dead. Evodius appears to accept these as legitimate experiences of the departed, although it is notable that he was eyewitness to none of them.

Evodius uses this story to ask whether the soul, upon leaving the body after death, takes with it some other kind of body which enables it to move and appear to the living.

In letter 159, Augustine slams the door shut on that question: “I emphatically do not think that the soul leaves the body with a material body.”

In addressing the question of sightings which include verifiable facts and predictions of the future, Augustine acknowledges that he has no explanation for them. As for the visions of the dead, he clearly places them in the realm of spiritual vision and refers Evodius to Book 12 of Genesis, which I discussed in a previous post.

The great saint of Hippo, however, can’t sign off without relating his own spooky story:

Our brother, Gennadius … told us that he doubted once … whether there was any life after death. As God would not abandon a man of his disposition and works of mercy, there appeared to him in sleep a handsome youth of dignified mien, who said to him: ‘Follow me.’ He followed and came to a certain city, where he began to hear, on his right, singing of such exquisite sweetness that it surpassed all known and ordinary sweetness. Then, as he listened, he asked what it was and his guide said it was the hymns of the blessed and the saints. I do not clearly remember what he said he saw on his left. When he awoke, the dream vanished and he thought of it only as one does of a dream.

But, on another night, behold, the same youth appeared to him again and asked whether he recognized him; he answered that he did so fully and perfectly. Then the youth asked where he had known him. He remembered what to reply to that, too, and described the whole vision and the hymns of the saints which the other had led him there to hear, recalling them with ease as a recent experience.

Thereupon, the youth asked whether he had been asleep or awake when he saw what he had described. He answered: ‘It was in a dream.’

The other said: ‘You remember well, it is true, that you saw all that in a dream, but you must know that even now you see, although you are asleep.’ When he heard that, he believed it was so and expressed it by his answer.

Then the one who was teaching him continued and said: ‘Where is your body now?’

He answered: ‘In my bedroom.’

‘And do you know,’ said the other, ‘that in that same helpless body, your eyes are fast shut and useless, and that you see nothing with those eyes?’

Gennadius answered: ‘I know it.’

His guide went on: ‘Then, with what kind of eyes do you see me?’

He fell silent at this, finding no reply, and, as he remained in doubt, the youth made known what he was trying to teach by these questions.

He went on: ‘As those eyes of flesh are now inactive and perform no function while your body lies asleep in bed, yet you have eyes with which you behold me and a sight of which you make use, so, when you die and the eyes of your flesh see nothing, there will be in you another life by which you will live and sense by which you will perceive. See to it that henceforth you do not doubt of the life which remains after death.’

Thus this faithful man says that his doubt on this matter was removed, and what was his teacher but the providence and mercy of God?

Augustine concludes by saying:

Every day man wakes and sleeps and thinks. Let him say whence come those thoughts resembling the shapes, the qualities and the motions of bodies yet not composed of corporeal matter. Let him say it, if he can, but, if he cannot, why does he rashly try to form some kind of definitive opinion about these very rare and unusual experiences when he cannot explain the constant and daily ones? As for me, words fail me to explain how those seemingly material bodies, without a real body, are produced; yet, as I know that they are not produced by the body, so I wish I could know how we perceive those things which are seen sometimes by the spirit and are thought to be seen by the body, or how we are to distinguish the visions of those who are deluded by error or impiety, when they are generally described in the same terms as the visions of the good and holy.

Bracing clarity and honesty from Augustine: when he doesn’t know an answer, he admits it. He suggests that the mysteries of ordinary life are enough to occupy our energies without recourse to rare and disputed phenomena.

Tomorrow, I’ll finish talking about Augustine’s ghosts by looking at his On the Care to be Taken For the Dead (De cura pro mortuis gerenda), which includes yet another of his ghost stories. For someone who didn’t believe ghost stories, he seemed to relish telling them.

Related

All Ghost Posts.

St. Augustine’s Ghost Story

St. Augustine’s Three Ways of Vision

St. Augustine’s Three Types of Vision [Ghosts and the Church]

Before we get down to St. Augustine’s thoughts on ghosts, I need to do some spadework by exploring his understanding of different ways of seeing. He explains this in On Genesis Literally Interpreted (De Genesi ad litteram), his sprawling twelve-part study that is one of his least-read major works. (Don’t confuse it with the minor, earlier work, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished BookDe Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber.) Augustine’s work follows standard ideas found in antiquity, and would prove influential with the rise of Aristotelianism in the 12th century and beyond.eye2

Chapter 12 of De Genesi is titled “On the Heavenly Paradise: different kinds of visions,” and marks a turning point in the work in which his attention shifts from pure commentary on Genesis and related issues to a consideration of paradise.

Of particular concern here is the vision of Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, describing how he is caught up to the third heaven. The nature of this vision—and indeed, of all “dreaming and different kinds of ecstasy—leads Augustine to identify three types of vision: corporeal, spiritual, and intellectual. To understand what he thinks of ghosts we first need to grasp these three ways of seeing.

Corporeal (visio corporalis)

Simply stated, this is the physical sense of sight. Our idea of sight is quite different that of the ancients and medievals. We know that sight is reflected light received by the eye and transmitted to the brain through the nervous system. They had, generally speaking, two models of seeing: extromission and intromission.

  • Extromission suggested that a kind of beam or ray left the eye, touched the object being seen, and then returned to the eye, conveying the physical qualities (shape, size, color) of an object to the soul.
  • Intromission suggested that the form of object being seen emitted some element that traveled through the air (which was conceived as a medium rather than as empty space) and imprinted itself on the eyeball. Various words were used for this form, one of them being phantasma. Vision itself was thus a kind of “ghost.”

Both models suggest that a passive object has in fact an active part in being perceived by the sense of sight. This is the lowest order of vision.

Intellectual (visio intellectualis)

At the other end of the spectrum was the most exalted form of vision: the intellectual vision. This kind of vision is beyond all others: it is to see things as they really are, “not in images, but as it properly is in itself.” (De Genesis 12.15) This is a rare kind of vision, afforded only the the spiritually advanced. It begins in our intellect (mens), and seeks to contemplate God as He truly is. This is the vision of the upper part of the soul, and it is beyond any image.

Spiritual (visio spiritalis)

Between corporeal and intellectual vision, Augustine posited an intermediary way of seeing. In his “spiritual” way of seeing, neither the senses/sensus (as in corporeal) or the reason/mens (as in intellectual) are dominant, but rather the spirit of man. And he is not seeing concrete bodies, but rather semblances of bodies. Mediating between the sensus and the mens is the imaginatio, which can receive images acquired by the eye, submit them to the judgment of the intellect, and then pass them on to the memory. It can also generate nonexistent things from the fancy of the individual. Afflictions of the body or mind could cause the spiritual vision to malfunction, creating hallucinations. “Imagination” is certainly part of this, but imaginatio goes beyond that to suggest a profound mediating role.

Augustine offers an example and explanation:

When you read, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, three kinds of vision take place; one with the eyes, when you see the actual letters; another with the human spirit, by which you think of your neighbor even though he is not there; a third with the attention of the mind, by which you understand and look at love itself.

Both corporal and spiritual vision process images, but whereas the senses produce vision in relation to a material object, the spiritual vision produces images with or without reference to a material object. The spiritual vision perceives “semblances of bodies,” either while the individual was awake or asleep. When something goes wrong in the mind or the body, those semblances may not tally with objects in the real world, and we perceive merely forms in the imagination.

In other words: ghosts.

Should Parents Turn Gay Kids “Over to Satan”?

Since this post wound up being too long, I’ll get to the short answer to the titular question and say, “No.” And let me just add “duh.”

But noted anti-Catholic John MacArthur has a different perspective . He was asked a question about how a parent should respond to a child who is gay, and this was his response:

There’s a problem of language here: he’s speaking Protestantese to people who only understand English. Most people will hear “turning over to Satan” and think “damnation.”

That may in fact be what MacArthur has in mind, and the dark depths of the Calvinist brain are well beyond my ability to understand. But let’s look at what he may be trying to say, on his own terms.

In the video, he suggests two ways for a parent to respond to a gay child. If the child claims to be a Christian, he is to be confront sternly. If there is no response, you’re to tell the church and there is to be a public “putting-out” of the child.  Shunning, in other words. You have to alienate them and separate them. You don’t eat with them. You “turn them over to Satan” as Scripture says.

If the adult child does not claim to be a Christian, it’s a “whole different issue.” You have to treat them like a non-believer, by bringing the Gospel to them directly and confrontationally.

Okay, so exactly what part of the Scripture is MacArthur misinterpreting here?

First up, 1 Timothy 1:18-20:

18 This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.

Satan is a liar, not a teacher, so we cannot view this as a “learning” discipline. Hymenaeus and Alexander, who were teaching heresy, won’t learn to avoid error from the father of heresies. So what does Paul mean?

St. Thomas offers two interpretations:

First, that just as the Lord gave the apostles power over unclean spirits to cast them out (Matt 10:8), so by the same power they could command the unclean spirits to torment in the body those whom they judged deserved it. Accordingly, the Apostle commanded the Corinthians on his own authority to deliver this fornicator to Satan to be tortured. Hence, secondly, he discloses the effect of this sentence when he says: for the destruction of the flesh, i.e., for the torment and affliction of the flesh in which he sinned: “One is punished by the very things by which he sins” (Wis 11:16). Thirdly, he mentions its fruit when he says: that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus, i.e., that he may be saved on the day of death or on the day of judgment, as was explained above (3:15): “but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire,” i.e., of temporal punishment. For the Apostle did not deliver the sinner over to Satan’s power forever, but until the time when he would be converted to repentance by bodily torment: “Vexation alone shall make you understand what you hear” (Is 28:19). This sentence of the Apostle corresponds to what the Lord observed, when he said to Satan: “Behold he is in your hand (namely, his flesh), but yet keep his life unharmed” (Jb 2:6).

To deliver this man to Satan can also be understood as referring to the sentence of excommunicating by which a person is cut off from the community of believers and from partaking of the sacraments and is deprived of the blessings of the Church. Hence it says in S. of S. (6:10): “Terrible as an army set in array,” i.e., to the devils. For the destruction of the flesh would mean that, being cut off from the Church and exposed to the temptations of the devil, he might more easily fall into sin: “Let the filthy still be filthy” (Rev 22:11). Hence he calls mortal sins the destruction of the flesh, because “He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Gal 6:8). But he adds: that his spirit may be saved, i.e., that the sinner, recognizing his vileness, may repent and thus be healed: “I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth” (Jer 31:19). This can also mean that his spirit, namely, the Church’s Holy Spirit, may be saved for the faithful in the day of judgment, i.e., that they not destroy it by contact with the sinner, because it says in Wis (1:5): “For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit and will rise and depart from foolish thoughts.”

“Turning over to Satan” is excommunication, since the person is put out of the Church. He becomes part of the world rather than part the body of Christ, and is thus a subject of the Lord of the World: Satan. This is a medicinal penalty in Catholicism, meant to correct grave and persistent sin.

There is also the sense that “turning over to Satan” involves punishment of the body, in the hope that by the torments of Satan the sinner may be drawn back to the straight path.

Next, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 5:

1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

As the flesh will be glorified in salvation, so is it corrupted in sin, and the punishment of this flesh is the work of the devil.  As St. John Chrysostom writes: “For the gain is greater than the punishment: one being but for a season, the other everlasting.”

So we have this notion of the obstinate sinner being punished in order to draw him back to the church. Is that how MacArthur understands the passage? I don’t know. Calvinists tend to think most of us are damned, so I’m guessing he has something else in mind.

But here’s where we get to the really fun part with MacArthur, because he and other fundamentalists are awfully selective when it comes to what they think is worthy of divine punishment. See, there are other people who should be turned over to Satan, according to Paul:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; 10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Here we have the distinction MacArthur is attempting to make: Paul is not referring to the “immoral of this world” (non-Christians), but to he who “bears the name of brother” (Christians).

Please note, however, the list of people included.  Is MacArthur suggesting we turn people over to Satan for speaking harshly of others (“revilers”) and stop eating with people are greedy? Drunks are to be put out of the church? In fact, are all the “immoral” to be put out of the Church and cut off from family? You’ll have a pretty small church.

Elsewhere, Paul identifies others deserving of harsh judgement. Among them is “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body.” That means anyone who fails to recognize the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Like John MacArthur.

In fact, Paul makes this link direct in 1 Corinthians 5 when he writes “let us celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” This is the Eucharist.

The Council of Trent took a more sensible line, tempered by mercy, as taught to us by the One who ate with sinners:

Should they, however, happen to sin in any manner through human frailty, that precept of the apostle is to be observed by them, that they reprove, entreat, rebuke them in all kindness and patience, since benevolence towards those to be corrected often effects more than austerity, exhortation more than menacing, charity more than power. But if, on account of the grievousness of the transgression, there be need of the rod, then is rigour to be used with gentleness, judgment with mercy, severity with lenity; that so discipline, salutary and necessary for the people, may be preserved without harshness; and that they who are chastised may be amended; or, if they be unwilling to repent, that others, by the wholesome example of their punishment, may be deterred from vices; since it is the office of a pastor, at once diligent and kind, first to apply gentle fomentations to the disorders of his sheep, afterwards, when the grievousness of the distemper may require them, to proceed to sharper and more painful remedies; but if not even these are effectual in removing those disorders, then is he to free the other sheep at least from the danger of contagion. (Trent, Session 13, De Reformatione, Chapter 1)

It’s worthwhile to note that this decree follows one on the Eucharist. Thus, in context, Paul is not recommending that parents stop having dinner with their kids, but that the Eucharist should be withheld from people engaged in obstinate sin, whether that sin is sodomy or greed. Notably, this power is reserved to the Church, not the individual or the community.

And, of course, merely “coming out”–the criteria which is used by MacArthur–is not enough to trigger any of this. Declaring one’s sexual preference is separate from engaging in gravely disordered sexual acts. The acts, not the ontological state, are the sin.

So how are we to respond to a child who comes out? 

MacArthur missed the one word that should have led all the others: love. With love. How parents navigate this tricky minefield of modern sexuality is no easy thing, and we can hope that the Synod on the family turns its attention to offering real guidelines for dealing with children and loved ones with mercy, love, and faith. It’s not easy. The world has gone mad and our children are not immune to this madness.

There’s a fine line to be walked, and we need a little guidance on how to walk it. Do we attend a gay wedding? No, because that would be creating a public scandal. But do we stop talking to a gay child?

Of course not, and there is nothing in Paul or anywhere else to suggest that we should. You can’t just yank out a line from Paul, isolate it, and use it as a one-size-fits-all guideline. This is just Religion by Proof-Texting, not the faith of a living Church.

The obsession of Christian fundamentalists, and in some sectors of Catholicism, with homosexuality is an unfortunate byproduct of our times. Political and social issues are becoming entangled with the faith, and some are losing perspective on the reality of sin.

It’s kind of strange to see people talking so much about the sinfulness of sodomy (which affects the non-sodomite not at all) while giving little attention to the other three sins that cry out to heaven: murder,  oppression of the poor, and defrauding workers of their just wages.

We don’t see a lot of Bible-belters carrying signs that say “God hates defrauding workers of their just wage.” But drag sodomy into the discussion, and suddenly some people get very interested in letting you know what they think. This has more to do with the individual and his insecurities than with the sin itself.

As for me, I intend neither to sodomize nor to be sodomized, and so the sin is of little interest to me, except in the way it indicates a general decline in the public’s understanding of healthy sexuality and the continuing erosion of marriage. If a child of mine fell into that behavior, I would be heartbroken and do I would could to help him or her find the way to live a life of faith in chastity.

It would not be an easy road to walk, but I would not leave my child to walk that road alone.

As the Fathers of Trent observed, “rigour [is] to be used with gentleness, judgment with mercy, severity with lenity; that so discipline, salutary and necessary for the people, may be preserved without harshness.”