7 Book Takes

I’ve never done one of Jen Fulwiler’s 7 Quick Takes before, but I see that Leah Libresco has turned Darwin Catholic’s Immediate Book Meme (and BTW, Darwins, your pizza recipe CHANGED OUR ENTIRE LIVES!) into a quick take thingie, and I know an idea worth stealing when I read one, so…

— 1 — 

What book are you reading now?

As always, I’m reading a few at a time:

The History of the Catholic Church (James Hitchcock) as a quick review for upcoming comps for my masters. A good one volume overview.

Doctor Thorne (Anthony Trollope): Third of his Barsetshire novels.

Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds (Darren Oldridge) is a fascinating attempt to understand the medieval mind as it encountered the world, without condescending or assuming people were ignorant because they hold views many no longer accept. Beware of the Kindle version, which is missing text.

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (by various hands) is a suppliment to the landmark collections by James Charlesworth, and includes more Jewish and Christian texts.

 — 2 —

What book did you finish last?

Pickwick Papers (Dickens) was a treat to myself after finishing all my classes in December.

Eifelheim (Mike Flynn). I took a break from Pickwick after Sean Dailey and Mark Shea badgered me to read Mike Flynn. An absolutely wonderful novel about aliens encountering a medieval village during the plague years. The way he completely understands the working of the medieval mind is astonishing.

— 3 — 

What do you plan to read next?

Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Everett Furgeson ) is more comp review.

Dombey & Sons (Dickens). Because Dickens

— 4 —

What book do you keep meaning to finish?

The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way are wonderful works of Eastern Christian spituality, but I stopped midway and haven’t gotten back to them yet. Try the sample and you’ll be impressed. 

— 5 —

What book do you keep meaning to start?

Don Quixote (Cervantes). I’ve never read it, and consider it a gap in my education. I picked up a new translation on Kindle, but I keep putting it off. 

— 6 —

What is your current reading trend?

Theology, history, 19th century literature. 

— 7 —

Bonus question to bring it up to 7: What is the most important book you’ve ever read?



More quick takes at Conversion Diary.
More book lists at Darwin Catholic.

Idea stolen from Unequally Yoked.

Light & Bread in the Gospel of John

This essay originally was published in an online journal, now defunct. I’m publishing it here in case it’s of interest. The full title is Light and Bread: A Sapiential Reading of Two “I Am” Statements in the Gospel of John. All the footnotes got stripped when I plopped the text into WordPress, but if you’re curious about a citation, let me know.

The most powerful moments in the Gospel of John occur when Jesus takes the sacred name of God—“I AM”—as his own. In particular, Christ seeks to explain his being by creating a mosaic of images in the seven “I am” statements. In these, Jesus is the bread of life; the light of the world; the gate; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life; and the true vine. Each statement peels back the veil that shielded mankind’s eyes from the face of God, seeking to express a new way of encountering God, not on the mountain or in the pillar of fire, but in the flesh of the incarnate Christ.

Jesus uses the phrase “I am” in numerous other places in John, perhaps none as potent as his simple formulation, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) These statements must have been like a thunderclap for his Jewish listeners, who fully understood that Jesus was claiming equality with God. The Gospel of John is deeply rooted in Jewish theology and understanding, and it is through these “I am” statements that Jesus conveys the nature of the new covenant to a Jewish audience. In particular, the images of bread and light convey two fundamental qualities that define the Christian experience.

I Am the Bread of Life
In most of his sayings in John, Jesus draws on Old Testament language and imagery to express new realities to his audience. This opens his words, particularly his “I am” phrases, to multiple levels of meaning and understanding. With John 6:34—“I am the bread of life”—we have an image that evokes wisdom, allowing for a sapiential interpretation that draws upon the long tradition of personified Wisdom in Jewish literature.

Bread is associated with Wisdom throughout the Old Testament, and into the New. We hear it in the words of Sirach 15:3: “She [Wisdom] will feed him with the bread of understanding, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.” In Amos 8:11, the prophet draws a parallel between the hunger for food and the hunger for wisdom: “Behold, the days are coming … when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” In a passage like this, Christians make a connection between a hunger for bread and the incarnate Word. This was the kind of pedagogy Jesus was offering to his listeners, and to Christians down through the ages to our own day.

Christ has come into a Jewish world that understands two paths of knowledge: that of the philosophers, and that of the law. These are both a kind of bread that feeds the people. We see in the feeding of the 5,000 examples of both kinds of bread. First, Phillip says that “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” (John 6:7) Thomas Aquinas sees this as an image of wisdom acquired through philosophy, which must be purchased through “experience and contemplation,” and yet will never fully nourish.

The other kind of wisdom is the Law, represented by the five barley loaves, which are a symbol of the Pentateuch. This, too, is not enough to nourish, and must be multiplied by the Lord. Thus, we see that wisdom derived from philosophy and wisdom derived from the law are insufficient until multiplied and completed by the coming of Wisdom in the form of Christ.

With this as our background, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says “I am the bread of life.” This is a new bread, which neither the Jews nor the Greeks have ever encountered. Money—even 200 denarii—is useless for purchasing this kind of wisdom. As we read in Isaiah 55:1-3, we come to eat and drink at the banquet of the Lord “without money and without price.” We should not spend our money for “that which is not bread” and “which does not satisfy.” The “bread” of this passage is not literal bread, but the Word of the Lord, which you must “hear, so that your soul may live.”

The phrase “bread of life” does not occur in the Old Testament. Indeed, we have to look to the Pseudepigrapha to find this phrase.

“Joseph and Aseneth” is a non-canonical tale dating from some time between 100BC and 200AD, and telling the story of the marriage of Joseph (son of Jacob) to the pagan Aseneth. Thus, it may be either a Jewish document that represents the sole appearance of the phrase “bread of life,” or a later document written under the influence of Christianity.

In the apocryphal tale, an angel comes to Aseneth to help her become worthy of marrying Joseph. He does this by feeding her a piece of honeycomb from his hand, and bidding her “Eat.” In the story, the honeycomb is an image of manna, but the words of the angel (whom Aseneth address as “Lord”) have a powerful Christian import: “Behold, you have eaten the bread of life, and drunk the cup of immortality, and been anointed with the ointment of incorruptibility. Behold, from today your flesh will flourish like flowers of life from the ground of the Most High.”

This bread has a power beyond that of manna. It not only makes Aseneth pure and draws her in the Covenant, but also gives her new life. Was this an early tale used by either Jesus or the Evangelist to convey a radical new theology to a Jewish audience, or a later Christian interpolation of a traditional Jewish folk tale? We have no way of knowing, but the image it creates is a powerful one. Here is the “bread of life,” which is able to unite Jew and gentile.

Even more suggestive is the fact that this Jew is Joseph, a symbol of wisdom who rises to great heights because of his wise council to pharaoh. How does he do this? As the scripture tells us, “There was no bread [sometimes translated merely as “food”] in all the land.” (47:13) What does Joseph do? He finds a way to provide grain for bread during the years of famine. In this way, he prefigures Christ feeding the multitudes.

We can see in these brief examples—both canonical and non-canonical—the powerful currents of meaning and symbols that drive us forward, like waves on the sea, from the old covenant to the new. Wisdom becomes a symbol for “spiritual refreshment,” and that Wisdom is the Word: “Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).

This is the Wisdom that will bring us all to eternal life. As Thomas Aquinas observes, material bread is “the bread of death.” It can only ever replace what is lost by the body, and thus has no role in our immortal life. But the bread of life is the bread of “divine wisdom.” It is “life-giving of itself, and no death can affect it.” The life this bread gives us allows the soul to live, and that life is ours because we listen to the word of God.

I Am the Light of the World
Turning to John 8:12, wherein Jesus says “I am the light of the world,” it is possible to continue exploring sapiential themes and the way they would have resonated with a Jewish audience.

Once again, we have Christ presenting an image that evokes a specific Jewish understanding. In this case, his words coincide with the feast of Tabernacles, which began with a water-drawing ceremony and the lighting four large lamps of gold in the Temple’s Courtyard of the Women. These lamps were fueled with vats of pure oil, and lit by children of priestly descent using worn out priestly garments as wicks. The light was so bright that it illuminated all the courts of Jerusalem.

Philo wrote that Tabernacles was meant to teach “equality, the first principle and beginning of justice . . . and after witnessing the perfection of all the fruits of the year, to give thanks to the Being who has made them perfect.” The feast ended on the eighth day, which was regarded as the crowning day of all the feasts of the year. It is quite suggestive that Tabernacles was a harvest feast, celebrating the conclusion of a fruitful growing season. This echoes and amplifies John 6 and its mediations on the bread of life.

Thus, on the occasion of a feast in which oil is fired with the worn-out garments of the Temple priests, shedding a light over the Temple and the whole city, Christ utters another earth-shaking statement: He is the light of the world. Oil is a symbol of anointing and kingship, while the worn out priestly garments are a symbol of the insufficiency of the old priesthood and sacrifice. The lamps of the feast merely provide earthly light, which will flicker and fade when the oil is exhausted.

In this setting, Christ reveals the light that never fades, and which illuminates not merely the Temple or the Jews alone, but the entire world. The light of the fire illuminating the Courtyard of the Women was meant to evoke the pillar of fire that guided the Jews in the wilderness. The Book of Wisdom identifies this light with “the imperishable light of the law” (Wisdom 18:4), which brought them to the promised land. This light has been replaced by the light of Christ, which shall lead us to the true and final promised land of heaven. The one who follows the light of Christ “will not walk in darkness, for he has the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Augustine says that this light is “the Light which never fails, the Light of knowledge, the Light of Wisdom.” God’s first creation, of course, was light. (Genesis 1:3) Wisdom is “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wisdom 7:26) Christ brings Wisdom to mankind. He offers a light that shall be placed upon a stand to shine brightly, driving away the darkness of error and sin. (cf Luke 11:33-36) Those who believe in his truth have found the light of Wisdom: “I have come as light in the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)

Wisdom was with God at the beginning, and in the beginning was the Light, brought to earth by Christ. “Let us love this Light,” says Augustine. “Let us long to understand it, let us thirst for the same; that, with itself for our guide, we may at length come to it, and that we may so live in it that we may never die.”

By coming among us as the bread of life and light of the world, Jesus gives us an opportunity to share in the life of God. In particular, we are called to wisdom, which is found through following the teaching and example of Christ.

In Matthew 11:19, Jesus says quite clearly: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

St. James provides guidance for our times, when discerning between the wisdom of man and the Wisdom of God becomes difficult. Who is wise? James asks. Let his works and meekness prove his wisdom. Those who display “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” do not have the wisdom that “comes down from above,” but instead have a wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” (James 3:13-15) This can lead only to “disorder and every vile practice.” (James 3:16)

By comparison, the Wisdom of God is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” (James 3:18)

In “The Tree of Life,” St. Bonaventure describes what is needed for the kingdom of God to be perfect. Power alone is not enough. The kingdom also needs “resplendent wisdom,” so that this power is direct by “the brilliant rays of the eternal laws emanating without deception from the light of wisdom. And this wisdom is written in Christ Jesus as in the book of life.” The Son of God, says Bonaventure, is “the book of wisdom and the light that is full of living eternal principles in the mind of the supreme Craftsman.”

Nourished by the Bread of Life and guided by the Light of the World, mankind at last has an opportunity to share in a portion of the Wisdom of God, by which we can better discern the will of God in our lives. 

Leo XIII on the Role of “Amateurs” in Defending the Faith

Every now and then I come across a complaint, like this one urging the Register to fire Mark Shea, about lay Catholics who speak and write about the faith.

The idea that this role should be left to the “professionals” is rooted in either clericalism or elitism. It has no roots whatsoever in the life of the Church or in the scripture. St. Peter tells us to always be ready to give the reason for our hope, and we are all commissioned to spread the gospel, with or without “training” or ordination.

In Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII tackles the errors of modern reductionist Biblical scholarship with his usual Thomistic clarity and skill, but he also urges us all to engage and defend the faith.

But to undertake fully and perfectly, and with all the weapons of the best science, the defence of the Holy Bible is far more than can be looked for from the exertions of commentators and theologians alone. It is an enterprise in which we have a right to expect the co-operation of all those Catholics who have acquired reputation in any branch of learning whatever. As in the past, so at the present time, the Church is never without the graceful support of her accomplished children; may their services to the Faith grow and increase! For there is nothing which We believe to be more needful than that truth should find defenders more powerful and more numerous than the enemies it has to face; nor is there anything which is better calculated to impress the masses with respect for truth than to see it boldly proclaimed by learned and distinguished men.

Moreover, the bitter tongues of objectors will be silenced, or at least they will not dare to insist so shamelessly that faith is the enemy of science, when they see that scientific men of eminence in their profession show towards faith the most marked honour and respect. Seeing, then, that those can do so much for the advantage of religion on whom the goodness of Almighty God has bestowed, together with the grace of the faith, great natural talent, let such men, in this bitter conflict of which the Holy Scripture is the object, select each of them the branch of study most suitable to his circumstances, and endeavour to excel therein, and thus be prepared to repulse with credit and distinction the assaults on the Word of God.

I actually do have the “formal education in theology” to which that first link alludes, and I think Mark Shea’s a far better apologist than I. Credentialing and even ordination do not magically create effective preachers, exegetes, evangelists, or defenders of the faith. We’re all called to that role. We are to preach and defend the gospel from where we are in the world. We don’t need scolds and Pharisees to shoo us back into the pews so the priests and theologians can do all the work of spreading the faith. That’s our baptismal duty.

iPieta [App o the Mornin’]

iPieta (iOS/Android: $3) is  huge app, both in scope and size. At 181 MB, it demands a hefty chunk of real-estate. (By comparison, Cut the Rope only takes up 22 MB.) But it earns its space by placing a staggering library of documents and prayers at your fingertips.

The documents are divided into four sections: Bible, Calendar, Prayers, and Veritas.

The Bible tab includes the full text of both the Douay-Rheims and the Latin Vulgate. You can access these separately or as an interlinear page, alternating English and Latin line-by-line. Each chapter displays in a single scrolling page, and it’s fairly easy to scroll through the entire bible, individual books, and verse-by-verse.

The Calendar section offers both Ordinary and Extraordinary calenders, with the ability to switch between the two by shaking the device. Date, feast, readings, and liturgical color are all indicated, with each day linked to the text of the readings.

The selections included under Payers is vast, with separate sections for Divine Mercy, Sacred Heart of Jesus, Passion, Mass, Eucharist, Stations of the Cross, Devotions to Jesus, Holy Spirit, and vast selections of Marian prayers, novenas, saints prayers, common prayers, and more. These can be bookmarked for quick retrieval, or accessed through keyword searches. In addition, many of these prayers come with optional audio files which can be downloaded from ipieta.com and added to your device. This adds another 664 MB to the install, however.

Finally, there is the Veritas tab, which is just … well, look at what’s included:

  • Works of St. Augustine and St. John Crysostom
  • The complete Ante-Nicene and Nicene Fathers
  • Council documents from Nicea to Vatican II
  • The last 200 years of Papal Encyclicals, up to Caritas in Veritate
  • The Summa Theologica, Catena Aurea, and The Catechetical Instructions by St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Haydock’s Biblical Commentary
  • Baltimore Catechisms #1, #2, and #3
  • Catechism of Christian Doctrine (Promulgated by Pope St. Pius X)
  • Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis De Sales
  • The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas Kempis
  • True Devotion to Mary, Love of Eternal Wisdom, Friends of the Cross, and The Secret of Mary, by St. Louis Marie de Montfort
  • The Dialogue, by St. Catherine of Siena
  • The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, The Way of Perfection, and the Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Jesus
  • Treatise on Purgatory, by St. Catherine of Genoa
  • Instructions on the Catechism, Selected Explanations and Exhortations, Excerpts of Sermons, by St. Jean-Marie Vianney
  • Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle, and Living Flame of Love, by St. John of the Cross
  • The Roman Catechism (also knows as The Catechism of The Council of Trent or The Catechism of Pope St. Pius V)
  • The Dolorous Passion, by Ven. Catherine Emmerich
  • Fathers of the Church (Eerdman’s version)
  • Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
  • The Sinner’s Guide by Ven. Louis of Granada
  • The Rule of St. Benedict
  • Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  • Confession of St. Patrick
  • Abandonment to Divine Providence
  • The Cloud of Unknowing

So, yeah. Do I really need to say much more than that?

All of it is searchable. And all of it costs … $3. I mean, seriously people: THREE BUCKS!

Francis, Benedict, and Pelagius

Yesterday’s tempest in a Z-cup focused on Pope Francis’s curious phrase “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism,” used to describe certain factions within Catholic traditionalism.

I remain puzzled that Francis has, on multiple occasions, felt the need to single out traditionalists for criticism, given the nature of evil at large in world. Most traditionalists are good and holy people, and I am sympathetic to their goals, which are the goals of Benedict. The hard core fringe of trad nuttery–Novus Ordo Watch, Rorate Caeli, SSPX, and the like–are a twitching, irrelevant mass of hatreds and hangups. They’re easily ignored, which is why I don’t understand why Francis feels compelled to single them out for criticism. Attacking a minor subset of a fringe hardly suits the dignity of a pope.

But what of the criticism itself? The self-absorbed and promethean parts I understand and don’t dispute, if we’re talking about a certain kind of fringe radical traditionalist. (The kind that’s just a nudge away from an SSPX chapel.) Pelagianism, however, is a heresy, and it’s not a word a pope should toss around lightly.

It turns out that Cardinal Ratzinger had first drawn the Pelagians into the discussion back in 1986. Andrea Tornielli found the relevant quote, which I’d never before seen despite long study of Ratzinger/Benedict. It comes from the Spiritual Exercises of 1986, and is found in the book “Guardare Cristo: esempi di fede, speranza e carità” [Looking at Christ: Examples of faith, hope and charity]; published by Jaka Books.

The other face of the same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want forgiveness and in general they do not want any real gift from God either. They just want to be in order. They don’t want hope they just want security. Their aim is to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises, through prayers and action. What they lack is humility which is essential in order to love; the humility to receive gifts not just because we deserve it or because of how we act…

I don’t see this kind of Pelagianism as a unique property of traditionalism, and in fact the same can be said of those who consider themselves “progressive” “social justice” Catholics, who believe their attitude towards, and work on behalf of, the poor are justification enough. They, too, lack “humility.”

But Ratzinger was focused on the “pious,” which does not necessarily mean the traditionalist. It could just as well be the surface piety of the regular Novus Ordo church-goer who believes correct participation in all the required aspects of the faith are sufficient for salvation, without going deeper into a conversion of the heart.

Ratzinger was driven by the desire to draw people closer to Jesus, to have them search for “His face” and be converted by His radiant love. Empty pieties would be an obstacle to that, because the Catholic would feel as though he or she had already done everything necessary.

I have trouble with this observation, because I know many good people who practice their faith with devotion and care, yet probably never dug deeper into the metaphysical, mystical underpinnings that come naturally to others. I think of the people of my parents’ generation who lived lives of good faith, albeit a largely unexamined faith. For some, piety is all they can muster. They sense the mystery, but lack the capacity to be drawn into its depths. Are we to say they are not justified?

Forms are important. They should not be the end but the beginning of a deep faith. But if they are the end for someone, and if they are practiced in good will and charity with an open heart, who are we say that the person practicing them does not know the action of grace? After all, would they be prompted to pray their rosary and attend mass without prevenient grace? If their emotional or intellectual or dispositional capacity is limited, perhaps pietism is the best manifestation of their relationship with Christ. Not all hearts are turned in the same way.

Stephen’s Service: The Apostles of Acts

Stephen blazes across Acts like a comet, his brief ministry beginning in two chapters that interrupt the story of Peter and form a bridge to the conversion of Paul. Before he falls under the stones of the mob, he leaves a vivid impression as one of the only people other than Peter or Paul given a lengthy speech in Acts.

Stephen’s life begins in service, as one of the first deacons anointed to care for the widows among the Hellenized Jews, and to address the material needs of the Church. All of the men chosen have Greek names, so we can assume the first deacons were drawn from the Greek-speaking community of Jews. (The Hebrews would have spoken Aramaic.)

Here we have an early division of labor between those who tend to the spiritual (the twelve) and those who tend to the physical (deacons). What is so striking about Stephen is that he unites both roles in such a powerful way. His ministry moves through several stages:

  • Corporal works of mercy
  • Wonders and signs (Acts 6:8)
  • Public dispute (Acts 6:8-10)
  • False accusations (Acts 6:11-14)
  • Summoning before the Jewish high court (Acts 6:12-7)
  • A lengthy speech before the council (Acts 7)
  • A vision of God and Jesus just before his condemnation (Acts 7:54-56)
  • The stoning of Stephen, with the assistance of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7:57-60)

Stephen’s speech before the court in Chapter 7 shows us an extended sample of his preaching. It is a discourse that reads like a summary of an active, highly developed ministry. Clearly, this was more than simply a man set apart to “serve at table.” This was someone with deep theological insights.

When we read the words of Stephen, we feel as though we are hearing echoes from the discourse of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, when “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) Stephen’s speech is a summary of salvation history, tracing the covenant from the beginning to Jesus. It moves through the Old Testament step by step, telling of

  • Abraham and the covenant, with the promise of land and the bond of circumcision.
  • Joseph, who is a precursor of Christ because he is rejected by his people, saved by God, and redeems Israel.
  • Moses, who also prefigures Christ in the rejection/salvation/redemption arc of his story.
  • David and Solomon, who form a link to Jesus, Son of David.

Stephen finishes with a full-throated condemnation of his interlocutors, asking “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:52) Indeed, at each stage in the history Stephen has just related, the unrighteous have persecuted the righteous. The Christological themes are embedded in the history he has just recited, but he does not make this point explicit throughout his speech. Rather, he saves it for his final words, identifying Jesus: “the Righteous One, who you have now betrayed and murdered.” (Acts 7:52)

His final vision, which he announces to his murderers, reveals the glory of God in Christ. Everything in the history he has related points to the cross. The cycle of rejection, salvation, and redemption are incarnated in Christ himself. Like a road sign, Stephen’s long story of history leads to this one moment, in Acts 7:56, when he sees “the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

And then he is struck down, praying, like Christ, that the actions of his killers not be held against them. At the last, he embraces the cross he has preached. The blood of Stephen will be the first drops shed for Christ, and thus he is joined to all who suffer and die for their faith from his age to ours. It is a blood that will be, in the words of Tertullian, the seed of the Church.

What do we see in Stephen that makes him stand out? There is a growing sense of Christology in his preaching that will become more developed in Paul, who was present to hear (and reject) his final speech. Acts is a book that shows the development of theology in the first generation of Christians, and Stephen played a significant part in that development.

But for us, there is a more pressing lesson in the life and words of Stephen. The dichotomy with which his ministry begins—separating those who preach and those who serve at table—is blurred. Stephens does both. In the words of Pope Benedict, what he shows us is that “charity and the proclamation of the faith always go hand in hand.”

There is a remarkable fullness in the life of Stephen. This is a complete Christian life, unifying words and works, theology and service, preaching and ministering. We can never separate service and faith: one informs and nourishes the other.

And his final lesson is the most powerful: he embraces his cross with joy, rushing into the arms of his savior. After this gift of a beatific vision, how could do otherwise?

Medieval Warrior Snails

The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog has an interesting compilation of marginal art depicting knights charging at snails. I’ve seen snails in marginals before, but never realized they were such a persistent motif. The symbolism and placement is still puzzling to many medievalists, particularly since the snail did not have a stable meaning associated with it. Lillian M.C Randall found over 70 such images in 29 manuscripts produced in Northern France at the end of the 13th century.

The post is well-illustrated and floats a few unconvincing theories, but also leaves out some interesting observations. Paris Review, where I first saw the link, adds this intriguing quote from Albert the Great:

If thou wilt forejudge, or conjecture things to come … Take the stone which is called Chelonites. It is of purple, and divers other colours, and it is found in the head of the Snail. If any man will bear this stone under his tongue, he shall forejudge, and prophesy of things to come. But notwithstanding, it is said to have this power only on the first day of the month, when the moon is rising and waxing, and again on the twenty-ninth day when the moon is waning.

I found it odd that neither post went to scripture, where the word “snail” only appears once, in Psalm 58:8:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime,
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.

Here, it’s use as a straight-up curse, depicting a vile creature known most for its tendency to dissolve. That doesn’t really make for a foe worthy of a charging knight, but may simply be a way of showing contempt for an enemy soon to be vanquished. This enemy is slow and armored, two qualities that give it strength compared to the knights, who charge recklessly.

Perhaps the shells were admired for their imitation of the golden ratio, sometimes called the golden mean, which also refers to the classical notion of perfection in balance between extremes.

Or maybe the monks just liked drawing snails.


A snail also figures in a story by Hans Christian Anderson, where it mocks the rose for not meditating deeply on its purpose or existence, being content to live and die and give pleasure to others. The snail, meanwhile, enjoys the comforts of its shell while it thinks deep thoughts that make it deeply unhappy:

“The world is nothing to me. What have I to do with the world? I have enough to do with myself, and enough in myself.”

“But must we not all here on earth give up our best parts to others, and offer as much as lies in our power? It is true, I have only given roses. But you- you who are so richly endowed- what have you given to the world? What will you give it?”

“What have I given? What am I going to give? I spit at it; it’s good for nothing, and does not concern me. For my part, you may go on bearing roses; you cannot do anything else. Let the hazel bush bear nuts, and the cows and sheep give milk; they have each their public. I have mine in myself. I retire within myself and there I stop. The world is nothing to me.”

It’s an enigmatic story without a clear moral. There’s a sense of the cycle of life at the end, but the snail is much the worse for the misery brought on by deep and slow meditation, while the rose is happy to give beauty to others. Some of Anderson’s stories were reworkings of tales he’d heard as a child, which perhaps retained some lost narrative traditions.

And this is beside the point, but interesting nonetheless: from MISHNAH-TRACTATE SHABBAT 8:1

1. III:3: Said R. Judah said Rab, “Of whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, has created in his world, he has created nothing for nothing. He created the snail as a remedy for a scab, the fly as antidote to the hornet, the mosquito as antidote for a serpent’s bite, a serpent as the antidote for an eruption, a crushed spider as the antidote to a scorpion’s bite.”

And this, from Legends of the Jews:

The snail trailing a moist streak after it as it crawls, and so using up its vitality, serves as a remedy for boils.

The trail of slime left by a snail was seen as a wasting of its substance. Snails were destroyed by salt, which was considered pure.

Francis and Benedict, Peter and John

I’m fortunate to have read Pope Francis’ interview before reading any of the fooforaw. Reading him cold, I saw not a single thing out of line with the papacy of Benedict XVI, which is why I was surprised at all the gnashing of teeth going on about a few words taken out of context by the media.

I’m just coming off semester spent on Benedict, whose writings have informed my faith more than anyone else. Everyone sees the pope they want to see, I guess, and that includes me, a catechist who sees Benedict primarily as a teacher. But people have a tendency to cast Benedict in a very narrow mold as the stickler for rules, the narrow-minded reactionary, the inaccessible academic.

I have no idea how anyone who has read anything by Benedict can come to this conclusion. This is the pope that wrote Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi, and Caritas in Veritate: warm, accessible, humane works that sought to bring the teachings of the Church down to their essence and begin rebuilding on the simple core of faith, hope, and charity.

The strange part is that Francis is being praised for his simplicity and humility in contrast to Benedict, who was already striking in his simplicity and humility! Just because he taught that the beauty of the liturgy deserved restoration for those who desired it doesn’t mean he was a strutting peacock. When did beauty become an act of hubris?

What we see when comparing Benedict and Francis is a matter of pastoral style. To each thing its season. Benedict the patient catechist took us back to basics with teachings on virtues, saints and church fathers, and how to worship. Now Francis has a fresh chance to take the message of our faith to the world.

Francis himself finds the perfect analogy in the interview:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

For Benedict, the professor, the church was the classroom. His papacy emphasized catechesis.

For Francis, the missionary, the church is a hospital. His papacy emphasizes healing.

One doesn’t come without the other. Jesus was all things: shepherd, rabbi (teacher), healer, priest, victim, Lord.

In a sense, we have the split sometimes understood by the image of “John versus Peter”: John the mystic, and Peter the man of action; one esoteric, representing the head (John), the other exoteric, representing the heart (Peter). Together, they built up the Church as the most important of the apostles.

John and Peter

It’s overly simplistic to call Benedict the head and Francis the heart, since each had qualities of the other, as did John and Peter. (Indeed, in the interview Francis lays claim to a mystical sensibility in his understanding of the Ignatian exercises, while Benedict rejected the idea that he was a mystic.) However unsatisfying the analogy, it’s useful when trying to understand the pastoral emphasis of each man.

Reading Francis as evidence of some new day dawning in the Church is misguided. There is not a hairsbreadth of difference between the theology of Francis and Benedict.

This is exactly what the affirmative orthodoxy of Benedict is all about: the “yes” of Christ. The Church is a “yes” to life, and life in abundance, while the world is the “no.” All of his writing and preaching centered on this idea of the yes of faith in the risen Christ.

What we have is a shift in perception, which is a potent thing in the age of mass media. Francis was a new beginning. The die was cast with Benedict, who had gotten an undeserved reputation as a grim inquisitioner, before he even became pope. Francis was a new page, totally blank as far as the world, and indeed much of the Church, is concerned.

That he articulates the message of the Church of love, concern, and hope–the same message of Benedict, John Paul II, Paul VI, and every other Peter back to Peter–with good humor, clarity, and simplicity is a blessing.

And he is completely correct to say–in a single, passing sentence–that the message of the Church cannot be reduced to modern sexual obsessions. Those who react angrily to this are just proving his point: human sexuality is our obsession, not God’s.

I saw one headline, from the criminally incompetent Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, that read “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control,” and knew I needed to read no further. I have a 12-year-old who can speak and write more intelligently about Church matters than Laurie Goodstein.

I know from long history–as should any Catholic with a pulse–that reporters search material about the Church for key words: homosexual, contraception, abortion, and abuse. They’re obsessed with sex, and then project that obsession back onto an institution they hate. Anyone trusting the mainstream media for information about the Catholic church is a fool, and any Catholic who thinks we can ever gain control of “messaging” among those feral–but selectively toothless–“watchdogs” is an even bigger fool.

The New York Times hates you. Ignore them. Pray for them. But don’t act like their misinterpretation of our faith has any relation to our faith at all, or that their determination to misread the very clear words of Francis has any effect on us whatsoever.

The crime of abortion and the diseased sexuality of modern culture are indeed major concerns for any Christian or person with a flicker of conscience, and they need to be fought.

They are not the totality of our message, however, despite the media’s attempt to make them so.

Our message is this: Christ is raised, and in Him is our hope. Everything else flows from that. The person with hope–the person who is healed–the person who loves and is loved–can then turn away from the culture of death and embrace the life eternal.

Spinoza’s Excommunication from the People of Israel

Humanities has a good article analyzing the causes for the uniquely vicious writ of excommunication pronounced upon the philosopher Baruch Spinoza by the leaders of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. The text is notable for its eye-popping condemnations, curses, and vitriol, particularly since it was written before Spinoza had published any controversial opinions.

Let’s learn from our Elder Brothers in the Faith: this is how to kick someone out of your religious community:

 The Senhores of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. However, having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter. After all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim [“wise men,” or rabbis], they have decided, with the [rabbis’] consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

Can I get an Amen!

I’m sure I’m supposed to be all enlightened and hand-wringy about this bilious blast against “intellectual freedom,” but my only reaction was, “More, please.”

Spinoza’s metaphysics wasn’t worth a bucket of cold donkey snot. He was functionally atheist, transforming God into “Nature” and then making him not-God by robbing him of anything resembling power, will, or, intellect. He denied the inspiration of scripture, creation, the covenants, the law, miracles, and everything except a limp humanistic: “Be nice.” He did the spadework for the worst elements of the so-called Enlightenment, and  his influence gave us of two centuries of bone stupid commentary on scripture.

Boil him down to his essence, and you get nothing deeper than “The Force is with you.” I think he even wrote about midichlorians.

The Humanities article, by Steven Nadler, is worthwhile as a portrait of that particular Jewish community, and of the reasons they responded to Spinoza with such hate.

This is the Wood of the Cross

Thanks for your patience over the last month while I throttled back on the more regular and/or serious blogging to take some time with family. This summer has been hell, and I thought some time away from the computer would be a good thing, particularly in the dog days of summer when all the cool kids are frolicking at the beach or making nasty videos about other Catholics.

We went through the wringer this summer, with a sequence of family tragedies, illness, and other giant stressers, from the long illness and death of my father to the shocking and sudden betrayal of a business partner, and all manner of terribleness in between.

We had a season of death (6 funerals in a single year) early in my return to the Church, and looking back on it I remain in awe at the comfort and grace we found in God. The same things happened this time. Our losses and challenges were hard, but we faced them as any Christian should: as that part of the cross of the world which we were asked to bear for a little while.

“This is the wood of the cross / on which hung the savior of the world.”

Sometimes that works better than others, and sometimes the weight is crushing. Christ fell three times under the weight of humanity’s sin. I don’t see how we can expect to do any better under our far less crushing burdens.

The via dolorosa begins in the garden at Gethsemane, much like humanity began in the Garden of Eden. With Christ, humanity walks from garden to grave, and thereon to resurrection. We’re willing to embrace the gardens and the resurrection, but the parts in between are where we stumble and doubt. They stand out in stark relief to the days of pleasure and comfort, because man was made for delight and not for suffering. Suffering was our choice, and would be again were we given the chance to choose a second time. I would have eaten the fruit as surely as Adam. I know this because I freely choose to eat it again each time I sin. As the Scripture says

 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun. For if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

Qoheleth(Ecclesiastes) 11:7-8

So we turn our face to the sun, and hope in the Lord in times of trial. The Cross only seems foolish to those who reject it, but for those of us who accept it, it becomes the saving power of God. In this way we climb its bitter and splintered wood to redemption.

I wish there was an easier way, but this is cup we’ve been asked to drink. You can either drink it and be redeemed, or refuse it. One thing you can’t do is make the cup go away.

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

John 38-40

Housekeeping Notes

I’m easing back into a regular blogging schedule. My kids still have a couple days of summer vacation left, and after losing most of their summer to our trials, they deserve to wring the last bit of fun out of the few days remaining.

I’m going to try to get on a regular pattern of posts alternating tech, history, and longer pieces. We’ll see how that works out.

This is my final semester in grad school. I’m doing a couple of scripture classes and then I sit for my comprehensive exams and I am HE-MAN: MASTER OF THEOLOGY!, making me well-qualified for work in the food service or hospitality sectors.

Actually, I’ll be following my masters by doing what my parish and diocese intended me to do when they asked me to return to school: creating an ongoing adult education program for my parish. We need to find ways to make adult catechesis a regular part of parish life. I imagine the process will look something like this: