Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival (2nd Sunday of Lent 2015)

    Welcome once more to Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival (a carnival may not send very Lent-like, but it is a Sunday in Lent). Anyway, Sunday Snippets is a weekly gathering of Catholic bloggers who share their posts for the week, with each other and with you.  The main gathering is here, at This That and the Other Thing, home of our patroness RAnn.
St. Augustine of Hippo, Bishop & Doctor of the Church
     Before I get to the posts, a bit of left-over business from my Friday post, “Moses, Pharaoh, & Why We Preach The Gospel” (link below). in which I touched on a few of the limitations we run into in arguing for the Faith (and why we should nonetheless continue to do so). There is, of course, much more to say on this topic than I cover in my little blog post.  For instance,  I often hear Catholic apologists say that it is enough to convince people that the Catholic Faith is a “reasonable” faith; it is not necessarily their job to “close the sale.”  This may at first seem like aiming too low: aren’t we trying to save souls? Don’t we want people to embrace the fullness of the faith?  Of course, but to be successful we need to take into account what the Faith teaches us about the nature of humanity, about what it means to be both body and soul, made in the image and likeness of God.  Human reason is finite and fallible, so it needs to be guided by faith.  That’s why St. Augustine, in a commentary on John’s Gospel, says: “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand; since, 'except you believe, you shall not understand.'”
     This, unfortunately, is the sort of quote that those who do not share the faith can easily misunderstand, or even attempt to use against Christian belief.  It can appear that Augustine is rejecting reason, but that is not the case; rather, he is recognizing that our imperfect human reason is subject to our wayward desires, and that “to perceive . . . more accurately, we need the Lord Himself for expounder.”  The “belief” to which he refers does not simply mean accepting a set of propositions, but entrusting ourselves to God; after all, he says, “even the devils believed him, but they did not believe in Him.” After embracing God, the source of all Truth, our reason can proceed on a firm foundation.  True Faith, therefore, involves first the heart, and then the head. A mistaken belief that the faith is unreasonable can be an obstacle to embracing belief so we must, as St. Peter tells us, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope within you” (1 Peter 3:15); but human reason on its own will bring nobody to conversion.

Sunday – “The Pope Is Catholic Yet Again”  Pope Francis seems to frown on breeding "like rabbits" and it's all some people can talk about, but when he says that remaining childless is a "selfish choice" . . . well, where did everyone go?

Monday – “Pergolesi: Miserere mei Deus” I've posted Allegri's "Miserere" several times, but other composers have done wonderful things with this most penitential of Psalms: here's one . . . 

Tuesday – “Josquin Des Prez: Miserere mei Deus” . . .and here's another beautiful musical setting for Psalm 51

Wednesday – “Abortion Myth # 3” Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts - case in point, the canard that "women suffer no psychological consequences from abortion"

Thursday – “Can The Good Be The Enemy Of The Perfect?” Some people argue that we should avoid contentious issues and just stick to the Gospel; this is my response

       And – Does He ReallyExpect Us To Be Perfect?” Tell the truth, now: don't you feel just a little inadequate to the task when you read: "Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is Perfect" (Matthew 5:48) ?

Friday – “Moses, Pharaoh, & Why We Preach The Gospel”  Moses was a poor speaker, but God chose him as his spokesman anyway - what's up with that?


Friday, February 27, 2015

Moses, Pharaoh & Why We Preach The Gospel

    The scriptural reading from this past Tuesday’s Office of Readings was from the Book of Exodus (6:28-7:25).  In this passage we see Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh in order to ask him to release the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt.  Pharaoh is unwilling, and so Moses and Aaron use miraculous signs in an effort to convince him:  Aaron throws down his staff and it turns into a snake, but Pharaoh’s magicians turn their staffs into snakes as well; even after Aaron’s snake devours the others, Pharaoh is unpersuaded.  Next, Moses turns all the water in Egypt into blood,

But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them [i.e., Moses and Aaron], as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not lay even this to heart. (Exodus 7:22-23)

     We should not be surprised that Pharaoh so easily dismissed Moses and his miracles, because God had “hardened his heart” (Exodus 7:3), and someone whose heart is hardened toward God will always be able to explain away any evidence we can offer, any arguments (however sound), and even miraculous events.  We cannot by either proof or persuasion change a mind that does not want to be changed.

Why Preach?

     Am I saying, then, that it is futile to for us to contend with atheists and agnostics in a contest of ideas? By no means.  If a hard heart is the obstacle, then a softening of the heart can make change possible.   This softening only happens through the work of the Holy Spirit, but our words and actions can either help or hinder the process.  More significantly, we can plant seeds (if I may switch metaphors) that might take root in the soil prepared by the Spirit, and even somebody who is not willing to listen today may at a more fertile time remember what we have said.  The atheist philosopher Anthony Flew is one example, who late in life was finally ready to be convinced by arguments he had been rejecting for decades, and willing to embrace the reality of a Creator.  We see something similar in the case of another atheist philosopher, the Jewish-born Edith Stein, who later became a Carmelite nun and was murdered by the Nazis; we now know her as St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross.
     What we say is important.  How we live our lives and treat other people (expressly including those with whom we are debating) is even more important, because the good example of Christians has led to many conversions.  Let’s return to Pharaoh for a moment.  He eventually relented and released the Hebrews after the events of the first Passover, when the lives of the first-born sons of the Egyptians were taken.  For many of us, the Holy Spirit softens our hard hearts through  suffering or misfortune.  In the Twelve Steps (the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has now been applied in many other areas) this is known as “hitting rock bottom”: life has become so difficult, so intolerable, that a person is finally driven to consider possibilities that had been unthinkable before.   If a person who has reached such a point sees Christians living peaceful and joyful lives, he or she is likely to ask “why can’t I have that?”  This person is ready for conversion.  If he sees Christians who are back-biting hypocrites, on the other hand, he will probably start looking elsewhere, and the opportunity that the Holy Spirit has created will be lost.

Knowing Our Own Part

     Apart from the person or persons with whom we are in direct dialogue, we also need to be aware of others who might be listening to our discussion.  Who knows where they are in their faith journey?  They might be wavering, and looking for reasons not to give up on God, or they could be someone for whom the soil has been prepared, and they are waiting for just the right seeds.  Even if the person to whom we think we are speaking never comes to conversion, what we say, and how we say it, can have a profound impact on bystanders.
     Finally, we have been commissioned to preach the Gospel by Jesus Christ Himself (Mark 6:15).  It seems that our Lord wants to use us as his instruments, even though it is His power that changes hearts.  Perhaps that’s why he sends Moses, who says “since I am a poor speaker, how is it possible that Pharaoh will listen to me” (Exodus 6:30), so that it is clear that it is God, and not Moses’ eloquence, that wins freedom for the Hebrews.

     Seeing our proper role here is the key.  Mother Theresa used to remark that she was called not to be successful, but faithful.  This is a good reminder for all of us, because we tend to take upon ourselves responsibility for the results, when all that is under our control is the effort.  Exodus reminds us that if we do what our Lord asks us to do, He can take care of the rest.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Does He Really Expect Us To Be Perfect?

     It’s funny how different things can look from just a slightly changed perspective.  I remember as a fallen-away Catholic college sophomore responding to what must have been a Divine prompting  by picking up a copy of the New Testament and starting to read.  I can’t say why, as a cradle Catholic, I didn’t first seek out the sacraments or a priest (maybe it was a result of the catechesis I received in the ‘70’s).  In any case, I began with the first chapter of Mathew’s Gospel, and things were looking pretty good until I came to the Sermon on the Mount.  Here I began to entertain the unpleasant suspicion that a Journey of Faith might entail some Demands (horribile dictu!) upon me.  I continued nonetheless until I came to Chapter 5, verse 48: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  I needed to be perfect? This was asking way too much, I thought.  I put the book down. It would be almost another ten years before I gave serious thought to returning to the practice of the Faith.

Sebastiano Ricci, "The Sermon on the Mount"

     And yet that passage troubled me on and off for a long time.  Odd that as a Classics major, and later a teacher of Latin and Greek, it didn’t occur to me to look up the Greek word that was translated into English as “perfect”.  If it had, I might have found Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 5:48 less overwhelming (although at the time, honestly, I may not have wanted that badly to be saved from my sins). 
     Eventually, of course, it did happen.  As an older and (somewhat) wiser man I was explaining to my students that the Latin word perfectus had not yet completely taken on its modern connotation of flawlessness or moral perfection; its primary meaning was “finished” or “complete”, which is why the verb tense denoting completed action is called the perfect tense.  That’s when the proverbial light went off in my head: was this the word St. Jerome used in translating the Gospel from Greek in the fourth century, and if so, what did the Greek word mean?

  What I found changed my entire perception of the passage.  The Latin is indeed  perfectus, and is a translation of the Greek word teleioi. Teleioi is related to the noun telos, “end”, and the adjective signifies something that has reached its proper end, or fulfillment, i.e., is complete. I also realized, for the first time, that verse 48 is intended as a conclusion to the verses preceding (notice the word “therefore”; oun in Greek):

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 
so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  MT 5:44-48

Just as God loves completely (i.e., everyone), and forgives completely, so must we.  Now, that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t calling us to strive for perfection as we understand the word today: he certainly is.  In this particular passage, however, he is primarily concerned teaching us to love with a perfect love, and he gives us a “road map”, if you will, to show us how to get there. That’s still a pretty tall order, but somehow it seemed less hopelessly impossible when I could see Jesus is proposing concrete actions, and not simply commanding us to, well, be perfect.
     I don’t want to make it seem that my difficulty with one scripture verse held me back from rejoining the Mystical Body of Christ for a decade.  I needed more experience of life, of realizing the futility of trying to do things “my way”, and particularly of the Mystery of the Cross to soften my heart and lead me back to the Lord.  Nevertheless, coming to a new appreciation of Christ’s call to perfection in Matthew 5:48 removed one small but significant barrier on that journey.

Can The Good Be The Enemy Of The Perfect?

     Like many of my fellow Catholics, I tend to focus on particular issues (for instance, life and family issues) as an expression of my faith and as a means of evangelizing.  But there is always the danger of losing sight of the Big Picture when we commit ourselves to specific causes which are necessarily finite and subordinate to Eternal Truths.  For example, one criticism of the “Abortion Myths” series that I have been posting is that we are in danger (or I am in danger) of reducing Catholicism to nothing more than an anti-abortion crusade.  One commenter suggested that we should instead simply preach the Gospel, and once we have converted the world the abortion problem will solve itself.

Leonard Porter, "Saint Paul Preaching on the Areopagus".

Admonish The Sinner

     There is a degree of truth in such criticism: there is always a possibility that we will be governed more by our own limited enthusiasms than by the will of God.  On the other hand, it is God’s will that we act against wrongs being committed in our own time and place.  This is stated over and over again in Holy Scripture, as in this Old Testament passage:

"So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.  But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.  (Ezekial 33:7-9)

And here we see the same principle in the New Testament:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

     Saint Peter gives us some guidance on how we can address particular situations without neglecting the Full Gospel:

But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16)

By exemplifying in our manner and mode of address respect for the dignity of our adversary, we are preaching by example the Gospel of Christ’s love.

Practice What You Preach

     We very often see wonderful examples of this approach in some of the Church’s teaching documents, and in a special way in those addressing a particular wrong.  These magisterial correctives take advantage of the interest generated by a particular “hot topic” as a teachable moment both to gently yet firmly invite back those who have strayed, and also to give a positive lesson on how the Church’s teaching in a particular area is grounded in the greater principle of God’s all-embracing love.

Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Ratzinger
(now Bl. Paul VI and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)
     One such document is Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae [here], to which I will be returning in the near future.  Another less well-known one is the 1984 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document called Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” [here], signed by the CDF’s then prefect Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.   The main purpose of the document is to correct errors in the Liberation Theology movement similar to those described above, specifically that it tends to give worldly “liberation” from material want and suffering precedence over the Liberation from Sin that is the true core of Christian belief, and also that it associates itself too closely with the anti-Christian political Philosophy of Marxism.  At the same time, the document acknowledges the areas where Liberation Theology is right, particularly its focus on very real problems of poverty, suffering and injustice in many parts of the world.  Finally, the document takes the opportunity to present a wonderfully concise mini-lesson in the Catholic understanding of poverty and our responsibility as Christians to work actively on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
     This document is but one of many examples of the fact that the Big Picture and finite issues are inextricably intertwined.  If our attempts to address and correct particular wrongs are not first grounded in Christ’s Love, then we are no better than “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1), or worse than that if our lack of charity actually drives people away from the Gospel.  On the other hand, if we simply preach the Love of God without applying it to concrete situations, it becomes an insubstantial abstraction, and our Faith is as good as dead (see James, chapter 2).  Our role as Catholics is to be both/and, body and soul, and to witness to the Word made Flesh.  In no other way can we, as Saint Paul says (1 Timothy 6:12), “Fight the Good Fight”.

(An earlier version of this post was published under the title "The Forest and the Trees" on June 4th of last year)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Abortion Myth # 3

MYTH: "There are few psychological consequences of abortion; most women simply feel relief."


- A study of the medical records of 56,741 California medicaid patients revealed that women who had abortions were 160 percent more likely than delivering women to be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment in the first 90 days following abortion or delivery. Rates of psychiatric treatment remained significantly higher for at least four years. (link)

Approximately 60 percent of women who experience post-abortion sequelae report suicidal ideation, with 28 percent actually attempting suicide, of which half attempted suicide two or more times. (link)

-Over twenty studies have linked abortion to increased rates of drug and alcohol use. (link)

- Abortion is linked with increased depression, violent behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, replacement pregnancies, and reduced maternal bonding with children born subsequently. These factors are closely associated with child abuse and would appear to confirm individual clinical assessments linking post-abortion trauma with subsequent child abuse. (link)

- Post-abortion couples are more likely to divorce or separate. Many post-abortion women develop a greater difficulty forming lasting bonds with a male partner. (link)

- Women who have one abortion are at increased risk of having additional abortions in the future. Women with a prior abortion experience are four times more likely to abort a current pregnancy than those with no prior abortion history. (link)

- Some women experience all or some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (link)

-Some claim that having the "products of conception" removed in an abortion is no more traumatic than having a tooth pulled.  Yet many thousands of women belong to postabortion support groups such as Silent No More, Women Exploited By Abortion, and  American Victims of Abortion, or seek healing from programs like  Project Rachel and Rachel’s Vineyard.  Why don’t survivors of other "common medical procedures" need support groups?

 To read the testimonies of women scarred by abortion, see Silent no More,Women Exploited By AbortionThe Elliot Institute

Another extensive resource on the documented psychological effects of abortion can be found here.


Essential Pro-Life Res
Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments (link)  

The Elliot Institute (link)  

National Right To Life Committee (link)  

Care-Net (link)

The Nurturing Network (link)

To See The Entire Abortion Myths Series Click HERE

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Josquin Des Prez: Miserere mei Deus

Nathan confronts David with his sin: the occasion for Psalm 51
    For centuries Catholic artists have been creating beautiful things to honor God.  We have accumulated a treasury of works of unequaled loveliness – including a veritable horde of the most beautiful music ever conceived.  Sadly, most of it is rarely heard.  I’m not going to take this opportunity to complain about the contemporary music that is used in the liturgy today, although I certainly could point out that most of it is banal, trivial, and, sometimes even heretical.  No, I’m simply going to point out that in its place we could be praising our Lord with something truly magnificent.

     Case in point: Josquin Des Prez’s setting for Psalm 51.  Allegri’s “Miserere” (which I’ve posted more than once) is the most famous musical treatment of this Psalm; yesterday I posted another, Pergolesi’s version.  Des Prez makes a contribution worthy of their company:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pergolesi: Miserere mei Deus

"You are that man!" David and Nathan by Matthias Scheits
     Psalm 51 (called the “Miserere” from its first word in Latin) is one of the greatest of penitential prayers.  According to the Bible itself, it is “A Psalm of David, when the Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”  Nathan came to King David, of course, to confront him after the king had committed adultery with Bathsheba,  and had arranged to have her husband Uriah killed so he could marry her himself. The Psalm is an expression of David’s sorrow after he has realized the magnitude of his sin.
     This psalm is closely associated with Lent because of its penitential character.  It has also been set to music many times, the most famous being the setting composed by Gregorio Allegri for use in the Sistine Chapel (I have posted three different recordings of Allegri’s “Miserere” since I started this blog fourteen months ago). 

     It seemed appropriate, during this first week of Lent, to investigate some of the lesser-known but still beautiful settings for this psalm.  The version, below was composed by Pergolesi (Giovanni Battista Draghi), an immensely talented composer who, sadly, lived for only 26 short years (1710-1736):  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Pope Is Catholic, Yet Again

Who would have guessed that the Pope is Catholic?

     It’s funny that Pope Francis is the most quotable of Popes . . . except when he’s not.  A few weeks ago, when he appeared to criticize couples who were ‘irresponsible” in having children “in a series”, dismissing the idea that, “in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits,” it was big news.  More recently, when he said that “Not to have children is a selfish choice,” and suggested that a culture that “views children above all as a worry, a burden, a risk, is a depressed society,” well, where was the news media?  Where are the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics who trumpet every reference to rabbits and every off-the-cuff  “who am I to judge” remark?  Yes, it was reported (mostly in non-U.S. outlets), but given very little play and quickly forgotten, especially compared to the hullaballoo surrounding some other comments from this Pope.
     Not that any of this is a surprise, of course.  Since the revolt against the Church’s teaching on contraception that erupted into public view at the issuance of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, reproduction and sexuality have been Ground Zero in the culture of dissidence that exists within the Church.  Not coincidentally, those are also the issues that animate the drivers of cultural trends in the secular world as well.  The “news” media is a major component in the Spirit of this Age, and so it is happy to run with anything the Pope says that could further its agenda, especially if it can be spun to undercut Catholic moral teaching on their favored issues.
     It may be hard for some of us to believe just how important this last point is to the promoters of the new sexual ethic.  They quite correctly see the Church as the main obstacle in their way.  The Popes agree.  In his encyclical letter Casti Connubii (“Of Chaste Marriage”), published in response to the abandonment by the Anglican Church of the age-old Christian ban on contraception, Pope Pius XI describes:

. . . the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her . . . (Casti Connubii, 56)

     If this description was true in 1930, when Casti Connubii was published, how much more so today?  Not only are the moral ruins around us more widespread than ever, but there is a visible group of people who identify as Catholic actively working to pull down the Church into that debris.  Pope Francis’ remarks on the selfishness of sterility are most unwelcome both to this set of Catholics, and to the media, not only because he is contradicting their agenda, but specifically because he is re-stating long-standing Catholic teaching.  These comments give the lie to the mythical Pope Francis who is freeing the Catholic Church from its judgmental and puritanical past.  And we can’t have people think the Pope really is Catholic, can we?

The Past Week at Principium et Finis:

Monday – “Benigno Zerafa – Dixit Dominus,Mov. II” It’s a shame to let anything beautiful go to waste, esprcially something created to glorify God.  So, here’s a little musical treasure brought down from the attic . . . 

Tuesday –“ J. Puccini the Elder: DixitDominus” When I was researching Zerafa’s “Dominus Dixit” I came across another under as familiar name . . . but not quite as familiar as it looked.  Anyway, here’s another treasure

Wednesday – “Ash Wednesday: A Symbol Of Repentance, A Sign Of Hope”   I was sitting in the DMV Tuesday morning, waiting for my son to finish his driver’s test, and musing about how curious it is that people who don’t normally attend Sunday Mass show up on Ash Wednesday and, well . . . the result was this post 

Thursday – “Richard Dawkins Is Full Of Surprises”  Who knew that the celebrated atheist apologist entertained fond memories of the Anglican Church?  But then, the whole atheist enterprise is nort as reasonidriven as they’d like us to believe . . .  

Friday – “What Adam ate Brought Death, What Christ Gives Us to Eat Brings Eternal Life”  Some thoughts on Lent, Sin, and Salvation, inspired by an Ash-Wednesday homily 

Sunday -  "Sunday Snippets", in which an intrepid group of Catholic bloggers boldly convene to swap posts AND the Lent/Purgatory connection 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival (1st Sunday of Lent 2015)

     Welcome once again to "Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival" (although the carnival atmosphere is somewhat muted, this being the Season of Lent).  Sunday Snippets is a weekly gathering of Catholic bloggers who share their posts for the week (that’s the snippets part) every Sunday (and that’s the . . . um . . . never mind).  The full gathering is here, at This That and the Other Thing, home of Sunday Snippets mastermind RAnn.  

Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross
     Before I get to the past week at Principium et Finis, I’d like to touch briefly on the topic of Lent. One of the distinctive features of the Catholic Vision is that we see the patterns of the next world reflected in this one.  The Season of Lent provides a good example.  We understand that we are prone to sin, that we must undergo a period of preparation before we can experience the joy of Easter.  And so through various penitential practices, including (but not limited to) the sacrament of Confession and the “giving up” of various things, we seek both to acknowledge and repent of our sins, and also to turn away from attachment to worldly things so that we can turn instead to God.
     The logic of these Lenten practices also applies in the next life, in Purgatory.  The word Purgatorium means a place of cleansing. The Catholic belief is that Purgatory is both a completion of temporal punishment (penance), and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," for  those "who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified" (CCC 1030). That purification is sometimes described in terms of removal of our remaining attachment to sin (sound familiar?) .  
     While it's best to do whatever we can to avoid or lessen our time in Purgatory, it's a good bet that very many of us will experience it.  That’s something to keep in mind as we go through Lent here in this world: if it’s appropriate to purify ourselves in preparation for the Feast of Easter, how much more so for the Eternal Supper of Lamb in the New Jerusalem?

And now, on to the links for the past week:

Sunday – "Do You Consider Yourself A Leper?" As it happens, we all have reason to say, “If you will it, you can make me clean”  

Monday – “Benigno Zerafa – Dixit Dominus, Mov. II” It’s a shame to let anything beautiful go to waste, especially something created to glorify God.  So, here’s a little musical treasure brought down from the attic . . . 

Tuesday –“ J.Puccini the Elder: Dixit Dominus” When I was researching Zerafa’s “Dominus Dixit” I came across another version, under a familiar name . . . but not quite as familiar as it looked.  Anyway, here’s another treasure 

Wednesday – “Ash Wednesday: A Symbol Of Repentance, A Sign Of Hope”   I was sitting in the DMV Tuesday morning, waiting for my son to finish his driver’s test, and musing about how curious it is that people who don’t normally attend Sunday Mass show up on Ash Wednesday and, well . . . the result was this post 

Thursday – “Richard Dawkins Is Full Of Surprises ” Who knew that the celebrated atheist apologist entertained fond memories of the Anglican Church? But then, the whole atheist enterprise is not as reason-driven as they’d like us to think . . . 

Friday “What Adam ate Brought Death, What Christ Usto Eat Brings Eternal Life
  Thoughts on Lent, Sin, and Salvation inspired by an Ash Wednesday homily

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Adam Ate Brought Death, What Christ Gives Us To Eat Brings Eternal Life

Sin Is Our Free Choice

My family and I attended a beautiful Extraordinary Form Mass on Ash Wednesday.  The holy priest in charge of the Latin Mass Chaplaincy here in Maine (which is to say, the priest who is the Latin Mass Chaplaincy) is a wonderful homilist, and so, not surprisingly, he provided some food for fruitful thought on this occasion (I hope, by the way, he didn’t think it too odd to see me taking notes during his sermon).
     Father was pointing out that Adam’s first sin isn’t only Adam’s sin: we are asking mercy “for what Adam and Eve did, and what we continue to do.”  We can’t blame Adam, because, like our first ancestor, we also choose time and again to “turn our backs on God and say, ‘I don’t need you.’” Sin is something that we freely choose, and therefore Hell is also a free choice, not something imposed or inflicted upon us.  He pointed out that, in the Garden of Eden, God doesn’t say “Eat this and I’ll kill you,” He says “Eat this and you will die” (Genesis 2:17). 

Be Careful What You Eat

     After Mass, my lovely bride told me that she had experienced the proverbial light going off in her head at that moment: she saw, on the one hand, the first Adam being told “eat this and you will die,” and on the other the Last Adam (Corinthians 15:45) saying, in effect, to his disciples, “eat this and you will live forever” (see John 6:47-56). The connection between the two passages seems fairly obvious, and I’m sure it has been noted many times, but it had never occurred to me, and neither of us could remember ever hearing or reading about it before.  But there it is: Adam’s selfish choice brought death to mankind, while Christ’s self-sacrifice brings life.
     That, of course, is why Lent is a hopeful season (see “Ash Wednesday, A Symbol Of Repentance, A Sign Of Hope”), but not a happy season.  To return a last time to father’s Ash Wednesday homily, we are to “bring to mind, but not celebrate” the Fall.  Satan tells Adam and Eve that “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5), but he is pretending to offer what they already have: God created them in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:27), with the word “likeness” meaning the potential to be like God.  The loss of that potential was a real loss, and a real evil; it brought about true suffering for all humanity, and tremendous suffering endured by the God-Made-Man Jesus Christ was likewise all too real.

     We can’t skip over the reality of that suffering in our haste to get to Easter, and we can misunderstand what is meant by the term Felix Culpa, the “Happy Fault”, which is sometimes applied to Adam’s Fall.  Felix means happy in the sense of “fortunate, lucky,” but certainly not “happy” in the sense of joyful; its opposite, infelix, can mean “accursed.”  Adams’ fall was fortunate in that, in the end, we were rescued from its logical consequence by God’s favor (Grace) in the form of Christ’s sacrifice for our sake on the Cross; it is fortunate in that we were saved from the curse.  We need to remember and acknowledge the curse, but  save the celebration for Christ's saving Love.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Richard Dawkins Is Full Of Surprises

But can we find the cure for Dawkins?
        I don’t often find myself agreeing with Richard Dawkins, the chief evangelist (dysangelist? cacangelist?) of the “New Atheism”.  I recently ran across an article, however, from a publication called Christian Today (not to be confused with Christianity Today) featuring this same Prof. Dawkins [here].   It seems that as Dawkins was out hawking his memoirs he was asked a question by "an American minister in the audience who said he continued to preach the teachings of Christ and considered himself a Christian despite not believing in Jesus’s miracles or His resurrection anymore."  Dawkins quite properly responded: “But if you don’t have the supernatural, it’s not clear to me why you would call yourself a minister.”  Now, I myself wouldn’t call it “the supernatural”, but I know what he means.  As I’ve said before [here], a man who does not believe in the Resurrection of Christ has no business standing up in front of a congregation in the guise of a Christian minister, or pastor, or priest.  He’s guilty of fraud, for one thing; also, what in the world does he do with a passage like this:

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1Corinthians 15:14-19)

Sadly, Prof. Dawkins and I have little ground for agreement after that.  In fact, this little article, whose main focus is the atheist apologist’s Anglican origins, is a good illustration of the emotionalism and sheer illogic that underlies much of the currently fashionable atheism.  Consider the following:

Dawkins, Author of The Selfish Gene, went on to say he believed there was a “magnetic pull” that kicks in if humans stray off the path they were destined to take.
          “I think there are always paths not taken but if a different path is taken, I think there is a magnetic pull.  There is a sort of something that pulls you back to the pathway having taken a fork in the road.”

In The Selfish Gene and in other places Dawkins, whose training is in insect biology, has argued that our actions and choices are genetically determined.  A “destined path” sounds quite a bit less random than simple genetic determination.  And how is it that we “wander off the path” in the first place if our genes are determining our actions?
     Or how about this:

He said he felt “grateful” to the Church of England because of its “benign tolerance” that allowed people to be a part of its ceremonies and traditions without having to believe in the faith.
He suspects, he says, that many Anglicans “don’t believe any of it” but “vaguely enjoy” it, and goes on to compare “evensong in a country church” to “a village cricket match on the village green”.  If what he says is true, the Anglican Church either lies that it believes what it does not, or really does believe it has a truth vital to salvation but makes no effort to impress it upon anyone, not even those who enter its doors.  Shouldn’t Dawkins be angry at its dishonesty?
     Well, he is angry, in fact – but he is angry instead at Christians who actually believe what they claim to believe.  According to the article:

. . . Dawkins admitted he was a little “angry” with God [!!] and those who believe in him.
          “I do believe in truth.  I am moved by the beauty of life, as it has evolved.  I think any child who is being denied that knowledge is being cheated.  It’s wicked that children are being brought up that way by parents, teachers, priests – deliberately, systematically deprived of that knowledge,” he said.

Dawkins' Flyingt Spaghetti Monster . . . with meatballs
Where to begin with this emotion-charged pile of inconsistencies?  Claiming to be angry with a God he says doesn’t exist is probably just a rhetorical trope, but what is the “truth” he’s talking about?  Most Christians would agree that life “has evolved”; the difference is that they believe that any “evolution” has been guided by the hand of an infinitely loving God, while Dawkins claims that it is all a big, random, meaningless accident.  Is it “wicked” to find the Christian view more convincing, or more beautiful?  And given that Dawkins’ position is unproven and, in fact, completely unprovable, how can he assert an absolute like “truth”?  And why should he be angry with people who, after all, are just following their genetic programming?  Finally, how can anything possibly be “wicked” (wicked!) in a world that is ultimately meaningless?
     And this, of course, is the irony at the heart of atheism as a belief system: atheists claim that theirs is the “rational” view because we can’t point to ironclad “proof” of God’s existence.  There is in fact quite a bit of proof, both empirical and logical, of course, but even if we concede their premise, nobody has ever offered a rational proof, or offered physical evidence, of God’s non-existence.  While one can come up with a logical defense of agnosticism, perhaps, atheism is and can only be an opinion, no more.  Notice how Dawkins himself answers this criticism: he claims to believe in “The Flying Spaghetti Monster”; sure, he can’t prove it, just like Christians can’t prove the existence of God, and therefore his Spaghetti Monster is equally plausible.  He pretends that a critique of his own position is instead a defense of his antagonist’s position, and having created a straw man, ridicules it with an absurdity.  That’s a pretty cheap trick for the champion of “reason”.
     One final, interesting, detail: Dawkins, the article tells us, “became atheist in his teens” (much like his fellow New Atheist, the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, who became an atheist as a preteen).  It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, that an adolescent could have the knowledge, wisdom, experience, and objectivity to come up with the logical argument that disproves Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and other great minds throughout the ages, but if Dawkins has done it, he hasn’t shared it with us.  There are a number of well-written books that fairly easily shred the arguments that he and his fellow militant non-believers have offered (my favorite: The Last Superstition by Edward Feser).
     The Richard Dawkinses of this world are badly in need of our prayers.  It shouldn’t surprise us that he feels a strange fondness for Christian observance: a rational person might even conclude that if he feels a “magnetic pull” back to church that something – someone? – is pulling him, well, back to church.  Who knows? He may, like famed atheist philosopher Anthony Flew [see here], reason his way back.

(An earlier version of this post was published under the title "The Cultural Christianity of
Richard Dawkins" on May 30th of last year.  For another post, discussing Dawkins' comments on babies with Down Syndrome, see: "Amy or Dawkins?"

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday: A Symbol of Repentance, A Sign Of Hope

The Repentant King David (artist unknown, c. 1650)
       There’s a curious thing about Ash Wednesday.  We all know people whose connection to the practice of the Faith has become somewhat tenuous.  You will rarely see them darken a church door on an ordinary Sunday, although they will put in an appearance at Christmas, and maybe Easter.  Interestingly, I see a significant number of these occasional Catholics show up in church on Ash Wednesday, or wearing the ashes of penitence on their foreheads as they go about their daily business.
     As I said, it’s curious.  The attraction to the joyous feasts of Christmas and Easter is obvious, but why should a lukewarm Catholic seek out a public proclamation of unworthiness, a sign in the middle of his face saying “I’m a sinner!”  What is the appeal?
     I think it starts with the fact that, on some level, we all know we’re sinners, we all have moments when, at least in our hearts, we can identify with the voice of King David in Psalm 51:

For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me,
To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee:
That thou mayst be justified in thy words and
Mayst overcome when thou art judged.
For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and
In sins did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5-7)

Even those who consciously reject God have at least a lurking awareness of their own finitude and imperfection (and the rejection of God may itself be an attempt to escape that awareness).  If that’s the end of the story, then a man is a wretched thing indeed.  That’s not the end for King David, however, who goes on to say:

Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and
I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me,
And I shall be made whiter than snow.
To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness: and
The bones that have been humbled shall rejoice. (Psalm 51: 9-10)

He trusts that the God who made him, who is all good and all perfection, can save him from his own imperfect self.
     We who are Christians have that and more.  Pope Francis says:

Christian hope is not simply a desire, a wish: for a Christian, hope is expectation, fervent, passionate expectation for the final and definitive fulfillment of a mystery, the mystery of God’s love, in which we are reborn and in which we already live. And it is the expectation of someone who is about to arrive: it is Christ the Lord who makes Himself ever closer to us, day after day, and who comes to introduce us finally into the fullness of His communion and of His peace. (General Audience Catechesis, 15 October 2014)

We know that Christ has already died for our sins and risen to new life.  All we need to do is pick up our cross and follow him.  Ash Wednesday represents the first step on that journey.
     We can see a reflection of this same idea in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (derived from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola).  The first step is to admit that our life is out of control, that we are not in charge. Hiding from our problems and trying to cover up our failings takes up a lot of time and effort, all of it wasted on an impossible task.  When we can stand up in front of a room full of people and say “I am an alcoholic,” or whatever our particular downfall might be, it gives us an incredible feeling of freedom.  Yes, our life is still a mess, but now, at least, we can really begin to do something about it.
     Ash Wednesday is like that first flush of freedom.  It’s somber, because sin is an ugly reality in our lives, but it gives us a glimpse of freedom as well: beyond the Via Dolorosa and the pain of Calvary, we can see the Empty Tomb and the glory of the Resurrection.  We know that the long, hard journey ahead need not lead to futility.
     And so we should be happy to see our less devout brethren in church on Ash Wednesday.  St. Paul tells us:

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let  each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him.  For Christ did not please himself . . . (Romans 15:1-3)

We should welcome them, encourage them, and pray for them, in the hope that they go beyond the first step.  And we should ask them to pray for us as well, because we, too, are often lukewarm in our faith; we, too, are dust, and to dust we shall return.

J. Puccini the Elder: Dixit Dominus

This is not your grandfather's Puccini . . . .this is your great, great, great grandfather's Puccini.

I was intrigued when I saw a "Dixit Dominus" (a musical setting to Psalm 110) by Giacomo Puccini. 

At first I thought that the composer was the operatic composer of the late 19th and early twentieth century.  That Puccini wrote some magnificent music, such as the opera La Boheme, and what some people consider the most beautiful of arias,  "O Mio Babbino Caro" from his comic operetta Gianni Schicchi  (I can't help but post a link here, to the soprano Sally Matthews in one of my favorite productions of Gianni Schicchi).  The opera composer, however, was not what one would consider a pious person, and I wasn't aware that he had composed any Sacred Music 

His great, great grandfather of the same name, the first in five generations of composers, was another matter altogether. Below is a link to a performance of his setting for David's Psalm, performed by Ensemble UnaVolta.  It is not only beautiful music, but is radiant with the love of God.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Benigno Zerafa - Dixit Dominus, Mov. II

King David, Psalmist
Man, did anyone even know how to write bad music in the 18th century?  I had never heard of Benigno Zerafa, the composer of this delightful setting to Psalm 110, until very recently (those of you who are Maltese or with connections to Malta may be more familiar with him).  My loss . . . until now. Neither he nor his beautiful music deserve to be forgotten

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Do You Consider Yourself A Leper?

“Do you consider yourself a leper?” 

    That was Father’s opening line in his homily today, drawing on today's readings from Leviticus and the Gospel of Mark dealing with lepers and leprosy.  Leprosy, of course, is a physical ailment, but in Scripture it is also a metaphor for sin, and sin, as Father pointed out, “renders the human person ugly.”  The separation of lepers from the community that we see in the reading from Leviticus shows how our sin can isolate us and “lead us into narcissism.”  And, to get back to original question, we are all lepers, because “we all suffer to a degree from the leprosy of sin, but that’s not our true likeness.”  If we approach the Lord in a spirit of repentance (in the sacrament of confession in particular), we will indeed be cured: the Lord will say to us as to the leper in today’s Gospel, “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

     Father’s homily got me thinking.  The Good News of the Gospel can seem to us, in our “diseased” state, to be something of a Good News/Bad News proposition: Christ is willing to forgive us, but we need to be willing to give up our sin.  We all know just how comfortable some of our habitual sins can be, how hard it is to picture living without them.  One of the practical effects of the spiritual disciplines of Lent is to train our weak flesh to obey our willing spirits (see Matthew 26:41), but our spirits usually do not become truly willing without the help of the Lord who wills us to be made clean.  For that reason He has given us the sacraments of the Eucharist and, yes, Confession.  If you will it, Lord, you can make me clean . .  . because I, too, am a leper.   

Links for the Week at Principium et Finis:

Tuesday – “Miserere Mei, Have Mercy on Me – Psalm 51” Allegri’s stunning “Miserere”, written to be performed in the Sistine Chapel, is here paired with views of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which is painted above the same Chapel’s altar.  I's a pleasing mach.


Attende, Domine” – The choir sings this beautiful traditional hymn as Pope Benedict XVI blesses ashes on Ash Wednesday, 2010, at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome. 

Wednesday - – “Abortion Myth #2”  Abortion promoters will tell you that abortion is safer than childbirth; the facts say something else . . . 

Thursday – Feed My Sheep  When Jesus asks us whether we love him, how will we answer? 


            Remember,Man, That Thou Art Dust – A Reflection on Humility, Ash Wednesday, and Roman Triumphs

Friday – “Aborigines, Materialists, and the Veracity of the Gospels”  If a magazine with” Scientific “ in its title says so, they’ll believe that Australia’s original inhabitants can remember detailed information from 10,000 years before . . . but somehow the first Christians couldn’t remember the Son of God accurately after a few decades? 


            "Merton's Tale of the Trappists vs. the IcariansThomas Merton’s parable about what happens when the City of God meets the City of Man.

Sunday - "Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival & Thomas Merton, Tertullian for Our Time" A weekly Catholic Blogasbord and some thoughts on the checkered career of Trappist author Thomas Merton.