Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Scripture Reflections: The Second Sunday of Lent


First Reading: Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18

Then God took Abram out of doors, and said to him, Look up at the sky, and count, if thou canst, the stars in it; thy race, like these, shall be numberless. So Abram put his faith in God, and it was reckoned virtue in him.
            And now God said to him, I am the Lord, who brought thee out from Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee possession of this land instead. And when he asked, Lord God, what assurance may I have, that it is mine? The Lord answered, Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, and a three-year-old ram, and a turtle-dove, and a pigeon. All these he brought to him, and cut them in half, laying the two halves of each on opposite sides, except the dove and the pigeon; he did not divide these. The whole day long Abram stood there, driving away the carrion-birds as they swooped down on the carcases; but when the sun set, deep sleep fell upon him, and in the darkness a great dread assailed him.
            So the sun went down, and when the darkness of night came on, a smoking furnace was seen, a torch of fire that passed between the pieces of flesh. And the Lord, that day, made a covenant with Abram; I will grant this land, he told him, to thy posterity, with its borders reaching up to the river of Egypt, and the great river Euphrates;

Second Reading: Phillippians 3:17-4:1

            Be content, brethren, to follow my example, and mark well those who live by the pattern we have given them; I have told you often, and now tell you again with tears, that there are many whose lives make them the enemies of Christ’s cross. Perdition is the end that awaits them, their own hungry bellies are the god they worship, their own shameful doings are their pride; their minds are set on the things of earth; whereas we find our true home in heaven. It is to heaven that we look expectantly for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to save us; he will form this humbled body of ours anew, moulding it into the image of his glorified body, so effective is his power to make all things obey him.
            Then, O my brethren, so greatly loved and longed for, all my delight and prize, stand firmly in the Lord, beloved, as I bid you.

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36

            Jesus took Peter and John and James with him, and went up on to the mountain-side to pray. And even as he prayed, the fashion of his face was altered, and his garments became white and dazzling; and two men appeared conversing with him, Moses and Elias, seen now in glory; and they spoke of the death which he was to achieve at Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Peter and his companions were sunk in sleep; and they awoke to see him in his glory, and the two men standing with him. And, just as these were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, Master, it is well that we should be here; let us make three tents in this place, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. But he spoke at random: and even as he said it, a cloud formed, overshadowing them; they saw those others disappear into the cloud, and were terrified. And a voice came from the cloud, This is my beloved Son; to him, then, listen. And as the voice sounded, Jesus was discovered alone. They kept silence, and at the time said nothing of what they had seen to anybody.

Reflections:

            “Their own hungry bellies are the god they worship; their own shameful doings are their pride; their minds are set on the things of Earth.”
            Not to put too fine a point on it, but sound familiar? Sounds to me a lot like ‘personal discovery’ and ‘Gay pride’ (hey, they even use the same word!), and ‘social change.’ Not that personal discovery or social change are necessarily bad in themselves, but, well, as Teddy Roosevelt put it, “How often you see some young fellow who boasts that he is going to “see life,” meaning by that that he is going to see that part of life which it is a thousandfold better should remain unseen!”
            In other words, a life that looks to the self, for whatever reason, with no regard for God, that seeks experience and ‘personal fulfillment’ and ‘authenticity’ whatever other nonsense is ultimately to be judged a failure. The self makes a very poor god, as dear old Narcissus found out. 
            The other two readings stand out in sharp contrast; here we have close encounters with the True God, first in the ghostly covenant with Abraham, then in the dazzling vision of the Transfiguration.
            Many people complain that God is, if not absent, at least hidden from us. They wonder why He doesn’t make it a little easier; make Himself felt more in the world. Well, scenes like the above two remind us precisely why. The felt presence of God, the actual face-to-face encounter with Him, is overwhelmingly terrifying. Peter is reduced to, essentially, babbling in fright, and Abraham is seized by “a great dread.” Put bluntly, God is scary, and anyone who thinks differently is deluding himself.
            Here’s the interesting point: God’s secrecy is what allows us to worship our “hungry bellies” and lose ourselves to the things of Earth, yet without that secrecy, we wouldn’t be able to function at all, since our minds would be constantly overwhelmed. The ‘absence’ of God is a gift, just like Free Will. Both can be easily abused, but both are necessary for existence in the world.
           

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lenten Lessons: Gollum on Sin

(Yes, I know I'm running extra behind this week. Sorry)


This week’s Lenten Lesson is on Sin and comes courtesy of Gollum, who is well acquainted with the subject. 
 
                  Now, Gollum is an interesting case because he isn’t what springs to mind when one thinks of evil. He’s actually, at times, a charming character in his own way, and certainly pitiable. Yet, he is also, when it comes down to it, a character wholly consumed by sin.
It was part of Tolkien’s genius that he was able to show his villains as loathsome, unimpressive creatures compared to his infinitely more interesting and exciting heroic characters (frankly, he’s practically unique in being able to pull this off; in most works of fiction, the villain is the really interesting one). Gollum is a good example of this. He’s dangerous, cunning, and malevolent for sure, but he’s also pathetic, emaciated, and miserable.
Gollum started life as Smeagle; a small, Hobbit-like creature who lived on the banks of the Great River. From the little we learn of his life, he was already a greedy, selfish piece of work, but things really went wrong for him when, one day, his friend Deagle fished the Ring out of the  riverbed. Smeagle, enticed by the beauty of the Ring, demands that Deagle give it to him, and when he refuses, Smeagle kills him for it.
Discovering that the Ring turns him invisible, Smeagle (nicknamed ‘Gollum’ by his relatives for the noise he makes in his throat) uses it to play tricks, spy, and steal. He causes so much trouble in his community that his grandmother (the matriarch) casts him out. Cursing his lot, Gollum goes on his way and eventually seeks refuge under the mountains, where he expects to find ‘great secrets,’ but actually only finds endless night and cold and hunger.  
Gollum serves as a remarkably apt example of the effects of sin on a person. He is driven by the desire for one specific thing (the Ring), which has never brought him any good, and which, deep down, he knows will never make him happy. Yet, when he’s separated from it, he dwells on fantasies on how it might solve all his problems if he could only lay hold of it again: he would keep it safe from Sauron. He would use it to become a new Dark Lord and never be hungry again. He would pay back everyone who had ever ‘wronged’ him.
All these are, from our perspective, obviously lies. The idea that Gollum could hide from Sauron, or that he could even grow powerful enough to challenge him, is laughable. But Gollum can’t help but listen to these ideas, and they pull him back into his evil ways.
Gollum, therefore, lives in a state of perpetual temptation; the Ring calls to him every minute of every day, enticing him with grandiose lies to come back to it. But, of course, neither the Ring nor its master gives a hoot about Gollum; they only see him as a possible tool to reunite them. 
A particularly interesting effect that the Ring has on Gollum is that it inspires him to loathe good things: the sun, the moon, family, good food, friendship, etc. It’s implied that he already had some dislike of some of these things to begin with, which helped the Ring ensnare him, but once he gave himself wholly over to it, they became intolerable to him. Thus he complains that the sun burns him, that his family had mistreated him, and that cooking food ‘ruins it.’ But at the same time, he can’t actually like what the Ring brings him in return; darkness, loneliness, and cold fish. They simply aren’t things that can be liked. He has lost his ability to love things that can be loved, so he has no choice but to prefer the unlovable.  As Gandalf says, he hates the dark, but he hates the light more.
This inability to enjoy the good is a mark of sin. We see it today in men who are so wrapped up in their pornography addictions that they prefer the porn to their actual wives. Or in people who have spent so much time listening to rotten music that they can’t even enjoy good music when they hear it. Spend enough time in the dark, and the light becomes nothing but blinding (slight detour into The Dark Knight Rises there).
Gollum spent hundreds of years alone in the dark with himself, so that when he finally emerged he was a wreck of a creature; emaciated, insane, and amoral. His loathing of goodness was by now such that he couldn’t even bear to touch anything made by the elves.
One more point about how Gollum has been ruined. He now is almost incapable of looking beyond himself and his own desires. Something like generosity, or altruism, or sacrifice would be totally alien to his mind (this is symbolized by the fact that he almost always talks to himself rather than to the other characters directly). He complains about how the sun burns him, or how hungry he is, or how cruelly he has been treated, but he never offers comfort or seriously inquires after the other characters. In short, as far as he’s concerned it’s all about him and his precious self.
But, at the same time, for all the above, it’s repeatedly stressed that he might not be completely without hope. Gandalf describes to Frodo how the murder of Deagle had haunted Gollum’s conscience during his long years alone, and how Gollum had made up a lie to justify himself, which he had repeated until he almost believed it. In the same conversation, Gandalf points out that Gollum was almost pleased to meet Bilbo, after going so long without hearing a friendly voice, and to bring up long-lost memories of sun and grass and family (though Gandalf explains that this only made him angry in the end).
Indeed, Gollum actually does come very close to repenting at one point. Seeing Frodo and Sam asleep together, looking so peaceful, Gollum is briefly struck by the beauty of their friendship and, cautiously, makes the first step towards repenting…when Sam wakes up and kills the moment with a harsh word.
Gollum is fittingly one of the most striking, memorable, and haunting figures of The Lord of the Rings. He repulses us in his treacherous natures, yet also invites our pity because he is so miserable, and because his lot seems so unfair. He teaches us four main things about Sin:

1.     Sin Subsumes Us in an Overwhelming Desire.

Sin is very much the opposite of Piety. Piety is losing ourselves in the desire for Christ, but Sin is losing ourselves in the desire for something else. Gollum loses himself to the Ring, and we lose ourselves to, say, pleasure or power or ‘self-identity.’ The difference is that Christ gives us ourselves back, good as new. Sin takes ourselves and never gives them back.

2.     Sin kills the Desire for Good

In our desire for whatever leads us into sin, we eventually lose our desire for things that are actually desirable, leaving us miserable and angry at everything around us and with no apparent way out.

3.     Sin is Self-Centered

Sin ultimately comes down to choosing ourselves over everything else; it becomes all about what I want, what I need. Now, this may seem to contradict number 1 above, but actually they’re two sides of the same point. By chasing after something to satisfy ourselves, we lose ourselves, because that’s not what we were meant for. “He who would save his life will lose it.”

4.     All Sin is Redeemable

While Gollum tragically is unable to complete his repentance due to a harsh word from Sam, the fact that he came so close, that almost succeeded shows that even he, after his long, long years of misery, still had the chance to be saved. It’s a reminder to us that no matter what we’ve done, God can call us back. It is also a cautionary reminder to be gentle with others, even those who may seem unredeemable, because you never know when you might close the door of Grace that has suddenly been opened to them and might not be opened again.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Scripture Reflections: The First Sunday of Lent

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26: 4-10

Thereupon the priest will take the basket from thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord thy God. In that divine presence, thou wilt continue thy protestation: My fathers were wanderers, hunted to and fro in Syria, when they made their way into Egypt and began to dwell there, only a handful of them; but they grew to be a great people, hardy and numerous. Whereupon the Egyptians treated us ill and persecuted us, and the burden we must bear was insupportable; so we cried out to the Lord God of our fathers, and he listened to our plea, and took pity on our affliction, the toil and oppression we suffered; rescued us from Egypt by force, with his arm high uplifted to strike great terror, and perform great wonders and portents, and brought us here, where he has given us a land that is all milk and honey. That is why I am offering first-fruits, now, out of the land which the Lord has given me. So leave them there, in the presence of the Lord thy God.

Second Reading: 10: 8-13

No, says the scripture, the message is close to thy hand, it is on thy lips, it is in thy heart; meaning by that the message of faith, which we preach. Thou canst find salvation, if thou wilt use thy lips to confess that Jesus is the Lord, and thy heart to believe that God has raised him up from the dead. The heart has only to believe, if we are to be justified; the lips have only to make confession, if we are to be saved. That is what the scripture says, Anyone who believes in him will not be disappointed.
                There is no distinction made here between Jew and Gentile; all alike have one Lord, and he has enough and to spare for all those who call upon him. Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.


Gospel: Luke 4: 1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit, and by the Spirit he was led on into the wilderness, where he remained forty days, tempted by the devil. During those days he ate nothing, and when they were over, he was hungry. Then the devil said to him, If thou art the Son of God, bid this stone turn into a loaf of bread. Jesus answered him, It is written, Man cannot live by bread only; there is life for him in all the words that come from God. And the devil led him up on to a high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; I will give thee command, the devil said to him, over all these, and the glory that belongs to them; they have been made over to me, and I may give them to whomsoever I please; come then, all shall be thine, if thou wilt fall down before me and worship. Jesus answered him, It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God; to him only shalt thou do service. And he led him to Jerusalem, and there set him down on the pinnacle of the temple; If thou art the Son of God, he said to him, cast thyself down from this to the earth; for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee safe, and they will hold thee up with their hands, lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone. And Jesus answered him, We are told, Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the proof. So the devil, when he had finished tempting him every way, left him in peace until the time should come.

Reflections:
For the first week in Lent, we have the Temptations of Jesus, one of my favorite passages…though I much prefer Matthew’s version, since I think it flows better dramatically (with the climactic “Worship me and the world is yours” coming at the end, rather than the middle).
                These three temptations correspond to the three great ‘desires’ of man, you might say: bodily needs, power, and trust. The first is most obvious: after forty days of nothing to eat, Jesus is hungry (for some reason). Since He is the Son of God, there is no reason why He should be hungry, except that He chooses to be. Therefore, the devil suggests that He use His divine power to provide food for himself. Seems reasonable enough, and no doubt Jesus’s human, bodily nature really, really wanted to do it. This also recalls the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, where the people grumbled and demanded that God feed them miraculously. God obliged, but was clearly not happy with them. Jesus, taking the place of the Israelites, rejects the idea of demanding miraculous food, since, as He points out, God provides much better satisfaction than any bodily desires.
                The second temptation is to power. The devil shows Jesus all the world and claims it for his own, but says he will give it all to Jesus if He will bow down and worship the Devil. This speaks to the desire for power: the desire to participate in and affect creation. Now, the thing I want to talk about here is the question of whether the devil actually does have dominion over all the Earth as he says. The knee-jerk reaction is to say ‘no, he doesn’t, God does,’ but I’m not so sure. The devil is known as ‘the Prince of this world’ after all. Think of it this way; Adam and Eve were given stewardship over the Earth. But they succumbed to the devil’s temptation, choosing him over God. In effect, then, did they hand their authority to him? At the very least, I could see him making that argument. Jesus, for His part, doesn’t dispute the devil’s dominance over the Earth, but points out that God is still higher and has the greater claim to dominion. All efforts to gain power for its own sake, then, are pointless, for God will always be above us and not even the devil can change that.
                The final temptation is a bit more complex than the other two. The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and invites Him to jump down, citing Scripture to support his idea. The temptation here is to test God, and the desire being tweaked is the desire for relationship. All relationship, you see, is based on trust; on knowing that you can believe what the other person says and that he won’t do anything to harm you. The most important relationship is with God, and hence trust in God is the most important form of trust. Now, what does it mean to put something to the test? It means, basically, that you don’t trust it, or that your trust in it is conditional. Testing a rope before you climb it is smart, because ropes are treacherous bastards. Testing a person is horrible. Just imagine if, at the start of a new relationship, you were to test their trust by, say, pretending to cheat on them to see if they believed you when you denied it. Sounds like a bit of a deal-killer, doesn’t it? Testing God, therefore, is a great sin because God is both the most important person to trust and the one thing that you know without a shadow of a doubt that you can trust. So, testing God involves a lack of faith; a desire to make sure that one’s relationship with Him is ‘real.’ Thus the devil here is striking at the very heart of the Trinity itself; he’s trying to damage the relationship between the Son and the Father. Jesus, of course, answers with the injunction against testing God, reaffirming His trust in His Father.
                At the end there’s an ambiguous little line that says “the devil left Him for a time” (or “until the time should come”). A sort of ‘I’ll get you next time, Gadget!’ moment, implying that the devil will make another attempt at Jesus before all is said and done. As, indeed, he will at Gethsemane.

Vive Christus Rex!  
                 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lenten Lessons: Peter Parker on Temptation

For Lent I’m going to put the Famous Catholic project on hold (give me time to gather more names and do some research) and replace it with ‘Lenten Lessons.’ Each week, I’ll examine a particular fictional character who I think illustrates a useful subject for Lenten reflections.
                  We begin with the subject of Temptation, and our illustrative figure is Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man (as realized in the definitive, yet sadly short-lived show The Spectacular Spider-Man). 


                  When we first meet him, teenager Peter is exalting in his newfound identity as Spider-Man. He’s had a whole summer of just easy-going, carefree crime fighting and, as far as he’s concerned, everything is possible. After a lifetime of being the perpetually bullied class nerd, together with his best friends Harry Osborne and Gwen Stacey, Peter’s ready to take Junior Year by storm.
                  His newfound enthusiasm is brought to a screeching halt the next day. His ill-thought-out attempt to ask out a cheerleader ends disastrously. His nemesis, Flash Thompson, is able to push him around just as easily as ever. He discovers that his new after-school job is an unpaid position, and not only that, but his attempt to pitch himself as a photographer to the Daily Bugle newspaper ends with the Bugle’s editor, J. Jonah Jameson, throwing him out of the office (right before stealing his idea).
                  What Peter comes to realize is that being Spider-Man does not automatically make his life any better. As a matter of fact, as time goes on, it almost seems to make things worse. He loses his after-school job when he thoughtlessly sells pictures of himself fighting his mutated boss, Curt Connors (sometimes The Lizard). His friendship with Harry takes a hit when he becomes so concerned with battling the Shocker that he forgets all about his promise to help Harry study. His frequent late nights out end up getting him grounded.
                  In the face of all this, he begins to face increasing temptations to compromise his moral values. After the Lizard incident, Peter is so frustrated that he considers using a ‘gene cleanser’ he swiped from the lab to erase his spider powers. Not long after he toys with the idea of using his superhuman abilities to join the football team and gain some popularity at school. Far more serious is when the mob boss, Tombstone, offers to pay him handsomely just to look the other way on occasion. With his elderly aunt trying to decide whether the pay the electric, gas, or water bill this month, Peter can’t help but be tempted.
                  But the worst temptation of all comes when Peter ‘accidentally’ acquires a new suit: a power-enhancing, self-regenerating black alien ‘symbiote’ that takes an immediate liking to him. The suit allows him to save numerous people that he would otherwise have failed, but at the same time he didn’t exactly acquire it legally…


                  It is easy to justify sin; temptation wouldn’t be temptation if it didn’t sound reasonable. Every time Peter makes a mistake, he first justifies it to himself. When he considers cheating his way onto the football team, he tells himself that he’s just using his natural talent. When he decides to keep the symbiote, he justifies it by saying that he’s using it to help people.
                  The thing about temptation is that it always involves chasing something good. It may be an obviously inferior good (money, popularity) or it may be a genuinely important good (saving innocent lives). And Peter is not alone in this; almost every bad decision made by any character in the series has a clear path of temptation leading up to it. For instance, Dr. Connors made a bad choice in experimenting on himself, a choice that nearly ends up getting a lot of people killed (including his own family). His goal, however, was a laudable one; helping amputees like himself regain their lost limbs. Or consider Adrian Toombs, the Vulture; his anger with Norman Osborne (Harry’s father) is entirely justified, since Osborne stole his invention. Max Dillan AKA Electro’s anger over his condition and the treatment he receives because of it is likewise not only understandable, but tragic. And it isn’t just villains. Harry Osborne, who like Peter is a perpetually bullied nerd, quite naturally wants to earn some respect both from his peers and from his cold, objectivist father, which leads him into drug abuse. 

Left to Right: Rhino, Electro, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Shocker, Vulture

                  In each of these cases, the character feels himself justified in making the choices he does. And, in a sense, they are; they are either chasing a legitimate good or have an honest complaint that they are trying to rectify. Their choices, therefore, are justified by expedience: by need.
                  Need and personal experience (such as Harry’s need to impress his father, or Electro’s justifiable anger over his condition) are the fuels of temptation. That’s why a ‘personal morality’ is not just philosophically dubious, but actually worthless in practical terms. A personal morality, a morality based on one’s personal experience or feelings, has no substance to it; it’s made of the same thing as the temptations it’s supposed to protect against, so as soon as a particularly strong or subtle temptation appears, it crumbles. A personal morality is a house built on sand (though, ironically, the Sandman himself turns out to have a stronger moral code than you might expect).
                  What separates Peter from the other characters is that his morality is based on external, objective principles bequeathed to him by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Stealing and killing are always wrong. Honor your word. With great power comes great responsibility. Peter’s efforts to keep to these codes are imperfect and uneven, but at every point they are what keeps him from falling from the path of righteousness. Peter’s house is built on a rock (I’m not sure whether it was intentional, but surely the name ‘Peter’ is significant in this context). 


                  It also helps that whenever Peter strays from this path, he pays a heavy price. When he first acquired his powers and tried to use them irresponsibly, it cost the life of his uncle. When he kept the black suit despite the fact that it wasn’t his, it not only cost him his oldest friend, Eddie Brock, but also led to the creation of Venom, one of his most dangerous foes (and who comes very close to killing Aunt May, Gwen, and Peter himself).


On the other hand, whenever a character adheres to the morally correct choice despite the apparent consequences, he meets with unexpected success. Take, for instance, Flash Thompson. Peter’s main tormenter, Flash comes off as nothing more than your typical jock: loud, ignorant, and boastful. When he discovers that Harry had been juicing during their last football championship – which Flash had ruined his leg to win – he at first swears Harry to silence…then comes clean himself. “Championship’s worthless if it’s not won fair and square,” he grouses to his furious teammates. As they walk away in disgust, however, an attractive girl that Flash has been trying to win over for the past few episodes without success comes up to him to say that she was impressed by his honesty, and now that she sees what kind of person he really is, she’s up for going out with him.
                  Peter weaves and dodges around temptations as quickly, agilely, and imperfectly as he dodges his opponent’s attacks in battle. Sometimes he passes through them seemingly effortlessly, other times he takes a brutal hit and goes down painfully. But each time he gets back up; he asks forgiveness from the people he’s hurt and he hits back twice as hard. He teaches us three main things about temptation:

1.     Build Your House on a Rock

You can only survive temptation if you have moral principles that are external, objective, and non-negotiable.

2.     Allow no Compromise

Pope Benedict XVI describes it this way:

“Moral posturing is part and partial of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil. No that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place.”

Compromise; telling us that by abandoning one of our more ‘abstract’ values we can do more concrete good, is one of the most effective means of temptation, and, consequently, tends to have the most severe consequences (as shown here in the creation of Venom). It’s important to remember that we aren’t only tempted to doing superficial, lesser goods such as money or pleasure; the worst temptations of all are those that invite to do something great and useful, but in the wrong way.

3.     Ask Forgiveness

Whenever we fall (and we will), we need to present ourselves contritely before those we’ve wronged, admit our failure, and ask their forgiveness. We can’t change what we’ve done, but we can make it known that we intend to change what we will do in the future.

When you fall, get back up, ask forgiveness, and resolve to do better in the future.


Vive Christus Rex!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thoughts on Pope Benedict's Resignation



Like the rest of the world, I was shocked and saddened by the news that our beloved Pope Benedict will be resigning. It's shocking because the last time a Pope resigned from office was back before we had Protestants (Gregory XII in 1415; resigned to finally end the Great Schism). Saddened because I love Pope Benedict. He's been the Pope throughout the time I've been maturing in my faith, and he's the Pope I saw and heard in person when I was in Rome.

But more importantly than that, he's just an eminently lovable person. The press nicknamed him 'God's Rottweiler,' but his writings, speeches, and mannerisms are anything but ferocious.

Case in point: St. Peter, meet St. Bernard
On the contrary, he's a remarkably gentle man, remaining open-minded and respectful even when discussing heresies and viciously anti-Catholic philosophies. Among those who have met him, the unanimous consensus is that they're struck by how very humble and gracious he is. The anecdote that, to my mind, encapsulates him best is during a Eucharistic procession in St. Peter's square, while he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, he saw a pilgrim waving at him, and he smiled and gestured to the monstrance. "Not me," he was telling her, "Him." The focus for Pope Benedict is never on himself, whether his own theological views or his own public persona. Rather, it is always upon God.

As for my opinion of his resignation, I honestly don't think it's my place to really have one. Popes can legally resign, and it has happened before (very few things that the Pope does are unprecedented, though this is less out of policy and more due to the fact that, 2000 years in, there aren't a whole lot of unprecedented actions left). Considering the fact that he's an 85 year-old man responsible for roughly 1/7 of the world's population, it doesn't take much effort to see why he would resign. He clearly considers this the best decision for the Church, which, knowing what we know of him, can only mean that it most likely is the best decision. In short it's his prerogative, and while I'm sad to see him go and will certainly miss his presence in the Church, I'm happy for him that he'll finally have the rest he so richly deserves after a long life of service.

Regarding what this does to the Papacy, I think it will have mixed effects. On the one hand, this will ease some pressure on future Popes who find themselves unable to carry out their duties by giving them the option of graceful retirement. On the other, you can bet that from now on the press will hardly let a day go by without saying that the Pope should resign in disgrace for something that some priest did somewhere in the world, or just because they feel like it. On the other hand, the fact that the Pope resigned of his own free will, without any suspicions or pressure from the press, should help to mitigate this.

More importantly, though, it's a wonderful show of humility and trust in God. Benedict is quietly acknowledging that, in effect, God doesn't need him. It's not vital that he remain on scene to dispense his massive store of wisdom (and I'm not being ironic in the least; he seriously does have a massive store of wisdom to share), because it's not about him, it's about Jesus. And if his health means that he can't be an effective messenger for Jesus, then he'll step aside and let someone else take his place. As always, Benedict's focus is on Jesus.

Now comes the really icky part: having to listen to MSNBC news anchors trying to squeeze the Church into categories of 'Right and Left' while struggling to wrap their heads around what 'Papability' means.

Lord Jesus, watch over and bless your servant, Pope Benedict, and his successor.

Here's the link to his official declaration

Vive Christus Rex! E Vive Papa Benedicto!

UPDATE:

On a lighter note, I'd just like to point out that this is an incredibly badass photo!

No word yet on whether the Pope has developed superspeed.

Scripture Reflections: The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8

In the year that King Ozias died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple. Upon it stood the seraphim:
            And they cried one to another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory, and the lintels of the doors were moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: Woe is me, because I have held my peace; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people that has unclean lips, and I have seen with my eyes the King the Lord of hosts.
            And one of the seraphims flew to me, and in his hand was a live coal, which he had taken with the tongs off the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: Behold this has touched your lips, and your iniquities shall be taken away, and your sin shall be cleansed.
And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send? And who shall go for us? And I said: Lo, here am I, send me.

Second Reading: First Corinthians 15: 1-11

Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received and wherein you stand. By which also you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures: And that he was buried: and that he rose again the third day, according to the scriptures: And that he was seen by Cephas, and after that by the eleven. Then was he seen by more than five hundred brethren at once: of whom many remain until this present, and some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen by James: then by all the apostles. And last of all, he was seen also by me, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am. And his grace in me has not been void: but I have laboured more abundantly than all they. Yet not I, but the grace of God with me: For whether I or they, so we preach: and so you have believed.

Gospel: Luke 5: 1-11

And it came to pass, that when the multitudes pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Genesareth, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. And going into one of the ships that was Simon's, he desired him to draw back a little from the land. And sitting, he taught the multitudes out of the ship.
            Now when he had ceased to speak, he said to Simon: Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said to him: Master, we have laboured all the night and have taken nothing: but at your word I will let down the net. And when they had done this, they enclosed a very great multitude of fishes: and their net broke. And they beckoned to their partners that were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came and filled both the ships, so that they were almost sinking. Which when Simon Peter saw, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was wholly astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken. And so were also James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were Simon's partners. And Jesus said to Simon: "Fear not. From henceforth you shall catch men." And having brought their ships to land, leaving all things, they followed him.

Reflections:

First off, I’ll deal with Pope Benedict’s announcement in a separate post, despite this being a Petrine passage.

            The Gospel today is one of my all-time favorite passages in the Bible. It perfectly encapsulates Peter’s character and the drama of his unique role in salvation history.
            What’s interesting is that, when we first meet him here, Peter actually isn’t interested in what Jesus has to say; he’s too busy washing his net (not a euphemism) and probably grumbling about the crowd that’s trampling all over and making such a racket. Then, all of a sudden, Jesus simply gets into his boat and orders Peter to put out a little ways from the shore. It’s to Peter’s credit that he doesn’t just simply tell Him to get out of his boat (though if we factor in the Gospel of John, Peter’s already met Jesus through his brother Andrew).
            There are two interpretations of Jesus getting into Peter’s boat. First, and most broadly, this is what we might call the first stage of conversion; the Invitation. The Call to Adventure, as Campbell would say. Jesus presents Himself to Peter and, as such, gives him a choice; he can either trust Jesus and do what he says, or he can kick Him off his boat and go back to his nets. Peter, of course, decides to trust Jesus.
            Personally, I like to imagine that this was less because Peter actually believed in Jesus or realized who He was, but more because he was attracted to the attention; the chance to shine and be useful in front of a crowd and, subsequently, perhaps a chance to expand his business. In other words, I imagine Peter’s initial motives for going along with Jesus were more self-interest than piety.
            And here’s the thing; that’s okay. To draw us to Him, God can use anything, even our own sinfulness. Self-interest is actually a wonderful means of drawing people into great enterprises; it only really becomes a problem if it remains our only interest once we’re involved.
            The second interpretation is that Peter’s boat symbolizes the Church, and that by choosing to enter Peter’s boat, Jesus is selecting Him as the leader of His Church. It’s interesting to remember that, in many cases, a boat is not owned by its captain, but the captain is employed by the boat’s owners to guide and care for it. In the same way, Peter is selected by Jesus to be the captain of His ship; the Church.  
            Then, after Jesus has finished teaching, He orders Peter to “put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.” Peter responds by noting that they had labored all night with no luck, but he will do was Jesus says. Apparently, Jesus’ teachings had a profound effect on Peter, and he realizes that this is someone he should listen to.
            Symbolically, there’s also the salvific significance that Peter, James, and John were unable to catch anything while they labored themselves, but once Jesus enters their lives they catch a tremendous abundance of fish. Alone, we can do nothing, but with Jesus we can do the impossible.
            Then comes Peter’s protestations of sinfulness, mirroring Isaiah’s wail of despair. The divine, it must be remembered, is frightening. It isn’t at all gentle or sweet or ‘cool.’ The effect (so I imagine) is like crashing against a rock; you encounter something so solid that your own weaknesses and imperfections are thrown into stark relief and, for a moment, every ounce of pride and self-regard is blasted out of you. Peter, finding himself face-to-face with the divine, can only fall to the ground and beg that Jesus abandon him, because he sees that that would be precisely what he deserved. Jesus, of course, has other plans, just as He did for Isaiah and Paul.
            This week’s passages, coming right before Lent, remind us that there is no room for self-expression or “this is who I am and I’m not ashamed” with God. An honest encounter with the divine leaves one staggered and terrified by one’s own imperfection and need for mercy. It has no proper response but complete submission.

Vive Christus Rex!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: St. Kateri Tekakwitha

A quick one today, and our first woman. I submit for your consideration the recently canonized “Lily of the Mohawks,” Kateri Tekakwitha.



Catholic Credentials: Converted to Catholicism over the strenuous objections of her family; lived a life of fervent prayer and humble suffering; first Native American Saint.

Nerd Credentials: Her life reads like a classic adventure story, full of escapes, persecution, and ending on a spectacularly romantic note.

There has been a glaring omission in our Famous Catholic series so far; I’ve completely neglected the ladies. Considering that some of the most inspiring and fascinating figures in Catholicism are women, this is a terrible oversight.
                Well, today we’re fixing that with not only our first female Catholic, but with someone I think has one of the most thrilling tales of modern saints: Kateri Tekakwitha.
                Kateri (Catherine) was born (we think) at the village of Gandauge in 1656. Her parents were a Mohawk warrior and a Christian Algonquin woman. Foreshadowing her own adventurous life, the story of her parents is classic romance: her mother had been taken captive by the Iroquois, but a Mohawk warrior protected her from her captors and, eventually she married him and bore him two children: Kateri and her younger brother.  
                When Kateri was three years old, Smallpox struck the Mohawks. Her mother, father, and brother all succumbed to the disease. Kateri herself, though she survived, was left with a heavily scarred face, damaged eyesight, and a fearful, shrinking personality. With her parents gone, she was taken in by her uncle, who had become chief of the Turtle clan. The scarred, shy girl dutifully learned the traditional woman’s arts, but avoided other people and wore a heavy blanket around her head to hide her scars. Nevertheless, as she grew up her uncle began to start thinking of marriage for her, and instructed her to prepare herself for it.
                Kateri didn’t want to get married. She was uncomfortable around other people, and self-conscious of her ravaged face. But, she also had her duty to her tribe and her uncle, who had raised her. So, while she didn’t relish the idea, she most likely accepted that she would one day have to obey her uncle’s wishes.
                Then, one day, three men came to stay with her uncle. They were French; the people Kateri’s tribe had been trading (and occasionally warring) with for decades at this point, but they weren’t interested in either trading or fighting. Instead, they talked about a man she had never heard of named Jesus (her mother had died before she could give her daughter any instruction in the faith). This Man fascinated her, as did the three Jesuits who told her about Him. She asked for more information, and the Jesuits happily gave it to her, so that by the time they left three days later, she had decided that she would dedicate herself to this new faith (though she was not, at this point, baptized). Here, at last, was the Man she wished to marry, and she determined that she would have no other.
                Her uncle and aunts were not at all happy with this development. For one thing, she became even more separated from the rest of the tribe than before, refusing to take part in their religious rituals, or engage in their games or gatherings, preferring to spend her time praying or visiting the sick. For another, her reluctance to marry had turned into a flat refusal. When her aunts tried to trick her into a surprise marriage with a young Mohawk man, she ran out of the cabin and hid in the woods until he was gone. In retaliation, her aunts beat her, insulted her, spread wicked rumors about her, and piled on every menial, degrading, and tedious task they could think of on her in the hopes of making her relent, but Kateri accepted all this with humility and patience until, finally, they gave her up as a hopeless case.
                When she was eighteen, the Jesuit Fr. Jacques de Lamberville arrived in her village to help catechize the Mohawks. She eagerly studied the catechism with him at every opportunity and looked forward excitedly to her Baptism, which Lamberville finally administered two years later, on Easter Sunday 1676.
                After her baptism, however, the oppression she suffered grew even worse. She was ostracized, insulted, and accused of witchcraft and fornication (among other things). Fr. Lamberville, seeing how badly she was treated, and that she could no longer count on her uncle’s protection, suggested she flee to the Mission at Kahnawake, where most of the native converts had gathered. With the help of some people from the mission, she escaped into the night and settled at last in Kahnawake.
                There, she dedicated the short time she had left (she was always a sickly person; her battle with Smallpox also damaged her immune system) to prayer and ministering to her fellow Indians. Every day, even in winter, she spent hours at a time in the chapel before her beloved spouse, praying and offering all her sufferings and mortifications for the conversion of her people.
                After only four short years at the mission, at the age of twenty-four, she finally was united with her beloved spouse on April 17th, 1680. A few minutes after she died, her heavily scarred face changed; its marks vanished, and she suddenly became luminously beautiful.
                 St. Kateri’s life was marked throughout with suffering, just as her face was marked with the disease that took her family. Yet, in the midst of all her sorrows, she found solace and comfort in Jesus and never doubted that He loved her, so that her suffering was transformed from something terrible into something wonderful, just as her face was transformed and became beautiful upon her death. She reminds us that our sufferings have a purpose, and that Jesus can transform even the worst circumstances into something beautiful if we will but give him the chance.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Pray for Us.

Vive Christus Rex!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On Anxiety

                  Have you ever seen the show Avatar: The LastAirbender? If so, then I’m sure you remember the scene where the young hero, Aang, has to seek advice from the malevolent spirit, Koh. All through the interview, Aang has to keep himself completely stoic and expressionless, because if his face shows any emotion at all, Koh will rip it off and wear it as a mask.
                  Yeah, it’s an awesome show.
                  I mention it, though, not just because Avatar is awesome (much better than the unrelated blue-elf Jim Cameron film of the same name), but because that scene illustrates something that St. Francis de Sales talks about in his Introduction to the Devout Life (which I’m in the process of reading). Namely, the unexpected danger of anxiety.
                  If you’re like me, then you read Jesus’ famous speech against anxiety (Matt. 6: 25-34) as just good, practical advice: you don’t gain anything by worrying your life away about things you can’t control, so trust in God and sack it up. St. Francis, however, brings out a different aspect which I hadn’t thought of before, but which was one of those “okay, duh” moments. St. Francis describes anxiety as not just unhealthy, but as actually dangerous for your soul. As a matter of fact, he goes so far as to say that it is the worst thing that can befall your soul, short of sin itself.
                  The thing about anxiety, he says, is that while it is not a sin itself it serves as fertile ground for sin to grow in. Basically, it weakens your defenses and leaves you vulnerable, like the way a city torn by internal strife is ripe pickings for an invading army (that’s what happened to Poland in the eighteenth century: some geniuses decided that every parliamentary decision had to be unanimous, with the result that Prussia, Austria, and Russia were able to help themselves to Polish territory until there wasn’t any Poland left).
                  I don’t know about you, but I’m most apt to commit sins when I’m anxious or stressed about something. And isn’t that our favorite excuse? “Sorry I yelled at you; I’ve got a lot on my plate.” “Yeah, I swore I’d never take another drink, but have you seen the day I’ve had?” We don’t only know that anxiety can lead to sin, we’re glad of the fact, because it gives us an excuse.
                  But Jesus doesn’t want excuses; He wants us to man up and overcome our sins. If we plead anxiety, He’ll say “Hm, that’s funny; I’m pretty sure I specifically told you not to be anxious! Depart from me, you wicked ones!” (*BANG*) “AAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEE…..!” (*SPLASH!*) (*GRINDING OF TEETH*)
                  (sorry: got a bit carried away there)                 
                  Anyway, the point is that we need to do something about anxiety, because it will destroy us if we don’t. So what do we do?
                  It’s so hard because when we are anxious we are trying to either escape some evil or acquire some good, both of which are laudable desires, and, as such can trick us into chasing them beyond all reason. So, what we need to do is to trust in God and stare it down, like Aang; calmly and rationally. St. Francis tells us that whenever something is making us anxious, we need to stop, pray about it, then wait and deal with it tomorrow when we’re less anxious. If that’s not possible, we still need to pray about it before we do anything else. Take a step back, remind yourself that everything is in God’s hands, that he won’t abandon you, and that whatever happens you can get through it. Then relax and go about your business. 

"RELAX!"
                  Easier said than done, huh? Well, all of Christianity’s like that; that’s why we have prayer.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Scripture Readings: The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time


First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19

And the word of the Lord came to me, saying: Before I formed you in the bowels of your mother, I knew you: and before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you, and made you a prophet unto the nations.
You therefore gird up your loins, and arise, and speak to them all that I command you. Be not afraid at their presence: for I will make you not to fear their countenance. For behold I have made you this day a fortified city, and a pillar of iron, and a wall of brass, over all the land, to the kings of Juda, to the princes thereof, and to the priests, and to the people of the land. And they shall fight against them, and shall not prevail: for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.

Second Reading: First Corinthians 12:31-13:13

But be zealous for the better gifts. And I show unto you yet a more excellent way.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing.
Charity is patient, is kind: charity envies not, deals not perversely, is not puffed up, 5 is not ambitious, seeks not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinks no evil: 6 Rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices with the truth: 7 Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Charity never falls away: whether prophecies shall be made void or tongues shall cease or knowledge shall be destroyed. For we know in part: and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. 12 We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.

Gospel: Luke 4: 21-30

And he began to say to them: This day is fulfilled this scripture in your ears. 22 And all gave testimony to him. And they wondered at the words of grace that proceeded from his mouth. And they said: Is not this the son of Joseph?
            And he said to them: Doubtless you will say to me this similitude: Physician, heal yourself. As great things as we have heard done in Capharnaum, do also here in your own country.
And he said: Amen I say to you that no prophet is accepted in his own country. In truth I say to You, there were many widows in the days of Elias in Israel, when heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there was a great famine throughout all the earth. And to none of them was Elias sent, but to Sarepta of Sidon, to a widow woman. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet: and none of them was cleansed but Naaman the Syrian.
And all they in the synagogue, hearing these things, were filled with anger. 29 And they rose up and thrust him out of the city: and they brought him to the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. 30 But he passing through the midst of them, went his way.

Reflections:
           
            Another week where the epistle overshadows the Gospel somewhat. I mean, let’s face it; Paul’s dissertation on Love is a lot more central to the Christian faith than the near-riot caused by Jesus’ homily. And yet, I’m going to pass over Paul for now and talk about the Gospel.
            We pick up with Jesus immediately after last week (as in, literally on the very next verse), where He gives a very short explanation of the Scripture Reading by simply identifying it with Himself. Imagine the priest getting up one Sunday, reading a prophecy about the coming Messiah, saying “it’s me,” and sitting down again. It’s really not much of a surprise that people reacted badly.            
            There’s an interesting turn of phrase at the start of this passage: it doesn’t say “And He said to them” but “And He began to say to them.” This, I think, has two meanings: one, Jesus intended to say more on the subject, but was rudely interrupted by the crowd talking about him. Two, this is only the beginning of Christ’s revelation; therefore, He has only begun to identify Himself to the people, a process that will consume the next three years…or, depending on how you understand ‘them,’ the rest of history.
            But what bothers the people, and continues to, is the fact that Jesus is so very ordinary (they know Him; they’ve watched Him grow up), and what He is saying is so very…not. What we have here is the exact same thing that we run into so often today. It’s the fact that it’s really very hard to believe in the miraculous. And I don’t just mean for atheists or non-believers (or even for those rather sad types who claim to be Christian, but try to explain away all the miracles). Even for faithful, believing Catholics it can be quite a challenge to really accept the miraculous. Or at least, there’s a kind of unspoken assumption that miracles were all very well and good in Jesus’ day, or in the Middle Ages, or something, but here and now, in our very stable, very sensible world, they just don’t happen, do they? (I’ll pass on the charming assumption that our world is either stable or sensible, since I don’t want to be here all day).
             What this passage reminds us of is that Jesus’ world was just as (*snort*) stable and sensible as ours; his neighbors were farmers, carpenters, tent-makers, and millers; highly practical people who worked with their hands and knew exactly how the natural world worked. And, just like us, they probably had the vague notion that the time of miracles was over; that miracles were somehow less miraculous in good-old Jeremiah’s day. But no; miracles are shocking whenever they happen.
            It’s so easy to picture God working in a kind of fantasy world; a dream-like state where the normal rules and everyday concerns don’t apply. For instance, the people of Nazareth apparently had some notion that the Messiah would come trailing clouds of glory out of the sky, or something; that He would somehow be ‘other’ than their normal day-to-day lives.
            But, the truth is, He was one of their neighbors; the guy who had probably worked on their houses or built their furniture. And seeing Him standing there being so very ordinary, so very everyday, it’s no wonder they couldn’t believe Him.
            We don’t expect the Divine, or the miraculous, or the fantastic to occur in the midst of ordinary life. We expect that a miracle will somehow happen differently than everything else; so when it just matter-of-factly happens, we’re all the more dumbfounded.
To get an idea what I mean, picture seeing St. Thomas Aquinas levitating. I imagine that you are, consciously or not, picturing bright light, music, and other accompaniments to signal how miraculous the event was. But the truth of the matter is that seeing St. Thomas fly was probably not a whole lot different than seeing him kneel; no lights, no music, just a slight change in position. In short, it simply happens the same way anything else does, the only difference being that it ordinarily shouldn’t.
What’s my point in all this? Simply that we shouldn’t be too proud or too skeptical to see the divine at work in our daily lives. If we are Christians, then we must believe that God is intimately involved in everything that happens in the world. This, of course, gives us hard questions when evil arises, but we’ll leave those for now in favor of this; the very ordinariness of our daily lives conceals God, just as the very ordinariness of Jesus did.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: St. Thomas Aquinas

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Told you we were doing him this week.  


Catholic Credentials: Dominican Priest; one of the most brilliant theologians of all time; experienced a number of miracles; Doctor of the Church

Nerd Credentials: A voracious bookworm; philosophical genius; brought Aristotle into mainstream philosophy.

                  If I could work my will, no one would be permitted to claim atheism as the “position of reason” or whatever unless they first read Thomas Aquinas (Aquinas would eat Richard Dawkins alive!).  
                  Thomas was born into prosperity: his father was the Count of Aquino in Italy, and he counted the Holy Roman Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, along with the kings of Aragon, Castile, and France among his relatives. The proverbial silver spoon was firmly in his mouth from the moment he was born. The sky was the limit. The world was at his feet. The clich├ęs wrote themselves.
                  At the age of five, Thomas was sent to study with the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino (as was the custom of the time). He quickly showed himself both a diligent student and an unusually devout child at prayer, though he troubled his teachers by frequently asking questions like “what is God?”
                  When he was about ten years old, he was sent (at the recommendation of the monks) to the University of Naples, where he studied the liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, mathematics, geometry, and astronomy), advancing so quickly that before long he was out-performing his own instructors, let alone his fellow students (it was presumably during this time that the famous incident with the kind-hearted would-be-tutor occurred).
Fabulously rich, connected with the highest levels of power, and crushingly brilliant, Thomas of Aquino had his pick of career; he could have been anything at all from major domo to general to Pope.
                  That’s probably why his family was so horrified when he announced that he wanted to be a beggar.
                   (I can imagine the conversation: “But you said I could be anything I wanted! “Let me rephrase: you can be anything but that.”)
                  These days rebellious college kids hook up, occupy Wall Street, or just sit back and let the drugs do their work (or, more likely, a combination of all three). Thomas, a rebellious youth of the 13th century, joined the Order of St. Dominic. His mother was cautiously supportive, but his father and brothers, who had expected him to join the family business (political and military intrigue), were furious. Two of his brothers captured him and brought him home, where he was locked up for almost two years while his family tried everything they could think of to change his mind, or to at least get him to join a more prestigious (and wealthy) order, like the Benedictines; then at least he could prove useful to them.
                  Thinking they might be able to tempt him away from the vow of Chastity, his brothers went out and found the most attractive prostitute they could, had her done up to the nines, and sent her in to straighten Thomas out. A few seconds later, she came running out and fled the castle; Thomas had taken one look at her, seized a burning log from the fire, and chased her out with it (sorry, can’t resist: insert ‘smoking hot’ joke here). This done, he knelt and prayed that God would grant him the gift of chastity. That night, as he slept, he had a vision of two angels who girt him about with a white cord, and from that moment on he never had the slightest temptation to lust.
                  During his captivity, his faithful sister managed to smuggle in a few books for him to read, most notably the two books that would be most important to his life’s work: the Bible and Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle, you see, had been somewhat neglected during the rise of Christianity. Perhaps it was because he had some skepticism about the ability of man to commune with the divine, or perhaps simply because his master, Plato, was a lot more popular. In any case, Aristotle slipped into obscurity in the Middle Ages, before being discovered and brought back by the Crusaders (the Arab world had maintained much better knowledge of his work and had translated him into Arabic). In Europe, Aristotle was met with some hostility among theologians, who still preferred dear old Plato for their pre-Christian metaphysical needs. Thomas, however, appreciated the younger Greek’s care, his melding of the physical and concrete with the spiritual and intellectual, and his broad range of subject matter. Aristotle would be one of the most important influences on Thomas’s own philosophy, to the point that Thomas would always refer to him simply as ‘The Philosopher.’
                  Finally, his family gave in and let him go. Thomas immediately took his vows and the Order, seeing how brilliant he was, sent him to study with the greatest mind of the day: Albert the Great. Thomas, whose taciturn nature had by now earned him the nickname “the Dumb Ox,” quickly became Albert’s favorite student. Albert, after hearing one of Thomas’s dissertations, declared “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world!”
                  When Albert was transferred to Paris, Thomas went with him to continue his studies and to teach under him as Bachelor (professor-in-training, basically). After they returned to Cologne, Thomas was ordained a priest. Not long after he was sent to Paris again to study and to teach at the university there (one of the finest of the Medieval World). One of his fellow students was a Franciscan brother named Bonaventure, with whom he was ready to go up for his Doctorate in Theology. When William of St. Amour (a Professor of Theology at the university) wrote an attack on the friars called “The Perils of the Last Times,” Thomas and Bonaventure responded with a pair of apologies defending their orders, which were successful enough that the two young men were summoned to Rome for a dispute with William. The result was that William was censored by the Pope and Thomas and Bonaventure became life-long friends. A year later, they went up for their doctorates together, both passed, and got into a friendly competition regarding who should receive his first (they each wanted the other to have the honor. Appropriately enough, history doesn’t record who lost).
                  By this time, Thomas’s brilliance was reputed to exceed even his fabled master, and he settled into a pretty firm pattern of praying, preaching, teaching, writing, and travelling. He himself wanted nothing more than to be a poor Dominican and prayer, beg, and study, but his mind was in high demand. He taught, preached, and debated everywhere from London to Rome. He engaged in debates with everyone from his fellow Dominicans to the heretical Manicees to the Muslim World (in his brilliant Summa Contra Gentiles). He even was appointed Archbishop of Naples by Pope Clement IV, which he begged (and was allowed) to be excused from so he could continue teaching. He wrote, either by pen or dictation, more than sixty works over the course of his less than fifty years of life. Such was the presence and focus of his mind that he could dictate separate works to several secretaries at once.
                  Most of his works were of philosophy; dense, complex, mind-numbing philosophy laid out carefully in question-and-answer format covering almost every possible concern and objection (and quite a few that are quite unimaginable to any but the most finicky of scholars). His unfinished masterpiece, of course, is the Summa Theologica; his attempt to explain and account for every single element of the Catholic Faith. Had he written nothing else, this single work would have secured his place as one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of all time (indeed, most people only know of him from this one work).
                  On the other hand, though, he also showed on more than one occasion that he was a rare and gifted poet; something that no one who’s only read his plodding, nit-picking philosophy would imagine. It almost doesn’t seem fair that the same man not only wrote some of the most brilliant philosophical discourse, but also some of the most beautiful hymns ever written. His twin masterpieces are O Salutaris Hostia (Oh, Saving Host) and its companion piece, Tantum Ergo (which doesn’t really translate into English, but is sometimes titled “Down in Adoration Falling”), which are used at the beginning and end of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. His intricate, moving Latin verses defy translation, both crafting beautiful imagery and intricate theology (e.g. the line “Faith supplies where the senses fail”).
                  It’s no surprise that the holy Thomas, his mind permanently fixed on God, frequently experienced visions and states of ecstasy. On one occasion, after he had written a treatise on the Eucharist, he laid on the altar and prayed that God would accept it. His brethren, who were watching, say him enter a trance and be lifted off the ground (and considering the fact that Thomas was a tall, enormously rotund man, that’s saying something), and Thomas heard a voice from the crucifix saying “Thou has written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas answered immediately “Nihil nisi te;” “Nothing but yourself.”
                  The greatest mind in Christendom laid down his pen for the last time on Dec. 6th, 1273. Oh, he hadn’t died; he a couple months left on Earth at that point. Rather, he had a vision. During Mass, he fell into ecstasy for several minutes. Then, when he emerged, he vowed never to write again. “Such secrets have been revealed to me,” he confided to his friend, Fr. Reginald of Piperno, “That compared to them, all I have written is as straw.”
                  Having received such a vision, Thomas knew his life was drawing to an end and dedicated himself even more fervently to prayer. Despite his resolution to end his days in quiet obscurity, he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to join a general council at Lyons in May 1274, together with his good friend, Bonaventure (by now minister general of the Friars Minor). Obediently, he set out on what was to be his last journey. He never arrived. He collapsed on the road not far outside of Naples, and was rushed to a Cistercian monastery, where, professing his faith with every eloquence and fervor his masterful tongue could compose, he died on March 7th, 1274.  Fifty years later, he was canonized by John XXII, and in 1567 Pope St. Pius V proclaimed him a Doctor of the Universal Church.
                  The Angelic Doctor (as he was called) reminds us that all truth comes from God: nothing that reason shows to be true can contradict what God has revealed, if we look closely enough. Therefore, we should never be afraid to examine, to ask questions, to look as hard as we can at any problem that comes our way. In his championing of Aristotle, meanwhile, he reminds us that truth is where you find it; whether from a pagan, a heretic, or a Catholic.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

Vive Christus Rex!