Cemeteries and charnel houses

Allan Barton writes on an older Christian attitude toward burying and living with our ancestors:

As a historian I have long been perplexed by the modern notion that churchyards can be become ‘full’ and that we are running out of burial space for the dead. The idea that our historic churchyards with the marked graves of long-forgotten Victorians and Georgians, cannot be reused for the burial of modern people, is a bizarre notion and is at variance with the traditions and ideas of past generations, including the Victorians and Georgians who now dispossess our generation of the right to be buried in God’s acre. In the past the grave was not considered to be private, alienable property that could be occupied for perpetuity, the churchyard was considered a communal space that individuals borrowed to enable the clean and efficient decomposition of their shrouded corpses. Human remains would be kept within the confines of the church and churchyard for perpetuity, but the concept that an individual grave space was yours and yours alone, was unknown.

When I was Rector of a benefice in Norfolk, one pleasant September afternoon I went to conduct my first funeral in one if my four medieval churches. My first act as incumbent was to deal with a rather fine specific of a human jaw bone, complete with an excellent set of gnashers, which was presented to me by the churchwardens.  After I had conducted the funeral in the churchyard, the jaw bone was popped back into the ground as part of new grave’s infill. That was the way we operated in this church, one of my predecessors had the good sense to start to re-use part of the churchyard that had last been used in the eighteenth century. When new graves were cut the bones of the dead were quite often disturbed and were usually added to the infill of the new grave by the gravedigger to one side of the new coffin. In doing that we were to all intents and purposes following the pattern that persisted in past centuries. The defleshed bones of the long dead, made way for the freshly dead corpses of the current generation. This whole process was both pragmatic and sensible and a churchyard never came to be filled.

In many medieval images of the burial of the dead from illuminated manuscripts you can see such a process being undertaken, though with a bit less dignity and decorum than in my former parish churchyard. In the French images I share on here of that subject matter, the gravediggers manhandle shrouded corpses into their last resting place in a shallow grave, while around the graves, lying on the ground are the skulls and bones of those accidentally exhumed in the process.

Notice in the image above the little painted grave markers that mark the burial place. For both economical and for practical purposes, these were made of wood.  Intended to last a generation or two at the most, they lasted just long enough for the deceased pass out of mind. Unlike the stone headstones favoured in the recent past, they were designed to decay and to be temporary.

Rather than returning the bones to the ground as part of the grave infill, it was quite common in the later medieval period, for the bones disinterred during the digging of graves, to be added to a communal bone hole or a structure called a charnel house. …

The bones were originally arranged in heaps against three walls of the chamber. Long bones in stacks, skulls on the tops of each heap. In the Middle Ages the walls of the end wall of the chamber was painted and in the nineteenth century there were still faint traces of an image of the Resurrection of Christ, wonderful fitting for a chamber devoted to those awaiting the general resurrection.

There’s one of these old-style churches in Lewes, Delaware—with its little cemetery in what would be the well-manicured front lawn of a modern suburban church. The Lewes church I’m thinking of looks precisely like what it is—something from another time. I found the description of the burial and charnel house practices of the past shocking, frankly. But maybe some movement toward those practices might help shock us into remembering that it’s not a tidy gravesite that we should look forward to, but rather the resurrection itself. If we’re overly concerned with the former, we’re probably not concerned enough with the latter.

Newman the failure

At age 79, when John Henry Newman heard the news that Pope Leo XIII had made him a cardinal, he said: “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” John Henry Newman is now a saint, but for much of his life he felt like a failure. Fr. Ian Ker reflects on “the saint whose life was ‘a history of failures'”:

John Henry Newman’s life can well be described as one of continual failures, if only because that was how he saw it. “All through life things happen to me which do not happen to others – I am the scapegoat,” he wrote.

He was sad to think, as he looked back on his life, how his time had been “frittered away” and how much he might have done, had he “pursued one subject”. His life seemed to be just “a history of failures”. He had been “so often balked, – brought into undertakings – then left in the lurch”. Plan after plan had “crumbled [in his] hands and come to nought”. When he was 60 he wrote that, although not “true to the letter”, he felt that he could say he had “received no piece of (personal) good news for 30 years and more”, nothing but “sorrows” and “anxieties”; all his works had failed.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, Newman performed disastrously in his finals, failing mathematics and only attaining the lower division of the second class in Classics. Exactly seven years later, he suffered a nervous collapse while examining finals papers and had to withdraw. As a tutor at Oriel College, he wanted to stop the practice of undergraduates having to hire private tutors from among recent graduates and considered it preferable for college tutors to provide tuition as well as the usual lectures. However, the Provost disapproved of the change that Newman and his colleagues introduced in 1828, and Newman was effectively dismissed as a tutor.

Also in 1828 he was invited by the Bishop of London to become one of the Whitehall preachers, an acceptance he subsequently withdrew in 1832 when he discovered the bishop’s theological liberalism. In 1830 he was dismissed as secretary of the Church Missionary Society because of a pamphlet he had written. In 1834 he failed to be appointed to the chair of moral philosophy.

As leader of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement and the principal architect of its theology of the via media, or “middle way”, he began, six years after starting the movement, to have doubts. These culminated in 1841 with the publication of Tract 90, which sought to interpret the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England in a Catholic sense. This was condemned first by the vice-chancellor and heads of colleges and proctors, and then by successive bishops. Finally, in 1845, Newman renounced the via media and the Oxford Movement, convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church.

The disappointments and failures of Newman’s Catholic years were at least as grim as those of the Anglican years.

I think it can be easy to think that striving for virtue should lead to worldly success, in material and professional and other senses. But it’s probably more often the case that striving for virtue and friendship with Christ fortifies us in facing the failures that will inevitably confront us, in major or minor ways. In so many ways, Newman is a saint of our time as much as he is a saint for every era.

Bishop Barron and others hope Newman will be named a Doctor of the Church. I hope he is.

Saint John Henry Newman

Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman a saint today. Here is the banner hanging at the Vatican in Rome today:

2019-10 John Henry Newman Banner.jpg

Saint John Henry Newman writes in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine on something I’ve thought about at different points—the seeming challenge to faith that is the presence of many Christian elements in other faiths, places, and periods:

Now, the phenomenon, admitted on all hands, is this:—that great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth is in its rudiments or in its separate parts to be found in heathen philosophies and religions. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honors to the dead are a polytheism. Such is the general nature of the fact before us; Mr. Milman argues from it,—”These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:” we, on the contrary, prefer to say, “these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen.” That is, we prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown up as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living; and hence that, as the inferior animals have tokens of an immaterial principle in them, yet have not souls, so the philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. …

What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High; “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;” claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world…

John Garvey writes on Newman’s friendships:

Cardinal Newman never married, but warm, sincere, and lasting friendships—the kind that we so seldom form through digital interactions—gave his life richness. He cultivated them with his neighbors in Oxford and, after his conversion to Catholicism, at the Birmingham Oratory. He sustained them in his correspondence, some 20,000 letters filling 32 volumes.

In one of his sermons, delivered on the feast of St. John the Evangelist, Newman reflects on the Gospel’s observation that St. John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It is a remarkable thing, Newman says, that the Son of God Most High should have loved one man more than another. It shows how entirely human Jesus was in his wants and his feelings, because friendship is a deep human desire. And it suggests a pattern we would do well to follow in our own lives if we would be happy: “to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”

On the other hand, Newman observes that “nothing is more likely to engender selfish habits” than independence. People “who can move about as they please, and indulge the love of variety” are unlikely to obtain that heavenly gift the liturgy describes as “the very bond of peace and of all virtues.”

And Dan Hitchens writes on Newman’s faith:

…if someone really has faith, they must believe that God is entirely good, and that he loves us. The submission to divine truth is the foundation of a love affair. Being a nineteenth-century Englishman, Newman didn’t like to go on about it, but there are moments when we glimpse what his life was all about:

[Saint John Henry Newman writes:] “I see the figure of a man, whether young or old I cannot tell. He may be fifty or he may be thirty. Sometimes He looks one, sometimes the other. There is something inexpressible about His face which I cannot solve. Perhaps, as He bears all burdens, He bears that of old age too. But so it is; His face is at once most venerable, yet most childlike, most calm, most sweet, most modest, beaming with sanctity and with loving kindness. His eyes rivet me and move my heart. His breath is all fragrant, and transports me out of myself. Oh, I will look upon that face forever, and will not cease.”

“There is something inexpressible” about the way in which the communion of saints draws us closer to the Author of life.

‘Simon, do you love me?’

I’m sharing the third of three excerpts from Fr. Luigi Giuassani’s book “Christ, God’s Companionship with Man” today, from his writing on Peter and Jesus on the shore of Lake Tiberias and Peter’s “three-fold yes” to Jesus’s question, “Simon, do you love me?”:

The twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel is a fascinating documentation of the historical birth of the new ethic. The particular story narrated there is the keystone of the Christian conception of man, of his morality, in his relationship with God, with life, and with the world.

The disciples were on their way back, at dawn, after a terrible night’s fishing on the lake, in which they had caught nothing. As they approach the shore, they see a figure on the beach preparing a fire. Later they would notice that there were some fish on the fire collected for them, for their early-morning hunger. All of a sudden, John says to Peter, “That’s the Lord!” They all open their eyes and Peter throws himself into the water, just as he is, and reaches the shore first. The others follow suit. They sit down in a circle in silence; no one speaks, because they all know it is the Lord. Sitting down to eat, they exchange a few words, but they are all fearful at the exceptional presence of Jesus, the Risen Jesus, who had already appeared to them at other times.

Simon, whose many errors had made him humbler than all the others, sat down, too, before the food prepared by the Master. He looks to see who is next to him and is terrified to see that it is Jesus himself. He turns his gaze away from Him and sits there all embarrassed. But Jesus speaks to him. Peter thinks in his heart, “My God, My God, what a dressing-down I deserve! Now he is going to ask me, “Why did you betray me?” The betrayal had been the last great error he had made, but, in spirt of his familiarity with the Master, his whole life had been a stormy one, because of his impetuous character, his instinctive stubbornness, his tendency to act on impulse. He now saw himself in the light of all his defects. That betrayal had made him more away of all his other errors, of the fact that he was worthless, weak, miserably weak. “Simon…”—who knows how he must have trembled as that word sounded in his ears and touched his heart?—”Simon…”—he he would have begun to turn his face towards Jesus—”Do you love me?” Who on earth would have expected that question? Who would have expected those words?

Peter was a forty- or fifty-year old man, with a wife and children, and yet he was such a child before the mystery of that companion he had met by chance! Imagine how he felt transfixed by that look that knew him through and through. “You will be called Kefas (cf. I, John: 42).” His tough character was described by that word “rock,” and the last thing he had in mind was to imagine what the mystery of God and the mystery of that Man—the Son of God—had to do with that rock, to that rock. From the first encounter, He filled his whole mind, his whole heart. With that presence in his heart, with the continuous memory of Him, he looked at his wife and children, his work-mates, friends and strangers, individuals and crowds, he thought, and fell asleep. That Man had become for him like an immense revelation, still to be clarified.

“Simon, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, I love you.” How could he say such a thing after all he had done? That yes was an affirmation acknowledging a supreme excellence, an undeniable excellence, a sympathy that overwhelmed all others. Everything remained inscribed in that look. Coherence or incoherence seemed to fall into second place behind the faithfulness that felt like flesh of his flesh, behind the form of life which that encounter had moulded.

In fact, no reproof came, only the echo of the same question: “Simon, do you love me?” Not uncertain, but fearful and trembling, he replied again, “Yes, I love You.” But the third time, the third time that Jesus threw the question at him he had to ask confirmation from Jesus himself: “Yes, Lord, You know I love You. All my human preference is for You, all the preference of my mind, all the preference of my heart; You are the extreme preference o life, the supreme excellence of things. I don’t know, I don’t know how, I don’t know how to say it and I don’t know how it can be but in spite of all I have done, in spite of all I can still do, I love You.”

This yes is the birth of morality, the first breath of morality in the dry desert of instinct and pure reaction. Morality sinks its roots into this Simon’s yes, and this yes can take root in man’s soil only thanks to a dominant Presence, understood, accepted, embraced, served with all the energy of your heart; only in this way can man become a child again. Without a Presence, there is no moral act, there is no morality.

But why is Simon’s yes to Jesus the birth of morality? Don’t the criteria of coherence and incoherence come first?

Peter had done just about all the wrong he could do, yet he lived a supreme sympathy for Christ. He understood that everything in him tended to Christ, that everything was gathered in those eyes, in that face, in that heart. His past sins could not amount to an objection, nor even the incoherence he could imagine for the future. Christ was the source, the place of his hope. Had someone objected to what he had done or what he might have done, Christ remained, through the gloom of those objections, the source of light for his hope. And he esteemed Him above everything else, from the first moment in which he had felt himself stared at by His eyes, looked on by Him.

This is why he loved Him.

“Yes, Lord, you know You are the object of my supreme sympathy, of my highest esteem.”

This is how morality is born. The expression is very generic: “Yes, I love You.” But it is as generic as it is generative of a new life to be lived.

“Whoever has this hope in him purifies himself as He is pure” (I John 3:3). Our hope is in Christ, in that Presence that, however distracted and forgetful we be, we can no longer (not completely anyway) remove from the earth of our heart because of the tradition through which He has reached us. It is in Him that I hope, before counting my errors and my virtues. Numbers have nothing to do with this. In the relationship with Him, numbers don’t count, the weight that is measured or measurable is irrelevant, and all the evil I can possibly do in the future has no relevance either. It cannot usurp the first place that this yes of Simon, repeated by me, has before the eyes of Christ. So a kind of flood comes from the depths of our heart, like a breath that rises from the breast and pervades the whole person, making it act, making it want to act more justly. The flower of the desire for justice, for true, genuine love, the desire to be capable of acting gratuitously, springs up from the depths of the heart. Just as our every move starts off not from an analysis of what the eyes see, but from an embrace of what the heart is waiting for, in the same way perfection is not the keeping of rules, but adhesion to a Presence.

Only the man who lives this hope in Christ lives the whole of his life in ascesis, in striving for good. And even when he is clearly contradictory, he desires the good. This always conquers, in the sense that it is the last word on himself, on his day, on what he does, on what he has done, on what he will do in the future. The man who lives this hope in Christ keeps on living in ascesis. Morality is a continual striving towards “perfection” that is born of an event that is a sign of a relationship with the divine, with the Mystery.

What is the true reason for the yes that Simon answers to Christ? Why does the yes said to Christ matter more than listing all your errors and the possible future errors that your weakness forebodes? Why is this yes more decisive and greater than all the moral responsibility expressed in its details, in concrete practice? The answer to this question reveals the ultimate essence of the One sent by the Father. Christ is the One “sent” by the Father; He is the One who reveals the Father to men and to the world. “This is true life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the one You have sent, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3). The most important thing is that “they know You,” that they love You, because this You is the meaning of life.

“Yes, I love You,” Peter said. And the reason for this yes consisted in the fact that in those eyes that had set on him that first time, and had set on him so many other times during the following days and years, he had glimpsed who God was, who Yahweh was, the true Yahweh: mercy. God’s relationship with his creature is revealed in Jesus as love, and therefore as mercy. Mercy is the attitude of the Mystery towards any kind of weakness, error and forgetfulness on man’s part: in the fact of any crime that man commits, God loves him.

Simon felt this. This is where his “Yes, I love You” comes from.

The meaning of the world and of history is the mercy of Christ, Son of the Father, sent by the Father to die for us. In Milosz’s play Miguel Mañara Miguel  was going to the Abbot every day to weep over his past sins. One day the Abbot tells him, somewhat impatiently, “Stop weeping like a woman. All this never existed.” What does he mean by “never existed”? Miguel had murdered, raped, he had done all kinds of things… “All this never existed. Only He is.” He, Jesus, addresses us, becomes an “encounter” for us, asking us only one thing; not “What have you done?” but “Do you love me?”

“Simon, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, I love you.”

‘Perfection and satisfaction are the same thing’

I’ll share the second of three excerpts from Fr. Luigi Giuassani’s book “Christ, God’s Companionship with Man” today, from his writing on “The Risk of Education,” and on the pursuit of happiness:

Our insistence is upon the education in criticism: a child received a patrimony from the past, communicated to him by engaging him in a present experience, which presents that past, giving reasons for what it says. Then he must take that past and its explanations and evaluate them, comparing them with what he finds in his heart and say, “it’s true” or “it’s not true” or “I doubt it.” Through this process, with the help of companionship (without this companionship, man would be at the mercy of the tempests and fickleness of his heart, in the instinctive understanding of the word “heart”), he can say “yes” or he can say “no.” In doing so, he takes on his stature as a man.

Too often, we have been afraid of this critical capacity. Others, those who were afraid of it, have wielded it without understanding it well, and have used it poorly. Criticism has become equated with negativity, as has questioning something that someone has told you. If I tell you something, then you question it, asking yourself, “Is it true?,” this has been equated with doubt or rejection of what was said. The identity of a question with definitive doubt has been disastrous for young people’s identity today.

Doubts bring the search for truth to an end (which may or may not last), but a question, or a problem, is an invitation to understand what is in front of us, to discover something new that is good and true; it is an invitation to a richer and more mature sense of fulfillment.

Without these three factors: tradition, an experience lived in the present and the reasons for it, and criticism—I’m so thankful to my father, who always taught me to look at things and ask why; who would tell me each night before going to bed, “You always have to ask why. Ask yourself why,” (though he said it for very different reasons)—young people will be like fragile leaves far from the branch that supports them, subject to the changes of the strongest wind; subject to public opinion manufactured by whoever is in power: “Where are you going?” as the Italian poet Leopardi wrote.

Our goal is to free young people from the mental slavery that binds them, from the conformity in which their thoughts are enslaved by the opinions of others.

From my first day of teaching, I always said, “I’m not here so that you can take my ideas as your own; I’m here to teach you a true method that you can use to judge the things I will tell you. And what I have to tell you is the result of a long experience, of a two-thousand-year-old history.”

We have been careful to respect this method throughout our efforts to educate and have tried to clearly explain the reason for the method: to demonstrate the relevance of faith to answer life’s needs. Through my education at home and my time of formation in seminary, and later through my own meditation, I was thoroughly persuaded that a faith that could not be found or confirmed in present experience, that was not useful to its needs, would not be a faith capable of standing up in a world in which everything, everything, says the opposite. This opposition was so deep that, for a long time, even theology became a victim of the diluting of truth.

Our goal is to show the relevance of faith to answer the needs of life, and therefore—this “therefore” is very important for me—to demonstrate the reasonableness of the faith, but we must give a precise definition to understand reason. To say that faith exalts our reason is to say that faith corresponds to the fundamental and original needs of every human heart. We see the use of the word “heart” to describe what we might call “reason” in the Bible. Faith responds to the original needs of the human heart, which are the same for everyone: the need for truth, beauty, goodness, justice, love, and one’s complete satisfaction, which—as I often emphasize with young people—refers to the same thing as one’s “perfection.” (In Latin, satisfacere or satisfieri mean the same thing as perficere, or perfection. Perfection and satisfaction are the same thing, as are happiness and eternity.)

So when we say something is reasonable, we mean that it corresponds to the fundamental needs of the human heart, those needs that man—whether he wants to or not, or is aware of them or not—uses to judge everything, with varying degrees of success.

Considering all we have said, to give the reasons for faith means to constantly expand upon and deepen our description of the effect that Christ’s presence has on the world…

“Perfection and satisfaction are the same thing, as are happiness and eternity.”

There’s something radical in the idea that America’s idea of the “pursuit of happiness” could perfectly sync with the Catholic pursuit of perfection; of the highest good; of beatitude.

Newman’s ‘buried inner fire’

A New York friend recently shared the excerpt below on John Henry Newman’s style of preaching. I’ve had a devotion to Newman for a long time, and prayed for his intercession at Brompton Oratory when I was in London in 2012. I wish I could be in Rome next month for his canonization. Anyway, I’m not sure what the source of this passage is, whether book or article or something else:

Newman’s matter and manner of delivery made no bid for popularity. He preached non-controversially on self-denial and the hunger for holiness, and on the majesty and awe-inspiring and all consuming love of God for man. One of his converts simply wrote that he ‘rooted in their hearts and minds a personal conviction of the living God’. But his speech was quick and his voice was low, and though it had a strangely musical quality, there was nothing obviously oratorical to attract the hero-worshipper, as he did not either vary his tone or move about or even gesture. Rather, he entered with such an imaginative power into the doubts and temptations of his hearers that they were caught up into a sense of the drama within themselves, even as they were transfixed by his projection of the utter reality of the supernatural world and by the sheer simple directness of his language describing it. Preaching or writing, he was calm and passionless as marble, and might well feel ‘like the pane of glass … which transmits heat yet is cold’. Yet his very restraint hinted at the fire within, suggesting a spiritual depth the more fascinating for being so artlessly concealed.

These qualities are summed up by Hurrell’s younger brother James Anthony, who came up to Oxford in 1835. Newman disliked Evangelical preaching of the Atonement for its want of reserve, and for bandying the most sacred doctrine of Christ’s suffering about like a talisman or charm to convert. His own preaching of the Passion was exactly the reverse. As Froude recalled it, Newman paused in his recital:

“For a few moments there was a breathless silence. Then, in a low, clear voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St. Mary’s, he said, ‘Now, I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God’. It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying.”

Treat the doctrine in tones of quiet, though it is tremendous; even hide it; then when you unveil it, strike, and strike to the heart.

It was this quality of hidden power, of an heroic self-control over a buried inner fire, that was missed by Matthew Arnold, when he wistfully recalled Newman’s preaching in old age. “No such voices as those which we heard in our youth at Oxford are sounding there now. Oxford has more criticism now, more knowledge, more light; but such voices as those of our youth it has no longer … Newman … was preaching in St. Mary’s pulpit every Sunday … Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St. Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful.”

I’m generally turned off by homiletics that sound like performance art. In a sense, Newman’s style of preaching sounds like a performance, but in the true sense of the word—no artifice, but an attempt at pointing toward the transcendent and true, in the same way all good art and beautiful things do in pointing beyond themselves.

Good Samaritanship

Fr. Roger J. Landry delivered this homily at St. Agnes Church in New York, which I’m excerpting:

Jesus gives all of us a point on which to examine our consciences today. To be a Good Samaritan means to behave like Christ and draw close to those who are in need, close enough to become their neighbor. In today’s first reading St. Paul says that as Christians we are to be a “letter of Christ,” “written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.” We are supposed to be the living commentaries, the breathing elucidations of God’s word. To know what God says, people should be able to readitfrom the way we live. And therefore they’re supposed to be able to read in the letter of our Christian lives how to love God with all we’ve got and how to be Good Samaritans through the love we have concretely have for everyone God has placed in our neighborhood. And so we must ask ourselves: When we see someone in need, do we behave like the priest and the Levite, who, although outwardly religious, pass by on the other side of the road, afraid to get our hands dirty and commit our time to helping someone in dire straits? Or do we draw close and see how we can help, even to the point of sacrifice? Are we willing to be inconvenienced to help others or are we too busy minding our own business to stop and place others and their urgent needs above ourselves and our own desires? Do we look at care for them as merely a reluctant duty or do we run to those in need, the way the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son ran to embrace his repentant son, or the way a mother would run into traffic to care for one of her children whose bicycle had just been struck by a car?

One of the things that Pope Francis has been prophetically exposing is the indifference with which so many people, including Christians, live. So many don’t care when people are starving to death, or losing their lives trying to emigrate, or being gunned down at Sunday Mass in Sri Lanka or Nigeria, or being victimized by violence in Odessa, or El Paso, or Dayton. We might give these things our attention for a little bit, we might say a prayer, we might text in a contribution, but then many of us simply change the channel of our attention. Pope Francis says many are more concerned about a drop of a few points in the stock market than they are about people dying of exposure on the streets. To be a Christian, he stresses, in communion with every Pope back to St. Peter, is to grasp that, unlike Cain, we are our brother’s keeper. To be a Christian does not mean just to know the Catechism or to fulfill our weekly obligation on the Lord’s day or not violate the commandments. To be a Christian is to cross the road to help others as Christ helped us first. To be Christian means to seek to love God with all we’ve got and to love our neighbor with all we’ve got. It’s eschatologically essential for us to grasp this. Jesus tells us that those to whom he will say at the judgment, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” will not merely be people like Nero, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin, but those who didn’t give food, drink, clothing, care, visits, or welcome to others in need, “for as often as you failed to do it to the least of my brothers and sisters,” Jesus tells us he will say, “you failed to do it to me.” To be a good Samaritan isn’t just “extra credit” on the final exam of life. To be a Good Samaritan is a command: “Go and do likewise.” That’s the way Christ’s kingdom is built up here on earth. That’s the way we inherit eternal life. If we’re not living in God’s kingdom here on earth — and God’s kingdom is a kingdom of Good Samaritans! — then why should we expect to enter into his eternal kingdom?

Whenever we talk about living with this type of charity, however, there are lots of practical questions that arise. We know that none of us can help everyone with every possible need — and that God would never demand of us the impossible. We know that there are con-men and con-women who try to exploit the generosity of others and that therefore to give to them might be catalyzing their sinful deception. We know others are, for example, addicted and may misuse our generosity to harm rather than help themselves. How do we know when to give, to whom to give, and how much to give?

‘Satan is no principle’

When we experience good and bad things in our lives, they are invariably things that are incarnated in the world—meaning they’re a physical part of our world; they touch us as human beings.

When we experience the love of friendship and courtship and marriage, that is a love that comes from a person—it’s not simply an emotional feeling or a chemical response, because true love (agape) requires the commitment of choosing to love even when it becomes difficult or when the way seems uncertain. There is always a concrete being, a concrete person, at the heart of the good we experience. The same holds for the experience of the bad things in life—their source isn’t simply in ideas, or abstractions, or chemical responses which produce subjectively attractive outcomes.

All that is either good or bad might be thought of as whispers or echoes of their ultimate authors. We’re ultimately talking about God, the author of life, and the Devil, the being who rejects the good and gives rises to despair, dysfunction, and all the things we experience as hellish and which point to the permanent loss of life.

That’s my layman’s preface for Archbishop Chaput’s reflection on the recent comments from Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ:

Earlier this month the leader of a major Catholic religious order was reported as saying that Satan “exists as a symbolic reality, not as a personal reality.”  True, his words may have been misinterpreted or taken out of context.  But if so, it’s not the first time; he said much the same in 2017.

Jesus, of course, was rather explicit about the devil as a personal reality, having dealt with him firsthand, as the Gospels note.  So is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  So is Pope Francis.  And so was Romano Guardini, who wrote in The Lord:

“Satan is no principle, no elementary power, but a rebellious, fallen creature who frantically attempts to set up a kingdom of appearances and disorder.”

And again, Guardini, in The Faith and Modern Man:

“In reading the New Testament attentively, we come across a number of passages where Jesus refers to the Adversary of God and man — Satan. He speaks of him as the enemy of light and goodness, or the author of physical and mental disease, or He challenges him to open conflict. This fact has greatly embarrassed contemporary men, and they have tried — in so far as they have sought to hold on to Jesus at all — to eliminate from their mental picture all idea of Satan. They have evaded the troublesome words and acts, and have concentrated attention on the ‘purely spiritual-ethical’ aspects of the person and Gospel of Jesus, or they have stated plainly that belief in Satan belongs to a primitive mode of thought, or to a decadent time. What of this appears in Jesus is merely a survival from a past not wholly shaken off.

“But let us be perfectly clear on this point, for knowledge of the existence of spiritual beings, rebellious toward God and hostile to men, among them their ruler, Satan, belongs ineradicably to the picture of Jesus and to His consciousness of His mission. Without this consciousness, indeed, there is no Jesus.”

In a time of internal and external difficulties for the Church, it would be helpful — to put it kindly — for the leader of a major, global Catholic religious community to avoid creating havoc on matters of fundamental belief.  It’s a simple request.  It shouldn’t be too much to ask.

I forget where I read this, but someone put it this way: Christ wasn’t tempted in the desert by a symbol.

God and an undivided life

Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper had a beautiful exchange on God and suffering. Anderson Cooper quotes Stephen Colbert (riffing off J.R.R. Tolkien), asking “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Do you really believe that, Cooper asks? Colbert responds…

Stephen Beale writes on Colbert and others willing to make their Christianity a part of their public life:

The saints, he explained, are God’s X-Men. He schooled Philip Zimbardo when the renowned psychologist suggested God was the source of evil and defended the divinity of Jesus against liberal theologian Bart Ehrman. He even had the gumption to invite noted anti-Catholic comedian Bill Maherback into the Church.

No, he’s not the newest Catholic apologist to hit the evangelization circuit, but one of America’s late-night television stars — Stephen Colbert, who left The Colbert Report on Comedy Central to serve as the new host for The Late Show on CBS last fall, becoming the vanguard of a new generation of entertainers who are putting their faith front and center in their comedy.

In fact, the new late-night comedy lineup on television is dominated by Catholics, including Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien — though not all are as vocal about their relationship with their faith. More in the Colbert-style is comedian Jim Gaffigan, who integrates his Catholic faith into his stand-up routine and new sitcom on TV Land, The Jim Gaffigan Show.

What these things speak to is the importance of living a whole, integrated, and undivided life. That seems to me to be what Stephen Colbert is doing in his own way—recognizing that America’s freedom of religion is ultimately the freedom to live as a person of faith in public.

Passionately loving the world

I was speaking with a Napa Institute friend from Los Angeles, and we started talking about St. Josemaria Escriva and Opus Dei. We hadn’t seen each other in two years, but conversation picked up as if it had just ended earlier in the day. We talked about our lives for a while, he asked about Washington, where he lived when he was younger. After a while he recommended I read Josemaria Escriva’s 1967 homily, “Passionately Loving The World,” which I’m excerpting here:

We are celebrating the holy Eucharist, the sacramental sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord, that mystery of faith which binds together all the mysteries of Christianity. We are celebrating, therefore, the most sacred and transcendent act which we, men and women, with God’s grace can carry out in this life: receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord is, in a certain sense, like loosening our ties with earth and time, so as to be already with God in heaven, where Christ himself will wipe the tears from our eyes and where there will be no more death, nor mourning, nor cries of distress, because the old world will have passed away.

This profound and consoling truth, which theologians usually call the eschatological meaning of the Eucharist, could, however, be misunderstood. Indeed, this has happened whenever people have tried to present the Christian way of life as something exclusively spiritual – or better, spiritualistic something reserved for pure, extraordinary people who remain aloof from the contemptible things of this world, or at most tolerate them as something that the spirit just has to live alongside, while we are on this earth.

When people take this approach, churches become the setting par excellence of the Christian way of life. And being a Christian means going to church, taking part in sacred ceremonies, getting into an ecclesiastical mentality, in a special kind of world, considered the ante-chamber to heaven, while the ordinary world follows its own separate course. In this case, Christian teaching and the life of grace would pass by, brushing very lightly against the turbulent advance of human history but never coming into proper contact with it.

On this October morning, as we prepare to enter upon the memorial of our Lord’s Pasch, we flatly reject this deformed vision of Christianity. Reflect for a moment on the setting of our Eucharist, of our Act of Thanksgiving. We find ourselves in a unique temple; we might say that the nave is the University campus; the altarpiece, the University library; over there, the machinery for constructing new buildings; above us, the sky of Navarre…

Surely this confirms in your minds, in a tangible and unforgettable way, the fact that everyday life is the true setting for your lives as Christians. Your daily encounter with Christ takes place where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. It is in the midst of the most material things of the earth that we must sanctify ourselves, serving God and all mankind.

This I have been teaching all the time, using words from holy Scripture: the world is not evil, because it comes from the hands of God, because it is his creation, because Yahweh looked upon it and saw that it was good. It is we ourselves, men and women, who make it evil and ugly with our sins and unfaithfulness. Don’t doubt it, my children: any attempt to escape from the noble reality of daily life is, for you men and women of the world, something opposed to the will of God.

On the contrary, you must realise now, more clearly than ever, that God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, secular and civil activities of human life. He waits for us everyday, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.

… the Christian vocation consists in making heroic verse out of the prose of each day.

… It is obvious that, in this field as in all others, you would not be able to carry out this programme of sanctifying your everyday life if you did not enjoy all the freedom which proceeds from your dignity as men and women created in the image of God, and which the Church freely recognizes. Personal freedom is essential for the Christian life. But do not forget, my sons, that I always speak of a responsible freedom.

St. Josemaria Escriva’s mandate to sanctify the ordinary intersects with the challenge of what Pope Benedict XVI has described as “the tiring pilgrimage of everyday existence”.