"And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once.… I have
forgiven thee once.… Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou
hast loved much.…’ And He
will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the
meek.… And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us.
‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come
forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all
come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say
unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his
mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding
will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,
‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh
ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy
of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down
before Him.… and we shall weep … and we shall understand all things!"
The other day, I received a beautiful gift from a reader of this blog, Matthew Gaul, who attends a Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, St. Nicholas Catholic Church, in Watervliet, NY. The gift was a book entitled Tales of Glory: The Stories Icons Tell, and is an exuberant display of the beauty of the Byzantine Catholic side of the Catholic Church.
Zeroing in specifically on St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the book presents to the reader all of the icons found within this beautiful parish. In my mind, the work seems designed for a two-fold reason: as a gift to Eastern Catholics in general, and as an introduction to the Eastern Catholic Churches for the average Roman Catholic who might be entirely unfamiliar with them. For myself, I know that in my conversion years, I had never even heard of Eastern Catholicism at all; I simply did not know anything about it.
Presented in full-colour hardcover, Tales of Glory sees the author meticulously going through all of the iconography of this particular parish in major detail. His love of iconography and Eastern Christianity is readily apparent on every page.
Everything is laid out in intentional order as the icons are found within the parish - and there are many of them. With each icon, Gaul goes into great depth with explaining what the meanings and symbols in each icon are - from the more common iconography of the events in Christ's life to the life of St. Josaphat of Polotsk, there is plenty to feast on here. Troparions, antiphons, and all the rest are all included with each icon.
For anyone who is even remotely interested in iconography, Eastern Christianity, and/or Eastern Catholicism, this makes a fine choice for a read. Pick up a copy here. The church that is explored in the work can be found here.
Few Christians in the last year or so have proven to be as much of an influence on me, nor have been as impacting as Fr. Seraphim Rose, a hieromonk of the Orthodox Church. Encountering Fr. Seraphim has been like encountering a blast from the past, what some almost hyperbolically refer to as a Church Father of our times. A dear friend of mine often jokes that if Fr. Seraphim looked like Pat Robertson, he might not be as popular as he is. But for me, reading Fr. Seraphim was a wake-up call that cut through all the comfortable decay that modern Christianity often finds itself in.
To be sure, Rose's appearance is striking - especially for those of us used to the age of a religious identifying themselves with a lapel pin. Without a doubt, he is controversial even amongst Orthodox Christians for his work The Soul After Death, and honestly, I haven't read it. What interests me about his writing is not his more speculative side or interpretations of the Fathers, but his tremendous insight into the modern age in which we find ourselves.
His writing on this age of relativistic spirituality and hopeless skepticism is so incredibly relevant and insightful that it is a crying shame that he is not more read in the West than he is. My first encounter with his writings occurred around a year ago, when I nervously ordered a copy of a short book entitled God's Revelation to the Human Heart; at the time, I felt like a traitor for doing so.
But what I met with was a brief yet in-depth analysis and answer to the questions of why we study religion, why we search for truth, and how we know when we have found it. So much has stuck with me through my own journey, just from this book alone. Especially noteworthy is when he writes that "...for all the 'mysticism' of our Orthodox Church that is found in the Lives of the Saints and the writings of the Holy Fathers, the truly Orthodox person always has both feet firmly on the ground, facing whatever situation is right in front of him. It is in accepting given situations, which requires a loving heart, that one encounters God. This loving heart is why anyone comes to a knowledge of the truth, even though God has to break down and humble a heart to make it receptive..."1
These words, and others like it that permeate his writings, ring loud and true in my soul. The emphasis on the earnest search for Truth in a world full of "truths", the hard-hitting thoughts that eliminate all romanticizing about Christianity (something I fell into often in my early conversion days) and present it in all its stark reality and ultimately glory - this is what I love so much about Fr. Seraphim's writing. And if one reads his superb analysis of the post-Nietzschean age we live in, Nihilism, one will encounter one of the greatest writings on the mindsets within modern secular culture ever written.
Yes, he is controversial - so were Thomas Merton and Fr. Matta El-Meskeen in their own day too. I care little for that element, as most great Christians had some element of controversy in their lives or stirred the pot a little, and one is always free to take or leave what they disagree with. What I do care about is Truth, and Fr. Seraphim has proven to be a lamp on the Way.
The story is well-known - in his latter years, the greatest Catholic theologian of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas, had a vision, something so profound that it caused him to say that all he had written was straw compared with what he had seen. When Jesus asked him what he would have as a reward for his work, St. Thomas of course replied, "Only Thee, Oh Lord." I will return to this in a moment.
St. Thomas' life's work was that of one of the most profound Christian thinkers of all time - he was not only a prayerful friar, but a brilliant philosopher, an adept synthesizer of all the knowledge that had come before him, and an unmatched theologian. His written works comprise a massive library of theological and spiritual commentaries, writings and treatises. To this day, despite the widespread fawning over Hans Urs von Balthasar, he remains the preeminent Catholic theologian.
Now, in my beginning years of conversion to the Catholic Church, encountering Aquinas was akin to encountering a man with all the answers. Never before had I seen someone so plainly and so brilliantly write on all things related to God and man, and the Summa Theologica became my go-to book when it came to any questions I had on theology at all. I was and still am astounded at the sheer breadth of this saint's vast knowledge - from the greatest of the pagan philosophers such as Aristotle and Plotinus, to the heavyweight theologians of Islam (Avicenna, Averroes) and Judaism (Maimonides, Avicebron). Masterfully, Aquinas managed to synthesize all of these founts of knowledge into what is often called a soaring gothic cathedral of thought.
For a newcomer to philosophy and theology, I was blown away by the incredible intellect of this saint, how effortlessly he seemed to solve every theological and philosophical quandary as though it were as simple as someone asking what 2 + 2 equalled. My admiration of this saint and his writings became so intense that I forgot about the heart, so to speak. When my priest told me to read St. Therese of Lisieux, it was a painful exercise - I wanted knowledge, not syrupy devotional writing (as I saw it then). I became quite bloated with a certain kind of intellectual pridefulness, often venting my frustration at the almost elementary nature of my RCIA classes. In effect, my encountering Aquinas at such a young spiritual age in my conversion process may not have been the best thing.
Now, I reflect often not on his theological writings, but his actual life and mystical experiences, his profound humility and love of God. Interestingly, it is his mystical vision of Christ near the end of his life that has caught my attention more than any other event. After writing many treatises and summas on theology, after seemingly solving every philosophical issue of his time and defending the Church against the attacks of Averroism and Nominalism, he suddenly spoke to the effect that it was all straw after seeing what he had seen.
My interpretation of the event is this: it encapsulates the difference between what "theologian" means in the West, and what it means in the East. Consider St. Symeon the New Theologian (in the East, one of only three saints called as such), whose mystical visions of Christ shaped his entire life and writing, who truly viewed all as transient and desired God alone. To me, this means that the kind of theology that Aquinas is known for can only take one so far - while it is useful for explaining and defending the faith, it is devoid of the "heart" that characterizes such mystical theologians as St. Symeon the New Theologian in the East or St. Therese of Lisieux in the West. Aquinas himself, I think, realized this when he received the vision of Christ, and immediately ceased writing.
Regardless, St. Thomas has been a beloved companion to have on my own earthly pilgrimage. Every year, I celebrate his feast day by eating chicken drumsticks, having a big pint of stout, and reading the Summa Theologica. He has taught me how to explain the faith to those who do not believe, that faith can be reasonable, and that all theology should be written in a state of deep love of God and of profound prayer.
Over the next little bit, I will be posting a series of ten posts on the Christians who have changed my spiritual life, greatly impacted it, and continue to shape it. This is not done for reasons of self-indulgence, but to showcase several figures who may have a great and formative impact on your spiritual life as well.
Now, it is perhaps odd for someone who is a Roman Catholic to begin a list like this one with a fiery Puritan preacher. However, growing up as a Seventh-Day Adventist, I did not come into contact with anything Catholic (Orthodoxy was not even on the map, of course). Aside from the Bible, my favorite book was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.
I can distinctly remember reading my copy, an antique one illustrated with grand Victorian-style art, by my fireplace as a kid, around the time I was in grade 7 or so. Though I did not understand everything I read, though sometimes I tired of the long and almost scholastically-laid conversations (something I find a lot in Puritan writings), I was drawn in by the sense of adventure in it all. Here was this man, Christian, fleeing a life of darkness and death, who left everything he had to journey to the heavenly city, and all manner of monstrous evil amasses to stand in his way. The tale was riveting, and to this day, it remains a favorite of mine.
The essence of the Christian life as a journey is something that John Bunyan's tale left etched on my soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, "To be a Christian is to be a traveller."1 In my life as a Christian, I keep on being reminded of certain events in The Pilgrim's Progress in my own life - the encounter with the giant Despair, the conversations with atheists and worldly wisemen, the first encounte with Christ at the Gate. In some ways, the work functions as a roadmap.
When I return to my copy of The Pilgrim's Progress, it is not so much the same as it used to be for me - now, I can't help but pick out the obvious anti-Catholic references, the Calvinist errors woven throughout, and all the rest. But this does not take away from the timeless nature of the work, and the great inspiration that this renegade Puritan preacher had on my life. If anything, it was he who introduced me to the great journey that is the Christian life.
To know joy in Christ is something that should be part and parcel of every Christian's life. Here, I do not mean a kind of evangelical "I'm saved, all is good now" kind of joy, but a joy in simply knowing Christ in one's life, a joy found in the entire process of "being saved."
Bl. Columba Marmion tells us that "In finding God, we shall likewise possess joy."1 In Christ, though we be suffering, there is and should always be perfect joy. "I set the Lord always in my sight: for he is at my right hand, that I not be moved. Therefore my heart hath been glad, and my tongue hath rejoiced: moreover my flesh also shall rest in hope." (Ps. 15:8-9)
This is something that in my life as a Catholic so far, I have only felt intermittently. This has been very much my own fault, my own temperament - I have slipped into judgmentalism and knee-jerk rants against all the abuses and bizarrities I have seen in my life in the Church (simply view some of my early blogs). I have allowed the peace and joy of heart that I knew in the beginnings of my conversion and in my first few months as a baptized Catholic Christian to dissolve in a sludgy pit of frustration, annoyance, and perplexity. I must, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes, "recover the meaning of this great joy...," for "From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth."2
St. John of the Cross tells us that joy is "nothing else than a satisfaction of the will with an object that is considered fitting and an esteem for it."3 And as we famously know from the words of St. Augustine, one can only find joy and peace when we rest in God. But all of this rest is destroyed when we focus on something else and place it as our sole highest object in which to find joy. This can be anything from our favorite beer to a beautiful liturgy, from our favorite hobby to our best friend. All joy, ultimately must be and can only be found in God, from Whom all joy flows into the human heart.
I have experienced a taste of this kind of joy only a few times in my life, but they have always been memorable. Whilst at Divine Liturgy on Saturday, when the deacon so beautifully sang the words "Who loved me and gave himself for me", I felt lifted out of myself with a sweetness and happiness that I have not known in some time. This joy was found in the simple fact that, despite everything, Jesus had given Himself up to the Cross for me, so that I might know salvation, God's love for us, and be restored in Christ4 (cf. St. Seraphim of Sarov). Here is profound joy.
This joy simply must take hold of our lives and permeate our whole being as Christians. When I spoke to a priest the other day, he asked me "Why do you keep looking down? Lift your head up! Be joyous in Christ!" Here I was reminded of how much I had killed my own joy in Christ, through rigorous Kierkegaardian angst, through judging others, through reactionary feelings and all the rest. My sole focus should always be on heavenly things, on God Himself, and God in others. This is how I, and others like me who suffer from a certain despondency in their Christian lives, can recover their joy in Christ.
"Let us make a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this very moment, we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!"5 (St. Herman of Alaska)
1 - Christ: The Ideal of the Monk, I:IV
2 - qtd. in Ware, The Orthodox Way, ch. 4
3 - Ascent of Mt. Carmel, XVII:1
4 - Spiritual Instructions, 3
5 - From here.
I can't even imagine hearing this kind of music in church. Divna Ljubojevic, one of the most reknowned and famous singers within Orthodox Christianity, simply has a voice that is as near to divine as one can get, right on par with my favorite renditions of St. Hildegard von Bingen's chant sung by Jocelyn Montgomery. The opening song alone is otherworldly. Break the headphones out, and indulge in the sound of another time and place.
"Great and intense mercy grasps the heart and wrings it out, for he who is merciful is not able to bear or hear or see any harm or the slightest sorrow which takes place in the created world." -St. Isaac the Syrian, qtd. in Maloney, Pilgrimage of the Heart, pg. 164
To be a Christian means to be acutely aware of one's need of God in their life, to be aware of their own frailty and sinful nature, and to be willing to surrender their lives entirely to Christ. In doing so, we are to approach God in a state of fear - but what kind of fear?
Today, I was told that this fear is not the fear of a vengeful and punishing God, but a deep and intense fear of being without God in one's life. This is something that I experienced emotionally after having watched a video of Fr. Lazarus El-Anthony (The Last Anchorite), wherein I was hit so very hard with what sin does - it separates us from God. I broke down weeping because something in me was touched by the great realization of Who I had cut myself off from. It was a brief time, but I was singularly impacted by this realization.
So I think it is healthy to approach God with this kind of holy fear - the fear of being without Him in our lives, without His love permeating our daily existence in everything we do, sustaining us and becoming our very life. In doing so, we remind ourselves constantly that our central focus on everything we do in our lives should always be on Christ, so that we will be among those who "endure conflict to the end...and with their whole heart loved God alone and who have freed themselves from all other loves for the world."1 (St. Macarius the Great)
This is the kind of Christian I want to be - one who is so singularly drawn by and into the love of Christ, the Truth, that the very thought of Christ being absent in my life is absolutely unthinkable, that my very existence ceases without Him.
"Pray and fortify yourself, fortify your heart. Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue, where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really any faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow and privations." -St. John of Kronstadt, qtd. in Maloney, Pilgrimage of the Heart, pg. 125
Yesterday, for Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians, was the feast day of St. Gregory Palamas. Though he is little-known in the West, in the East he is a pre-eminent theologian on par with such greats as St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John of Damascus. In his lifetime, he defended what is known as the essence/energies distinction in God, something very controversial to Western ears; essentially, this means that "God's powers, energies and attributes are uncreated...though it might be possible for a philosopher to conceive of a transcendent One or First Essence without attributes, the data of revelation make it impossible for the Christian God not to be creator and redeemer. Hence, the divine attributes must always have subsisted in the essence, since by nature God is changeless."1 (John Meyendorff) For the scholastic West of the time, this appeared to be a dangerous teaching that struck at the very oneness of God.
I ruminated on this teaching of the Christian East for some yesterday. For myself, I have always had great difficulty in understanding St. Gregory and the whole essence/energies issue, though I have poured over the theologians famous work entitled The Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts several times. However, as I thought about it all, I was reminded of the paradoxical nature of both his teaching and of Christianity as a whole. Christianity, unlike pretty much every other religion I have ever encountered, seems to have always been highly paradoxical.
C.S. Lewis writes about the Christian teaching on God that "It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits so well with all things we know already."2 Though the teaching of the East on God's essence and His qualities/energies/attributes etc. is hard to understand, once it has been encountered, it gradually makes sense. I began to think how paradoxical the other great doctrines on the Holy Trinity throughout the history of the Church have been - not only that there is one God in three Persons, but that Jesus was both man and God, that Jesus had two wills not one, and all the rest. When one really sits down to think upon these things, one immediately encounters their paradoxical nature.
But just because they appear as paradox does not mean that they are non-sense, as though they were merely oxymorons. Faith is not always defined by what seems most reasonable to us, or fits in a rational box. It is precisely because of this paradoxical nature that I think they speak to such Truth. "If Christianity was something that we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact."3 (C.S. Lewis)
1 - qtd. in Palamas, The Triads, pg. 147
2 - Mere Christianity, IV:2
3 - ibid.
"If therefore present existence is but darkness, let us flee from it, let us flee by retuning our mind and our heart. Let us have nothing in common with the enemy of God, for 'whosoever...will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4) And who can help the enemy of God? Therefore let us imitate our fathers, and, like them, let us seek the treasure existing within our hearts and, having found it, let us hold fast to it in doing and guarding - for which task we were destined from the beginning." -Venerable Nicephorus the Solitary of Mt. Athos, A Most Profitable Discourse on Sobriety and the Guarding of the Heart
Though I have never come across "regret" as being a sin as such, I can tell you that it is something that is highly-damaging to the Christian life. I know this from experience.
Living in regret causes us to forget our being a new creation in Christ through our baptism. It makes us walk with our eyes forever turned backwards, contemplating sins that were long since forgiven, forgotten in the oceanic vastness of God's Divine Mercy. Regret kills the joy of Christ that all Christians should know and experience, for it causes us to give up on perservering to the end in living the Christian life.
I have lived my life in regret for many years, regretting how I have treated others, regretting my hatred of God, regretting how I treated myself, and all the other things that I think many of us experience and regret too. We are human, and we err. Without the grace of Christ, we cannot help but fail; if we do not let Christ carry us in His infinite Mercy, we stumble.
John Bunyan, the famed Puritan author of The Pilgrim's Progress, has some wise words to say here on the subject: "O the remembrance of my great sins, of my great temptations, and of my great fears of perishing for ever! They bring fresh into my mind the remembrance of my great help, my great support from heaven, and the great grace that God extended to such a wretch as I... Remember, I say, the Word that first laid hold upon you; remember your terrors of conscience, and fear of death and hell: remember also your tears and prayers to God; yea, how you sighed under every hedge for mercy."1
Remembering our past sins and failings is only profitable when we compare them to the great Mercy of God, the God Who saved and continues to save us. Such a remembrance should bring us incredible joy, banishing regret. Nevertheless, regret is a horrible pit that can swallow us from time to time, and we become like "like a bird whose wings are caked with mud."2 (St. Josemaria Escriva)
Note that there is a difference between cultivating repentance, in being a penitent for life. Though one should always sorrow over their sins, for in this way "a man can easily pass securely through the artful snares of the proud devil,"3 (St. Seraphim of Sarov) one should always remember the mercy of God as ever greater than all of their sins. "God shows us His love for mankind not only when we do good, but also when we offend and displease Him. How patiently He endures our transgressions; and when He chastises, how mercifully He chastises!"4(St. Seraphim of Sarov)
"If you perservere, you will 'climb'."5 (St. Josemaria Escriva) God's hand is always outstretched, ready to pull us out of the mire of our regrets. We have only to take His hand.
1 - Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, preface.
2 - The Way, 991
3 - Spiritual Instructions, 34
4 - ibid., 1
5 - The Way, 991
"Repudiate the world and all that is in it; close the innermost part of
your soul to everyone; crucify your flesh together with the passions and
lust and, finding yourself in incessant prayer, select a narrow path
which leads to eternal life."
- St. Theophil of the Kiev Caves
One of the greatest marks of my life as an anti-Christian was a distinct lack of peace. Here, I am not speaking of the "inner peace" espoused by the New Age, which is little more than a spiritual Band-Aid.. No, my lack of peace was my lack of peace with God Himself.
For years, I found myself walking up and down the streets of my home city, night after night, walking away from everything and towards nothing in particular other than some new life, some new day. My lack of knowing the peace of Christ was a painful and deadening affliction, one that brought me down to the lower levels of a Dantean Inferno within my own heart.
The peace of Christ as the only true interior peace, the one "which passeth all understanding" (Phil. 4:7), is something worth striving for, worth cultivating, and infinitely worth knowing. St. Seraphim of Sarov tells us that "When one walks in a peaceful state, it is as if one ladles out spiritual gifts with a spoon,"1 and is famously remembered for his admonition to "Acquire inward peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation."2
"Look at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself above the people of God: are the image of God and his truth not distorted in it? They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man's being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred."3 (Fyodor Dostoevsky) Indeed, "their world is formless and tumultuous chaos, a chaos of the forces of nature and of the human soul; their life is illusion."4 (Karl Barth)
In such a world as this, peace can seem impossible to find. But if one cultivates the peace of Christ in one's heart, through interior prayer, then one need not look far. In fact, one need never look to the world outside of the heart, for within one's soul resides and stands before God in silent and continual prayer. Here, in the heart, there is peace. "The patient and diligent worker will not fail to be satisfied and consoled; he will rejoice at an infinite abundance of spiritual fruits such as he can form no conception of in his carnal and natural state."5 (St. Ignatius Brianchaninov)
Cultivating such interior peace is quite difficult, and I am no expert on the subject. I just know that when I pray the Jesus Prayer within, silently in my heart, I begin to experience a peace that I have never known in my life as a Christian. I have felt almost ecstatic when praying the Rosary, a certain sweetness - but when praying the Jesus Prayer, in humbling myself before Christ in this manner, I have felt and known a new kind of deeper peace. This interior peace that comes with praying the Jesus Prayer is something I want to know, experience, and grow in, as a plant grows in fertile soil.
1 - Spiritual Instructions, 24
2 - qtd. inWare, The Orthodox Way, ch. 5
3 - The Brothers Karamazov, VI:3
4 - The Epistle to the Romans, I:16
5 - On the Prayer of Jesus, III
I'm sure that some of you have now come across the bizarre liturgical nightmare that occurred in Germany posted by Fr. Z here. As with everytime that this happens, I refuse to rant; no, I will only post a few examples of the beauty of Christianity that I find on Youtube as a form of musical reparation.
"Many young people, even if they have exposed themselves to rottenness in their search for reality and intensity, if they get out of it in time, are still good, innocent kids, because in a backwards and self-contradictory way, they have been striving to preserve innocence."1
-Monk Damascene Christensen
Ten years ago, if someone had asked me who my favorite poet was, I would have rattled off a list of decadents, masochists, rebels, and atheists; sure, I would have snuck the quiet poetry of Robert Frost in there somewhere but for the most part, I was swept off my feet by the tragic literary rebellions of everyone from Shelley to Baudelaire.
Surely, there is a parallel between the darker poets of the Romantic and Victorian eras, and the anti-Christian worldview that has now come about in full-force. However, their writings and thought give us a glimpse into the world of the person who either wrestles with God or has rejected him in full force.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, arguably the greatest of the Romantic poets, walks a strange line between a kind of pseudo-worship of pagan deities and outright atheism (and indeed, he was a fervent atheist). But it is in the world of the decadents, the ones that I call the Satanic Poets, that we see nihilism and rebellion against God depicted in full force. Two poets represent this group the best to me - skipping over the youthful terror of Rimbaud, I immediately latched on to Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
For the tragic person who has rejected God, yet is fully aware that He is there, Charles Baudelaire becomes something of a soulmate. A French Catholic who struggled deeply with God his whole life, Baudelaire's infamous works such as The Flowers of Evil and Paris Spleen demonstrate the alarming agony of such a life. With stark detail and passionate fervor, he paints a horrid series of nightmarish images of death, poverty, existential angst, and nihilism.
Baudelaire's world is the world of the "eternal rebel"2, Lucifer, romanticized to the inth degree - for Baudelaire, the devil has become his only friend. But in this friendship, suddenly a whole new world, that of the demonic and the lost, opens up with a vividness found perhaps in no other writer. St. Augustine, writing 1500 years earlier, evoked the same sense of anguish found in Baudelaire: "My heart grew sombre with grief, and wherever I looked, I saw only death."3
For me, this had become true in my own life. I had latched on to Lucifer as the one and only constant in my life, the eternally rejected tragic hero, neither a force of evil or destruction, but a fallen being who questioned God and was eternally damned for it. Baudelaire's poetry gave me a voice, and in him, I found a kindred spirit. He was the one who gave my rebellion against God and practically everything else, a voice: "My Grief, give me your hand; come this way, far from them. See the Years that have died leaning over the balconies of heaven, in old-fashioned dresses; see my Regret in smiles rising up from the depths of the water..."4
My love of Algernon Charles Swinburne was of a similar and yet different sort. Unlike Baudelaire, Swinburne was a professed atheist, and yet his subdued rage against Christ betrays a quiet and yet rebellious admittance of His existence.
Where Baudelaire's poetry was violent, agonized, and furious, Swinburne's was subdued and tragically romantic. Though the "pale Galilean"5 had conquered, Swinburne's poetry still evokes an existence of living in spite of it. In essence, from Swinburne I acquired the idea of the God who punished the world for not having pity on Him as He hung from the cross. The world was conquered and subdued by Christ, and all the passions that I thought in those days made us truly human - these were now acts of rebellion, though all were pointless. The finest example of the sad romanticism of Swinburne was in his short poem, "Love and Sleep", where sex and love had almost become a dying act, a last and final push to be human in the face of an inhumane God.
The writings of these two poets scarred me to such an extent that it has taken years to recover from it all. At times, I find myself still struggling to not fall back into such abysses and pits as these poets had dug for me, and others like me. This is how truly dangerous and truly satanic their writing is. I say this, not in an alarmist or fundamentalist sense, but to point to the true nature of what much rebellion against God can entail.
This is important to know - as Christians, how can we understand the modern rebellion against God if we do not understand its chief prophets and thinkers? The core of these two poets is the abyss that forms itself in the heart of man when God is seemingly no longer there, or is outright rejected in favor of a life of passionate rebellion, the rebellion that I myself had mistaken as being "something positive and good."6 (Fr. Seraphim Rose)
In the poetry of Baudelaire and Swinburne, we see what the rejection of God really looks like; that is, a kind of interior agony and Sisyphus-like existence of pushing our respective boulders up the hill instead of carrying our crosses to the top of that hill. Their's are the exhausted souls, lashing out in bloody defiance against the unjust God who may or may not be there, and yet Whose presence these poets find inescapeable.
For myself, this was my life and worldview. It was finally conquered by my laying down my arms of rebellion and rejection, by my exhaustion at the hands of grief. "What agony I suffered, my God! How I cried out with grief, while my heart was in labour! But, unknown to me, you were there, listening."7 (St. Augustine)
Perhaps it was this thrashing about that God allowed in order that, tired, I might throw myself finally into the arms of my Redeemer8 (cf. Blaise Pascal), rather than die alone in the wilderness of my own making. To me, the Satanic Poets were the stillborns who died in their rejection of God, who refused to grow old, and remained stuck in their egoistic existence of passion, pleasure, and ultimately, both rejection of God and themselves.
1 - Death to the World, No. 1, "Perfection in Pain"
2 - Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State
3 - Confessions, IV:4
4 - "Meditation"
5 - "Hymn to Proserpine"
6 - Nihilism, pg. 74
7 - Confessions, VII:7
8 - Pensees
Much ado is made nowadays, whether verbally or non-verbally, about making the faith relevant to modern humanity. This to me speaks to the idea that modern man's deepest needs have changed; that somehow, Truth changes. "A 'new god' is clearly required by modern man, a god more closely fashioned after the pattern of such central modern concerns as science and business..."1 (Fr. Seraphim Rose)
After having been a part of a "liberal" break-off church in my youth as a Seventh-Day Adventist, I am well-acquainted with the appeal of a "liberal" church. I was tired of the stodgy old guard who seemed to have nothing better to do than admonish people for eating "unclean" meat or "moving too much" during the worship service. At the time, the idea of a liberalized church where Jesus was presented as "cool" and just your average guy you could hang out and be buddies with appealed to me greatly. I wanted honesty, authenticity, and for me this meant joining the liberal group of Adventists and abandoning the conservatives who simply seemed like hypocrites and modern pharisees. In short, I get the appeal. The conservatives were about rules with no heart, the liberals were about the heart and screw the rules. Or so it seemed that way.
I am sure I do not need to preach to the choir on this - from all the many comments I have read from readers of this blog, from my experiences as a Catholic, from my conversations had with many others on all the issues facing the Catholic Church today, I have learned a lot. I've read a million rants on the state of the Church today, and written a few myself in more than a little frustration. I won't do that here.
"Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me moaning? You fled like the stag after wounding me: I went out calling you, and you were gone."2 (St. John of the Cross) I think this can be similar, too, to how some converts might feel in the Church right now - drawn in by the beauty of the glorious history of the Bride of Christ, its liturgies, its saints, its councils, its traditions, many find themselves perplexed to see the chaos around them.
Much of this chaos seems to me to be the result of a haphazard attempt to speak the language of a world now secularized in the extreme, a world in which God has been declared dead, or at best, absent. Despite the notion that with Vatican II, its "intention [was] to heal modernity and transform modernity, and not simply to succumb to it or merge with it..."3 (Pope Benedict XVI), it seems that this has not happened according to plan. I don't know all the ins-and-outs of it all, I only have my observations and experiences.
But my point is precisely this: the message, the truth of Christianity is timeless. Different methods and ways can be adopted in promulgating this message, but the truth of Christianity, its timeless nature must remain and not be jettisoned, ignored, or modified. "Christ is the truth. Truth is a person. Truth is not limited within our apprehension of it."4 (Mother Maria of Normanby) "Because it transcends all things, truth admits of no plurality, and reveals itself as single and unique."5 (St. Maximus the Confessor)
This is what attracts those seeking the truth of Christianity, and what those who are already Christians are so desperately craving - not the changing "truth" of today, but the Truth of all time.
1 - Nihilism, pg. 25
2 - Spiritual Canticle, stanza 1
3 - Let God's Light Shine Forth, pg. 35
4 - qtd. in The Orthodox Way, pg. 113
5 - qtd. in Philokalia, Vol. 2, "Third Century on Various Texts"
The history of Christianity has had more than its fair share of poets. Indeed, the Christian religion can be found weaved through the vast majority of the poetry of the Western world, for better or for worse. Here, I wish to concentrate on the specifically Christian poets who stand out amongst the last 2000 years - no doubt, there will be favorites missing (I can already here many criticisms coming my way about one in particular!). Enjoy (and remember, the list is in no particular order).
"Do thou, O Christ, our slumbers wake:
Do thou the chains of darkness break."1
Prudentius is a name not often heard these days. Born about the middle of the 4th century A.D., Prudentius' career as a poet seems to have flourished, at least if the amount of writings he has left us bear any witness at all. His poetry is an important element of the early Church, especially his corpus of writings on the martyrs entitled . He is spoken of in The Catholic Encyclopedia as being "The superior of many pagan poets, among the Christian he is the greatest and the most truly poetic."2
2. St. Robert Southwell
"O sacred Fire come show thy force on me
That sacrifice to Christ I may return
If withered wood for fuel fittest be
If stones and dust if flesh and blood will burn
I withered am and stoney to all good.
A sack of dust a mass of flesh and blood."3
St. Robert Southwell was a famous Jesuit priest and martyr during the English Reformation. In a time of intense persecution of Catholics, St. Robert sought to minister to the needs of Catholics when priests were outlawed. He was arrested, tortured for a period of three years, and finally martyred. St. Robert's poetry is astoundingly complex, incredibly vivid, and steeped in devotional piety. Oftentimes, it is heart-wrenching - witness his excellent poem, "Christ's Bloody Sweat".
3. George Herbert
"If, O Christ, while you are crucified, your garments are legacies of your enemies, not of your friends, as custom demands, what will you bequeath to your friends? Yourself."4
Of the metaphysical poets of the 16th and 17th centuries, John Donne seems to reign supreme, especially as far as Christian poets are concerned. As for myself, after spending some time in study of Donne's work, I could not bring myself to take him quite as seriously as his poetry seemed to wish me to. Much of it was tainted with a kind of tongue-in-cheek nature, cloaked by all the vivid content of the writing, but still there all the same.
For myself, I find the poetry of George Herbert, an Anglican, to be far more worthy of admiration. Herbert's poetry lacks the wild intricacies of Donne's, at least on first inspection. But its devotional character is far richer - here the writing is almost all of a religious character. It is Herbert's piety in his poetry that inspires me most, and though he was an Anglican of the lower-church persuasion, much of it sounds entirely Catholic to me.
4. St. Ephrem the Syrian
"As the provision for my journey I have taken Thee,
Oh Thou Son of God!
And when I am hungry I will eat of Thee,
Thou Saviour of the world!"5
Arguably the greatest poet of the early Church, St. Ephrem the Syrian's hymns functioned in a myriad of ways - as devout intructions, as hymns of praise and adoration, and as polemical attacks against the various heresies of his day. He is an important witness to the early Church's veneration of the Blessed Virgin, and to this day one of the greatest of the Syrian saints.
5. Gerhard Tersteegen
"My body and the world are a strange dwelling place for me.
I think: Let it go; you soon will be leaving.
He who lives here as a citizen busies himself with great matters;
He calls me wretched and stupid, but is himself a fool."6
Gerhard Tersteegen is not a well-known name. Linked with the Pietist movement that swept the Protestant world in the 17th and 18th centuries, Tersteegen is a strange anomaly. His poetry is similar to that of Angelus Silesius, comprised of small poems espousing deeply mystical concepts, and seems steeped in the German mysticism that predated him in such writers as Meister Eckhart, Bl. Henry Suso and John Tauler. To read The Spiritual Flower Garden is to come into contact with some of the finest poetry penned in Christendom.
6. Gerard Manley Hopkins
"I have desired to go Where springs not fail, To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail, And a few lilies blow."7
To be sure, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is no easy read, despite his being well-known in the literary world. At times exceedingly difficult, choppy, sometimes abstract and outlandish, but always beautiful, otherworldly, and memorable, Hopkins is to this day considered one of the foremost poets of the English language.
7. Bl. Jacopone da Todi
"To be considered mad for the love of Christ is the highest wisdom."8
Associated with the Franciscan Spirituals movement that reacted harshly against the reforms of the way of life instituted by St. Francis of Assisi, Bl. Jacopone represents one of the most edifying of the Western "fools-for-Christ". His poetry contained in the famed Lauds depicts to the world a man so madly in love with Christ that he seems to have forgotten all sense of the world around him. Careening between harsh and sublime, his poetry cannot afford to be missed.
8. Dante Alighieri
"The Rose in which the Word of God became flesh grows within that garden; there - the lilies whose fragrance let men find the righteous way."9
Dante should need no introduction - his Divine Comedy, especially the first part entitled the Inferno, have had an incalculable influence on all of literature since. In my mind, he stands as a towering giant in the literary world, dwarfing countless multitudes in terms of sheer genius, literary skill, and profound content. When I first read the Inferno, I was riveted, terrified, and lost within its pages; so much of his work has influenced me to this day. To encounter Dante's monolithic Divine Comedy is to encounter one of the greatest literary works of all time by one of the greatest Christian poets of all time.
9. John Milton
"Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat'ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven."10
Where the Catholic Dante wrote an epic poem on Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven and everything in between, the Puritan John Milton wrote an epic poem on the fall of Satan. He is in some respects, the Protestant Dante - sweeping, grand, and packed with unforgettable imagery.
Interestingly enough, the work appealed to me more as an anti-Christian in my youth, than as a Christian now; its portrayal of Satan in a humanistic and sympathetic fashion influenced me for some time. Nonetheless, Milton's work remains one of the greatest poems in the English language.
10. St. John of the Cross
"Reveal thyself, I cry,
Yea, though the beauty of thy presence kill,
For sick with love am I,
And naught can cure my ill
Save only if of thee I have my fill."11
For Catholics, St. John of the Cross should need no introduction. He is the mystic of mystics, the greatest doctor of mystical theology in the West, at once a profound poet and theologian. If anyone truly understood the Song of Songs, it was this saint. His poetry reveals the aching longing of the soul for God, depicting the restlessness described by St. Augustine, but also the fiery love and desire that the soul in love with God experiences.
1 - "The Winged Herald of the Day"
2 - From here.
3 - "Christ's Blood Sweat"
4 - "In Vestes Divisas"
5 - "Christ the Companion of the Disembodied Soul"
6 - Spiritual Flower Garden, "Pilgrim's Thought"
7 - "Heaven Haven"
8 - Lauds, 84
9 - Divine Comedy, Paradiso: Canto XXIII
10 - Paradise Lost
11 - Spiritual Canticle
Today was a harder day than usual. In lieu of this, I wanted to offer everyone a little consolation. Upon opening my copy of The Imitation of Christ, I fell upon this chapter. May it console you as it consoled me.
"THE VOICE OF CHRIST: My Child, you are not yet a brave and wise lover.
THE DISCIPLE: Why, Lord?
THE VOICE OF CHRIST: Because, on account of a slight difficulty you give up what you have undertaken
and are too eager to seek consolation.
The brave lover stands firm in temptations and pays no heed to the crafty
persuasions of the enemy. As I please him in prosperity, so in adversity I am
not displeasing to him. The wise lover regards not so much the gift of Him Who
loves as the love of Him Who gives. He regards the affection of the Giver
rather than the value of the gift, and sets his Beloved above all gifts. The
noble lover does not rest in the gift but in Me Who am above every gift.
All is not lost, then, if you sometimes feel less devout than you wish toward
Me or My saints. That good and sweet feeling which you sometimes have is the
effect of present grace and a certain foretaste of your heavenly home. You must
not lean upon it too much, because it comes and goes. But to fight against evil
thoughts which attack you is a sign of virtue and great merit. Do not,
therefore, let strange fantasies disturb you, no matter what they concern. Hold
strongly to your resolution and keep a right intention toward God.
It is not an illusion that you are sometimes rapt in ecstasy and then quickly
returned to the usual follies of your heart. For these are evils which you
suffer rather than commit; and so long as they displease you and you struggle
against them, it is a matter of merit and not a loss.
You must know that the old enemy tries by all means in his power to hinder your
desire for good and to turn you from every devotional practice, especially from
the veneration of the saints, from devout meditation on My passion, and from
your firm purpose of advancing in virtue. He suggests many evil thoughts that
he may cause you weariness and horror, and thus draw you away from prayer and
holy reading. A humble confession displeases him and, if he could, he would
make you omit Holy Communion.
Do not believe him or heed him, even though he often sets traps to deceive you.
When he suggests evil, unclean things, accuse him. Say to him: "Away, unclean
spirit! Shame, miserable creature! You are but filth to bring such things to my
ears. Begone, most wretched seducer! You shall have no part in me, for Jesus
will be my strength, and you shall be confounded. I would rather die and suffer
all torments than consent to you. Be still! Be silent! Though you bring many
troubles upon me I will have none of you. The Lord is my light, my salvation.
Whom shall I fear? Though armies unite against me, my heart will not fear, for
the Lord is my Helper, my Redeemer."
Fight like a good soldier and if you sometimes fall through weakness, rise
again with greater strength than before, trusting in My most abundant grace.
But beware of vain complacency and pride. For many are led into error through
these faults and sometimes fall into almost perpetual blindness. Let the fall
of these, who proudly presume on self, be a warning to you and a constant
incentive to humility."1 (Thomas a Kempis)
1 - The Imitation of Christ, IV:VI "Of the proof of a true lover"
"Because he drew daily great sweetness and compassion from the humility and footsteps of the Son of God, what was bitter to the body he took and held as sweet. Daily [St. Francis grieved for the sufferings and anguish which Christ bore for us, and afflicted himself internally and externally for them, and took no thought for his own. Once, a few years after his conversion, when he was walking one day alone along the road not far from the church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula, he wept and wailed with a loud voice. As he thus went on, a pious man, whom we know and from whom we learnt this, who had given him much sympathy and comfort before he had any friars and likewise after, met him, and moved with pity towards him asked him: 'What is the matter, brother?' For he thought he was in pain from some illness. But St. Francis replied: 'I ought to go thus weeping and wailing without shame through the whole world for the passion of my Lord.' Then both together they began to lament and weep bitterly."1 I used to have a problem with the at-times graphic imagery of the Catholic crucifix, of Catholic art and imagery. Though I was a Seventh-Day Adventist when I was young, raised in a church with an empty cross, I was still well-acquainted with the common sight of the crucifix. I used to think how morbid it was, how ghastly to have the poor Christ hanging in seemingly perpetual agony in such a way upon the cross; when I was almost sent to a Catholic elementary school, I was terrified that such gruesome imagery hung upon the walls in classrooms, and yet no one seemed to blink twice at it.
Now, it is much different.I do not look at the suffering Christ upon the crucifix as an image meant to frighten or repulse; in fact, I see it as much the opposite. If one has a true understanding of what Christ suffered for us, what He in fact suffered for our sake that we might be free from sin and death, then the crucifix and the depictions of the suffering Christ become edifying and beautiful, because in them we see the love of Christ for His creation. Through them, we can better meditate on what Christ endured, seeing before our eyes the Mystery of the Cross - "Suffering in the flesh, and rising from the dead, he revealed our nature as greater than death or corruption."2 (St. Cyril of Alexandria) "Who will grant me that my request should come about and that God will give me what I long for, that having been totally transpierced in both mind and flesh, I may be fixed with my beloved to the yoke of the cross?"3 (St. Bonaventure) That eminent and learned Franciscan, St. Bonaventure, used to say that all he ever knew and learned was from meditating upon the crucifix, and above we see the fruit of such meditations. In contemplating Christ, as Christians we should wish to imitate Christ, and not only this, but to draw ever closer into a more intimate union with Him. The Passion of Christ was what many of the saints meditated deeply upon, and it bore fruit in their lives. How can I not feel some kind of stirring within me, no matter how dry in prayer or cold in soul, when I gaze upon the cross whereupon Christ is nailed for my sake? To look upon Christ crucified is to enroll in the school of humility, compassion, and love. I do not recall where I heard this, but I remember hearing that when one gazes upon Christ on the crucifix with love, He gazes back at you with infinite love. Let us look, then, upon the Lord Whom we preach (cf. 1 Cor 1:23), contemplating His Passion and His love for us, and allowing this to set fire to our hearts. 1 - Scripta Leonis, 37 2 - On the Unity of Christ 3 - The Tree of Life, 26
It is a bizarre age we live in. Just a few days ago, a woman I work with told me that questions such as "Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?" are questions that no one really cares about anymore. I was baffled at such a statement - how on earth can any human being be indifferent on any level as to their existence and the meaning of it? Here, we see the effects of the 20th century's chief exponents of secularism, atheism, and existentialism's thoughts reverberating throughout our own times.
"Religion today is considered an archaic relic to be left alone because, finally, it is thought to have nothing to do with the true greatness of progress. What religions say and do appears totally irrelevant; they are not even a part of the world of rationality, their contents ultimately count for nothing."1 (Pope Benedict XVI)
But to have a view like this seems to speak a kind of slow and systematic deadening of the soul in modern culture today. The search for truth is no longer embarked upon by many because they are taught that there is no such thing. However, I am not entirely sure if this is often the fault of many who lead lives of indifference to the universal questions, but the fault of the architects of a culture of indifference, who have bequeathed to the world nothing but meaningless living, rabid secularism and relativism, and empty "spiritualities" that offer nothing but security blankets for restless hearts.
The earnest search for truth and meaning in life is not an easy journey to undertake. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But as Thomas Merton once wrote of the men becoming monks in his day, "They have not come to the monastery to escape from the realities of life but to find those realities: they have felt the terrible insufficiency of life in a civilization that is entirely dedicated to the pursuit of shadows."2
This is exactly the crux of the issue - more and more each day, we are seeing a society and a culture that has divorced itself entirely from Truth, that offers nothing to the searching soul but materialism and hedonism, all culminating in an existence of "the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead."3 (William Barrett) In other words, "The dilemma of modern man is simple: he simply does not know why man has any meaning."4 (Francis Schaeffer)
This void of meaning, however, is why there are those who still search, as Thomas Merton said; why there are still those who climb out from under the wreckage of modern culture in order to seek the truth. And as Fr. Seraphim Rose once said, "Anyone who studies religion seriously comes up against this question: it is a question literally of life and death."5
1 - Let God's Light Shine Forth, pg. 138
2 - The Waters of Siloe, qtd. in A Thomas Merton Reader, pg. 182
3 - Irrational Man, I:1
4 - He Is There and He Is Not Silent, ch. 1
5 - God's Revelation to the Human Heart, pg. 20
It is always a bit of a shock to my spiritual system to take note of the contents of your average bookstore's "Christianity" section. Indeed, if all I were to know of Christianity as a religion was based on the works available in bookstores, I would probably have never considered Christianity at all.
The next time you are in your local bookstore, I invite you to take note of what is there. Multitudes of books proclaiming the "secret sayings/teachings/gospels/life of Jesus" are commonplace, seemingly released on a daily basis; works proclaiming a form of regurgitated Gnosticism are manifold, espousing bizarre teachings on "feminine christs", St. Mary Magdalene, and other such things. The New Age movement promulgates books using the Christian angelic hierarchy as a Tarot Card system, and writes works on the "spirit" of Jesus as just another spirit among many.
But these are obviously not Christian works - hence, let us turn our eyes to the actually Christian, or least the seemingly Christian. What do we see? Aside from the token copy of St. Augustine's Confessions and C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and other works, one is inundated instead with a whole slew of authors such as Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and other Prosperity Gospel teachers. Watered-down devotionals, feel-good spirituality step-by-step programs fill the shelves. And this is not to even touch on the multitude of works that form the tail-end of the Jesus Seminar's investigation into the "historical Jesus" (spurred on by the demythologization and liberal theology of such thinkers as Rudolf Bultmann, Edward Schillebeeckx, and others). Countless books are available on Jesus as a rebel, Jesus as a prophet, Jesus as a myth, Jesus as a preacher, but hardly any on Jesus as the Divine Son of God. By extension, other works also present themselves as finally having proved that the Scriptures were forged, that St. Paul the Apostle was really just a figment of our imagination or a Gnostic or the inventor of Christianity.
All of this, but hardly anything of substance is available. I inquired one time as to why this was at a local bookstore near me - the staff member, with a sigh, admitted that the selections were awful, but said that it was what sold, what people wanted to buy.
So it is with a curiousity that I begin to wonder why this is - obviously, not everyone wants to sit down and study the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, but where did books for the serious Christian who actually believes in his or her faith disappear to? Unless one special orders them or goes to a specifically Christian bookstore, they are nowhere to be found. And if the works above are the ones that "sell", then I begin to wonder in fright at the state that Christendom must be in.
I would expect in a serious Christianity section that one could find something of remote quality, but this is almost always not the case - even such popular Catholic authors such as Scott Hahn are nowhere to be found, nor are Protestant writers such as J.I. Packer or Francis Schaeffer anywhere on the shelves; the Eastern Orthodox remain virtually unrepresented at all, despite being the second largest communion in Christianity. Works on the Pope are occasionally found, but are often of an antagonistic nature. Patristic writings are limited to one or two works by St. Augustine, often inexplicably shelved next to copies of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, as if the bookstore owners somehow could not distinguish between the message of Dawkins and St. Augustine, or perhaps wished to push Dawkins' brand of intolerant atheism on Christian customers perusing the Christianity section. Of this, I have no answer, only speculations.
But I do think that something needs to be done to encourage serious Christian reading in the mainstream world. Atheists are well-represented in the bookstores, the Eastern Religion section literally overflows with all manner of Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu writings - there is no reason why the Christianity section of a bookstore should be given the short end of the stick.
Hans Urs von Balthasar's generally respected reputation as a theologian and spiritual writer nowadays is unavoidable - to say one doesn't enjoy his writing is like telling a music lover that the Beatles were only just okay. Though I have avoided reading his writings for quite some time now, I have finally given in on one book in particular. If you haven't read him before, and even if you feel as cautious as I do about some of his thought, I think that his work A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen is a worthwhile read.
What is precisely so interesting here is that this short work (only 134 pages long) criticizing much of what has happened post-Vatican II is written by one of the leading lights of the New Theology movement so associated with the Council (Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, et. al.). Though von Balthasar was not directly involved like other theologians such as Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac were, he is still considered to be a driving force behind much of the ideas and theology at the time.
So to read von Balthasar's words of warning and admonishment at misinterpreting the Council is absolutely fascinating. He attacks misinterpretations of the now-nebulous term "social justice", demythologization of the Scriptures and ultimately of Christ, and rings the alarm on the mass exodus of many Catholics after the Council. He warns that many have forgotten the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, speaks on true ecumenism versus false ecumenism, and a whole host of other topics.
Whether one agrees with any of the conclusions he draws or admonishments that he delivers, the book is an exciting read, as evinced by the following:
"Many Christians today see the Creed's individual "articles of faith" as isolated truths, some of which appeal to them so that they gladly believe them, while others strike them as strange or even hostile."1
"...in no way can the whole theology of the New Testament - its theology of the Cross and Resurrection - be reduced to political theology."2
"One trembles when one sees whole parishes streaming up to receive the Host without confession and probably without repentance. Do they discern the Body of the Lord, as Paul demands, and do they not eat their own judgment?"3
"All true Catholic Christians suffer today from the confusion within their Church...(for example, the sacrament of confession was almost completely lost) and especially in the sphere of faith, where a small or large question mark was placed behind almost every article of the Creed."4
These are only a few highlights, but one gets the gist of the book. The tone is not necessarily that of alarmism, but it is serious in its delivery. The only issue I have with the book is that its content does not seem written necessarily for the regular person in the pews on Sunday, as its title would suggest, but more for those already well-educated in matters and the language of Catholic theology; thus, the book's intended audience seems cut off from a good portion of the content.
That said, I have found the book to be quite helpful. I don't agree with every conclusion von Balthasar makes (such as some of the remarks he makes on "traditionalism"), but he has most certainly helped to shed some light on some troubling issues that seem to have arisen since the time of the Second Vatican Council. A worthwhile read - even if one is not a fan of von Balthasar, this short book offers some good food for thought for any Catholic troubled by some of the issues facing the Church today.
1 - A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen, pg. 75
2 - ibid., pg. 124
3 - ibid., pg. 132
4 - ibid., pg. 11, 13
In many respects, I have always considered the Middle Ages to represent the apex of Christian mysticism. In journeying through this era, one aspect that jumps out immediately is the sheer volume of mystical writing from many female saints and mystics; this part of Christian mysticism seems to have garnered a new, if not distorted following these days, with many New Age adherents attempting to warp, co-opt, and twist the teachings and writings of the female mystics of this era into some kind of pseudo-pagan/Gnostic corpus of wisdom. Obviously, for anyone who has actually delved into their writings, this is most certainly not the case. But if one has not encountered their writings before, where does one start?
Certainly, the first encounter with the sheer number of female mystics of the Middle Ages can be intimidating: St. Christina of Markyate, Bl. Julian of Norwich, St. Hildegard of Bingen, countless beguines, and the list goes on. Therefore, here I will attempt to give a brief overview of the ones worth checking out.
St. Hildegard of Bingen is arguably the most prominent and obvious of the mystics. Recently proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, I would state that she is also the most complex and difficult to understand of the mystics of her age. At once a natural scientist, an enraptured mystic, a prophetic voice,, and a theologian, St. Hildegard's vast library of writings, from plays to visions, offers a veritable smorgasbord of wisdom to the seeking Christian. The central point from which to begin is, in my opinion, her major work entitled Scivias. Beware, however - St. Hildegard has become a massive touchstone, for one reason or another, for all kinds of heretical groups and New Age spiritualists, and translations of her work with all kinds of bizarre editorial extras in them abound.
If one finds St. Hildegard's writing too much of an undertaking at first, then I suggest St. Elisabeth of Schonau's. St. Elisabeth was a contemporary of St. Hildegard's, prone to ecstatic visions and prophetic writings as well. However, where St. Hildegard is mystical and deeply symbolic, St. Elisabeth's writings swirl around a simple core of questions-and-answers. Her visions of heaven, of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary are fascinating, not too mention her being told the fate of Origen, the greatest of the early Church theologians.
Next, we come to the world of the beguine mystics. Skipping over the dangerous quietism of Marguerite de Porete, one encounters the mystical poetics of Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch. Few mystics have been able to write such beautiful poetry since - Hadewijch's especially is literally steeped in a supernatural love of Christ, and Mechthild's mirrors the enigmatic writings of the Sufi mystics within Islam. Of the two, Mechthild's combination of poetry and prose is the most rewarding, making her work The Flowing Light of the Godhead a classic of the era.
So far, other than St. Hildegard, most of the above mystics are not so well-known. In fact, most are overshadowed by a later one, Bl. Julian of Norwich, an English anchoress. Revelations of Divine Love is certainly the most approachable of all the female mystical writings of the Middle Ages, and easily one of the most consoling for a troubled soul.
One should also not pass up the writings and life of St. Gertrude the Great, quite possibly the most underrated of all of them. Her writings and visions were the first to really expound upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus, depicting in a vivid way the Saviour's love for us. Prophetics and apocalyptic visions are not to be found here, only deep revelations about the love of God for His creation.
And of course, we would be amiss to pass up on the brilliant genius and overflowing love of St. Catherine of Siena, one of my favorite saints of all time. Her Dialogue is considered a classic of Catholic mystical writing, but her various letters are her true masterpieces.
Other mystics one should definitely check out include St. Christina of Markyate, whose life is a popular read in studies on medieval literature, as well as the mystical writings of Beatrice of Nazareth, Bl. Mary of Oignies, St. Bridget of Sweden, Bl. Margaret Ebner, St. Catherine of Genoa and others.
Hopefully this list serves to provide a springboard into the world of the female mystics of medieval era - may their writings serve to deepen your relationship with Christ.
The fame of St. John Chrysostom is without compare in many respects. He is one of the greatest preachers the Church has ever known, one of the three Holy Hierarchs of the East and numbered among the 35 Doctors of the Church. St. John Chrysostom is still one of the most respected spiritual authorities in the Christian East to this day, and for good reason.
So it is with some great curiousity that I have stumbled upon two other men who have been dubbed second Chrysostoms of a sort - one a Russian Orthodox saint, Tikhon of Zadonsk, and the other a Maronite Patriarch, Estephan El Douaihy (now currently a Servant of God). Tikhon has been called the "Russian Chrysostom"; Patriarch Estephan has been dubbed the "second Chrysostom".
Obviously, such accolades must be carefully bestowed - if these men are truly second Chrysostoms, then they must surely be worth investigating! I am happy to say that neither disappoints, and both offer edifying lives for the Christian reader to seek wisdom from.
In the life of Patriarch Estephan El Douaihy, we see a kind of savant, with El Douaihy being learned in many fields of study, especially that of history. Indeed, he is referred to as the "Father of Maronite History", and his writings on the history of the Maronite Catholics are without compare. Like St. John Chrysostom, it seems his life was one of continual hardship and exile. He vigorously resisted Ottoman authorities in their harsh treatment of his Maronite flock, and was subject to violent attacks himself. In his life, we see the kind of stubborn nature that St. John Chrysostom possessed.
Unfortunately, the writings of El Douaihy are not yet translated into English as far as I know. No doubt this will change soon enough, as his canonization process is underway. In the meantime, I have found a most excellent resource website on him here.
Turning further east, we come to the life of the Orthodox saint, Tikhon of Zadonsk. I first encountered this man's writings in G.P. Fedotov's absolutely classic work, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, and the impact that Tikhon has had on me has been tremendous.
Allegedly, his writings influenced Dostoevsky so much that he loosely based the character of Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov on him. In Tikhon, I have found a link bridging Eastern and Western Christianity. Unlike much of the Eastern Orthodox writings I have read, in Tikhon's there is a more pronounced focus on the Passion of Christ than is usual in Eastern writing, with his visions and imagery sharing many similarities with some of the great Western mystics.
As to his writing itself, it is unbelievably rich and impacting in content. His life, written by Chebotarev, depicts him struggling intensely with sorrow and melancholy, experiencing visions, and living a life in constant awareness of his own mortality. It makes for a fascinating read. As for his actual writings left to us, rarely have I come across ones with such an atmosphere of immediacy, of pleading for one's salvation, of such an earnest desire to share Christ with others. I find a tremendous strength in them, to be sure - one would do well to read them, and I think that Western Christians will find much in common within them as well.
My first encounter with Madonna House was with a member of the apostolate who occasionally taught my RCIA classes. I didn't put much thought into Madonna House as an apostolate in those days. Its foundress, Catherine de Hueck Doherty (now a Servant of God whose canonization process is currently underway) never stood out to me, and I wrote off the whole thing as simply lay spirituality of little interest to me at the time.
Little did I know then that I had written off a rich spiritual writer. Catherine Doherty presented herself once again after a long while involved in studying the spiritual writings of Russian Orthodoxy, begun after I had chanced upon that wonderful anonymous work, The Way of a Pilgrim. I had heard the famous Eastern Orthodox monk, Fr. Seraphim Rose, mention Doherty's most-famous work Poustinia disdainfully once in his famous talk "Living the Orthodox Worldview", which planted the seed of curiousity in me.
Just as St. John Cassian brought Egyptian monasticism to the Latin west, Catherine Doherty effectively introduced Russian Orthodox spirituality to an audience that had never encountered it before. Fr. Seraphim Rose criticized this heavily, no doubt because Catherine herself was a convert to the Catholic Church from Russian Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, Doherty's work speaks with a simple, primal power that grabs the attention of the heart.
As I mentioned, Poustinia is Doherty's most famous work, and no doubt her masterpiece. The cover artwork depicts an Eastern monk, similar looking to that famous Russian saint Seraphim of Sarov, in the middle of some woods and dwelling in a little hermitage. For me, the cover artwork of the book immediately drew me in.
Catherine writes in a style that is immediately akin to a conversation with an old and much-beloved friend over coffee - she does not speak in high-theological language, and seems to wish to remove all barrier that a less informed reader might have in approaching such subjects as she elucidates on.
Here, Catherine imparts her knowledge of Russian Orthodox spirituality to the reader, most notably the Jesus Prayer or "prayer of the heart" and the idea of the poustinia (meaning "desert"). In simple language that has a power all its own, sweeping away the reader into a deep conversation on the spiritual life, she expounds on the idea of cultivating an interior desert of the heart, one wherein the Christian can always be at prayer and in the presence of God no matter where they might be or what they might be doing. Such, to me, is the essence of the spirituality surrounding the idea of continual prayer of the heart.
According to her, Western man has no excuse not to dwell in the poustinia - though we may not be able to withdraw to an actual hermitage and live as recluses and hermits, we can always have an inner cell within us where we are always at peace and in prayer with God. This is the core around which the book is formed.
Interestingly enough, and perhaps on purpose, Doherty does not load the work with references to Eastern Christian writers and saints, barely mentioning any by name at all. This is a book that anyone can pick up and read, much like The Way of a Pilgrim. Indeed, this is why the work is so appealing and refreshing - after having investigated heavier works on similar topics, Catherine Doherty's is so immediately approachable and conversational that it is easy to breeze through and yet so very rich in content.