Saturday, June 25, 2022

Monastic Joy


There is an unfortunate stereotype that traditional Catholic spirituality is a dour, mournful thing; that the medieval monks and ascetics were long-faced sourpusses whose minds were bogged down by the oppressive contemplation of their own sins, and who mistakenly thought that God's pleasure in them was proportional to the amount of physical, even masochistic suffering they imposed upon themselves—essentially, the stereotype that traditional Catholic spirituality is all cross but no resurrection. 

Of course, you may occasionally find Catholics who are too pessimistic and dark about their spirituality. But traditional Catholic spirituality, whether of the monastic or lay sort, was always characterized by the paradox of profound joy in the midst of ascesis. Yes, our Lord tells us we must take up our cross daily. But He also promises that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (cf. Matt. 11:30). But the thing is you have to actually take up the yoke and carry the burden before you realize its lightness. And in what does this lightness consist? Not that following the Lord is "easy" in the sense of not requiring effort, but the sense that supernatural grace working alongside a docile will renders the burdens bearable, even sweet and delightful over time. For the novice, spending an hour in prayer can be tiring, dull and require extraordinary strength - in other words, it is a burden; for the saint, spending an hour in prayer is a delight, a consolation, a source of great blessing - in other words, the burden has been rendered light.

In the medieval world, the strictest observance of the Rule of St. Benedict was found among the Cistercians, those followers of St. Robert of Molesme who in 1098 broke away from the Cluniac usage to follow an unmitigated and primitive observance of the Benedictine rule. If anyone in the Middle Ages were dour, long-faced, sourpuss Christians, we would expect it to be the Cistercians, as the discipline of their early years was particularly severe.

There is no way to discern how joyful or mournful were particular monks who lived nine centuries ago, but we can tell something about how they viewed their monastic vocation by looking at the names they gave their monasteries. A striking feature of early Cistercian abbeys is their nomenclature, which demonstrates that the monks of the early 12th century viewed their monastic enclosures as havens of peace and joy. Let us look at the names of some of these early foundations from the first few decades of the Cistercian expansion. Notice all the references to happiness or goodness (variations of bonus) and light (variation of clara):

In France: Bona-Requies, Bonus-Locus (Bonlieu), Bonus-Portus (Bonport), Bona-Vallis, Carus-Locus (Cherlieu), Caritas (la Charité), Clarus-Mons (Clermont), Claritas-Dei (Clairté Dieu), Clara-Vallis (Clairvaux), Clarus-Locus (Clairlieu), Sacra-Cella (Cercanceaux), Sacer-Portus, Vallis-Lucida, Vallis-Paradisius (Valparayso).

In Germany: Caeli-Porta (Himmelspforte), Cella-Dei (Gotteszell), Schola-Dei, Vallis-Speciosa (Schoenthal).

In Belgium and Holland: Aurea-Vallis (Orval), Portus Beatae Mariae

In Poland: Paradisus (Paradiz)

In Ireland and Scotland: Beatitudo Benedictio Dei, Mellifons (Mellifont), Melrosa (Melrose).

In Italy: Fons-Vivus

Finally, a very popular phrase, Vallis-Dei, which was the name of several Cistercian houses in England, Ireland, Austria, Spain, Holland and even Norway.

And what do these names mean when we translate them? In vernacular English, the above names read:

Sweet Repose. Happy Place. Good Harbor. Lovely Valley. Beloved Abode. Brotherly Love. Bright Mountain. Brightness of God. Lightsome Valley. Serene Place. Holy Cell. Sacred Harbor. Vale of Splendor. Vale of Paradise. Gate of Heaven. God's Sanctum. School of God. Beautiful Valley. Golden Valley. Beatitude. Port of St. Mary. Blessing of God. Fount of Honey. Rose of Honey. Living Fountain. Valley of God.

The rule of the Cistercians, especially at their foundation, was by no means simple. To this day, the strictest observance of the Rule of St. Benedict is found among the Cistercian order, those of the Strict Observance (Trappists). To the world, the fastings, the vigils, the manual labor, the austerity could not possibly be sources of the joy and peace exemplified by the nomenclature of the Cistercian abbeys. And yet the monastic experience proves otherwise; it proves that our Lord was telling the truth when He said "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Yes, to follow our Lord entails suffering, self-denial, and the carrying of the cross. But our Lord does not leave us orphaned; if we are willing to pick up that cross - willing to follow the Lamb wherever He leads—we find a sweet consolation, more tender and dear than anything offered by the world. We see that our Lord is a pearl of great price, and in our joy, we are willing to forego everything else to obtain that pearl, to drink from the living water.

And he who drinks from that living water will never thirst again (John 4:14).

This was what the early Cistercians knew, when despite the trials of setting up a new monastery, the difficulty in observing the Rule of St. Benedict, and the general conditions of medieval life, they found in their monastic profession a profound joy, as evidenced by the nomenclature of their abbeys.

"For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Another Bold Stroke from the Pope of the Peripheries

On June 15 Pope Francis issued rescript changing Canon Law. The rescript, which takes immediate effect, prohibits any diocesan bishop from erecting a Public Association of the Faithful wishing eventually to become an institute of consecrated life or a society of apostolic life without explicit written permission of the Vatican Dicastery in charge of such institutes/societies. Essentially, the Vatican has assumed control over the establishment of all religious communities and priestly orders. 

Though it is not specified, it is assumed that this is primarily aimed to halt the formation of new traditional associations. It is clear from numerous statements by Francis—including his screed against traditionalist "restorers" made only one day before the issuance of the rescript—that Francis considers traditionalists the greatest threat to the modern Church. I have seen some banter online of people saying, "Don't assume this is about traditionalists" and "traddiedom is not the center of the Church." But to Francis it is. To Francis, traditionalism is the great enemy of his time. And he has not attacked any other segment of the Church as he has traditionalists. Therefore it is more than reasonable to assume this rescript is issued with traditional Catholics in mind.

The Dicastery in reference is run by de Aviz and Carballo, whom Dr. Kwasniewski referred to as "progressivist thugs", a sentiment I completely agree with. The chances of any traditional association receiving the requisite institutional approval from these gatekeepers is nonexistent.

I offer a few reflections on this development:

1) The Total Overthrow of Institutional Credibility

The Catholic Church has spent the last several decades destroying its institutional credibility, at least understood from a human perspective. The Church once possessed great institutional credibility; I am continually amazed, when I read histories of ecclesiastical events of the pontificates of Pius IX or Pius X, how the mere hint that the pope or some Congregation wanted something was enough to compel complete obedience, even beyond what the authorities asked for. But those days are long, long gone. The Church itself has continually debased its own institutional credibility since Vatican II by torrents of abuses gone too long unchecked, by the stream of garbled nonsense that is ceaselessly vomited out of the Vatican, and by unjust persecutions of Catholics whose only crime was to hold their tradition too dearly. The Church has spent a generation cultivating the mindset that the letter of the law doesn't ultimately matter; the "spirit" and the "signs of the times" are much more important. 

Thus, having worked so hard to enthrone the spirit, it is laughable that the Vatican now thinks it can rule by the letter; having spent a generation undermining the value of the letter, it now wishes to subvert the authority of every bishop by pen stroke. It is almost comedic. Liberals have long ignored the letter of the law; and Traditionalists have realized the implementation of the law is hopelessly stacked against them. The only ones still trying to square the circle are the naïve neo-Catholics, who have their heads so deep in the sand they can see Beijing. Traditionalism arose despite the letter of the law and it will not be crushed by the letter of the law—especially a law whose import has been eviscerated by decades of the Vatican's selective interpretation.

2) Necessity of New Models of Organization

But if no more traditional institutes are allowed to be erected by bishops on their own initiative, how shall we escape the letter of the law? The answer is simply that we will have recourse to organizational models not envisioned by the current canonical strictures. I refer you to an article called "Into the Woods" I wrote in 2018 in the aftermath of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life document Cor Orans, which essentially revolutionized the way women's religious communities governed themselves. The gist of the essay is that as the institutional Church becomes more untrustworthy under the current zeitgeist, traditional movements will be more about living a certain lifestyle than obtaining any specific ecclesiastical status. The Vatican might regulate the episcopal erection of new religious institutes, but it can do nothing against a group of individuals living together and making their own private vows. It may prohibit the creation of a new priestly society dedicated to the Traditional Latin Mass, but it cannot prohibit priests who love the Traditional Latin Mass from organizing on their own outside of official channels. It may prohibit the Latin Mass being said in diocesan parishes, but it cannot prevent it being said in private venues. The Church can shove the NAB and the Liturgy of the Hours at me as much as they please, but they can't prevent me gathering with likeminded men to pray the traditional Divine Office in Latin. Whatever we want done, we are going to have to do it ourselves—not by going "against" ecclesiastical authority in any schismatic sense, but by merely operating in spheres where ecclesiastical authority has no say. This is how Christendom was built; St. Benedict had no episcopal letter when he clambered up the slopes of Mount Subiaco and wandered into a cave.

3) Machiavellian Delegation and the Farce of Synodality

In case anyone had any shred of doubt left, this should make it perfectly clear that Pope Francis's ideas about "decentralization" and "synodality" are farcical. The same pope who allegedly wants to allow local bishops' conferences to make true doctrinal judgments also wants to tell bishops what organizations they can and cannot erect in their own dioceses. This is the same pontificate that, in the explanatory letter after Traditionis Custodes, purported to tell individual parishes what they could and could not advertise on the parish website or in the parish bulletin. The same pontificate who has systematically dismantled the independence of various religious orders and trampled on their charisms. Decentralization and synodality indeed!

Francis does not, and has never wanted, decentralization. Rather, he believes in what I would call Machiavellian delegation. Actual decentralization is too risky. After all, bishops like Cordileone and Mutsaerts exist, and we can't risk allowing more space for their ideas. He lacks the testicular fortitude to throw the cards to the wind and see where they land. Actual administrative control must be centralized as much as possible. But, since Francis is the pope of the peripheries, he needs his more revolutionary bold-stroke changes to appear to come "from the people"; after all, if everything were imposed from top down, it would merely reinforce the caricature of Francis as a dictator pope. So certain things are strategically delegated to local churches where and when Francis knows they will return a result favorable to his overall agenda.  In this way the most radical changes can appear to have come "from the peripheries," their adoption being presented not as a bureaucratic fiat but as yielding to the vox populi that the God of surprises foists on us. It is a machination worthy of Pontius Pilate. To put it bluntly, power is centralized, but revolutionary change is outsourced. If I were to illustrate the movement of Machiavellian delegation, it would look like this, where Rome is the yellow dot and "the peripheries" are the blue:

Taking control of religious orders and priestly societies? That power can be assumed by Rome. Married viri probati clerics? That change must come from the Amazon. Regulating the Latin Mass and forbidding parishes to advertise it? That power can be assumed by Rome. Allowing Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried? That change must come from Germany. Of course which specific "peripheries" this radical change is outsourced to are matters of calculated deliberation; you'll never see the Vatican allowing the African bishops to take the path of synodality when it comes to handling same sex marriage. It's all carefully crafted theater rigged to return pre-determined results.

4) We Follow the Way

For us, though, this is ultimately about a way of life, not who has institutional control. I don't mean to downplay the importance of institutional control; and God willing, one day, the institution will be better, the ship's course will be righted, and mother will not be drunk anymore. Until that happens, however, what we are seeking is a way of life. In the New Testament and the earliest Christian writings, the Catholic faith was referred to as "the Way," and Christians were called "followers of the Way." This sort of thinking has greatly benefitted my own spiritual life during these difficult times. I am seeking a city whose builder and maker is God (cf. Heb. 11:10). The regime the Church finds itself under can annoy me, make me drive a little farther, make me jump through a few more hoops, make me roll my eyes, but it can't ultimately stop me from following the path our Lord Jesus has laid out. It cannot stop me from living the Faith of our ancestors and loving our traditions. 

But if things get so bad that I am deprived of certain spiritual benefits through no fault of my own, will God hold me to account? Certainly not. "For," the Scriptures say, "if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not" (2 Cor. 8:12). This means that if I earnestly will to follow God with my whole heart, I cannot be judged for what I lack, only what I have. It's not about how many talents I have, but what I do with whatever amount has been entrusted to me. God chose you to live in these times. He wants you here. And if we believe at all in God's Providence, that should be a very encouraging thought. The pope can make certain aspects of my external observance difficult, but he cannot touch the pearl of great price. "My Father is greater than all...and no one is able to snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:28). The corrupt regime in Rome is only able to knock me off the path to the degree that I let them. 

Stand Fast

So stand fast, brethren. Follow the Lamb wherever He goes. Purify your hearts, so you can hear His voice. And remember, "Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

What a Dark Night Is and Is Not

There is a rich tradition in the West of describing the progress of the soul along the path to God in terms of stages of development, with certain characteristics proper to each stage. St. Teresa of Avila famously spoke of seven "mansions" corresponding to different levels of spiritual attainment; others divide the spiritual life into three phases: purgative, illuminative and contemplative. Medieval mystics such as Robert Grosseteste, Julian of Norwich and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, following the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius, take an apophatic approach to their theology, viewing the ascent toward God as a stripping away of assumptions and images about God in an attempt to contemplate the divine essence itself.

All these approaches have merit, and we should probably not insist on adhering to one too closely; they are all ultimately subjective expressions of what particular souls have experienced. Even if these experiences have been quite common in Church history, God ultimately works with each soul in a unique manner. No two souls take the same journey, even though all souls who seek God seek the same end. These descriptions are meant to be pedagogical, teaching the devotee what to expect on the way to holiness. They are not doctrines that we must insist on to the exclusion of other conceptual frameworks.

That being said, that does not mean there is not some commonality in mystical experiences. Most of the progressions described in the mystical writings of the Church, East and West, center on a particular shift in experience from the intellect to the affections—from the head to the heart. For example, in the West, meditation is commonly recommended as a sort of prayer for beginners in the spiritual life. Meditation consists in taking a certain episode of sacred history or truth of the faith and holding it before the mind's eye, drawing out different levels of meaning, making pious resolutions, and dwelling on the implications of the truths of what we are meditating on. It is primarily an intellectual activity utilizing the imagination.

Similarly, the Eastern tradition places great emphasis on the Jesus Prayer, intentionally choosing a particular expression and repeating it while meditating on a specific element of the Faith. This is again an active, intellectual work that depends on human activity.

But in both traditions, there is a transition that occurs. In meditation, one eventually moves to contemplation, while in the Eastern tradition, the repetition of the Jesus Prayer as an active prayer is supposed to yield to a more passive spirit of contemplative prayer. In both cases, the movement is from an active to a passive sort of prayer, from a field in which human activity predominates to one in which the soul is more responsive to the graces God wishes to bestow upon it. This transition cannot be forced; it does not yield to human effort. It may come on a soul suddenly, or gradually over many years, or perhaps never at all. No matter what schema we use to describe the transition, we get to a place where God is the dominant agent and the soul must be docile before Him.

This transition can be painful and disorienting. In some mystical traditions (most notably the Carmelite tradition exemplified by St. John of the Cross), the movement into these higher degrees of spirituality is accompanied by a painful episode that is known as a "dark night." The dark night is typically described as a period of deprivation, where the sensations, pious aspirations, consolations, and happy feelings that accompanied the individual in the lower stages of the spiritual life are withdrawn. This process of the dark night is part of the larger transition from the "head to the heart" that God affects in the spiritual life of docile souls.

It is commonly known that the dark night exists for the purpose of drawing souls closer to God, but why, specifically, is this the case? Why must a soul experience this deprivation of consolation in order to progress?

In this life, faith infused with charity is the only way a person can truly gain access to God in prayer. But when we begin, our faith and charity are weak and need to be propped up with other things: mental images, pious thoughts, spiritually pleasant feelings, imagination, etc. These are all objectively good; no matter how far we advance in the spiritual life, these will always have a certain place. But these things can never attain to God without a corresponding increase in faith, which is the key to prayer and union with the divine. That strengthening of faith we require to truly commune with God can only come about in a state of detachment, just as a person on crutches does not return to full use of their leg until the crutches are discarded and the muscles can be worked without the aid of the crutch. Similarly, growth in faith necessary to put a person into closer union with God requires that pious feelings, divine consolations, and the ability to approach Him through reason be set aside. This setting aside of all the active, human-based elements of the spiritual life is why persons in the dark night feel so incredibly helpless. Yet the dark night is extremely enriching, because by it faith is strengthened and prayer is transformed into a mutual exchange of love.

None of this is new to anyone who has even read a little bit of Catholic mystical theology, but it is something that is sadly misunderstood. There are plenty of counterfeit dark nights out there: experiences that people believe to be a dark night but are actually something other. For example, the dark night must be distinguished from a "period of dryness." All believers experience periods of dryness occasionally, during which prayer is difficult and spiritual consolations seem to be removed. This is what St. Ignatius refers to as the period of "desolation." These periods are usually briefer and are universal to all believers. These periods of desolation can be used by God, or they can be inflicted by evil oneGod will typically use a period of desolation to turn someone towards him, while the devil's desolation is characterized by confusion and wavering in resolutions. A spiritually mature believer needs to be able to discern these cyclic periods of dryness from the greater "dark night" that the saints speak about. In other words, you are not "going through a dark night" just because you are spiritually dry or having a hard time.

Furthermoreand probably more commonwe cannot mistake true dark nights with periods of confusion or disorientation that arise due to our own sinful activities. For example, about fifteen years ago, I experienced a profound period of dryness and dissatisfaction that lasted for about two years. Prayer was very difficult. I seemed to be making no progress in my spiritual life and had a very challenging time focusing on God. In my own limited understanding of things at the time, I imagined I was experiencing the dark night of the saints. What I did not consider was that I never prayed the Rosary, seldom went to Adoration, read the Bible only infrequently, attended Mass only on Sundays, and nurtured several bad habits and personal sins that I was unwilling to make the effort to overcome. In this case, was my dryness and difficulties really due to some dark night? Were they not rather due to my lukewarmness? Thank God I was roused from that slumber!

A true dark night comes not to souls who are tepid, but to those who are fervent and burning with charity. This is why it is so distressing for them; precisely because they are typically so inflamed with zeal for our Lord that the deprivation of His consolations is devastating to them.

It has become, in a certain sense, fashionable to speak of dark nights. People discuss their spiritual lives far too openly, and everyone who experiences some momentary setback in prayer or some cyclic lack of initiative wistfully speculates to their friends that they are suffering a dark night. Dark nights are not fashionable. They are not something casually discussed, and they are not something that come to those whose pursuit of God is not relentless; even among those who do pursue Him relentlessly may never pass through it. They are extremely distressing to the souls who undergo them, and even souls of exemplary holiness and clarity of mind may not understand what is happening to them.

If we feel ourselves in a period of dryness or desolation, rather than speculating about if we have been sufficiently holy to merit undergoing the trial of the dark night, let us turn to the much more practical advice of St. Ignatius Loyola: Consider that the dryness you experience is due to your own apathetic practice of the Faith. If you have noticed the dryness, however, God may make use of it to prod you on to a more fervent practice of the Faith. That fact that you recognize that you are dry is itself a grace. Ask God to bring you where He wants you to be and assent to whatever means He chooses to do this.

If you are already fervently practicing your faith, moving from good to better in the service of God, as St. Ignatius says, the dry spell may come from the evil one, who tries to place obstacles in the way of perfection. St. Ignatius calls this state "desolation." What can be done when this happens?

If you are in a state of desolation, do not make any changes to your spiritual routine. It is best to stay firm in our disciplines and resolves, focusing instead upon overcoming the desolation through prayer and meditation. Patience and fidelity to God are necessary here. Maintain faithfulness to the resolutions you made in the light. Changing your plan in the dark is never helpful because the desolation clouds your judgment. It will pass.

Besides our own slothfulness and tepidity, St. Ignatius says we sometimes go through periods of desolation because God wants to test us and try our faith, or because God wants to reveal to us our true state without the aid of His grace.

These periods of desolation are natural to all believers and are distinct from the dark night that is spoken of by the mystics and vouchsafed only to souls who have made exceptional progress in holiness. It is good to understand this and fortify oneself during a period of fruitful prayer and consolation by thinking how one will handle the desolation which will inevitably come.

If we made ourselves more familiar with these basic principles of spiritual life, we would do very well indeed. Through the successful navigation of these cycles of consolation-desolation, we in fact slowly come to master our spiritual life by God's grace and understand the movement of the Spirit. Thus, growing stronger, we eventually do come to the stage where our spiritual focus must shift from the head to the heart and we may in fact undergo the dark night. But if we have not mastered handling our periodic desolations, what will we do when God's consolations are utterly removed during that time of darkness?

Mysticism may be mysterious, but there is an inner logic to it, and without proper discipline and ascesis, we can't even get past our own periodic desolations, let alone the true dark night.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Stop Trying to Make Deacon's Wives a Thing

The image for this post is taken from my diocesan magazine. The article interviews five women who are married to permanent deacons and discusses how that affects their marriages and their work in their parishes. 

The celebration of the "role" of deacon's wife as a quasi-ministry within the Church is something I long ago predicted, as permanent deacons are increasingly looked to as a solution to the priest shortage. Since pushing a married priesthood on the Latin rite is still facing too many obstacles, I suspect the idea of deacons and their wives working jointly within the parish is a more surreptitious way to introduce "couples ministry" into Holy Orders.

There's nothing wrong with a husband and wife volunteering together for the parish; I'm sure many of my readers and their spouses are involved in such laudable activities. Even so, the emphasis on a deacon's wife filling an actual "role" within parish life is another subtle movement away from the traditional view of the diaconate in particular and Holy Orders in general. 

The article (which is broken into a Part 1 and Part 2) asks five women to comment upon their experiences being married to deacons, how this affects their marriage, and how they participate in the ministry of their husbands. Reading the article, I am left with the impression that these women consider deacon's wife itself to be a vocation, and that their status gives them a unique shared ministry with their husbands. We see a discussion of "how married couples might begin discerning a call to the diaconate life"; we are told that "the role of deacon's wife is as unique as the women who fill that role"; that being a deacon's wife allows "opportunity to participate in a more active role in ministry"—one says "we are involved in ministry together." Another speaks of fulfilling her "commitment to my vocations as wife, mother, nurse practitioner, and deacon's wife." One says that "one way I participate with my husband in his diaconal ministry is when I serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or lector at our parish," suggesting that she views these things as sharing in the diaconal ministry itself.

A few out of context quotes do not give the big picture, so I encourage you to read the articles linked above.

Two points:

First, I understand that none of these statements imply there is any sort of institutional "deacon's wife ministry." And some of them can be taken innocuously enough; obviously before a married man enters the permanent diaconate, he and his wife together should discern what that vocation would mean for their marriage. So I don't mean to make a mountain out of a molehill, or infer nefarious meanings to these statements that the women clearly do not mean. Even so, one cannot deny there is a substantial blurring of the lines between clergy and laity demonstrated here. While a husband and wife must discern together what a diaconal ordination will mean for their marriage, it is the husband alone who has the vocation to Holy Orders. While a deacon's wife may be laudably engaged in parish volunteer work, none of this constitutes "participating" in the husband's diaconal ministry. While being married to a deacon may give a woman more visibility in the parish community, she is not thereby admitted to a "unique role" that necessitates active ministry. While a permanent deacon's wife should support her husband in his ministry, but that does not translate into his ministry becoming a "couples ministry." 

Second, this critique should not be construed to devalue the very good things these women do in their parishes. They are certainly not lukewarm Catholics. Most of them have decades of volunteer work serving the poor and sick and clearly take their obligations to God and the Church very seriously (even if some of it, like serving as an EMHC, is misguided). They should be commended for this, so I would hope nobody considers this article disparaging these women or tearing them down. I pray that when I am their age I might even have half as much time spent volunteering for my parish as they.

The issue is not with the women, but with an ecclesiastical philosophy that urgently wants to replace the traditional, celibate male only priesthood with something—anything—else. That philosophy did not begin in the humble parishes where these women serve, but in the high echelons of the Church bureaucracy years ago when old men, stricken with the sickness of the age, theorized that the Church's traditional model of the priesthood needed to be drastically reformed. Until the Church recovers a clear and compelling vision of who a priest is, what he does, and why we need them, the effects of these deviant philosophies will continue  to ripple outward.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

My Opinion on The Chosen

I mentioned in a previous post that I am getting ready to launch a revamped Unam Sanctam Catholicam sister site with an entirely new and attractive layout (Deo gratias). I also stated that the movie reviews section would be going away; I've already started deleting them, as a matter of fact. But before I toss in the hat on movie reviews altogether, a viewer asked me to give my opinion on The Chosen series. This reader said that "it seems really cheesy" and "the fact that it's universally acclaimed by evangelicals" made them more skeptical.

Given that The Chosen is a series comprised of (at the time of writing) two seasons with 16 episodes total and a third season coming out in a few months, I'm not going to give a comprehensive review, but I will share my general thoughts.

I think The Chosen is absolutely fantastic. I have watched both seasons, and watched them multiple times. Several episodes have made me break down in tears in the best kind of way. It touches my heart in a way very few religious movies have been capable of. I liked it enough that I gave money to the crowdfunding campaign. So I am a big fan.

I will say that at the outset I did not like it; the first time I watched Season 1 Episode 1, I was not impressed. I even sent the folks at The Chosen a message complaining. My complaint had nothing to do with content; I was making a very technical gripe about camera angles and cinematography. I regret I sent this message now. It's challenging making any professional video production, and any series takes a few episodes to get their feet under them. I wasn't going to continue, but I heard so much praise for The Chosen that I had to continue—and I'd watched and reviewed every other depiction of Christ on film so I thought I owed it to see what all the hubbub was about.

I am so glad I persevered. The writer's of The Chosen clearly understand the difference Jesus makes in a person's life, and it is the only Jesus movie or series I've ever seen that successfully wields typology to show how the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.

Are there little gripes I could make? Yes, of course. Every now and then there's some cheesy lines. Some of the sets—especially in Season 1—are a little low budget (they make the miraculous catch of fish happen in about two feet of water). John the Baptist's beard totally looks like its glued to his face. Now and then the characters talk like Protestants. But these things are all minutiae in my opinion, and not the sort I am going to gripe about. Afterall, the writers of The Chosen have also gone out of their way to incorporate Catholic elements into the storytelling as well. Season 2 Episode 6 has a beautiful scene that symbolically demonstrates the intercessory power of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And, as I mentioned, the typology is positively Catholic. And the operation of grace is depicted masterfully. 

Some may take issue that the series really uses a lot of creative license to fill in the backstories behind certain biblical episodes. But the stuff they are improvising on is stuff that's not mentioned in the Bible anyway, so it's in no way a distortion of the Scriptures—and in most cases the fabricated backstories significantly buttress the biblical episodes. For example, remember the paralytic at the Pool of Siloam who had nobody to put him into the water? He just gets a few verses in the Gospel of John. In The Chosen, we get an entire episode centered on him with a very well developed backstory. Not just a backstory, but one that is deeply moving; both times I watched that episode I wept. And the way the show used all these little narratives to build up to the Beatitudes at the end of Season 2 was superlative. Is there extrabiblical material? Of course. But everything that matters is played straight, following the New Testament beat for beat. 

As for the acting, I want to single out for praise three in particular: Jonathan Roumie (who is a practicing Catholic) as Jesus, Paras Patel as Matthew, and Elizabeth Tabish as St. Mary Magdalen. All the actors are good, but these three really carry the show, in my opinion. There are some excellent interviews on YouTube with Dr. Scott Hahn (who is also a big fan of the show) talking to Jonathan Roumie; I found these very edifying. Oh, and Eric Avari completely nails it as Nicodemus, who is a major character. I only wish he were in more episodes.

Now, I know there are Trad Catholic criticisms of The Chosen out there, some by popular priests. I am already aware of them and have read them, so please don't post them in the comments asking me to respond. All I can say is I find these Trad critiques without merit, focusing too much on matters of little import, or else making mountains out of molehills (like the critique I read where the Trad viewer objected to the fact that the infant Jesus in the Nativity was depicted wet after being born—as if its a matter of dogmatic faith that we must believe Jesus emerged from the womb of Mary entirely dry! What nonsense! I am not aware of a single point in which The Chosen deviates from any Catholic dogma, nor has any Trad criticism I've read of it been convincing. In fact, some of the Trad critiques I read made me think, "What is on earth is wrong with us?"

As to the issue that "evangelicals are excited about it therefore I am suspicious," while I understand the hesitancy when you see Protestants going gaga over something, I don't think that's ultimately a justification for skepticism. In 2004 Catholics were going gaga over The Passion of the Christ; had a Protestant said they were skeptical of it for that reason, would you have found that a compelling argument? I would hope not. Of course, sometimes Protestants get excited about something because its Protestant nonsense; but sometimes they get excited about something because its good. I say The Chosen is the latter.

One final thought: As some of you know, I was not raised Catholic. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, but I never made a First Communion until I was 22, didn't start practicing until I was an adult. I had what I consider to be a dissolute and debauched youth. When the Lord snatched me from the snare of the fowler—when He looked at me and said "Follow me"—it was life changing. And I've never looked back. The Chosen has brought me back to that place of remembering what it is like to be redeemed. Yes, I know every Catholic, even cradle Catholics, are redeemed, need to be forgiven etc. But I mean that sense of being totally lost, totally mired in darkness, and then you see the light, and you hear His voice, and He summons you, lifts you up, turns your heart of stone to flesh and calls you His own. The Chosen continually reconnects me with that experience. It continually reminds me of the difference that Jesus makes, and it challenges me to love better. 

But hey, that's just my viewpoint, and maybe my perspective on this show is colored by my experience, which is different from yours. Some of you will probably disagree; some of you probably watched it and couldn't stand it for various reasons. Some of you will think I'm a sentimental schlub for liking it. That's fine; I am a sentimental schlub. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that. I would say, if you're not positively predisposed against it, at least watch to the end of Season 1. You might find an unexpected gem.

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Traditional Low Mass: Simplicity vs. Informality

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. This beautifully designed neoclassical structure is situated on a forested hillside in a quiet neighborhood outside La Crosse. It was the creation of Cardinal Raymond Burke, specially dedicated by him to the patroness of the America. This structure was meant to reflect the liturgical ideals of the movement known as the "Reform of the Reform." The church itself is gorgeous; the altar is constructed in an Italianate style reminiscent of St. Peter's basilica, with a massive baldachin supported by four massive marble columns. The altar features the so-called "Benedictine arrangement" that was so touted during the last pontificate. A series of splendid paintings of various saints decorate the transepts, each situated over a reliquary altar of their respective saint. A sign in the narthex explains that all Masses at the shrine must be offered ad orientam and explaining that this is "really" how the Novus Ordo is meant to be offered according to the rubrics. It is an impressive place that elicits a sense of piety and grandeur.

I attended the 12:15 daily Mass, which of course was offered in the Novus Ordo. The contrast between the majesty the structure evoked and the realities of the liturgy being offered was stark. There was nothing amiss with the priest; he did a fine job, offering the Mass exactly according to the rubrics with worthy reverence. But the liturgy itself was so strikingly...informal. The banal dialogues, the Prayers of the Faithful with the scattered whispers of "Lord, hear of our prayer" squeaking out of the congregation, the casual language of the Eucharistic prayers. Of course this realization is nothing new, but I think the informality of the New Mass is thrown into relief when celebrated in a more solemn locale. The glory of the building shines a brighter light on the banality of the liturgy. The more splendid the church, the more unsuited the New Mass appears. 

But I wondered if I wasn't being unfair. After all, a Low Mass offered in the Extraordinary Form wouldn't be much to look at either...right? Would I not find the silent, stripped down Low Mass as unimpressive in the same circumstances?

As I pondered this, I realized something about the traditional Roman rite: even though the traditional Low Mass is simple, it is never informal. A Low Mass is a rather simple affair: the priest approaches the altar, he works his way through the prayers (with the laity participating with whatever manner of quiet devotion seems best to them), and Sacrifice is offered, Holy Communion is distributed, and Mass ends. It is extremely straightforward. It is simple. But it is elegant. It is noble. It is dignified. The much touted "noble simplicity of the Roman rite" the liturgical reformers lauded was always present in the traditional Low Mass. It is a liturgy capable of rising to the occasion when offered in a glorious basilica—but also of elevating the occasion when offered elsewhere, like on the hood of a Jeep on a World War II battlefield, or a hastily constructed wooden altar in the wilderness of Brazil. It is a kind of simplicity that has a universal appeal, admirably reflecting the omnipresence of God whose glory is present in the grandest cathedral and the vilest slum.

When it comes to the Novus Ordo, however, the reformers fundamentally confused simplicity with informality. In seeking a "simplified" Mass, they crafted one that was shockingly informal. Informality in the way it addresses God, in the commonplace language of the prayers, in the gestures, in the way it clumsily drags the congregation into the dialogue-responses. It is an informality that is capable neither of rising to the majesty of a beautiful church, nor of elevating the surroundings when offered elsewhere. 

Simplicity can still be grand. Informality is not. Simplicity can still lift us out of the workaday world and orient us towards God. Informality merely reminds us that we are still in the workaday world. The traditional liturgy never made the mistake of conflating simplicity with informality. It may have had rites that were simple, but they were never informal. Never humdrum. The Novus Ordo sought to create "noble simplicity" but instead created ho-hum informality and its progenitors were too inept to tell the difference.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin is an absolutely beautiful structure situated in beautiful surroundings. It is a place of beauty through and through. I wish it had more liturgies suited to the grandeur of the place.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Important Changes to Unam Sanctam Catholicam

Pax et bonum friends. For the past year, I have been hinting about some changes to the Unam Sanctam Catholicam website (see here and here). As most of you know, the USC web presence is two fold, consisting of a blog (which you are now reading), and a website, which currently can be found here. The blog hosts rants, reflections on current events, and spiritual musings; the website is for scholarly articles, featuring content that is of more perennial interest and often too long to be posted on a blog.

The Unam Sanctam blog you have all come to love is staying same as it ever was—complete with its outdated 2007 blogger theme and iconic hard-to-read white font on black background that Boomers consistently complain about, so no worries there! The major changes are coming to the website. The format is a super clunky, unsightly Joomla template from 2012. It's ugly and it sucks. And, I've barely touched it; I think I've only posted ten essays to it since 2017? It's in desperate need of an overhaul! So, over the past year, I have been migrating this content to a new, slicker looking WordPress site that is going to be infinitely easier to read. Lord willing, this new site will be ready to launch by June 29, our fifteenth year anniversary.

That being said, you can expect some changes on the new site:

(1) More Exclusive Focus on History. When I first created the Unam Sanctam sister site ten years ago, I envisioned it as a kind of clearinghouse for articles on all manner of subjects Catholics might take interest in: history, economics, moral problems, theology, liturgy, and even pop-culture. However, the way my own interests and professional life have developed since then, it's become clear that history is my strongest field by far. And honestly, whereas ten or fifteen years ago I happily prattled on about theology or canon law, time has honed the edges of my self-assurance to the point that I have recognized I am not competent to speak on many of those matters. So, on the new site, I will mostly stick to history and leave the theology to the theologians, canon law to the canonists, etc. The old classic articles on these subjects—like "Balthasar and the Faith of Christ" or "Collegiality: The Church's Pandora's Box"—will remain, but I will likely not post new content of that sort. If I do create such articles, they will probably be guest-posted on other websites more suited to these sorts of essays.

(2) The Movie Reviews are going away. One consequence of this new focus is that the movie reviews will be eliminated. I don't think anybody reads these anyway, and to be honest I have not really updated them regularly since 2017, so they are woefully out of date. And I simply no longer have time to write about them anymore (although, if you've ever met me in person, you know I still love to blather on about cinema whenever I can). But, since I will not be updating them anymore, is there anyone out there who wants the current batch of reviews? I think there are about 165 individual write ups. Is there any Catholic out there who has a film review site or is hoping to get one started and would like to adopt these 165 reviews for their project? If so, please email me at

(3) Higher Quality of Content. The essays on the sister site were always of a more scholarly nature than on this blog, but the new site is going to up this even further in terms of scholarship. It is my intention that the new site become an encyclopedic repository of highly researched, academic articles that are suitable to be cited as sources or used for research purposes. I'm really excited about some of the new stuff I've been writing and I can't wait to share with you all. I've got some fascinating stuff on St. Hildegard, the Annals of Fulda, Pope Gregory VII's reform of the sacrament of penance, the first regional synod in the Philippines, and much more.

One thing about the migration: Though all of the existing articles will be migrated over, they will have different URLs. If you have certain articles from the site bookmarked, I suggest you make sure you copy the titles of those articles down somewhere so you can find them on the new site, as your bookmarks will no longer work in a few months. 

I want to thank all of you for your support over the years, especially those who contributed financially to help with this project. I do not make any money of this site, save for the few times a year when I hock some books or when a few people offer me a donation. Consequently, this project has moved very slowly, depending in large part on charity. Everyone who has helped, you are remembered in my prayers! And, if you'd still like to make a contribution, please email me at 

In a recent article ("The End of Pop-Apologetics", Apr. 10, 2022), a commentor stated that "Blogging is nearly obsolete as a content delivery system. People want to have a video or audio file running in the background while they're at the gym or working from home. Few have the patience to read even something as short as this post." I don't know whether that observation is correct or not. But I do believe there will always be a need for and interest in thoughtful, well-written articles. However the Internet continues to unfold (and I can only assume it will just get stupider) I pray that Unam Sanctam Catholicam will continue to be a beacon of knowledge.

One final word: If anyone would like to be a contributor on the new site, I am always willing to collaborate. If you are like to write scholarly essays on historical subjects, I'd like to hear from you. You can help me make USC the biggest and best repository of original Catholic historical essays in the English language! Email me at if you want to help.

Blessings and grace friends!

Founder and Webmaster of all things USC

Sunday, April 17, 2022

"I Know That My Redeemer Lives"

On this day we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Resurrection is the greatest miracle and the principal testimony to the truth of our Lord's teaching, for, as St. Paul says, "if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17). This is a potent reminded that it is not merely the crucifixion of Christ that saves us; our salvation is incomplete without His resurrection to glory. Jesus was "put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). His rising also serves as a pledge that we, too, shall be raised to life again, adoring God forever in our glorified flesh. Christ is "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ" (1 Cor. 15:20-24).

"The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise. But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it" (Mark 9:31-32). Christ spoke plainly of the Resurrection to His disciples ahead of time, but the meaning of His words was veiled from them. The reason for this is uncertain; perhaps God deliberately obscured this truth from their minds, or perhaps they misunderstood through a defect in their own natural faculties. Whatever its cause, the Resurrection remained indiscernible to them before the fact. Thus, the death of Christ shattered their imaginings; the finality of the crucifixion must have made their squabbles about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven seem childish and naïve. We can imagine what disappointment they must have had. A hint of this disillusionment can be heard in the voice of the nameless disciples Christ encountered on the road to Emmaus after the Resurrection: telling Him about the events surrounding the Crucifixion, they say, "we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21) the pluperfect "had hoped" signifying that they had once hoped, but now hoped no longer.

The Resurrection, then, was not a foregone conclusion to the disciples. We may presume the Blessed Virgin Mary to have nurtured this hope in her Immaculate Heart, but for the rest of His followers, we can assume they were as dejected as those Christ met on the Emmaus road. The Gospel of John tells us that after the Crucifixion, Peter and the other disciples returned to Galilee and went back to their lives as fishermen (John 21:1-3); this is not the sort of behavior we'd expect from men who were anticipating an imminent Resurrection of their Lord.

How glorious and life-changing, then, must have been the realization that the Lord had risen indeed! How excited Peter must have been when, hearing Christ's voice from the shore, he leaped from his boat into the sea to swim to His Master. How stupefied the disciples must have been as they sat around the fire on the beach in stunned silence watching the Resurrected Messiah munching on roasted fish. But if these moments were astonishing, it was only the apparent finality of His death that rendered them so. For had He not truly died, His sudden reappearance would not have been as stupendous. Suppose Christ had not died, but merely been wounded and escaped; His reappearance would have been welcome, to be sure, but not astounding and certainly not life-altering.

The Lord's ultimate demonstration of His power did not prevent suffering; it came rather after the evil had been done. This is the locus of the Resurrection for us as well. There is no rising to life if there first be no death. For every Christian, this entails a "dying to sin" so we can rise to "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). This is the spiritual Resurrection that every Christian undergoes. But all of us work through many smaller "resurrections" throughout our lives. I am speaking of the "death" we all undergo whenever we suffer in any sense. The sufferings we undergo are manifold: abuse by others, destructive behavior from ourselves, or agonies of nature. God's power to "deliver us from evil" does not often free us from the experience these things; it turns them to good. The only way out is through; this is the lesson of the Resurrection. In a sense, every little victory of grace is a resurrection: when I finally divest myself the burden of resentment towards someone who has wronged me, that is a resurrection. When I overcome a bad habit, that is a resurrection. When I speak a word of comfort to a wounded spirit, or deny myself some pleasure for the good of my soul, or find God in the deepest midst of my suffering and ignorance, these are little resurrections. But, like the Resurrection of Christ, we find they do not come save in the aftermath of some chaos, some evil, some catastrophe. 

Whether we like it or not, we are all handed burdens in this life, and the challenge of our existence is to rise above them, that in doing so we may know ourselves better and conform ever more closely to the image of God. Nature establishes the parameters of our existence, but we are to transcend what nature has given us. This is the function of grace—to elevate our nature, ennoble us, transfigure us into something greater than we could have ever become on our own. This is the hope of the Resurrection, both the "little" resurrections of daily life, and the grand Resurrection, when we shall see God. But it is a "hope against hope" (Rom. 4:18), born from death, like a seed falling to the earth sprouts into new life. And when that fresh life blossoms into glory, we shall see, on that day when all that is hidden shall be manifest (cf. Matt. 10:26, Luke 8:17), how every tear and heartache and loss was but another stone into the spiritual temple we are all called to become (1 Pet. 2:5); scars gilt in gold, trials become gems, wounds turned to radiant light.  

Thus, with Job, I say, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another" (Job 19:25-27).

"Restore our fortunes O' Lord, 
like the watercourse in the Negev
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy!
He that goes forth weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy
carrying their sheaves" (Psalm 126:4-6).

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The End of Pop-Apologetics

The 1990s and early 2000s was the golden age of professional Catholic apologetics. If you wanted to get schooled about apologetics, you tuned into the Catholic Answers Live every afternoon. You read the tracts of Mark Shea, Karl Keating, and Jimmy Akin. You listened to the Al Kresta Show syndicated through Ave Maria Radio. You watched Fr. Mitch Pacwa on EWTN and owned sets of Fr. John Corapi's lectures on cassette. You probably owned several books and VHS tapes by Dr. Scott Hahn. These professional defenders of Catholic truth were the resources to turn to when you wanted to learn how to respond to objections to the faith, especially those leveled by evangelical Protestants.

If I had to bookend the period, I would say it began around 1988 with the publication of Karl Keating's perennial classic Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and went into decline around 2004-2006, the years the internet moved into "Web 2.0", the iteration of the Internet that generated masses of users participating in content creation on social networks, blogs, wikis, and media sharing sites. At the beginning of the era, Keating's book demonstrated the need for quality Catholic apologetics done professionally; on the other end, the rise of independent content creators in the wake of Web 2.0 empowered regular folks to publish their own apologetical materials and post it directly to the internet, bypassing the professional apologetics institutions like Catholic Answers. So we are talking about roughly an 18 year reign of the professional apologist.

This period and these people served us well for the time. When I was first returning to the faith after a youth of irreligion and a few years dabbling in Protestant Pentecostalism, it was the resources of Catholic Answers and its affiliated apologists that provided me with the foundations I needed to build my faith upon. And, as I have mentioned many time on this blog, I owe my return to the Church in a very immediate way to the lectures of Dr. Hahn, whom I will always consider to be one of my fathers in Christ. The role of these institutions and cadre of writers and speakers was important, especially during the 1990s when internet access was radically less than today and so many Catholics relied on print material and physical media to educate themselves. Had Catholic Answers not been there⁠—had this group of apologists not been active—the English speaking Church would have been much the poorer.

However, it is undeniable that the heyday of this kind of institutional apologetics has come and gone. Certainly there will always be a place for skilled, professional apologists—I just emceed an event this summer with Tim Staples and he was sharp as ever. These sorts of folks will always find open ears. I am talking rather about institutional, professional apologetics as a model for the delivery of apologetical content. That model has been shattered by the rise of independent content creators, just like Spotify disrupted the studio model of delivering music and Netflix destroyed the cinema model for distributing film. Today Catholics are much more likely today to seek apologetical content from independent content creators like myself or other bloggers than by turning to institutional channels. The professional apologist and their institutions are no longer the gatekeepers of apologetical content.

In order to survive in this new environment, the professional apologists began expanding their output to include other forms of content creation: blogging, podcasts, and social media. Some managed to handle this transition very well; Dr. Scott Hahn, for example, has maintained the same level of professionalism, humor, and humility he has always demonstrated. Others, well, it got...interesting. Once unleashed on social media, a fair number of these apologists—loosed from the oversight of professional editors or accountability to larger institutions—went down some rather unsavory paths. Some could not resist the temptation to wed politics to faith, devolving into obnoxious Catholic political pundits, while others became proponents of bizarre conspiracy theories; still others outed themselves as committed leftists, alienating themselves from the largely conservative fanbase that consumes apologetical content. And then there are those who revealed themselves to be completely unhinged: ranting, insulting, belittling, and attacking others on social media with a vitriol on par with the blue checkmarks on Twitter. 

Those who have gone down this path—and admittedly, it is not all, but still a fair amount—have fallen in the same pit that many have today, which is to assume one's positions are so secure, so unassailable, so self-evident, that those who disagree with you are not simply mistaken, but are morally bad. As someone who formerly admired and learned from these people, it has been extraordinarily disappointing to see them behaving like the worst of the blue checkmarks. I'm not calling anybody out by name, but we have all seen them lurking around in comboxes and Twitter feeds and Facebook threads, spitefully belittling people whose only offense has been to disagree.

Is this behavior a pathetic attempt to "stay relevant" by imitating their endlessly irritating secular counterparts, the "talking head" media class? Is it fueled by bitterness at having lost the exclusive "gatekeeper" role they once enjoyed? Is it resentment that their own ecclesial visions, which they once argued eloquently before rapt audiences and in the pages of Catholic periodicals, seems less and less persuasive? Is it simply that they were always mean people whose lack of charity was kept in check by editorial teams and publishers? It's hard to say, but it's been illuminating to watch.

Whatever it's cause, it is clear that the age of pop-apologetics is over.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

The Dark Mirror of Faith

I often come across Catholics who are "wrestling" with something. They are trying to understand how God's benevolence can be reconciled with the evils in the world. They struggle sorting out what they believe on questions pertaining to evolution and the origin of things. They want to affirm the Church's claims about itself but are put off by the vices of the clergy. Living in a modern secular world, they try to delineate exactly how the Catholic faith should be lived out in terms of dress, habits, hobbies, etc. They agonize over what liturgy they should be going to. They struggle to find adequate political and economic expression of their beliefs within the current system. They labor to find meaning in the twists, turns, and disasters of their own lives. And so long as they cannot resolve these conflicts, they do not feel peace. They often experience a sense of disquiet; part of their faith seems incomplete, or on "hold" until they can resolve these intellectual struggles. They feel profoundly that they must "settle" these matters to attain tranquility.

The life of faith will bring forth many such struggles, and this is unavoidable. But God wants us to have peace, even in the midst of struggle. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you" (John 14:27). His peace is meant to be an abiding peace; not a peace "as the world gives" that is taken away as soon as conflict emerges. We are meant to have peace, even in the midst of the "wrestling" that is inherent in faith. What kind of peace would Christ offer if we were thrown into turmoil every time we encountered something we couldn't reconcile? Clearly, our Lord means for the peace of our faith to be maintained even in the midst of uncertainty. But how can we accomplish this?

To do this, remember that you do not need to resolve your difficulties in order to maintain faith.

Let's recall a bit about the nature of faith: it is trusting, provisional, and imperfect.

Faith is a kind of knowledge, but unlike empirical knowledge (which is based on experience), faith is based on trust in someone else. So even though we can have certainty grounded in the trustworthiness of the one in whom we believe, it is not the same kind of certainty that comes with empirical experience (what the Bible calls "knowledge"). The way we "know" something through faith is thus fundamentally different than the way we "know" things through empirical experience. So first, we need to recognize that difference and be comfortable with it. The certitude of faith will never "feel" like the certitude you have about empirical knowledge, and that is okay. It's not meant to feel the same. 

Second, recall that faith is provisional. It is a temporary state that is meant to pass away. Faith, hope, and charity we abide in here and now, but in heavenly glory, faith and hope pass away; only charity remains. Faith and hope are proper to people still "on the journey", viators, those who are pilgriming here below towards "that city whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10). Faith gives us a semblance of what we are doing and where we are going, but it is inferior to the knowledge that will come. Faith is is like looking at a map to try to get yourself to a city; heaven is actually being there, standing in the midst of the heavenly Jerusalem with your feet planted firmly on its golden causeways.

Because faith is provisional, it is imperfect. Not imperfect in the sense that anything is lacking in the formulations of faith, but in the sense that faith alone does not give us the sense of finality that we all crave. It is something we are meant to wrestle with. Faith offers us a broader view than what we could otherwise have, but it is a view through the mist, partially obscured. "when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood" (1 Cor. 13:10-12). The experience of faith, even for St. Paul, was "seeing in a mirror dimly." There is always going to be a sense of imperfection, a deep yearning, a wrestling, a sense of "not yet-ness" about our faith. A wandering about in the murky dusk of existence, struggling to come into the brilliance of daylight. 

Even if we are occasionally graced with periods of clarity and resolution, there will always ultimately be a kind of tension so long as we are in the flesh. Why is it like this? Because that is the nature of faith; it is the difference between being on a journey and arriving at your destination. We cannot demand the fulfillment of the arrival when we are yet on the road. And, if by some miracle of God, we had all the knowledge and finality and certainty we could possibly desire here and now, what incentive would we have to grow ourselves? Aristotle once observed that "all men by nature desire to know." It is the curiosity of life, the unquenchable thirst to "get to the bottom of things" that propels us, drives us on towards new adventures, new conquests, and ever greater horizons. There is a cliché that "the real treasure is the friends you make along the way"; goofy as this cliché is, there is a kernel of truth in it: what matters is how we comport ourselves on the journey. It's not about how many talents you are given (cf. Matt, 25:14-30), it's not about whether you ever attain the great intellectual or moral or spiritual synthesis you are struggling to birth into existence; it's about walking, one foot after another, towards that luminous horizon with the sun on my face.

Abraham was the father of faith; he was called, and sojourned into a foreign land in search of what he knew not based on promises he never lived to see fulfilled. Likewise, all of us who live in faith must sojourn in a strange land. That is the essence of being a believer. You must grow comfortable with the sojourn, with the provisional nature of the journey.

What does this mean concretely?

It is obviously a good and praiseworthy thing to seek out knowledge, to learn, and grow in understanding. It is good to seek as much certainty as we can get. But moderation in all thing—you must also acknowledge your limits; there are some things you may never reconcile, and others that may take a long time to understand. This state of "not knowing" is okay and should be embraced. Understand that it is a normal part of faith to grapple with something. Perhaps it is part of our western rationalist bias that makes us feel like our faith will be stronger once we have sorted everything out intellectually. I challenge you to consider backing away from that premise: you don't need to take a position on everything; you don't need to understand how the pieces of something all fit together; you don't need to reconcile every contradiction; you don't need to see clearly or have all the answers. Get comfortable with not knowing. The beginning of wisdom is admitting you do not know as much as you think; learn to say, "I am still wrestling with this; I don't know what I think about it. If it please God, someday I will." That's a perfectly valid response to the conundrums that faith presents to us. To have faith is to wrestle with things; accept that.

Now, I can foresee some critiquing this concept by saying that I am suggesting we just believe blindly even though our mind can no longer assent; that I am telling people to just stuff their difficulties and proclaim CREDO! despite their faltering heart. This is not so. Faith is fundamentally an act of trust, and if that trust has been so compromised as to become unsustainable, then faith is impossible, and it would be wrong and cruel to tell someone to simply ignore it. I am, however, suggesting that those of us who have faith give up thinking that we need to cross every jot and tittle; let go of the idea that being a strong believer means working out all the answers intellectually. Learn to rest in not knowing. You will not be denied heaven because you did not have a fully worked out intellectual synthesis of some disputed issue. If you find yourself in those moments of "wrestling," acknowledge the struggle, embrace it, and offer your ignorance to God.

"All I have written is like straw," said Aquinas, after experiencing a vision of the Divine. No matter how brilliant we are, how much we think we know, or how hard we work to educate ourselves, we are all "seeing in a mirror dimly", as St. Paul says. The dimness may be frustrating at times, but it is part of faith. An essential part. We should learn to take comfort in that and embrace the tension. At least I have.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Before You Call Something "Gnostic"...

I am prompted to write this post after years of seeing Catholics misuse the word "Gnostic" in online discussion. This is not in response to any specific articles or comments, just something that has been on my mind for awhile. "Gnostic" is a very common pejorative, a term as ubiquitous in intra-Catholic debates as "racist" is in secular diatribe—and, like the word racist, it becomes increasingly meaningless the more it is wielded. Indeed, I am convinced that most Catholics, even traditional Catholics, don't really know what it means for something to be "Gnostic." 

First, how is the word commonly used? Though this is hard to pinpoint specifically, it seems most Catholics use this word to mean elitist, specifically an elitist who believes himself privy to special or inside knowledge not available to others; or sometimes to denote the belief that specified knowledge makes one a better believer, a kind of "salvation by inside knowledge." In this context, Gnostic is equated with secret knowledge, the implication being that it is Gnostic to claim to possess or act on secret knowledge.

This definition of Gnosticism is ridiculous. It takes a widely known but minor aspect of the Gnostic heresy and characterizes the entirety of Gnostic thought by it. To drive home how ridiculous this is, it would be as if I defined Calvinism as disliking dice games and wearing buckled shoes—both parts of historical Calvinist culture, to be sure, but nowhere near understanding what the Calvinist system is really about.

The definition of Gnosticism as "secret knowledge" fails for many reasons. For one, Christianity, too, involved initiation to secret knowledge, in more ways than one. During the first three centuries of Christianity, Christians practiced a discipline called arcana, literally, "secrets." Arcana consisted in obscuring Christian beliefs from outsiders, discussing them openly only to the initiated. This was due to the ever-present threat of persecution from Roman authorities and possible infiltration by informers posing as Christians. When discussing Christianity to outsiders, Christian apologists spoke glowingly of the moral precepts of Christianity and the philosophical arguments in favor of their monotheism, but they did not speak in detail about the sacraments or the liturgy, things to be kept hidden from outsiders, according to the dictum, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine" (Matt. 7:6). If they did speak about it, it was only in the most circumspect way, using "code words" to obscure their true meaning; for example, the sacrament of baptism might be called "enlightenment." Christians literally maintained "secret knowledge" that was kept back from the uninitiated.

Even once a person sincerely embraced Christianity and wished to convert, there was knowledge that was held back from them. The period of preparation for baptism was known as the catechetical period. During catechesis, the initiate was instructed on the basic tenets of the Christian faith, especially the moral precepts the Church expected them to follow. Can you live in chastity? Can you abstain from the immorality of the Roman games? Can you practice love of neighbor and charity towards the poor? The emphasis was on Christianity as a way of life; hence, the ancient text the Didache begins with the words, "There are two ways, one of life and one of death." In its explication of the way of life, it is all teachings about Christian life, taken largely from the beatitudes. The mystical teachings of the Church (specifically, the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ and baptism as a translation into divine sonship) were not taught to catechumens. A catechumen would go through the catechumenate without understanding what the sacraments were, only that they were necessary to become a Christian. It was only after baptism that initiates were taught what the sacraments actually were and what they accomplished. The period of post-baptismal instruction was called mystagogy and consisted in the catechist explaining to the neophytes what had just happened to them. Again, we see the Church utilized "secret knowledge": important teachings were withheld from catechumens until they passed the initiatory right of baptism.

This is why, in my opinion, it is ridiculous to trot out the "Gnostic" label when someone is talking about exclusive knowledge or knowledge reserved to a certain class. Christians practiced this as well.

What, then, is Gnosticism? Let us summarize the system in five points:

1. God Creates Through Emanations

Gnosticism was a complicated and multi-faceted system of thought that incorporated ideas from various traditions, making it a challenge to explain. But, at the heart of all Gnostic systems is the idea of creation as a series of emanations from God. This is the linchpin around which the various Gnostic systems turn. In Gnosticism, God creates by means of emanations; these emanations are like waves that proceed from God's being and bring other things into existence. Because these emanations are of God's very essence, there is always a pantheistic flavor to Gnostic thought. God does not create ex nihilo; He emanates, similar to how Christians envision the Holy Spirit "proceeding" from the Father and the Son. The creation itself is a kind of procession from the godhead; some of the cruder Gnostics even explained it as a "secretion" from God, as St. Irenaeus complained about in Adversus Haereses. So, the first tenet of Gnosticism is creation as an emanation.

2. The Sub-Emanation of the Aeons

The second point is a hierarchical ordering of these emanations, with each emanation producing its own successive "sub-emanation." For example, God's primal emanation gives rise to other spiritual realities; sometimes these realities are intelligences, akin to angels, while at other times they are purely rational abstractions belonging to the noumenal world (e.g., "mind", "thought", "silence", "profundity", etc.). These emanations have various names—Teleos, Bythos, Charis, Ennoea, and so on. Sometimes they are even grouped in male-female pairings called syzygies. We can get lost down a truly bizarre rabbit hole discussing the names of functions of the various emanations, but that would take us too far afield. It suffices to note that collectively the emanations are known simply as Aeons. These Aeons give birth to each other in a complex arrangement of emanations, producing intricate hierarchies. This "family" of God and His successive emanations and sub-emanations is called the Pleroma, the world of the supra-sensible. 

3. The Corruption of the Material World

The third tenet of Gnosticism is the creation of the physical world as a deviation from the purity of the Pleroma. The Gnostic myths vary depending on what source we read, but all agree that at some point one of the Aeons emanated something that did not reflect the purity found in the Pleroma. Some say it was a flaw, other a passion or sin of one of the Aeons. Whatever it was, this deviation was the creation of physicality, the material universe. There are disagreements as to what Aeons or Aeons were responsible for this; in Christian Gnosticism, this would be the work of Satan or (as in Marcionism) the God of the Old Testament, who is a lower, rebellious emanation from the One. Gnostics typically referred to this being as the Demiurge, or sometimes the Great Archon. Either way, the point is the material world represents a corruption of the spiritual purity envisioned by the One.

4. The Human Ascent to the Pleroma

Materiality being emanated, further sub-emanations created physical beings, and thus into the material world come human beings. As beings in the sequence of divine emanations, humans truly have the divine life within them; they are "part of God" in a literal sense. Yet, they find themselves materialized in the corrupt nature of corporal existence, trapped in a corporeal existence. Human salvation is understood, then, as the ascent back through the Aeons until we reach the Pleroma. Salvation is a return to a Pleromic existence that is conceived as purely spiritual. The return to the Pleroma through the Aeonic ascent is essentially a return to our home. It is a kind of Platonic conception of the world, a view of spiritual enlightenment as a repudiation of corporeality as we gradually ascend back to a purely spiritual existence in harmony with the One in the Pleroma. How, then, do we ascend back through the Aeons? Through a combination of ritual, knowledge, and asceticism that are all found within the hierarchical degrees of the Gnostic community.

5. Gradual Revelation Through Myth

Finally, we come to the fifth tenet of Gnosticism, the gradual revelation of truth through mythic language. The ascent through the Aeons back to the Pleroma is a movement from corporeal to spiritual, entailing a purification of intellect. A beginner is unable to contemplate the sublime truths the way a seasoned initiate can; their mind is too darkened by their crude materiality. Therefore, Gnostic teachers used mythic language to explain their system to newbies and the inexperienced. We have seen how the Aeons might be personified, anthropomorphized, and given names; the emanations of the Aeons would then be explained in corporeal terms (e.g., the world is formed by the tears of the Aeon Sophia, or by the semen of the Demiurge). Later, as the initiate advances through the hierarchy of the Gnostic community, the philosophical and mystical meanings of these myths are explained to him. This mythic language is why St. Augustine, when he had a chance to interview the Manichaean Gnostic teacher Faustus, was disappointed by the man, whose explanations of Gnostic doctrine were "fraught with prolix fables, of the heaven, and stars, and sun, and moon, and I now no longer thought him able satisfactorily to decide what I much desired [to know]" (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book V). Tertullian also complained about these fables, that the initiate "as soon as he finds so many names of aeons, so many marriages, so many offsprings, so many exits, so many issues, felicities and infelicities of a dispersed and mutilated deity, will that man hesitate at once to pronounce that these are ‘the fables and endless genealogies’ which the inspired apostle by anticipation condemned, while these seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth?” (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, Chap. 3)


This practice of beginning with mythic language for the simple and gradually layering more complex meanings onto the fables as the initiate ascended the degrees of the Gnostic hierarchy is what gave rise to the concept of Gnosticism as consisting of "secret knowledge." But, as you can see, this was only a small part of the Gnostic system; but more importantly, it was not exclusive to Gnosticism. Pagan mystery cults, such as the cults of Isis, Eleusis, and Mithras also used this method. So did the philosophical school of the Pythagoreans. Christianity, too, utilized a gradual revelation of truth in its own initiatory rites. The idea of knowledge reserved to the initiates was simply a common theme of ancient spirituality. Even Jesus Christ Himself affirms that there is a special knowledge available only to those who have "eyes to see":
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand...But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear (Matt. 13:10-13, 16).
It is understandable that people misuse the terms "Gnosticism" and "Gnostic"; after all, the Gnostic heresy is complex and not easily summarized in a single handy term. Hopefully it will make you stop and think before you call somebody "Gnostic" online for adopting what you consider an elitist attitude towards a certain body of knowledge. Hopefully we can be a little more discerning and accurate with how we speak.