Archives for August 2008

Saint Augustine on Love

Because yesterday was Saint Augustine’s feast day, I decided to read some of Augustine’s works. It also just happened to coincide with some thoughts I was having about “love.” When we show love (agape) to others, we have to do what is right, and best for them, in line with the mind of Christ, and not necessarily what is the most fun or exciting. This applies as parents, teachers, friends, etc. And whatever we do, as Augustine points out below, we are to do in love.

I am obviously not suggesting being mean or cruel to others in the name of love. Most people aren’t really going to come to believe in Jesus when a street preacher screams at them and in the next breath says “it’s because I love you.” We Christians are able to be lovingly firm without being overbearing. I feel like I have to add this caveat because many people have known Christians (perhaps parents) who used this sort of thinking as justification for doing bad things to others, in the name of Christ.

Augustine’s quote below certainly gives us some food for thought:

Such is the force of love, that it alone separates; it alone distinguishes the actions of men. This we have said in the case where the actions are similar. In the case where they are diverse, we find a man by love made fierce;  and by iniquity made gentle. A father strictly disciplines a boy, and a seducer of boys caresses. If you name the two things, strict discipline and caresses, who would not choose the caresses, and decline the punishment? Yet, if you take note of the persons, it is love that strictly disciplines, iniquity that caresses. See what we are insisting upon; that the deeds of men are only discerned by the root of love. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of love…Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good. – Augustine, Homily Seven on First John

A Good Prayer to Start the Day

Father,
May everything we do
begin with your inspiration
and continue with your saving help.
Let our work always find its origin in you
and through you reach completion.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

This prayer is the closing prayer of Morning Prayer, Week I, in the Liturgy of the Hours. I think it is a most appropriate way to start any morning, and I often pray it at school in the A.M. classes. Does anybody know the origins of this prayer?

Saint Hilary on God’s Majesty

Then, while the devout soul was baffled and astray through its own feebleness, it caught from the prophet’s voice this scale of comparison for God, admirably expressed, “By the greatness of His works and the beauty of the things that He has made the Creator of worlds is rightly discerned.” The Creator of great things is supreme in greatness, of beautiful things, in beauty. Since his work transcends our thoughts, all thought must be transcended by the Maker. Thus heaven and air and earth and seas are beautiful: beautiful also is the whole universe, as the Greeks agree, who from its beautiful ordering call it cosmos, that is, order. Our mind can estimate this beauty of the universe by a natural instinct— an instinct we see in certain birds and animals whose voices we cannot understand, yet whose language is clear to each other. Since all speech expresses thought, a meaning apparent to them lies in these voices. Must not the Lord of this universal beauty be recognised as Himself most beautiful amid all the beauty that surrounds Him? For though the splendour of His eternal glory overtax our mind’s best powers, it cannot fail to see that He is beautiful. We must in truth confess that God is most beautiful, and that with a beauty which, though it transcend our comprehension, forces itself upon our perception (Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Doctor of the Church, On the Trinity I:7).

Image of deep red autumn leaves, taken by me. I think they are beautiful, but as St. Hilary mentions, only a reflection of the supreme beauty of the Creator.

John of Damascus on the Assumption of Mary

I wish everyone a blessed Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. This feast holds a special place in my heart because I was confirmed Catholic on the eve of the feast in 2004. Along with the Immaculate Conception, I had trouble accepting the Assumption when I began to study Catholicism, which makes it even more amazing that I was confirmed on the eve of the feast.

Some of the finest words about the Assumption were preached by Saint John of Damascus, an Eastern Church Father who died around 755 AD. I want to share some of the excerpts with you below. Keep in mind that like most of the Greek Church Fathers, Saint John believed that Mary passed away before her Assumption into heaven, a belief acceptable under the Catholic infallible definition. This explains his reference to her tomb.

O people of Christ, let us acclaim her to-day in sacred song, acknowledge our own good fortune and proclaim it. Let us honour her in nocturnal vigil; let us delight in her purity of soul and body, for she next to God surpasses all in purity. It is natural for similar things to glory in each other. Let us show our love for her by compassion and kindness towards the poor. For if mercy is the best worship of God, who will refuse to show His Mother devotion in the same way? She opened to us the unspeakable abyss of God’s love for us. Through her the old enmity against the Creator is destroyed. Through her our reconciliation with Him is strengthened, peace and grace are given to us, men are the companions of angels, and we, who were in dishonour, are made the children of God. From her we have plucked the fruit of 1ife. From her we have received the seed of immortality. She is the channel of all our goods. In her God was man and man was God. What more marvellous or more blessed? I approach the subject in fear and trembling. With Mary, the prophetess, O youthful souls, let us sound our musical instruments, mortifying our members on earth, for this is spiritual music. Let our souls rejoice in the Ark of God, and the walls of Jericho will yield, I mean the fortresses of the enemy. Let us dance in spirit with David; to-day the Ark of God is at rest. With Gabriel, the great archangel, let us exclaim, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Hail, inexhaustible ocean of grace. Hail, sole refuge in grief. Hail, cure of hearts. Hail, through whom death is expelled and life is installed (Sermon II: On the Assumption).

Come, let us depart with her. Come, let us descend to that tomb with all our heart’s desire. Let us draw round that most sacred bed and sing the sweet words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Hail, predestined Mother of God. Hail, thou chosen one in the design of God from all eternity, most sacred hope of earth, resting-place of divine fire, holiest delight of the Spirit, fountain of living water, paradise of the tree of life, divine vine-branch, bringing forth soul-sustaining nectar and ambrosia. Full river of spiritual graces, fertile land of the divine pastures, rose of purity, with the sweet fragrance of grace, lily of the royal robe, pure Mother of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, token of our redemption, handmaid and Mother, surpassing angelic powers.” Come, let us stand round that pure tomb and draw grace to our hearts. Let us raise the ever-virginal body with spiritual arms, and go with her into the grave to die with her. Let us renounce our passions, and live with her in purity, listening to the divine canticles of angels in the heavenly courts. Let us go in adoring, and learn the wondrous mystery by which she is assumed to heaven, to be with her Son, higher than all the angelic choirs. No one stands between Son and Mother. This, O Mother of God, is my third sermon on thy departure, in lowly reverence to the Holy Trinity to whom thou didst minister, the goodness of the Father, the power of the Spirit, receiving the Uncreated Word, the Almighty Wisdom and Power of God. Accept, then, my good-will, which is greater than my capacity, and give us salvation. Heal our passions, cure our diseases, help us out of our difficulties, make our lives peaceful, send us the illumination of the Spirit. Inflame us with the desire of thy son. Render us pleasing to Him, so that we may enjoy happiness with Him, seeing thee resplendent with thy Son’s glory, rejoicing for ever, keeping feast in the Church with those who worthily celebrate Him who worked our salvation through thee, Christ the Son of God, and our God. To Him be glory and majesty, with the uncreated Father and the all-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, through the endless ages of eternity. Amen (Sermon III: On the Assumption).

To read the full text of all three homilies, visit the Medieval Sourcebook page that has them all.

I Kissed Dating Good-Bye

Anybody remember this book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye? I remember it very well. It was a very trendy evangelical book when I was in the Navigators and Campus Crusade back in 1998 and 1999. The basic thesis of the book is that dating is wrong, and that you shouldn’t even be alone with a member of the opposite sex until you are married. Thus, the author Joshua Harris distinguishes between dating, which is bad, and “courting,” which is good. The problem is that he doesn’t do a very good job of distinguishing between the two, and apparently he didn’t even follow his own advice, going on a “date” for bagels with the woman he is now married to.  I wrote a fairly negative review of the book for Amazon.com, a review which just happens to be the first review most people see when they visit the book’s page on Amazon. I tried to be balanced in my review of the book, which I found superficial, and largely based on the personal negative dating experiences of the author.

My negative impression of the book developed because of what I witnessed before I ever read the book myself. It was all the rage in the evangelical circles I was a part of. You couldn’t go to any retreat, meeting, or whatever, without hearing about this book, and its philosophy, as if it really was the gospel. New converts to Christianity I knew often owned multiple copies of the book and would pass it out to anyone and everyone they met. People would go to dinner and a movie with someone of the opposite sex, but bend over backwards to call it anything but a “date,” because they had been taught, and believed, that “dating” is sinful. Of course, these new converts couldn’t tell you much about who Jesus was, or what he did for us, and hadn’t even begun to read the Bible, but they had the details of this book memorized. Perhaps I was cynical, but I often wondered how some people I knew could claim such sure knowledge of “biblical” love, without ever having opened a Bible.

My review on Amazon.com doesn’t mention this, but Harris’ attitude toward love strikes me as rather Gnostic-like. Even something as mild as holding hands was seen as violating “biblical” principles of courtship, so people I knew literally were getting married within months of meeting, because they craved any type of physical contact with that person (and I am not talking about sinful contacts, but simply holding hands or being alone outside of a group). It created an environment that essentially said “before marriage, no contact, after marriage, do whatever you want,” or at least that is how I heard it presented. I certainly agree that physical contact before marriage must be kept within certain boundaries of chastity, but to suggest that an unmarried couple cannot even spend time alone denies people important bonding time, including time to pray together.

My biggest gripe with the book, and the movement that followed, is not the basic underlying point, which is that the way secular society goes about finding love is very, very, screwed up. I can agree with this. My biggest complaint is the way that this book and movement dominated people’s lives, far surpassing virtually any other aspect of Christianity, including the Bible, basic doctrine, and social justice. New converts I knew learned nothing of the Trinity, helping the poor, Church history, the Bible, the person of Christ, etc, but became fully immersed in one 21-year old’s interpretation of “biblical” love, which was in reality based on a few proof-texts taken outside of any cultural context. “The Trinity? That’s boring. Let’s get back to Joshua Harris.” In other words, this method was the evangelical “flavor-of-the-day,” like the Prayer of Jabez was awhile back. I think following Harris’ principles is spiritually healthier than finding love the secular way, that is for sure, but the movement certainly had a “flavor-of-the-day” feel to it.

No matter what your opinion of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, we have a long and thoughtful tradition that is suspicious of flavor-of-the-day type movements. This is one thing that drew me to both of these Traditions. What I read of Catholic and Orthodox authors (including the Fathers) was far more deep, thoughtful, and enduring than the “flavor-of-the-day” stuff I was often exposed to as an evangelical. Granted, many evangelicals themselves criticize this tendency among some of their brethren, so I am not saying that evangelical=flavor-of-the-day, but many secondhand stores are littered with yesterdays’ “flashes-in-the-pan.”