Thursday, June 2, 2011

Crown Celestial

Thursday, June 2, was this year's anniversary of the Ascension, i.e., Jesus' departure from earth to Heaven after the Resurrection. (Nearly all Catholic dioceses in America transfer the celebration of this solemnity to the following Sunday; this, however, is a recent development, and the Biblical data sets the Ascension at precisely forty days after Easter Sunday.) It is part and parcel with the redemptive cycle, which the whole liturgical year celebrates and commemorates: from the Incarnation, through the Passion, to the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost which brought the Christian Church into full existence.

However, while the Crucifixion has been possibly the greatest locus of evangelism, devotion, theology, and mysticism since the first century -- who could forget St Paul's incomparable "I have resolved to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified"? -- and the Resurrection has always been by nature the indispensible basis for all Christian faith and practice, the Ascension has not always been equally attended to. Nor is it much talked of among contemporary American Christians, at least in my own experience.

Yet it is as vital as the other two. Without the Crucifixion the redemptive cycle would never have been set in motion, and without the Resurrection it would not have continued, for obvious reasons; but the Ascension is the goal and consummation of that cycle.

For the whole notion of redemption is that, through a mysterious unification between ourselves and Christ, effected by faith and sacrament, what has happened to Him will happen to us; what happens to Him happens to us in Him; His presence in us introduces these happenings into our being. St Peter speaks of our being made participants in the Divine nature, and St John says, in words pregnant with anticipation, that We do not yet know what we shall be; but we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Now, the Crucifixion, introduced into our souls by Baptism (cf. Romans 6.1-11), brings about the death of our old nature; the Resurrection correspondingly infuses new life into us, through the same sacrament.

But even these things would seem very small beer if they carried with them no hope of being united to God in His fullness -- if this new life of the Spirit were confined to our spirits, if there were no summoning of human nature as such to the direct presence of God. Were we to have only the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, we would indeed be spiritually renewed; yet what would become of the world? -- the world, remember, which God so loved that He gave up His only-begotten Son. For it is in the Ascension that Christ carried not only His Divinity, but His glorified humanity, into the direct presence of the Father. The last Gospel records Jesus saying to God the Father, in His last formal prayer before the Passion began, I have glorified You on earth ... Now glorify me in Your own presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed. By this, our regeneration is perfected; not only our souls, but our bodies -- in Dante's (oft-forgotten) lovely phrase, la santa e gloriosa carne, 'the holy and glorious flesh' -- are redeemed.

Most Protestant churches do not observe the Ascension as a holy day, the way Good Friday or Easter or Christmas are celebrated. I think this is a mistake. What we do not commemorate, we cannot expect to keep in mind; or, to indulge in a pun, it is necessary to observe the Ascension in order to observe it. I once heard a pastor assert that it was not necessary to observe the Ascension as we observe the Crucifixion or the Resurrection, because the Ascension was what we lived, while the other two were singular past events. To me (though I admire the man deeply in most respects) this seemed a piece of incomparable silliness. Why not say equally that nobody should observe their wedding anniversary on the grounds that they are married? Or, for that matter, why not part company with St Paul when he says that I am crucified with Christ?

Our Sunday worship should be focused on our whole redemption, the Ascension included; and that fact ought to be celebrated, with the same solemnity and joy which attend Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We should not let distaste for liturgy, or for the bother of thinking about it, dissuade us from such a celebration.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Procession of the Holy Spirit

At every Sunday Mass, as we are passing from the Liturgy of the Word into the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we recite the Creed. This is a very ancient Creed, going all the way back to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, where bishops from all over the Empire gathered to define and defend the true Deity of Jesus Christ. It is, to this day, an unparalleled symbol of the Christian faith; it is also a testament to both the essential bonds that hold together the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and to the fact -- and some of the causes -- of our division.

For there is a phrase which is recited by Catholics but not Orthodox. This phrase is "and the Son," Filioque in Latin, and is a reference to a particular belief held by Catholic Christians about the Holy Spirit. (Protestants, since their theological roots are essentially Catholic even when they react against certain elements of the tradition, have retained this.)

All Christians confess one triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; all confess that the Father begets the Son eternally; all confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. In other words, there is one kind of relationship between the Father and the Son, and a differing, an asymmetrical relationship between the Father and the Spirit. The Son is not related to the Father the same way the Spirit is related to the Father -- hence the difference of terminology. But the West, in the tradition of St. Augustine (I do not know whether this is explicit in any earlier theologians), also confesses that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son: that is part of the asymmetry. "Through the gift of the Father," as the great doctor has it, the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father but also from the Son; it is this which Catholics say in the Creed and Orthodox do not: Et in Spiritum Sanctum ... qui ex Patre Filioque procedit, "And in the Holy Spirit ... Who proceeds from the Father and the Son."

Why does this matter? The first and most appropriate reply is that what we think about God always matters. But it matters equally because, like it or not, it is an occasion of dispute between Christians; and, while we may be indifferent when we have the luxury of not being directly affected by it, that reality impinges upon us spiritually. Divisions in the Church -- regardless of whose fault they may be, or even if there is no question of anybody being at fault -- are hateful to God and an impoverishment of the holy Church.

The innovation of reciting this in the Creed was introduced in the early Dark Ages, locally in Spain and Gaul, particularly in the Carolingian period (roughly 750-850). This was in response to the Arian and Semi-Arian heretics, who were a substantial element of the Gothic population that had overwhelmed the Western Empire, and who had carried on in spite of their condemnation at multiple councils. It was felt that stating explicitly the belief in the Double Procession of the Holy Spirit, a belief already widely held, would help to reinforce the fact that God the Son was as thoroughly Divine as the Father, as against the Arians who wished to demote the former to the status of an incomparably exalted, but created, being. The Papacy long resisted the addition without disputing the theology, but early in the eleventh century it took place at Rome itself, and was the occasion of a deeper breach between the Latins and the Greeks. Eventually, in 1054, a Papal legate in Constantinople, losing patience in his negotiations with the Patriarch of that city, declared him excommunicated and deposed; and, gradually, the schism coalesced, and has never been decisively healed.

What, then, are the arguments for and against?

I cannot speak with total authority: my understanding of Orthodox theology to the extent that it differs from that of Catholics is very imperfect. However, to my understanding, the objections generally tabled by our brethren in the East are as follows:

1. That no additions should have been made to the Creed without the summoning of an Ecumenical Council -- the authority of the Pope was not sufficient to make such an addition;
2. That the Bible does not teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son;
3. That to assert the Filioque blurs the distinction between the Father and the Son, or even that it amounts to a blending of all three Persons, thus destroying the integrity of the Trinity.

1 we shall have to leave aside. This is not because there is no weight to the objection, but because, strictly speaking, it is not theologically relevant. The question of what exactly the primacy of the Holy See means is an important, indeed an indispensable, theological question; but a different one.

2 is technically true, but I must admit I regard it as a very weak argument. The fact that something is not explicitly present in Scripture settles very little -- for that matter, the Arians could make out a persuasive case that the very Deity of the Son was not Biblical. Any assertion made a silentio is on extremely shaky ground from a logical perspective.

3 has always struck me as slightly odd. For the formulation of this objection with which I am acquainted is that, as the Orthodox convert Timothy Ware puts it, "If the Son as well as the Father is an arche, a principle or source of the Godhead, are there then ... two separate principles in the Trinity? ... Orthodox theology upholds the 'monarchy' of the Father within the Trinity: he alone is the arche, the source or origin of being within the Godhead. But western theology ascribes this distinctive characteristic of the Father to the Son as well, thus fusing the two persons into one ..." (The Orthodox Church, pp. 213-214)

Now, the oddness of this objection is that it totally fails to take into account the transparent fact that the Son has His origin (for lack of a better word) in the Father. To say that the Spirit proceeds from the Son does not imply that the Son is independent of the Father; it merely adds that the relations between the Spirit and the other two Persons are symmetrical rather than asymmetrical. And when we consider that the Catholic Church has always maintained that the Spirit's procession from the Son is a gift from the Father to the Son, this objection seems to have lost its teeth entirely.

If that seems too abstract, think of three men in a family, A, B, and C. A is the father of B, and B is the father of C; A is therefore the grandfather of C, and is thus C's "point of origin" as well as B's. Now, is it any threat to A's stance at the head of this familial line to point out that B, in his own capacity, is a father as well? Does it lessen the distinguishing characteristics of A somehow, or blur the distinction between A and B? I should say not.

But what of positive arguments? After all -- and even assuming that these replies satisfy Orthodox objections, which I naturally cannot answer, although they satisfied me -- merely to disprove arguments against the Filioque does not constitute proof. But I think there is evidence for it, Biblical evidence, and evidence set forth explicitly in the uncontested elements of the Nicene Creed.

For consider. The substantial oneness between the Father and the Son -- that is what the Creed was written to defend. And it received its theological base precisely from such passages as this:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1.15-20)

Now, insofar as the Son is the image of the invisible God, is it inappropriate to suppose that He is a perfect image -- that, "by the gift of the Father" as St. Augustine put it, every feature of the Father is reproduced in the Son, up to and including the origination of the Spirit? That position would, of course, be stronger if Christ were called the exact image of the Father's being.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1.1-3a)


I honestly cannot see a way of construing this that makes the Filioque anything but overwhelmingly probable. That is not, of course, conclusive; but I hope it can serve to advance the discussion.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Saracen's Death

Osama bin Laden has, after ten years of assiduous searching, been killed. The American state has succeeded in cutting off one of the heads of the hydra. It remains to be seen whether it can also sear the wound, to prevent three more from sprouting.

I cannot, will not rejoice in this. Make no mistake -- I am delighted that he has been put beyond the power of harming anyone, or seducing or frightening young Moslem men into the service of his evil organization. His successor in Al Qaeda, and the members of other organizations like it, will presumably continue that work, but he personally cannot do it any longer, and that is good.

But the reason that he cannot is that he has been sent to face the judgment of God. I absolutely decline either to guess what that judgment will be -- who are we to suppose what a man's choices mean in the innermost recesses of the heart, or what grace might have been shown him in the last lucid moments of his life? -- or to add my own reviling to it. God says forthrightly in Ezekiel that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and there is no excuse for Christians indulging in it; trying to be more spiritual than God rarely ends well.

To Catholics particularly, but to any who are willing to do so, I appeal that we pray for the soul of Osama bin Laden. He needs it if anybody does; we do not know his fate; if he was, at the last moment, our brother, he is entitled to our prayers for his repose, and if he is or ever was our enemy, we are under orders to pray for him. We have just celebrated Easter, when our Christ died, the just for the unjust. Surely we unjust ones can afford to tender a little mercy to one assuredly no more unjust than ourselves.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Prince of Darkness

Preliminary Considerations

The Devil occupies a curiously ambiguous position in contemporary American spirituality. There are two main atmospheres. The distinction cuts across the important distinction between Protestant and Catholic Christians, and people of each sort can be found in nearly every denomination, if not every congregation.

One may, loosely, be called the minimalist school; it is far the larger of the two. Many who are (in this respect) minimalist doubt, or explicitly deny, that the Devil exists at all; or redefine it to the point that it means little more than the selfish impulses of mankind. Some others who are of this atmosphere, particularly evangelicals, admit the existence of the Devil as a personal being but pay little attention to the matter. The Devil, for them, is a being who does exist in principle, but cannot be expected to exercise any noteworthy influence upon the daily life of the Christian. Such views are often bolstered by the contention, not supported by Scripture or the historical consensus of the Church but popular nonetheless, that believers are immune to possession or indeed any form of diabolical attack because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The other might be called the apocalyptic perspective. It consists chiefly in charismatic Christians both Catholic and Protestant, Dispensationalists (a la Left Behind), and such Catholics as might be called 'rigorous.' These believe quite fervently in the Devil, and see his operations in many if not all areas of human life and society. Some of them are very happy to instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner enthusiastically on such matters; and we may pray that their works of mercy commend them to God.

Some readers may be surprised that I have used liberal and conservative, respectively. This is intentional; the terms are not really applicable. The word liberal is properly a political rather than a theological term, and is therefore not specially suitable for discussions of Christian thought. A more accurate term for that theology called liberal would be Modernist; but, since Modernism has been condemned as a heresy, there are few who would take up such an appellation in the Catholic Church; and Modernist Protestants are many things, but being wedded to clear, fixed terminology is not one of those things. As for the fanaticism being conservative, that is a fantasy, projected by progressivism onto ignorance of the past. The degree to which orthodox theologians emphasize the reality and activities of devils varies and always has; some ages have been hysterical on the subject and others stuporous, or anything in between; and the attention paid to the diabolical by the Church has rarely corresponded to the rationalist's definition of what qualifies as a superstitious age.

The sort of attitude taken by informed and thoughtful Catholics has been -- with allowances for the emphasis of differing times and cultures -- that the Devil is not only personally real (of which more in a moment), but that devils are active in the spiritual lives of human beings; but that, nevertheless, most things which people attribute to the Devil are natural phenomena. This is not because the activity of evil spirits is intrinsically improbable, but just because people are excitable and prone to make mountains out of molehills.

The Doctrine of the Fallen Angels

The Catholic belief in devils is derived both from Scripture and from the unanimous testimony of the Church. It is dependent on the ancient Jewish-Christian belief in angels: these are free, intelligent, incorporeal beings who carry out the will of God. It has long been believed that there are nine varieties of angelic beings, of whom three do not concern us, while the other six are concerned in differing capacities with the material universe in general or with the human race in particular. Of these, some -- since they have free will and can therefore choose either to obey God or to rebel against Him -- chose to revolt against their Maker, thus becoming what we call devils or demons. In so doing, they became morally depraved; but their powers, which are in the nature of angels rather than being a reward for obedience, remained intact.

None of this should be confused with the dualist concept, popular among the Gnostic heretics of the early centuries of the Church and the high Middle Ages. Many ill-educated persons, Christian and otherwise, are under the impression that it is an article of the faith that the Devil, like God, is eternal, all-knowing, omnipotent, and as it were disinterested in his pursuit of evil. The Devil, in a dualist ideology, is the embodiment of evil as God is of all good.

This is not only unorthodox but literally impossible in Christian theology. Christianity regards God as the Maker of all things seen and unseen, and the Catholic is bound to regard existence as good in itself. C. S. Lewis disposed very neatly of this idea in his introduction to his invaluable book The Screwtape Letters; he there points out that no being could attain a perfect badness as God has perfect goodness; for once you had taken away every kind of good thing, including intelligence, will, and being itself, there would be nothing left to be bad with.

It is likewise worth pointing out that, though Catholics do believe that the Devil in fact brought about the Fall of Man by tempting us, this did not have to happen. Most if not all the evil in the world may be traceable, directly or indirectly, to his malice; but men are free also, and there is no particular reason why we should not have fallen all by ourselves, if the Devil had remained good or if his assault on our innocence had been unsuccessful.

The Satanic Verses

Now, down to brass tacks. The existence of the Devil in the abstract is all very well (or perhaps not), but what has it got to do with our lives as we live them?

Well, to begin with, there are the continually reiterated Scriptural warnings to beware of him; they are in St. Paul:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Col. 2.8)

What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (I Cor. 10.19-20)

And you were dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience ... (Eph. 2.1-2)

St. Peter:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. (I Pet. 5.8-9)

St. James:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas. 4.7)

And certainly St. John:

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. ... By this it is evident who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (I John 3.8, 10)

Nor can we reasonably suppose that these were superstitions indulged by the Apostles, which their Master took no part in. Quite apart from His character as an exorcist -- up to and including discourses on the habits of devils (cf. Matt. 12.22-45) -- He speaks freely in the Gospels about the Devil as the animating power behind evil in this world:

Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I came from God and I am here. ... You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.' (John 8.42, 44-45)

The New Testament both presupposes (in speaking of exorcisms) and directly teaches the existence, malevolence, and power of demons. But what does that mean -- especially if we do not need to suppose a diabolical origin for every human evil?

The key is to be found in a passing remark of St. Paul's: he speaks of those trying to discredit his ministry, calling them false apostles, and adding, And no wonder, for Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. As the Flesh signifies the temptations of individual human nature, and the World the temptations of the various established systems, so the Devil signifies not simply one depraved seraph, but the general category of depraved spirituality. It is more than natural that we should be warned of his power so constantly, and in such severe terms, as the Apostles insisted on penning. For a depraved spirituality, which the devil and his angels are specially concerned to produce, is obviously a danger for anyone embarking on the spiritual life.

Such transcendental evil may ordinarily take one of three forms.

The Devil In the Details

There is, first, spiritual predation. This encompasses everything from temptation to full-blown possession, and makes better movies than the other two kinds.

On the whole, the predatory activities of the Devil are comparatively straightforward in this category: in temptation, he flatters and frightens in order to push us into sins, and then takes a malefic pleasure in accusing us thereafter. In obsession, a step deeper than temptation, he takes advantage of a pattern of sin into which he has trained a person, and uses it as a foothold within his personality, from which he tries to expand his territory. If he succeeds in tricking, cajoling or terrifying his victim into consenting, he may then move on into possession, in which he takes command of the person's body at will. This last requires an exorcism to be fully dealt with.

With most people, naturally, things do not go beyond temptation and similar forms of exterior harassment -- or, at most, obsession. Possession is rare, though not perhaps so rare as it was a hundred years ago; and this is in large part because of the second main form of spiritual evil.

This second form is spiritual error. This encompasses all manner of false beliefs, and the channels for invasive diabolical activities that such beliefs open. Everything from heresy to atheism to false religions can constitute spiritual error.

However, certain distinctions must be made. Not every incorrect belief has its origin with an evil spirit, or even that they find all false beliefs equally easy to manipulate. An untrue belief held merely by mistake, for instance, will not prove very fertile soil for the devilish weed; especially if the person who holds it is intellectually responsible, in which case the error will very likely be corrected. Nor does it mean that all or most principles of non-Catholic faiths are of diabolical origin. The Second Vatican Council's statement on the relationship of the Church to other religious traditions, Nostra Aetate, went out of its way to say that good and holy elements exist in the higher religions of the Orient -- even more so in Judaism and Islam -- and these good elements are not to be rejected.

What is necessary for a false belief to be a spiritual error in this sense is that there must be a spiritual agency of deceit operating within it. Some religions may have originated in this way, or incorporated such elements in themselves -- for example, through divination, inviting powers into human minds and thus opening them to demonic influences. The foothold of a devil in a specific person, exacerbating his desires not to see this or that truth and clouding his mind, would also qualify.

Spiritual error differs from spiritual predation in that it is directed toward a diffusion of falsehood, rather than tearing down one person -- it is the tilling of the soil, whereas evil spirit preying on an individual is comparable to a specific weed. Each furthers the other, but neither is necessary to the existence of the other.

Both are different from the last and worst form, which may be called false holiness. This is what the Bible calls hypocrisy; but the word hypocrisy has been rather worn down from overuse, and now includes things as simple as human failings out of weakness. Dr. Johnson's maxim should be kept in mind: precept may be very sincere where practice is very imperfect. Indeed, that seems to be what St. Paul is going on about in the second half of Romans 7. Mere failure to live up to one's convictions is not properly called hypocrisy, but simply sin.

What distinguishes false holiness from human weakness is a terrible sincerity in the person afflicted with it. False holiness need not be supported by heresy, or even moral inadequacy. Christ's attitude to the Pharisees is much to the purpose here, if only we will remember what it was. For it is noticeable that Jesus Christ and the Pharisees had a very substantial agreement on matters doctrinal. Nor was their practice, in His eyes, always reprehensible. Their study of the Scriptures was admirable in itself; their care for ritual purity may have gone beyond the Law, but it did not fall short of it, which is more than could be said for some Jews in Galilee or Samaria; and, while it may not have been in debilitating proportions, they did give to the poor. False holiness is often arrayed not only with doctrinal accuracy, but even with impressive personal virtue -- as was said of the puritanical nuns of Port Royal in seventeenth-century France by the local archbishop, "as pure as angels and as proud as devils."

Merely to say pride, however, is not informative. The distinction between false and true holiness lies in the motive behind it. T. S. Eliot laid his finger on it in his play, Murder In the Cathedral, in which St. Thomas a Becket is tempted to become a martyr for his own religious glory rather than for God: The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason. A person under the power of false holiness may easily -- in fact, will probably -- be chaste, generous, truthful, wise, patient, just, brave; even humble after a fashion. It is deep inside the heart that the deadly poison has corroded him. It is there that, in truth, he cultivates these virtues, fights temptations, scorns the World, and even perhaps fights spiritual error -- for himself.

And there the devil sits, laughing without mirth.

Get Thee Behind Me

How, then, is the Devil to be fought? There is absolutely nothing we can do of ourselves. Our sole recourse is to give ourselves up to God, continually: through prayer, through Scripture, through the sacraments (particularly Confession and the Eucharist), and through sound spiritual direction (a principle neglected all too often). It is in these things that the Holy Spirit works. Prayer, so as to breathe the Holy Spirit, to be in continual, intentional contact with Him to the best of our ability. Scripture, to know what God says in general, and thus be better equipped to recognize His specific intimations to us. The sacraments, because in them God literally meets us; Confession, where He meets us with His forgiveness and healing, and the Eucharist, where He meets us with Himself. Spiritual direction, because we cannot dispense with the mentorship of someone who knows God and knows people, and knows how to bring people close to God -- the Pope himself doesn't go without one. (St. Teresa of Avila said dryly that he who is his own spiritual director has the devil for his spiritual director.)

And how are we to know that these very things are not done out of false holiness? Well -- we cannot manufacture true holiness; we can only ask for it. So ask for it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Unspotted From the World

Having taken a look at the Flesh, it seems appropriate to look next at the World.

The Greek word that is usually translated "world" is rather interesting. It is kosmos, derived from a verb, kosmeo, meaning to arrange or set in order, especially in the sense of making something beautiful (thus cosmetics). As the English universe reflects the tendency of our own age to consider 'everything there is' in terms of a singular mass of hugely varying individual things, so the Greek kosmos reflects the tendency of the ancients to think of 'everything there is' in terms of a harmoniously ordered whole.

The word aion, typically translated 'age' (hence eon), can also mean 'world.' However, it has slightly different connotations. Where kosmos means the world as a physical location, aion tends to mean world more as we speak of 'the ancient world' or 'the modern world' or 'the Roman world.'

Both words contribute, probably, to the Biblical significance of the World as a source of temptation. All Christians confess that the world (kosmos), as it was made, was originally very good; however, that kosmos has become infected by evil in its very structure, both human and angelic, and hence this present world (aion) is contrasted in Scripture with the world to come, an aion of its own. Jesus, in descending from Heaven and executing judgment, will cleanse this kosmos of its present aion and usher in a new aion; He will cleanse the world itself of worldliness, as it were.

By World, then, are signified those temptations which come, not from our interior pressure to sin (what technically is called concupiscence by theologians, and which we have discussed under the name of the Flesh) -- rather, the World means those temptations which come from deficient or depraved structures of sinfulness. These are pressures not interior to individuals, but systemic in societies. It doesn't matter terribly what sort of society we have in mind: political, artistic, religious, economic; all are vulnerable to weaknesses flowing, not just from individual follies and failures, but from systemic and corporate sins and blind spots.

Stereotypically, the class of sins a person is willing to recognize depends upon their socio-political disposition, at any rate in our time and country. Conservatives are generally fairly good at seeing sins of the Flesh, and also in seeing that individual lapses have consequences for the rest of society too. The remedy to such things, as they say, is an increase of personal responsibility.

Liberals, meanwhile, tend to see systemic wrongs and injustices more clearly. Racism, sexism, environmental concerns, education, and the disparities between classes are problems in which political and economic systems are heavily involved, and the American left has become associated with advocacy for such causes. The solution they generally set forth is legal reform, so as to establish a system in which (as the slogan Dorothy Day loved goes) it is easier for people to be good.

And all of that would be fine, if it resulted in a united society with stereoscopic vision. Unfortunately, though rather predictably, what it has in fact produced is a society bitterly divided between people who cannot see individual responsibility, and people who cannot see anything else. Since, by and large, Christians tend (for reasons we need not examine just now) to fall among political conservatives in America, it is precisely the battle with the World that we have a tendency to be blind to -- and to lose.

The reality of the World is in fact difficult to impress on people's minds nowadays, even on Christian minds. And, in a society so saturated with depraved forms of sexuality and general excess of pleasures, it is natural that our minds should be directed very largely to the Flesh rather than the World. But the idea that our very struggles with the Flesh are, in part, imposed upon us by a system designed to vex us on such counts, and that not only personal devotion but societal repentance and reform are needed, is frequently forgotten or even dismissed as leftism. For example, the sufferings of the poor -- a group to whom nearly every book in the New Testament pays significant attention, let alone the warnings and imprecations of the Old -- are regarded as being perfectly soluble by hard work in a capitalist society; without any analysis of the real effects of capitalism upon a society, not to mention its impact on the individual heart. That the rich systematically oppress the poor, in this society like any other, is not clearly before the minds of our generation in the Church. That economic success can be an occasion of sin, or even a temptation, is not evidently considered even by very good Catholics, despite our Lord's reiterated warnings that the rich will find it hard -- impossible, even -- to enter the kingdom of God, impossible certainly while they maintain their attachment to the kingdom of the World.

There is a sort of foul parody of the Holy Spirit going on here. Since God is love, there must be present in Him a Lover and a Beloved and Love between them; and Christian teaching identifies these three respectively with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Spirit is given a pale reflection in the way associations of people differ from the members that constitute them. The very fact of association brings a corporate entity into being; the association influences its members, just as they influence it; it is a Gestalt reality, greater than the mere sum of its parts. The problem is, the World is such a Gestalt too. The World can corrupt individual people, just as individual people can corrupt whatever society they find themselves in. All of us, to be sure, have our sins that we found our own way into. But is any of us so independently minded, that there are no sins we have been led into because 'everyone was doing it'? Things we would never have done on our own initiative, but which a corrupt system -- social, religious, political, etc. -- made possible and even compelling?

The remedy to the World's tempting power is the Church. This may sound clericalist or naive, but it is not. Our present generation of Christians has, aside from Catholics, a contempt of the institutional church that I have never understood, one which often smacks too of a diluted Gnosticism about the Body of Christ.

When I say the Church is the remedy to the World, I mean 'the Church' in every sense of the word. True, local institutional churches may be of little credit to the Church Catholic; true, the worldwide institution has at some times been a somewhat regrettable sight. But when it comes to opposing the systemic evils of the World, there is very little good in setting up another secular system to purify it. You cannot wash water. The Church on earth is not perfect, but she is that very society set up, by Christ Himself, to be a rebuke and a corrective to the sins of the World; if she fails at that, it is right and necessary to reform her, but abandoning her has never yet gotten anybody anywhere. The Protestant Reformation was many things, both bad and good; but only a complete ignorance of the real conditions of the lives of common people in Protestant nations thereafter, will allow anybody to say that leaving the Catholic Church improved society. Nor, nowadays (and stretching back into the nineteenth century), has the exodus of many former Christians from the faith noticeably improved -- well, anything really. The rebukes of ex-Christians, and especially ex-Catholics, to the Church, reveal a frame of mind unable either totally to leave the religion and either ignore it or else judge it with real impartiality (as, say, a Confucian might), or to return to it and truly understand it, from within. It must be admitted that such a preoccupation does nothing to help the World become better, in any dimension. Chesterton sums it up quite nicely, I forget where, when he says that "If the world grows too worldly, it may be rebuked by the Church. But if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately rebuked for worldliness by the world."

But the reason that the Church is the remedy to the World is that she is not simply part of the World. A non-Christian might not accept the claim, but the Scriptures plainly teach that the Church is, mystically, the Body of Christ -- the Incarnation of Christ in this world -- and this claim is, therefore, binding upon those who profess Him. She is admittedly an earthly society as well as a heavenly society; as Jesus whom she communicates to this planet was Man, as well as God. In giving our allegiance to the Church, we are literally commending ourselves to the coming aion in the midst of the present aion. It is only such a supernatural appeal that can fix any part of the present age for any appreciable length of time. This world, infected by the World, cannot sustain itself. The Church alone can do so, for she is the vessel specifically appointed to bear everlasting life into every society. We can no more do that by ourselves than we could clear away a rainforest with a penknife. In opposing a system of evil, we need not only individual holiness, but a system of holiness; principalities and powers must be answered by powers and by principalities.

And again the Devil led Him to the top of a high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said, "All these will I give to You, for they have been given to me and I may give them to whomever I please, if You will fall down and worship me." And Jesus said, "Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God only, and Him you shall serve.'"

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Provision for the Flesh

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: these are the monikers by which Scripture presents to us the three great sources of temptation. Lent being a time specially devoted to introspection and refocusing upon the practice of virtue, let us look at what precisely these things mean.

When we talk about the Flesh, we usually mean lust. This is one of what are called the Seven Capital Sins, or more loosely the Deadly Sins; the others being gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Of course, gluttony and sloth may hover vaguely in the background as also being of the Flesh, but usually lust comes first to our minds, particularly a culture such as that of contemporary America, which is so utterly sodden in sex, to the point that not only decency but good taste is affronted.

However, the Flesh does not mean the body. We are accustomed to think of the body when we hear the word, because our bodies are made of flesh. But the real theology behind the word is subtler than that, and illuminates a good deal more about human nature. For a Biblical understanding of the term, let us turn to St. Paul:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. but if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. -- Galatians 5.16-24

Note that, in this list of fleshly things, only four -- immorality (a polite translation of the Greek porneia, which could more vividly be rendered "whoring" but did cover a wide variety of sexual, uh, conduct), licentiousness (for which "immodesty" might be a better equivalent), drunkenness (which probably needs no further explanation), and carousing (which can also be translated "orgies" for the modern) -- only these four are intrinsically connected to bodily activities at all. It might be noted that half deal with gluttony rather than lust; but what I want to look at is all the other terms. The word "impurity" is as vague in Greek as it is in English, though we might suspect a sexual connotation. But the others are all social -- enmity, strife, etc. -- or related to a depraved spirituality, as idolatry and sorcery. The saint is clearly as much concerned with our conduct as souls among souls, as he is with our conduct as bodies among bodies.

And this squares with the Christian faith generally. St. Paul is sometimes taken to be a grim ascetic, and ascetic he certainly was; but, unlike some other patently pessimistic forms of spirituality called Gnostic, Catholic asceticism is really asceticism. That is, it is concerned with askesis: rigorous self-discipline. The Gnostic cults which were largely simultaneous with, and frequently drew upon, Christianity, were not ascetic in this sense at all. They practiced and valued many of the same things, such as celibacy, but they did so for reasons that were opposed to the faith in their very essence. The Gnostics believed, not in self-discipline, but in self-destruction. A Catholic monk and a Gnostic sage might equally whip themselves with cords; but the monk does so for a quite definite set of reasons: to train himself to be ready to endure pain, for instance, or to identify himself with the sufferings of Christ, or as an aversive against some sin. We may think them bad or inadequate reasons, whether in general or in an individual case, but those are the reasons, and they are very different reasons from those of the Gnostic. He too might whip himself with cords; but he would do it to punish the body for being material, or in order to prove that his body was irrelevant to his soul. In other words, his self-torment was based on contempt for the body as such. No Catholic is able theologically to countenance contempt for the body; or if, and to the extent that, he does, he becomes a heretic; for in Jesus, God Himself took on a body. Matter in general is, for a Catholic, sacred because of Creation, and the body especially because of the Incarnation.

So if the body has been sanctified by the Incarnation, and if the Flesh doesn't really need to have to do with the body, then what is the Flesh exactly? It is the sinful nature of man, with the specific character of our natural desires and weaknesses.

This doesn't mean that the Flesh is identical with all things that draw us on to sin, though it would be easy to think so from the preceding definition. The World and the Devil I plan to deal with in my next two posts in more detail; suffice it to say here that both of them, in differing ways, are pressures on us to sin that come from without. The Flesh is the interior pressure toward sin. C. S. Lewis, in his book on prayer titled Letters to Malcolm, notes a desire to peer into the transcendent realms of the spirit, "behind the scenes" of this earthly life, and points out frankly that this desire is properly a desire of the Flesh in the Pauline sense. Human sexuality in its crassest perversions is a sample of the Flesh; but so is the most romantic, and even the most morally observant, Eros, when it is made a substitute for God. Drinking oneself stupid is a sample of the Flesh; so too is dabbling enough in philosophy to sound intelligent and sophisticated, without actually bothering about the questions of whether life is worth living or righteousness worth pursuing. The Flesh can, in one sense, be as spiritual as anything.

The remedy to the Flesh is what the apostle says it is: recourse to the Spirit. The Flesh consists in the corruption, better to say the defection, of our merely natural longings -- longings for pleasures (gluttony), for human relationships (lust), for security (avarice), for peace of mind (sloth), and so forth. The work of the Spirit against the Flesh consists in an invasion of nature by the supernatural, whose work is one but is manifest in a twofold manner; the Person is not divided, nor the natures confused.

Human nature, left to itself after the Fall, is no longer self-sustaining. Of course, really nothing is self-sustaining except God, but human nature now needs supernatural help even to be natural; before the Fall of Man this would not have been the case. Anyway, the curious warp of human nature is that it is directed toward God, but is directed to Him very largely through other things He has made, because He made those things in order to communicate Himself to us. Since we are very limited beings, and God has no limits imposed on Him, this is a pretty obvious thing to do. The Fall (whether one takes Genesis 3 to be historical or not) consisted in seeking certain of these good things God meant for us, but independently of Him, even to the exclusion of Him. In fact, it consisted in seeking them as if they were self-sustaining goods. But, apart from God, creation turned out to be very like an onion: one peels away layer after layer, and there's nothing in it, and one ends in tears. Creation was made from nothing, and the moment it was treated as self-sufficient it quite honestly told us that it had been made from nothing; or, in C. S. Lewis' tragically accurate statement about our history in The Problem of Pain, we began "the whole terrible story of man trying to find something other than God that will make him happy."

As a result of the Fall, we now instinctively look to creation as if it were independently capable of making us happy. That is the Flesh. In order to correct that, we must have recourse to the Spirit; i.e., the guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which the first two (in the traditional list of seven) are wisdom and understanding. These two gifts in particular grant us a supernatural perspective, founded in the truth about God and what He has made: they impress upon us that the real and final good we are seeking is God Himself, and that insofar as our pursuit of any other good thing is not directed toward Him, it will make us miserable rather than happy.

The Spirit therefore restores to us the essentially supernatural orientation of humanity. But in so doing, it restores human nature itself to a more natural condition. Take the matter of sex. Chesterton points out, I believe in The Everlasting Man, that about sex in particular men seem to be born mad, and they scarcely reach even sanity until they reach sanctity. Any human being left to pursue sex as his untutored instincts led him would, at best, subject himself to raucous and irresponsible excesses that might easily ruin not only his happiness but his health. Surrendering oneself to the Spirit, however, brings one to one of the two obviously sane approaches to sex: Matrimony, which is what all people everywhere have in some measure recognized as the norm and ideal of sexuality, and also happens to be a Catholic sacrament; or else celibacy -- which, though unpopular with the lascivious superstition of the West, has been recognized by nearly every religion and society as something that is peculiarly suitable to some persons, respectable, even laudable. In reordering us to the supernatural, the Spirit thus gives a natural order even to the natural; a natural order which, we know from experience, cannot sustain itself.

This reorientation of nature from the Spirit is specially set forth in the sacraments, and in none more than the Blessed Sacrament. The very normal human act of eating is transformed, sublimated, into the most intensely spiritual act we ever perform; and it is so transformed without at all ceasing to be the normal human act of eating. Nature is united to supernature. I have quoted before Lewis' passing remark in Perelandra that the sacraments were instituted in part to remind us that the customary mental division we make between the material and the spiritual is neither wholesome nor final. It is no coincidence that we often find ourselves tempted by the Flesh at the altar; it sense the Presence of its nemesis.

And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread." But He answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Practice of Lent

Lent has come around again, the period of penitence and reflection that leads up to the fifty days of Easter. No meat on Fridays. Fasting. Almsgiving. The Stations of the Cross. What is it all for?

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them. "Can the wedding guests fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." -- Matt. 9.14-15

Fasting is one of the oldest religious practices of all humanity. It is interesting that, as with sacrifice, the practice is taken into the Abrahamic tradition without question; there is no direct discussion of its purpose -- it is simply part of the assumed nature of religious practice. There are directions on what to do when fasting, or accounts of people being called to a fast, but no reasoned explanation of the practice.

This, American Christians typically find hard to stomach. We do not like the idea that an unexplained, opaque tradition can claim to dictate our behavior. We wish to reserve our consent to those things we understand; we want to know the whys and the wherefores, and to claim the right to dissent from those things that we do not believe in.

Unfortunately, though there is a noble impulse contained in this desire, there is another impulse which is ignoble in the extreme. To try to understand so as to avoid sin is one thing: I am by no means sure that the desire to avoid sin really animates our behavior here, however. Judging from my own examination of conscience, what calls itself independence or principle is very frequently only an ancient voice saying that I have the right to do whatever I please, or nothing if I like that better, that I will not be ordered around, that I will have an explanation so that I may be like God, knowing good and evil.

This illustrates the wisdom of the Church in mandating certain practices as a minimum for the Christian life -- what are called technically the precepts of the Church. This draws criticism occasionally from Protestants, and more frequently from heretical or lazy Catholics; but if we believe seriously that the Church is in any sense from God -- and, whether we accept the theory of Petrine primacy or not, Christ did certainly say that He would found the Church -- then it is not manifestly irrational to suppose that she has the right to discipline her members. This insistence on certain corporate practices, traditions we all observe in common, benefits us in a multitude of ways:

1) It gives us an opportunity to practice obedience. Jesus is recorded in John as saying, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." This theme of obedience as the sacramental manifestation of love is continually harped upon in all of the apostle's writings. And it makes sense. Even on a natural level, is anyone much impressed by a man who claims to love a woman, but consistently puts his own pleasures or his own ego before her desires? Obedience is the natural expression of love. What does this have to do with the Church? Well, the same Gospels that emphasize love record our Lord telling His apostles that anyone who received His word would also receive theirs. It is hypocrisy to claim to love Christ and at the same time pour contempt upon His Mystical Body, which Body, St Paul tells us, is the Church.

Indeed, the unexplained-ness of the traditions of the Catholic Church reminds us, not so much of her authority, as of the factual truth of the Christian religion. When something is a fact, you cannot argue with it; there is no good pleading that you want a simpler solar system or a more accessible geography; you have to take them, as they stand, or shut your eyes to them. G. K. Chesterton wisely drew out one of the most fascinating elements of the image of St Peter being given the keys of the kingdom. A key, he points out, is not a matter of abstraction or of argument. Susceptible to analysis and yet not to dispute, it is indeed complex; the only simple thing about it is that it opens the door.

2) It puts us in touch with the wisdom of the whole Church. Related to this first point is the fact that submitting oneself to these traditions is, literally, following the practice of most Christians (Catholic or otherwise) who have ever lived. These practices were not chosen arbitrarily. In adopting them -- better, in allowing ourselves to be adopted by them -- we are recognizing the wisdom of someone other than ourselves; which, after the first shock, is a refreshing exercise.

3) It sets forth to the World the unity and universality of the Faith. We say, whenever we recite the Creed, that we believe in one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. The oneness and the catholicity of the Church are witnessed to the world every time we abstain from meat on Friday or observe the law of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are saying wordlessly, through these actions, that we are part of a people with an identity that is not drawn from this world, but from another world altogether. Though mortifications may be difficult, they are anything but dull, however dully they may be kept by some; they have, could we but see it, all the thrill of rebellion. They particularize our refusal to be ruled by the Flesh at the behest of the World. They do this far more, not less, when we keep them as members of the faith, in union with countless brethren spread throughout space and time, rather than on our own initiative; for anybody can follow his own desires. The elevation of private devotions over public ones as being worthier, because they spring from personal fervor rather than blind submission to authority, is based on a caricature of reality. It has no grounding in the Scriptures (take a look at the ancient Israelite calendar some time), and it smacks of Gnosticism more than Christianity.

But what does fasting do, exactly? Why was it taken into the Jewish tradition in the first place, and thence inherited by Christians? Again, there are several answers.

1) It asserts the spirit's dominance of the body. This, while in some ways one of the less important aspects of a fast, is one of the most obvious. The body -- not to be confused with the Flesh in the Pauline-Johannine sense, that is, our inner selfish nature -- wants things that make it feel good, like a child. Body and soul alike benefit from the reminder that it is the soul that has the right to authority in the person, and both suffer when this authority is never asserted; just as spoiling a child damages the parents, too.

2) It sacramentalizes our repentance and mourning. Passing to Scripture, this is the meaning we see fasting most consistently associated with. As we see in the passage from Matthew above, and frequently in the Old Testament when kings or prophets call for a fast or go into mourning because the whole nation needs to turn back to God, it is assumed that this will be an expression of the heart's movement to the Lord. (Not, note well, an expression of emotion. If anything, it is likelier to order and strengthen the emotions than they are likely to sort fasting out properly.) But when the heart moves, the body should move also, for we are not ghosts in machines but a single whole, a body-and-soul complex. C. S. Lewis says in his novel Perelandra that the sacraments were instituted partly as a reminder that the division we draw between the body and the spirit is neither wholesome nor final. Fasting allows the body to participate in our penitence; and, as Jesus suggests in Matthew, in our remembrance of that great day when the Bridegroom was taken away from us for a time.

3) It brings about a confrontation with the False Self. Why precisely fasting does this, I do not know; though it should be said that it does not do it automatically, but only according to the spirit with which we enter our fast. If we enter it inattentively, and merely on the grounds that the Catholic Church has bound us to fast, we will glean but a little benefit; if we enter it with a desire to show off, whether to others or ourselves, we are already whited sepulchers, empty perhaps of food but full of dead men's bones. But if we enter it humbly, accepting the practice of the Church and trying to allow God to work in us through that medium, we will learn a surprising amount about ourselves, and particularly about the False Self.

Why do I say "the False Self"? To distinguish it from the ordinary confrontation with fleshly desires. Crankiness, for instance, seems to be a catholic experience among Catholics when we fast. This is natural; when the body is refused its habitual pleasures, it goes into hysterics; the Flesh neither knows nor cares what our larger goals are, but simply wants to get what it likes. But all of this lies in the realm of the natural conflict between the Spirit and the Flesh. When we speak of the False Self, we are dealing not with bodily but with spiritual realities. It must always be remembered that our identity in Christ is our real identity, even though it may be less familiar than the identity we lived in before our conversion (whether that conversion was to a newfound faith or to an intentional practice of what we once took for granted). That second identity is the False Self.

This is not necessarily a malicious or vulgar identity; it may, indeed, be very self-disciplined, even very moral -- even, in a sense, very religious. It is, in a way, the Devil: the temptation, not of wicked self-indulgence, the Flesh, nor of a wicked acceptance of the corrupt systems of the World; rather, it is a wicked spirituality. Chesterton's phrase, "things of that extreme evil that they seem innocent to the innocent," is very fitting. Fasting, for whatever reason, seems to awaken the False Self. As for its identifying marks, they are probably unique to each person; provided that we stick like limpets to prayer, I dare say we will know it when we see it.

I wish I could say that there were some dramatic and decisive way of defeating the False Self. Possibly there is, but if there is I do not know anything about it. The only ways I know of dealing with the False Self are the same ways that every sin and tendency to sin is dealt with: Confession, Communion, prayer, spiritual direction, studying Scripture, brotherly fellowship, tithing, Eucharistic Adoration, examination of conscience, the Rosary. Do this and you will live.