Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Chesterton on St Francis, love and asceticism

From G.K. Chesterton's St Francis...

If ever that rarer sort of romantic love, which was the truth that sustained the Troubadours, falls out of fashion and is treated as fiction, we may see some such misunderstanding as that of the modern world about asceticism.

[...] Men will ask what selfish sort of woman it must have been who ruthlessly exacted tribute in the form of flowers, or what an avaricious creature she can have been to demand solid gold in the form of a ring; just as they ask what cruel kind of God can have demanded sacrifice and self-denial.

They will have lost the clue to all that lovers have meant by love; and will not understand that it was because the thing was not demanded that it was done.

But whether or no any such lesser things will throw a light on the greater, it is utterly useless to study a great thing like the Franciscan movement while remaining in the modern mood that murmurs against gloomy asceticism.

The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy.

As soon as ever he had been unhorsed by the glorious humiliation of his vision of dependence on the divine love, he flung himself into fasting and vigil exactly as he had flung himself furiously into battle.

He had wheeled his charger clean round, but there was no halt or check in the thundering impetuosity of his charge. There was nothing negative about it; it was not a regimen or a stoical simplicity of life.

It was not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control. It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure. He devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.

And it is precisely the positive and passionate quality of this part of his personality that is a challenge to the modern mind in the whole problem of the pursuit of pleasure.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Aquinas on today's Gospel

In today’s gospel (Feast of St Michael, St Gabriel and St Raphael, Archangels) Jesus says to Nathanael: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.

St Thomas Aquinas has some interesting observation on this text in his Commentary on St John’s Gospel.

Firstly, drawing on St John Chrysostom, he presents the text as a proof of Christ’s divinity:

the Lord wishes to prove that he is the true Son of God, and God. For the peculiar task of angels is to minister and be subject: “Bless the Lord, all of you, his angels, his ministers, who do his will” (Ps 102:20). So when you see angels minister to me, you will be certain that I am the true Son of God. “When he leads his First-Begotten into the world, he says: ‘Let all the angels of God adore him’” (Heb 1:6).

Next he asks: when was it that the prophecy was fulfilled? - when it was that the apostles actually saw the vision of the open heaven and the ascending and descending angels?

When did the apostles see this? They saw it, I say, during the passion, when an angel stood by to comfort Christ (Lk 22:13); again, at the resurrection, when the apostles found two angels who were standing over the tomb. Again, at the ascension, when the angels said to the apostles: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11 ).

Drawing on St Augustine, St Thomas presents the foreshadowing of these words of Jesus in the vision of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis:

According to Augustine, Christ is here revealing his divinity in a beautiful way. For it is recorded that Jacob dreamed of a ladder, standing on the ground, with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gn 28:16). Then Jacob arose and poured oil on a stone and said, “Truly, the Lord is in this place” (Gn 28:16).

Now that stone is Christ, whom the builders rejected; and the invisible oil of the Holy Spirit was poured on him. He is set up as a pillar, because he was to be the foundation of the Church: “No one can lay another foundation except that which has been laid” (1 Cor 3:11). The angels are ascending and descending inasmuch as they are ministering and serving before him.

Finally, he is unable to resist as comparison between angels and Dominicans (which is what he means by “preachers” preachers):

Or, the angels are, according to Augustine, the preachers of Christ: “Go, swift angels, to a nation rent and torn to pieces,” as it says in Isaiah (18:2). They ascend through contemplation, just as Paul had ascended even to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2); and they descend by instructing their neighbor.

“On the Son of Man”, i.e., for the honor of Christ, because “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:5). In order that they might ascend and descend, the heavens were opened, because heavenly graces must be given to preachers if they are to ascend and descend. “The heavens broke at the presence of God” (Ps 67:9); “1 saw the heavens open” (Rv 4:1 )

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Evagrius on "Logismoi"

I came across a useful introduction to Evagrius of Pontus – Evagrius the Solitary (345-359) – by Fr Hugh Feiss OSB on the website of the Monastery of the Ascension in Idaho.

The following extract deals with the question of logismoi – a concept fundamental to the ascetical life as understood in Greek-speaking theology, and introduced into the Latin-speaking West by (most noitably) John Cassian and Pope St Gregory the Great.

Fr Feiss explains that for Evagrius:

The ascetical life is a struggle, a war, against the enemies of the soul: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The devil can’t reach the intellect; he can only arouse images and illusions. The devil cannot prevail against people unless they let him. Temptation becomes stronger as one grows in the spiritual life.

So how does one wage this ongoing war against the world, the flesh, and the devil? Fr Feiss offers a very clear account of the Evagrian answer to this question:

One must guard the heart. Attention is the mother of prayer. The best method of repelling the evil logismoi is antirrhesis, countering a temptation with a scripture quotation as Jesus did when he was tempted in the desert. One can also invoke the name of Jesus. One must discern the source of thoughts.

Antony [St Antony the Great] said good visions give rise to joy unspeakable and to strength and calmness of thought; others bring apprehension, confusion, dejection, sloth, hatred, fear, and instability. Whatever is disquieting comes from the devil. Each person needs to examine his conscience and manifest his thoughts to a spiritual father.

The list of the eight kinds of logismoi which Evagrius provides is the basis for (though a little different from) St Gregory the Great’s list of seven deadly sins, and is summarised by Fr Feiss with helpful explanations – taking account of the fact that logismoi are categories of thought, characteristic expecially though by no means exclusively of monks living in the desert, rather than types of action or patterns of behaviour:

1 Gluttony. Anxiety about one’s health, leading to inordinate concern about food. When Evagrius’ own diet of uncooked foods made him sick, he switched to cooked food.

2 Fornication. Desire for imaginary bodies, as unreal as the sicknesses mentioned above. This vice like the preceding tries to seduce us from orderly moral regimen.

3 Greed. Futile planning for an unreal future.

4 Sadness, which often follows from indulging in foolish wants or not getting what we want.

5 Anger. Can ruin health and cause bad dreams. Rather than brooding on our wrongs, we should go out of our way to do good to the person who wronged us.

6 Acedia (melancholy; depression). Listlessness, weariness of heart, which tempts the monk to abandon his calling.

7 Vain glory: Vain glory is daydreaming about our greatness, holiness, etc.

8 Pride: supposing we can do anything without God.

Fr Feiss notes that, according to Evagrius,

these eight all arise from self-love. They all involve the wrong notion about God. They trap us into an unreal world centered on ourselves and lead to a false God. Thus they make impossible the pure prayer which is our supreme goal.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Bl Ralph Corby and Bl John Duckett

According to the Roman Martyrology, today is the feast of two English beati – Fr Ralph Corby SJ and Fr John Duckett who was martyred at the hands of the Roundheads in 1644 during the English Civil War. Both were arrested while ministering in County Durham (in the North East of England), so they are of special significance for those of us who live in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. Below are two short biographies taken from Wikipedia.

Ralph Corbie SJ (also Corby; Corbington) from the age of five spent his childhood in the north of England. Then going overseas he studied at Saint-Omer, Seville, and the English College, Valladolid; where he was ordained. Having become a Jesuit about 1626, he came to England about 1631 and laboured at Durham.

He was seized by the Parliamentarians at Hamsterley, 8 July 1644, when clothed in his Mass vestments, conveyed to London, and committed to Newgate Prison (22 July) with his friend John Duckett, a secular priest. At their trial (Old Bailey, 4 September), they both admitted their priesthood, were condemned to death, and executed at Tyburn, 7 September.

John Duckett (1603 Sedbergh – 7 September 1644 Tyburn) was born at Underwinder, in the parish of Sedbergh, in Yorkshire, in 1603, the son of the Protestants James Duckett and his wife Frances Girlington who had been married in the parish on March 19, 1600. The boy was baptized after a long delay on February 24, 1614.

The boy was educated at Sedbergh School and brought up a Protestant like his parents but was received into the Catholic Church by the priest Andrew North. At the age of about thirty he entered the English College, Douai, arriving on 1 March 1633 and was ordained a priest by the Archbishop of Cambrai in 1639 and was then sent to study for three years at the College of Arras in Paris.

He is said to have had an extraordinary gift of prayer, and as a student would spend whole nights in contemplation. After Paris it came time to embark on the English mission, but on his way he spent two months in retreat under the direction of his uncle, John Duckett, prior of the Charterhouse at Nieuport.

Once arrived in England around Christmas 1643, Duckett worked largely in the North and laboured for about a year in Durham. It was in the time of the Civil War and he was seized only a few months later, on 2 July 1644, near Wolsingham in the neighbourhood of Lanchester, County Durham, while on his way to baptize two children. Taken to Sunderland, he was examined by a Parliamentary Committee of sequestrators, and placed in irons.

He admitted he was a priest and so was to London with the Jesuit Ralph Corby, arrested about the same time near Newcastle-on-Tyne. They were both confined in Newgate, where they were the cause of crowds of Catholics gathering. On these and on others who encountered them they made an impression by their cheerfulness and sanctity. He was brought to trial on September 4, and given the inevitable and terrible sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering the day after. It was carried out at Tyburn in London on 7 September 1644.

Both priests were declared Blessed by Pope Pius XI on 15 December 1929.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Maximus the Confessor on the Lord's Prayer

St Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) is the author of one of the most important Patristic interpretations of the Lord's Prayer, whose principal themes are set out in an essay by Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis on the Orthodox Christian Information Center website.

Fr Zisis quotes Maximus to the effect that “The prayer includes petitions for everything that the divine Logos [i.e. the Word, the Son] effected through his self-emptying in the incarnation”, and explains that

from amongst these immeasurable blessings—immeasurable in multitude and magnitude—the Lord’s Prayer mystically sets forth seven of more general significance: 1) Theology, 2) Adoption, 3) Equality in honour with the Angels, 4) Sharing in Eternal Life, 5) The Restoration of Nature to its Natural State, 6) The Abolition of the Law of Sin, and 7) The Overthrowing of the Tyranny of the Evil One.

In the prayer’s first phrase, “Our Father, Who art in the heavens, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come”, Maximus discerns the first two blessings—Theology and Adoption. Fr Zisis notes that

Here, “theology” means, in a literal sense, Triadology, in other words, the teaching concerning the Holy Trinity, “that from this beginning we may be taught to revere, invoke, and worship the Trinity in unity.” The Holy Trinity is indeed proclaimed because although the Father alone is mentioned, mystically and anagogically the other two are implied in the words “name” and “kingdom”, “For the name of God the Father exists in substantial form in the Only-begotten Son. Again, the Kingdom of God exists in substantial form as the Holy Spirit.”

With regards to the second blessing—that of adoption— Fr Zisis writes that

We are all, then, children of God. We have the grace of adoption and call him “Father”, not because He created us, but because he has given us rebirth and regeneration by the saving work of His Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Through His labour we possess this adoption by grace. This spiritual adoption demands that we try to preserve in our life the characteristics of our Divine birth by grace. In our action, and not only in our words, we are to “hallow” His name, and thus be proven to be true children of God, glorifying Him, “who is by nature Son of the Father”, in all that we think and do.

So what does it mean to hallow the name of the Father?

The name of the Father is hallowed when we mortify the material desires and are purified of the corrupting passions, as “sanctification is the complete mortification and cessation of desire in the senses.” In this condition, manifestations of anger because anger is, by nature, kindled by sinful desire. When we mortify these desires, then the mania of anger ceases.

Understood in this way, the hallowing of the Father’s name prepares the way for the coming of the Spirit, which for Maximus is equivalent to the coming of the Holy Spirit. According to Fr Zisis:

The mortification of the sinful desires and the cessation of anger—that is, the sanctification of man—transform man into a temple; they create the proper conditions that he might be worthy to say “Thy Kingdom come” or, in other words, thy Holy Spirit come.

Maximus wishes to impress upon us that

we are only able to worthily invoke the coming of the Kingdom of God, of the Holy Spirit, when we have previously mortified the sinful desires, quelled our anger, and have become meek and humble, since God is only comforted with these. “It is fitting that, anger and desire repudiated, we should next invoke the rule of the kingdom of God the Father with the words “Thy Kingdom come”, that is “May the Holy Spirit come”; for having put away these things, we are now made into a temple of God through the Holy Spirit by the teaching and practice of gentleness.”

Maximus relates the petition for the coming of the Kingdom (that is, of the Holy Spirit) to Jesus’s promise in the beatitudes that the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:4):

Christ’s calling of the meek and humble, and the assurance that these will inherit the earth, is realized in the perfection of the spiritual life. Saint Maximos says the we must spiritually understand “earth” to mean, “the resolution and strength of the inner stability, immovably rooted in goodness, that is possessed by gentle people,” which, accompanied by indelible joy, resembles the state of the angels.

This assimilation to the angels is how Maximus understands the petition “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”:

In this phrase Saint Maximos sees man becoming equal in honour to the angels, as asking for equality with the rational beings. In the fulfilment of God’s will on earth as it occurs in heaven, man imitates the angels. In the angels there exist no sinful desires, which paralyze the spiritual faculties with pleasure, nor anger, which is fiercely directed against brothers. We find only the natural leading of rational beings toward God and nothing else.

Maximus gives both a literal and spiritual interpretation to “Give us this day our daily bread”, though he clearly prefers the spiritual interpretation:

Saint Maximos understands the fourth of the seven blessings to be participation in the bread of life and incorruptibility. According to the anagogical interpretation the petitioner asks God for the bread of wisdom, which we were deprived of by the transgression of the first-created man....He writes that we ask spiritual bread from God in our prayer because we know that only one true pleasure exists. This pleasure is the attainment of divine blessings which God, by nature, bestows, but man safeguards according to his will and intention. On the other hand, the sole true pain is the loss of divine blessings; a loss prompted by the Devil but only made actual by man on account of his of his laziness through which he renounces the Divine.

Regarding “Forgive us our debts as we forgive out debtors”, Fr Zisis explains that, for Maximus,

Forgiveness of the sins of others not only contributes to the remission of our own sins by God, but principally to the evading of divisions and schisms, and the restoration of human nature which in this state, when it does not rebel and divide, accepts the divine condescension. God taught us to seek forgiveness...to purify us from the passions and to demonstrate that our disposition is vital to achieving the brotherly relationship among men under grace. In this petition for absolution, Saint Maximos sees the attainment of the fifth blessing; the restoration of nature culminating in the unity and harmony of all men.

The concluding petition, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One”, asks for “the abolition of the law of sin and the overthrowing of the tyranny of the Devil”. “Temptation” needs to be understood in a very precise sense:

Temptation is the law of sin, something unknown to creation initially....Temptation is understood as the voluntary predilection of the soul towards the passions, while evil is the implementation in practice of this impassioned predilection.

Freedom from temptation and deliverance from evil are dependent on forgiveness:

Forgiving the sins of other men and the setting aside every dislike and hatred is of great importance so that God might immediately hear our prayer and send a double grace and reward. The forgiveness of sins is not only protection and deliverance from sin, but also from the future attacks of the Devil. The past and the future are both dependent on present absolution.

Maximus concludes by summarizing the prayer in reverse order:

in order to be free from the Devil and to flee temptation, we must forgive the sins of others. In this struggle to expel the passions we have Christ as our ally, who with love unites and restores nature and moves us to love the bread of life. In living according to the Divine Will we are made like unto the angels, and then with the participation by the grace of the Holy Spirit He makes us “commune with the Divine nature”, He makes us children of God who are clothed by the worker of Grace, Christ, “From Him, through Him and in Him we have and always will have our being, our movement and our life.”