Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Lecture La Sapienza Refused to Hear

This morning I finally sat down to read the lecture Pope Benedict XVI planned to give at La Sapienza University in Rome, and I was absolutely stunned. As you may know, the university invited the Holy Father to speak on January 17 to celebrate the inauguration of the new academic year, but the Pope canceled his visit after students and faculty - including 67 professors - protested against it. (Angelo Matera wrote a fabulous article about the incident for the National Catholic Register which can be found here: "The Death of Irony.")

Remember Regensburg? The Sapienza protest was hardly different. It certainly lacked the violence generated by the Pope's speech at Regensburg, but it was spawned by the same kind of ignorance. The "academics" at La Sapienza, like the Islamic fundamentalists who spoke out against the Pope in 2006, misquoted the Holy Father, using "his" remarks (which were not, in fact, his) out of context as justification for their protest. Ironically, the lecture the Pope planned to deliver at La Sapienza, like the one he gave at Regensburg, was meant to be a caution against the dangers of relativism.

Radical Islam and Western secularism both call faith and reason mutually exclusive. If we allow either or both of these ideologies to occupy a higher place in than Christian wisdom in the public sphere - and one might argue that they already do - we may as well bid goodbye to Western civilization as we know it. As the Pope said in a homily in 2005:

"Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching,' looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

In his conclusion to the Sapienza lecture, the Pope elaborated on the dangers that relativism poses to the modern world:
"... [T]he danger of falling into inhumanity is never simply overcome - as we see in the panorama of contemporary history! Today the danger of the Western world - to speak only of this context - is that man, precisely in the consideration of the grandeur of his knowledge and power, might give up before the question of truth. And that means at the same time that reason, in the end, bows to the pressure of interests and the charm of utility, constrained to recognize it as the ultimate criterion."
The Holy Father went on to point out the dangers that relativism poses to the university specifically:

"The danger exists that philosophy, no longer feeling itself capable of its true task, might degenerate into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, might become confined to the private sphere of a group more or less sizable. If, however, reason - solicitous of its presumed purity - becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it will wither like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life. It will lose courage for the truth and thus it will not become greater but less."
The same thing, the Pope said, will happen to European culture if it continues to become increasingly secular and to "cut itself off from the roots by which it lives" - the roots of Christian wisdom.

Finally, the Holy Father returned to a question he posed at the beginning of his address: "what does the Pope have to do with, or to say to the university?" I can only hope that his answer embarrassed the "academics" at La Sapienza enough to teach them some humility and help them re-discover the path to true wisdom:

"Surely [the Pope] must not attempt to impose the faith on others in an authoritarian way, since it can only be bestowed in freedom. Beyond his office as Shepherd of the Church, and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral office, there is his duty to keep the sensitivity to truth alive; to continually invite reason to seek out the true, the good, God, and on this path, to urge it to glimpse the helpful lights that shine forth in the history of the Christian faith, and in this way to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light that illuminates history and helps us to find the way to the future."
You can read the full text of the Holy Father's planned address on Zenit. (Thanks, Angela.) As usual, the Pope is right on target. It's too bad that those who need to hear him the most are also the ones doing all they can to tune him out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Blaise Pascal: Insight into Faith (Post IV)

Continued from Insight into Faith (Post III).

Blaise Pascal believed that Christianity alone embodies and offers the holistic solution for the quest of the mind and heart for truth. Pascal’s solution is simple, we must listen to God. Pascal, a brilliant scientist, mathematician, philosopher, inventor, writer and so forth, had a spiritual experience in his thirty first year of life that he recorded and kept in the lining of his jacket.


In the year of grace, 1654, On Monday, 23rd of November, Feast of St Clement, Pope and Martyr, and others in the Martyrology, Vigil of St Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others, From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve,


God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, (Ex 3:6; Mt 22:32) not of the philosophers and scholars.

Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy.
Peace. God of Jesus Christ.
“Thy God and my God.” (Jn 20:17)
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the Human Soul.
“Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee, but I have known Thee.” (Jn 17:25)
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have separated myself from Him. “They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters.” (Jr 2:13) “My God, wilt Thou leave me?” (Mt 27:46)
Let me not be separated from Him eternally. “This is the eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and the one whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ.” (Jn 17:3) Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ

I have separated myself from Him:
I have fled from Him,
denied Him,
crucified Him.
Let me never be separated from Him.
We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s training on earth.
“I will not forget thy words.” (Ps 119:16) Amen.

Pascal discovered the paradox of man which true religion teaches. Man is both a source of greatness and wretchedness. Even in wretchedness man learns of his greatness. Pascal points out that man can realize that something is missing because he has fallen from a previous nature, the state of grace that one ought to be. Knowledge of privation points out knowledge of one’s true condition. Pascal wittingly indicates that while a person with no eyes is inconsolable “probably no man ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes” (409). Man seeks what is intrinsic to his nature including knowledge of reality. Since reason cannot know all of reality, the limitation of man becomes more evident and humbles man to receive grace and knowledge as a gift.

Christian religion points out two truths that man must know to remain balance in his knowledge. “There is a God whom men can know, and…there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of Him” (555). Knowledge of only one of these truths leads to opposite extremes. Knowledge of God but not of sin leads to the pride of the philosophers while knowledge of sin and wretchedness but not of a redeeming God leads to the despair of the atheists. It is God in his gift of faith that makes both truths known to man. The need for redemption becomes both evident and reasonable. Through faith Jesus Christ can be recognized as “the end of all, and the center to which all tends” (555). The true God is different from limited view of God that philosophy offers because God not only brings the world into motion but also restores His creation that has turned against Him. As a God of love, He fills the hearts of man to make them aware of their condition that they might freely return back to Him. Without the mediator of Jesus Christ, man falls into either atheism or deism. To accept such possibilities is not reason, but grace through which all things become possible and miracles become evidence. To reject such possibilities is not reason, but an emotional problem that fails to dive into the infinite mystery that surrounds all things.

This worldview follows the assumption that the highest act of a human person is not knowledge and reason but faith and love. We are made to know precisely because we are made to love and be loved, not vice versa. While reason is very much a function of the human person it is not humanity’s end in itself but a means to understanding the choices available to the will. Faith is to the will what knowledge is to the intellect. They complement one another rather than replace each other. There is no competition intrinsic to the either faith or reason that would put one in conflict with the other. Rather human minds create the conflict. Even when affirming a judgment of the intellect, this willful act follows a trust in the correlation of an idea and its ability to represent reality regardless of whether this process is something that the judger is consciously aware of. This implicit trust is made explicit in Christianity and its belief of Jesus Christ as the Logos and Word of God. God stands beyond all creation and orders everything accordingly to His will and sees that it is good. Rather than destroying reason, Christianity inherently fosters the scientific and philosophical enterprise, precisely because it believes in the intelligibility of the world ordered by a divine Logos. Even if such world is ultimately shrouded in mystery, we can through the gifts of revelation and reason have positive knowledge about creation and the creator.

“Without the Creator the creature would disappear...But when God is forgotten the creature itself grows unintelligible." --Second Vatican Council

Monday, January 28, 2008

Don't know much about incorruptibles?

This Sunday, January 27, was the memorial of St. Angela Merici, who like many other saints and beati (or "blesseds"), has been declared an "incorruptible." Essentially, this means that though St. Angela died centuries ago, her body has not decayed, nor was it ever embalmed, mummified, or in any other way deliberately preserved. Naturally, the phenomenon of incorruptibility draws a great deal of skepticism from secularists, other Christian denominations, and even certain Catholics, who believe it to either be a ruse perpetuated by the Church or a merely natural phenomenon.

Interestingly, the bodies of incorrupt saints do not undergo rigor mortis; rather, they remain as flexible as if the deceased were only sleeping. Incorrupt bodies are also miraculously free from the odor of decay, and many are reported to give forth the "Odour of Sanctity," an inexplicable sweet or flowery aroma. (This phenomenon has been cited in reference to St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Rita of Cascia, and St. Pio of Pietrelcina, among others.) Sometimes, the body only remains incorrupt for an unusual amount of time (as in the case of St. Francis Xavier), and in other cases, only certain parts of the body do not decay (as in the case of St. Clare of Assisi, whose skeleton remains perfectly preserved, though her flesh turned to dust before her body was exhumed).

The Church used to cite incorruptibility as one of the two miracles required for the canonization of a saint, but this is no longer the case, since some bodies which were at first thought to be "incorruptible" turned out to have been embalmed or preserved by a natural cause, as in the case of Blessed Pope John XXIII (below). When John XXIII's body was exhumed after his beatification in 2000, it appeared to be extremely well-preserved. (I can personally attest to this; I saw his body on display at St. Peter's in 2003.) Church officials, however, have attributed his preservation not to a supernatural cause but to the lack of oxygen in his sealed coffin, so he has not been declared an incorruptible.

The body of Bl. Pope John XXIII at St. Peter's in Rome

St. Bernadette's body, on the other hand, lay in a damp grave for thirty years before it was exhumed and found to be incorrupt. Before being buried again, her body was washed and re-clothed, and this washing process is believed to have been the cause of the discoloration in her face which became apparent the second time her corpse was exhumed in 1919. For this reason, a light wax mask was made to cover her face (below) before her body was put on display to the public. Her body remains intact today, despite the fact that she died in 1879.

St. Bernadette of Lourdes at Nevers, France

Here is a list (which is by no means exhaustive) of incorruptible saints and beati with whom you may be familiar:
  • St. Agatha of Sicily
  • St. Angela Merici
  • Bl. Anne Marie Taigi
  • St. Bernadette of Lourdes
  • St. Catherine Laboure' (d. 1876, pictured)
  • St. Cecilia
  • St. Charles Borromeo
  • St. Clare of Assisi
  • St. Edward the Confessor
  • St. Ferdinand III (King of Spain)
  • St. Francis Xavier
  • St. Francis Xavier "Mother" Cabrini
  • St. Jean Vianney
  • St. John Bosco
  • Bl. Margaret of Castello
  • St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
  • St. Rita of Cascia
  • St. Teresa of Avila
  • St. Vincent de Paul (d. 1660, pictured)
You can find additional information about incorruptibles online, but let me caution you: many of the articles are authored by anti-Catholic skeptics or by people who haven't done their homework and who confuse the names of incorrupt saints with the names of those whose relics are merely popular objects of veneration. (The Wikipedia articles on incorruptibles are prime examples of the latter mistake.)

In closing, let us remember a few important things: first, that supernatural phenomena - instances of incorruptibility, apparitions, miracles and stigmata - are meant to simply encourage and edify the faithful, not to take the place of Sacred Scripture and Tradition as the cornerstones of our faith. In other words, we must take care not to become obsessed with these phenomena. Second, we must keep in mind that none of these phenomena are considered dogma; in other words, no Catholic is obligated to believe in them. So, while some of us might be fascinated by the veneration of incorruptibles and other relics, we need to be sensitive to the fact that some of our brothers and sisters may find the practice strange or even disgusting, and they are in no way obligated to take part in it.

St. Angela Merici, pray for us. All you angels and saints of God, pray for us.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On the Feast of St. Francis de Sales

"The thoughts of those moved by natural human love are almost completely fastened on the beloved, their hearts are filled with passion for it, and their mouths full of its praises. When it is gone they express their feelings in letters, and can't pass by a tree without carving the name of their beloved in its bark. Thus too, those who love God can never stop thinking about Him, longing for Him, aspiring to Him, and speaking about Him. If they could, they would engrave the name of Jesus on the hearts of all humankind."

- St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists. Francis was born to a noble family in France in 1567. His father was determined that he become a lawyer, so out of obedience, Francis studied law in Padua. After remaining silent for thirteen years about the discernment of his vocation, he told his parents that he wanted to become a priest. As one might expect, his father was utterly opposed to the idea at first, but eventually he gave his consent. Francis was ordained and appointed provost of the Diocese of Geneva, an area highly populated by Calvinists. Francis tried to organize a missionary expedition with the aim of bringing the Calvinists back to the Church, but was only able to recruit one volunteer: one of his cousins, and even he abandoned Francis after several years of seemingly fruitless labor.

Determined to persist in doing God's will, for years Francis continued to endure great hardships as he preached to the Calvinists - often talking to children when their parents would not listen to him - and distributed pamphlets explaining the truths of the Catholic faith. (He authored the first religious tracts!) By the time he completed his expedition, it is said he helped bring 40,000 Calvinists back to the Catholic faith.

At age thirty-five, Francis became Bishop of Geneva, and while he went about his administrative duties, offering spiritual direction remained his top priority. Consequently, he was often overworked, and his health suffered from this. Francis truly wished to, as he put it, "engrave the name of Jesus on the hearts of all humankind." He drew countless people to the faith by his preaching and was known for being exceedingly patient and gentle; thus he is sometimes called the "Gentleman Saint." He is also known for helping St. Jane de Chantal found her religious order: the Sisters of the Visitation. Francis died in 1622 and was canonized only 43 years later in 1665. He was declared a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1877 by Pope Pius IX. Three religious orders have been named for St. Francis: the Salesians, founded by St. John Bosco, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, founded by Abbé Louis Brisson, and the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, founded by Fr. Peter Mermier.

St. Francis wrote Introduction to the Devout Life and A Treatise on the Love of God, as well as many tracts on Catholic apologetics and countless personal letters. The vast majority of his writings are addressed to laypeople, in hopes that they would respond to the universal call to holiness and strive to become saints.

You can download St. Francis' Introduction to the Devout Life for free at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

St. Francis de Sales, pray for us! We also long to see the name of Jesus engraved on every human heart.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"You suffered with them, and now you are theirs."

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by American author Margaret Craven is a very short novel (just over 150 pages), but don’t let its thin spine fool you – its themes run deep: a community’s experience of suffering and death, the struggle to preserve tradition in the face of progress, the growing generation gap, the fruits of spiritual simplicity, and the essence of the priestly vocation.

Craven’s novella, set in the 1960’s, follows Mark Brian, a young Anglican cleric sent by his bishop to be pastor in Kingcome parish, a remote First Nations (Native American) village in British Columbia. The Bishop has learned that Mark only has a few years left to live, but he chooses not to tell Mark this; instead, the Bishop assigns Mark to the most difficult parish in his bishopric in hopes that the assignment will teach the young priest the true nature of his vocation.

At first, Mark does not feel at home in Kingcome, but gradually, the priest and his people learn to accept one another’s differences, to work together to provide for one another’s needs, and most of all, to live together as the Body of Christ. Throughout the book, Craven makes it abundantly clear that the village lives as one body, and its people suffer and survive as a community. In one particularly beautiful passage, she writes that, as the village prayed together at sunrise after a hard winter, “it seemed to Mark that he felt the burden of winter lift as from a common shoulder, and heard the sigh of gratitude rise from a common heart” (140). It isn’t long before Mark realizes that he and the tribe must work together – not to prosper, but merely to survive.

As Mark observes the life of the community he shepherds, the tribe’s appreciation for simplicity teaches him the importance of voluntary poverty in the priestly vocation. When Mark first arrives in Kingcome village, the old vicarage where he must live is falling down, but he refuses to let a new one be built when he sees the condition of the other dwellings in the village. After Mark has served in Kingcome for some time, the men of the tribe offer to help him build a new house. Mark writes to his bishop to tell him the good news, and the bishop replies: “You suffered with them, and now you are theirs, and nothing will ever be the same again” (87). That, Mark learns, is the heart of missionary life, and of his priesthood: entering into the lives of the people one has been sent to serve, giving oneself over to them, and learning to suffer together, to “bear one another’s burdens” for Christ’s sake (Galatians 6:2).

The greatest burden Mark and his people are asked to bear is death, but even that burden is lightened when death is seen for what it really is: the door to eternal life. The death myth of the people of Kingcome – the myth of “the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is going to die” (19) – helps Mark to see death in a new way, and more importantly, to realize that to live his vocation, he must constantly die to himself; he must lose his life in order to find it (Matthew 16:25).

Near the end of the novel, the Bishop comes to visit Kingcome village, and his words to Mark resonated with me in a special way. As a missionary, I've learned that it is always hard to say what one has learned from an encounter with Christ’s poor, but the Bishop seems to get it right:

“Always when I leave the village,” the Bishop said slowly, “I try to define what it means to me, why it sends me back to the world refreshed and confident. Always I fail. It is so simple it is difficult. When I try to put it into words, it come out one of those unctuous, over-pious platitudes at which Bishops are expected to excel…

“[F]or me it has always been easier here, where only the fundamentals count, to learn what every man must learn in this world.”

“And that, my lord?” [Mark asked.]

“Enough of the meaning of life to be ready to die.” (144)

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a must-read for missionaries, seminarians, and avid Catholic readers alike. Its story may be simple and brief, but its presence will linger long after you've finished the last page.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Blaise Pascal: Insight into Faith (Post III)

Continued from Insight into Faith (Post II).

Living in France where a favorite pass-time of the French was to gamble, Pascal plays with the idea of statistical gain and risks in his famous wager argument. Appealing to gamblers, Pascal shows how disbelief in God may risk more than any person would want to lose, the possibility for eternal happiness. This argument is not meant to justify belief in God but to show that belief in God is at least reasonable, and may be one of the most reasonable decisions a person will ever make. The point of this argument is to ready the heart for true faith. In other words, Pascal is taking up the banner of John the Baptist in hopes that a person may be prepared for humbling receiving grace. He does not believe that his argument in any way can provide that faith.

Reason alone, as great as it may seem, has limits and lacks the ability to judge definitively whether God exists or not. This is not to say that belief in God is not reasonable nor that an argument cannot be philosophically derived, but God is not merely an idea of the intellect. Any judgment would insinuate a conclusion that goes beyond the evidence available to the mind. Such a fact, regarding the existence of God as an objective and evident judgment, lies beyond and prior to the mind. Ultimately reason may aide the person in finding God, but the heart must first seek Him. Thus, we can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God based on reason alone. However, Pascal insists that every person must wager whether “God is, or He is not” (233). Since reason cannot speak and must remain neutral, the wager becomes a question of happiness rather than knowledge. Accordingly, Pascal sets the stakes on the fact that God is. “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing” (233). Considering the possibility of the existence of God completely as a gamble and ignorant to the case in reality, there exist an equal chance of whether or not God exist, heads or tails. Betting that God exist when he does in fact exist, a person would hypothetically gain eternal happiness. If God does not exist that person has lost nothing. Following the nature of the gamble, the only way a person gains anything is if God does in fact exist. If God does not exist then a person neither gains nor loses in any of the scenarios. Therefore a person can reasonable gamble that God exists if they are remotely interested in the possibility of gaining eternal happiness. Since a person must gamble, belief becomes the most reasonable bet. The person sacrifices a finite chance in which nothing is gained for an infinite chance in which everything is to be gained.

Pascal realizes that belief from such a wager hardly seems like faith at all. In fact, he indicates that belief from a gamble is not true faith; but the wager only purposes to open a person up to the possibility of receiving faith. When struggling with faith, Pascal recommends that such a person live as if they did believe and follow the paths of those who have had similar struggles with atheism in finding their way to faith. By living as a believer a person is more inclined to believe and opens himself up to the supernatural grace of faith. Eventually, such a life may reveal the nothingness this life has to offer in comparison to the infinite happiness to be found in God.

Belief that God exist is not equal to faith in God. Where the mind may think of God, the heart experiences Him. Pascal says, “Knowledge of God is very far from the love of Him” (280). Both reason and the heart represent reality and know truth; only each tells us something different. Pascal says that the heart knows first principles such as “space, time, motion, [and] number” (282), and reason would be absurd to demand reasons for these intuitions of the heart. A person can only wait patiently for grace of faith when realizing the insufficiency of reason.

Next week will be the final post on this series of Blaise Pascal and his insight into faith. I will discuss the paradoxical nature of man’s greatness and wretchedness, the purpose of religion, and the primacy of humility.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Humility of a Saint: Brother Lawrence

I have recently been introduced to the writing of Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century lay Carmelite brother who penned The Practice of the Presence of God. This little book is chock full of poignant and profound descriptions of Brother Lawrence’s intimate connection and superhuman devotion to the Lord. In fact, it is a very difficult book to pare down, as it already reads like a devotion-a-day calendar (though it might be because I mistakenly bought an abridged version, but passages on the internet from other editions are very similar).

The book is comprised of conversations and letters of Brother Lawrence that were recounted and compiled after his death by his friend Fr. Joseph le Beaufort. The theme unifying each short chapter is that of living every moment in the profound presence of the Lord—that is, constantly being aware of God’s existence within and surrounding oneself. From this awareness springs exclusive trust in the Lord and, therefore, peace of spirit.

This man’s wisdom, humility, and devotion to God are incredibly inspiring—and, quite frankly, incredibly daunting. Here is one who successfully rose above the distractions of the world and instead lived in communion with his Maker. Here is one who completely died to himself and lived solely for love of God. The humility described in this book is in stark and terrifying contrast to the lukewarm and half-hearted faith often deemed acceptable in today’s world. I would like to show a few examples of Brother Lawrence’s wisdom, but would first implore you to read him yourself. I’m afraid these snippets may seem less poignant when removed from the context of the book…nevertheless, here are a few passages:

“To be constantly aware of God’s presence, it is necessary to form the habit of continually talking with Him throughout each day. To think that we must abandon conversation with Him in order to deal with the world is erroneous. Instead, as we nourish our souls by seeing God in His exaltation, we will derive a great joy at being His” (12).

“Brother Lawrence said that he was always guided by love. He was never influenced by any other interest, including whether or not he was saved. He was content doing the smallest chore if he could do it purely for the love of God. He even found himself quite well off, which he attributed to the fact that he sought only God and not His gifts. He believed that God is much greater than any of the simple gifts He gives us. Rather than desiring them from Him, he chose to look beyond the gifts, hoping to learn more about God Himself” (14).

“The dear brother remarked that we must give ourselves totally to God in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Our only happiness should come from doing God’s will, whether it brings us some pain or great pleasure. After all, if we are truly devoted to doing God’s will, pain and pleasure won’t make any difference to us” (12).

“He remarked that thinking often spoils everything and that evil usually begins with our thoughts. In Brother Lawrence’s opinion, we should reject any thoughts that distract us from serving the Lord or that undermine our salvation” (17).

“Our brother remarked that some people go only as far as their regular devotions, stopping there and neglecting love, which is the purpose of those devotions. This could easily be seen in their actions and explained why they possessed so little solid virtue” (21-22).

Again, I highly recommend this book! It is one to be savored and meditated upon as a gauge of our own spiritual growth. It and similar writings can be found here .

Monday, January 14, 2008

Blaise Pascal: Insight into Faith (Post II)

Continued from Insight into Faith (Post I).

Blaise Pascal identifies a paradox of reality within the nature of humanity. Man stands torn as a medium between the two opposites of infinity and nothingness. After assessing the hopelessness in the ability of man to discern either the infinite or nothingness, Pascal turns to religion and faith as the way to leave the pit of despair. Since man can neither see the beginning, the nothingness from which he came, nor the end, the infinite towards which he is headed, only faith in God can bring comfort. Pascal, critical of Descartes, makes sure not to reduce God to a rational backing of a worldview and shows that we also need faith in God. Besides, God ultimately disappears past man’s ability to conceive or imagine.

Blaise realizes that everything, once reflected upon seriously, leads to its own mystery. All of man’s reason and man himself becomes as nothing in relationship to the infinite reality that surrounds him. Yet when man tries to study himself he dives into an infinite number of smaller and vaster things heading towards nothingness. Although man wants to comprehend everything he is left with understanding nothing.

For Pascal, man, when left to his own accord, is in a very helpless condition. Man seeks happiness in science and many other pleasures only to discover that he cannot become happy with himself or his abilities. Man orients all his activities in hope to become happy in the future but he cannot find contentment in the present. There is an excessive amount of activity without an overall purpose. Many run around in a helpless condition because both senses and reason fail in attaining truth. The senses deceive reason with faulty appearances and vice versa until both become enemies with one another and both are cast into doubt. The mortal condition of man in the dark has no way out of itself through itself.

A different approach must be taken, that of faith. Man must go out of himself and trust in more than his reason. But man must have something beyond himself to allow him to do this. Pascal believes that God places religion into both the mind, by reason, and the heart, by grace, and He does not force it upon either. Since there is not enough evidence to neither confirm nor deny God in the world, the grace of faith becomes a very valuable gift. In the context of this faith, if man thinks as he ought he can find this faith reasonable. Faith in God orders the ideas of man and allows him to be content with himself through his relationship with God. Instead of slipping into the darkness of meaningless, faith allows man to live with the assurance of eternity. The latter becomes a more reasonable way to live while the former creates a state of despair.

Blaise Pascal uses reason to show the reasonability of faith in God. Reason cannot produce faith in God but only open a person to the possibility. Through exploring the nature of both faith and reason, Pascal continues to affirm the limitations of reason and need for faith in a world shrouded with mystery. Pascal realizes the inability of reason to bring man into knowledge of God, and that all proofs for God from the works of nature only help those who already see God in all things. In hopes to open the mind to listen to the reasons of the heart, Pascal offers a wager, a gamble, by which he shows that faith may be the most reasonable way to live one’s life. Pascal also identifies two truths in religion and shows how both are intrinsic to understanding reality. Reason and heart need to work in harmony to receive the grace of true knowledge about one’s own condition and the need of God. Ultimately Pascal shows the Christian Religion as the culmination in which the knowledge of reason and heart find their calling.

In my next post I will take up the Pascal’s famous wager. My hope is to show its complexity within the context that Pascal intended it. I have heard many simplified versions that do not do justice the actual argument. Taken in its context this argument is very beautiful and compelling in its own right. Pascal does not merely try to appeal to reason but to the entire person including one’s desires and hopes as well as reason. This argument was never meant to replace faith but to merely open a person up to its possibility. Pascal sees faith as a divine grace that follows a person’s humility. Often reason blind to its own presuppositions and unjustified metaphysical beliefs against the possibility of God gets in the way of this openness, which is the very reason that Pascal’s argument is so beneficial.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Blaise Pascal: Insight into Faith (Post I)

This is the beginning of a series of posts on Blaise Pascal. I believe he is often a neglected and misunderstood Christian thinker, and I have experienced people misquote and critique him without actually understanding the perplexity of his thought. In the mid 1600's, Blaise Pascal made significant contributions to the fields of mathematics and science. After a conversion experience he reflected on his faith and eventually started writing his Apology for the Christian Religion, a work never finished. After he died, the notes for this work were collected and named the Pensees or "thoughts". Sadly many people use Pascal’s insights and especially his famous wager out of context. Here I hope to explore and reflect on some of his central ideas, particularly those regarding faith and reason. Quote numbers from Pascal in this series of posts refer to the numbers in which his collection of thoughts was labeled.

Reactionary to the pure rationalism of Descartes, Blaise shows the interplay and reasonability of faith. Pascal claims that reason is utterly insufficient for an absolute argument that proves the existence of God. Some may venture to argue that reason currently can or may be able to one day demonstrate that some higher power or God does exist, but in the end, even with this belief, reason still fails in itself to discern the nature of God as Trinity; this type of insight relies on the gift of revelation and faith. Knowing that a God exists isn’t the same as knowing who that God is and is even further removed from a relationship with such a God. While I agree that philosophy gives much insight into God and there are very convincing arguments that may be made for God's existence, most arguments for God only offer a reasonable hypothesis in which a person is left with a fundamental choice of belief. In other words, the existence of God is not so evident to faculty of reason that one would be forced to believe in God without it being an act of faith rooted in the will.

If God were only an abstract universal like laws governing numbers and mathematics, faith would be quite unnecessary, but because God is an eternal subject we are called to have a relationship with him that translates concretely into our lives in an act of faith. The God of Christianity is not merely an impersonal prime mover that stands at the beginning of a causal sequence that has, through time and space, resulted in our own existence, but God is the One who actively sustains all reality and presently keeps us existing while moving us towards our ultimate end--telos. Such a God that loves us and cares for our own sake wants more than our knowledge of Him but our love which is mediated through a personal relationship, trust, and obedience. Faith is fundamental in belief of God and this faith requires at least as much as an act of the will as an act of the intellect.

To be human, “man’s response to God by faith must be free, and…therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.” “God calls men to serve him in spirit and in truth. Consequently they are bound to him in conscience, but not coerced…This fact received its fullest manifestation in Christ Jesus."
–CCC 160

Furthermore, faith is important in everyday life. It underlies the humility necessary to receive truth. Our minds most earnest attempts cannot discern the full nature of God, but this knowledge must be received as a gift through divine revelation. Our philosophical understanding may support what has been divinely revealed, but it cannot replace it. For these reasons alone it is important that Christianity emphasizes the need for faith and relationship with God. Neither a blind faith apart from reason nor reason divorced from faith is healthy, but faith must be balanced with reason.

If God is the creator and author of all things, than we can reasonably assume the both that books of nature (truth discovered through reason) and revelation (truth revealed through the Church) have the same author, namely God. Therefore, while faith points to that which is prior and beyond reason; neither of these books can contradict each other. As Aquinas pointed out to his contemporaries and the university: truth cannot contradict truth.

As I will explore in my next posts, the beauty of Pascal's thought is that it eloquently points out the limits of man in order to open man up to a relationship to Him who is without limits. The person truly open to all possibilities must then openly consider the possibility that God really exists and is really trying to enter into a relationship if only that person would believe.

Post II.

The Ball and the Cross, or My First Meeting with Chesterton

"For the world of science and evolution is far more elusive and like a dream than the world of poetry and religion; since in the latter images and ideas remain themselves eternally, while it is the whole idea of evolution that identities melt into each other as they do in a nightmare" (1).
The Ball and the Cross by G. K. Chesterton begins with this dichotomy, one that seems to turn the chief argument of most modern skeptics on its head. As people of faith in a secular society, we have become accustomed to acknowledging before those who would oppose us that religion is indeed akin to poetry and other "abstractions," that it is mysterious and therefore confusing, and somehow out-of-reach, like a dream - but as Chesterton points out, such an admission is utterly untrue. The truth of our Catholic faith is more solid and more certain than any "new" science, and any ideology that denies the existence of absolute truth. (One might also note that good poetry, like true religion, cannot be called abstraction - truly good poetry is specific, concrete, intelligible and enduring, like dogma.)

In a witty and entertaining allegory, The Ball and the Cross chronicles the adventures of James Turnbull, the editor of an athiest newspaper, and Evan MacIan, a young Catholic who wishes to fight a duel with Turnbull because he has blasphemed the Blessed Mother. In a hilarious turn of events, the two men become fugitives from the law by mutual agreement, and on the fantastic adventure that ensues, they find time to discuss all manner of subjects: ethics and morality, tradition and progress, and of course, the place of the Church in the modern world.

In his characteristically matter-of-fact tone, Chesterton challenges his readers to hold fast to the unpopular truth that the Catholic faith has always been more stable and more certain than any other ideology, even if its enemies argue that it is too incredible to be believed. As MacIan explains to Turnbull in "The Last Parley":

"The world left to itself grows wilder than any creed. ... That is the only real question - whether the Church is really madder than the world. Let the rationalists run their own race, and let us see where they end. If the world has some healthy balance other than God, let the world find it. Does the world find it? Cut the world loose ... Does the world stand on its own end? Does it stand, or does it stagger? ... We cannot trust the ball to be always a ball; we cannot trust reason to be reasonable. In the end the great terrestrial globe will go quite lop-sided, and only the cross will stand upright." (168)
Though I started quoting him years ago, The Ball and the Cross was the first book of Chesterton's that I read in its entirety, and it's convinced me that old G.K. and I are going to be good friends. I found that the 1995 Dover edition (pictured above) handled nicely - just the right thickness, just the right size font - but the introduction by Martin Gardner was awful. Don't bother with it - if you haven't yet read the novel, it will spoil it for you by dissecting the allegory. And if you have read the novel before you tackle the introduction, you will probably be forced to conclude, as I was, that Gardner doesn't sound as if he knew what Chesterton was getting at, at all. The only bit of his commentary that I appreciated was his inclusion of a short poem which Chesterton wrote in the copy of The Ball and the Cross owned by Father John O'Connor, the model for the author's famous Father Brown. Chesterton was ultimately unsatisfied with The Ball and the Cross, and expressed his sentiments to his friend as follows:
This is a book I do not like,
Take it away to Heckmondwike,
A lurid exile, lost and sad
To punish it for being bad.
You need not take it from the shelf
(I tried to read it once myself:
The speeches jerk, the chapters sprawl,
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.
While I understand that most great writers aren't satisfied with their work, I don't think the author's criticisms are entirely true. Perhaps the speeches do jerk a bit, but the story is clearly meant to be an allegory, so we can forgive him that. The chapters do sprawl, but it seems that most of Chesterton's chapters do, so that's not really a very valid criticism for this work specifically. And the story doesn't make much sense, but that was perhaps the thing about it that delighted me the most: its whimsical quality. It's refreshing every once in a while to read fiction that's truly imaginative and well-written. While I realize that in the author's opinion this wasn't one of his finer works, I enjoyed it immensely, and if I could be half the writer he was, I would be quite satisfied with my work, indeed.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Silence of God, the God of Silence

It would seem that speaking about the silence of God would be counter-intuitive and maybe even counter-productive, but being that our human natures tend most easily towards counter-productivity, I’ll give it my best shot.

The God who spoke all things into existence and the God who continues to speak to us through Divine Revelation is the very same God who subsists in absolute silence. Silence is simplicity and God is absolute simplicity due to His eternal and completely independent subsistence. Could this be why God is most clearly heard in the silence of prayer? Is it any wonder that we expend our greatest efforts at escaping silence as much as possible? To be baptized into silence is to make ourselves vulnerable to Truth, for it is in silence that we come to know God. As the very creator of our human nature, He revealed to us the invaluable role silence plays when He tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The stillness of silence aids our intellects in knowledge of Him. Greater knowledge of Him should naturally lead to a corresponding change in the will. This is the essence of conversion, and this is why prayer cannot be neglected. Is it that our human nature abhors silence because of its purgative effects? It seems as though there is something in our nature that tips us off to the fact that if we welcome the silence, we must also be willing to welcome change, thus, we see the corresponding effects of the fear of silence upon a culture in fear of change. We value access to hundreds of channels on the television. In this way, we are assured that we never have to turn off the television due to previously seen programs. If we do happen to pull ourselves away from the television and get into our cars, we have the radio to break the silence. Not only do we get to listen to poor excuses for music in our cars, we also get to listen to the trash being spewed out of other people’s cars.

I mentioned the connection of prayer and silence in the above paragraph as silence is the best environment for prayer. The reason for this is that the ultimate goal of prayer must be conversion and enlightenment (not in the Eastern sense). St. John Cassian, who lived from the mid-300’s to the early 400’s, recognized this in speaking about the effect upon the human soul by God as light both perceivable and communicated with through silence in prayer:

"The suddenness of the light stupefies it and robs it of speech. All its senses remai withdrawn in its inmost depths or completely suspended. And it is by inarticulate groans that it tells God of its desire."

The necessity of silence for communication with God is also according to our natures as images of Him Who is Silence, for if in His eternal simplicity He is silent, then by what better means can we who are images of Him reach out to Him? It is as though the silence is more expressive of ourselves to God than all the words we manage to mount up in oral prayer. St. Paul reassures us of the efficacy of our prayer even in the silence when he writes: “For we do not know how to prayer as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words (Rom 8:26).”

It is an unfortunate situation that our present cultural state is one characterized by a pathological obsession with noise which should serve as symptomatic enough to make a valid diagnosis: fear of silence is a fear of God, though not in the virtuous sense. It is ultimately a fear of Truth which explains the naïve and childish acceptance of the self-contradictory philosophy of relativism that thrives today. If we can just convince ourselves that Truth is determined by our perception of it, then we no longer have to listen to anyone or anything else. Without the need or appreciation for listening, there need not be silence. And if we hate the silence, then how can we love God?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

"The Light Himself came into the world..." and we must not be afraid!

"To the thirst for meaning and value so characteristic of today's world, to the search for prosperity and peace that marks the lives of all mankind, to the hopes of the poor: Christ - true God and true Man - responds with his Nativity. Neither individuals nor nations should be afraid to recognize and welcome him: with Him 'a shining light' brightens the horizon of humanity; in him 'a holy day' dawns that knows no sunset."

In his 2007 Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI urged the faithful to look to the Christ child as the Light that chases away the darkness in our lives. As we begin this new year, we would do well to remember, as the Holy Father points out, that Christ's coming is not merely an event in our lives - rather, we have life through Him alone:

"The creative Word of God is Light, the source of life. All things were made through the Logos, not one thing had its being but through him (cf. Jn 1:3). That is why all creatures are fundamentally good and bear within themselves the stamp of God, a spark of his light. Nevertheless, when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, the Light Himself came into the world: in the words of the Creed, 'God from God, Light from Light.'"

It is difficult sometimes to believe that Christ has truly come for us. The thought of His coming into our hearts as an innocent child can be terrifying. If we invite Him in, we do so knowing that He will see our failings and our attachment to the sin in our lives; but perhaps welcoming Him becomes a bit easier when we remember that we were created in Light, and the divine image that we bear is a "spark" of God's splendor that no sin can erase.

As St. Thomas Aquinas points out in his Compendium of Theology, "the human race had need that God should become man to show forth the dignity of human nature" (230). This is one of the reasons for the Incarnation - God wishes to remind us of our dignity as His creation. St. Thomas continues, "At the same time, by willing to become man, God clearly displayed the immensity of His love for men, so that henceforth men might serve God, no longer out of fear of death... but out of the love of charity" (230). The message of the Incarnation is clear: He has come for us in Love. He has come to dispel fear!

And yet we must be open to receive Him; we must stay awake, look to the horizon and pray so that we will see the Light when He comes. The Holy Father reminded us in his Christmas message, as he does in his encyclical Spe Salvi, that we must not be afraid to watch and wait, for Christ's coming is our "sure hope":

"... Who is ready to open the doors of his heart to the holy child? Men and women of this modern age, Christ comes also to us bringing his light, he comes also to us granting peace! But who is watching, in the night of doubt and uncertainty, with a vigilant, praying heart? Who is waiting for the dawn of the new day, keeping alight the flame of faith? Who has time to listen to his word and to become enfolded and entranced by his love? Yes! His message of peace is for everyone; he comes to offer himself to all people as sure hope for salvation."

As we make our resolutions for this new year, we all ought to ask ourselves how we might better prepare our hearts to be filled with the light of Christ. I plan to do more spiritual reading, but above all, I hope to delve more deeply into the Word of God in Sacred Scripture. As the Pope says, listening to God's Word allows us "to become enfolded and entranced by his love," and if we come to understand more fully God's great love for us, we grow closer to possessing that perfect love which "casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).

Finally, our Holy Father ended his Christmas address with a prayer for us: "This is my earnest wish for you who are listening. A wish that grows into a humble and trustful prayer to the Child Jesus, that his light will dispel all darkness from your lives and fill you with love and peace." Amen! Let us keep the Pope in our prayers this new year as well.

Also, FYI: Spe Salvi is now available on in hardcover and paperback. Happy New Year, everyone!

And... We're Back!

Detail from The Nativity by Federico Barocci (c. 1535-1612)

After a Christmas hiatus, we now return to our regular blogging schedule. Hope all of you are enjoying this Christmas season! Venite adoremus, Dominum!