An Easter Sermon for Contemplative Nuns

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

Christ drying the eyes of the Church

(The following is a translation of the sermon that I preached yesterday at the Carmel in Mayerling).

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb  (John 20:11). Dom Mauro Giussepe Lepori, Abbot General O.Cist, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this year. Afterwards he wrote the following:

From those first days in the Holy Land, particularly in Jerusalem at the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, I was deeply moved. At the same time, however, the more I went to the holiest sites of Christianity, the more I had to admit that I was not really aware of what they represented, nor of the events that had happened right there: that there in that place Christ had died, that there he had been buried and there he had risen, that there he had met Mary Magdalene and the other women, that Peter and John had ran there…. I felt that the Lord wanted to offer me something more than just simple emotions. On the morning of the third day, after having celebrated the Eucharist at half past four on the Tomb of Christ, I went to Calvary to pray Vigils. [...] The first reading of the monastic Vigils [was] from the Song of Songs. One sentence struck me deeply, as if Jesus himself was telling me it from the Cross: “You have seized my heart, my sister, my bride, you have seized my heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song 4:9).

In this verse Dom Mauro saw the whole mystery of salvation summed up: God allows his heart to be taken by by his people. Everything that He does in the created world He does out of the vehemence of this love:  “The whole Gospel and the whole history of Christian mysticism witness to how much the Lord, on every occasion, has incarnated and expressed his passionate love for the human person, his unreserved giving of himself.”

This love is so great that it could not be defeated by the unfaithfulness, the heartlessness, the cruelty of God’s people: “For a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” A love so great that it causes the eternal Son to descend into the darkness of this world to pursue His beloved. A love so great that it causes Him to live the poverty and drudgery of our existence for thirty years. A love by which He takes our punishment on Himself. A love so great that it turns the other cheek to our enmity in order to transform it. He who longed for a glance of love from the eyes of His bride saw therein the terrible glint of cruelty as we tortured and killed Him. A love so great that it moved Him to enter the darkness of the tomb. But a love so great that not even death itself could conquer it. He rose to new life in order to give us new life, in order to transform our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh that we might love Him again.

The Church is Mary Magdalene in the garden; the sinner who has repented and who now weeps with love for her Lord. And who then sees Him alive beyond hope. This is the life of the Church, the vocation of Christians; to weep for the Lord, and then to meet Him, to look at Him, to take his heart with that glance of the eyes, and to receive His love. And this is above all your vocation, venerable sisters, here in the Carmel, at the contemplative heart of the Church. It is your vocation to give your whole lives to the one thing necessary: the glance of the eyes that wins the heart of the bridegroom. It is not an easy vocation, since we cannot hold Him fast until He returns on the last day, but it is the most beautiful vocation. And today it is pure joy; today He comes and dries your tears, and calls to you, venerable sisters, with a love so strong that it shakes the earth to its foundations and melts the mountains like wax, a love that conquers death and bursts open the grave: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come” (Song 2:10-12).


“The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24) These words, even applied though it is Judas to whom they are applied, are astonishingly harsh, and yet they are not only applicable to Judas. Jerome writes, “it is better not to be, than to be in evil.” And, as Guardini writes, this could apply to any of us:

Aren’t there many days in our lives on which we sell him, against our best knowledge, against our most sacred feeling, in spite of duty and love, for some vanity, or sensuality, or profit, or security, or some private hatred or vengeance? Are these more than thirty pieces of silver? We have little cause to speak of “the traitor” with indignation or as someone far away and long ago.

In Acts 1:20 St Peter applies Psalm 108 [109]: 8 to Judas. It is profitable to read the whole Psalm in that light: Continue reading

In Praise of John Zmirak

Discarded Image

I’ve called John Zmirak a troll, but now he’s showing himself to be quite a funny, amusing sort of troll. He’s been trolling “illiberal Catholics” again, but this time it’s trolling de haut niveau, and I found it quite clever. The sociological points he makes about “illiberal Catholics” were highly amusing, and not without fundamentum in re. Trolling is an autotelic activity, and Zmirak presumably enjoys it for its own sake, but he is not merely trolling; he also has a serious point to make. So I want to respond to one of the Qs he puts to the likes of me:

Hasn’t the Church historically taken whatever is true in the secular world, used it as a common ground by which to approach the unbelievers, and tried to baptize and elevate it—rather than tear it all down and start from scratch in a barren wasteland. Wasn’t Augustine a patriotic Roman citizen? Or did he endorse the barbarian invasions in some text that you have uncovered from secret archives?

To which I answer: well, yes. In fact I do try to be patriotic (to both of my countries; I have dual citizenship) in the way in which Augustine was patriotic toward Rome. Here’s Augustine on Rome, and I (and I think most “illiberal Catholics”) would say the same sort of thing (mutatis mutandis) of current political (or imperial) communities:

This, then, is the place where I should fulfill the promise gave in the second book of this work, and explain, as briefly and clearly as possible, that if we are to accept the definitions laid down by Scipio in Cicero’s De Republica, there never was a Roman republic; for he briefly defines a republic as the good of the people. And if this definition be true, there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s good was never attained among the Romans. For the people, according to his definition, is an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests. And what he means by a common acknowledgment of right he explains at large, showing that a republic cannot be administered without justice. Where, therefore, there is no true justice there can be no right. For that which is done by right is justly done, and what is unjustly done cannot be done by right. For the unjust inventions of men are neither to be considered nor spoken of as rights; for even they themselves say that right is that which flows from the fountain of justice, and deny the definition which is commonly given by those who misconceive the matter, that right is that which is useful to the stronger party. Thus, where there is not true justice there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and therefore there can be no people, as defined by Scipio or Cicero; and if no people, then no good of the people, but only of some promiscuous multitude unworthy of the name of people. Consequently, if the republic is the good of the people, and there is no people if it be not associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and if there is no right where there is no justice, then most certainly it follows that there is no republic where there is no justice. Further, justice is that virtue which gives every one his due. Where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God and yields himself to impure demons? Is this to give every one his due? Or is he who keeps back a piece of ground from the purchaser, and gives it to a man who has no right to it, unjust, while he who keeps back himself from the God who made him, and serves wicked spirits, is just? (Civ. Dei IX,21)

What Abraham Did Not Do

“If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did.” (John 8:39-40)

The Catena Aurea includes the following comment of Origen on the passage above:

It might seem to some, that it were superfluous to say that Abraham did not this; for it were impossible that it should be; Christ was not born at that time. But we may remind them, that in Abraham’s time there was a man born who spoke the truth, which he heard from God, and that this man’s life was not sought for by Abraham. Know too that the Saints were never without the spiritual advent of Christ. I understand then from this passage, that every one who, after regeneration, and other divine graces bestowed upon him, commits sin, does by this return to evil incur the guilt of crucifying the Son of God, which Abraham did not do.  You do the works of your father.

The teaching here is so familiar that it is hard not to let it become a mere notion, a cliché, rather than the unspeakably terrible thing that it is. Bl. Columba Marmion writes:

[The soul] in voluntarily performing an action contrary to God’s will practically denies [...] that God is supreme goodness worthy of being preferred to all that is not Himself; it puts God beneath the creature. Non serviam: “I know Thee not, I will not serve Thee”, says this soul, repeating the words of Satan on the day of his revolt. Does it say them with the lips? No, at least not always; perhaps it would not like to do so, but it says them in act. Sin is the practical negation of the Divine perfections […] practically, if such a thing were not rendered impossible by the nature of the Divinity, this soul would work evil to the Infinite Majesty and Goodness; it would destroy God.

But the really astonishing thing is not the malice of sin, but the mercy of God in the face of that malice: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” (Romans 5:10)

Eurocrat Catholicism

Herman van Rompuy

President Herman van Rompuy (Photo: Council of the EU)

The Treaty of Lisbon–which is what they renamed the EU Constitution after its initial rejection– provides for a permanent president of the European Council. The former prime-minister of Belgium, Herman van Rompuy, is the first and (so-far) only person to have this office. I quiet, reserved sort of man, who writes poetry, van Rompuy is not as well known as the heads of the larger EU member states.  (In England he is probably best known for having been subjected to an angry rant by the head of UKIP). Rompuy is a devout Catholic. Recently he gave a speech in Heiligenkreuz  at a conference organized by the Kaiser-Karl-Gebetsliga. His speech was a quite eloquent presentation of a sort of a political philosophy quite common among western and central European “Christian Democrats,” and it was received by most of the audience with all the enthusiasm that eloquent statements of what people already think inspire.  A few however were not so enthusiastic, and I was among their number.

I see a kind of family resemblance between Eurocrat Catholicism (as I shall call it), the Anglophone “Whig Catholicism” which I have often attacked in the past. This might seem an odd claim as there are a great many obvious political differences between the typical patriotic, free-market, tea party Catholics of the US and the typical social-market-economist, anti-nationlist Christian democrat, but I claim that there are structural similarities in the way in which their Catholicism relates to their political ideas.

Van Rompuy speech was an appeal to Christians to support the ideal of reconciliation between nations which is the basis of the EU. He pointed out, quite rightly, that this ideal was an originally Christian-inspired one. Nearly all the founders of the EU were Catholics, and there is even a cause open for the beatification of the most important founder, Robert Schuman. As Alan Fimister has shown, Schuman was inspired to the founding of the EU by the social teaching of Pope Pius XII and the Christian humanism of Jacques Maritain. Van Rompuy emphasized the Christian inspiration for the work of reconciliation open which the EU was founded. The reconciliation of Germany and France was, he said, inspired by our Lord’s command to love one’s enemies. He also pointed to the Christian roots of the social market economy. He urged all Christians to support this project of reconciliation, peace, and prosperity.

The project of the EU, van Rompuy continued, is under threat on account of a crisis of European culture. “Europe is not a religious project, but the secular project of Europe begins to fail when the bearers of the idea of reconciliation, out of which it was born, falter.” Here we have the key word “secular.” For van Rompuy the secularity of the EU is something to be fully embraced by Christians. Secularism, he claimed, is the fruit of Christianity. The foundations of the autonomy of worldly authority were laid by the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 (a somewhat odd claim surely?).

I don’t disagree with van Rompuy that some Euroscepticism stems from a decline of Christian solidarity, but surely some Euroscepticism comes from the idea that the EU is dominated by an anti-Christian ideology that is accelerating the de-Christianization of Europe. One strand of the Eurosceptic right is quite explicit about this–think of Fidesz in Hungary, or in Austria of Ewald Stadler’s new party “Rekos.” Or think of the right wingers in Ukraine’s Maidan, and their attempt to separate the Maidan from its original pro-Eu program, as one of them said: “Europe means the death … of Christianity.” One doesn’t have to agree with the nationalist chauvinism and crankiness of the new European right to think that they might have a point w/r/t the EU.

From left to right: Archduke Lorenz of Austria-Este, Hermann van Rompoy, Abbot Maximilian of Heiligenkreuz, Bishop László Német of Zrenjanin in Serbia, Archduke Karl of Austria

From left to right: Archduke Lorenz of Austria-Este, President Hermann van Rompuy, Abbot Maximilian of Heiligenkreuz, Bishop László Német of Zrenjanin in Serbia, Archduke Karl of Austria

Van Rompuy was very explicit that the EU must remain an secular project: “a Christian does not believe in the erection of a ‘Christian Republic of Europe.’” Taken as a statement of principle–rather than as a banal assessment of the current situation–this is something with which Robert Schuman would certainly not have agreed. But van Rompuy immediately follows this with an even more radical statement: “it would be blasphemous to use the name of God for a political project.” It does not appear to have struck van Rompuy as odd to say such a thing at a conference sponsored by an organization which takes its name from the last Apostolic King of Hungary, Blessed Charles of Austria, by the Grace of God Emperor etc.

Is it really the explicit ordering to God that makes a political party blasphemous? Or is it not rather those political projects which in the name of “moderating” there ends try to insulate themselves from the divine? As I have argued before, “The attempt to insulate God from public life makes God irrelevant,” thus making faith implausible. But in addition to that all political projects which do not explicit order their subordinate common good to the most universal of all common goods, the Good Himself, tend quasi-inevitably to begin to set up their own perverse “highest good,” their own totalizing conception of the end of man.

Van Rompuy claims that the aims of the EU are moderate: “the EU was not founded to write the ‘end of history,’ or a ‘thousand year realm,’ nor was it conceived out of a Utopian ideal of the ideal state. Nevertheless it he does consider it “unique in human history.” And the confidence with which it promotes current progressive ideals ought to be breath taking. It is becoming ever clearer that those ideals are irreconcilable with Christianity.

But does this have any practical significance? Surely an explicitly Christian EU is not on the cards given the current situation anyways. Isn’t the best thing one can do the attempt to moderate its aims an encourage its good aspects? And that point doesn’t my disagreement with Rompuy amount to a mere verbal quibble? I think on the contrary that it means a totally different attitude toward powers that be. As head of the Christian Democrat Party of Belgium van Rompuy was willing to bow to the consensus on abortion, and even agreed to a juridical trick to neutralize the opposition of the Belgian King to an abortion law. Presumably he is “personally opposed” to abortion, but full adherence to the secular project means a respect for consensus values; it is not really reconcilable with opposition to “the world.” This is structurally the same problem that Whig Catholic Jody Bottum has run into with respect to gay marriage. Now there are of course plenty of Eurocrat Catholics who deplore van Rompuy’s handling of the abortion issue, just as there are lots of Whig Catholics who consider Bottum’s position on gay marriage a betrayal. But I think that in both cases such persons are not following the logic of their position as consistently as van Rumpuy or Bottum.

According to van Rompuy, “the Christian is not committed to any ideology or doctrine; man is the measure of all things.” It seems to me though, that that is an ideology, and not a very Christian one. It is the ideology of Protagoras.

Cardinal Kasper, Martyrdom, and Gianni Vattimo

The other day I was discussing Cardinal Kasper’s recent consistory speech (which argued for a new approach to “the problem of the divorced and remarried”) with some fellow doctoral candidates in moral theology. They had views fairly typical of the mainstream of German-language theology. Someone brought up the example of a young lady of her acquaintance who was abandoned by her husband at the age of 25. Someone else said that it was absurd that such a person should be martyred for a rule. They then claimed that the Church never requires anyone to suffer actual martyrdom, that to give the witness of one’s blood is a personal choice. This seemed to me a rather extraordinary claim. “Surely,” I said, “there are some situations in which one is bound to suffer martyrdom.” I pointed out that Kasper himself brings up the case of the “lapsi,” Christians who betrayed Christ during the Roman persecutions, and for whom the Church developed a process of penance and reconciliation (a “Baptism of tears”). If they had done nothing wrong why were they required to do penance? I don’t think that I was able to convince anyone. One person said that one might feel “personally morally bound” to shed one’s blood rather than burn incense in front of the statue of the emperor, but one couldn’t blame someone who chose differently, that such a person, under such duress, could hardly be said to have denied Christ.

I suppose I should not have found this position so surprising; if one can find a way around Matthew 19:9, then why not around Matthew 10:33?

I remember once hearing a similar position on martyrdom stated by the Italian nihilist  Gianni Vattimo. Vattimo is famous for the idea of “weak thought” (pensiero debole), and one can take his position on martyrdom as an example of  “weak faith.” Obviously this “weak faith” is quite a different thing from the full strength faith that the martyrs witnessed with their blood, and to which, in a lesser way, even the tears of the repentant lapsi gave witness. Vattimo is perfectly willing to admit this; in fact, he brought up the martyrdom thing to illustrate how his position is radically new. But the good people with whom I was discussing would certainly not want to admit this. Much less would Cardinal Kasper want to admit that his position amounts to something radically different from that of Mtt 10:33. But doesn’t it?


Why He Let Me Do It

From Abbot William of St. Thierry’s fourth meditation:

I, even I, Lord, am, as your Prophet has said, a man that sees my own poverty; I am poor and beset with troubles from my youth; having been lifted up, I have been humbled and put to shame. For you have brought me through such great and dire troubles, and then you have turned and led me back to life, you have brought me again from the deep of the earth. You have multiplied your mighty acts upon me; turning toward me, you have brought me comfort. For when of old in your paradise you created me, and gave me the tree of life for my possession, as of abiding right, you willed–or at least you allowed me–to reach my hand out also for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; you did this, so that I, who had grown weary of my inward blessings, might find what sort of outward action I could do, with the consent and help of Eve, my flesh. I tasted of the fruit and saw, not your graciousness but my own shame. I saw myself as one whose infamy needed a cloak to cover it, whose nakedness trembled to meet you, whose liberty required the constraint of laws. For I was found in your sight destitute of all the inward things men thought that I possessed; I was found shameful in my inward parts and found in them no refuge from myself, nor yet from you. And I, who had received the charge of ruling others, appeared as needing to be ruled myself!

Shche ne vmerla Ukraina

I once spent a month in Ukraine teaching English at a summer camp. Every morning we sang the marvelously defiant Ukrainian national anthem Shche ne vmerla Ukraina. I still know it by heart. Knowing the lyrics makes the following scene reported by the Guardian even more amazing:

The naval head, Denis Berezovsky, who on Sunday announced he was defecting to the Russian-backed Crimean authorities, addressed officers at naval command in Sevastopol to try to convince them to follow suit. But his replacement, Serhiy Haiduk, was also present and appeared to win the day.  The officers broke into applause as Haiduk read them an order from Kiev removing Berezovsky from his position, and told them that Berezovsky was facing treason charges. When Haiduk had finished his dry but compelling address, the officers spontaneously broke into the national anthem, and some were seen to cry. Berezovsky showed no visible sign of emotion.

Here is the anthem in full: