St. Thomas on Job

Perhaps after finishing Gregory’s Moralia I shall read St. Thomas’s Commentary on Job. Jeremy Holmes has a splendid introduction to the new English translation at the Aquinas Institute for Sacred Doctrine. He makes an interesting point about the constraints that a commentary makes on its author, as opposed to a speculative work such as the Summa Contra Gentiles:

Everyone knows that the artist flourishes under constraint: the poet’s creativity is unlocked, not diminished, by a rigid sonnet structure; the architect’s brilliance emerges especially under the demands of an unusual terrain; the painter’s genius rises to the challenge of a fresco where ceiling and walls dictate the contours. The same is true of a theologian. It is one thing to compose a treatise on divine providence in the open spaces of unshackled speculative reason; it is quite another thing to teach about divine providence through respectful engagement with the complicated, pungent, and often obscure poetry of Job.

In St. Gregory’s case, “constraint” is perhaps not the right word, as he uses Job as an occasion to talk about everything. As Gregory explains, he sees what we might call “going off on tangents” as a duty of the commentator:

He who explains the word of God should imitate the behavior of a river. when a river flows in its bed and the side of the bed dips down, the river promptly turns its course to include the dip. When it has filled the lower level, the river returns to its normal course. the one who explains God’s word should act in like manner; whoever is explaining something and notices a chance occasion of edification close at hand should direct the waters of eloquence there, as though it were a dip at the side, and then when the lower ground has been inundated by instruction, he may return to his former discourse. (Moralia, Letter to Leander, 2)

St. Gregory’s Moralia

I have started reading St. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job in the new English translation by Brian Kerns, O.C.S.O., only occasionally checking a pdf of the Latin. It’s an enormous work—about the length of Augustine’s City of God and Confessions combined— and I have only got through book I, but so far it fully justifies its reputation as a masterpiece.

Scripture, St. Gregory tells us, is “a river both shallow and deep, in which a lamb walks and an elephant swims.” In his commentary (at least in book I— the editorial introduction that the procedure changes later on) Gregory interprets each passage in three senses. First he interprets a few verses in the “historical” sense as applying to Job, and then goes back and interprets them again in an allegorical sense as referring to Christ the head, and then goes back and interprets them a third time in a moral sense as applying to Christ’s body, the Church. He thus takes what we would call the anagogical sense as part of the moral sense.

One theme that struck me particularly in reading book one was hope (perhaps because I had just preached a retreat on that virtue). Here is Gregory on how the burden of earthly life is unbearable without hope:

What indeed could be heavier or more burdensome than to bear the troubles of a passing world without any hope of reward to relieve the mind? (1.XV.22)

Et quid esse gravius atque onustius potest, quam afflictionem saeculi praetereuntis perpeti, et nequaquam ad relevationem mentis gaudia remunerationis sperare?

And again on a donkey as a figure of how hopes makes the burdens of life bearable:

So he offers his shoulders to bear burdens, for he has spotted eternal rest, and he obeys difficult orders at work, regardless of anything his natural weakness may and impossible; he believes it to be light and easy, in hope of the reward. (1.XVI.24)

Quae ad portandum humerum supponit; quia conspecta superna requie, praeceptis etiam gravibus in operatione se subjicit, et quidquid intolerabile pusillanimitas asserit, hoc ei leve ac facile spes remunerationis ostendit.

At the same time I have been reading Benoît Peeters’s Derrida biography, and I was struck by a line from a letter written by the young Derrida to a friend: “If the only thing we can share in this world is despair, I’ll be ready to share it with you, always.” (p. 90). Too things struck me about that line: the first is the inescapable human orientation toward the common good; even in the apparent absence of anything good, one must at least convert one’s despair into a good to be shared. The second is how well the sadness of the line illustrates St. Gregory’s point: what could be heavier or more burdensome than despair?

The Sorrowfulness of the Secular State

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is certainly not an ‘integralist’ in my sense of the word, but there are moments when he comes very close. Consider the following passage of The Yes of Jesus Christ,  written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger:

the greatness of soul of the human vocation reaches beyond the individual aspect of human existence and cannot be squashed back into the merely private sphere. A society that turns what is specifically human into something purely private and defines itself in terms of a complete secularity (which moreover inevitably becomes a pseudo-religion and a new all-embracing system that enslaves people)— this kind of society will of its nature be sorrowful, a place of despair: it rests on a diminution of human dignity. A society whose public order is consistently determined by agnosticism is not a society that has become free but a society that has despaired, marked by the sorrow of man who is fleeing from God and in contradiction with himself. A Church that did not have the courage to underline the public status of its image of man would no longer be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city set on a hill. (p. 76)

For this Man Seeketh not Peace to this People, but Evil: A Sermon

The following is an English Version of the sermon that I preached in the parish church of Pfaffstätten on the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2016. The reading of Jeremiah owes much to Ratzinger’s reflections on Jeremiah in Auf Christus schauen.


Brothers and sisters, in the first reading we heard how Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern, and sinks into the mud. Jeremiah’s whole life as a prophet has been marked by the rejection of his prophecies. And now, as an old man, he is again at the point of his death, because his prophecy is so unacceptable to the people. What is so offensive about Jeremiah’s prophecy? Jeremiah is prophesying the defeat of the people, and therefore he appears to be a Volksveräter and a defeatist, giving councils of despair, and thus aiding the Babylonian tyrant, Nebuchadnezzar:

And the princes said to the king: We beseech thee that this man may be put to death: for on purpose he weakeneth the hands of the men of war, that remain in this city, and the hands of the people, speaking to them according to these words: for this man seeketh not peace to this people, but evil.

This scene takes place during the reign of King Zedikiah. Zedikiah’s brother had been taken off to Babylon as an exile with many treasures from the temple, and Zedikiah himself had been installed as a puppet king, bound by oath to obey Nebuchadnezzar. But now, Zedikiah wants to free Judah from the Babylonians. The false prophet Hananiah supports him, telling him that the Lord will surely help his people to free themselves from the Babylonian yoke. And so of course people are upset by Jeremiah’s prophecy. Why can’t Jeremiah “get with the programme”? Doesn’t he realize that God must want the liberation of His people? Doesn’t He realize that God is a God of hope, not of despair? Doesn’t He realize that the message of God must be a “Frohbotschaft” not a “Drohbotschaft“? Continue reading

Solemn Profession of Vows in Heiligenkreuz

The video embedded above shows the Mass of the Assumption in Heiligenkreuz yesterday, during which four of my confrères made their solemn profession of vows. The Assumption is the patronal feast of all Cistercian churches, and it is very often the occasion of vows. During the glorious liturgy I thought back to the first time that I witnessed solemn vows in Heiligenkreuz on the Assumption day of the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. It was then that I decided to enter Heiligenkreuz myself. And, of course, I thought back to my own solemn vows on Assumption day of 2010. Each subsequent Feast of the Assumption has been for me a renewal of joy and gratitude at being a monk of this abbey. Continue reading

Chaste Fear

In Josef Pieper’s brilliant little book On Hopethere is a puzzling remark on the Patristic term “chaste fear” (timor castus) for the filial fear of God. He says the term is “no longer wholly comprehensible to us today” (“eine…unserem Verständnis nicht mehr ganz erschließbare Wortverbindung”). This remark is puzzling because the distinction that Pieper goes on to make between servile fear and filial fear as based on the love of concupiscence and the love of benevolence seems to give a perfectly obvious reason for giving filial fear the name “chaste.” It is surely not too difficult to see why one would call the love of benevolence, the love that wishes well to the one loved, “chaste” when one is distinguishing it from the love of concupiscence that desires to enjoy the beloved.  (Although of course, one has to emphasize that the love of concupiscence is not necessarily “unchaste” in the sense of the sin of unchastity; both sorts of love are necessary). And so it makes sense that one would carry the epithet “chaste” from the love to the fear that is founded in it.

Servile fear is the fear of the slave who fears to hear from the master: “I do not know you, depart from me.” It is the fear not only of the punishment of the senses in damnation, but above all of of the essential punishment of damnation: the absolute loneliness of being deprived of the vision of God. The slave once to behold the master whom he loves, and he wants to be known and approved of by the master. He wants the master to give him glory, doxa, recognition: “You good and faithful servant.” And he is afraid of the eternal loss of that glory— eternal shame and bitterness.

Filial fear is the fear of the son who fears that anything be done against the beloved Father. It is the fear above all that he should himself do anything against the Father. It flows from desire for the good of the beloved, not for desire for the son’s own good.

This shows why both forms of fear are necessary as long as we are in via, and have not arrived at our heavenly goal. “Chaste fear” should become ever more dominant, but servile fear ought not to pass away entirely, because we ought to desire our own union with God, and the unspeakable happiness of attaining to the one whom we love.

The Great Concavity

Matt Bucher and Dave Laird invited me to be a guest on the latest episode of their David Foster Wallace podcast, The Great Concavity. We had a thought provoking conversation, and a lot of fun. (I also make some dumb mistakes, eg. at the beginning when I am talking about the Cistercian order and put our founding in the wrong century). I got to discuss the dissertation that I have been writing about Wallace and moral theology, which will hopefully be done soon, and to hear a summary of Dave’s master’s thesis on Christian soteriology in Infinite Jest. 

I have blogged a little about Wallace in the past; here are some of my posts:

Learn With What Sorrow She Was Inflamed

The sinful woman in Luke 7:37-50 is traditionally identified with Mary Magdalene, whose Feast we celebrate today (a Feast recently raised from a Memorial in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite). A picture of the scene in the refectory of my monastery bears the following inscription: Discite quo dolore ardet, quae flere et inter epulas non erubescit. (“Learn with what sorrow she was inflamed who wept amidst the feasting, and did not blush.”) The inscription is taken from a sermon of St. Gregory the Great’s, and it has always struck me as a very moving thought. The strength of her contrition gives her a fortitude that can withstand embarrassment. It is not the most heroic kind of fortitude, but it is a kind that is often needed. Here is the passage in context:

Cogitanti mihi de Mariae poenitentia, flere magis libet quam aliquid dicere. Cuius enim vel saxeum pectus illae huius peccatricis lacrymae ad exemplum poenitendi non emolliant? Consideravit namque quid fecit, et noluit moderari quid faceret. Super convivantes ingressa est, non iussa venit, inter epulas lacrymas obtulit. Discite quo dolore ardet, quae flere et inter epulas non erubescit.

(When I reflect on Mary’s penitence it seems better to weep than to speak. For whose heart is so stony that the tears of this sinner would not soften it to follow her example of penitence? She considered what she had done, and so she did not wish to moderate what she did. She came in upon those feasting, she came without invitation, and offered her tears in the feast. Learn with what sorrow she was inflamed who wept amidst the feasting and did not blush.)

Header image: Veronese

Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra

Jacob Klein’s work on the difference between the transformation of the ancient concept of number in modernity, showing how the that transformation stands at the roots of modern science and philosophy, is I think the most illuminating work on modern origins that I have ever read.  Klein’s friend Strauss once wrote the following of Klein’s work:

Klein was the first to under stand the possibility which Heidegger had opened without intending it: the possibility of a genuine return to classical philosophy, to the philosophy of Aristotle and of Plato, a return with open eyes and in full clarity about the infinite difficulties which it entails. He turned to the study of classical philosophy with a devotion and a love of toil, a penetration and an intelligence, an intellectual probity and a sobriety in which no contemporary equals him. Out of that study grew his work which bears the title Greek Logistics and the Genesis of Algebra. No title could be less expressive of a man’s individuality and even of a man’s intention; and yet if one knows Klein, the title expresses perfectly his individuality, his idiosyncracy mentioned before. The work is much more than a historical study. But even if we take it as a purely historical work, there is not, in my opinion, a contemporary work in the history of philosophy or science or in “the history of ideas” generally speaking which in intrinsic worth comes within hailing distance of it. Not indeed a proof but a sign of this is the fact that less than half a dozen people seem to have read it, if the inference from the number of references to it is valid. Any other man would justly be blamed for misanthropy, if he did not take care that such a contribution does not remain inaccessible to everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik and in addition does not read German with some fluency. One cannot blame Klein because he is excused by his idiosyncracy.

An English translation of Klein’s masterpiece was soon made by Eva Brann, and remains readily available. And a detailed exposition of it has recently been published by Burt Hopkins. But until today the German original remained inaccessible to “everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik.” But today, having found a copy in the library of the University of Vienna, I made a scan, and have uploaded it here, so that now anyone with an internet connection can read Klein in the original.

Secularized Fraternity or Solidarity and the Failure of the European Union

The Preamble to the Treaty of Lisbon, recognizes the influence of “religion” on its “values,” but it sees these values— including solidarity between peoples— as universal and secular. Thus it states:

DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law […] DESIRING to deepen the solidarity between their peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions […]

Now that Brexit has become Brexibat, and the supposed ‘direction’ of European history has been called into doubt, Pope St. Pius X (if he were still alive today) might be forgiven for saying “I told you so.” In his Apostolic Letter Notre Charge ApostoliqueSt. Pius X rejected the idea that “universal solidarity” or “fraternity”  could be established on any firm basis apart from the Catholic Faith. Fraternity founded on “the love of common interest or, beyond all philosophies and religions, on the mere notion of humanity” is soon swept away by “the passions and wild desires of the heart.” No, he writes, “there is no genuine fraternity outside Christian charity.” Indeed, even if it could succeed a fraternity merely based on enlightened self-interest and a common recognition of humanity would not even be desirable:

By separating fraternity from Christian charity thus understood, Democracy, far from being a progress, would mean a disastrous step backwards for civilization. If, as We desire with all Our heart, the highest possible peak of well being for society and its members is to be attained through fraternity or, as it is also called, universal solidarity, all minds must be united in the knowledge of Truth, all wills united in morality, and all hearts in the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ. But this union is attainable only by Catholic charity, and that is why Catholic charity alone can lead the people in the march of progress towards the ideal civilization.

This thesis of Pope St. Pius X’s is actually a common place of Catholic Social Teaching. Russell Hittinger has even argued  (with only slight exaggeration) that of the three ideals of the French Revolution— liberty, equality, and fraternity — the Roman Pontiffs have been especially troubled by fraternity. Quite recently, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI echoed his predecessors on this point:

Will it ever be possible to obtain this brotherhood by human effort alone? As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is. (¶ 19)

Catholic Social Teaching has long noted that three ideals of the French Revolution are secularized Christian ideals. Pope St. John Paul II was re-iterating and old thesis in his controversial (and often misunderstood) homily at Le Bourget in 1980. Unfortunately, however, parts of the le Bourget homily, and other recent magisterial teachings, seem to be endorsing a secularized universal fraternity. As the Lake Garda Statement puts it:

Today, however, the Church’s leaders present her role as merely that of proposing a “contribution” to a vast and quite hopeless neo-Pelagian project in which the United Nations or some other “world political authority” would serve as the juridical framework for a solidaristic world order in which “believers,” regardless of religion, and unbelievers would be co-equal participants.

And this despite the fact that St. Pius X’s words do seem to have been born in the 19th and 20th centuries. The universal brotherhood declared by the French revolutionaries had little weight against “the passions and wild desires of the heart.” The intellectual grasp of common humanity was drowned in the powerful pseudo-religions of nationalism, and ever more internecine wars tore Europe apart, culminating in the previously unimaginable carnage of World Wars I and II.

But after World War II it seemed that a new beginning was possible. The Schuman Declaration recognized that a merely abstract rational solidarity was not enough, and proposed taking concrete steps to fuse the interests of European nations together, hoping that out of the ‘de-facto solidarity’ of national self-interest well understood, a deeper solidarity would develop. Schuman himself, like many of the founding fathers of the EU, was devout Catholic. As Alan Fimister shows in his brilliant study of Schuman and Catholic Social Teaching, Schuman was hoping that the EU would become a new Christendom, inspired by a Faith, which at the time seemed to be reviving. But that is not what happened. As Fimister puts it in a recent article: “Schuman well understood […] that the European project of Christian Democracy, if it became anti-Christian, ‘would be a caricature which would sink into either tyranny or anarchy.’”

As Adrian Pabst has eloquently put it, the actual development of the EU has seen a fusion of “Anglo-Saxon free-market economics with continental bureaucratic statism.” That is, the “common interest” of EU has pursued by means of a violent and anti-traditional economic mechanism, and it’s rational “notion of humanity” has been given form (to quote Pabst again) in “Kantian morality of context-less duties, Weberian statecraft void of virtue, and Bismarckian quasi-military management of citizens through centralised welfare,” yielding a uninion that is “abstract, administrative and alien vis-a-vis its citizens.”

And yet, Pabst was arguing against Brexit, and many of his colleagues in Radical Orthodoxy have done the same. In his reaction to Brexibat, John Milbank writes:

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy.

Is this true? Can much of the spirit of either Burke or Cobbet be found anywhere in practical politics today? There certainly seems to be very little of either spirit on either side of the Brexit debate. Would that Leave and Remain could have both lost! One prominent Burkean, however, has made an argument virtually opposite to Milbank’s: Sir Roger Scruton. Scruton argues that the EU is really anti-European, and that by leaving the European Union the United Kingdom will have a chance at saving the best parts of the European heritage. But as for me, I think that Edmund Burke himself was right when, over two hundred years ago, he declared the glory of Europe was gone forever:

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.