“A most fiery sting of yearning”

We have received the commandment to love God: the soul bears the capacity to love implanted within itself by God at its first constitution. Of this we need no proof from without, for each may discover the traces of what we say within himself and from himself. Every human being desires all that is good, and we are drawn by a kind of natural disposition towards all that we think to be good. Indeed, without being taught, we are drawn in love towards blood relatives and those closest to us in the flesh, while we are attached with our whole affection and good services to those from whom we receive benefits.

But what greater good can we have than God? Indeed, what other good is there but God alone (cf. Matt 19:17)? What loveliness, what splendour, what beauty which we are naturally moved to love is of such a kind as is in God and more claims our confidence? What grace is so great, what flame of love which sets alight the secret and inward places of the soul is like to that love of God which ought to inflame the hidden places of the mind, especially if it is cleansed of all defilement, if it is a pure soul which with true affection says: I am wounded by love (Song 2:5)?

The utterly ineffable love of God— as I at any rate experience it— which can be more easily experienced than spoken of, is a certain inexplicable light. Even if speech should cite or compare a lightning flash or a dazzling brilliance, still, the hearing cannot take it in. Invoke if you will the rays of the morning star, the splendours of the moon, or the light of the sun itself— in comparison with that glory they are all more obscure and murkier by far than an ink-black night and the gloom of a dense fog compared with the flawlessly clear light of the noon-day sun.

Such loveliness is not seen by bodily eyes; it is perceived only by the soul and the mind. If perchance this loveliness has grazed the mind and heart of the saints, it left embedded in them a most fiery sting of yearning for it,  till at length, as if languishing in the fires of such love and shuddering at this present life, such as these would say: When shall I come and appear before the face of God? (Ps 41:2), and again, one who is burning in the flames of this ardour would say: My soul has thirsted for the living God (Ps 41:1),  and being insatiable in his desire, would pray that he might see the delight of the Lord and find shelter in his holy temple (Ps 26:4). So therefore we naturally long for and love the good. (The Rule of St Basil)

Διδασκαλίας κόρος — Fastidium doctrinae

For the soul that is being trained according to God’s purpose must be either learning faithfully what it does not know, or teaching clearly what it knows. But if it wants to do neither, though able to do them, then it is mad. For to be sated with teaching and unable to bear the word, for which the soul of him who loves God is always hungry, is the beginning of apostasy.  (Palladius, Epistula ad Lausum).

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The True Doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers

In a recent post I claimed that «the Protestant doctrine of “vocation,” and the “priesthood of all believers”» are «vulgar, bourgeois distortions of Pauline theology.» But of course there are also orthodox, Catholic ways of understanding “vocation” and “the priesthood of all believers”. Today’s saint, Pope Leo Great, is a great teacher of the later truth. In Sermon IV, Pope St. Leo teaches as follows:

Although the Church of God as a whole has a hierarchical structure, so that the completeness of the sacred body consists in a diversity of members, “we are,” nevertheless, as the Apostle says, “one in Christ.” No one functions so independently of another that even the lowliest part does not have some relationship with the Head to which it is connected. In the unity of faith and Baptism, we have an undifferentiated fellowship, dearly beloved. and a uniform dignity.

So proclaims the most blessed apostle Peter when he says with these most sacred words: “And you yourselves should be built up like living stones into spiritual dwellings, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And later on he says: “You, however, are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart) All who have been regenerated in Christ are made kings by the sign of the cross and consecrated priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Apart from the particular service that our ministry entails, all Christians who live spiritual lives according to reason recognize that they have a part in the royal race and the priestly office. What could be more royal than the soul in subjection to God ruling over its own body? What could be more priestly than dedicating a pure conscience to the Lord and offering spotless sacrifices of devotion from the altar of the heart? Since this has been given to everyone alike through the grace of God, it is a devout and praiseworthy thing for you to take joy in the day of our elevation as if in your own honor. Let the episcopacy be celebrated in the entire body of the Church as one single mystery. When the oil of benediction has been poured out, the mystery flows, though more abundantly onto the higher parts, yet not ungenerously down to the lower ones as well.

The grace of Christ flows over His body, the Church, in a hierarchical manner. “Like the precious ointment on the head, that ran down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, Which ran down to the skirt of his garment” (Ps 132[133]:2). It is poured out on the Apostles and their successors, and from them it is given to the rest of us by means of the instrumental causality of the Sacraments.

Gregory on Envy and the Communicability of the Divine Good

But why do we say so much about envy if we do not also suggest how to get rid of it? It is indeed hard for people not to envy someone who has what they want to acquire. Concerning any material good that is acquired, the more it is divided among many owners, the less of it does any single person have. And that is why the mind of the one who wants it suffers so much from spite: one person who has what that one wants has either bought up the whole supply or has made it scarcer. The one, therefore, who wishes to be rid of the plague of spite for good must fall in love with that inheritance that is not used up by the number of coheirs. It is one for all and all for each one. The more abundant it is, the greater the multitude of those who receive it. (Moralia 5.XLVI.86)

Did St. Gregory the Great Teach Penal Substitution?

In my reading of St. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Iob I recently came across a passage that is famous for (supposedly) anticipating the Reformation era penal substitution theory of atonement:

It is to be explained, however, how God can be just, how he disposes all things wisely, if he condemns the one who does not deserve punishment. Our Redeemer surely should not be punished on his own account, because he did not do anything to bring guilt upon himself. But if he did not accept a death he did not deserve, he would never free us from the death we deserve. The Father is just; he punishes the just one. All his arrangements are just; therefore, he justifies every thing because he condemns the sinless one for the sake of sinners. All the chosen will rise to reach the summit of justice, because he who is above all things accepted the condemnation wrought by our injustice. (3.XIV.27)

He begins with a question that was to dominate later debate “how God can be just… if he condemns the one who does not deserve punishment.” But it is notable that his answer does not give an account of how atonement functions, but simply appeals to the general meaning of divine just: that He makes us just. As it stands Gregory’s reflection could be reconciled with any number of theories of atonement.

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?

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

The Fasting of the Avaricious

How clearly is the behavior of the rich expressed! They are grieved if they do not seize others’ property; they refuse food, they fast—not to atone for a sin but to commit a crime.  You may see them coming to church then, dutiful, humble, constant, in order to merit obtaining the successful outcome of their wickedness. (St. Ambrose, On Naboth)

The ideal type of the capitalistic entrepreneur… avoids ostentation and unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social recognition which he receives. His manner of life is, in other words, often, and we shall have to investigate the historical significance of just this important fact, distinguished by a certain ascetic tendency… (Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism)