Pious Jesus

The Christmas liturgy uses of Psalm 2 a lot. I suppose this is because of  verse 7: “The Lord said to me: you are my son, today I have begotten you.” But it is illuminating to read the rest of the Psalm in the light of the Christmas mystery (and visa versa). The introit of Midnight Mass uses verse 7 as the antiphon, but verse 1 as the verse: “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” If one reads on, one sees that the nations rage because they do not want to serve God: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his Christ, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.'” Their opposition to God stems from an unwillingness to serve Him, to submit to Him. This is seen as irksome because it seems to be contrary to liberty. As St. Thomas argues:

Every aversion towards God has the character of an end insofar as it is desired under the notion of liberty, as according to the words of Jeremiah (2:20): For a long time you have broken the yoke, you have broken bonds, and you have said, ‘I will not serve.’ (ST IIIa Q8, A7, r.)

This is a sin against what St. Thomas calls the virtue of “religion”– rendering to God His just due. St. Augustine calls this virtue “piety,” but points out that this word has various other meanings as well:

Piety, again, or, as the Greeks say, εὐσέβεια, is commonly understood as the proper designation of the worship of God. Yet this word also is used of dutifulness to parents. The common people, too, use it of works of mercy, which, I suppose, arises from the circumstance that God enjoins the performance of such works, and declares that He is pleased with them instead of, or in preference to sacrifices. From this usage it has also come to pass that God Himself is called pious… (Civ. Dei X,1)

Now, all of these senses of piety are involved in the Christmas mystery. Mankind having rebelled against through impious pride, God looks down on them with merciful pietas and decides to send them his son. And of course His Son gives comes not in power, but in weakness, a piteous baby. God woes man, conquering man’s pride with his humility. And then of course this baby gives an example of piety toward His human parents. My favorite Christmas sermon of all time is Bl. John Henry Newman’s Omnipotence in Bonds which is all about this point:

And so, like some inanimate image of wood or stone, the All-powerful lies in the manger, or on her bosom, doubly helpless, both because His infancy is feeble, and because His bonds are strong. It is in this wise He was shown to the shepherds; thus He was worshipped by the wise men; thus He was presented in the Temple, taken up in Simeon’s arms, hurried off to Egypt by night, His tender Mother adoring the while that abject captivity to which it was her awful duty to reduce Him. So His first months passed; and though, as time went on, He grew in stature, and burst His bonds, still through a slow and tedious advance did He enter on His adolescence. And then, when for a moment He anticipated His mission and sat down among the Doctors in the Temple, He was quickly recalled by His Mother’s chiding, and went back again to her and Joseph, and, in the emphatic words of the text, was “subject unto them.” […]  I glory in [this], for I see in it the most awful antagonism to the very idea and essence of sin, whether as existing in Angels or in men. For what was the sin of Lucifer, but the resolve to be his own master? What was the sin of Adam, but impatience of subjection, and a desire to be his own god? What is the sin of all his children, but the movement, not of passion merely, not of selfishness, not of unbelief, but of pride, of the heart rising against the law of God, and set on being emancipated from its trammels? What is the sin of Antichrist, but, as St. Paul says, that of being “the Lawless One,” of “opposing or being lifted up against all that is called God, or worshipped, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself as if he were God”? If, then, the very principle of sin is insubordination, is there not a stupendous meaning in the fact, that He, the Eternal, who alone is sovereign and supreme, has given us an example in His own Person of that love of subjection, which in Him alone is simply voluntary, but in all creatures is an elementary duty? O my Brethren, let us blush at our own pride and self-will.

The Debate on Tradition

I have just been reading parts of the debate at Vatican II on the sections of Dei Verbum dealing with Apostolic TraditionRatzinger summarizes the debate in his commentary, and now I have read translations of some of the actual speeches of the council fathers. Part of the debate is quite similar the discussion that has been going on in the comment thread of my post on unwritten Tradition. I have been defending there the account of Tradition developed by by Pope Benedict XVI long before he became pope. He understands Tradition as “the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf.  Jn 16:12-13),” and the “remembering” by which the Church “can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word.” Aelianus and Thomas Cordatus have been objecting that Ratzinger’s account seems dangerously close to the modernist idea of continuing Revelation. They insist that Tradition must be the handing on of definite ideas, though not in set formulas.

Very similar objections were brought up by some of the council fathers in the debate on Dei Verbum. The peritus Ratzinger had given a speech which had influenced the 4th draft of the Document–especially Article 8–and several of the fathers objected to this. Here is Ratzinger’s summary:

The dynamic concept of tradition, with which the Council here develops its positive conception of traditio, was strongly attacked from two quite opposite directions. On the one hand, Cardinal Ruffini rejected it from his position of traditionally neoscholastic theology, but on the other, Cardinal Leger attacked it from an ecumenical standpoint. In spite of the sharp division in their general theological orientations, the arguments of these two Council fathers were astonishingly similar Ruffini firmly emphasized the idea of revelation being concluded with the death of the last Apostle, rejected the idea of including disciples of the Apostles among the origins of revelation, and opposed the idea of a living and growing revelation, for, in accordance with the text of Trent and Vatican I, he considered that this should be mentioned only in connection with a strong emphasis on the strict unchangeability of a revelation that had been concluded once and for all, with which he referred to an appropriate text by Vincent de Lerins, quoted at both Councils. In the concept of the schema, and especially in its emphasis on spiritual experience as a principle of the growing knowledge of revelation, he detected theological evolutionism, condemned as modernism by Pius XII. In another tone and with other reasons Cardinal Leger insisted on the same point, He found that the Schema, especially in its idea of progress, which seemed to refer not only to the knowledge of tradition, but tradition itself (Haec … Traditio … proficit), blurred the strict distinction between apostolic and post-apostolic tradition and endangered the strict transcendence of divine revelation when it was confronted with the statements and actions of the teaching office of the Church. The Cardinal was concerned that the Church should bind itself firmly to the final and unchangeable word of God, that does not grow, but can only be constantly assimilated afresh and cannot be manipulated by the Church. The Theological Commission considered the question carefully, but decided not to make any major alterations in the text. It pointed out that the clause ” … Traditio proficit” is explained by a second clause “crescit … tam rerum quam verborum perceptio“, i.e. the growth of tradition is a growth in understanding of the reality that was given at the beginning. (Commentary pp.186-187)

A key question here is the interpretation of John 16:12-13: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The two sides interpret these verses in almost opposite senses. Ratzinger takes it to refer to the “livingness” of tradition through all the ages, Ruffini takes it to refer to the completion of the Revelation in the Apostolic Age. Here is a translation of a translation of Ruffini:

The Divine Revelation, which we must accept with that faith which we owe to God alone, was completed with the death of the last Apostle, which the historical tradition tells us was the Apostle John. For, on the night before His death, Jesus said to His Apostles gathered in the cenacle: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” These words are as clear as the sun. If the Holy Spirit will teach the Apostles all truth, then one cannot expect any more truths after the time of the Apostles which could be part of  the depositum revelationis […] The draft says of Tradition that it lives and grows. These words the Council of Trent borrowed from Vincent of Lerins; but here in this draft the words of Trent are sadly mangled and abbreviated. Therefore I beg, for the love of truth, that the witness of Trent might be quoted in full: Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding. May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding. I will boldly speak my mind, venerable fathers […] the draft presented can scarcely be reconciled with the magnificent teaching of Trent. [For we read in the draft that] Tradition grows not only through contemplation […] but also through the interior experience of spiritual things. Such experience seems at least hardly distinguishable from the “religious sense” that the courageous defender of the Catholic Faith, Pope St. Pius X, condemned in  his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Cardinal Ruffini’s rhetoric is magnificent, but it had hardly any effect on the final version of Dei Verbum, which left almost unchanged the passages to which he objected. Bl. Pope John Paul II saw this question, or rather the Ruffini-ite answer to it, as the main error of Archbishop Lefebvre. In the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei he has written:

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.

Unwritten Tradition

Searching through the passages of Catholic teaching on the relation of Scripture and Tradition in the indispensable pdf of Denzinger-Hünermann, I was struck by how often they use some variation on the formula “written or unwritten” to refer to Scripture and Tradition respectively. This seems to be derived from the locus classicus on these things 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brothers, be steadfast, and preserve the traditions you were taught by us whether by word of mouth or by letter.” The teaching of the Apostle is both written and unwritten, and this is true of Apostolic Teaching in general: it is handed down in two forms, distinguished by whether they are written or not. Thus the Council of Trent:

[This Gospel] our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions [in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus] which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted [traditae] as it were from hand to hand.

Now, one can ask are these “unwritten traditions” essentially unwritten, or is their unwrittenness merely an accident; that is, are they doctrines which the Apostles simply didn’t get around to writing down, but could in principle be written down later, or are they the sort of thing that can’t be written down. Continue reading

St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Walks through a Slum


The following passage was written by St Rafael Arnaiz Barón in 1934 when he had been forced to leave his monastery for the first time. Original: Apología del trapense, in: Obras Completas 267-269. Translated with the help of the German. When I first read this passage I thought of the distributist blogger Daniel Nochols, and especially of his would-be revolutionary commentator Owen White. I thought of it again when Pope Francis was elected, with his great emphasis on the question of poverty– from which we have much to learn.

When I left the church it was night. I did not direct my steps to the city center, but headed for the outlying neighborhoods … There one sees the usual: material and moral poverty… The dirty, black houses, occasionally gave a view of their badly lit interiors. The smell of dust and moisture, disheveled women screaming at the children, playing in the brook… Dirty, poorly lit streets,. The shops are sell nothing but the bare necessities … bread and sandals. Occasionally, a tavern which emits a smell of tobacco, wine and cheap food. All this under an overcast sky without stars…
These are the people, the poor people. Hunger is a commonplace, and the inhabitants of the city center, do not come here, lest they be disturbed by this misery. In the center there are luxury shops, the houses have a doorman and elevator, no neon signs in the theaters, and bright, clean cars glide across asphalt without without splattering themselves with mud or crashing into children playing in the brook.
And yet both the poor and the rich are children of God, all have the same miseries and the same sins… But one day, when God judges, how surprised we’ll be! The desperation of the hungry can be justified, but the selfishness of those who have money, and consider the poor a nuisance, that is unforgivable.
When those above forget God, what wonder that those below rebel?… Do not go to the poor to preach patience and resignation, but go rather to the rich and tell them that if they are not just and do not give of their possessions the wrath of God will fall upon them.
As I walked through these neighborhoods, I was overcome with indignation and shame. The God is banished from society, the more misery spreads. And if in a town which is called Christian creatures hate each other because of class interest, and are separated into rich and poor neighborhoods, what will happen on the day that God’s name is cursed by both?… If the poor are deprived of the idea of ​​God, they have nothing left. Their despair is justifiable, their hatred of the rich is natural, their desire for revolution and anarchy is logical.  And if the rich find the idea of God bothersome, if they  ignore the precepts of the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus … then they have no reason to complain. And if their selfishness prevents them from approaching the poor, then they should not be surprised that the poor intend to seize their possessions by force.
Seeing society as it is today, what Christian does not feel pain in the soul to see it thus? … When I think that all social conflicts, all differences could disappear if we payed a little attention to the God who was so abandoned in the church I had just visited… When I think of the tragedy presented by human life, and that all this hatred and jealousy, selfishness and falsehood could disappear if we looked to God… When I see how easy it would be for men to find the key to happiness, but that in there blindness or madness they do not want to see… then I can only exclaim: Lord … Lord, look on your suffering people… The people are not bad, Lord… but if you abandon them, who will, Lord, survive? … What can we do ourselves? Nothing, absolutely nothing … If you averted your eyes from the world for even a moment, the whole  world would sink back into chaos… Forgive us, Lord.

St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Among the Vegetables; or the Trappist as a Conquistador

rafael arnaiz baron

I have been reading a German translation of the writings of the 20th century Spanish Trappist, St Rafael Arnáiz Barón. There is no English translation of his writings, but here is a very rough translation of one wonderful passage.  (Original: Hno. Rafael Arnaiz Barón, tomado de su “Obras completas”, Mi cuaderno – San Isidro, 12 de diciembre de 1936, Sábado, 25 años.)

The Antics of the Turnips

Three o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day in December. It’s time for work, and as it’s Saturday and very cold we don’t go out to the fields. We work in a room where lentils are washed, potatoes peeled, collards chopped etc … we call it the  “laboratorium.”

There is a long table here with benches, and a window with a crucifix above it.

It is a gloomy day. The clouds are dark. The wind blows with fitful indecision. A few drops of water fall reluctantly, licking the glass. And above all there is the cold – a cold worthy of the season and the country.

The truth is that apart from the cold, which I can feel in my frozen feet and chilled hands, I see these things mostly in my imagination, since I have hardly glanced at the window. The afternoon is dark and everything appears sad to me. I find the silence oppressive, and it appears that some little devils are determined to tease me with what I call “memories”… have patience and wait. Continue reading

The funniest line in Bl. Columba Marmion’s letters

I have been reading a collection of the English letters of Bl. Columba Marmion. Unlike in the more famous collection of his letters, the letters here are given in full – including the funny parts. Here is the funniest bit of all, from a letter of spiritual direction to an English nun:

I should be so glad to complete what I consider to be God’s work in your soul, by delivering you over completely to Our Dear Lord “Who has looked down on your lowliness” and wants you all to Himself (no accounting for tastes) .

No accounting for tastes! He isn’t just being flippant either; he was very aware of the dangers of flattery. In another letter to the same correspondent he gives the theological point which makes his joke the opposite of cruel:

God’s glory, as derived from us, consists principally in the infinite condescensions of His mercy. The more miserable and unworthy we are, – provided we have a good will and seek Hirn sincerely, – the more is His mercy exalted in stooping down to our misery. “There is more joy in Heaven before God’s Angels for one sinner who does penance, than for the 99 who need not penance”; and there is more glory given to God when He condescends to stoop down to a poor, mean, selfish, ordinary creature, than when He communicates Himself to one of those grand, noble, superior natures which, to our eyes, seem to claim His notice. St. Paul understood this so weIl: “He hath chosen the weak and despicable things of this world to confound the strong,” etc; ut non glorietur in conspectu ejus omnis caro,” “That man should not glory in His sight.”

Friedrich Wessely on Confession IV (4)


(See: introductory poststatic page)

(Examination of Conscience continued:)

The Invocation of the Holy Spirit

All instructions on Confession agree that one ought to begin the examination of conscience by calling the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete to one’s aid. This helps us to see the vital point that we must examine our consciences with our hearts full of faith. We must try to look on ourselves as it were with God’s eyes. God knows the graces that He has abundantly sowed in our hearts that they might bear fruit, that they might conform us every more clearly to the image of His Son. The Son of God desires to be able to recognize in us friends and brothers. The Holy Spirit has filled us with His gifts that in our daily work we might ever more become instruments of His love. If one realizes this then one will see how far short of the ideal one falls. Even if one confesses regularly one will see how numerous were the sins of omissions one committed, how many graces one squandered, how bitterly (in human terms) one’s conduct must have disappointed God. The saints wept bitter tears over their sinfulness. They did not do so out of unhealthy exaggeration, but out of a deep knowledge of their souls, a bright light helped them to see their own unworthiness. If we ask Him, God will give this light to us as well.

(to be continued)

Sabbath Breaking

Tilman Riemenschneider, Last Supper - Detail

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.  And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath.  But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (John 5:15-17)

Charity alone is his changeless and eternal rest, his eternal and changeless tranquillity, his eternal and changeless Sabbath [. . .] For his charity is his very will and also his very goodness, and all this is nothing but his being. (St Aelred of Rievaulx, Speculum Caritatis I,19)

It is hard to fathom the enormity of accusing the Eternal Son of breaking the Sabbath. He IS the Sabbath. In Him the Father rests with infinite contentment, and together they breath that eternal sigh of love fulfilled that is the Holy Spirit. All of creation is ordered to entry into that seventh day of the Divine Life. The Son longs to give us a share of His eternal rest, but we have turned against that rest, through our sins we have banished ourselves to a world of toil and trouble. And so He is still at work He comes into the world to create us all over again, to liberate us from the task-masters of Egypt, and bring us into the promised land of the true and eternal Sabbath.

The healing of the cripple in John 5 is a sign of this new creation that God has already begun to make. And for this they accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath! But isn’t the accusation that the Pharisees make one that we make as well? I was thinking of this other day when I was complaining in my heart about some minor bureaucratic frustration; wasn’t I in fact telling Our Lord, ‘stop breaking my Sabbath’? He is at work in our lives; everything that His providence ordains for us is meant to help to create us anew, to destroy the old man and his works and bring the new man to life, so that we may enter ever more into that eternal rest which is the very life of the Triune God.