Blog Template Theology of the Body: March 2009

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Indulgences on the Road: The Nuptial Church and the Ardent Christ

One of the central tenets of the doctrine of indulgences which waits to be developed is the authority of the Church as the Bride of Christ. While Martin Luther's 95 Theses accepted the doctrine of indulgences in a qualified sense, his most direct attack suggested that the nuptial Church, having been espoused to Christ, did not really share in His authority in a such a way as to assist her children and His. In other words, Luther's attack on the practices of indulgences presumed to question the Biblical revelation of the Church's espousals to her Lord.

In response, the papal Bull Exsurge Domine of Leo X did not hesitate to describe Luther as the fiesty schismatic that he was, in the vivid sense of a little fox who had, on the description of the Song of Songs, entered the Bridegroom's enclosed vineyard and spoiled the vines:

"Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter, as the head and your vicar and his successors...Give heed to the cause of the holy Roman Church, mother of all churches and teacher of the faith, whom you by the order of God, have consecrated by your blood...We beseech you also, Paul, to arise. It was you that enlightened and illuminated the Church by your doctrine and by a martyrdom like Peter's. For now a new Porphyry rises who, as the old once wrongfully assailed the holy apostles, now assails the holy pontiffs, our predecessors."

Pope Leo's reference to Luther as the New Porphyri hearkens back to St. Augustine's earlier accusations against the Gnostic who wished to posit God's total separation and attenuation from the creature by denying Christ's Incarnation:

For, even when His angels hear us, it is He Himself who hears us in them, as in His true temple not made with hands, as in those men who are His saints; and His answers, though accomplished in time, have been arranged by His eternal appointment ...though Moses conversed with God, yet he said, “If I have found grace in Your sight, show me Yourself, that I may see and know You.” (Exodus 33:13)...But Porphyry, being under the dominion of these envious powers, whose influence he was at once ashamed of and afraid to throw off, refused to recognize that Christ is the Principle by whose incarnation we are purified. Indeed he despised Him, because of the flesh itself which He assumed, that He might offer a sacrifice for our purification—a great mystery, unintelligible to Porphyry's pride, which that true and benignant Redeemer brought low by His humility, manifesting Himself to mortals by the mortality which He assumed.” (City of God X.12, 13, 24)

Against the slurs of all the historical Porphyris, and their recommendation of a purely juridical, attenuated relationship of the creature to God, the Catholic Church has always persisted in her quiet self-understanding of what it means to be nuptially one with her Lord by His incarnation and Passion, since she has been born from His side on the Cross, and joined to Him as though they were veritably become one flesh. And it is from this perspective that we can recognize that contrary to the inane claims of secular historians who posit the medieval period as one of ignorance and fear, we find instead an era which celebrates the most serious kind of intimacy.

There are two wonderful exhibits on display at Cluny which demonstrate this claim. The first, at bottom, is the famous display of the 16th century wool and silk tapestry cycle from Flanders, which is known as "The Lady with the Unicorn." Here, Christ is represented by the unicorn, (mythically celebrated as the pure being who can only be caught by a virgin), who, having pursued the lady who represents the Church, finally arrives at her tent; the final scene depicts her renouncing and unloading her jewels into a waiting treasure chest, under the words "to my sole desire." The sense of a nuptial gift is unmistakable.

The second example is quieter, tucked away in a series of 14th century sculptures retrieved from a small church in France. At first, what you see is another graceful image of the Virgin Mother, and her Child, for whom she renounced all things. But on closer inspection, you grasp the full meaning of God's joining Himself to us from her womb; He seems to be struggling to place a wedding ring on her finger.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Indulgences on the Road: The Gifts of the Magi

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus' sake. II Corinthians 4:5.

It is a fundamental of the Christian faith that there is always a vicarious element in the gifts which God bestows upon us, and in the glory which we return to Him. Because we can only have access to God through His Son, Jesus Christ, everything is mediated. This is the logic which the author of Ephesians sets forth when he explains the groundwork of the Christian life in Ephesians 5:1: "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Christ only gives Himself to us indirectly; His self-offering is first to the Father, for our sakes- to God, for us.

But the same logic works the other way around. Jesus explains that we serve Him in each other; the love which we would offer directly to Jesus must be offered through the neighbor, through the poor, through the weak, and through the needy in order for that love to be complete: "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me....I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 25: 40, 45) This much is clear: the whole law hangs on the two, intertwined and inextricable elements of the love for God and love for the neighbor, because God in Jesus of Nazareth has joined Himself forever and totally to His people.

One of the earliest commonplaces in the art of the Church is the depiction of the gifts of the Magi. Between the repositories of medieval art in Paris and Rome, I found this image everywhere. We are already used to seeing the infant Jesus depicted enthroned on the lap of His mother, and we are reminded that in this woman we all are both literally and figuratively represented, both to God and to ourselves, since it is by the redemption of the God-man, Christ the Lord, that this humble creature was purified totally by His grace and, by His grace, she was made able to join Him in everything; and this is the sum of our hope as creatures who are made alive by God's grace. Accordingly, the depiction of the adoration of the Magi always shows the two together; Jesus receives the gifts of the kings through His mother, on whose lap He sat.

The image of the adoration of the Magi accordingly shows how total is the union between God and the creature, because the infant Jesus recieves the gifts and adoration of the Magi through the custodianship of His creature. It is only natural for the gracious mother of a child to receive precious metals and spices, which are as yet unsuited to a child's needs; "and Mary treasured all of these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:19)

The Church's images are helpful to us as we seek to understand the depths of what Christ has done for us, as typified by His relationship to the maternal creature from whom He was clothed in our flesh, which He ever offers back to the Father for our sake. For example, the fifteenth century French panel (at top) shows the theological sequence from left to right; having given Himself over to the greater glory of the Father by joining humanity in His incarnation, Christ is glorified by the gifts which He receives in His creature, His mother; she in turn offers Him back to God at the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2); and this interaction is grounded in their union, as Savior and saved, Mother and Son, bride and bridegroom. The same interaction is depicted time and time again in various carved medieval altarpieces, (second from top) in which the gifts of the Magi is depicted with such critical events in salvation history as the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. The earlier 12th century French ivory panels (middle) depict the same sort of sequence and juxtaposition of the creature's offering to Christ and the Savior's offering to God; and in alignment with the idea of the offering of the self to God for the sake of others, the Magi also find themselves on 12th century reliquarii (top and third from bottom). In the final image, you can also see a third century panel from an early Christian sarcophagus, depicting Mary receiving gifts for her Son; this theme is present on almost every sarcophagus exhibited in the Vatican's world-class collection of early Christian art.

It is with these intuitions in mind that Pope Paul VI explains that the doctrine of indulgences uniquely sets forth key aspects of the Christian faith:

"Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Christian faithful have always endeavored to help one another on the path leading to the Father through prayer (and) the 'exchange of spiritual goods'...the more they have been immersed in the fervor of charity, the more they have imitated Christ in His sufferings... the more certain it is that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from the Father of mercies. This is the very ancient dogma of the Communion of Saints, whereby the life of each individual son and daughter of God, in Christ, and through Christ, is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all the Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the mystical Body of Christ." Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1967), V.

To God be the glory, who has given and received in us.

Monday, March 23, 2009

St. Nicholas and Medieval Depictions of the Gospel

Before the invention of the printing press in 1140, the Church of the medieval period relied on colorful and concrete depictions of the Gospel narrative to instruct her generally illiterate population. Even after the invention of the printing press (which for some odd reason, Martin Luther seemed to liken to a greater miracle than the descent of the Holy Spirit), only the very wealthy households could afford to own and maintain books as personal property. One of the most common and beautiful ways to instruct the faithful was to paint Biblical and historical images on the panes of window glass, which would be illumined for the faithful by the light of the sun. Some of the earliest panels and fragments of stained glass are on display at Cluny; the images shown above date to the 12th and 13th centuries. They demonstrate the Christocentric impulse of medieval spirituality and catachesis; this impulse is made all the more vivid by the depiction of the lives of the saints who were redeemed, sanctified, and empowered by Christ's grace to spread His Gospel in the world.

St. Nicholas was an especially popular medieval saint. The original "Santa Claus" and "Father Christmas" was a Turkish bishop of the third century who was present at Nicea and who loved the poor; his characteristic gesture was the anonymous provision of the all-important dowry for three impoverished young women, which provided for their subsequent marriages (third from the top, above).

From the top, the medieval panels show:

1) The Resurrection of the dead: I Corinthians 15: 51-53- Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.

2) Christ consoled by angels after His sojourn in the wilderness: Matthew 4:10-12- Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.' " Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

3) St. Nicholas provides a poor father with dowry for his three daughters

4) Scenes from the life of Jesus: annunciation to the Shepherds; angellic adoration; the advent of the New Jerusalem, as the fulfillment of the prior reign of the Law and the Synagogue.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Indulgences on the Road: Treasure Chests and the Treasury of Merit

If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. Philemon 1:18

The Catholic doctrine of the treasury of merit is based on the instructions of St. Paul to his distant friend regarding an escaped slave; just as Christ vicariously bore the punishment which was due to His friends, so St. Paul purports to provide the compensation which is owed by his transgressing friend. The same theological theme is vivid throughout the text of II Corinthians, wherein St. Paul continuously reminds his flock that he is willing to suffer in his body for their sakes, and in that way extend the redemption effected once and for all by grace through his own body: "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body." (II Corinthians 4:11) Consider the even more poignant words of St. Paul in Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."

The early Church had these texts of Scripture in mind when the early martyrs would famously cry out the names of their sinful friends, while on their way to face death for the sake of the Gospel. They named their friends as an act of intercession. The bishops and pastors who heard these requests were being asked to remit all that the transgressing friends had owed to the Christian community- as penance and restoration for their offenses against the community and the cause of Christ- by instead "charging" the sinners' debt to the incalculable worth of the martyrs' acts in laying their lives down out of love for Christ and their Christian brothers and sisters. In the name of the martyr, and for the sake of the grace of Christ at work in that martyr, the penitent sinner connected with the martyr was to be restored to full communion in the Body of Christ.

This is the underlying logic of the indulgence; the merits of the martyrs are still applied today to the needy penitent, who could never on his own hope to compensate forhis sins. This is possible because the superabundant merits of Christ are at work in the hearts, minds, wills, and bodies of the saints whom He calls to surrender all for Him. The Indulgentiarum Doctrina of Paul VI makes this idea explicit: "In an indulgence in fact, the Church, making use of its power as minister of the redemption of Christ, not only prays but by an authoritative intervention dispenses to the faithful who are suitably disposed the treasury of satisfaction which Christ and the saints won for the remission of temporal punishment." (Indulgence Doctrina VIII)

Contemporary historians put it this way: "those who grant indulgences pray in the name of the Church; they can, especially by reason of the communion of saints, call on the intercession and merits of the Church triumphant, on whose readiness to assist penitents they can count. That is the real meaning of the treasury of merits and of the control of the Church over it extracted from its metaphorical covering. If an indulgence is in this way primarily considered under the aspect of a prayer, and its jurisdictional effect restricted to the realm of the Church on earth, then the moral and religious scruples which are raised against its one-sided juridical formulation at once fall to the ground." (Bernhard Poschmann, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, 231)

The same intuition is at work in the explanation of the Church's tresury of merit which was offered by John Calvin himself:

Part of the sufferings of Christ still remains- viz. that which He suffered in himself He daily suffers in His members. Christ so honors us as to regard and count our afflictions as His own… for the Church, Paul means not for the redemption or reconciliation or satisfaction of the Church, but for edification and progress.” (Calvin, Institutes III.5.4)

Calvin supports his explanation of the Church's "treasury of merit" by drawing on Augustine:

"The sufferings of Christ are in Christ alone, as in the head; they are in Christ and the Church as in the whole body. Hence Paul, being one member, says “I fill up in my body that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ.’ Therefore oh hearers whoever you be, if you are among the members of Christ, whatever you suffer… was lacking to the sufferings of Christ.” (Augustine, In Ps. 16, qtd. Institutes III.5. 4)

... with all of this mind, I smiled to see that almost all of the medieval reliquaries on disply in various museums look exactly like little treasure chests. These beautiful boxes contained the relics of the bodies of those who suffered and died for Christ and His Church; and on seeing them, I found it to be unsurprising that the early Church, at prayer with and around these memorials, understood that they depended on a "treasury."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Paris Notes

I spent most of my time in Paris at the Musee' National du Moyen Age, which houses one of the world's finest collections of medieval art and artifacts. The best thing is that the museum is housed in the ruins of one of the world's first monestaries, the famed Abbey of Cluny. It's a truly integrated experience to enjoy the gorgeous medieval objects and tapestries in the same place where the same objects were used as aids to worship and constant prayer.

The museum lies in the same neighborhood as the Sorbonne, the center where Thomas Aquinas and the great Parisian scholastics of the Medieval period carefully synthesized the riches of Christian doctrine from the Scriptures and the early Church fathers.

From the Top:

1, 2) Paris couture and a visit to La Duree' are also pretty important...

3) A 12th century set of pens and an inkwell on display at Cluny; perhaps these were used in St. Thomas Aquinas' dictation of the Summa?

4) The interior of the National Musee', built over the ancient courtyard of the Cluny community.

5) The facade of the 11th century Church of St. Severin, where some of the great medieval schoolmen might have worshipped. Link

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A French Excursion: The Religious Art of Versailles

... At the end of my time in Mexico, I flew to Paris, where I joined a dear friend from Vienna and spent some time collecting images at the Louvre and the National Museum du Moyen-Age.

The thing about post-Revolutionary France is that it can be very difficult to find antique religious art in the urban centers, given that so much of it was destroyed in the latter post-Catholic centuries; for example, the religious holdings in French archives are rather scarce. What France does have is a proliferation of propoganda about its late, god-fearing monarchs who were so rudely deposed by regicide. My experience of walking through Versailles was that of a kind of nostalgia for the days when a good monarch presided over his subjects for the good of their souls, doing his paternal part to prepare them for Heaven by providing for a well-regulated and virtuous civic life. Ah, the far-reaching effects of the Reformation...

From the top:

1) A magnificent frescoe by Veronese entitled "Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee," which was a gift from the Venetian people to Louis XV. The king comissioned the painting of the repentent woman bathing Christ's feet as decoration for the largest salon in the palace (the Hercules Drawing Room), which also contains a lovely image of Eliezer and Rebecca. The themes of penitence and servanthood are unmistakable.

2) An image of The Last Supper hangs in the Salon de Mars, recalling the Prince of Peace; the image is juxtaposed with another vivid image of mercy, 3) which shows Les Pelerins d'Emmaus, the captive family of Darius being granted clemency by their benevolent conqueror, Alexander. Nice atonement theory.

4) The famous Hall of Mirrors is also pretty cool.

5) An external view of the gorgeous Chapel at Versaille, taken from the front courtyard. You can see that the chapel was deliberately built to be taller than the highest point of the palace, indicating the monarch's submission to Christ and the Kingdom of God.

6, etc.) Views of the interior of the Versaille chapel, where the Bourbonne kings heard Mass with their families and courts every day.

(The random painting in the middle is my favorite- it is an image which is supposed to celebrate the role of the praying wife. The painting is entitled "Ex Voto pour la Guerison de Louis XIV" (1658) and as you can see, it shows the French queen on her knees, supplicating Christ for her husband while he is away. She in turn is surrounded by saints, who are praying for her.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Indulgences on the Road II: Wishing on the Body of Christ

The cathedral of Nostra Senora de la Soledad in western Mexico (see below) has a rather garish feature in one of its side chapels. As you can see in my photos, the parishioners there have a special devotion to the crucified body of Jesus, which is depicted and contained in a solid crystal coffin. I watched several families stop at the coffin to pray earnestly. At the conclusion of their prayers, these faithful people did something even more disconcerting: they dropped pesos into the coffin, and thus you see a pile of hard-earned Mexican money resting atop the image of the pre-Resurrection body of our Lord. The latent Prot in me protested: "great," I thought; "you get down to the strongholds of Catholicism in the modern world, and here Jesus has become a wishing well."

But there is more to be said, particularly since the charity which makes sound doctrine efficacious demands a careful hearing of the practices in the lives of the humble people who pray in this way. Think about it: they are placing their money, the locus of trust in the modern world, on the body of Jesus. This action is not about proving their worth or their merit. It's not even about doing the sort of works of righteousness about which one might boast. It's a simple act of faith directed to the body of Jesus, in and by which body God Himself merited our salvation for us while we were still ignorant sinners.

In a way, the practice of casting one's means on to the body of Jesus is the Lutheran dogma of salvation. We ought not to recoil when we see this kind of idea put into practice in a concrete situation, since to do so is to give in to the ancient heresy of Gnostic detachment from real situatedness.

I thought in particular about the way in which Eberhard Jungel, a contemporary expositor of Lutheran thought, describes the divine economy of human salvation. Jungel proposes, with Luther, that we are saved from outside of ourselves, when we deposit our prayer that the merits of the body of Jesus be applied to us. Jungel puts it this way:

"There is nothing about them or in them – not even justifying grace poured into them – which can make sinners righteous. In the reality of the state of the justified there are no concessions to be made. They are righteous purely and simply because they are pronounced righteous. And they are only pronounced righteous because God’s righteousness, which is extraneous to them, is attributed, imputed to them. So in the strictest sense, God’s righteousness comes to them from outside, it is outward. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves: extrinsece Iustificantur semper. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves in the same sense that the Word is an external One, coming from the outside into our innermost being and responding and relating to what has happened outside us (extra nos) in Christ." (Eberhard Jungel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. 206)

... on this Lutheran account, it's as though all the saving righteousnes of Jesus were stored up for us in a beautiful crystal box... and you put your faith in, so that you can extract a blessing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Indulgences on the Road: Our Lady of Solidarity

At last, my travel notes, with apologies for my delay... I have been attending to my family through the past week.

I began my field trip for research on the doctrine of indulgences at the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, which was erected in 1930 on the west coast of Mexico. The parish is famous for its devotion, which the faithful people manifest in their collection of beautiful devotional statues and, more importantly, in their personal lives. I was particularly struck by the army of single and married middle-aged women who serve the cathedral as its ministry staff. They were all there at Sunday Mass, wearing long white dresses and enormous versions of the scapular of Mt. Carmel, in solidarity with the lovely depiction of Mary as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, as shown above.

The Carmel story goes that the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Simon Stock at Cambridge, England on Sunday, 16 July, 1251. In answer to his appeal for help for his oppressed religious community, she appeared to him with a scapular in her hand and said the following:

"Take, beloved son, this scapular of thine order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant."

This pious tradition reflects on of the central aspects of Catholic doctrine: God has entered into real solidarity with humanity. In contrast to the Protestant teachings of monergism, Catholic Christians have always believed the full sense of the promise of God: "I will dwell with them, and they will be my people." (Zechariah 8:8) The theological sense of that statement is one of real interaction between the infinite and perfect God and His sinful, limited creature, which is possible only because God loves us enough to make this sort of real relationship possible by His mercy and grace. In this dynamic, humanity has something to give to God. We know this from the historical fact that God incarnate was, at various points in His earthly life, given everything by the creature who bore Him. Mary is the creature who most radically gives everything to Christ- her reputation, her womb, her body and bloodline, her home, and (in the vivid sense that is so often depicted in medieval art) a mother's milk for His nourishment. The Son of God thus entrusted His life to His creature, whom He had prepared for Himself.

It is in this way that the Church knows Mary as the one who gives to God and to her fellow creatures from all the grace that was first given to her, in order that she might be the pure mother and bearer of the Word. As she gave to God, so she also gives from God to us: just as we do for one another, so she also gives tokens of the covenant, renewed ways of prayer, instruction, and help in times of trouble. But even more so, from Mary we know something about ourselves. As her fellow creatures, we know that we too must have something of real value to give even to God; as Scripture tells us, we must give to Him our very selves, in the demonstration of our love and faith, in exchange for His very self. It is in this way we enter into covenant with God: God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. (I Corinthians 1:9) Thus, we have a covenant. We have solidarity with God.

Pope John Paul II brought it all home for my study of indulgences when he explained in 1999 that "indulgences are expressions of God's mercy... the starting-point for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God's mercy revealed in the Cross of Christ. The crucified Jesus is the great indulgence that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of living as children in the Holy Spirit. However, in the logic of the covenant which is the heart of the whole economy of salvation, this gift does not reach us without our acceptance and response." (L'Osservatore Romano, 6 October 1999)

More to come...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Back to Business and Blogging!

MM and friends (and a certain Texan cherub) after Mass at St. Peter's in Rome a few weeks ago. I have lots of travel notes to share, so stay tuned.

The Catholic Church's Protest Against Embryonic Stem Cell Research, and the Cost of Little Human Lives

"For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me...And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it unto Me." Matthew 25

March 9, 2009:

President Barack Obama is expected to lift restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research today. Speaking against this decision is Catholic League president Bill Donohue:

“When President Bush placed restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, there was no way for scientists to approximate the effectiveness inherent in embryonic stem cells. But that is no longer the case. Last fall, Harvard University stem cell researcher Konrad Hochedlinger announced that he was able to coax adult cells to regress into an embryonic state. Scientists everywhere were ecstatic.

“It is precisely because there are ethical alternatives to killing embryos that President Obama’s decision is doubly flawed: (a) it is immoral to intentionally destroy nascent human life, and (b) it is even more irresponsible to do so when morally acceptable alternatives exist.

“Obama has stepped on a slope so slippery that many of his supporters may eventually regret he did so. It is not for nothing that Germany has the most rigorous ethical guidelines on human research. Our model should be 21st century Germany—not 20th century Germany.”

Christ gives to Christians the uncompromising command that we are to love even our smallest and weakest neighbors as ourselves. It is in light of this command that we understand the even more uncompromising mandate: "thou shall not kill." Thus the Church understands the following:

"It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material...

Research or experimentation on the human being cannot legitimate acts that are in themselves contrary to the dignity of persons and to the moral law. Experimentation on human beings is not morally legitimate if it exposes the subject's life or physical and psychological integrity to disproportionate or avoidable risks. Experimentation on human beings does not conform to the dignity of the person if it takes place without the informed consent of the subject." Catechism of the Catholic Church 2275, 2295.

May God have mercy on our nation as we begin to abuse, more and more, the weakest among us in the name of social progress.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thoughts from the road

On my recent travels there were a few moments that offered reasons for pause. Standing on the southern eastern slope of Little Round Top, there is a single marble headstone that reads:

20th ME INF'Y

July 2


As the moment demanded, on this small point of rock tenuously rested the left flank of the great ideals of the fatefully blessed experiment of Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Hancock, Adams, Washington, and so many others.

Little Round Top's commanding NW face

At the top of these grey granite heights Union artillery scraped to hold the commanding face of this hill from the onslaught of Longstreet’s Confederate artillery and sniper fire from Devil’s Den.

Little Round Top's Western face seen from below Devil's Den

Were this hill to fall, its artillery would have been turned northward up Cemetery Ridge to collapse the left and crush the pinned down Army of the Potomac allowing Lee to march on Washington.

At this point on that day stood one Joshua Chamberlain. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and a professor of rhetoric, history, theology, philosophy, and literature among others, Chamberlain was fluent in ten languages including Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Yet at this moment, the scholar found himself a colonel leading his 20th Maine Infantry Regiment on the gently sloping and lightly wooded back face of Little Round Top.

The SE face seen from below

He and his men had just repulsed the 15th and 47th Alabama Regiments on two attempts at the hill. General Law’s Alabamians had just marched 20 miles to reach this point each with a single canteen of water, in one hundred degree heat, and while wearing woolen coats and were readying for a 3rd attempt on the height.

Professor Chamberlain, knowing his ammunition was exhausted and sensing that the fate of his beloved country rested on this moment shouted a command that echoed down the line, “Fix Bayonets!” As Law’s men came again into view through the clearing powder smoke, he let cry another command, “Charge!” The men from Maine swept down the hill andwithout the benefit of bullets, drove the exhausted Alabamians from the slope and in doing so allowed for the survival of the Army of the Potomac and the belief that all men and created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...

As I was thinking about the hardships and sacrifices of great Americans from the founding fathers, to civil war heroes, to our grandparents in World War II, to my college buddies who have fought and died in Iraq, I wondered what attracts men to lay down their lives for that which they hold most dear. It can only be that inscribed upon men’s hearts and branded somewhere deep upon their souls is desire to be more like our Lord. So forceful is this desire that even as great heroes will suffer and sacrifice for a noble cause in battle, another even under despotic oppression may still fight and offer his life with genuine honor and courage.

Given that our Lord serves as the primary mover for the universe, all impulses can somehow be traced back to him. I haven’t read it, but I imagine Aquinas would argue that sinfulness or righteousness is determined by our choice of whether we direct these God given impulses back towards their origin or turn them towards ourselves. Deep within Adam must have been the desire to be God-like. Unfortunately, he was convinced that he could find that in his own independence rather than by humility before his loving Creator. So great is the desire to enter into the union modeled by our Trinitarian God, that men and women will thrust themselves perhaps even carelessly into a (hopefully) perpetual and faithful bond as one body and spirit. Alternatively they may twist that desire and scour the landscape for false images of that bond built on their own pleasures and insecurities.

I recall the line of Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca” when questioned by an exchange with Richard Blaine,

“Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for.”

“You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we'll die.”

“Well, what of it? It'll be out of its misery.”

“You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart.”

This moving force is illuminated in the father who leave the pleasures of his youth for the husbandry of his family, the mother who will forget life and limb for the protection of her child, the faithful who gives up his life for his church, or the servant who simply turns away from his ambitions for the assistance of others. One thing that is clear is that since God not only suffers the indignation of His created, and Christ also suffered the grotesque pain of our sin, the fulfillment of our desire to emulate our Lord is inseparable from suffering.

Rodin: The Martyr

In visiting Philadelphia’s Rodin sculpture garden, I was struck by “The Martyr.” I thought it a strange title for this youthful recumbent nude but was impressed by the museums commentary. The face of this young lady demonstrates an ambiguous expression between suffering and ecstasy, and therein in the view of her artist, lies the seemingly paradoxical ecstasy and suffering of love. This leaves the question before us all in the quest for our human fulfillment in Christ’s plan: for whom shall I lay down my life?