Sero te amavi…The endurance of Saint Augustine

saint augustineSero te amavi… “Late have I loved Thee, O beauty ever ancient and ever new…”


So wrote Saint Augustine in the opening pages of his Confessions, in Latin prose that has scarcely ever been matched, before or since.  His classic work is seen as the first real autobiography, offering a sometimes brutally honest glimpse inside the intellectual and spiritual struggles of this great soul.  That is what makes Augustine’s works eternally enduring, for they speak through the ages to each of our own individual souls.  His thoughts are in many ways our thoughts, his temptations, his doubts and fears, and, hopefully, many of his conclusions, are also ours.


Augustine is a ‘modern’ man in that many of the questions pondered in articles, essays, books and university courses have already been discussed, and to some extent resolved, by him:  Atheism, agnosticism, the nature of God, the question of evil, the scope of eternity and time, the human soul, educational policies, astrology, the role of fate, the relationship between ‘grace’ (the work of God) and ‘free will’ (which Augustine termed liberum arbitrium, or free choice on the part of man), the proper interpretation of Scripture, the alliance of faith and reason.  Almost all of the subsequent writers and thinkers in the Church, not least Saint Thomas Aquinas, owe an near-infinite debt to Augustine, a giant on whose shoulders we all stand.


Augustine, whose life spans the final days of the Roman Empire (he died in 430 as the Vandals were pillaging the Roman territories of North Africa, where Augustine was bishop), is seen as a bridge between the classical and the mediaeval world.  As perhaps the greatest ‘Father of the Church’, he provided the spiritual and intellectual foundational for that era that has, for better or worse, been termed the ‘middle’, between Greco-Roman and the modern.  He wrote voluminously, with an almost-miraculous output over his 40 or so active years as a Catholic priest and bishop (he converted at the age of 31, and died at the age of 75), Augustine’s works give us an invaluable insight into the mind of the early Church, but these thoughts apply also to the Church in the modern age;  for Augustine’s description of God as ‘ever ancient and ever new’ also applies to His Church, which is eternally youthful, always providing fresh spiritual and intellectual energy for every age in which she finds herself.


Yet the Church is not an abstract invisible entity, but one with living people, traditions and teachings that flow from persons chosen by God to instantiate her traditions.  That is why it is incumbent upon us to read and delve into these teachings, insofar as we are able.  The Fathers, Popes, saints, scholars are there for our continued benefit.  Saint Augustine stands out amongst them.  Read a small sample of his work; perhaps begin with today’s Office of Readings, itself a brief excerpt from his Confessions.  Then, if intrigued, begin reading the book itself.  Your life may be changed, and all for the better.


August 28, 2014

Saint Augustine of Hippo


Can Religion be Evil?

isis flagRichard Dawkins, like his intellectual ancestors David Hume, Feurbach, Emile Zola and countless others, claims not to be religious. In saying so, more times than I care to count, he is not being entirely honest, for whether Dr. Dawkins realizes it or not, Man by his very nature is a religious being.  Aristotle claimed that Man was a rational and, therefore, a political, animal (and therefore one could not escape thinking and,alas, politics).  The Church goes further, and declares that Man also cannot avoid the fact that he is religious.


Religion, derived from the Latin verb ligare, to bind or to fasten, may be defined in a broad sense as those a priori principles, whether explicitly declared or not, to which we are bound, that guide our actions.  Dawkins would not admit that he is religious, by which he would presumably mean that he is not bound to a revealed (particularly Christian) religion, requiring adherence to a divine being.  He would call his principles a ‘set of values’ or a ‘hierarchy of goods’.  But, call it what he may, he still has a ‘religion’, all those things he believes that guide what he does, how he thinks, what he teaches, and what he writes.


Take, for example, Professor Dawkins’ recent tweet that it is immoral to bring a Down’s Syndrome baby into the world; rather, he said, the only moral thing to do when a mother receives such a diagnosis is to abort her child.  Dawkins has received much backlash for his post, but he is simply acting on his religious principles (and reiterating in a more dogmatic way what most people already do in practice).


Although not always the strongest impulse in Man (our passions are often more powerful!), religion is the most fundamental (excuse the pun), in the sense that everything we do is ultimately guided by our religion.  One’s religion need not be explicit:  One can adopt hedonism, wherein the pursuit of pleasure becomes the guiding principle, or self-worship, or Communism, or Christianity, Buddhism or Islam.


As the source of all that Men do, religion is a force of the greatest good, or the greatest evil.  As the Roman poet Juvenal wrote, corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst.  Since evil is nothing more than a privation of good, that is, something ‘missing’ in an already existing good, the more good something has, the more capacity it has for evil.  After all, in tribute to fellow sci-fi geeks, Darth Vader would not be menacing if he were three feet tall dressed in pink.   And, on a more realistic note, Satan is only so evil because he is, or was, so good.


That is also why our choice of which religion to adopt and follow is the most important decision we can make in this life.  We should keep in mind, for those inclined to an agnostic insousiance, that not to choose is itself a choice, for even indifferentism, the philosophy of ‘who gives a rat’s behind about anything at all’, is a kind of religion.  So it is incumbent on us to choose our religion wisely.


Most of us make this choice at some point in our journey to adulthood.  Will we adopt religion (the principles) of our parents?  Or go off on our own, for good or ill?


It makes sense that if God does exist, and exist He must, then He would reveal the religion that is most conducive to our own good as human beings. This we call the ‘true religion’, for, by the nature of truth (specifically, the principle of non-contradiction, to which even God Himself is ‘bound’), religions cannot contradict one another, and still both be true.  Either Christ came in the flesh, or He did not; either the priesthood and Eucharist are real, or they are not; abortion is either murder, or it is not, and so on.


Of course, most faith groups on this planet claim that God revealed their religion but, ultimately, only one of them can be true.  The rest will be, to a greater or lesser extent, either missing some truths, or outright false.


The more false principles the religion contains, or the more truths missing from the religion, the more evil it can be.  The ancient Canaanites believed in sacrificing children as part of their religions ceremonies.  Reason tells us that this is evil, and cannot be tolerated in a society; in fact, such practices are, to put it mildly, counter-productive to any society.  Hence, their religion, at least to that extent, was evil. In fact, it was so evil that God decreeds its eradication.


Pope Leo XIII wrote in his landmark encyclical Immoratale Dei in 1885 that there are many signs which point to the true religion, insofar as it accords with human nature, our own happiness, peace, concord, the moral law and so on.  Of course, the Holy Father believes, as do I, that Catholicism is the true religion.  A hundred or so years later, Dignitatis Humanae taught that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic Church, and that other religions are true insofar as they share the truth of the Church.


What we are witnessing now in the world is the corruptio religionis, the corruption of religion itself, which leads to great evil, for no evil is done more willingly than that done in the name of religion.  But this is not entirely new. Under Henry VIII’s Tudor reign, those deviating from his understanding of religion would be put to death by hanging, drawing and quartering, the gruesome details of which probably could not be described in this post (well, I suppose I am my own censor, but you, dear reader, can look it up).   There was also death by ‘pressing’, wherein a heavy door was placed on top of the prone victim, with a sharp stone under his back, and bigger stones placed gradually on top of the door until suffocation ensued; sometimes onlookers were permitted to jump on top for a quicker, more mericful death.  See the martyrdom of Saint Margaret Clitherow, a mother and wife, for details.


Of course, in Tudor England, and in current varieties of Islam, violating the religion of the State was seen also as an act of treason, but the point is still taken.  For then the State becomes, to some degree, one’s religion.  We see the culmination of the ‘State as religion’, ironically, in the atheistic and purpotedly non-religious Communist regimes, the mountain of whose evils are nigh-indescribable.


So, great evil can be done in the name of the religion, but religion is also the source of the greatest good.  Most of the good principles that our individual and societal conduct are from the Judeo-Christian religion.  But, alas, we are losing our own conviction in the truths of these principles, and it is generally when we are acting contrary to our principles that we act half-heartedly.


I don’t really think that Dawkins and company really, deep down, believe some of the things they say.  I really do hope they have elements of Christianity at heart, or at least someday will so have.  In his ravings, Dawkins seems in particular to ‘protest too much methinks’.  Perhaps he is trying to convince himself most of all of the ‘God delusion’…


The fanatics with ISIS are another story, for the scary thing is that they not only believe infidels should be mercilessly killed, but are quite willing to carry out the deed.  That is why Chesterton said that religion really is the only thing worth fighting for.  Religion decides not only the course of the world, but, more importantly, the fate of each individual soul, for good, or for evil.


August 25, 2014


King St. Louis IX, St. Joseph Calasanz

The Sub-Average Avengers

imagesI recently watched, under some level of duress, Marvel’s adaptation of the Avengers.   Well, I say duress; it was at the recommendation of a colleague, whom I respect and admire, and still do so (chaque a son gout…).

Yes, here we have yet another superhero movie, this time a whole panoply of superheroes, battling some evil entity called ‘Loki’, an adopted brother of Thor, from some otherworld or perhaps or perhaps otherdimension, one is never clear.  Loki has various powers, also not strictly defined or delineated. He seems able to change his location at will, to control people’s minds with his glowing, spear-like thing, and to command a legion of metal-clad warriors, who, for all their otherworldy appearance and origin, are remarkably easy to kill (why do you need the Hulk when Scarlett Johansson can dispatch them apparently with a glance of her sultry eyes?).

But I will not bore you with the details of the movie, for the film is boring enough.  Hollywood its producers, directors, movie actors, scriptwriters and all their own legion of metal-clad warriors, seem to have lost sight of how to make a movie, or a work of art in general.

This is not surprising, since most of them lack a grounding in the liberal arts (I always manage to slip that in there), which broadens the mind and provides a cultural framework for producing art and literature, to say nothing of living well, but I digress.  One must stick to one’s theme in blog posts, unlike wide-ranging conversation, so back to the movie.

But, wait, the liberal arts also include Aristotle, who would likely have said that what is missing in The Avengers, and most of the few movies that I watch, is a sense of drama.  Now, by drama I mean quality by which one enters into a work of art, commiserates or rejoices with the characters, becomes intellectually and emotionally involved in the story, and thinks, at some level, that this applies to me.  Drama leads to catharsis, wherein the crisis of the characters becomes, in some sense, my own crisis.  We can identify.

This is, by and large, missing in most movies and, I dare say, novels and other works of art, visual and otherwise.

Take the Hulk, who is played by a sulking Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner, a superhero not in charge of his powers, who turns into the Hulk when his anger gets out of control.  This could be developed into a sense of drama, wherein we identify with the character’s struggle, in our own attempts to master our anger and our passions.  How much of the Hulk is within each of us?

Yet, towards the end of the movie, without any sense of such struggle, Banner suddenly becomes able to control the Hulk, declaring his secret that he is ‘always angry’.  What?  If so, why is he also not ‘always the Hulk’?  There is no drama, no overcoming of an obstacle, really, no nothing but a sulking actor.

Then there is the Black Widow, played by the aforementioned attractive Scarlett Johansson, who suffers from the debilitating curse of most beautiful women, that they know they are pleasing to the eye.  I wonder what such a woman suffers at the hands, or the eyes, of men.  Perhaps that is why she plays a Russian assassin, who is able to manhandle any man, as a kind of Freudian backlash.  I suppose this could be played up a bit, but, again, no drama.  In the scene where she is being interrogated by three other eastern Europeans of no fixed nationality, we know the chair to which she is tied will end up upside the head of the Russian (Ukrainian? Latvian?) goon.  The fight is routine and boring.  Ho hum.  There is not even any attempt at a feeling that she might fail, which provides tensions in a fight scene.  I will not at this point go into the improbability of her antics, for that is also another post.

Advice to directors of superhero movies:  Although derived from comic books, they need not be comic books.

And don’t get me started on Thor, who tries to put on the air of an English prince, but, at least to my ears, his Aussie accent keeps breaking through.  He is apparently also invincible which, unlike the Black Widow, makes a bit of sense, since he is a ‘god’, but he does get thrown around a bit, especially by the Hulk (as does Loki, in a faintly humurous scene towards the end).

The only character with any degree of interest is Tony Stark as Iron Man, who provides the few memorable bits of dialogue in the movie, and that is faint praise indeed.   Stark is the sole character who exudes some degree of vincibility.  Because he is the most human of the Avengers, he is also the most interesting, because we can, to some extent, identify with him.

The key to making a watchable movie is this very principle of identification.  Do we want to emulate the characters therein, and, more so, do we think we can emulate them?  Whether the movie be a fantasy, science fiction, comedy, or straight up drama, unless we so relate to the characters, the movie is doomed to banality.

After all, the basis of what is means to be a person is this very notion relation, particularly relating to the other, but more to be said on this in future posts.

Avengers made well over a billion dollars at the box office, one of the most profitable movies in history, making its participants very rich, and providing Hollywood great impetus for producing more such substandard movies.   What this says about our culture I will speak of later.  For now, I will limit my wonder to pondering what great good could be done with the money spent on such works of ‘art’.   A much better movie could have been made with much less…

August 23, 2014

Saint Rose of Lima

The many faces of Islam: A house of war or peace?


Much has been written about the recent events in Iraq, under the auspices of ISIS, the radical Islamic, well, what shall we call them, a group, a religion, a state, a nation, a gang?  Their barbarities need not be recounted here; the recent beheading of an American journalist, by what seems to be a British Muslim, is a vivid icon of their violence.  Suffice it to say that merciful they are not.  By fire and by sword they will make converts to the message of the Prophet…


Where have I heard those words before? Ah, yes, the famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view, speech given by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg in 2006.


Is this the true face of Islam?  Was the Holy Father being prophetic? The question is a complex one, perhaps unaswerable, for how does one determine what true Islam really is?  The same problem that applies to Islam also applies to Protestantism and, indeed, any religion outside the true one:  Without a divine magisterial authority, there is no infallible source of the truth.  Hence, Islam, and Protestantism, and Mormonism, and so on, are inherently fissiparous.  Like a many-headed hydra, they divide without end.  Before one can say ‘salaam’, there is another interpretation of Muhammad’s message.


Can one point to the Qu’uran?  The holy book of Islam is a collection of purported ‘suras’ or sayings of Muhammad, compiled after his death in 632  and open to various interpretations.  (At least Protestantism has the benefit of the Bible, itself divinely inspired and infallible, but, as history shows, can be, and has been, interpreted fallibly).


Soon after Muhammad’s death, Islam divided into two strains, Shia and Sunni, the latter predominating by about 80% in terms of adherents.  (This bifurcation in Islam, with different sets of beliefs and practices, is itself dependent upon two complex genealogical descents from Muhammad himself). Within each of these strains of Islam, there are countless different types.  During certain historical contexts, such as Andalusian Spain, Islam has lived more or less peacefully with Christians and Jews (although always fraught with some degree of tension, as those outside the ‘house of Islam’ are, by definition, infidels).  Other strains of Islam, as we see in the Middle East today, leave a trail of rapacity and blood.  The calls for ‘putting an end to ISIS’ are perhaps themselves a historical reminder of why some saw and still see the mediaeval Crusades as a just and necessary conflict, at least in their initial aim.


Of course, the same ‘many strains’ argument could be said of Christianity, with this difference, however:  There is an official Christianity, against which the actions or beliefs of individual followers can be measured. We call this the true Church which, as Vatican II declares, ‘subsists in the Catholic Church’.


The problem here is that in any religious movement without such a truly divine authority, how one applies one’s religious principles will depend very much upon a charismatic or a violent figure or group, who will either convince us with their rhetoric, or force us with their power.


We are seeing the latter at play in Syria and Iraq.  The lure of power dominates those who are defenseless, and attracts those who thirst for it.  As one commentator put it, ISIS has become the ‘coolest gang on the planet’.


Can a religion ultimately be spread by violence?  I would recommend a close read of Benedict’s Regensburg address, unmatched in its clarity (and brevity!) as a response to this question.  The even shorter answer is, No, for religion in its essence is an act of faith, which itself is an act of reason, and, by definition, faith and reason cannot be coerced. If it is, it is no longer reason, but un-reason, not an act of faith, but rather an act of pure will or might.  All true religion is consistent with reason; once we deny reason, that divine image that makes us human, the basis for dialogue and conversion towards the truth is lost.  God convinces us of the truth through our hearts and minds, and never coerces or constrains our will.  We must do the same.


Such ‘conversions’ as ISIS and its ilk produce will not last, and, eventually, it will be a house divided against itself.  Perhaps in time a more peaceful face of Islam will prevail.  In the mystery of God’s providence, a lot of harm will be done in the struggle, but God will bring good out of the evil, and mercy from the misconstrued ‘justice’ played out in His name.


August 21, 2014


Pope Saint Pius X






Quo vadis, blogger?

Quo vadis, blogger?  Or, roughly translated, why, bother, blogger?

Why blog indeed?  There are myriads of blogs out there, and one more may not make that much difference, so why?

Aristotle said that intention is first in the order of execution; we must ask why we are doing something, for there is always a ‘why’, whether we are fully conscious of it or not.

There are two basic reasons I begin this blog.  The first is to clarify my own thoughts, for nothing makes evident our knowledge of a topic than writing about it (o, in a similar and more public way, teaching it).  On that note, hopefully, such honesty with my own mind will help in my primary vocation as a teacher.

It is only secondarily that my musings and reflections are intended to help others.  If my words are read, and give others something to ponder, well and good.  If not, at least the first intention will  hopefully be fulfilled.

I make no bones about being Catholic, and one of my intentions is to attempt to bring the wisdom of Catholic teaching to bear upon the world.  In particular, the Catechism, the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, Magisterial teaching, will be used, whether explicitly or not, to provide principles for discussion.

Even if you disagree, the search for truth is a cooperative endeavour, the most important of all man’s strivings; disagreement and subsequent dialogue can lead us to grasp the truth more fully and completely, so let the journey begin.

August 20, 2014

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux