Professor Peter Kreeft is our favorite philosopher, here at the Postil. And this lecture on angels and demons is truly one of his best. So, we thought we would share it with you. We are sure you will love his clarity and his profound, yet down-to-earth explanations, not to mention his subtle humor.
The image shows, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” by Pieter Bruegel, painted in 1562.
Dr. James Patrick has spent his life teaching, and in this book he seeks to tell on a larger scale the story of the Christian mind as it developed according to what he refers to as the “adventure” of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Christian mind moved from faithful intuition to writing and composing original ideas of concrete truths, and this in turn led to inspired foundations upon which a new kind of world became possible. Patrick does not wish the reader to think the Christian mind has ever intended to create utopia on earth or to proselytize, rather that the dynamic Christian intellect indicates a human heart made new and from this newness still spring horizons of hope and culture.
The Christian mind is, says Patrick, not only inspired and moved by the restless Paraclete, but revolves around the event of Jesus Christ. Christian history is therefore best understood not simply as chronology of events but as the vision of “the new heart in time,” one that strives to be like that of the one who sent the Spirit into history.
“Matthew: The Making Of The New Heart”
Matthew was the Gospel. When early Christian writers turned to a source of Jesus’ words and deeds it was to Matthew, or what became Matthew, that they turned. And within Matthew, their pattern of quotation suggests, they turned first to chapters five through seven, containing the Beatitudes and the dominical transformation of the law from the propositions of the Mosaic law as these were understood by the observant Jew to an interior, life-forming participation of the heart in the will of the Father. Jesus sat down, opened his mouth, and taught them. Thus began the Sermon on the Mount. Luke knows something of this text (6:20–49), but neither Mark nor John contains obvious parallels. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5–6 as he transforms the Mosaic law held a hope for the regeneration of the human heart greater than the virtuous life Aristotle had taught in his Ethics and Cicero in his On Duties.
The opening verses, the eight Beatitudes, are at the center of the moral vocabulary of Christian mankind, although on any showing they are challenging at first sight. They are not prescriptive but descriptive, proposing no course of action but promising beatitude or blessedness to those possessing the right state of soul or, as in the seventh and eighth, able to bear persecution. In this way they are truly kerygma or preaching, a proclamation describing the blessedness that accompanies those on the Christian way. The Greek makarios is sometimes translated “happy,” but “blessed” is better, for happiness is a subjective state of contentment or well-being, while blessedness is the state of being fulfilled by God at his will and in his presence. Blessedness is not a virtue, not a natural virtue that the best efforts of man can achieve at least episodically, or even a supernatural virtue given silently at baptism, but a gift following upon that supernatural infusion of grace, life lived in the Christian way, the steady result of day by day, charity-inspired cooperation with the Holy Spirit. They are echoed in what Paul knows as the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22).
In this Matthean text Jesus does not tell the disciples how to seek blessedness; he does not, as elsewhere, urge repentance. The Beatitudes are gifts, and they are proleptic, looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom. Blessedness will come at Pentecost, when hearts will burn within and the question will be “Brethren, what shall we do?” Jesus is waiting: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). But now, on the threshold of the last day, is the time to prepare the disciples for the new life that is coming, to give them words that they will remember when Jesus’ first great promise, “I will send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Counselor,” is fulfilled.
This is the life prophesied by Jeremiah: Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with house of Israel and the House of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt. [. . .] I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor, and each his brother, saying “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me from the least to the greatest (Jer. 31:31–34). And Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (11:19). When Peter stood up at Pentecost he declared the descent of the Spirit to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18, Joel 2:28–32). In that Day they all will possess the Prophetic Spirit. But the new way must possess the mind as well as the heart; the gift will be fulfilled in those who have been taught: “Go, baptize, teach.”
The best of the Greeks and Romans had known that the good all men seek is not some possession extrinsic to the self but a state of soul. Aristotle’s Ethics, with a spirit echoed in Justin’s day by the stoic Epictetus, begins by asking what it is that all men seek for its own sake, not as an instrument leading to something greater such as wealth or wisdom, which we may desire because they promise happiness. Rather, happiness itself, eudaimonia, is what all men desire for its own sake. But quickly Aristotle turns to the observation that happiness is not possible without goodness.
So the Philosopher does not, as Epicurus would later, propose happiness as the complement of pleasure, but as the best state of the soul in the righteous man. And this, famously, is to be achieved not through the appropriation of theoria, not through the exercise of intellect, but through the practice of the moral virtues—justice, temperance, prudence, and courage—and that not in a world-pleasing way, but as a good man might practice them. The means was the natural capacity of the self-commanding man to become virtuous. Aristotle’s Ethics is the high summary of the best of Hellenism’s moral proposals. Yet it neither elevated the eye of the soul above the realm of nature, which Aristotle would have considered impossible, nor purified the will.
When after Pentecost Christians looked at the world around them, they saw the ravages of the flaw that would be called original sin, ignorance and that deformation of the will called concupiscence, which five centuries of the best of Greek and Roman moral advice had not been able to repair. Against this was set the moral proposals and the moral power of Jesus. Christ came not only with good advice but with the ability to change hearts. And first came the revolutionary ideas found in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the prophetic descriptions of the Christian life called the Beatitudes or blessedness, a reward attached to each, and then the transformation of the law from divinely given rule to the very form of the redeemed heart.
Given the classical expectation regarding happiness and virtue, Aristotle’s eudaimonia or good-spiritedness as the result of natural virtue, Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes disappoint; many would find them puzzling, some would find them impossible, for the heart of natural man does not reach out to embrace poverty of spirit and mourning, to say nothing of persecution. Yet the Beatitudes are signposts along the royal road that leads citizens of a fallen world to the vision of God, to sonship, and to citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, a description of the realm of Our Father that stands contrasted with the kingdom of the earth.
Humility, sorrow for one’s sins, gentleness, desire for God, mercifulness, purity of heart, peacemaking, acceptance of persecution for Jesus’ sake; Jesus is describing God-given dispositions of the heart that may or may not always be evident to the world in actions. Indeed to the degree that any Beatitude excites public notice, it is in danger of betraying its divine purpose; humility and piety displayed already have their reward (Matt. 6:1). Later, in the series of dominical sayings beginning with “You have heard it said but I tell you,” there will be specific teaching that tells the blessed heart how to live in the world (Matt. 5:21–7:29).
The Beatitudes have been the subject of commentary by great teachers, but generations lacking scholarly insight have also understood his words as they walked in the way. Jesus, who knew what was in mankind (John 2:25), begins with the counsel that one who would be blessed will be humble, which means seeing oneself as one really is: a creature, clay in the Potter’s hands, helpless in the one thing that matters most despite possessing many impressive competencies, reliance upon which as justifying before God is always deceptive (Isa. 29:16, Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21). “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” God is forever ordering the moral universe by putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble (Luke 1:52).
Jesus reminds his followers to seek the lowest place, assuring them that the order of this world is not the order of the kingdom of heaven; there many of the first shall be last and the last first (Mark 9:35). He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:10). “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts [. . .] and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:31– 32). God’s opposition to the proud is a lesson humankind must repeatedly learn, rooted in the very nature of God, in whose sight a lie cannot stand, and who while summary of power and majesty, expresses his life in Trinitarian self-giving, the divine Son humbling himself for our sakes, “who being in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). To fail of humility and to cultivate pride is to fail to see things as they are; a broken and contrite heart God does not despise (Ps. 51:17).
This was the great lesson given Job, a good man, whom God never accuses of sins, but a man “wise in his own conceits” (37:24), clinging in the most subtle and unrealistic way to his own rightness before God, redeemed only when, having had his ignorance and littleness demonstrated by the Almighty most dramatically (38–41), he falls silent before the gift of the vision of God: “Now my eye sees Thee” (42:5). So, the Beatitudes open by declaring blessed one who is ptōxoi in spirit, a word for which the least dramatic definition is “poor in spirit,” but connoting a deeper range of meanings that include “crushed, beggarly, mean or low.”
The reference is clearly not to lack of this world’s goods, but to that abandonment of self which opens upon the faith of the elect. There was a reason for Saul’s having changed his name from that of the great king to Paul, which resonated with the Greek word for mean, of no account. The central psychological mystery of the religion Jesus taught is the necessity for that reordering of the soul that sees one’s self in the order of reality as of no account in the light of God’s glory, as deserving his wrath in the light of his justice.
The self-deception called pride is the natural defense of every man from this truth. Enjoying justly some human esteem, avoiding public shame, capable of good deeds—God never accused Job of moral failure— mankind will find it easy to ignore that fact that our decency is fragile, our self-interest perfect, our thirst for something other than the righteousness of God ever-present. There is a sweetness in reality, always hard for the sin-encased soul to see, and perhaps especially hard to see in an age when self-esteem is considered a cardinal virtue. But it is the locating of one’s self rightly in God’s just order that is a sign of blessedness, and this awareness of who we are is the basis of every other Beatitude and the ground of every gratitude. The poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The interior greatness of every human action on earth is rooted in the acknowledged littleness of every man before the glory and majesty of God. This humility, this poverty of spirit, has as its companion the reality of sorrow for sin and sinfulness (5:5). “Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.” Christians are never encouraged to ruminate on past failures; we are ever to be putting behind us the past with its failure and looking to the future, “forgetting what lies behind, pressing forward and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:14).
But for the burden of our actual sins, forgiven but perhaps still bearing the debt of undischarged penance, our weakness and instability in the face of temptation, not despair but holy sorrow is the medicine for the soul. The great spiritual writers seem inhumane when they counsel against light-mindedness and denounce hilarity as being inappropriate to the pilgrim, but life is in the end no laughing matter. To have holy sorrow is to begin to hate that to which we have been attracted. This is the happy sorrow that is blessed. God, we are promised, will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4), but to enjoy that supernatural friendship there first must be tears of sorrow.
The word translated meek (praus) in the third Beatitude is equally well, or better, translated “gentle.” Jesus will say, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 29:11). And again Jesus quotes Isaiah: “Your king comes to you, gentle, seated upon an ass, and upon the foal of an ass” (Matt. 21:5, Is. 62:11). It is these, the meek, the gentle, who, contrary to the claims of power, will inherit the earth when it is God’s earth again. The adjective used in Matthew 5 occurs only four times in the New Testament, but as the abstract noun “gentleness” Paul includes it among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.
To be gentle is to refrain from using power rightly possessed to achieve a purpose that, while it may be just, reads out the moral requirement of the second commandment, love your neighbor as you love yourself, by imposing one’s own just will without mercy. Jesus assures his followers that it is not the grasping and aggressive but the gentle who will inherit the earth. The divine ground of Christian gentleness is the Lord’s willingness to show us just so much of himself as we can bear, to enwrap his power in his humility. He did not cling to his divine nature in a way that prevented his display of that divine gentleness that is the unvarying companion of his majestic justice. The images of Jesus with the woman at the well, calling little children to himself, not condemning Peter and the twelve when they cannot watch for one hour, and washing his disciples’ feet, have always engaged the Christian heart.
Gentleness is the choice of reserve rather than rashness; in its most common form it is the gentleness of politeness, standing aside for another, not claiming the highest place, that will find fruit in the gentled civilization founded upon the Beatitudes. What inheriting the earth means is surely that these will inherit the new creation when Christ returns, but it may also means that even now the gentle will know the good life of the soul as it belongs to this present age.
The fourth Beatitude describes the blessed soul as one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Jesus is not speaking of the desire to be righteous as the Pharisees on a certain day might have understood righteousness, but of the desire to be in communion with God, to be right-hearted in relation to the creator and redeemer, which disposition has itself a justifying power. This is the desire, itself a gift of grace, that shapes life in Christ.
Whether the words belong to the playwright Robert Bolt or to a contemporary account, we are told that when Saint Thomas More mounted the scaffold he tipped the executioner with the words, “Do your work quickly for you send me to God,” to which the cleric standing by replied, “Are you so certain Sir Thomas?” More replied, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to come to him.” Those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied. This blessed hunger, this holy restlessness, made ever memorable by Augustine’s words, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” is the gift to every person who will listen, for we will in the end achieve what we have desired.
If our wills are formed to the neglect of God who is reality, the end may be darkness and waste. But for those who can grasp just one of the rays of glory that God has scattered across the world, who can long for something other than themselves, there is the promise of satisfaction, of the fullness of which the world offers a thousand intimations.
This hunger for God leads through the trials of life to our sharing in the great banquet that every Eucharist foreshadows. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” The Christian call to mercy is founded in God’s own mercy to us. That mercy, rooted in his justice, began in his will never to abandon his rebellious creation but rather to heal it through long ages. In the fullness of time his plan was perfected in the merciful gift of his Son who brought regenerating life with water and the spirit, giving those he called the white robe of justification at baptism (Tim. 1:4–7, Rev. 7:9).
At the sixteenth-century Council of Trent when, Luther’s advocacy of justification by faith alone having raised the issue, the question arose as to whether, having been made righteous once and perfectly through the gift of baptism, the wayfarer at life’s end, having marred the robe of baptismal purity, required and would be offered a second justification by the merits of Christ’s passion, the conciliar conclusion was in the negative. Christians are assured that, while called to be perfect, “If we say we have not sinned we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8–10).
For our post-baptismal sinfulness the Church offers the repentant the mercy of true forgiveness, sealed by the power of the keys (Matt. 16:19, John 20:19–23). And for the still imperfect heart, marked with holy sorrow and freed of any note of rebellion, there is the merciful fire of purgatory, a state imagined differently in different ages but one whose end is certain: the fruition of life in the vision of God. This is the ultimate mercy promised by the fifth Beatitude: the merciful will obtain mercy. This greatest mercy, this perfecting love, rooted in God’s own mercy, is the hope of Christians, shining down the days of every life and inspiring the gentling of the world by those who have been shown mercy. The apostle James writes, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13).
Since Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the necessary purification of the elect by fire, it has ever been the teaching of the Church that those faithful in whom love exists but which has not found full fruition will by the mercy of Christ be perfected in holiness after death (1 Cor. 3:10–15). But pure in heart we all then will be. This mercy is then the ever present background for the making of the pure heart which has as its purpose and reward the renewal of that conversation which sin interrupted in the garden. This is the mercy of the love that will not let us go until we are fit for the innumerable company of angels, the spirits of just men made perfect, and God who is the judge of all (Heb. 12:22). “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The creation of the clean heart is ever the master-work of the apostolic mission, a work which while it begins with the proclamation of the Gospel is effective in the sacraments, with the elect, God’s chosen, being perfected by the means to holiness Jesus purchased with his death, when the Holy Spirit came with his regenerating gift of baptism and with forgiveness and communion that light the Christian way.
The heart sees; it has an eye which, sin-clouded, cannot behold its maker. Purity of heart is a way, a praxis, that requires more than emptying the soul of evil like the demon-cleansed house in Matthew 12:43–45 that soon was to be filled with demons more vicious than the first. Purity of heart requires that the house of the soul be filled with the light of grace by the Holy Spirit; the human heart cannot be purified of sin without being filled by God, and then, the eye of the soul wiped clean, we will see. Peacemakers, says the seventh Beatitude, are the sons of God, whose will is that peace of the kingdom that Augustine calls the order of tranquility.
The rhetoric of the world has as its underlying purpose incitement to strife, to emulation, to aggression, to self-pity, grievance, and ultimately to perpetual warfare. God’s sons, his children, bring peace into the world by bearing rather than striking, by walking the extra mile when one has already walked as far as justice requires, by giving more than is just. The presence of evil in the world is never mitigated until it is borne. Those who enjoy the blessings of the first seven Beatitudes will be rewarded with citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and inevitably will be persecuted by that mystery of evil called the world.
For the first three centuries, and even now, faithfulness might mean death. But presently in the West that persecution will not often be with rack and rope; it cannot be resisted with any violence, only with patience and finally suffering, but it will nonetheless be real. Christians living through modernity know what it is, if not to be reviled publicly, to be held in gentle contempt and on a certain day to be thought an enemy of all that is best by one’s neighbor. Less obvious is the persecution inherent in the world that while it assaults the senses allures with the enchantment of technology’s transcendence over nature, offering comforts that often seem to render restraint and discipline pointless.
This new war with the world does not threaten with the executioner’s fire and lions, but with the subtle luring of the soul into self-willed pusillanimity. Bearing the cross and denying oneself in a culture whose ignorance of the true dimensions of life makes such actions meaningless, may seem harder to bear than the inquisitor’s fire. Yet living a life that bears witness when one can never know the world is listening makes Christians part of that great company who, beginning with the prophets whom Israel despised and persecuted, have been a light in this world, and who have ever been rewarded with the presence of God.
Jesus’ description of the gift of blessedness to the soul is followed by the images of salt and light that establish the character of Christian witness in the world. Christ’s followers are the salt of the world, and in that sense a gift to it, but if the salt has lost its savor, “What is there left to give taste to it?” It is Christian witness that lifts up the world in hope. This witness is a light that is not to be put under a barrel but lifted high, set on a lampstand so that the Christian way can shine brightly before men who see its good works and glorify our Father in heaven.
Having described the blessedness that belongs to the kingdom, its consequences for believers, persecution, and the necessity of their witness in the world, Jesus turns to the question raised persistently by the charge of the Pharisees that he and his disciples have no regard for the Law of Moses. His disciples pluck grain from the fields on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1); he eats with sinners, and without ritual purification (Matt. 15:1). So, Jesus will assure the Pharisees of every age: “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to destroy the law but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” until the holy ones who are the citizens of the kingdom are called and fulfilled.
And then the warning and the promise to teachers: “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so shall be called least in the kingdom, but who obeys them and teaches them shall be called great” (Matt. 5:13). And the new standard: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, those whose whole work is fulfilling the propositions of the law while leaving the heart in shadow, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And how is this to be achieved? By entering perfectly into the love of the Lord through the door to that interior castle, the will. Hardly a new idea: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.”
But what Jesus does not reveal in this place is the fact that this new law will require a new heart which can only be formed by his Pentecostal gift his death will bring. Six times the phrase “You have heard it said” is repeated, to be followed by “But I tell you.” What has been said by men of old is the Law of Moses. What Jesus teaches those listening is the new law of the heart that places moral weight not in good deeds, although these will follow, but in the renewed will. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, the working of the world upon us is to be borne; what makes the man is that expression of the heart that forms our words and actions (Matt. 15:11).
The renewal Christ commands surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees for it will make men and women of a flawed and fallen world citizens fit for eternal life in the kingdom of the new heart. The first contrast between what has been said and the new law teaches that the death and destruction that characterize life and history begin with contempt, anger, and insult, which can only be amended by the willingness to ask forgiveness, perhaps even when just grounds for anger are present. Be reconciled to your brother before you offer your sacrifice. Litigiousness and contentiousness unlamented lead to prison from which you will not escape until justice has been fully served (5:25–26). It is not enough to refrain from adultery; one must reject from the heart the desire for the pleasurable possession of one not yours but another’s, for the settled desire is as good as the deed done (27).
There is then the new law of language: abjure hyperbolic claims that presume a power you do not have. Jerusalem is not yours but is the city of the great king; you cannot make one hair of your head white or black (5:33–36). And do not take refuge in ambiguity; let your pledged word be sealed with a yes or no (37). This means that in the kingdom of the new heart the duty of the rhetor and the author, of every man as he speaks and writes, is to be ever obedient to the reality of the thing, whether it be an object or an idea or an emotion. And as for revenge, give it up, putting it away with the willingness to bear something, to do more than the importunate or the would-be oppressor asks. And this turns upon the extension of the second great commandment to include not only the neighbor, but the neighbor who wishes you harm (5:43–48). “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” had been at the heart of justice as the Old Covenant commended it. It was a principle of Greek morality that revenge was the justifying motive of morality, but among Jesus’ followers, something is to be borne.
Of the six contrasts through which Jesus teaches, the most shocking to his hearers was surely the abrogating of divorce, which had been allowed, as Jesus would tell his disciple in the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but which now was to be done away with in obedience to God’s will as expressed in the primordial unity of man and woman in the Garden; “It was not so in the beginning” (19:8). This renewed vision of marriage would be developed by Saint Paul with the analogy of the relation of husband and wife to the indissoluble union between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:25). But in the context of Matthew 5, Jesus only teaches that, assuming the divine justice of the Edenic disposition to be true, putting a wife away inevitably sends her into another household and to another husband, if not into the street, and by doing so makes both her and the head of the household into which she may have been taken adulterers. Jesus’ teaching on divorce would be put forward fully in chapter 19:3–12, where divorce would be seen as a violation of God’s will that “the two shall become one” (5).
The disciples answered for fallen mankind: “If it is this way between a man and woman, better not marry.” This might have been said of the entire body of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If it is this way; forego revenge, love your enemies, abjure contempt and insult, walk the second mile, achieve purity of heart, who can bear it? But the divine teaching of Matthew 5 does not consist of moral maxims addressed to the world but to citizens of the kingdom of the new hearts that Pentecost will bring. These six recastings of the law in Matthew 5 offer the clear outlines of the new way of life that marks the kingdom. They are redolent of the nobility of the faith and presuppose the humility the giver of the new law displayed on the night he was betrayed (John 13:1–17).
Jesus’ sermon on the mountainside was the foundation, laying down the principles of the way that would blossom from his words after his sacrifice made the new heart a possibility and a reality through the gift of the indwelling Advocate and Comforter at Pentecost. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; the Counselor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The Spirit comes with power to confirm memory and to lead into all truth, to comfort, to convict, and to convert, and to give the peace the world cannot give, and finally, our work done, to bring us to himself.
The Holy Spirit redefines the meaning of life and of history. Sin is now not simply a violation of the law but failure to believe Christ’s words and to accept the gifts that make for holiness. Righteousness is rightness of the heart formed by faith and by participation in Christ through his sacramental gifts so as to become a new creature. Mankind is made for the holiness that pleases God, enabling the sons of Adam at last to enter the conversation that was forestalled when our first parents chose the serpent’s way.
The entire Pentecostal faith, with its promise of forgiveness and the reward of communion introduced the waiting world to the great adventure that gave every man the possibility of becoming a new creature. Thus it would be that when Christians began to write they would turn to this text, to Matthew 5 and 6, to discover the foundations of the kingdom of the new heart. Other Matthean texts would be cited by writers of the post-apostolic age, the apocalypse of chapters twenty-four and twenty-five would find a permanent place in Christian faith, and the Gospel parables have never ceased to form Christian conscience and imagination: the wicked servant who, having been mercifully forgiven his debt, grasps his fellow servant by the throat demanding payment of the small debt owed him (18:20–35); the householder who gave those who had labored little as much as those who had labored long because it was his to be gracious as he chose (20:1–16); the king who gave a wedding feast to which many refused to come, and one who did was cast out as not being properly attired (22:1–14); and the parable of the talents.
These would always engage and teach, but it was the words of Chapters 5 and 6 that rippled out from a mountainside in Galilee to make a new world. The teaching of the new way issued in a new piety, with prayer, almsgiving, and sacrifice; things not to be done in order to be seen by men or to earn their approval, but privately and without calculation (6:1–15). Jesus’ followers do not need to storm heaven with many words, for they do not like the prophets of Baal need to arouse God with their shouts. Christian prayer is made in the knowledge that Our Father in heaven knows what we and every other creature needs this day, for the new heart beats within its living relationship to the ever-providential God who made it.
The first petition of the great prayer recognizes with praise that God’s name, that is his being, is holy, asking that his will, reigning gloriously in heaven, may soon be perfected in the Church and in the world. The words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” have been variously understood because the word for “daily” may be understood to mean “supersubstantial” rather than daily in the ordinary sense, so that the prayer for daily bread refers as well to Eucharistic bread.
There follows the petition that our debts or transgressions may be forgiven as we forgive others, a reference to both the fifth Beatitude above and to 6:14–15 below. “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father also will forgive you.” Always considered the first Gospel, Matthew, with the Beatitudes and Jesus’ perfecting of the law, “You have heard it said of old, but I tell you,” laid the foundation for the life of the new heart that his sacrifice would bring to the world, accomplishing in the elect the perfect virtue that the philosophers and Pharisees had foreseen but which the fallen could never accomplish apart from the cross of Christ and the regenerating Pentecostal gift he bought.
When Jesus sat down on a hillside in Galilee to teach, his words made a new world.
The image shows, “Sermon on the Mount,” by Ivan Makarov, painted in 1889.
Dr. Maspero is a priest, theologian and physicist who embarks on a study of the Trinity – the Christian triune God – and in a single narrative pieces together the classical metaphysics, revealed truths and Patristic apologetic theology that directed the development of Trinitarian dogma.A highlight of this work is Dr. Maspero’s reliance on Mary, Theotokos, in his presentation of Trinitarian theology, the person who first opened herself to this manner of thinking. We encourage our readers to read this important book.
“The Trinitarian Conception Of Man And The World”
The Trinity And The World
Thus far, we have seen how the revelation of the Trinity has challenged man’s thought, which through faith has been opened up toward a unity that is not solitude, but communion – a unity that is a trinity, not in a paradoxical sense, but as the foundation and source of all other unity. Classical philosophy could not comprehend it and therefore assumed a model of unity taken empirically from nature. Christian doctrine had to replace this model with that of the unity of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the question of the one and the triune, the relationship between God and the world is at stake. Theology has had to learn how not to reduce the Trinity to the categories of thought derived from natural observation, and instead to modify its own conceptual instruments so as to take account of the unimaginable Truth encountered in Christ. When this was accomplished, it became possible to go back and reread the world, beginning with its constitutive relationship with the Trinity itself.
To do this, however, it is necessary to think about being in an analogical sense because the world is not the Trinity. What is true for God does not necessarily apply to man. That is why, as has been seen repeatedly, to speak about the Triune God we must eliminate any linguistic references to movement, time or ontological distinction. In fact, the heresies indicate critical moments of this process, moments that served as stimuli for further investigation and favored a purification of theological thought.
Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite, a mysterious author of the fifth or sixth century, described the process of this development as three-fold. The first phase is constituted by the affirmation of some perfection of God or by the application to Him of a certain concept like procession or generation. This phase must be followed immediately by a second phase, which is a negation insofar as that reality is not present in God with the limits found in nature. This culminates in a final phase that acknowledges the eminence of God, in which He is recognized as the source of all partial realizations of that reality, though it is perfectly possessed by God and lies beyond any human conception. For example, if we affirm that God is great, we must simultaneously deny that He is ‘great’ in the material sense of the word, so as to then conclude that He is great inasmuch as He is the eternal source of every greatness. So, in a seemingly paradoxical way, we can also say that God is small because being small can be understood as perfection––here we might think of the possibility of nearness or being inside, something that smallness implies even at the material level. God is the source of every perfection so that one can purify smallness in such a way as to recognize God as its origin. That is why the divine attributes coincide with one another just as the rays of the sun converge and are unified in their source. God is, then, both small and great, and yet remains without contradiction.
The task of theology, therefore, consists in the development of thought that does not explain or reduce the Mystery but causes it to emerge in a formulation that is increasingly less inadequate. This happens when one is able to show a certain aspect of God as the source of perfections found in nature, and of those perfections recognized by philosophy and the other human sciences. That is why the essence of theology demands harmony with the other disciplines.
The work of the theologian must simultaneously maintain the presence of two extremes: a) The being of God belongs to a different ontological sphere from that of the world, a sphere that we can know only in part through what God has willed to reveal about Himself, but which we do not possess and experience directly; b) Creation reflects the perfections of its Creator, and man reflects this perfection to the utmost because he is created in the image and likeness of the Trinity itself.
Therefore, we must be very cautious when we attribute to God realities that have a specific realization on the natural level. For example, if being a father at the created level is impossible without the presence of a wife and mother, this does not mean that in God there must be a bride. At the same time, we must also bear in mind that the transition from God to the world cannot be equivocal, for what we have come to know in God through revelation is inevitably reflected as perfection in creation. A further example may clarify this: It is said that God does not have relations, rather is three eternal relations. We humans, on the other hand, have relations but we do not identify ourselves with our relations. Yet, for a human person, perfection should be found in his or her relations precisely because God is the source of every perfection. Hence, the father of a family will become himself much more fully by giving himself completely to his children, and therefore growing in his identification with his relation of fatherhood rather than through the achievement of extraordinary professional success if this distances him from his relations. Work is good when it serves fundamental relations but is negative when it distances one from them, regardless of any economic prosperity.
Persons And Relation
This vision is linked to the personal dimension which is the key to the formulation of the unity and trinity of God. One of the peaks of Trinitarian reflection has been the work done to achieve an adequate definition of the word “person” that can be applied analogically to both man and God.
We can see how in antiquity this concept was linked to multiplicity and imperfection, and so could not be applied to God. The early Fathers, such as Justin, were still affected by this difficulty when they stated that the Son is a person because He manifests Himself and enters into relation with man and creation whereas the Father cannot be a person.
Boethius (†525) offers the initial definition: Individual substance of a rational nature (De duabus naturis, 3). The fundamental element of his definition of person is substance which takes account of individuality. Here, he reflects the original identification of ousia and hypostasis, with an apparent equivalence of the latter to substance. Later, theological reflection understood that it was necessary to distinguish hypostasis from ousia in God. At the human level, however, there is evidently still equivalence, for every human person is a distinct substance with respect to other human persons. In Boethius’ definition, if distinction is bound to substantiality, then the dimension of communion is brought back to the rational nature in that it is precisely the reason and the word that allow for the possibility of entering into relation.
In the twelfth century, Richard of St. Victor (†1173) exposed the limits of the Boethian definition. Though correct when applied to man, it breaks down when applied to God who is three Persons but not three substances. This is why Richard formulated a new definition: incommunicable existence proper to the divine nature (De Trinitate, IV, 22). So as to overcome the problem of Boethius’ definition, he replaces substance with existence, referring this term, according to its etymology (ex–sistentia), to the being from (ex) another. Thus, the existence of the Father would consist of his not being from anyone, that of the Son would consist of being from the Father, and that of the Holy Spirit of being from the two first divine Persons. In this way, the noun used––existence––makes direct reference to communion and relation whereas the adjective incommunicable guarantees the distinction. This definition was a clear step forward, but it also had an obvious limit. It could be applied only to God because the existence of human persons is not like that of God in Whom each Person is exclusively distinct by His relation of origin in the other Persons of the Trinity, yet still identified with the single substance. The additional specification unique to the divine nature was necessary to avoid every possible misunderstanding. The definition, then, cannot be applied to man but only to the Trinity.
Ultimately, it is Thomas Aquinas who offers a definition that can be applied to both the creature and the Creator. He modifies Boethius’ definition in the following way: The person is the subsistent of a rational nature (ST I, 29, a. 3, ad 3). Substance is replaced by the present participle of the verb to subsist, a verb that means ‘to have one’s own being in oneself’. This is why the definition is appropriate to the divine Persons, who are identified with the one substance that is Being itself, and therefore have no accidents. In this way, Thomas expresses what Boethius intended, though without using the term substance, which cannot be said of God in the plural. Furthermore, the use of the verb in its present participle refers directly to the subject of an action that in God is eternal. Obviously, when we speak about man, the dimension of eternity is not present, even though the definition applies to him perfectly.
Thus, Aquinas’ theology succeeded in finding a formulation that is extended analogically to different levels of being, thus displaying the continuity between God and His image. Clearly, the divine Persons have subsistence in a perfect way to the extent of being identified with their relation of origin. Therefore, with respect to the Trinity, Aquinas’ definition can be combined with another, which applies only to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The divine Person, is, in fact, relation inasmuch as it is subsistent (ST I, 29, a. 4, ad 3). If on the level of creation relation is an accident, in God it obviously is not, and is instead identified with the fullness of Being. This step forward is possible because relation is a pure reference to another reality that does not of itself modify the substance. So the Father is Fatherhood and in Him there is nothing else: The first Person does not give merely something to the other two, but gives Himself and is identified with the divine substance precisely in being the eternal source of this gift of Himself, of the gift of His divinity. So, too, is the Son none other than Sonship. Therefore, He is the divine substance received as a gift from the Father and given back to Him. And in this total giving back the gift of Himself the second Person is the image of the first. Lastly, the Holy Spirit is pure Spiration, that is, divine substance in being the eternal Gift that the Father and Son exchange between themselves.
Within man, the relationship between substance and relation is different than what it is with God. Whereas in the Trinity the Person refers directly to the relation and only indirectly to the substance, for us person points to substance in the first place and then, only indirectly, to relation. This is due to the imperfection of man who is called to become divinized by the Holy Spirit that he might grow in the image and likeness of God. This is something that anyone might experience by contemplating the saints, who were gradually identified with their relation to God and who gave their lives in love. This is demonstrated through the same bond of ultimate love that a person shows by giving his life for his friends, as Christ indicated in his farewell discourse during the Last Supper as the meaning of his life and the Paschal Mystery (John 15:13). This is not something merely moral. Instead, it is a journey towards full identity with the incarnate Son who came into the world to draw man into the Most Blessed Trinity and so bestow upon him eternal life. Man does not lose himself in giving himself, opening himself and allowing himself to enter into relation with the other, even if this means allowing himself to be wounded to stay true to that relation. For Being, the source of every being and every life, is relation.
Fatherhood And Sonship
The fundamental importance of the relational dimension was also grasped by the phenomenological research of the last century, and in unexpected areas of inquiry. For example, in an explicitly non-Christian context, psychoanalysis traces psychological pathologies back to an origin in wounds at the level of a person’s fundamental relations. In order to understand man, one must begin from the fact of his being son.
It is essential, therefore, to know the Father and the Son and contemplate them more fully. The Trinity is not an abstract reality, a complex theological doctrine far removed from us. Rather, it is the source of our very being as well as our deepest aspirations. We are from the Trinity and for the Trinity. The bosom of the Father is our home and the ultimate source of our identity, for from Him stems all fatherhood in heaven and on earth (Eph 3:14–15).
In fact, the Father is the divine Person who is the origin and source of everything. The Son and the Spirit have their origin from Him in eternity, and that is why creation, which is the work of the whole Trinity, also has its ultimate origin in the plan of the Father. He is Origin without origin. According to the Athanasian creed, He was neither made by anyone, nor created, nor generated. Inasmuch as He is the source of fullness, the first Person is the true foundation of divine unity. One could say that calling God one because He is triune is tantamount to saying that God is one because He is Father. In fact, being Father implies the existence of a Son and the being bound to Him by Love. It is here that one sees the ontological newness represented by the personal and relational dimension, known to us only through revelation.
The fatherhood of the first Person is absolute in the sense that He is infinitely Father. That is why he is fully involved in the generation of the Son. He never existed without the Son. He did not become a Father, He is Father, pure and eternal relation to the Son and His Love. Moreover, he is so fully Father that he alone generates an Only Begotten Son who, in turn, is perfectly identified with His very same divinity, with the divine substance.
The Son is fully Son: In Him there exists only the eternal receiving of Himself from the Father and the eternal orientation toward the Father. The second Person is pure being from and being for the Father, according to a beautiful expression of J. Ratzinger (Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004, pp. 186–189). The Son is always perfectly and continually generated in eternity, without this implying imperfection or movement from potency to act but only fullness and depth of relation with the Father. The very use of the passive to indicate being generated is due to the limitations of our language, for in itself the Son’s being generated is active and not passive. In God, to receive is not something “to which one is subjected”, but the welcoming of a gift, a welcoming that constitutes the Giving as such. The language of gift helps because even among humans accepting a present is an active process. The same can be said for call and answer. Thus, the Father is Father because He generates the Son, but is also the Father because the Son accepts the Gift and, in a way that we are unable to express adequately, it is precisely the Son who makes the first Person Father. Hence, their relationship is an eternal gift of self, which, on the part of the Father, possesses the characteristics of origin and source while, on the part of the Son, it is an eternal giving back of the Gift.
Hence, the Son is also called the image of the Father (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3). Just as the Father gives of Himself, so also the Son is His image precisely in the giving-back of Himself to the Father. He does not keep the Gift but gives of His own self to the Father in return. Though He is Life, He does live alone. Rather, He places Himself back in the hands of the source of Life.
This is also expressed in the name the Word, which is attributed to the second Person. Yet this name adds the reference to the purely spiritual dimension of the generation. This procession is analogous to the cognitive act of man because man too when he knows something has within himself, in his interior, an image of the known object. When man knows himself, the image that he forms of himself is intimate to the man himself and in an imperfect way is that man. Obviously, in God, the thought He has of Himself in knowing Himself is not only a concept. This thought is God Himself because here the act of knowing is utterly perfect. The Son is, then, the Thought of the Father. Clearly, this is only an analogy inasmuch as in man the concept that he forms is accidental and linked to the need to know, whereas in the Trinity it is the fruit of a perfect act of pure cognitive fertility.
Insistence on the Gift of Self is essential in understanding the significance of the new reality that has been revealed. There is no longer any sense in the image of God standing on high and determining all things by necessity. In that case, the identity of all that has its origin from Him would be an imposition and hence a mark of inferiority. Thus, in Christian reflection, it proved difficult initially to express the perfect divinity of the second divine Person. The Father and the Son are indeed God, the one and the same God, in eternal and reciprocal self-giving. The Father is not Father alone but rather in relation to the Son, and the Son is Himself in relation to the Father. Their identities are relational.
At this point, one can glimpse a reflection of the development of man and of his becoming aware of himself as son. When a child is small, he normally perceives only the perfection of his own parents, a perfection that is his first notion of the image of God. This happens because the world of the young is limited to the security of the home and family. However, he develops little by little and enters into relation with the external world. At the same time, he recognizes both his own limitations and the limitations of his parents, from whom his own limitations often derive. In this phase, one’s own identity is often perceived as an imposition and generally receives adolescent rejection, accompanied by the need to appear different. In a certain sense, the fundamental relationship with parents is understood in a dialectical sense, because a person does not manage to accept his own limitations. The simple fact of the matter is that when a person enters the world he does not choose his father or his mother. In this sense, the relation is not totally free. However, with the onset of the adolescent crisis, combined with external confrontation, the child can gradually discover, beyond the limitations, the positive side of his family baggage, of his heritage, and can actually freely choose his own parents in accepting their limitations. This kind of forgiveness of one’s father makes relation free and reciprocal; and from this gift, which is the essence of forgiveness, is also born the true identity of the son who, in accepting the limitations of his father, also accepts his own limitations and recognizes himself as a gift. The son is thus ready to become a father, that is, ready to give back to another the gift that he has received. And the same is true for a daughter.
Clearly, there are neither limits nor temporal sequence in the Trinity, but the relation of Father and Son is an eternal and reciprocal Gift of Self that is reflected in the image and likeness of the creature. For this reason, man becomes all the more easily son– –that is, he overcomes the crisis of adolescent identity––the more he realizes that his father truly gives of himself, that he accepts his limitations and loves the world, despite the difficulties.
The image shows, “Holy Trinity With The Virgin And The Saints,” by Corrado Giaquinto, painted in 1755.
Today’s skeptics, who seem to reject something traditional just because it’s traditional, cannot sit still during the holy season of Christmas without mocking the notion that Christ would have been born on December 25th. If it were just the unbelievers who engaged in this mockery, it would be expected, since unbelievers, by their very nature, are not expected to believe. More troubling is the fact that, like evolution and all other modern atheistic fantasies, this one has seeped through the all-too narrow wall separating Catholics from the rest of the world. The anti-Christmas myth, which makes a myth out of Christmas, is being foisted on Catholic children as fact. To benefit these, and any Christian who respects piety, history, Scripture, and Tradition, we present our defense of Christmas.
Since there is no date for the Nativity recorded in Holy Scripture, we rely on the testimony of the Church Fathers and of history to get an answer to the question, “When did Christmas take place?”
First, let us see the essential significance of the Savior’s birth at the time usually attributed to it. The winter solstice, the astronomical event which recurs every year, is traditionally said to be the birthday of the Messias. To elucidate the meaning of this fact, we will turn to Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+ 385 or 386): “On this day, which the Lord hath made, darkness decreases, light increases, and night is driven back again. No, brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins on the day when He shows Himself in the brightness of His coming, which is the spiritual Life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this circumstance, of our Savior’s coming. Nature seems to me to say: “Know, oh man! that under the things which I show thee, mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night, that had grown so long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had reached its height, by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day, stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward, its duration shall be shortened until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger and his position higher in the heavens: Learn from that how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth.” (Homily On the Nativity)
Saint Augustine, a Western Father, concurs with Gregory, the Easterner: “Let us, my brethren, rejoice, this day is sacred, not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of Him Who is the invisible Creator of the sun. He chose this day whereon to be born, as He chose the Mother of whom to be born, and He made both the day and the Mother. The day He chose was that on which the light begins to increase, and it typifies the work of Christ, who renews our interior man day by day. For the eternal Creator, having willed to be born in time, His birthday would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of creation.” (Sermon On the Nativity of Our Lord iii) Similar sentiments are echoed by St. Ambrose, St. Leo, St. Maximus of Turin, and St. Cyprian.
To further the beauty of this mysterious agreement between grace and nature, Catholic commentators have shown this to be a marvellous fulfilment of the utterance of St. John the Baptist, the Voice who heralded the Word: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Literally fulfilled by the ending of the Precursor’s mission and the beginning of the Savior’s, this passage had its spiritual fulfillment in the celebration of John’s feast on the 24th of June, three days after the summer solstice. As St. Augustine put it: “John came into this world at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases.” (Sermon In Natali Domini xi). adoration-of-the-shepherds-el-greco
Lest anyone find all this Astronomy to reek of paganism, we remind him that in Genesis, it is recorded: “And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: To shine in the firmament of heaven, and to give light upon the earth. ” Further, the Magi, those holy men from the East, who came to greet the Expectation of the Nations, were led thence by a star.
“But,” you may say, “the winter solstice is on the 21st of December, not the 25th.” Correct. But if, from the time of the Council of Nicea (325) to that of Gregory XIII’s reform of the calendar (1582), there was a 10 day discrepancy between the calendar and the actual astronomical pattern governing it, then it is entirely possible that a four-day discrepancy had occurred between our Lord’s birth and the Council. We illustrate this possibility as follows: The calendar that many of the Greek schismatics still follow (the Julian calendar), is presently fourteen days off from the Gregorian. This additional four day discrepancy from Gregory’s time has happened over about 400 years.
But now for the meat of the issue: when did it happen? According to St. John Chrysostom, the foundation for the Nativity occurring on the 25th of December is a strong one. In a Christmas Sermon, he shows that the Western Chruches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept the Feast on that day. This fact bears great weight to the Doctor, who adds that the Romans, having full access to the census taken by Augustus Caesar (Luke 2, 1) — which was in the public archives of the city of Rome — were well versed in their history on this point. A second argument he adduces thusly: The priest Zachary offered incense in the month of Tisri, the seventh of the Hebrew calendar, corresponding with the end of our September or the beginning of our October. (This he most likely knew from details of the temple rites which were transmitted to him by a living tradition, supported by Holy Scripture.) At that same time, St. Luke tells us that Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist. Since, according to the Bible, Our Blessed Lady conceived in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (the end of March: when we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation), then she gave birth nine months later: the end of December.
Having no reason to doubt the great Chrysostom, or any of the other Fathers mentioned; in fact, seeing objections issued only by heretics and cynics, we agree with the learned Doctor and conclude that, by God’s Providence, His Church has correctly commemorated the Feast of His Nativity.
Further, as the continuity of the Old Testament with the New Testament was preserved in two of the principal feasts of the New: Easter corresponding to the Pasch and Pentecost to Pentecost (same name in both dispensations), it would have been unlikely for the Birth of the Eternal God into our world not to have had a corresponding feast in the Old Testament. Until the time of the Machabees, when the temple was re-dedicated after its desecration by the Greek Antiochus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes (see 1 Machabees 4). One hundred and sixty-seven years before Jesus, the commemoration was instituted according to what was written: “And Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu, with joy and gladness.” (I Macc. 4, 59) To this day, Jews celebrate the twenty-fifth of Casleu (or Kislev, as they say) as the first night of Hannukah. This year (5757 in the Jewish calendar), 25 Casleu was on December 12. Even though the two calendars are not in sync, Christmas and Hannukah are always in close vicinity. With the Festival of Lights instituted less than two centuries before Our Lord’s advent, the Old Testament calendar joined nature in welcoming the Light of the world on his birthday.
As for the objection, “Jesus couldn’t have been born in the winter, since the shepherds were watching their flocks, which they couldn’t have done in winter”: This is really no objection. Palestine has a very mild climate, and December 25 is early enough in winter for the flocks and the shepherds to be out. The superior of our monastery, Brother Francis Maluf, grew up 30 miles from Beirut, which has the same climate as Bethlehem, both being near the Mediterranean coast, and he has personally testified to this fact.
American fans of Monty Python will be familiar with the opening lines of William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem” (and I apologize to my British readers for such an introduction). The poem was set to music in 1916 and became deeply popular in post-war Britain. The Labour Party adopted it as a theme for the election of 1946. It recalls the legend of Christ’s visit to England as a child (taken there by St. Joseph of Arimathea). Blake spins it out into a vision of the heaven to be built in the modern world:
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land.
King George V is said to have preferred it as a national anthem over “God Save the King.” It is, indeed, used as an anthem in a number of contemporary settings.
It has to be heard and understood in the context of its times. It was first published in 1808. Blake, interestingly, was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution and a critic of the many darker elements of the industrial revolution that was, as yet, in its early days.That struggle is something of a theme that has continued through to our present day.
Though we often welcome the innovation and conveniences brought by industrialization and technological advances, we also lament the frequent tragedies found in their wake. The present environmental movement seems torn between a green world of naturalism and a super-technological world in which the digital age marries convenience to a tiny carbon footprint. The jury is still out on this latter possibility.
In Blake’s time, industrialization was new and often had the effect of displacing traditional workers. As a child, he lived near the Albion Flour Mills in Southwark, the first major factory in London. The factory could produce 6,000 bushels of flour per week and drove many traditional millers out of business. When the factory burned down in 1791, the independent millers rejoiced. Some have suggested Albion Flour as the origin of Blake’s reference to “Dark Satanic Mills.”
At the very time that industrialization was bringing prosperity to some, it created new forms of poverty among the “unskilled” (or “wrongly skilled”) poor. We live with the same thing today. The abandoned factories of the Rust Belt, where poverty and drug-addiction have replaced a once thriving industrial world, point to how intractable this aspect of modernity has become. Two-hundred years after Blake, our Dark Satanic Mills are generally off-shore. Their Jerusalem, our Satanic Mills.
The tremendous success of industrialization (for some) also created a deep, abiding confidence in the power of science and the careful application of human planning. As problems increased, so, too, did various plans and efforts to manage them. There grew up, as well, a sort of modern, industrialized eschatology. The Christian faith believes in the coming Kingdom of God. Already, various reformers and off-shoots of the Puritans had imagined themselves to be creating an earthly paradise. Their utopian visions became powerful engines of change and revolution. As the heads rolled in Paris, the crowds imagined them to be harbingers of a new world. They were – but not paradise.
A name deeply associated with the Christian adoption of this progressive thought is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). An American Baptist who taught and pastored in New York, he put forward works that would become foundational for the notion of the “social gospel.”
The 19th century had seen something of a collapse in classical Christian doctrine in many of the mainline churches of Protestantism. The historical underpinnings of those doctrines had faced increasing skepticism.
Rauschenbusch was not immune to this. He dismissed the notion of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin, seeing in it, rather, an example of suffering love, whose power was to be found in its ability to encourage people to act in the same way.
He described six sins which Jesus “bore” on the Cross:
“Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt – every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered.”
These “powers of evil” were embodied in social institutions. The work of the Kingdom of God consisted in resisting these institutions and reforming society.
Liberal Christianity adopted Rauschenbusch’s vision in a wide variety of ways. That his vision was largely political should be noted. Interestingly, he saw the Church as a problematic institution and preferred to speak, instead, of the “Kingdom of God,” by which he meant the political project opposed to the six sins.
It is, of course, an interesting approach to the faith and has been a well-spring for many of the Christian social movements of the past century. It is also a jettisoning of the ontological and spiritual content of the faith traditionally associated with classical Christianity (such as Orthodoxy). It is also the form of Christianity favored by the cultural elite of our time. It needs none of the messiness of doctrine, only the clarity of moral teaching. Indeed, it would be possible to practice such a Christianity believing Jesus to be merely human.
Another aspect of the modern social gospel (endemic, I think, to its so-called “demythologized” approach to the Scriptures) is its adherence to Utilitarianism as a moral principle. That principle is a results-oriented philosophy, described best as a moral model in which all efforts are managed towards a desired end. It presumes the control of outcomes.
None of this needs a God, nor a Savior. As such, it is ideally suited to a secularized Christianity. In large part, it provides a Christian slogan for otherwise secular ends. In Rauschenbusch’s time, the place of the institutional Church was strong, almost unassailable. Over time, the secularization of the Church, married to his vision of the gospel, has resulted in the death of the very institutions that gave it birth.
The rhetoric of “building the Kingdom,” made popular by Rauschenbusch, is a deep distortion of the phrase, despite its best intentions. Christ is far more than a good man who set an example, and more than a victim of social wrong-doing. The Christian story is far richer. The nature of sin is death, not mere social oppression. Death reigns over us and holds us in bondage to its movement away from God. It certainly manifests itself in various forms of evil-doing. But it also has a cosmic sway in the movement of all things towards death, destruction, and decay. Our problem is not our morality: it is ontological, rooted in our alienation from being, truth, and beauty – from God Himself. Broken communion leads to death. Immorality, in all its forms, is but a symptom.
However, God, in His mercy, entered into the fullness of our condition, our humanity, taking our brokenness on Himself:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” Hebrew 2:14-15.
This is not the language of Christ as exemplar – it is Christ as atoning and deifying God/Man and Savior. The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.
We have been nurtured in a couple of centuries of Utilitarian rhetoric and thought. Nothing seems more normal to us than setting goals, making plans, and achieving results. It is not surprising that we might imagine God working in a similar manner. This is not the case.
Consider the story of the Patriarch Joseph. Betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into prison, where he meets other prisoners and interprets dreams, thus coming to the attention of the Pharoah, whose dream he interprets and offers wise counsel, whereby he is made Regent over Egypt, saving his family from famine.
What people in their right mind would ever consider such a plan as a means to reach the goal of saving themselves from a famine they had no idea was coming? No one. Indeed, event after event in the story appear to be nothing but ongoing tragedies. Joseph himself would later say of these things: “You [my brothers] meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.”
That is the inscrutable nature of providence – as illustrated repeatedly in the Scriptures. The mystery of God’s providence, the working of the Kingdom of God in our midst, is inscrutable: “He has exalted the humble and meek and the rich He has sent away empty.”
In these latter days, the masters of machines and money have imagined themselves to be “building the Kingdom” (Blake’s Jerusalem) with plans, intentions, goals, and utopias. [Such language was the bread and butter of public speech in my time among the Episcopalians]. The plans generally seemed to involve the rich helping the humble and meek so they would no longer need to be humble and meek. With every success they became even greater strangers to God. Their Churches stand empty, their children having forgotten God and looked towards other dreams.
It is the nature of the humble and meek to be clueless about the management of worldly affairs. They are generally excluded from management decisions. It is instructive in this regard to consider the nature of Christ’s commandments: they tend to be small and direct. Give. Love. Forgive. Take no thought for tomorrow. Endure insults.
As is true in the story of Joseph, the work of providence is largely seen only in retrospect. Its daily work in our lives will, more often than not, find us unjustly imprisoned by the lies of a wicked employer, or nailed to a Cross while being mocked. St. Paul describes the providence of God:
“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (I Corinthians 4:9–13).
If we are to speak of “building up the Kingdom of God,” let it be restricted to that work within us of “acquiring the Holy Spirit.” And then, speak with humility. Again, St. Paul says this about such things:
“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (I Corinthians 4:4–5).
Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.
There are many approved prophesies of a great future monarch and holy pope, and also of a future ecumenical council. The prophesies of Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser (1613-1658), which speak of seven ages of the Church, has this council taking place in the sixth age. I believe that we are in the fifth age written of by that holy priest. How far off the sixth age is, I do not pretend to know, but I want to bring to the attention of any readers who are tempted to believe that the coming of the Antichrist is imminent that such a timeline is not at all likely. Before the Antichrist, there will be a time of spiritual prosperity for the Church, and this is the sixth age mentioned by Venerable Bartholomew.
We pray for the speeding coming of that great ecumenical council that will “define the true sense of Holy Scripture.”
The Message Of Fatima And The Future Of The Church
On October 13, 1917, at Fatima, Portugal, Our Lady worked the greatest public miracle since the Resurrection, the Miracle of the Sun, to prove that her Fatima message was urgent and true. In that message She warned that, if her requests were not heeded, Russia would spread its errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church, and that several entire nations would be annihilated.
The principal error that took hold in Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution, a few weeks after the Miracle of the Sun, was not communism, but evolutionism – since it was the “scientific fact” of molecules-to-man evolution that made confident atheists and communists of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and their numerous disciples and stooges.
On the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun, October 13, 1973, the year of Roe vs. Wade, through her approved apparition in Akita, Japan, from a statute that had wept human tears 101 times, Our Lady warned that the Miracle of the Sun was a foretaste of a fiery divine judgment that would be unleashed upon the world, killing most of the earth’s population, unless mankind repented and turned back to God.
Given that we have only grown worse since Our Lady of Akita’s warning, we may well have reached the point where a divine chastisement and the annihilation of nations are inevitable. But we have our Blessed Mother’s solemn promise that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, that the Holy Father will consecrate Russia to Her, that Russia will be converted, and that a period of peace will be granted to the world. So, let us hasten her Triumph, by living our consecration to Jesus through Mary in every thought, word and action – in every moment of our lives!
As we observe the multiplication of errors against faith and morals on every side, it is tempting to lose heart and to doubt that there will ever be an era of peace, a restoration of the Faith all over the world, and the social reign of Christ the King. But this would be tragic, because God who does “nothing without telling His servants the prophets,” has repeatedly foretold a future era of peace and a final Ecumenical Council that will put an end to all heresies. Moreover, in light of a number of authentic prophecies that speak of a future Ecumenical Council that will “define the true sense of Holy Scripture,” it seems virtually certain that the overwhelming support in Scripture and Tradition for creation in six days will lead to a solemn definition of “day” in Genesis 1 as a 24-hour day.
In his book Trial, Tribulation, and Triumph, researcher Desmond Birch cites a number of holy men and women of recent centuries who prophesied an Ecumenical Council during the future era of peace that will define the sense of Scripture on certain important, unresolved questions. In particular, he mentions the seventeenth century founder of an institute for priests, Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser; Sr. Jeanne le Royer, a French nun and mystic of the eighteenth century; and a nineteenth century French nun known as the Ecstatic of Tours.
Before presenting the prophecies of a final Ecumenical Council during the Era of Peace, Birch cites the work of Scripture scholar Fr. Kramer whose analysis of the Book of Revelation argues that “the seven thunders” of chapters eleven and twelve of the Apocalypse refer to the declarations of an Ecumenical Council during the Era of Peace, before the appearance of the final Antichrist. According to Kramer:
The Seven Thunders may then be declarations of an ecumenical council clearing up all that was left unfinished by the magisterial office of the Church, before God will permit Satan to exert his supreme efforts to destroy her from without. The Seven Thunders will strengthen the faithful and loyal clergy in their belief and practices, expel all who are addicted to corrupt lives and superstitions and manifest the unwavering stand of the Church on the then prevailing maxims of the world… Through the Seven Thunders, God gave him (St. John) a special revelation of great importance, indicating what would immediately precede the coming of Antichrist, but it was to remain a secret to the Church.
Venerable Bartholomew Holzhauser was a holy priest of the seventeenth century, founder of an Institute for the formation of priests approved by Pope Innocent XI in 1680. Holzhauser accurately predicted the execution of Charles I of England and the persecution of the Catholic Church in England for 120 years. (Prohibition of Mass under penalty of death lasted from 1658 until 1778.) The documents for his cause of canonization attribute miracles of healing to him. In one of his works, Venerable Holzhauser divided the history of the Church into seven periods and situated the seventeenth century Church in the fifth of these periods. He wrote:
During the fifth period, we saw only calamities and devastation; oppression of Catholics by tyrants and heretics; execution of Kings, and conspiracies to set up republics…. Are we not to fear, during this period, that the Mohammedans will come again, working out their sinister schemes against the Latin Church?… During this period men will abuse the freedom of conscience conceded to them… there will be laxity in divine and human precepts. Discipline will suffer. The holy canons will be completely disregarded, and the clergy will not respect the laws of the Church. Everyone will be carried away and led to believe and to do what he fancies, according to the manner of the flesh… But, by the hand of God Almighty, there occurs so wondrous a change during the sixth period that no one can humanly visualize it .
The sixth period of the Church will begin with the powerful Monarch and the holy Pontiff . . . and it will last until the revelation of Antichrist. In this period, God will console His Holy Church for the affliction and great tribulation she has endured during the fifth period. All nations will become Catholic. Vocations will be abundant as never before, and all men will seek only the Kingdom of God and His justice. Men will live in peace, and this will be granted because people will make their peace with God. They will live under the protection of the Great Monarch and his successors.
All nations will come to worship God in the true Catholic and Roman faith. There will be many Saints and Doctors on earth. Peace will reign over the whole earth because God will bind Satan for a number of years until the days of the Son of Perdition. No one will be able to pervert the Word of God since, during the sixth period, there will be an Ecumenical Council which will be the greatest of all councils. By the grace of God, by the power of the Great Monarch, by the authority of the Holy Pontiff, and by the union of all the most devout princes, atheism and every heresy will be banished from the earth. The Council will define the true sense of Holy Scripture, and this will be believed and accepted by everyone (emphasis added).
It is difficult for twenty-first century readers to imagine how unbelievable Venerable Holzhauser’s predictions of the rise of republics must have seemed to seventeenth century Catholics in nations where Christian monarchies had existed for many centuries. In our proud and unwavering faith in progress, we fail to consider that the restoration of monarchies in the future is no less likely today than the prophesied rise of republics in the seventeenth century. Moreover, Venerable Bartholomew was not the only authentic Catholic prophet to predict a future Ecumenical Council in similar terms.
Why would the six days of creation be among the passages of Holy Scripture whose “true sense” will be defined once and for all during the Era of Peace?
The answer emerges where Venerable Holzhauser remarks that “atheism and every heresy will be banished from the Earth.” Given the intimate connection between the denial of the six days of creation and the acceptance of evolution – in dogma and in morals, as well as in natural science – the definition of “day” in Genesis One as a 24-hour day would irrevocably seal the Church’s condemnation of that error.
Like Venerable Holzhauser, Sister Jeanne le Royer foretold a great Council of pastors after a time of great trial and tribulation: “I see in God a large assembly of pastors who will uphold the rights of the church and of her Head. They will restore the former disciplines. I see, in particular, two servants of the Lord who will distinguish themselves in this glorious struggle and who, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, will fill with ardent zeal the hearts of this illustrious assembly .”
Similarly, the Ecstatic of Tours predicted: “The Council will meet again after the victory. But, this time, men will be obliged to obey; There will be only one flock and one shepherd. All men will acknowledge the Pope as the Universal Father, the King of all peoples. Thus, mankind will be regenerated .”
Since the Ecstatic of Tours had lived during the first Vatican Council, which was interrupted by strife between French and Italian forces, it was logical for her to see the future council as a continuation of the work of Vatican I. On the other hand, as a “pastoral council,” which did not define doctrine or condemn errors, Vatican II could not complete the work of Vatican I, which was a Council in the traditional sense, defining doctrine and condemning errors in faith and morals. Thus, the Ecstatic’s prophetic announcement of a council “after the victory” of the Church points to a future Council that will complete the unfinished work of the First Vatican Council.
In light of the promises of Our Lady of Fatima, it is interesting to note that prophets of the Russian Orthodox Church have also predicted a future Ecumenical Council. St. Seraphim of Sarov who predicted the Bolshevik Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar more than one hundred years in advance also foretold a final Ecumenical Council before the rise of Antichrist and the end of the world.
He prophesied that its aim would be: “…to unite and reunite all the holy Churches of Christ against the growing anti-Christian tendency under a single Head, Christ the Life-Giver, and under a single Protecting Veil of His Most Pure Mother, and to deliver to a final curse against the whole of Masonry and all the parties similar to it (under whatever names they may appear), the leaders of whom have one common aim: under the pretext of complete egalitarian earthly prosperity, and with the aid of people who have been made fanatical by them, to create anarchy in all states and to destroy Christianity throughout the world.”
It is significant that St. Seraphim recognized that the Orthodox Churches have not been able to have an Ecumenical Council since their separation from the Church of old Rome. Thus, he regards this future Council as “the eighth” because it will involve the Bishops of the whole world, as did the seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium when the Patriarch of Constantinople remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome.
This is a remarkable admission by one who is probably the most revered modern saint of the Russian Orthodox Church—an admission that it is impossible to have a truly Ecumenical Council without the participation of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, we know that this event will only become possible after the Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by the Pope and the Bishops in union with him , the act that will spark the conversion of Russia and her return to full communion with the Catholic Church.
It is worth reflecting on the agenda that St. Seraphim identifies as the common aim of all of the enemies of Christianity: “under the pretext of complete egalitarian earthly prosperity, and with the aid of the people who have been made fanatical by them, to create anarchy in all states and to destroy Christianity throughout the world.” Is that not the very goal that we see being pursued throughout the world by corporate globalists like Bill Gates and George Soros, in concert with the United Nations, Communist China, and secular humanist regimes?
Father Alexander Schmemann described “secularism” as the greatest heresy of our time. He didn’t describe it as a political movement, nor a threat from the world outside Christianity. Rather, he described it as a “heresy,” that is, a false teaching from within the Christian faith. What is secularism?
Secularism is the belief that the world exists independent of God, that its meaning and use are defined by human beings. Things are merely things. The world is no more wonderful than its surface. To this is contrasted Christian orthodoxy – that all things “live, and move, and have their being,” in God. God sustains the world and directs it providentially towards its end: union with Him. More than this, all that exists does so with depths and layers. The universe has a sacramental or iconic structure, such that everything is a point of communion with God.
In our time, the notions of secularism have been in the ascendancy for well over 200 years. They have found their way into the bedrock understanding of most Christians, and chipped away at the faith of the Orthodox and Catholics as well. It is a largely unrecognized heresy in that it appears to be a “non-religious” point of view, being outside the realm of theology. For modern people, it is simply thought to be “the way things are.”
Over the course of the years, a continuing theme of my writing has been to point readers towards what is not seen. It is at the heart of my use of the image of a “one-storey universe,” as well as how I have sought to present the Scriptures. It is even woven into the problem of shame, though I have not yet fully explicated that aspect of the problem. The answer to secularism, however, is not to be found in attacking it. Rather, it is best seen by presenting what is true and real – the shape of the world that is denied by the secular dogma. In this, St. Paul offers a profoundly helpful declaration: “Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
It has seemed to me that the habits of our modern lives run counter to this theme. We are captivated by the “surface” of things, failing to see what lies beneath. It causes us to be anxious and driven by things of insignificance. If there is a constant temptation for us in our present time, it is to lose confidence that there is anything unseen or eternal, at least in the sense that such things impinge on our daily existence. Our disenchanted, secular world is a siren song that promises the power of control while robbing us of the reality of communion. We “manage” the world when we should be in love with it.
The supreme example of the eternal, unseen, reality among us is found in the Eucharist, where we profess that “this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and truly Thine own most precious blood.” This example is not an exception, a strange instance in which such a thing is said but once, while surrounded by the flatness and emptiness of a secularized landscape.
This point is at the very heart of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s writing: “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom. We use the word ‘dimension’ because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Color transparencies ‘come alive’ when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world” (For the Life of the World).
One way to begin the journey out of secularism is to follow the path of beauty. We have been trapped in the syllogism that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” something as patently untrue as it is opposed to beauty itself. When beauty is reduced to subjectivity, its meaning is lost, as well as its ability to save us. Dostoevsky famously wrote, “The world will be saved by Beauty.” The mystery of this thought is lost within a secular mind.
The perception of beauty is as essential to the soul as the perception of heat and cold, up and down, right and wrong. The subjectivization of beauty is a war of the secular against its only possible opponent. At stake is the soul of human beings. Secularism would ultimately deny the existence of the soul, unless there is some form of “survival” after death. That there is an unseen dimension of each human life, transcending emotions and thought, is unacknowledged in a world that is increasingly materialistic. The soul, as a truly existing reality, is as easily denied as the Body and Blood of Christ. Contemporary polling suggests that as many as 60-70 percent of US Catholics no longer believe in the doctrine of real presence. They very likely deny their souls as well.
This is far more than an indication of unfaithfulness to classical teaching. It points to a shift in worldview in which the possibility of an inner reality is denied. All that remains of the inner life is that area we now describe as “psychological” (which has now become a misnomer, in that its name means “the study of the soul”).
Early secularism speaks in the nineteenth-century character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ Christmas creation. When he confronts the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, he says: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” We bring the same skeptical nonsense to our own perception of beauty. We are more likely to credit our cultural experience than bad gravy, but we are certain that the beauty we perceive should have no more claim on us than our preference for Coke over Pepsi. “I don’t know, I just think [feel] it’s pretty!”
The Fathers of the Church were deeply certain of beauty, so much so that they grouped it together with truth, goodness, and being as a foundational, essential aspect of reality itself. For Christians, the transcendent reality of beauty is grounded in Christ as Logos, the One through whom all things were created, and by whom all things exist. The denial of beauty as transcendent is a denial of the goodness of creation as well.
“Noetic perception” is a phrase that describes the ability of the human heart to perceive that which is Divine. As such, it is our capacity for communion with God and the whole of creation. Primarily, what we noetically perceive of creation is its “logicity,” its reflection of the Logos. Without such a perception, we do not see the truth of things. By the same token, without such a perception, we cannot know the truth of our own selves. Of course, goodness and truth are as endangered in the secular world as beauty. A world that cannot see goodness and truth is a world in which distortions and even lies are raised to a place of prominence. In a secular world, money and violence become the primary energies of governance and change.
Human beings are created in beauty and we crave its communion. The same is true of goodness and truth. There is a disconnect within us when our cultural language tells us that the deepest instincts of our existence are merely subjective impressions. It is a shaming thought that seeks to discount the very truth of who we are. It creates a loneliness and alienation that searches for answers in a world we are told is mute.
There are rational arguments that are exercises in the absurd. For example, to engage in an argument over whether you exist is silliness. The argument which says that all experience is purely subjective (it’s all in your head – you are only a mind) is another. To a similar extent, arguments that seek to deny a proper existence to truth, beauty, and goodness carry us to the absurd. Saying such a thing often provokes others to argue about truth, beauty, and goodness (witness, Pontius Pilate’s “What is truth?”). Such arguments, I think, imagine that you are seeking to impose truth, beauty, and goodness.
This is one of the fundamental problems of secularism. As truth, beauty, and goodness are denied any hidden, eternal existence, what is left is the version of pseudo-truth-beauty-goodness that are created through violence and money. It reduces life to the political – the struggle for power. Those who, in this election season, proclaim that the “soul of the nation is at stake” (both sides say it one way or another), mean only that their side might lose in the game for power. It is the battle for power, and our faith in secularism that endanger the soul. If truth, beauty, and goodness are eternal verities, then they defy legislation. They are to be discerned and perceived in order that we might enter into communion with them, becoming the kind of people who manifest them in our lives. As St. Paul opined, “Against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:23).
What is not seen are those things that matter most. Fifteen thousand years ago, in the back of a cave somewhere in Spain, a human being, utterly removed from us in experience, language, and culture, drew pictures of bison on the walls. We have no idea of his intention or purpose. However, we are able to say, without hesitation, that his drawings were (and are) beautiful. Without words, and beyond words, he said this thing to us. His drawings were true and good as well. It tells us that he perceived eternal things and left us this witness. God forgive us if we refuse to listen.
“I try to be unoriginal.” That quote was attributed to Brother Francis in a recent conversation I had with a friend, who, like me, regards Brother as a beloved mentor. Our teacher’s point, which he made in various ways over the years, was that he was trying to be faithful in passing on the wisdom that he himself had received.
This acting as a conduit to pass on what one was received, without being “original,” is redolent of two passages from Saint Paul that both serve as wonderful illustrations of the Catholic notion of tradition: “For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3); and ““For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread” (1 Cor. 11:23).
Receiving and delivering; “handing on” to others what was “handed to you:” That is tradition.
One of the beautiful Catholic traditions that Brother Francis loved to teach us about concerned the four senses of Holy Scripture, or “the quadriga” as this bedrock of Catholic Biblical studies is known.
Loving this subject as I do, I was delighted to learn more about it through the work of the Catholic medievalist, Dr. Andrew Jones, in a three-part lecture series, “The Liturgical Cosmos: The Worldview of the High Middle Ages.”
I would like to summarize what Dr. Jones has added to my understanding on the quadriga.
First, let me summarize the four senses. We begin with (1) the literal, also called the historical sense. This is what is actually narrated by the text. It is the foundation of the other senses, and, no matter how much more elevated the other senses may be in comparison, they must not be thought of as derogating from or negating the literal sense. That point is imperative, especially in these days when Neo-modernists deny the inerrancy of Scripture.
The remaining three senses are all collectively called “the spiritual sense,” but they are divided into three. The first of these is (2) the allegorical sense, which is a reading of some utterance or event as pertaining to a future and higher reality, most often, of Christ Himself. So, we see Adam, Joshua, King David, and various qualities of theirs or episodes in their lives as foreshadowing the greater reality of Christ. So, too, the twelve sons of Jacob, as historically real as they were, were also allegorical of the Twelve Apostles.
Next, we have (3) the tropological sense, which is often referred to under one aspect as the moral sense. This is the application of the passage to our own lives. It is where the “rubber” of the Bible meets the “road” of our own daily living of our baptismal vocation to sanctity. The Parables of Christ are more than merely great stories; they are that, but they also present us with practical illustrations of Christian virtue that we must imitate. Our Lord Himself, of course, is the greatest exemplar. From His most divine life narrated in the Gospels, we can draw a pattern for our own lives.
Lastly, there is the anagogical sense, which pertains to the future life of Heaven. Brother Francis liked to explain this sense in terms of the Holy City, Jerusalem. Literally, this is a terrestrial city, a stretch of land in a specific geographical place. Allegorically, this city can be seen as the Church on earth — and Holy Mother Church explicitly applies the word to herself in the liturgy. Tropologically, Jerusalem is the Christian soul who is called upon to receive the enlightenment of grace: “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee” (Is. 60:1). Again, tropologically, that same soul is encouraged to adore her God: “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem: praise thy God, O Sion” (Psalms 147:12). But if we rise still further, Jerusalem is the dwelling of the blessed in Heaven, as seen in Saint John’s vision in the Apocalypse: “And he took me up in spirit to a great and high mountain: and he shewed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Apoc. 21:10). This is the anagogical sense. Saint Paul also appears to employ Jerusalem in this sense in his Epistle to the Hebrews (Cf. 12:22-23).
To go deeper, let us take one verse and apply all four senses to it: “And he said to them: With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer” (Luke 22:15).
In the literal or historical sense, Jesus Christ truly uttered these words to His disciples at the Last Supper. This is an undeniable fact of history; it unquestionably happened. Allegorically, we can see the Paschal meal of the Mosaic Law, wherein was consumed the sacrificial lamb, as pointing ahead to Christ and the Christian Pasch, wherein He Himself, the Lamb of God, is offered as a victim and consumed as food in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Tropologically, each Christian soul can read this passage and stir himself up to a holy desire, which, in some measure, reciprocates the desire of Our Lord, as if to say, “Yes, Lord, you desired with the desire of your Sacred Heart to institute the Sacrifice of the Mass the night before you suffered. Here and now, as I come to you in the Holy Sacrifice and Sacred Banquet of the Mass, I desire to receive you, and to render, through you, to the Father all glory and honor.” Anagogically, this desire of the Sacred Heart and this communion with Our Lord in the Eucharist is fulfilled in the Heavenly Nuptial Banquet of the glorified Jesus Christ with His spotless Bride, the Church Triumphant.
Now, what is it that I learned from Dr. Andrew Jones? This very knowledgable medievalist makes the point that the quadriga is not simply a set of static, side-by-side interpretations we can choose from while interpreting the Bible. In the modern idiom, it is no mere “hermeneutic tool.” The medievals read Scripture in a very dynamic way, in an ascending way, and each individual believer is called by Baptism to rise from the historical through the allegorical to the tropological senses in this life, and even anticipate the life of Heaven by achieving some measure of “anagogy” or contemplation. “Pure anagogy” can only be achieved in the Beatific Vision, but its anticipation by way of contemplation in this life is something to pursue.
While insisting on the reality of the historical sense, Dr. Jones also speaks of the defect of one who remains in that sense and fails rise above it to see Christ in the Old Testament. Such a man is, to use my own expression, “stuck in history,” without seeing history’s point: Jesus Christ. The person who has ascended to the allegorical sense sees Jesus Christ as prefigured and pointed to throughout sacred history, but he needs to go further, and from that sense rise to the tropological by assimilating, in his daily life, the Faith, morals, and sacraments established by Jesus Christ for our salvation.
To do this is to “make the tropological turn,” as Dr. Jones says. Here, he is employing the etymology of the word, for “tropological” comes from the Greek noun tropos, which means, “turn” and is related to the verb trepein, “to turn.” Using the threefold medieval path to living one’s Baptismal life, the Doctor notes that whether one (1) prays like a monk or cleric, (2) fights like a knight, or (3) works like a farmer or artisan, we each have our own “tropology” — that is, our own way of living out the virtuous Christian life. It is the especial task of the preacher, a man who has mastered the four senses in his intellect and will, to help others to make the tropological turn, directing them yet higher to the ultimate anagogy of Heaven.
In other words, far from being only a way of studying the Bible, to our medieval forebears, the quadriga was a way of seeing all reality and a way of living life!
In the three lectures, the good Doctor says far more. He speaks of Pope Innocent III and the ecumenical council he summoned, Lateran IV, setting about the difficult tasks of teaching orthodoxy, bringing about ecclesiastical reform, conquering heresy, and reclaiming the Holy Land. But he speaks of all these as part of this larger sacramental outlook on life, or, as he calls it, the “liturgical cosmos” which forms the “worldview of the High Middle Ages.” In so doing, Dr. Jones accomplishes two things: first, he puts in their proper context that great Council and that great Pope, whose pontificate is considered the high-point of the medieval papacy. Second, he gives us a vision of a Christian Civilization towards which we can work. This is not to say that we ought to try to recover the Middle Ages, for it is never a good idea to “go back,” to something else. Rather, this era provides us with Catholic ideals towards which we must work to build a Christian social order, the Christendom of tomorrow.
Most valuably, this sublime worldview steeped in the quadriga joins the living of the interior life to the pursuit of evangelism as well as ecclesiastical and social reform. In so doing, it serves as a corrective to modern notions of “activism” that often spoil our best efforts.
After all, the best reformers, the best missionaries – the best prayers, fighters, and workers – are the Saints. This is a very “unoriginal” tradition that is quite worth recovering and passing on.
I was asked by a friend to write something explaining the four meanings of Holy Scripture as taught by St. Thomas: namely, the historical (or literal), the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical. I am glad to comply with this request, because I am convinced that the crisis in the Church today is due in large part to the failure to interpret Holy Scripture as God intended and as the Church has consistently understood it.
St. Thomas considers this matter of such importance that he deals with it in the very first question of his great masterpiece, the Summa Theologica. The teaching of the Angelic Doctor in this matter is confirmed abundantly by the way the Church uses Holy Scripture in her liturgy, as we shall show. It can also be shown to agree with the universal tradition of the Fathers. To give one typical example, St. Gregory the Great says, “Holy Scripture transcends all other sciences by its very style of expression, in that one and the same discourse, while narrating an event, transmits a mystery as well.”
We must always keep in mind that the principal author of Holy Scripture is God Himself. Next to the Incarnation, Holy Scripture is God’s greatest favor given to men. Only God could have taught us that He created the world, and how He did it and why. The first article of the Creed – I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth – is a truth transcending all natural science and all rational philosophy. Why? Because all rational disciplines must reason from, and must presuppose the nature of, things. They cannot explain how these natures came to be in the first place, nor why.
One of the first truths we teach our children is: “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him in eternity.” No human science or philosophy can teach us this wisdom, and this is why all godless education is marked by purposelessness.
God did not reveal the truths of Scripture to the proud, the suspicious, or the skeptic, but to the simple of heart. And it is part of His Providence not merely to inspire, but to be understood. And as part of His Providence, He gave us an infallible teacher to teach its truths without danger of error. And to keep His Church one, He made the principle of infallibility unique. Therefore, to interpret Holy Scripture correctly, one must understand it with the mind of the Church and under the guidance of the infallible magisterium.
St. Thomas, learning from the Fathers of the Church, teaches us that the inspired books – having God for their principal author – are infinitely richer in meaning than books emanating from a human source. A human author can teach from the meaning of words, but God conveys a message through the things He created. One could ask what is the meaning of the French word soleil and be told that it means “sun.” But no one can give the meaning of the sun itself, except the mind that put it in existence and gave it a purpose within the whole creation. Only God can answer the question “why?”
St. Thomas teaches that in Holy Scripture, besides the literal sense, God intends to convey three mystical meanings: One, the allegorical sense by which things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, and certain lesser realities in the New Law signify certain greater ones; two, the tropological or moral sense, by which the things done by Christ and by those who prefigured Him are signs of what we (His Mystical Body) should carry out; and three, the anagogical sense, which signifies things that lie ahead in eternal glory.
A few examples from the practice of the Church are sufficient to explain this method of understanding and explaining Holy Scripture. Take the story of Abraham and Isaac as reported in Genesis 22:1-18. The literal sense is a historical event that took place exactly as told in the Bible. But in the mystical or allegorical sense, the Church sees in Isaac a prophetic figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ, walking up the hill of Golgotha, carrying His cross, to offer up the great sacrifice by which He redeemed the world. In the prophetic figure, God the Father did not allow Isaac to be sacrificed but provided a ram to substitute for him. But in the prophesied reality, no ram was provided on Golgotha. God the Father, who spared Abraham that sacrifice, reserved that privilege for Himself.
In the same text, the Church understands a tropological sense. “Tropological” means “turned about,” to apply to the moral life of the Church or an individual member of it. All the faithful must imitate the faith and obedience of Father Abraham, who deserved to hear from God the Father: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:18).
The tropological sense is often used by preachers when they apply a text to an occasion which need not have been intended by the inspired author but could have been in the mind of God Who was inspiring. When Don John of Austria won a great victory for the Catholic cause at Lepanto, a preacher could apply to him the text: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” The same text could have been applied to John Hunyadi after the battle of Belgrade or to King John Sobieski after the victory of Vienna of 1683.
The episode of the ten lepers, related in Luke chapter seventeen, can be interpreted in the three senses we have presented thus far. Literally, it really happened. Ten lepers did cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So did the rest of the event truly happen as related by St. Luke. Without jeopardizing the historicity of the account there is also rich allegory in the story. The nine Jews who were cured but were ungrateful represent their nation, so graced by God, yet so ungrateful as to miss the time of their visitation. The Samaritan represents the gentile world, who were formerly forgetful of God, but who, with the grace of the New Testament, are grateful. They are the “strangers” who return to “give glory to God.” Tropologically, or morally, it teaches us, as a Church and as individuals, to show gratitude to God for the manifest graces He has given us, cleansing our filthiness and healing our diseases.
Finally, God wants us to raise our thoughts and interests towards the last things: heaven, hell, the last judgment, the state of glory, etc. But since our ordinary language is inadequate to express such transcendental truths, the Bible uses persons or things of time as symbols of eternal realities. This is the anagogical sense, of which there are many examples in the liturgical prayers of the Church.
For example, take the Introit of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. It is meant to bring joy and enhance hope in the midst of the penitential season. It says: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. [Is. 66:10-11] I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord [Ps. 121:1].” The Prophet Isaias and the Psalmist are talking directly about a real city, Jerusalem, in some definite historical circumstances: the exile of her children to Babylon and the prospect of their return. This is the literal or historic sense. We can also understand in this prayer allegorical and tropological meanings applied to the Church. But the principal purpose of this Introit is to lift our minds and hearts to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the anagogical sense.
One very profitable exercise is to read the Bible with this foursome in mind. It is a good tool to use in meditation and can actually be fun. The Gospels can take on new vividness: The parable of the talents… the curse of the fig tree… the call of Levi… the miraculous draught of fishes… Our Lord’s resurrection miracles…. They all teach us more when we meditate on them in light of the four senses. Not only the Gospels, but also all the rest of Scripture can be piously read in this way.
In our time, a great part of the crisis in religion is due to the way the Bible has been undermined. Any one who accepts the false theory of evolution cannot know the true literal sense of Scripture, on which, according to St. Thomas, the other three meanings depend. Here are the exact words of St. Thomas: “The first meaning, whereby the words signify things, belongs to the sense first mentioned, namely the historical or literal. That meaning, however, whereby the things signified by the words in their turn also signify other things is called the spiritual sense; it is based on and presupposes the literal sense.” (1a Q1 art.10) Further, the saint adds that “nothing necessary for faith is contained under the spiritual sense that is not openly conveyed through the literal sense elsewhere.”
St. Thomas gives us an excellent illustration of this important doctrine in the sequence he wrote for the feast of Corpus Christi, namely the Lauda Sion. In this familiar hymn in honor of the Holy Eucharist, the saint refers to the many, many places in the Old Testament where the Eucharist is contained in the spiritual sense, as in the Paschal lamb and the manna. But the doctrine of the Eucharist is found plainly in chapter six of John, and there in the literal sense. We also notice in the very title of the Lauda Sion , an illustration of the spiritual or mystical sense, for Sion here mystically represents the Church which was manifested to the world on Mount Sion on Pentecost Sunday and where the Eucharist was instituted on Holy Thursday.
Immediately after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, God said to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it, all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” God wasn’t joking when he said that; as many can testify.
Fighting the weeds is a perennial problem. I was reading recently where a charity worker and his wife moved out of their one bed flat in London in search of more space. They dreamt of having a garden to explore, digging up worms and generally getting their hands dirty. No harm in that. This couple had found a terraced house in a nearby leafy suburb with a small garden. But there was a major problem.
It had a major bindweed (Convolvulus) infestation. For the non-gardeners bindweed is the Terminator of the weed world. It mercilessly smothers other plants twisting itself around their stems with a vice like grip. It has a pretty little trumpet shaped white flower but that is just to deceive you. Its roots can penetrate up to 5 meters into the ground and if even a few centimetres of the root system is left in the soil it will thrive and grow. With the roots being so long it is practically impossible to dig all the root system out and practically impossible to destroy. Anyway, this couple decided to dig the whole garden up with the intention of removing the dreaded bindweed.
After a month of toil, the couple were eventually able to sow a lawn, plant fragrant flowers, roses, and apple trees. The garden was now like what it should have been. After this major dig the husband said that it was the first time in his life he had ever got his hands dirty. His experience is not a one off, for we live in the most sanitised civilization in history, making sure we don’t get our hands dirty. However, we tend to forget that God was the first person to get his hands dirty by forming the first human being out of dirt. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
We are all familiar, I’m sure, with how God created the heavens and the earth. In Genesis we are told that on the first day God spoke, he said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” On the second day God spoke, he said, “Let there be sky above the earth and it was so.” On the third day God spoke, he said, “Let dry land appear and it happened, and so on; until the sixth day. On the sixth day God spoke, and said, Let the land produce living creatures and wild animals.”
Also, on the sixth day God spoke, and said, “Let us make man in our image, so God created man in his own image.” God simply spoke and everything appeared. But with human kind, you and me, it was different. God created man. He didn’t just speak and it happened as with the other days of creation. When he created man, God got his hands dirty.
Nothing else in all of creation required God to get his hands dirty, except man. Nothing else in all of creation called for that degree of fine-tuning and attention to detail, that depth of involvement and artistry by God. Man was the only created being on earth that was formed by God. Man was the only created being made in the image of God. Animals, or plants or fish or birds or insects were not made in the image of God.
Evolutionists teach in our schools and colleges that there is no divine in man, just dirt. They tell us that man gradually evolved from some primeval form millions of years ago. That we are a random collection of cells and flesh. What utter nonsense. There is no scientific evidence to support such a claim. Only giant leaps and bounds of scientific imaginations. How on earth can a blue whale come from a fish? Where is the biological evidence
Because you and I are made in the image of God, each person has intrinsic value, worth, and purpose. Each person is not a random evolved collection of cells and flesh. Each person has intrinsic value and a living soul. The secular liberal universities in the English speaking West deny this. Their teaching revolves around group identification based on colour, race, gender, and socio-economics. It is divisive, demeaning and godless. It is the group that wields power and pits one grouping against the other. For them the individual is irrelevant and hapless. Incapable of coherent logic.
Have you ever wondered why we are made in the image of God and why did God bother in the first place, putting us on this planet? Sometimes we may feel like the man who said; “I’ve got a clock that tells me when to get up; but sometimes I need one to tell me, why I need to get up.”
If people think that all there is in this life is the material world, they will give themselves over to it and in the end all you have is yourself. It was the author G.K. Chesterton who said; “When you abandon belief in the creator God, people do not begin to believe in nothing, they begin to believe in anything.”
The Bible says there is more to life than just you or us. In fact, we are the product of a very creative and loving God. In short, we are to reflect God’s image. That is the why bit. Why am I here? I am created by God to reflect His image. Humanity alone is made in the image of God. We are made for intimacy with Him. We are to be His mind, His attitude, His hands, His heart, His feet.
Amazingly we can communicate with the God of this universe, and God can communicate with us. This is why God cares more about who you are, and what you are becoming, than you do. To be made in the image of God means that we possess some of the features and qualities of the God who made us. Like kindness, love, forgiveness, peace, joy and goodness. Yet because we are all like pools of muddy water because of our sin, instead of naturally reflecting these qualities and relating to God and loving him for who he is, and loving others, we relate much better to possessions, power and the material world around us. We tend to love things and use people, instead of loving people and using things. We have a tendency to find meaning in every created thing instead of the Creator. We become what we love. We reflect what we love and serve. Throughout the Old Testament we read consistently where Israel abandoned their faith for various idols.
God in His wisdom has made us constantly restless, in order that we can find Him and reflect Him to the world; which is why we are here in the first place. We can know what it means to be made in the Image of God; the responsibility and privilege that it carries. There is no greater accolade than to be known by God and to serve Him. Yet, of the many downsides in the world we see today concerns that of Self Image. Self-Image is huge; whether its connected with advertising, or celebrities, reality TV programmes or social media; its ultimately all about self; the persona of “Me.”
Sin in its many forms has deformed the image of God in each person. Instead of being clean, pure, unpolluted water, we are more like a muddy pool where the sediment settles and then it’s kicked up once more. Sin has deformed the image of God in each person so that we either sinfully think too highly of ourselves, or, we think too lowly of ourselves, which is also a sin. The power is always in the balance. We are both depraved and possess dignity at the same time.
On the one hand, if you think highly of yourself and value yourself above others in pride, you do not love your neighbour as you should, since you don’t think they are worth loving. On the other hand, if you have a low self-image, you also will not love your neighbour, since you feel like you have nothing to give. We can elevate our dignity in sinful pride, or elevate our depravity also in sinful pride. Both are in the end; forms of pride and sin which deforms the image of God in us. And all of this is connected to self-image; who we think we are.
Some of you may have seen a bird attack its own reflection against a window pane. Time and time again the bird throws itself against the glass as if it dosn’t like the image it sees. And then discovers too late, that all it was seeing was itself.
These are some of the comments taken from a female website where women can anonymously share how they feel about their bodies: “I hate everything about my body.” “I constantly compare myself to other women.” “I eat when I’m depressed and then I get more depressed.” “Sometimes when I see a woman fatter than me, I’m glad. She’s making me feel better.” “I don’t know how to feel comfortable in my own skin.” (Incidentally, men say the same thing). Tragically these sentiments are widespread within our Western societies, driven by mainstream media and the result of a self-loathing secular idealogy.
What do you see when you look in the mirror? The image of God in each person is marred. Thankfully it is marred but not destroyed. However, the Gospel made known to us through Jesus Christ allows us to be humble and confident at the same time. On the one hand, the Gospel tells us we are sinful, and the sins we know about ourselves are just the tip of the iceberg. This humbles us, which is good. At the same time, the Gospel message informs us, we are loved and the love we know of Christ is just the tip of the iceberg. Which is very good.
Not only did God hand make us from the dirt of the ground, but he paid the price to redeem us on the cross at Calvary when we decided to live for ourselves instead of Him. To know we are accepted, loved, and his love is what makes us beautiful again, gives us hope and confidence in Christ and within ourselves. When that collision between the recognition of my sin and the understanding of how Jesus has dealt with my sin on the cross occurs, a new beginning happens. We can begin to properly reflect and grow in practising the image of God which we were always designed to do.
Thanksgiving is a time of giving thanks to God for his material blessings, for the harvest, the crops, the fruit, the vegetables and so much more and for the farmers and others who make the harvest possible. Despite modern agricultural advances and inventions, we are still wholly dependant on God to provide the weather and the conditions for the seed to germinate and grow and be fruitful.
We are also thankful to God for his spiritual blessings which at times we can easily forget about. There is no greater supernatural blessing than the way in which He can transform a lost life. To know God’s peace, His wisdom, and the hope of eternal life are blessings this world, including the atheist academics, can never deliver. God in His mercy reached down from heaven and got His hands dirty with us. He knew exactly what He was doing, but He wanted more than anything else to talk to us, to invest in us, and have a relationship with us.
The bindweed in the garden is a picture of the damage sin does in our lives, both on the surface, and with the roots that go deep inside. But God got His hands dirty by pulling that bindweed out of our lives and by replanting the goodness of His love and mercy in us. God is saying that your self-image matters to me. You are of great worth, and you are highly valued.
An old lady was very poor. She had absolutely nothing. No shelter, no food, no nothing. She prayed to God and God gave her 10 apples. This was wonderful. Now I can get the things I need she said. She was so hungry of course that she ate the first 3 apples. The next 3 apples she traded to rent a small shelter so she could keep dry when it rained. She exchanged the next 3 apples for some new clothes, so she was no longer cold at night. But then she discovered she had only one apple left over. “Why did you give me one apple more than I needed,” she asked God? God replied; “So you can have something with which to thank me for.” All of us have a lot more than one apple left. We thank God for His provision.
Alan Wilson is a retired Presbyterian minister, who lives in Northern Ireland.
The image shows, “Midday Prayer During Harvest,” by Theodor Christoph Schüz, painted in 1861.