Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Marriage Saved In Heaven

A Marriage Saved in Heaven: Elisabeth Leseur's Life of Love by Robin Maas, Ph.D.

The name Elisabeth Leseur is unknown to most American Catholics; but the English translation of her remarkable journal, long out of print, is once again available. The recent release of a beautiful new paperback edition by Sophia Institute Press provides occasion for rejoicing, for this French housewife's spiritual odyssey is sure to give hope to the countless Catholic wives in this country whose suffering mirrors her own. For several years I have assigned Elisabeth Leseur's journal to my students at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Without exception, they are stunned by what they read and are deeply moved.

Many American women will find Elisabeth Leseur's writings psychologically inaccessible, for they witness to a vision of marriage and an experience of silent, sacrificial love for which our contemporary culture offers no explanation or support. At a time in history when women feel they have a right to personal fulfillment in both the major spheres of their lives - domestic and professional - this particular life may register with many as an enigma and a rebuke, for it reminds us that our personal ambitions are narrow and impoverished, lacking the luster and verve of the heroic.

Married in 1889 in Paris, Felix and Elisabeth Leseur were both from relatively prosperous and cultivated backgrounds. They and their impressive circle of friends were part of an intellectual elite who indulged themselves in a constant round of receptions and soirees, evenings at the theater and frequent travel abroad. The young husband was a medical doctor, and like so many ardent suitors, Felix had promised his fiancée that even though he was no longer a believer-having lost his faith in medical school-he would always respect her Catholic piety and never interfere in her practice of the Faith. Elisabeth was attractive, good-natured and intellectually curious. A lover of all the arts, when she was not busy entertaining or being entertained, she pursued her own intellectual advancement through self-directed study projects, mastering Latin, English and Russian.

Indeed, this was a couple that seemed to "have it all." To look at the handsome newlyweds one would never guess that the relationship would soon be permeated by the deepest and most hidden psychological anguish imaginable; and even more astonishing was the survival of their affection for one another in the midst of a massive failure of communication of the sort that would topple most middle- class marriages today.

The Cross of Spiritual Isolation

At the time of her marriage, Elisabeth Arrighi Leseur could be fairly characterized as a sincere but somewhat conventional Christian. There was no particular reason, given her background, for Felix to expect the kind of spiritual seriousness that emerged in her early thirties, just as there was no reason for Elisabeth to expect the dramatic change of attitude that developed in her husband not long after their marriage. From a staunchly Catholic family, the Jesuit-educated Felix was able to discard his religious formation surprisingly quickly under the pressures created by his own professional and social ambitions. Originally willing to tolerate what he himself had left behind, Dr. Leseur soon came under the influence of anti-clerical friends and adopted their attitude of militant resistance to Catholicism. His innate capacity for zeal came to full bloom in his conversion to atheism and the subsequent efforts he made to evangelize his wife.

Felix began to undertake a study of polemical anti-Catholic literature in earnest and in his enthusiasm thrust much of it upon his wife. Soon, it began to take effect. Elisabeth came to have serious doubts and started to look favorably on the arguments of liberal Protestantism, positions which Felix gladly endorsed since he saw these as only a short step away from radical agnosticism. One work in particular, Renan's History of the Origins of Christianity, he expected to produce the much desired coup de grace that would demolish the last remnants of his wife's religious convictions. To his surprise and dismay, the effort backfired:

. . . thanks to divine Providence, the very work that I thought would accomplish my hateful object brought about its ruin. Elisabeth . . . was not deceived by the glamour of the form, but was struck by the poverty of the substance . . . . She felt herself approach the abyss, and sprang backwards, and from then on she devoted herself to her own religious instruction.1

Elisabeth's reeducation in the Faith, which she herself planned and implemented, consisted of an extensive reading program devoted to the New Testament and the writings of the saints. Her husband's eager efforts to sway her had taught her the arguments; her own program of study gave her the background to reply confidently. Thus the net effect of Felix's attack on Elisabeth's Catholicism was to ground her much more firmly in her faith than she had ever been before.

Furious at this unexpected turn of events, Felix redoubled his efforts to get his wife to see the light, but there was an unmistakable change in Elisabeth that even her frustrated husband could not ignore. He saw her faith become

a new thing, unassailable, unshakable, and radiant, opening henceforth to her the way to the sanctification in which she was so marvelously to progress. Her ascension to God had begun. And this faith "that could move mountains" had been set by God upon the firmest rock of all-that is, upon suffering.2

In Elisabeth's case, the primary source of her suffering was her marriage, but as we shall see, it had nothing to do with having married "the wrong person" or in the death of marital love. The radical tension between husband and wife over the issue of religion was to be a constant, implacable reality in this marriage, and a source of unremitting pain for Elisabeth. The following entry captures accurately the poignant nature of the isolation she endured: "I thirst for sympathy, to bare my soul to the souls that are dear to me, to speak of God and immortality and the interior life ..."3

Elisabeth confides to her journal the acute pain she suffered when not only husband but friends as well attacked or made light of what she treasured in her heart:

Bitter suffering of an evening spent in hearing my faith and spiritual things mocked at, attacked and criticized. God helped me to maintain interior charity and exterior calm; to deny or betray nothing, and yet not to irritate by too rigid assertions. But how much effort and inner distress this involves, and how necessary is divine grace to assist my weakness!4

That a young wife should be deeply wounded-and angered-by such a betrayal is to be expected. What is remarkable here is Elisabeth's capacity to make use of her suffering for the benefit of those who inflicted it on her. Where human nature seeks just reparation for pain inflicted, Elisabeth is unwilling to indulge that very natural demand; nor will she simply suffer. Instead, she "spends" that pain to benefit those who caused it. Immediately following her description of her distress, she adds this plea and a resolution:

My God, wilt Thou give me one day. . . soon . . . the immense joy of full spiritual communion with my dear husband, of the same faith, and, for him as for me, of a life turned toward Thee? I will redouble my prayers for this intention; more than ever will I supplicate, suffer, and offer to God Communions and sacrifices to obtain this greatly desired grace.5

An Apostolate to Souls

Felix recalls that when asked to inscribe a motto in the day-book of her beloved younger sister, Elisabeth had written the following: "Every soul that uplifts itself uplifts the world." He continues, "In that profound thought she defined herself."6 This message to someone she loved presaged what was to become the leitmotif of her own life and the meaning of her personal mission as she understood it.

While still a young woman, Elisabeth had come to the conclusion that the popular conviction that for activity to be valuable it must have a widespread and measurable social impact was mistaken. Aware of the profound and transformative action worked by grace in the depths of each soul, she claims to "believe much more in individual effort, and in the good that may be done by addressing oneself not to the masses but to individual souls. The effect one can exert is thereby much deeper and more durable. . ."7 In one of her earliest journal entries she voices an aspiration that will mark the special character of her apostolate: "I want to love with a special love those whose birth or religion or ideas separate them from me; it is those whom I must try to understand and who need me to give them a little of what God has placed within me."8

One thing God certainly gave Elisabeth Leseur in abundance was a profound empathy to the sensitivity-and fragility-of individual souls. Thus she accepted as her special task to learn, first, to understand those who, so different from herself, took delight in abusing what she loved; and second, to love these same souls. Moreover, she must love them "for themselves alone and for God, without counting on a single recompense or sweetness, simply because they are souls and because Christ, the adored Master, in looking upon them . . . uttered. . . : 'I will have pity upon the multitude.'"9

Her prayers for a productive apostolate were certainly answered, for in the end, a great multitude were blessed through their encounters with her. The passing of time and the addition of trials in this woman's life were consistently accompanied by resolutions such as the following:

To go more and more to souls, approaching them with respect and delicacy, touching them with love. To try always to understand everything and everyone. Not to argue; to work instead through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to reveal God and make Him felt without speaking of Him; to strengthen one's intelligence, to enlarge one's soul. . . ; to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference. . . . Never to show the wounds that are caused by certain hostilities, declarations, or misunderstandings; to offer them for those who cause this suffering.10

This craving to give what she herself almost never received becomes the means through which Elisabeth's personal purgation proceeds. Towards the end of her life this desire burns through her entire being like an invisible flame:

To learn from the Heart of Jesus the secret of love for souls and deep knowledge of them: how to touch their hurts without making them smart and to dress their wounds without reopening them; ... to disclose Truth in its entirety and yet make it known according to the degree of light that each soul can bear. The knowledge required for for the apostolate can be had only from Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist and in prayer.11

The Highest Form of Action

Although for Elisabeth no physical or additional emotional suffering could compete with the pain that Felix's spiritual alienation caused her, along with her lifelong sorrow in not being able to have children, she met with and was forced to endure suffering in almost every area of her life. Unbeknownst to most of her friends-but not to her physician husband-she fought a constant battle with a variety of physical afflictions.

Eventually Elisabeth's physical suffering made it increasingly difficult for her to leave the house, let alone maintain the active involvement with socially worthy charitable causes she had previously enjoyed and continued to support financially. Living with these severe constraints, she came to see that her suffering, rightly used, could be a source of formidable power.

Trying to explain this to a friend whose very active husband was facing the prospect of blindness, she wrote:

I know by experience that in hours of trial certain graces are obtained for others, which all our efforts had not hitherto obtained. I have thus come to the conclusion that suffering is the highest form of action, the highest expression of the wonderful Communion of Saints, and that in suffering one is sure not to make mistakes (as in action, sometimes) - sure, too, to be useful to others and to the great causes that one longs to serve.12

Again, we see an attitude that strikes at the heart of contemporary assumptions about how a work of value can be accomplished in the world, especially by a woman. The demand for the freedom to be actively involved in worthy projects (if not actually in charge of them) has become a predominant theme for modern women; yet here is someone who claims to have found the secret of personal effectiveness in a form of action that far transcends the only type of involvement that most of us can imagine. Indeed, a life consisting of constant physical pain, emotional suffering and undiminished social obligations would not appear to offer much scope for a late-twentieth-century woman who is zealous to accomplish some great work for the world. Yet as Elisabeth's body steadily weakened, her convictions about how souls are captured for God were just as steadily confirmed and clarified:

When we feel impotent against hostility and indifference, when it is impossible to speak of God or the spiritual life, when many hearts brush against ours without penetrating it, then we must enter peacefully into ourselves in the sweet company that our souls never lack; and to others we must give only prayers and the quiet example of our lives and the secret immolation which makes the most fruitful apostolate.13

As we have seen, Elisabeth's generosity of spirit and sensitivity of soul created in her a space large enough for each person who entered her life and a willingness to love and respect them all by meeting them where they were.

But in many cases, this level was far below the higher reaches towards which she was herself drawn. Thus, when she would much prefer to be praying or studying in solitude, she would instead willingly converse with husband or friends about a host of things of only secondary importance, at the same time refraining from mentioning those subjects which spoke to her own deepest interests and needs, since she knew this would provoke alienation or ridicule.

While the modern preoccupation with "personal authenticity" would quickly condemn such a strategy, it is important to recognize that there is no effort here to pretend that what she detests has great intrinsic worth and that somehow she must either learn to appreciate its value or resign herself to inevitable suffering. What interests her is the soul itself, and so the hidden effort she makes to accommodate herself to the needs and interests of each person she encounters is not a form of passive acquiescence. For her this was a gesture of love, an intentional and active apostolate, a reaching out to souls in desperate need of what she loved and wanted to offer openly but could not because of the dread it inspired in unconverted hearts. It was the simple power of her own, God-possessed presence she learned to rely on in these encounters, and, in the end, it was to have an enormous impact on many souls, including the one whose resistance hurt her the most.

The soul whose well being obsessed her was, of course, Felix's own, and she never stopped praying for his conversion. She came to recognize that any deliberate efforts to bring about his conversion would be doomed to failure. The change she so ardently longed for in Felix would be God's work entirely; in the meantime, she must love and not give in to temptations to self-justification that might only serve to make that work more difficult.

The Conquest of Love

The power of Elisabeth Leseur's freely-embraced apostolate of suffering, born of her love for a soul in grave danger of being lost, was finally manifested in the life of Felix Leseur. The first signs that it was having its desired effect came in a cessation of hostilities as Felix found he could no longer ignore the growing and unmistakable evidence of sanctity in his wife. Several years before her death he found his attitude toward her persistence in the Faith softening:

When I saw how ill she was, and how she endured with equanimity of temper a complaint that generally provokes much hypochondria, impatience and ill-humor, I was struck to see how her soul had so great a command of itself and of her body; and knowing that she drew this tremendous strength from her convictions, I ceased to attack them.14

Then, in 1911, while Elisabeth was recuperating from a difficult operation, Felix accompanied his wife on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Expecting to see only "hucksters in the Temple," he was taken completely by surprise when, unobserved, he witnessed Elisabeth praying at the Grotto, apparently levitating.

I had before my eyes the spectacle of something that evaded me, that I did not understand, but which I recognized clearly as being "the supernatural," and I could not withdraw my eyes from so moving a sight. I returned from Lourdes troubled by what I had seen and felt in that land of miracles. Oh, I was certainly still a rationalist, on the surface at any rate-deeper down, Elisabeth acted upon me without my perceiving it; and this action grew stronger during her last illness. I could never weary of admiring her moral force in the midst of a real martyrdom.15

At the time of Elisabeth's death (from cancer), Felix made another dumbfounding discovery in the vast scope of her spiritual outreach, evidenced in a huge correspondence with people from all walks of life and of whose existence he had had no inkling. Amazed, he watched what seemed like a never-ending stream of visitors come to visit Elisabeth during her last days, and an even greater number of entirely unknown mourners file past her body prior to the funeral. He reports that following the outpouring of grief at the funeral he heard that the attending clergy asked in astonishment, ". . .who was this woman? We have never seen such a funeral before."16

It was not until after her death, when Felix discovered, read, and reread her journal and a document she entitled her "Spiritual Testament," that he realized what was working in him was the direct result of Elisabeth's own self-conscious offering of her life to God for his conversion. This realization was one of those momentous revelations that overturns what has been in an individual's life to make way for the new:

... a revolution took place in my whole moral being. I understood the celestial beauty of her soul and that she had accepted all her suffering and offered it - and even offered her very self in sacrifice - chiefly for my conversion. ... Her sacrifice was absolute, and she was convinced that God would accept it and would take her early to Himself. She was equally persuaded that He would ensure my conversion.17

By the spring of 1915 Felix's conversion was complete, and he soon decided to publish his wife's journal. He had found in this document, the meaning of her life and, finally, he felt the full extent of her love for him.

A New Vocation of Love

The story of Felix Leseur does not end with his conversion. The power of the love with which he was loved continued to work in his life in the most surprising of ways. The very same zeal that had been focused on Elisabeth in an effort to get her to apostasize came to the surface once again in Felix's life, but in a vastly altered and purified form.

Two years before her death, Elisabeth and Felix had what would prove to be a fateful conversation in which they speculated about what each would do when the other died. Elisabeth's response was: "I know you. I am absolutely certain that when you return to God, you will not stop on the way because you never do things by halves. ... You will some day be Pere Leseur."18

Indeed, Felix had thrown himself back into the faith of his childhood with fervor, reading the Gospels and the books in his wife's library, going to daily mass, and even becoming a Dominican Tertiary.

Elisabeth was right. Felix conceived a desire to become a Dominican priest. His Dominican director said no, dismissing his request as evidence of the inordinate zeal of the new convert. But with the same persistence with which he once attacked his wife's faith, Felix persisted in his quest for the priesthood. In the fall of 1919, at the age of fifty-seven, he became a novice in the Order of Preachers. At the age of sixty-two he was ordained.

Married for twenty-five years, his priesthood would cover a span of twenty-seven years. Much of his time as a cleric was spent speaking publicly throughout Europe about his wife and her apostolate. Eventually he was given the task of petitioning Rome to begin the process of her beatification. Pere Leseur died in 1950 after several years of hospitalization. When an inventory of his room was made, "they found only his breviary and his rosary."19

Felix Leseur discovered that under his very roof a life had been lived the meaning of which had entirely escaped him. He had witnessed much suffering without guessing that it was he who had benefited most directly from it and would continue to be the chief beneficiary of that life's redemptive value. The life of Elisabeth Leseur was a life of love, a vivid testimony to the possibility of loving totally despite the absence of every opportunity for personal fulfillment and meaningful "activity" as the world understands these things. This was a life that completely changed another life - perhaps many lives - because it was willing to open itself fully to the possibility that in her and through her own pain and loss, God could do the loving.

Dr. Robin Maas teaches at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.

Friday, December 17, 2010

St. Ambrose Prayer

My favorite prayer by St. Ambrose.

Teach me O Lord to search for You
Show Yourself to me when I search for You
If You do not teach me first, I cannot seek You
If You do not reveal Yourself to me, I cannot find You
In longing may I search for You, and in searching long for You,
In Love may I find You, and in finding You, Love You.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Quick on Apologetics

This is an email from my friend Millie sent to the Witherspoon Fellows back in 2006 during one of our famous "discussions.." She's brilliant by the way.

Dear Fellows:

Anyone in my class will tell you that I just can't resist this sort of debate, and hence, I offer my humble seven cents:

1) Just so no one delves deep into the annals of history to attempt to answer Matthias Caro's question, I'll go ahead and state it: At no point in history has the Catholic Church changed her official teachings. It simply hasn't happened. She has learned more, and been guided further and further into truth (the Kingdom of Heaven is like the mustard seed that grows into a tree that gives shelter – see Matthew 13), but she has not changed her teachings.

For, perhaps, my favorite example, bear with me as I sum up the story of one of my favorite popes, Vigilius.

Vigilius was a papal representative at Constantinople and, being very ambitious, was courted by the Empress Theodora to implement the Monophysite heresy. She promised to make Vigilius pope and give him much riches, and Vigilius, adhering to the heresy himself, agreed to do as she asked, in addition to reinstating a Monophysite bishop who had been removed from office due to his heresy. As antipope (claiming to rule while he imprisoned the actual pope), Vigilius wrote many letters in support of the Monophysite heresy. Eventually, the pope died, and much to the chagrin of the electoral college, he was duly elected pope himself. Once legitimately in office, Vigilius recanted his promise and wrote vehemently against the Monophysite heresy. He had been changed completely, and found himself unable to do what he had promised he would do: lead the Church into heresy.

The story accurately demonstrates what the Church really believes about infallibility: the overwhelming grace of our God prohibits the rightful leader of his Church from teaching error (note that Vigilius was not protected from promoting error until he was the legitimate pope). But it is that grace which is the focus. Infallibility is not about the man; it's about the office. It's about grace, not arrogance or the goodness of the man.

To me, this seems like a point the average Calvinist would appreciate, if not incorporate into his thinking: the grace of God is so powerful in certain circumstances that it prevents the believer from acting contrary to it. That is how much God loves us; that is how overwhelming his goodness is to his children: he keeps us, protects us, and plants us in a safe place. We can trust our Father, and we can trust his gifts, the greatest of which was his Son, who gave us the cross, the resurrection, and the Church.

No matter how many illegitimate children the pope has, no matter how many unjust wars he may or may not have sanctioned (and I strongly recommend reading good history on this subject -- the Spanish Inquisition, for example, was far less bloody and far more political than your average high-schooler is taught), no matter what heresy a certain pope promised to install, or seemed likely to sanction (i.e. Pope Paul VI's remarkable orthodoxy on the issue of birth control, against all exterior pressure), Jesus Christ himself promised that the Church would not fail.

See Matthew 16 and John 16. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church; the Spirit of God will guide her into all truth.

All of Jesus' words were intentional. There are only three ways to regard what Jesus said of his beloved, the Church:

a) The Church has not always been correct in her teaching. She has taught heresy and error. Therefore, Jesus was lying when he said the gates of Hell would not prevail against her. They did.
b) The Early Church -- the supposed, ahistorical church mentioned in an earlier e-mail, the one "of Jesus and John the Baptist, before those Peter nuts sprang up in Rome " -- knew the truth. Once those Romish sorts got their hands on her, they led her into all sorts of error, from cannibalism to that Marian weirdness to all those darn statues and gold bricks and wars. It took good old Martin Luther and his sort to straighten her out, and thank goodness for their courage! If this is true, then again, Jesus' promise failed. The gates of Hell prevailed against the Church, at least for about 1100 years. (And I'd challenge anyone to maintain that the ridiculous abundance of Protestant denominations is an accurate portrait of hell not prevailing, and being led into all truth.)
c) The pope has the grace to make infallible statements. Jesus Christ led her into truth; he preserved her against all hell. His promises hold weight; he keeps them. We can trust the Church he instituted, as the Sacred Scriptures teach us he did: with authority, with the power to bind and loose, to cast out demons, to cast a shadow and heal the sick, to bring Sapphira to death, the power to forgive sins -- it's all in there. Jesus meant what he said, and he kept his promises.

2) Passages like the aforementioned are almost always ignored as the Protestant seeks to build his case against the Catholic Church. "Where's infallibility in the Bible?" he asks. I respond, "Where's the Bible in the Bible? And what are the Bible's claims about the Church?"

I'll make it simple: I Timothy 3.15 -- The Church is "the pillar and bulwark of truth."

What? Despite all the claims made by our Reformed brothers, the Bible doesn't tell us to look for it as the final source of truth? (Anyways, rhetorically, appealing to one's own authority doesn't exactly begin to build a watertight case. Note: the Church appeals to the authority of Jesus Christ, who in turn gave her authority. The Church does not say, "Listen to us; we're in charge." It says, "Listen to us; Jesus Christ gave us authority to loose and bind, and he guides us.") My own Bible tells me to look to the Church?

But whose Church? The Unity Church ? Martin Luther's? John Calvin's? Full Gospel Eden Road Free Will Missionary Baptist Alliance ? Those house churches cropping up all over the place, with the tongues and the prophecy and stuff?

And furthermore, whose Bible? Someone had to proclaim -- or, if you prefer, "discover" -- what the canon of Holy Scripture was. Do you want the one everyone used until the 1500s, the one still used by 1.5 billion Catholics and Orthodox? Or would you prefer Martin Luther's, which cut out the books of Revelation and James? The modern day evangelicals', which appears not to have those pesky passages in John, where Jesus tells his followers that unless they gnaw on his flesh and slurp his blood (literal translation there), they do not have life within them? And without those irritating stories in Acts, where even a cursory reading clearly demonstrates that Peter is given the most human authority in the early Church?

Mr. Freels, avoiding Rick Barry's legitimate question about how we know what is Scripture by throwing Plato's works into the heap does not begin to answer his challenge. Nor does suggesting that the early Christians individually worked out for themselves a reliable canon. Much confusion surrounded Scripture, and doctrine, and practice. We look to the Church Fathers for guidance on the interpretation of Scripture because they were there. The early Christians continued "In the Apostle's teaching, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers."

No fallible individual is able to determine for himself what accurately belongs in Scripture. Many attempt this; hence, too many Christians avoid the Eucharist, the anointing of the sick, and what the Bible clearly teaches about the authority of the apostles. Yes, you have the luxury of a reliable tradition in what you accept to be Sacred Scripture, but to begin to suggest that either a) the early Christians had the same luxury or b) they were somehow able to work it out amongst themselves is at best, ahistorical; at worst, it is ludicrous.

Whether the Canon was proclaimed or discovered (and I maintain that for the purposes of this discussion, they are one and the same), someone had to tell us what rightly belonged in Holy Scripture. That someone had to have authority, and had to be protected (if God does indeed protect his children) from including, say, the rather Buddhist-seeming Gospel of Thomas. Being and nothingness, indeed.

3) I digress. If you're still with me, thank you. There's really nothing I'm more passionate about than this subject.

We can see from point one that Jesus maintained that the Church would not be given over to the devil, and we can see from point two that the Bible confirms this, though the words of the Great Apostle (that is, Saint Paul).

(My favorite discussion regarding I Timothy 3.15 was with a Witherspoon alumnus, who told me that because the Bible only makes this claim once -- debatable; I think it makes this claim implicitly about fifty times -- it doesn't really count. Given the fact that Holy Scripture has a lot more to say about shellfish than sodomy, I'd question the integrity of this line of reasoning. And no, I won't tell you who it was.)

4) Given the assertions of Jesus Christ and the Bible, it seems that God intended for his children to have a safe place to reside, where they would not be led into lies and error. If Jesus really meant what he said, wouldn't he offer the Church the grace to fulfill his promise? (That seems to be Saint Paul ’s understanding of things, too.)

Americans are terrified of authority. We love to think that we act autonomously and that we can take care of our own salvation. However, without a God-given authority to discuss the issues of today, we are lost. Hence, the overwhelming acceptance of birth control ("The Bible doesn't say it's wrong, so let's get you on the Pill, honey!"), the willful ignorance of what Jesus says regarding remarriage (hint: it has to do with adultery), and the casual disregard of the Eucharist (which, I hasten to add, was the Last Act of our Lord before his crucifixion), it is hard to believe that we can shake ourselves free of our culture in order to find truth. We desperately need guidance and ought to be grateful that our God offers it, not just through Scripture, but through his Church. When you really read the Scriptures, you begin to discover that Jesus came to save his people, and he intended to do so through a Church.

Rejecting authority is not just a silly American ignorance; it is diabolical. We find it easy to say that Jesus is our authority, because he seems far away, and apparently has little to say about whether or not I use a diaphragm. But tell me some group of men is going to guide me, and my knickers are in a twist!

(Which is silly, because if I don't rely on authority, I am my own authority, and many painful, pre-Catholic years have taught me how well that worked.) I repeat myself: for me, for any reader, for any Christian to reject God-inspired human authority is a grave error, and history has demonstrated that it leads to much heartache and sin.

5) We have two choices: to disbelieve the promises of our Lord, or to believe them. We can approach humbly, and in awe, at the overwhelming grace of God, who has sustained his people and continued to maintain them in truth, despite centuries of intellectual dissention, transubstantiation versus consubstantion, and anti-popes.

Catholics disagreeing with one another about clerical dress and giving the Eucharist to Bill Clinton or John Kerry are still unified. Their arguments may not be. There may be tares among the wheat, or bad fish among the good catch, as our Lord calls them. They may be bad Catholics, or heretical ones, but ultimately, they still have to reckon with the fact that they are out of line with the Church. "There's no such thing as a pro-choice Catholic." As Matthias Caro so concisely pointed out, a fundamental unity -- in reality, not in some esoteric "We all believe in Jesus, so who cares?" realm -- remains, no matter what.

In this way, the authority of the Church acts as a safety net, reminding believers of what is true, and what matters, and what Jesus said, and what it means to be his follower.

6) As a former anti-Catholic who was grabbed, hard, by the simple truth of the matter at hand (as well as the truth about birth control, baptism, the Communion of Saints, and the Eucharist), I found in an honest reading of Holy Scripture -- and re-reading, and crying arguments, and anger, and a thousand other hissy fits -- that my Protestant education had been a sort of thin gruel, neatly ignoring the Creeds (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic? who does that sound like? --and, no, redefining "one" "holy" "catholic" and "apostolic" does not make for a legitimate confession of the creed-- one baptism for the remission of sins? the remission?), a great deal of the Bible, and history.

I would humbly urge my Protestant siblings and friends to examine history. Discover what Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of Saint John ) has to say about the Eucharist. Find out how confused the early Christians were about Scripture, and how it would have been impossible for them to build their doctrine on it (given the proliferation of false Gospels and an abundance of heresy, not to mention the fact that the Epistles recommend against it – re-read 1 Timothy 3.15). Read about how every see besides Rome -- Jerusalem , Antioch , Alexandria , and Constantinople -- taught heresy for long periods of time. Consider the fruits of the Reformation: there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations, and new ones form almost daily. Is that the unity Jesus begs of his father in John 17? Think about Francis Schaffer alone saving Protestants from long believing in the gift of abortion, when the Church has always taught against it. What about the history of birth control, when one by one, major Christian denominations loosened their stance, until now no one has anything authoritative and concrete to say about it, besides the Catholic Church? What about divorce, remarriage, and uncertainty about doctrine? What about, I beg you to consider, the Eucharist? What did Jesus say about it? What did everyone believe, including Martin Luther (though he in a complicated, unorthodox way) until the 1500s?

I strongly recommend Stephen Ray's Crossing the Tiber, heavy on the footnotes but clear on the inevitable conclusions that history actually demonstrates.

7) So I can legitimately call this a response to the debate about the initial question of soteriology, I would point out that neither Saints Aquinas nor Augustine teach infallibly. Their arguments are plausible, and often correct, and certainly worth reading, but the Church maintains what she has always maintained: "Are we saved by works or by faith? Neither, you dolt. We're saved by grace." Separating faith and works creates a false dichotomy; hence: Saint James’ words on the subject.

No honest Christian can take credit for his own salvation, and no honest Christian can continue to believe that he bears no responsibility for it. God stretches out his arm across the chasm that separates him from his creation. He does so 100%. And we must respond 100%. True, only grace allows us to respond, but who am I to claim that what I Timothy 4.9-11 says isn't true? ("This is a faithful saying worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.")

When I began to truly read the Holy Scriptures, my life was at a point of crisis. I remained there for three years, struggling over passages about baptism, about Jesus' descent into hell, over the pastoral epistles, over the book of Revelation. The only group of people I discovered who were actually dealing with the entirety of Scripture were the Catholics. There were no “Yeah, but” responses from the Catholic Church when I asked questions about the Bible. They believed it all. And they believed all of it at once.

Most Reformed folks I knew (and my life is still full of them) dealt well with particular passages, say, Romans 8. Yet there was a great blindness to the whole of the faith. Saint Paul 's words about predestination are short passages in long letters which are primarily focused on what it is to be good and faithful and to submit to Jesus Christ, the head of his body the Church, and to love our neighbors. I have often felt that Calvin and his followers are sitting in front of a tapestry, pulling out all the red threads, saying, "See? This one's red, too!" all the while ignoring the picture. For a human being trapped in time to attempt to comprehend the workings of God's mind is simply silly. And with all the assertions Reformed theology makes about the flawed reasoning of men and the absolute brokenness of our nature, it seems a little preposterous to suggest that these men could determine what is Scripture, let alone sum up the work of God in an acronym of five points.

That only the Catholics discussed the whole of Scripture was a bitter pill to swallow, particularly given my penchant for attempting to "rescue" Catholics from their papist, Marian idolatry (what I'd now call "sheep stealing" -- and the reason I'm not impressed with the obscene numbers of folks going to predominately Catholic countries to evangelize those poor, lost souls) and my own ego, but I have finally come. I approach the confessional humbly, knowing that it is not the priest who forgives my sins, but Jesus Christ through the office of the priest. I look to Pope Benedict for leadership (still with my fingers crossed in the hopes that the Holy Spirit won't fail!), knowing that what his office is about isn't really the power or authority of the Church, per se, but about the grace of God and the power and authority of Jesus Christ. And I receive the Eucharist with a timid heart, rejoicing in the fact that the whole Church -- past, present, and future, Militant, Penitent, and Triumphant, on earth, in Purgatory, and at the last supper so beautifully described in Revelation -- eats and drinks our Lord with me. What magnificence.

I am grateful to my Protestant father -- an Anglican rector -- who raised me on the Scriptures, to the Reformed University Fellowship, who challenged me to base my faith on the Bible -- and were horrified at what happened when I did! -- and for the lonely hours I have spent with the prophets major and minor, with Saints John, Peter, and Paul, and later, with a history so powerful and overwhelming I finally had to do what my Catholic husband did so beautifully: submit. Ultimately, I realized that his submission to authority was a thousand times more Christian than my arrogance was.

I rejoiced when I arrived at the Witherspoon Fellowship, realizing I could finally talk about all these things with my peers, and I lamented our disunity, and I confess my own long, repeated moments of unkindness and pride in dealing with the issues, but I am delighted, as always, to be able to listen and share my own journey to find truth.


Millie McGehee Jerome Dasher
Fall 2005

(Yes, Jerome is my confirmation name. And yes, it's because he was the worthy translator of Scriptures and fleer of temptation, and it was nothing short of the Sacred Scriptures that led me into his Church.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Canon of Scripture

This was an email composed by my friend Rick...on his way to becoming a theologian.

Dear Bill,

Okay, I have many thoughts swirling around my head. I hope I can get them all out. First, thank you for a wonderful and thought-provoking email. You bring up some interesting ideas...some I had never heard before (I'm not sure whether that is because these ideas are original to you, or because I have not read as widely as you, but either way it was very interesting).

Let's start with this: can we agree that the index of books we have in the Bible, the canon, is a tradition? It is traditional to include the the book of Revelation. Same with the four Gospels. This tradition has been handed down over the centuries. None of the the books of the Bible lists which books are infallible, but over generations a reliable list was formed and the tradition has been handed down generation after generation. Christians, over time, made a decision about what kinds of books would be in the Scriptures, and what kind will be left out, and we follow the tradition of their criteria. Again, it does not say in the Gospel of John, "Here is how you will know a book is inspired..." but at some point Christians made criteria, decided which books "fit," and have been following that tradition since. True?

Isn't it also true that the tradition of which books would be included was developed and articulated by a group of fallible men. Obviously third and forth century Christians have no claim to infallibility, right? So when they determine the valid secular proofs that will be used to decide, their choice of proofs is fallible. Perhaps they made a mistake, perhaps one of their proofs accidentally excluded certain texts that are infallible. Likewise, perhaps their fallible criteria was too lenient, and some books slipped in that were actually quite wrong (like James with all his talk about faith and works).

Yes, we can all agree that God inspired writers throughout time to write certain infallible books. But how do we, who are quite fallible (I prove myself fallible every day) know which are God-breathed, and which are just really interesting books? Can there be any conclusion other than this: we have a fallible list of infallible books? (this is an assertion that has been attributed to a certain Protestant author, but I can't confirm it so I won't give his name). Is that what we have? A fallible list of infallible books? How could it be otherwise, when fallible Christians many generations after the last apostle died, were the one's making the list?

If you read about the process by which the canon came to be, you cannot avoid the conclusion that many fallible people were voicing an opinion. After all, there was heated debate throughout the Church about which books should be included, and which should be excluded. Many did not want to include Hebrews, or Jude, or (especially) the Revelation of St. John. Others wanted to include the Revelation of St. Peter, or the Didache, or the letters of St. Clement. Different individual churches were reading different books, and excluding other books. There was absolutely no consensus on many books.

So, if you were to be transported back to the third century, how would you know which books were Scripture? After all, many different voices were giving conflicting accounts. And without a clear Bible to which you could refer, how would you know what to do when different heresies arose (and we know that there were dozens of deadly heresies prowling around at the time). What would you do? Who would you trust?

Well, St. Ignatius of Antioch was speaking to people who were mired in a situation just like yours (I'm still pretending you are a third century Christian). He said that if you want to know who is teaching the truth, look for the local bishop. The local bishop, you see, has teaching authority. From where does he get his authority? Well, he received his authority from the authority of another bishop, who received his from another, who, ultimately, received his from one of the Apostles (and, at that point, it really may have been just two or three steps back before you hit an Apostle). And the Apostles received their authority from Christ Jesus. Therefore, if you want to know who is teaching the orthodox, catholic faith, look for the apostolic bishop.

If you did anything else...if you choose to rely on your own understanding, or on your own canon of Scripture (remember, the canon will not be set for about another 200 years), well, then, you may have ended up believing in something resembling the DaVinci Code! Your only hope, if you wanted to maintain the Christian faith, would have been to seek the authority of the bishops, because it was they that maintained the authority of Christ (who gave authority to the Church).

Therefore, when the worldwide Church was confronted with the chaos of different books being read in different churches (and other books excluded), what did the Church do? Well, it called together the bishops--those with apostolic authority--and the bishops put their heads together and said, "Listen, Church, we know there has been lots of confusion out there about which books are infallible. Good news! We, the bishops, whose responsibility it is to shepherd the Church into all Truth, we who have teaching authority, we who have the authority to bind and loose, we've seen the problem, and we have come together. By our authority, granted to us from the Apostles themselves, we present to you...THE CANON." Trumpets blare, the crowd erupts in applause, everyone breaths a sigh of relief. "Glad that debate is over!" All in all, not a bad day for the catholic Church.

Okay, so, all of this, I'm sure, exhibits probably a third grade understanding of how it all went down. This is like learning about how a cell works in grade school. There is no question that by high school one of the teachers will say, "Well, its actually far more complicated than that..." I have no doubt. But that does not mean the picture book version is inaccurate.

My conclusion: the canon depends on the authority of the Church, made up of bishops, who get their authority from the apostles, who get their authority from Christ. We do not have a fallible list of infallible books because the Church has infallibly ruled which books are authoritative. Without the Church, the Bible becomes suspect. Without the Church, each individual would have to see whether the list of books they have is accurate, or just a incorrect tradition of men. Yes, at that point the Bible would indeed be suspect, and if the Bible is suspect, sola scriptura becomes a very hard sell.

Phew! All of this after Katherine McPhee lost. What a night!


Easter Bread

Easter Greek (Orthodox)just kidding Tcheurek:
Say a prayer to Tante Astkhig (Stella) before starting is her own recipe.

5 eggs
1 cup milk
1and 1/2 cup sugar (I add a little more)
2 sticks unsalted butter...must be unsalted.(.some sweet butter have salt).
1 teaspoon mahlab ( I add a little more)
1 teas. Habet Baraka..the black small seed.
now for flavor.
grate(rind) one orange + one Lemon..
Or 2 oranges
or 1 teaspoon..mastica.
For flour...I start with 6 cups..but add more when I knead.
2pks of yeast in 1/2 a cup warm water .remember to add a little sugar to help with the rise of yeast.
(1 pkg yeast is equal to 2teasp and 1/2)
Beat the eggs, the sugar, the milk (I would barely warm the milk just a little to break the cold from it). Beat these then add the melted butter, the orange rind, .....beat by hand or mixer..
Prepare now the yeast wait till it rises a little then add it to these wet ingredients.
Add the raisins, the flour, the habet baraka the mahlab.
Knead and knead. if it is too sticky add flour..knead more add flour till you think it's enough..add a little flour at a time...Dough must be make the sign of the cross on it..cover and keep in a warm place.
Dough will rise ..maybe in 4 to 5 hours depending on the warmth of the place and the power of the yeasts...sometimes I put more yeast so it can rise faster but be careful not to overdue with the yeast ..because it can be bitter..
After the rising of the dough..shape it like a braid...brush them with eggs(after y. beat it)
and sesame seed (optional) and let them rise again it can take again few hours or less.
Bake ..make sure they won't be too brown..because the bottom will be burned..
Good Luck..

Corona Del Mar Beach

When in Southern take...

The 118 East
405 South
Exit Bristol
Make a Right
Make a Right at Jamboree
Drive on Jamboree for a few miles until you hit the
(you'll pass Fashion Island)
Make a Left at the PCH- 1 (if you go straight you'll
be on Balboa Island)

The PCH-1 is what will take you to Corona Del Mar
Make a Right at Marguerite, park and
the water will be straight ahead of you.


Get back on the PCH-1 and continue to Laguna Beach
You'll pass Crystal Cove, which is that private and
pretty beach.

Drive for over 10 minutes and you should see
Laguna. I usually park in some neighborhood and
walk on the main street.

Go to that Gelato place, which is under a garland, secret
garden type nook.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Theology of Grace Notes from Class #1 (Father Pilon)

I've decided to post my notes from this class in case anyone out there is interested in learning more about the Church's teaching on the topic of grace. Understanding grace is essential to understanding the Christian life. It is also highly complex and often misunderstood. The development of theological and doctrinal explication of what is meant by grace has a long history.

The doctrine of grace is central to Catholic doctrine and to who we are as a result of baptism.

The text we are using in this course is John Hardon S.J.'s book History and Theology of Grace: The Catholic Teaching on Divine Grace. My professor Fr. Pilon is coming from a Thomistic background.

Here are some questions we are going to address in this class:

What is grace?
What does it do for us? What is its purpose and final end?
How does grace relate to human freedom?
How does justification take place?
What are the different types of graces?
What is the distinction between grace and nature? And how do they interact?

By nature, we are God's natural image. But this gift, which is grace, elevates human nature. We become the image of God on a supernatural level.

We can not understand the human person without a proper understanding of grace. What is needed to understand this is a theological anthropology of the human person.

For St. Thomas, grace is the beginning of the Beatific Vision.

What is grace?
Is it a thing? Is it a something? Another term for it (I believe according to theologian Henry de Lubac) is supernature. St. Thomas says that grace is not a substance but a quality. It is a dynamic quality that transforms a substance-- specifically the substance of the soul. It is more a form than a substance.
It is not an easy notion to define. ("We talk about grace too casually." -Fr. Pilon)

Is it an accident?

Grace is a supernatural quality greater than all natural substances. What is substantial in God is accidental for humans. It is our greatest gift. Grace is a kind of an dynamic act which God creates in us in order to transform the soul. It is a quality communicated to the soul which is greater than the soul itself. It allows the soul to participate in the divine nature. It enables man to become a child of God. It enables us to live the life of God's child by elevating the powers of the soul. (Grace is somewhat Trinitarian? It is a supernatural reflection of the image of the Trinity.)

Grace is not our human nature. This was the mistake Pelagius made. He believed that graces were only external (not an internal action of the soul) and that man's free-will was a grace. The Pelagian heresy also includes the belief that our free-will choices for the good is what saves us. Christ is only a good example. His example is an external grace but it's just a model to follow. Pelagianism is a sort of naturalism by which we are led to our natural end by virtue of our human nature. Catholicism teaches that God destined us for a SUPERnatural destiny of participation in His very life which is a supernatural end.

Man's true destiny and greatness is made known only by revelation. -Theologian Rudolph Schnackenberg

Grace does not destroy our nature, it perfects our nature. In Colossians 3:10, St. Paul speaks of a "new nature." It is not technically a new nature, but a transformed nature.

(Historical/Theological note: The term "supernatural" although implied does not appear in its final form until the Middle Ages. Very interesting!)

It's God's power that has granted to us the possibility of participating in the divine nature. (Peter 1:4) (The Eastern Fathers of the Church use the term divinization.)Without this grace, we cannot participate in His life.

Meanings of Grace

1. Complex notion: gift totally gratuitous, supernatural (a word the Synoptic gospels don't use at all, we get the word from St. Paul) (What about the above note on the final appearance of the word emerging from the Middle Ages? I'll check on this and get back to you, blog.)

2. God as the giver-source of this gift and as the gift

-Old Testament-

a. divine attitude toward/action toward/ or in creature:

I believe this means grace as a divine disposition toward the creature. The Greek root means to lean toward or incline toward someone.

Terms (Greek or Hebrew?) Hanan/Hen: Hanan means to lean toward/incline toward someone. Hen (from the same root) expresses a result in the person themselves or a quality in a person. This does not work theologically in a Christian perspective in which God is the protagonist. In the OT, God is Hanan toward the poor especially.

The Greek word Caris was chosen. This word means loving-kindness, favor. Thus, God is gracious to us, etc. The Old Testament translation regarding Mary is "Oh highly favored one!"

Whenever God loves, it produces an effect. (Not sure where this fits in, perhaps it means that the grace in us is the effect of God's loving action/loving-kindness.)

The term Hesed implies a kind of act on behalf of God, where God is loving someone.
This word is used in Covenantal language in the Old Testament to emphasize the bond of that faithful love. The grace is the act of granting the gift of love. The closest Latin word is pietas (piety)which is steadfast love/loving kindness. Man should respond in this way to God.

b. Grace as the effect in the creature:

-God's justice in man-

Sedeq/Mishpat-righteousness. The term Mishpat is the judgment itself of justification. (This is discovered in the prophets-God transforms man by making him just, declaring him just.)

(Luther's understanding of justification is a throwback to the declaration of righteousness in the Old Testament. His understanding is closer to the Old Testament concept. This is vastly different from the New Testament concept of justification which is that we are made really just--it's not just a declaration.)

-Communion with God-

Why does God bother make us just? He bothers to make us just because we can't have communion with Him in an unjust state. So he has to make us just. (Not by necessity of course...) The whole point of human life is ultimate communion with God, without that, life is meaningless. (Wisdom prophets?)

Everything we mean by grace is ultimately divine love.

St. Augustine sees grace as a moralist because he sees it as charity infused and transforming the will. Later, in St. Thomas' perspective on grace is that it transforms the very substance of the soul. The soul itself is transformed. (I'm failing to see a distinction...I'll check and get back to you, blog.)

Man, by his nature, is not capable of loving God. His nature has to be elevated. The powers (I'm assuming of his soul...) must be elevated a quantum leap in order to love God. This is what is meant by sanctifying grace.

Grace is fundamentally tied to divine love since it is its origin. Grace and nature are interacting at every moment. It's a cooperative adventure. God is with us and acting in us at all times.

-The Synoptic Gospels-

Grace is a saving gift related to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is itself a saving gift. Membership means son ship.

a. Son ship/Membership into the Kingdom is created through the divine initiative.
b. Metanoia is pre-condition to entering the Kingdom.
c. Filial spirit is the result-this new life requires additional gifts to persevere
d. Two stages: now and the eschaton
e. Our participation in the Kingdom is provisional in this life

-Grace in the Gospel of John-

a. Light, Life, Love, (God is the origin) Sonship
b. The Incarnation is the capital grace
c. Jesus is the manifestation of:

1. Light-which guides man to Life (Father Pilon's favorite book in the Bible--also one of my favorites--is the book of Sirach. Read this book to understand Christ as the Light.)
2. Eternal life which is already now, but not yet
3. Sonship-which makes us God's children now
4. Parable of the Vine: organic gift (???)

Three profound effects of God's love:

1. God's love brings about a change from slavery into son ship.
2. It brings us out of darkness into the light of truth.
3. It resurrects man from death to life.

In St. John, the communication of grace is the communication of light, life, and love which makes us God's sons.

Grace is a supernatural gift communicated to a creature by God out of his benevolence.

1. Divine son ship
2. Children by divine adoption

a. Divine adoption (This is a NT concept, NOT an OT concept!)
b. The Adoption is by grace (which is God's favor upon us...which causes a change.)
c. Grace causes an essential regeneration of nature
d. Baptism is an essential means of this adoption and entrance into the life of grace
e. The critical notion of participation in the divine nature (Greek notion in Augustine and st. Thomas)

Grace according to St. Paul:

St. Paul had to deal with the question of justification contrary to the notion of the Pharisees that one is saved through his works. Thus, for St. Paul we get the word "caris" as the means of Justification.
(Need to check on the root meaning of this word--the word charism means a gift (and further grace) of the Holy Spirit whose root I'm sure is caris...once again, I'll get back to you!)

Grace and Justification: the new vision (No idea what this means...)

1. Justice is a gift of life (which is a power to act justly)
2. Christ is the capital grace. He is the source and exemplar:

a. New Adam: source of a New Humanity
b. Man is reconciled and recreated in Christ through the gift of His grace
c. Grace is participation in His Life and death
d. Faith and Baptism are preconditions to entry into His life and the Kingdom

3. Effects of Justification: negative and positive (?)
-contrast with and continuity with the Law (?)
Effect of divine love-which always is casual (?)


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