John Chrysostom Homily on “You are the Salt of the Earth”

Today I am going to include a “guest post” from St John Chrysostom (a bishop of Constantinople, d. 407 AD). It is a favorite of mine, and I think a powerful witness to the truth that we as Christians are not called to be transformed by the world into its own image, but to transform the world through God’s work in us. God bless!

(From his 15th homily on the Gospel of St Matthew)

“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).

It is not for your own sake, he says, but for the world’s sake that the word is entrusted to you. I am not sending you only into two cities only or ten to twenty, not to a single nation, as I sent the prophets of old, but across land and sea, to the whole world. And that world is in a miserable state. For when he says: You are the salt of the earth, he is indicating that all mankind had lost its savour and had been corrupted by sin. Therefore, he requires of these men those virtues which are especially useful and even necessary if they are to bear the burdens of many. For the man who is kindly, modest, merciful and just will not keep his good works to himself but will see to it that these admirable fountains send out their streams for the good of others. Again, the man who is clean of heart, a peacemaker and ardent for truth will order his life so as to contribute to the common good.
  Do not think, he says, that you are destined for easy struggles or unimportant tasks. You are the salt of the earth. What do these words imply? Did the disciples restore what had already turned rotten? Not at all. Salt cannot help what is already corrupted. That is not what they did. But what had first been renewed and freed from corruption and then turned over to them, they salted and preserved in the newness the Lord had bestowed. It took the power of Christ to free men from the corruption caused by sin; it was the task of the apostles through strenuous labour to keep that corruption from returning.
  Have you noticed how, bit by bit, Christ shows them to be superior to the prophets? He says they are to be teachers not simply for Palestine but for the whole world. Do not be surprised, then, he says, that I address you apart from the others and involve you in such a dangerous enterprise. Consider the numerous and extensive cities, peoples and nations I will be sending you to govern. For this reason I would have you make others prudent, as well as being prudent yourselves. For unless you can do that, you will not be able to sustain even yourselves.
  If others lose their savour, then your ministry will help them regain it. But if you yourselves suffer that loss, you will drag others down with you. Therefore, the greater the undertakings put into your hands, the more zealous you must be. For this reason he says: But if the salt becomes tasteless, how can its flavour be restored? It is good for nothing now, but to be thrown out and trampled by men’s feet.
  When they hear the words: When they curse you and persecute you and accuse you of every evil, They may be afraid to come forward. Therefore he says: “Unless you are prepared for that sort of thing, it is in vain that I have chosen you. Curses shall necessarily be your lot but they shall not harm you and will simply be a testimony to your constancy. If through fear, however, you fail to show the forcefulness your mission demands, your lot will be much worse, for all will speak evil of you and despise you. That is what being trampled by men’s feet means.”
  Then he passes on to a more exalted comparison: You are the light of the world. Once again, “of the world”: not of one nation or twenty cities, but of the whole world. The light he means is an intelligible light, far superior to the rays of the sun we see, just as the salt is a spiritual salt. First salt, then light, so that you may learn how profitable sharp words may be and how useful serious doctrine. Such teaching holds in check and prevents dissipation; it leads to virtue and sharpens the mind’s eye. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor do men light a lamp and put it under a basket. Here again he is urging them to a careful manner of life and teaching them to be watchful, for they live under the eyes of all and have the whole world for the arena of their struggles.


Do Catholics worship Mary?

One of the classic questions for Catholics (especially from other Christians) is whether we worship Mary. Sometimes it is even phrased *why* we worship Mary, as if the issue isn’t even in question! This is a major obstacle for some people with accepting the Catholic Church.

We actually agree that worshipping Mary as a god would be a big problem! Mary is not God, and treating her as if she were is clearly against the Ten Commandments. Instead, Catholics venerate her. We see “veneration” as something that is proper to a human being, while worship (adoration) is the level of respect that is reserved for God alone. Catholics see Mary as a model and a mother. She is a model of the Christian response to God. When Gabriel appears to announce that she will conceive the Son of God she accepts the mission bravely. She follows her son closely even to the foot of the Cross, and is in prayer with the apostles as they wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Mary, though, is also a mother. At Cana (John 2) she intercedes with her son for the needs of the wedding couple, and at her request Jesus works his first public miracle. At the foot of the Cross Jesus directly calls her a mother to St John—his last teaching before giving up his spirit. Catholics believe that the saints in heaven are not disconnected from those on earth, but can still pray for them and their needs (we call this the “communion of saints”). In that sense, we don’t consider praying to the saints essentially different from asking someone on earth to pray for us. When we “pray to Mary” (or another saint), we aren’t praying to them in the sense of asking them to answer our request by their own power. Instead, we are asking them to pray with us to God for our need. We can of course go straight to Jesus by ourselves, but Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray together and for one another (eg Matthew 18:19-20). Jesus even was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah (Old Testament “saints”) at the Transfiguration! Devotion to the saints is a logical continuation of this with those who live with the Lord.

A final question is about representing Mary (or other saints) by a statue or image. Does this violate the prohibition against graven images? First, even in the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to form images of angels for the Ark of the Covenant or Temple. But, most importantly, the incarnation of Christ as God-made-flesh changes the relationship of the earthly to the divine. God has cast his own image in this world, and the veil of the Temple has been torn open. Therefore, we believe that images do not violate the commandment against idolatry. We see them reminders of a person that is alive with God rather than worshiping the image itself as if it were a god.

To return to the original question, while some may take it for granted that Catholics worship Mary/statues/etc, most Catholics would be baffled by this suggestion! I myself was very surprised the first time I encountered this question. The Catholic veneration of Mary isn’t set in contrast to the worship of God, but an aspect of praising him. All of the graces that Mary has received come from God. We believe that God rejoices to include us as co-workers with him (1 Corinthians 3:9). If I praised the beauty of the Mona Lisa no one would object that I should be praising Leonardo da Vinci directly—it’s understood that the two go together! The same goes with God and the saints.

At their root, many of the questions can be answered by simply clarifying what we mean by some of our terms. A lot of times misunderstandings dominate the conversation. At times our language or imagery doesn’t seem to reflect all of these distinctions, even if we have them in the back of our minds. But, in my own life, I have found my devotion to the saints (and Mary in particular) to have brought me closer to God and made me a better Christian. Rather than viewing the saints with suspicion or fear let us see them as powerful friends on our road to God. We are “surrounded by a crowd of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), and that can only help!

What’s the deal with all the JRR Tolkien stuff?

I thought I’d take a break from my more serious posts, and answer a question that may be in some minds after seeing my blog: why is JRR Tolkien featured so prominently??

Like most people my appreciation for him started with the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I started reading them in 5th grade and became hooked. It is one of the only series that I have read multiple times, and at one point in junior high I read the Hobbit in its entirety to my younger brothers so that they wouldn’t miss out!

However, at this point in my life I would say that the Lord of the Rings is no longer my *primary* reason for having such a high appreciation of Tolkien (although I still enjoy those books very much!). What really appeals to me is his life, philosophy, and faith. I started to get to know him by reading the collection of his writing called “Tree and Leaf,” and by reading the biography written of him by Joseph Pearce (Man and Myth). “Secret Fire” (by Stratford Caldecott) and “Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” (by Bradley Birzer) are two other great works on his life and writing. Probably the most powerful appreciation, though, came from reading Tolkien’s collected letters. The letters do contain a lot of interesting trivia about Middle Earth, but much beyond that. They include many letters of advice to his children or reflections to his friends. Between all of these sources I began to get a better glimpse at the man behind the stories.

His life itself was surprising to me—not your stereotypical path to professorship at Oxford University. Tolkien was born in South Africa to a British family that had traveled there for business. When he was three his mother brought him back to England for a vacation, and while they were gone his father passed away of rheumatic fever. His mother remained in England with her relatives to raise her children, but was cut off by her family when she became a Catholic. She worked hard (and to the detriment of her health) to support the children all alone as a single mother in the early 1900s, and passed away herself when Tolkien was 12. Without family to turn to, his mother had made arrangements for his guardianship to pass to one of the priests of their church, the Birmingham Oratory (side note: this was founded by Cardinal Newman- of “Newman Centers” fame- and was part of the religious order founded by one of my favorite saints, Philip Neri!). Despite the difficulties, Tolkien flourished at the Oratory, developed a deep faith, and found good soil for his intellectual gifts to blossom. He fought in the First World War (experiencing the horrors of trench warfare), and later (on account of his excellent education) was able to become a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

His writings show the depth of his faith throughout his life. In one of his letters he wrote, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth … which every man’s heart desires.”  He gave profound reflections on human love and marriage. He discussed the interplay of power, violence, virtue, and humility (all themes powerfully contained in his work on Lord of the Rings). In the Silmarillion he gives a beautiful image of the work of Creation, along with an insight into the advent of evil.

These themes appear in his writings, but indirectly. He opposed an excessively allegorical approach and tried to include these themes through rich symbolism. For example, Frodo (the central hobbit of the Lord of the Rings) isn’t supposed to be an exact image of Jesus, although at times he reflects him (e.g., carrying of the Ring and the carrying of the Cross). Tolkien believed that in this way myth portrayed truth. As he explained in another letter, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.” While we may limit “truth” merely to quantifiable data, Tolkien saw deeper aspects of truth that couldn’t be quantified. Instead, they could be contained in story and conveyed through the generations. It was this insight that played the critical role in CS Lewis coming to faith, and I think is what gives his Lord of the Rings such enduring value.

I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, Tolkien has had a large impact on me! In faith and philosophy I find in him a kindred spirit. If you have any interest in knowing more, I recommend that you take up one of those books I mentioned above. God bless!

Who was Fr. Fabian?

Fr A.C. Fabian, OP was a living legend. He was a Dominican priest that taught philosophy at St Mary’s University in Winona, MN for nearly 50 years, and was one of the largest influences on my intellectual life. I call this blog “borrowed lore,” and he is one of those people that most clearly embody that “ancient wisdom” in my life. Much of what I try to hand on has an origin in his teaching! He passed away on Friday (7-14-17), and I’d like to take today’s post to share a little more about him.

Fr Fabian taught a whole generation of priests, seminarians, and other students. He passed away at the age of 90, and had only been fully retired for about four years! Anyone who has taken a class of his has probably attempted to imitate his deep, unhurried voice and clever wit. Once he asked a classmate of mine how he was doing, who then responded, “I’m having trouble existing.” Fr Fabian responded with a calm, “Well, just keep trying,” and continued on his way. Another time I tried to make a joke to him in Latin, and he got me back by just continuing the rest of the conversation in Latin as if he spoke it every day. If a student seemed to be getting over-confident in class or was setting themselves up for a fall, he’d say, “Be careful; the half-time hero can be the end of the game zero!” Or, his famous, “You’re up a creek without a logical paddle!” His wit was never caustic, but with a respect and great affection for his students. I always appreciated that during tests he would bring out his rosary and quietly pray for us while we worked. He was a man that had completely dedicated his life to Christ and the ministry of education.

Perhaps the most “legendary” thing about Fr Fabian was his memory. He always began the first class of the semester by taking roll call from memory. In my classes he never missed a student’s name (keep in mind, he was about 80 at the time!). Occasionally he’d ask what letter we wanted him to start with, or if we wanted him to do it backwards. He would repeat the name and match it to the student’s face. After that he never had to take roll again—he had a method of mentally pairing students with a “light bulb,” and then scanning the class and “turning off the lights” next to the students he saw. He then could quickly tell you who was absent by checking to see which lights were still on in his mind. If you skipped a class you would get a call on your room phone from him: “There’s a light still on in my brain- I’m going to charge you for electricity! Come see me.” Over the summers he would take up a memorization project. The summer I was there he memorized all of the collective nouns (e.g. a “gaggle of geese,” or a “murder of crows”).

His little aphorisms were another famous part of his classes. He would repeat them often… in every class. This drove some people crazy. But, as he liked to say, there was a method to his madness. It instilled general principles that I still remember. Some were highly philosophical (“Potency is to act, as essence is to existence, as matter is to form,” or his drawing of the “real worlds of external and internal being”), while others were general guidance for life (“Good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good becomes better, and the better becomes best”). This last saying was probably his favorite, and had an extended form: “Why? Because the human heart and the human mind were made for the best, and will never truly be at rest, until they get the best. So hitch your wagon to a star and aim high.” He practiced what he preached and was a living witness to a humble, unfailing dedication to daily conversion.

Last, I want to just share a few of his other influences on me. My first class with him was Logic, and he was a master of disciplined thinking. He spoke often about the importance of good reasoning and understanding the meaning of terms as they were being used by your interlocutor—a lot of trouble comes from people using the same terms with different meanings (“Language is marvelous but gets us in trouble, too”)! He believed that there was generally *something* true in whatever someone said (“who could fail to hit the broadside of a barn?”), and your response should be charitable by making proper distinctions (“never disagree outright, seldom affirm outright, but always under a distinction”). He constantly warned of logical fallacies as destructive of true conversation. Some of his regulars: false analogy (“because they are similar in some respects, you conclude they are similar in all respects”), the straw man (misrepresenting someone’s position: “I never said that…”), and- a favorite word of his to pronounce- amphiboly (a statement that could be taken in two ways. E.g. what “greasy” refers to in the phrase “Don’t put your hand on the door knob- it’s greasy”). He helped me to develop a love for philosophy and St Thomas Aquinas, made me a much clearer thinker, helped me to become more charitable and fair in arguments, and prepared me to be a much better priest than I would have been otherwise.

Thank you, Fr Fabian. May your soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Why did I pick St Peter the Apostle as my Confirmation Saint? (and, how do I recommend celebrating feast days?)

Thursday (June 29th) was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (by “feast day,” we mean a day specifically designated to honor and remember a saint or other event, eg Christmas or Easter). Peter and Paul are grouped together as they both ended their lives preaching in Rome, being killed a few years apart during the persecutions of Nero in the late 60’s.

Peter is especially important to me as he is my “Confirmation saint.” The custom is to pick a saint as a model/patron at the time of your Confirmation. I originally thought of going with Patrick (my middle name), but decided I wanted to pick one that wasn’t already a part of my name! I was Confirmed at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, and the line that struck me the most at the time is something that Jesus tells Peter in the Gospel of Luke: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). I’m the oldest of three brothers, and something about that line really resonated with me. If anything, I think it means even more to me now! I’ve come to appreciate in a deeper way the significance of St Peter. He was in need of the mercy of God so many times—resisting casting the nets (Lk 5:8), sinking when trying to walk on the water (Mt 14:30), trying to talk Jesus out of His suffering/death (Mt 16:22), and denying Jesus three times during His passion (Jn 18). In the end, however, by the grace of God he was able to be a faithful apostle and fulfill a mission that felt far too large for his own abilities. That sounds familiar… St Peter, keep praying for me!

Last, I want to make a brief comment on my recommendation for celebrating feast days! If you know me there is a good chance I’ve attempted to connect you to the saint of your birthday/Confirmation/etc. After you learn their feast day, I like to say that you should do something to make that day holy and something to celebrate it (my brothers have probably heard me say this a hundred times). It can be a day to go to a daily Mass, read some scripture, or pray another devotion. And, it makes a party all the more fitting when there is a good reason for it!

Find your patrons, get to know them, then imitate and celebrate them. God bless!