A “Spitting Image” of Obedience

Eamonn Clark

“The next time you see her, spit in her face.”

An extremely instructive story for those who are tempted to trust their own judgment in the spiritual life is related in Gerard de Frachet O.P.’s Lives of the Brethren (available online here). Over a 5 year period (about 1255-1260), De Frachet (d. 1271) collected stories from the earliest life of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), which stories were well-founded on eyewitness testimony, with many of the brothers who are in the stories still being alive at the time of composition. It contains some of the earliest biographical information of St. Dominic, Bl. Jordan of Saxony, and many other stories of miracles, extraordinary piety, and heroic virtue. The episode we are considering goes like this – from page 209 (Imperium Christi Press, trans. Conway), in Chapter 22 of Part V, titled “Impatience and Phantasms”:

“One of the brethren in the convent in Paris gave himself up entirely to prayer to the detriment of his studies and teaching. The devil was also in the habit of coming to him, feigning to be the blessed Virgin, at one time praising his state of soul, and at another revealing future events. The brother happened to mention this fact to Brother Peter of Rheims, who was prior at the time, and was advised to spit in the face of the phantom if it appeared again: ‘For if it be the blessed Virgin,’ said he, ‘she will not be vexed, being always most humble of heart, nay, she will excuse you on account of your obedience; while if it be the father of lies he will make off in confusion.’ The brother simply did what he was told and spat accordingly, upon which the devil roared in anger: ‘Curse upon you, where did you learn such gross manners!’ He went off ashamed of himself, and never ventured to come again.”

Let those taken in by interior assurances of piety and holiness beware… they are blind guides. Even exterior affirmations should be distrusted, and they should be rejected entirely when there is an objective problem (such as neglecting one’s duties, even for an outwardly pious motive). The most famous example of such radical self-distrust is perhaps that of St. Teresa of Avila, who would regularly see Christ in apparitions but would essentially ignore their content without approval from her director – she knew her director would not deceive her, while she was less sure if she was really encountering the Lord in her visions.

And should there ever be an experience – psychological, physical, mystical – which suggests that one go against the lawful and reasonable demands of one’s superiors (natural or ecclesiastical, including one’s spiritual director), let alone that one go against the teaching or demands of the Church, one can be assured that such a thing is not from God. (Cf. Gal. 1:8 – “But even if we or an angel from Heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”) Such illusions should be rejected – they should be spat upon. Let’s have terrible manners with the demons… Maybe that sometimes means spitting on apparitions, but it always means being obedient to God, to His Church, and to all our legitimate superiors who represent them both.

Main image: Paris – the old convent church (Couvent St. Jacques) in which this incident occurred was destroyed in the first half of the 19th century.

The Twilight Post

Eamonn Clark

Today I read a few interesting things. One was a passage from Peter Kreeft’s book on C. S. Lewis and the third millennium. Another was from Fr. Bede Jarrett’s classic biography of St. Dominic, whose feast is today – now in its last hours.

The former spoke about the inability of people today to think rationally and objectively about moral life, in accordance with Lewis’ famous thesis in The Abolition of Man about so-called “men without chests” who have a body and a head but seemingly nothing in between to mediate… no “chest” to bring the passions in line with what reason really demands.

The latter spoke about the great Albigensian heresy, which denied the goodness of matter. This served as the catalyst for St. Dominic to found the Order of Preachers, just over 800 years ago.

San Sisto Vecchio, the first residence of St. Dominic and his confreres in Rome. He quickly established a convent for nuns there, whom he visited often.

I have made three posts on the “new Albigensianism” (here and here and here); I think some current of the argument therein matches the claim of Kreeft (and Lewis) about “men without chests.” Let these points and questions serve as a sort of haphazard conclusion to that little series, in honor of today.

The exterior of the ancient church of Santa Sabina (built in the early 5th century), where St. Dominic moved after San Sisto Vecchio. The exterior here is mostly original. The view is from the famous “Orange Garden” on the Aventine Hill.

Post-modern millennials (PMM’s) are inclined to downplay the role of reason. They do this at the service of the body’s urges, whether their own or another’s, especially a supposedly “oppressed” group or minority. While reason serving passions are nothing new, the direct suspicion of reason as having a mediating role is. Like the Albigensians and Manichaeans before them, they are wont to do terrible things to the body; the “perfecti” of the Albigensians preached suicide by starvation as the great liberation, the height of control over oneself and the existentially freeing release of the soul, and PMM’s treat unnatural sexual acts – and the manipulation of the body itself by surgery – as something similar. Like these groups, there is an orthodoxy (increasingly on display in the West’s courts and legislatures), and there are even “preachers” of a sort who attempt to make converts, especially among young, vulnerable children. Reverts are not allowed – just ask Amazon. However, unlike these groups, there is also an open and direct diminution of the importance of reason and the pursuit of truth. Therefore, speech and its part, language, must be absolutely strangled. If an “oppressed person” is somehow mistreated in speech – namely, by suggesting that the desire the person has is not healthy – then one is hating that person. It is a strange accusation, because it is supposed to help the person, but it is seen as an attempt to hurt.

And so we have the “pyramid of violence,” featuring the infamous “microaggression.” Even more than that, we have the startling claim echoed constantly that any derivation from the increasingly ghoulish sexual orthodoxy of the Left is not simply “hate” but is equal to physical violence itself. (Just ask the critics of Mario Lopez.) This is due to a perceived inability to process an idea expressed by language which is at odds with one’s perception of one’s own desires. The foreign idea is not to be accepted or even rejected, it is not to be processed – it is argued that the introduction of such an idea is, first, “triggering” for the oppressed person, making him/her/xir/them uncomfortable. (Thus, the logic of the “safe space.”) Second, worse than this, is the even more serious claim that one will do violence to himself (or herself – etc.) after the introduction of an unwanted idea. Therefore, to speak against the orthodoxy which psychologically protects these people from themselves simply is the same as physically attacking them, even killing them.

Now, of course it is possible to drive a person to self-harm, and this should certainly not be a goal or come from total recklessness. (It is certainly possible to drive someone to hurt someone else, granted.) But the greatest ally here is VERITAS – TRUTH! We are not sexual animals, gendered animals, or racial animals, we are RATIONAL animals. The capacity to reason is what makes us human, and it CAN be appealed to, especially if those with the “ethos” – the authority – use their platforms wisely by aiming at rational persuasion rather than through fear, anger, egoism, or anything less than what is noblest in our nature. To try to shut down free speech is typically to trap people’s minds in darkness, leaving those with the power the ability to wield it with a vengeance. We are naturally inclined to seek the TRUTH, but usually we do need to be exposed to the ideas which point to it to reach it. In general, it seems better to let people hear bad ideas, even wicked ideas, and let those ideas be exposed for what they are by rigorous public discourse. We can’t create a utopia by blocking out unwanted ideas which might tell us we are desiring something bad for us… in fact, that is just what Christ came to do: call to repentance, and then offer salvation. That is the real “safe space,” where infinite rational discovery is engaged in by seeing God.

The interior of Santa Sabina, where St. Dominic used to wander around each night in prayer. Much of the interior seen here is original – the current barrier would have been part of a rood screen in his day.

All this leads me back to the issue of voluntarism (bound up with nominalism)… Most Western people today who believe in Heaven think of it as a slightly better version of this world. How boring. And how Muslim… I truly wonder if there is a connection here with the voluntarism of Islam, where obedience – not rational friendship with a loving, personal God – is the primary virtue. No thinking required, just do what you are told. And there in Islam we find a boring vision of Heaven as well. Eye has seen and ear has heard what Allah has prepared.

I find it possible that the scholastic rediscovery of Greek philosophy through contact with the Arab world in the 13th century could have somehow infected European Christianity with voluntarism. Could some voluntarist undercurrents in Averroes or Avicenna have somehow made it into the Franciscan schools? Perhaps. I don’t have enough information. I will save it for another day.

That brings me to my last point today… I will be disappearing for a while. Christian Renaissance Movement will be suspended indefinitely as I hopefully prepare to enter religious life in the near future. Please pray for me, and I will pray for you. If you have enjoyed these pages over the past few weeks, months, or years, please reach out and let me know – I have loved engaging with my readers, and I hope to do so once again in the future. When that will be, I do not know. Until then, do good, avoid evil, and have a chest.

St. Dominic, pray for us!