The Hidden Idolatry in Our Midst

Eamonn Clark, STL

In the past, it has struck me that the sense of sin among even many pious people is skewed in favor of measuring the gravity of sin in terms of its effects rather than in terms of its disorder. The specific example that has come up multiple times relates to the Sixth Commandment, but I will use a slightly different example: the difference between the Eighth Commandment and the Second Commandment. Lying is wrong. But swearing a false oath (perjury) is far, far worse. It is leagues above the most malicious of lies, when such lies are taken by themselves as lies, even though a malicious lie can cause such great damage while one may see no real damaging effect from perjury at all, even most of the time. (By the way, it is perjury that the Second Commandment is really about – not “using bad language,” as is unfortunately taught so frequently.)

Why is perjury so much worse? After all, it is a lie that may or may not have a bad effect, while a malicious lie is designed to harm another and often has such terrible effects. Even taking the cumulative force of the violation of other precepts together with malicious lies as their root (such as the violation of the Fifth or Seventh Commandments), we should note that not only does the Second Commandment rank higher numerically on the Decalogue, at a whopping five places above, but it is actually on the First Tablet. This is because, first of all, it relates directly to our relationship with God and His due honor. Second, following from this, the sin of perjury (“swearing on the Name of God” in a matter which you are lying about) is enormously disordered, much more disordered than trying to harm some mere creature with a lie. When perjuring, one “harms God,” in the way that this is possible. Seeing as the point of human existence is primarily to love God, and that the love of creation is only well-ordered in relation to the love of God first, we can see how a direct assault on the honor of God is much worse than a direct assault on a creature, especially when the sin is the same sort of action. (Sometimes people take false oaths in words without truly meaning to take a real oath – “I swear to God,” etc… This is a terrible habit which must be intentionally rooted out. It is arguably venial sin in itself in the case of mindlessness, but such mindlessness proceeds from somewhere – often a general lack of interest in honoring God and His Holy Name, which reveals a lack of charity.)

Now, onto the real topic for today: the violation of the First Commandment and this sin’s infiltration into the normal lives of so many people. So. Many. People. And no, I do not mean “idolizing sin/money/sex/etc.” I mean real idolatry. Let’s get into it.

One of the few people that St. Thomas specifically names and accuses of sin in the Summa Theologica is the great Roman philosopher Seneca, whom several pages later is relied on, strangely enough, as an authority on gratitude. (Thomas also did not like the Stoics in general, of whom Seneca was a foremost member and representative. In fact, the Stoics are the only group which the Angelic Doctor basically mocks, to my knowledge, for their hypocritical doctrine on the use of pleasure.) The relevant section for us, however, is the II-II q. 94 a. 2 resp., which discusses whether idolatry is a sin.

Thomas quotes Augustine, who himself is quoting Seneca, on the worship of the Roman gods. Here it is: “We shall adore in such a way as to remember that our worship is in accordance with custom rather than with the reality.” Thus spoke Seneca. Well, at least he was honest about what he was doing. Thomas, with Augustine, finds this to be “wicked dishonesty,” especially since Seneca pretended to worship the gods so well that people thought he actually believed.

I was speaking some time ago with a friend about the strange phenomenon of “atheist Jews” who continue to practice the rituals which signify the advent of the Christ. Well, they neither believe in the reality of the Incarnation nor do they actually expect it. It is about custom – a bizarre and grotesque outgrowth of these Jews’ distant ancestors who accosted Jesus for not understanding Judaism because He did not follow the customs they were so fond of. We can say that these ethnic Jews who, unlike their ancestors, do not even believe in God at all, nonetheless pretend to worship God and therefore are in fact idolaters on this account. This is because the outward ritual of the Passover meal, or Succoth, etc., are imbued with a significance so evidently containing the communication of idea of submission, praise, hope, etc. in relation to the God of Israel that these rituals also contain the idea and the objective fact of worship of that very same God. Despite the lack of belief in God, such ethnic Jews pretend to worship Him nonetheless, even if they would insist that they are not doing so. The rites of the old feasts are themselves sufficient to indicate that one is expressing faith and hope in the God of Israel. This is much the same as the Christian lapsi who dishonestly pretended to worship the Roman gods to escape persecution, though those who gave in after much torture certainly have much less guilt than those who were afraid of incurring mild inconveniences. But those who simply outwardly communicate worship (latria) are not only formally giving idolatrous worship (even if it happens to be worship given to the one true God), but it is also, in Thomas’s words, a “wicked falsehood.” (He also attacks the continued observance of the Jewish rites after the age of the Church begins – like that which was promoted by the Judaizers that Paul fought against so vehemently – and though he does not say it is idolatrous, it is nonetheless a “pestiferous superstition.” A wonderful phrase, if I do say so myself.)

And now we come to the real problem. The outwardly devout attendance of Mass on the part of those who lack belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which, in the USA, is about 70% of self-identified Catholics, including about a third who show up every Sunday. Let us investigate.

Christ and the Eucharist are the same, except for shape (“secondary dimensive quantity”) and thus also according to mode of presence (“sacramental presence”/”substantial presence” as opposed to “local presence”), and they differ in the reason for the unity or “concomitance” of the parts (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, whether by “nature” directly as with Christ in Heaven, or in virtue of real concomitance resting the power of the word – which subject Lateran IV dealt with so succinctly). This means that to worship the Eucharist is to worship Christ…

…if one believes in the Eucharist as such. If one does not actually believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, what is happening in such a soul at Mass? He is giving the objective signs of latria, adoration, worship, to what are, in his mind, mere bread and wine, not Christ, though he may see these objects as somehow “representing” or “symbolizing” Christ. Therefore, it constitutes formal idolatry, even though materially, unbeknownst to him, it is materially worship of Christ.

That is the thesis. It needs some qualification, so I will now walk it back a few steps. Of course, most people in such a situation have little to no meaningful catechetical formation. They have never been told that the Mass is a sacrifice, that it re-presents Calvary, that Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist, that the state of grace is requisite for a good Communion, that rendering good worship in the Mass is the highest act of moral virtue which one can do, etc. They have instead been formed by the Protestant culture and liturgy which surrounds them, and, unfortunately, have also been formed by the Protestantization of the Catholic Mass which resulted from the reforms after the last Council, coupled with decades of weirdness and sloppiness in the reformed liturgy. So, despite probably having presented themselves for catechetical formation, it has not been given to them. The average Sunday pewster would be able to tell you aesthetic differences between what Evangelicals or Lutherans are doing in their worship and what Catholics are doing in ours, but meaningful theological differences would be a struggle to explain. It is difficult to see how that is entirely the fault of the individual in ignorance.

It is also the case that the formal idolater hardly understands themselves to be offering worship to the Eucharistic species at all. (Once again, one might point to the reforms as a possible root for this shift, along with the experiments of the following decades.) They simply “follow the crowd,” and they don’t think much more about it.

On the other hand, I once had an experience, when assisting in a parish in the USA, of a group of parents who came to have details explained about their children making their first Holy Communion. I think many of them had their kids with them. The meeting was held in a chapel, with a full tabernacle. I distinctly remember sitting there at the end of the meeting in genuine shock and awe as I watched each one of several dozen people exit the chapel without the slightest act of reverence toward Christ in the Eucharist… What is one to make of this morally? It is the opposite of the phenomenon of kneeling, bowing, and receiving Holy Communion at Mass without faith in the Real Presence. It is worship which ought to be given but is not, which is called irreligion, specifically sacrilege (the failure to honor rightly a sacred object). While it is only a minor kind of sacrilege and is done in ignorance, as opposed to burning a church down intentionally, it is still deeply disordered.

Likewise, when real outward signs of reverence are given, it communicates something about what is interior, namely, belief about the dignity of the object reverenced. One cannot get around this. There is a kind of idolatry, even though done in ignorance, in the person who lacks Eucharistic faith but goes through the motions at a Mass. This, too, exposes an immense disorder in the soul, and in this particular case, especially in the intellect, as one is utterly ignorant of the reality of the Blessed Sacrament. It reveals that one does not know how to give worship hardly at all, even when in precisely the right place at precisely the right moment, and even when doing outwardly the precisely correct things, in the context of the highest kind of worship.

This is a crisis. It is a First Commandment crisis. If we cannot get this right, what else matters?

That is the situation. What to do? More preaching on the Mass, and more vigilance exercised over catechesis in parochial environments, indeed can go a long way. However, I propose there are other remedies as well.

  1. Perpetual adoration, or as close as the parish can get to it. A good introduction to what this is, and why it is done, where much teaching can be done, is the set up for the practice itself, which is always sure to bring many blessings to the community. A culture ought to be built up around keeping watch with Our Lord. Eucharistic processions are good too – the more public the better!
  2. Liturgy needs to be celebrated very precisely and very well. This cannot be emphasized enough – the chief way that people learn what the liturgy is all about is by experiencing it. So if it is anthropocentric, they will learn that Mass is about “me” or “us.” If it is done well, they will learn that it is about Christ, specifically about Christ in the Eucharist – not about music, not about the homily, not about “participation” qua “doing stuff,” and not even about community. It is about what is happening on the altar, and our participation in that act of sacrifice, by prayer, presence, and even by palate – though it is only necessary to receive Holy Communion once a year during Easter, and it is, of course, obligatory to refrain when in grave sin.
  3. Priests and other sacred ministers need to exhibit special devotion before, during, and after the Mass. This is closely connected with, and even identical to some extent, with the point about liturgy being celebrated well. If Father doesn’t bother to genuflect when setting up for Mass, why would anyone think of the tabernacle as anything other than a pretty-looking box? If he handles the sacred vessels like ordinary things, why would anyone think something is special about what they contain? And so on. It is also especially helpful for people to see priests praying before and after Mass. In many parts of the world, this is not customary, once again, due to the exertion of cultural pressure from Protestantism. I would suggest that it is often more helpful for people to see Father praying for a few minutes after Mass than to shake hands on the way out the door… But, alas, one must not be too harsh in the violation of custom, and it is frequently the case that people would never speak a word to Father other than at such a moment. However, if there is more than one priest around, he should greet people, while the celebrant goes to pray. After all, as Canon 909 says: “A priest is not to neglect to prepare himself properly through prayer for the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice and to offer thanks to God at its completion.”

The case of formal idolatry, even if watered down somewhat from the Senecan version, is not a sin without enormous bad effects – they are simply distant from their cause. How many people have stopped going to Mass altogether because they don’t see the need for it? How many people make bad communions? How many people never bother to pray directly to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, or even reverence Him intentionally, thus depriving themselves and the world of untold amounts of grace? How many people go to non-Catholic churches on some Sundays because they don’t really see the difference? How may people go to Mass a few times a year because of “custom” rather than “reality,” almost like Seneca or the atheist Jews who still observe their ancestors’ feasts out of some kind of nostalgia or sentimentality??? These bad effects come from a lack of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, an enormous disorder. It stands to reason then that over time, if we heal the root, we fix the fruit.

I know how jarring the use of the word “idolater” is. It is out of care and concern for souls that we ought to use precise language, albeit tactfully. Hopefully, these considerations can move things in the right direction for those who read and have the position to preach, teach, and otherwise influence souls.

Hidden Signs in the Final Resurrection Appearance in John’s Gospel

Eamonn Clark, STL

The Sea of Galilee is a very important symbol in the Gospels. Briefly, it stands for the possibility of life – with the Jordan River running southward to the Dead Sea (“not life”), close to which we find the Baptismal Site (hidden in the valley which is the lowest point on planet Earth). To the west is the Land of Promise, to the east are the Nations, especially Assyria and Persia. Canaan was also initially entered from the east bank, after the Exodus from Egypt. It should then be no surprise that the Word habitually enjoys hovering over the waters of Galilee – by natural means (like a boat) and by supernatural means (like without a boat!) – and exercising power over the life hiding in the darkness beneath.

In John’s Gospel, we find the strange and stirring encounter with the apostles by the shore of the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection. There are many signs, but let’s focus today on just a few.

The first thing to note is that Greek has two words for “life” – bios (like “biology”), which means physical or bodily life, and zoe (like “zoology”), which means something more like a fulfillment of one’s purpose in possessing physical life, some kind of spiritual “living-ness.” When the Lord claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, He uses the word “zoe,” not “bios.” (John 14:6)

The Sea of Galilee was and still is a real means of supporting physical life, but merely chasing after sustenance is not what human beings exist for. Mere bios is not worth the effort and eventually becomes futile – we need zoe. As it turns out, the same Lord Who controls the weather and fish in the Sea of Galilee is zoe itself. What is merely biologically alive can and ought to become spiritually alive as well in Christ. We see this symbolized by the fish in the Sea of Galilee.

The Lord has fish already cooking on the beach, though only just a few. As we know, the apostles will haul in a miraculous catch of 153 large fish – a clear sign of the Nations (of which there were reckoned to be 153). The Lord has caught several fish in Canaan during His public ministry – those He is already cooking, perhaps two, maybe symbolizing the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah? – but the main work will be done by the apostles and their successors. They will participate in His grace to help souls come to Him. This approach, after the initial work of “catching” by preaching, pulling souls out of the chaotic darkness of worldly waters, entails a threefold process of initiation and sanctification.

First, the fish are pulled up out of the water, dying to their old life, allowing their nature to be changed in view of something higher which awaits them. This is surely Baptism. Then, the fish are to be cooked in the fire, changing them even further, brightening them and filling them with heat and light. Of course, we can only think of Confirmation. At last, what all of this is for, on the biological level, the fish are consumed, by the Lord… Which is precisely the point of the Eucharist, namely, to be united with Christ in His very Flesh and Blood. (To be sure, that we are eating and drinking Him is no obstacle to Him consuming us as well, though in a different way.)

All of this corresponds rather neatly with the three great ages of the spiritual life as well. From the sea, we have the initial conversion, leaving behind mere biological cares without greater purpose, and even the beginning of purgation. From the fire, we have the continuation of purgation and the entry into illumination and purity. And at the meal, we have union.

Thus, in these few short verses, we see at a minimum a description of the entire mission of the Church, a catechesis on the Jews and Gentiles, a theology of the Sacraments of Initiation, and a fundamental outline of the basic pattern of the spiritual life.

St. Thomas Aquinas on how to ensure your prayer is answered – in 4 easy steps!

Eamonn Clark, STL

It’s a shocking claim, but it’s eminently sensible… if you want a guaranteed answer to your prayer, you must only do four things. And note that I mean the kind of answer that you are actually looking for, rather than getting something different which God wants for you instead (which would be better for you than your own idea anyway).

St. Thomas Aquinas lays out the four steps, or aspects, in the Summa Theologica, II-II q. 83, a. 15. They are:

To pray piously – If we are asking God for something rudely, as if we are entitled to it, we are not praying very well. A pious prayer is humble, respectful, and sincere.

To pray perseveringly – When we really want something, we will typically keep asking until we obtain it. So it is that when we pray for a favor in a fleeting way, we are not desiring that favor very seriously. Why then should we expect Providence to match our desires? We might fall into presumption if such prayers were answered and end up not even praying piously for favors the next time around.

To pray for what is useful for salvation – Despite what it may seem, God does not actually particularly care about the score of the big football game coming up. (In fact, it can be sinful to pray for certain outcomes in such things, unless one has some extraordinary vested interest in them.) While God will grant little favors sometimes that make our lives more pleasant or convenient, normally by the natural order of things, these are small potatoes. Even miraculous physical healings are low on the list of God’s priorities – just look at how Christ did not open up a miraculous hospital in Galilee to heal every single sick person, though He could have done so. What God really wants is our everlasting friendship.

To pray for oneself – People have free will. They can accept grace or resist it. It is not possible to merit another human being’s salvation, although we can assist in a way. However, when we desire our own salvation we have immediately put ourselves on the right path by that very act of the will. Our free will is moving in the right direction already.

That’s it! It may sound underwhelming, but it’s surely not. With this formula, we can obtain Heaven, thus fulfilling the purpose of our existence. God will never deny a soul that earnestly seeks its own salvation through humble and frequent prayer for favors that relate to growth in charity and avoiding falling into Hell. Do you want to obtain the courage needed to go to Confession? You will have it. Do you want to become more temperate? It will be given to you. Do you want to enjoy a deeper friendship with the Lord and be a great saint? He wants to give it to you. All you must do is ask in the right way, and it is sure to come to you.

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!

The Logic of the Resurrection

Eamonn Clark

The meaning of human existence was definitively determined and confirmed about 2,000 years ago in a little cave just outside Jerusalem when a dead man suddenly came alive again. Nobody saw the event itself – it was secret. Only its effects were perceived, just as this same man’s public miracles had been… in the midst of confusion, or chaos, or darkness, or in some kind of hidden or invisible circumstances. But the effects were perceived clearly. And yet frequently, their meaning was not perceived.

To see the Risen Christ after the torture and death He endured only days earlier evoked principally two emotions – fear and joy. The fear came from the natural confusion of seeing someone alive who had died. The ambiguity which such a situation presents is overwhelming to the psyche – and even most sincere believers in the Resurrection today would no doubt still be startled by this kind of encounter. The bridging of the worlds of the living and the dead calls for such an “unnatural” in-betweenness, a characteristic of the Christ which is hammered home numerous times in the pages of the Gospels. This should be no surprise when we believe He is both God and man, already a great mystery of “contradiction” and “ambiguity.” He was baptized in the “middle” place. He touches “unclean” things. He lives near cities but not in them. He is evasive physically and rhetorically. He is a shape-shifter. He is a gatekeeper.

The joy, in part “unleashed” or magnified by the fear, comes from perceiving that this gatekeeper has opened the way to Heaven in the Resurrection somehow in Himself, which is the meaning of the event. And a primal spiritual instinct ought to urge one not only to desire such an opening, but also to sense that the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth actually matches with this desire in a way that nothing else could. In other words, the story of Jesus is too good not to be true; human minds are not capable of devising a story like this – in fact, everything in our natural powers tends to fight against making these sorts of deep and universal existential claims that hinge on particulars, like the sort that would depend on an individual man in a real historical time and place. Our natural sensibilities prefer a God that is more like a cosmic soup or a distant watchmaker – not a Person, let alone three Persons. The “scandal of particularity” is deeply unsettling when rightly perceived. That is what happens when order, the Logos, involves Himself with the mess of the universe – there is a disruption, including in the chaos of our souls.

This was recently demonstrated to me after some discussions with defenders of a certain Easter article in the New York Times. I don’t intend to launch into an apologetic critique of the article – you can read such a thing here – I only mean to note the stubborn insistence that somehow the Resurrection, to a Christian, could be something other than what it is plainly preached as being by the apostles: a physical reanimation of the individual Jesus of Nazareth. The gymnastics used to get around this while still ferociously clinging to the title “Christian” were what really struck me. It occurred to me that this is precisely what that dreadful curse of Isaiah is all about – seeing without perceiving, hearing without understanding – even in the midst of claiming the masthead of Divine approval.

This is also basically what occurred during the public ministry of Christ, but in a slightly different way. While the folks I was talking with were through and through American leftists and therefore deeply opposed to any kind of nationalism, the same false Messianic paradigm which has seemingly always plagued the Jews since they entered Canaan was at work in them as well: the Messiah is a politician. For these leftists, the point of the Christ is by and large to advance laws and policies propping up public welfare programs, globalism, non-judgmentalism, and instant gratification of hedonistic desires. (The “economic Christ” and the “therapeutic Christ” are present as well.) For the Jews, it was and is about Jewish nationalism. Even today they are waiting for a singular figure to rise up to destroy the Palestinians and usher in a glorious Jewish peace in Israel, of course, with the Temple rebuilt. (Have they forgotten about Julian the Apostate’s miraculously disastrous attempt to rebuild the Temple, even before the Al-Aqsa mosque occupied the very spot?)

Peter was really willing to die for Jesus on Holy Thursday – until he realized that this is not the Messiah he had signed up for. The predictions of death were clearly not metaphors or exaggerations… but he did not yet understand that neither were the predictions of resurrection. He had been thinking like men, not like God. His paradigm of Messiah qua warlord-politician was ruined when Jesus submitted to the soldiers, and so Peter too was ruined. It turns out that in some sense he really did not know the man. “How will Jesus lead the war against those dreadful Romans now?” He will indeed lead a war against Rome, but in a spiritual way that shows even them Divine mercy and love.

All this brings me, oddly, to the Book of Jonah. When read correctly, there is hardly a book in the Old Testament which more bluntly and richly explains the Christ’s agenda in such a short space. Of course, we read Christ speak about the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12: 38-41) – a clear reference to the Resurrection – but there is more to it than that.

Jesus Christ is the New Jonah – not only in the sense of “fulfillment” but also of correction. See if you can find some paradoxical connections to the Gospels in this summary.

Jonah so deeply hates the Assyrians (Gentiles) that he would rather die than tell them that God loves them. After all, they have historically been at war with Israel. But even before he turns to obey God’s command to preach in Nineveh, Jonah is a successful evangelist. Sleeping on the pagan sailors’ boat during a storm as he is disobediently running away from Nineveh as far as he can, he awakens to tell them that he is the cause of the danger. With this short sermon alone, they all become fervent devotees to the God of Jonah, probably, we can infer, much to Jonah’s displeasure. These new fervent worshipers of the God of Israel commend the soul of Jonah to that same God’s care, asking that his blood not be on their hands as they throw him into the sea to meet his fate. While Jonah wishes for death, he seems not to get it, although we are left wondering if he died in the belly of the whale and yet rose again. His prayer therein is not repentant – apparently he finds no guilt in himself – but he does offer obedience. He is spit onto land again and preaches a five word sermon in Nineveh which simply threatens destruction. He does not say what is wrong with Nineveh, he does not say how to avoid the impending punishment, and he does not even mention God. The entire city converts, which Jonah is furious about. He sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen, and a plant grows over him. The shade is wonderful, but soon a worm eats the plant and it dies – Jonah wishes for death again, selfishly complaining to God about His mercy on Nineveh but not on the plant. God disagrees. The end.

Christ loves the Gentiles so much that He wants to die for them. Start the reinterpretation there. The end of the story is the real kicker for Jewish nationalism… According to St. Augustine, the worm which attacks Jonah’s plant represents Christ; the plant represents the Old Covenant and its favors. (Think of the cursing of the fig tree during Holy Week.) It was there for a while due to God’s own superabundant favor, and now it disappears, making everyone equal under the sun. The “Jewish moment” is over. It was only a pedagogue, mainly about the fidelity of God to His promises. Now a greater promise must be fulfilled… And keeping this in mind, many of the parables and activities of Christ are split wide open to a new logic, along with more understanding of the offense taken at the Lord’s attitude toward the Nations. (The workers who are late to the vineyard, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the discussion with the woman at the well… all these and more lend themselves in part to the exploration of this theme.) The Jews are not special in themselves: salvation is for everyone, even the descendants of the wicked Esau and Ham. The Temple curtain has been torn from top to bottom, as God made His escape from Jerusalem out into the Nations. The Lord’s own garment, woven from top to bottom, has not been torn, while He died just outside the Holy City, shedding His Blood upon the new doorpost and lintel which is broad enough for the whole world to enter in and receive the safety of God’s protection from everlasting death. That blessed Plant, the Cross, will protect us from the heat of Hell’s fire, which will make us wish for another death that will never come.

There should be no question of the historical existence of the person of Jonah. We hear about him in 2 Kings 14: 23-25 – where he delivers a prophecy which will, ironically, be reversed by Amos (Amos 6: 13-14) – and a hermeneutic of faith urges us to read the Sacred Text open to the astounding and miraculous intervention of God in the history of the Chosen People. Compared to the Paschal Mystery, the miracles contained in the Book of Jonah are mere shadows. Trying to “demythologize” these or other miraculous signs without a serious reason to suspect a metaphorical intention on the author’s part indicates an unhealthy attitude towards Divine Providence and an under-appreciation for the significance of the New Covenant. Perhaps the single biggest problem among basically orthodox theologians today is a fear of being “fundamentalist” with regard to the run-up to the Incarnation. As if it were somehow naive to believe as the Jews of 1st Century Israel believed. What we need in order to appreciate the kerygma as fully as possible in this life is the shameless acceptance of full-throated and unabashed Judaism as the real preparation for the advent of the Messiah. That is not my opinion – it is what God actually wrought upon the Earth. He chose to enter into a people who at least believed these things were generally real, literal history. After all, how can we really understand and appreciate the silent and invisible things of the New Covenant on Calvary if we can’t even acknowledge the reality of some thunder and smoke on Sinai? I don’t mean to impute sin to those who hesitate here; I only mean to say that such hesitation is typically unnecessary, inappropriate, nonsensical, and can render theology and even the spiritual life quite sterile. The most carefully planned event in history was the Incarnate Word’s earthly life. We should read the Scriptures with this in mind, no?

In its extreme, this program of “demythologization” prevents the entrance into the spiritual life. Creation is through the Son, the Word. It follows that human existence – and all of creation – is in some profound sense itself a story, or a myth, as it were, into which God Himself enters as the central character, first indirectly, then directly, now half-directly, later to be fully direct once more when the story is finished. Without acknowledging the need for a Savior who will open the way to eternal life by redeeming one from sin and overcoming death, there is a fundamental frustration of what God designed humanity for. The story wouldn’t really make sense. Without faith, it is impossible to please God – one must believe He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him, in particular through grace and personal love, even if this is only dimly perceived (cf. Hebrews 11:6). The tendency to fight one’s own deepest in-built supernatural longings is a self-imposed darkness – a rejection of the Light which is already shining in all creation. We are always free to destroy ourselves in this way, and we always will choose to do so without God’s special mercy. Even with every indication and sign available – including countless miracles, visions, and wonders down to our own day – without His ongoing support and personal “invasion” of the Canaan of our souls, we would drown in the misery of our self-absorption and fixate on God’s created gifts rather than on the God Who is giving them. So let no man boast except in the Cross and its Victim. Jesus rose from the dead. No more gloomy despair from Qoheleth is warranted: in the light of His Resurrection, and in this light alone, by which He has drawn all the Nations to Himself, human existence, and each person’s own individual existence, at last make sense. Anything to the contrary is a chase after wind. And we should be able to see that.

Fire in Paris… My Mixed Emotions

Eamonn Clark

Yes it is sad that the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned down. It is good that it seems it will not be entirely destroyed and that many important things inside the building were apparently rescued. It even seems that nobody was hurt (granted I am writing this as the story is still unfolding). I squirm at the sight of the images of the fire, and I would have prevented it from happening if I could have.

Here is the thing.

I have been to the cathedral plenty of times (I used to live not far away and have occasionally visited Paris since). There is just no denying that the priorities at Notre Dame were backwards. And to anyone who has gone there to try to pray, you know what I mean. It has been, for a very long time, a place 99% dedicated to tourism, and 1% to prayer. I recall one afternoon when I was in the chapel in the far back end of the ambulatory, where the Blessed Sacrament was. There were perhaps 2 or 3 other people with me. After a little while, for no apparent reason, some guards came all of a sudden and told us we had to leave and re-join the Kabah-like crowd of tourists circling the nave. I suppose they were setting up for something, but that was extremely frustrating and disappointing nonetheless, and I bet it happened all the time. I recall there also being a large commercial operation near the entrance, selling various memorabilia. It always unsettled me to see… Of course it is not quite on par with the money-changers at the Temple whom Our Lord attacked twice, but it was not at all appropriate. Misplaced priorities.

And now this symbolic heart of the French Church – and in many ways the European Church – is practically destroyed. What an apt metaphor. People indeed have marveled at the “culture” of the Church through this splendid building. Well, now that is gone, for the time being. What will be done? What leg is there to stand on except faith? A fine leg indeed – much stronger than wood and stone, even beautiful wood and stone.

Recall that Europe was not always the mainland of Christendom. It was once North Africa… It produced saints like Augustine, Cyprian, Cyril, and on and on. Today it is not like that, if you didn’t know. Nor is Turkey, which was also once a booming epicenter of Christian orthodoxy and apostolic zeal. Europe is quickly becoming like these places. There have been attacks on several French churches in the past few weeks. St. Sulpice, another incredible Parisian church, was also on fire just last month. I am not an apocalyptic conspiracy-theorist, so I won’t go there – but that God has allowed all of this should be cause to stop and think a bit. Why are we so concerned to preserve these churches? Is it just because they are nice pieces of eye candy, or is it for something more?

This will be an immensely important chance for the French clergy to capitalize on vast swarms of media attention which they are about to encounter, and the momentous effort which will surely go into the restoration of this magnificent church. Let us pray that they use the opportunity not only to do and say the obvious, but that they also point to the Tabernacle not made with human hands… Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Our Lady of Paris… Pray for us.

True Myth, Part 2: A Hidden Lesson in Eden

Eamonn Clark

Surely, there is hardly any limit to the meaning of the imagery in the opening chapters of Genesis. The dichotomy of dark and light, the details of the order of creation, the numerology… But let’s just focus in on one little part of the story.

We find Adam and Eve happy in Eden, but – the serpent tells them of something that God is holding back from them. There is special, privileged knowledge that is available through disobedience. God doesn’t want them to have it because He is afraid, jealous, selfish… They would become too much like Him.

We know how the story goes – it doesn’t work out for Adam and Eve. What is glossed over is a lesson which sought to correct some misunderstandings about divinity pervasive in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

In ANE cosmologies, the world and the pantheon were very permeable, almost the same world entirely, one might say. The gods come and go as they please, a bit like God walking in Eden and coming in the Incarnation. The difference with the ANE gods is twofold: motive, and nature.

The motives for the pantheon’s involvement were the petty kinds of endeavors we are used to seeing in myth – fear, jealousy, selfishness, and other passions common to mere human beings. The nature of these gods is that, essentially, they were created out of a realm which lies above them. Both in motive and in nature, the God of Adam and Eve is completely different. He is only concerned for the authentic good of His creatures, driven by His own totally free choice, and He is utterly transcendent, uncreated, and quite radically unlike human beings.

The lesson about motive is clear enough – the “knowledge” they gained by disobedience was truly unhelpful for Adam and Eve. It did not make them happier, that is, more authentically “like” God. It was therefore out of selfless love that God restricted them from eating from that tree. The lesson about transcendence is less clear, although even in the lesson about motive it is inherent. Because God does not think like a human being, the way the ANE gods do, He must be higher than the ANE pantheon. But that’s not all…

In the ANE, magic was commonplace. We can see how it comes from their theology: the gods are finite, they don’t love perfectly, therefore they aren’t always going to help me get what I really need to be happy. So, the thinking went, an appeal can be made to this “realm above the gods,” the place from which the pantheon comes. Magic was done by channeling the powers of that realm through some natural element, like water, rocks, blood, plants… even perhaps a fruit.

Adam and Eve were the first magicians, according to Genesis. That’s my theory.

It seems that the choice of the sacred author to use natural imagery that evokes the ANE theory of magic is to teach a clear lesson about God’s transcendent nature: there is nothing above this God. He was not created like the ANE pantheon. There is no going around Him. And because His transcendence is also a guarantee of His goodness, as we saw, we can trust Him.

No more magic.

True Myth, Part 1: The Fundamental Thesis

Eamonn Clark

While interest in religion and in myth are perennial, at this moment it is particularly appropriate to dive into a study of the relationship here between true religion and true myth. This is not only because of my own personal acute interest presently, but the broader culture at large seems abnormally interested as well. This is due in no small part, perhaps almost exclusively, to the success of Intellectual Dark Web numero uno, Dr. Jordan Peterson, whose meteoric rise into international superstardom has exposed many people for the first time to a serious way of thinking about religion, especially Christianity, in a way similar to the exploration which will be undertaken here. For all his ideological red-pilling, which has made him most well-known (and which I typically find incredibly satisfying  to watch), his most popular video to date is the first in his series on the Bible. With Jung for a guide, Peterson explores the Scriptures from a psychological and pragmatic point of view. (Maybe a few parts of this series will pick apart one of his lectures.) While this kind of work is useful to an extent, my own sojourn into this region of thought will emphasize not only the usefulness of religion and myth, but their usefulness specifically insofar as they are true in a realist sense. William James’s self-defeating paradigm has little to do with my project. Religions might be useful in a number of temporal ways, but clearly we want to find a “non-temporal usefulness” which is powerful in its own right, such that its object can save us from that state in which we are no longer able to act on our own. When we are dead, we are no longer pragmatists… we are helpless. So we are here investigating not merely the truly useful; we are concerned with the usefully true. We want a saving truth, as it were, which can operate on its own.

With that introduction, here is the fundamental thesis. God gave mankind in general many common desires and ideas about the universe. The myths of various profane civilizations reveal these desires and ideas in fragmented ways, and the stories of the sacred civilization of Israel reveal them more plainly. Through the Biblical narrative of salvation, God corrected, spiritualized, and completed the profane myths. This threefold action corresponds to the triple purpose of grace – to heal, to elevate, and to perfect – and also corresponds to the triple munera of Christ, the prophet, the priest, and the king. As prophet, God corrects, as priest, He spiritualizes, and as king he completes. The Biblical story is mankind’s true myth, the perfect expression of what God wants us  to believe about and to desire from ourselves, the rest of creation, and God Himself. There is no archetype left untouched, no emotion left unexplored, no space of the human mind left unsatisfied. In the Judeo-Christian narrative we will consistently find God’s threefold action on profane myth, and this action is exhaustive.

The first topic we dive into will be a little slice of the opening pages of Genesis – and the Ancient Near East mythical context which helps us make sense of some of the puzzling imagery. What is this “fruit” all about?

Being Critical of the Historical-Critical

Eamonn Clark

I am watching some lectures on Scripture which were put out by Yale’s divinity school – it is quite an interesting experience. After many years of formation in what might be called “catechetical Scripture studies,” from CCD, to a Catholic university, to seminary, to a Roman pontifical university, encountering at length the material presented at an Ivy League school is like being thrown into a tornado.

It’s not that the material is altogether new or revolutionary – although some of it is certainly quite new and interesting to me, even edifying – it is the attitude which undergirds it which strikes me as bizarre. I have known a long time that this approach is out there, especially in higher education, but it’s my first time really having meaningful exposure to it.

Without making accusations of the professors I am watching, (and I have not even come close to finishing the courses,) a few characteristics leap out at me of this way of teaching and studying Scripture. Each follows the other.

  1. It is dogmatic. The conclusions tend to guide the argument – the texts can’t be harmonized, the stories can’t be historical, the authors must be pseudonymous, etc., etc. It seems the grand conclusion which is protected by these kinds of conclusions is that God can’t really be entering into creation. Further, there is a dense wall of “scholarship” which protects these conclusions, and because this scholarship is the newest and most popular, it must be the best. It seems rather off-limits to use “traditional” sources in a serious way. In one word, it is Modernist, or at least has strong Modernist tendencies.
  2. It reverses the mysterious character of the Judeo-Christian story. By taking away the traditional positions on questions of historicity, authorship, dating, etc., a veil of mist is put over the text – “What does it mean? Who wrote it? When? Why? Where did they get their material from?” These questions occupy the student, while the mystery of the Living God presented by the text is basically ignored.
  3. It is purely didactic. There is not a further purpose to understanding the history of the Scriptures. They are merely items of curiosity – a bit like how Herod enjoyed John the Baptist, who is easily seen as the representative of the entire prophetic tradition… Interesting? Yes. Convicting enough to cause a personal conversion? No, not here. And when the call comes to sacrifice its integrity for the pleasure of the world, of the academy, or of one’s own personal life, there will perhaps be reluctance, but there will be obedience. The quest for the “historical Jesus” is no grander than the work of any historian; it is just more dangerous to discover and hold fast to the truth. Since historical-critical exegetes are, by and large, not in it for a real encounter with the God of Abraham, the danger isn’t really worth it. Not all that long ago, probably even at Yale, to enter a program of theological studies required faith. That is to say, if the school were Methodist, one had to be a Methodist in order to study theology there. Anyone else, so the thinking went, was wasting their time.

So why continue watching? Well, I enjoy knowing what the “others” are up to, so that when I meet them I know where they’re coming from. Second, there certainly are plenty of real insights presented. Third, it is better than watching cat videos.

We need to use the historical-critical method in the right way – as an aid to what might be called the “spiritual method.” For example, to know that there were other Flood narratives in the Ancient Near East (and well beyond, even into the Americas, might I add,) is probably helpful to understand the composition of the text of Genesis, but knowing the differences helps us to know something – really to know something – about how our God is different. In this case, one major difference is that Noah is saved because of his virtue rather than his cleverness or strength…

In the past few months, I have become especially interested in the world of myth and how it relates to salvation history. Therefore, I have decided to start a series on the topic, called “True Myth,” that title of Christ shared with C. S. Lewis by Tolkien. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to subscribe.

The Life of Faith: A Case Study (Simon Peter)

Eamonn Clark

I am in the (very) remote stages of planning a book on the virtue of faith… The Biblical, scholastic, and contemporary definitions of faith, faith and the moral life, faith and the contemporary West, faith and psychology, and so on. It seems to me that such a book, specifically with a presentation of a solid pastoral praxis aimed at healing the anxious minds of millennials which is directly grounded in Biblical and Thomistic thought, is sorely needed. One chapter will be dedicated entirely to Peter as an example of the whole life of faith… its beginning, growth, crisis, rebirth, overflow, and finally its consummation in martyrdom. Allow me to present the rough draft of the very beginning of the chapter, in which I am showcasing the kind of Biblical theology which I think is sorely needed in our age – both in the academy, and in the real world of ministry.

We find Peter living a natural life, working for natural gain, by reaping the fruits of the natural world. Peter had clearly been passed up for higher studies by the rabbis who would have taught him Torah and the Prophets in his youth – otherwise, he would have certainly accepted such a great honor, an honor afforded to only the most promising of students. Instead, he is fishing. Peter had watched Jesus heal his mother-in-law a little while earlier, and the whole countryside was already talking about the public ministry. Just before having Peter go further out into the lake, Jesus had been preaching to a crowd so great that Peter provided his own boat as a pulpit to keep the people from crushing Him – what a privilege to be the steward of such a man’s ministry! What an opportunity to study the Book and even to be the disciple of a living prophet… But he will not trust this prophet that much, at least not yet, as the ensuing discussion shows. Peter echoes the unbelief and impetuosity of his forefathers in the desert when, shortly after having seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law, he begins to argue with Him about food. However, while those Jews were helpless in the desert, Peter is a professional fisherman, floating on the Sea of Galilee, which is full of fish. Though prophets may know much about the supernatural, surely a lifelong fisherman knows how to fish! Peter reluctantly, almost flippantly, gives in and acquiesces to let down his nets. (Some translations give an eisegesis here, translating “ta diktua” in the plural when Jesus asks, and in the singular when Peter responds – “let down the nets,” “I will let down the net.” But the Greek itself does not give us this.)

Jesus shows Peter that acquired skill and natural talent are no match for His word… The same voice that moved over those chaotic primordial waters in the beginning of time now brings order to the Sea of Galilee. The fish hide in the cool of the darkness, and only by being brought up into the light will they be able to be caught and sustain life; and thus it was in the beginning as well, as all the life which God brought forth came from the darkness and was made helpless before Adam.

While the amount of fish caught doesn’t quite tear the nets, it does tear Peter, who no doubt had none of the foregoing typology on his mind but was simply stunned by the show of power. For the first time, we see Peter confront his interior emptiness. Unfortunately, he does not yet know the correct response; “Depart from me,” he tells the Lord, “for I am a sinful man.” This display of the power of Jesus to control nature inspires reverence, but it does not inspire devotion… Peter feels unworthy of being in the presence of such power – evidently, he thought that it was a greater deed to control fish than to heal his mother-in-law – and so he seeks separation. He does not see that the very purpose of the coming of the “prophet” Jesus is precisely to forgive sins, a power as yet unheard of, except for God alone. And so, just as we see Peter face his interior emptiness for the first time, we see Peter reject Jesus for the first time. (Later on, the order of these phenomena will be reversed, with rejection leading to the confrontation of self.) Nevertheless, Jesus asks Peter for his discipleship, promising him that he will become “a fisher of men.”. This mysterious invitation was irresistible. Perhaps Peter hopes to follow in the footsteps of Elisha, the disciple of Elijah… One day, he might acquire a “double portion” of the spirit of the prophet Jesus!