I would like to refer my readers to a very good, short post by an oblate friend of mine who goes by Br. Gregory. He writes about the various figures whom he calls “Online Catholic Paladins,” men who used to be prominent in the world of the Catholic blogosphere but who have since largely fallen away from the faith. Although he does not name him, I was put in mind of Steve Skojec, whose very public move away from the Church has been documented, often in quite moving terms, on Substack and Twitter.
I found Br. Gregory’s thoughts helpful and apt. In particular, I was impressed with his description of the arrival of grace in his own life. He writes,
Personal circumstances not withstanding, I have to ask – did these paladins only have an intellectual faith? How did they fall victim to their own doubts if they seemed to always have an answer? Did their faith ever descend from their mind into their heart? Was their living out their faith only “I do this because it is what is expected” or was it because they had actually experienced the inbreaking of grace, because they had felt His presence in some ineffable way? And who am I that I should have been given such a grace, I who still squander the gift that was given that night? How do I pass on this gift to my children, when nothing I can do can give them my experience, which was given to me freely, generously and undeservingly? Will the faith that I am trying to pass on to them ever touch their innermost being? Will it penetrate their heart, or will it remain in the realm of the “theoretical”, a faith that is accepted simply because it was passed on, without ever giving them a glimpse of the divine?
Br. Gregory, Inclina Aureum Cordis Tui
Read the whole thing.
The grace of the Lord comes and goes where it will. May Providence vouchsafe such grace to all of us.
Why does God create so many souls that He has no intention of saving? 1.a. Take the massa damnata of St. Augustine. What is the point of creating a human soul – ostensibly out of infinite, perfect love – and not saving it? 1.a.i. The argument that God allows us to be damned to preserve our free will is meaningless in the face of the basic anthropology of the Christian tradition, which holds salvation itself to be an unmerited and supernatural grace. Man cannot save himself, and in the state of sin, rightly deserves damnation. But why bother creating so much life – so many unique and irreplaceable souls – if you intend to preserve the vast majority of these souls in everlasting torment without any reciprocal knowledge or love? 1.a.i.1. There can be no softening of this point. The very clear implication of the New Testament, and even of the Old Testament, is that the vast majority of mankind is hellbound, or at least cut off from God. This was a fairly normal view until quite recently in Christian history, and is not unique to Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox. 1.a.i.2. God could conceivably create souls simply to damn them. After all, as St. Paul says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (Romans 9:21). But is this the act of a God who is Love, to fashion a sentient entity for the express purpose of eternal torture – just to manifest His own quality of justice in perpetuity? 1.a.ii. In the Christian East, there is still not a satisfactory answer here. Even should we accept the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor (and later, Bl. John Duns Scotus) that mankind’s purpose is to become deified, and thus that the Incarnation would have happened for our glorification even without original sin, this position does nothing to explain why the vast majority of the human race should be committed to hellfire. It does nothing to explain why almost everyone who has ever lived (including most so-called Christians) should face an eternity of unimaginable and unmitigated torment at the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels. 1.a.ii.1. It is a dogma of the faith that at the Last Judgment, all the dead will be raised bodily – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting punishment. Hell’s torments are therefore not merely spiritual, but physical. St. Thomas Aquinas declares that the fires of hell will be corporeal. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 97, Art. 5). 1.b. Let’s move beyond the human. Why does God bother to create so much life that’s wasted? There are sentient, ensouled beings that serve no human purpose. 1.b.i. It is not enough to suggest that animals exist to serve man, per Genesis 1-3. 1.b.i.1. Does a leopard eating a gazelle, hundreds of miles from human settlement, serve mankind? Does a whale locked in the deadly embrace of a squid contribute at all towards man’s dominion or salvation or even his punishment? Multiply this factor by billions – for we must include the insects, as well as most wild animals that have ever lived. Why create this life if it is all a waste? 1.b.i.1.a. Doesn’t this massive wastage imply that there is no spiritual or even metaphysical point to animal life on its own terms? 1.b.ii. If we mere humans love our domestic animals in an imperfect way, and yet we still are saddened at the thought that they are lost forever at their death, what would God’s perfect love for His creatures look like? Why should we follow the Thomists and declare their souls extinct upon death? 1.b.iii. Does this position of extinction not reduce God to an imperfect creator, one who makes far, far more sentient beings than He has any intention of preserving – thus trivializing His love of so many creatures to virtual non-existence? 1.b.iii.a. It would be possible to object here that animals and humans do not have the same kind of souls – more on this at 4.b.i.-4.b.ii.2.b. 1.b.iii.b. Put another way – doesn’t this picture of God’s relationship with non-human, sentient creatures make Him appear wasteful to the point of active cruelty? Doesn’t this picture give us an image of a fundamentally frivolous creator cruelly indifferent to, not just the temporal suffering, but the very existence of His living creations? 1.b.iii.c. Isn’t this implication drawn yet more forcefully in the case of damned humans? 1.c. Can God – who is infinite, perfect, loving, and Being-in-Itself – have any true and lasting foes?
In 1 Corinthians, we read that “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:1). If God is Love, then it follows that God is patient. Does Christian soteriology suggest as much? 2.a. In what sense is God patient? In His terms, or ours? 2.a.i. Can an eternal, infinite Being be described as “patient” if He condemns a soul to equally eternal torment on the basis of choices made – or even graces which He Himself withholds – in the course of some seven or so decades? 2.a.i.1. Surely there are some crimes that deserve far greater punishment than we mortals can imagine. But wouldn’t eternal damnation, which afflicts both body and soul, be necessarily disproportionate to any crime committed by any human subject? 2.a.i.2. Quite apart from such serious crimes – sexual assault, child abuse, genocide, serial killing, war rape, etc. – that could reasonably merit eternal damnation, let’s consider lesser offenses that Western Christianity has historically considered damnable. 2.a.i.2.a. Should a soul who dies suddenly and impenitently after masturbating be damned? 2.a.i.2.b. Should a soul who dies without reconciling to the Church, after sincerely losing his faith as the victim of spiritual abuse, be damned? 2.a.i.2.c. Should a soul who, having heard about Christianity but having rejected it due to the poor example of its ministers, and who dies in another religion, be damned? 2.a.i.2.d. Should a soul who, beset by serious mental illness or unthinkable distress, commits suicide, be damned? 2.a.i.2.d.i Traditional Catholic teaching, and even much traditional Protestantism, would answer in the affirmative to all these abstract questions, while refraining from any declaration prejudicial to God’s actual judgment in the case of particular souls. 2.a.i.2.d.i.1. Is this religion reasonable where it should be reasonable? 2.a.i.2.d.i.2. Is it humane? 2.a.i.2.d.i.3. What conclusions must we draw about a religion that needs to ignore, change, or trim its own moral teachings in order to provide human consolation to the grieving? 2.a.i.2.d.i.3.a. Do our conclusions become more grievous when the religion that does so claims to be a unique revelation safeguarded by the preservative quality of the Divine dwelling in its teaching authority, or in the unchanging deposit of its doctrine, or in the infallibility of its Scriptures? 2.a.i.2.e. Is a soul in hell glorifying to God in itself? If not, then what is the point of its existence in the first place? 2.a.i.2.e.i. St. Thomas alleges that the Saints in Heaven will be able to peer down into Hell, without pity, so as to rejoice in the just punishment they witness. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 94. Art. 1-3). 2.a.i.2.e.i.1. Does this image of the saints preserve into beatitude the cardinal virtue of the Christian life, namely, charity? 2.a.i.2.e.i.2. What kind of glory does God need or want or gain from the eternal, penal torture of a finite being? Or, indeed, of the eternal torture of many such beings?
Are eternal damnation, eternal salvation, and temporary purgation the only options for the human soul after death? 3.a. If the philosophical basis for this claim is an anthropology that defines man as the union of a single discreet body and a single discreet soul, as in ST I. Q.75. Art. 4, then what happens to our soteriology if we redefine the human subject? 3.a.i. For instance, why shouldn’t we accept that, instead of our particular material embodiment – which is manifestly mutable, corruptible, and gross – our true self is an indestructible, immaterial, subtle spirit? 3.b. Why shouldn’t a soul return to another mortal body after death? 3.b.i. Wouldn’t reincarnation, which thus extends a soul’s spiritual journey through multiple lifetimes, be more consistent with the patience of an infinite and perfectly loving Being?
How are we to understand the basic relationship of God and creation? 4.a. Is there a complete distinction between creator and creature? If so, what does this say about God? 4.a.i. Wouldn’t the fact that God is Being Itself rule out the possibility of a complete distinction between creator and creature? 4.b. If God is Being Itself, then of necessity, all discreet entities that exist must subsist in Him. He must also subsist in Them, albeit in a radically different fashion. 4.b.i. What kinds of entities exist, according to the classical Christian system? 4.b.i.1. God is not an entity among entities, but rather the very Being (ens) in which they “live and move and have [their] being.” (Acts 17:28). 4.b.i.2. Angels and Demons are intellectual and rational spirits without matter. 4.b.i.3. Humans are intellectual and rational spirits who are embodied. 4.b.i.3.a. Is this definition capable of distinction between the genus (Human) and the species (Individual subject)? That is, can we preserve this definition while accounting for the objection raised at 3.a.i? 4.b.i.3.a.i. If man, being “made in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27) shares his rational intellect with the Angels, in what sense – if any – is this image and likeness shared with the Angels? Put another way, is it really distinctive of the human race? 4.b.i.2. Animals have sensitive and embodied souls, but these souls lack intellect and rationality. 4.b.i.3. Plants have vegetative souls but lack reason or sensitive animation. 4.b.i.4. The rest of existence consists of inanimate matter without spirit or sentience. 4.b.ii. Is this system compelling? 4.b.ii.1. Doesn’t this system take distinctions among creatures as its organizing principle, rather than distinctions within the manifold relationship of creator and creature? 4.b.ii.2. Wouldn’t a better metaphysical system divide categories of entities by virtue of the way that they relate to the very ground of Being as such? 4.b.ii.2.a. Isn’t the chief ontological distinction between independent (divine) and dependent (creaturely) being? 4.b.ii.2.a.i. Doesn’t this division preserve both difference and the essential unity of Being? 4.b.ii.2.b. Isn’t the second ontological distinction between pure soul (God), ensouled dependent beings, and non-ensouled dependent beings? 4.b.iii. Sophiology has opened up again in our time the question of a “world soul,” but no Christian denomination has authoritatively taught this as doctrine. The question must be laid aside for now. 4.b.iv. Following Sinistrari and mindful of the times, we must acknowledge the possibility of other intelligent beings, whether on other planets or in other, subtler dimensions. But barring proof, we must lay aside this question as well. 4.c. If God, the ground of Being, is in all entities, is He in the souls of the damned? 4.c.i. If the souls of the damned continue to exist for eternity, is God not there, at least in their preservation? 4.c.ii. Is it reasonable to think that God would subject Himself to everlasting torture? 4.c.ii.1. Wouldn’t this portion of damned eternal existence, already seen to be much larger than saved eternal existence in its human aspect, be of necessity less perfect than an eternal existence which is wholly saved, wholly glorified, wholly assumed to the Divine Nature?
Why must there only be one Incarnation? 5.a. Assuming God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, why should He only come personally once into material existence? 5.a.i. It may be said that any God who had to come in numerous incarnations would thereby demonstrate His insufficiency in accomplishing His mission the first time. For an omnipotent Being can accomplish His ends without failure. 5.a.i.1. But this objection assumes that God would only come if compelled in some way by creatures; however, we cannot compel God in any way. 5.a.i.2. Any divine incarnation would thus, of necessity, be completely gratuitous. So couldn’t God conceivably incarnate as many times as He wishes, for His own purposes? 5.a.ii. It may be said that God incarnates to affirm the essential goodness of matter, as in the refrain of Genesis 1. 5.a.ii.1. However, this objection only suggests one good reason that God incarnates; it does not prove that there can only be one incarnation. 5.a.ii.2. Moreover, although this reason occasionally appears in popular discourse, no one really believes that the point of any incarnation was to show the essential goodness of matter, which would, at best, be an auxiliary effect and not the telos thereof. 5.a.iii. It may be said that God incarnates only once so as to manifest Himself as He is, once and for all. 5.a.iii.1. This objection fails, however, insofar as it does not consider that God can present Himself in any way He wishes; there is nothing but (ostensibly) our own fallen nature that caused God to become human and not angelic. Why shouldn’t He appear in other material guises, if He wishes? 5.a.iii.2. Furthermore, the Scriptures are full of theophanies that do not require incarnation. Thus, self-manifestation cannot be an argument for the singularity of the incarnation, as it is not a sufficient reason for it in the first place. 5.a.iii.3. God, as an infinite Being, may have capacities and attributes not best expressed in human form. So if God really wanted to manifest Himself in incarnation, would it not follow that He may choose to incarnate in forms other than the strictly human? Perhaps, for instance, as an angel, a being subtler and thus nobler than mankind? 5.a.iv. It may be argued that God can only incarnate once because He has chosen a singular people and one line of covenants by which to save the world and glorify His Name; consequently, the whole body of the elect are one in His single body, which He first had to assume, and that once for all. 5.a.iv.1. This is the best argument for the singularity of the Incarnation, as is another like it – that it is more fitting to the Divine Majesty to have one mother, and not many. 5.a.iv.1.a. Though this objection does not account for a possible incarnation that does not emerge from biological processes. 5.a.iv.2. Moreover, this argument raises again some of the metaphysical and soteriological issues at 4.c-4.c.ii. above. For at the deepest level of reality, both the elect and the damned are one in their ontological position vis-à-vis absolute being.
What is the point of grace if it does not sanctify? 6.a. If grace is not efficacious enough to actually turn the heart towards God and away from evil, then what good is it? 6.a.i. Put another way, why is it that a soul who receives the sacraments regularly, believes the creeds and doctrines of the Church, attempts to live in charity, and has a regular prayer life makes no progress in any of his cardinal temptations or sins? 6.a.i.1. What are we to make of a religion whose priests, receiving the grace of the sacraments (and even God Himself) every day, nevertheless show no signs of growth in holiness? 6.a.i.2. What are we to make of a religion where even the local proximity of God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament is not enough to banish the most horrific of vices? 6.a.i.3. What are we to make of a religion whose visible head, allegedly supported by special graces, acquiesces to the cover-up of the most wicked of crimes? 6.a.i.4. What are we to make of a religion that, taking all of the above, nevertheless claims that God Himself sustains it with supernatural graces, including (especially) the graces of sanctification and of an abiding Real Presence in the Church? 6.b. Would any of this tension exist in a religion that made no such claims, or at least tempered them? 6.c. It could be said that Providence removes, restrains, or hides grace as God sees fit. But what is the point of a visible church if not to dispense grace in dependable ways?
In considering God, shouldn’t our rule be to favor what is most fitting to the Divine Majesty? 7.a. Is Christianity?
It is customary to regard Christmas as a feast of divine manifestation. God has become man. He has entered the human story in a definitive and absolutely singular way. Grace, like a geyser, erupts from the cave at Bethlehem to inundate the whole world.
Our festivities have made this season merry. Our sermons and celebrations, our songs and specials, our gifts and feasting – everything seems to collude in a joyous conspiracy to rob us of our gloom at what is, by nature, a terribly depressing time of year. And there is much to rejoice in when we regard the Holy Infant surrounded by his Virgin Mother and foster-father. But I think we have missed something.
God is everywhere hidden – a Deus Absconditus. His Face, as it were, abides behind more veils than that which cloaked His glory in the Temple. In the depths of human sin, the heart fashions idols and chases phantasms. This is not merely true of those outside the Church; how often do we Christians find ourselves falling into the same wicked habits, preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven! I am not excused from this very charge. I, too, am in need of mercy.
Christmas is not so much a feast of divine manifestation as a testament of God’s enduring hiddenness. The Infant King has no caparisoned herald to announce him in the highways and byways, so as to bring the mighty to pay their homage. Instead, He sends His angels to summon the lowly and humble from afar off in the fields. Why were the shepherds summoned first, and not the townspeople of Bethlehem? Only a few souls received this extraordinary grace. We do not know their names. We have no idea what happened to them in the end. We have no sense of whether the peculiar privilege granted to them bore fruit in their own salvation. But I would like to believe that they did achieve the Beatific Vision. I hope they are in a high choir of Heaven. As deep calls to deep, so does the Hidden God love those elect souls who remain hidden in pious obscurity. In a beautiful passage, Fr. Faber calls these souls, which exist even today,
a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then, to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us, when the world’s wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His own uunder our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it.
Fr. Frederick William Faber, Bethlehem, 228.
How then is this a divine manifestation? If anything, God draws the shepherds into the very obscurity in which He always abides. It is a manifestation that negates itself. They share His hiddenness, so similar to the dim glory of the Holy of Holies. The shepherds become human extensions of His sacred obscurity. Each one is a living shroud of the Divine Presence. Their lives, already hidden from the proud eyes of the world, are now forever hidden in God’s and written into His story.
God led the shepherds to that bed by the grace of an angelic call. He led the Magi instead by a less glorious, if no less effective, grace. They saw a marvel in the sky and followed it. Strange phenomena are another of God’s many veils, though not so beautiful and not so clear as revelation. We do not even know if the star they followed was supernatural or just a prodigy of nature. Directly or indirectly, Providence used it as a beacon to light their way to the dark and holy cave.
But the shepherds were first. And surely in this we discover a truth confirmed throughout the long history of the Church’s experience in the world. God does not reveal Himself to the learned and those wise in the judgment of the World. The Incarnation, like all the works of grace, is “unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 DRA). Our Lady sings as well that “He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-52, BCP 1662).
Worldly learning is totally bereft of access to God. It is little better than blindness. Thinking otherwise is mere pride and vanity, and only deepens the darkness. St. Paul tells us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). Natural reason can help us see that there is a God, as well as to illuminate a few of His basic features. But no sage, however wise, and no scholar, however learned, grasped the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos. Still less could they have foreseen that this holy child was, as it were, born as a sacrifice. Even the Prophets were entrusted with signs alone, and not the true substance of the mystery they preached. That was reserved first for the Virgin Immaculate in holy poverty, then for St. Joseph her Most Chaste Spouse, then the family of the Holy Forerunner, and then to the humble shepherds. Only after all of them did the Magi arrive to gaze upon the faze of God Incarnate. In delaying the Magi, Providence teaches us that the mysteries of grace are a crucifixion of natural reason. But in condescending to let them enter and adore the Divine King, He shows us that He will crown our earnest efforts to reach Him, as only He can, with His mercy.
But still, so very few are the witnesses of this God who remains, as it were, quite hidden! A handful of Jewish shepherds, and three pagan scholars with their retinue. He is brought to the Temple and circumcised – a prophetess and a priest, both soon to depart for eternal life, are entrusted with the secret. Anna and Simeon are a reminder that “salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4:22 KJV) and comes from no other people on earth. The gratuitous particularity of this chosen people, this priestly nation among all others, comes from the newborn babe that Simeon held in his hands. Perhaps, looking upon that smiling face, he suddenly saw all the covenants telescope into one, all collapse into themselves and center upon and magnify this child. Perhaps he knew he was holding the heavenly High Priest, of which his own office was merely a shadow.
Quite soon, the Lord departs from Bethlehem when a wicked and impudent king seeks His life. Then those martyrs, the Holy Innocents, water the ground of Bethlehem with their sainted blood. That grisly dewfall covered the steps of the escaped God who, in His Mercy, made them a very different kind of witness to His Incarnation. But their names are also covered in obscurity. They, too, remain in a kind of holy hiddenness.
There is a common thread between these four groups – or at least, explicitly in the first three, and only implicitly in the last. Contact with the Divine Presence, hidden for so long, brings forth adoration in the soul. The shepherds adore, the Magi adore, the dwellers in the Temple adore, and the Holy Innocents join Him in an oblation of their very blood. This grace of adoration is not given to all souls, but is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the Christian life. It is the sine qua non of Heaven. It is the essence of Christian life. Wherever one adores Our Lord in truth and earnestness, even a soul very imperfectly purified, we can be sure that grace is working there.
This Christmas, let us pray that the Incarnate Lord will grant us the graces of humility, of adoration, and of an earnest search for the God who remains always hidden from our mortal eyes.
“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal
“We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus
Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.
So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.
St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone. If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such. It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.
And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.” But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke. And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.
Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity. Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.
This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.” Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.
That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.
Seven years ago, on the evening of March 30th, 2013, I was received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. I took St. Thomas Aquinas as my patron saint, and I was confirmed by our pastor at St. Brigid’s Church, John’s Creek, Georgia. He has since gone on to become a bishop and is now the Ordinary of Memphis. I, meanwhile, have had many ups and downs in the life of the spirit. From 2014 on I have consecrated each year to a different Holy Person. I have not always been faithful to the spirit of these consecrations. I have often been useless and even actively unhelpful in my service to God and my neighbor. I have been known to set a bad example, and I know that from time to time I have offended or scandalized others. For that, I am truly sorry.
But throughout the years, I have never lost trust in the grace of God and my hope in the Blessed Sacrament.
And it is in view of that hope that I consecrate this next year of my Catholic life to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. I have long had a devotion to the Precious Blood, and I hope that this coming year will bring a renewed gratitude for that Blood so plenteously shed for the whole world.
Father Faber, in that marvelous book on the subject, writes,
The Precious Blood is invisible. Yet nothing in creation is half so potent. It is everywhere, practically everywhere, although it is not omnipresent. It becomes visible in the fruits of grace. It will become more visible in the splendors of glory. But it will itself be visible in Heaven in our Lord’s glorified Body as in crystalline vases of incomparable refulgence. It belongs to Him, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, although its work is the work of the whole Trinity. In its efficacy and operation it is the most complete and most wonderful of all revelations of the Divine Perfections. The power, the wisdom, the goodness, the justice, the sanctity, of God, are most pre-eminently illustrated by the working of this Precious Blood.
It seems to me somehow appropriate as well to repair unto the Precious Blood in a time of tumult and pestilence, when dead seems to be all around. Every Christian, if a Christian he truly be, is only so by the merits of the Precious Blood. It is our common inheritance as adopted Sons of God.
And what a cause of joy! Is it any wonder that some of the finest hymns praise the Precious Blood with an exuberance and a delight that anticipates what we shall feel in the Parousia? Perhaps this is one of the great attractions of the devotion, at least for me. As someone with a pessimistic temperament and a profound sense of the centrality of suffering in the Christian life, I sometimes struggle to cultivate a joyful approach to faith. But can there be anything that kindles more joy than the absolute gratuity, liberality, and efficacy of the Precious Blood in redeeming us? I wish we could all feel what Father Faber felt when he contemplated the gift of the Precious Blood, which is neither more nor less than the whole mystery of our salvation:
The Word delights eternally in His Human Blood. Its golden glow beautifies the fires of the Holy Ghost. Its ministries beget inexplicable joys in the Unbegotten Father. I was upon the seashore; and my heart filled with love it knew not why. Its happiness went out over the wide waters and upon the unfettered wind, and swelled up into the free dome of blue sky until it filled it. The dawn lighted up the faces of the ivory cliffs, which the sun and sea had been blanching for centuries of God’s unchanging love. The miles of noiseless sands seemed vast as if they were the floor of eternity. Somehow the daybreak was like eternity. The idea came over me of that feeling of acceptance, which so entrances the soul just judged and just admitted into Heaven. To be saved! I said to myself, To be saved!
Then the thoughts of all the things implied in salvation came in one thought upon me; and I said, This is the one grand joy of life; and I clapped my hands like a child, and spoke to God aloud. But then there came many thoughts all in one thought, about the nature and manner of our salvation. To be saved with such a salvation! This was a grander joy, the second grand joy of life: and I tried to say some lines of a hymn; but the words were choked in my throat. The ebb was sucking the sea down over the sand quite silently; and the cliffs were whiter, and more day like. Then there came many more thoughts all in one thought; and I stood still without intending it. To be saved by such a Saviour! This was the grandest joy of all, the third grand joy of life; and it swallowed up the other joys; and after it there could be on earth no higher joy. I said nothing; but I looked at the sinking sea as it reddened in the morning. Its great heart was throbbing in the calm; and methought I saw the Precious Blood of Jesus in Heaven, throbbing that hour with real human love of me.
Pray for me in this coming year, dear readers. Know that I will be praying for you and commending you always to the source of all life, all joy, all love, all purity, all sanctity, all wisdom, and all grace – the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. To whom be all glory, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be, world without end. Amen.
I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.
By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.
Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.
I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.
Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.
It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.
Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.
I just stumbled across Pietro Antonio Novelli’s engravings on the Seven Sacraments, completed in 1779. They give a fascinating view of ecclesiastical life in the late 18th century – Novelli would have moved to Rome from Venice about this time, so it’s unclear which part of Italy these were drawn from. Either way, they’re worth a look through. All are taken from Wikimedia Commons.
Baptism. Note the prominent Angel and Devil.
Confirmation. Strong and sound emphasis placed upon the role of the Holy Ghost.
The Eucharist. The arrangement of the Altar and rail suggests that this is a low mass. Very odd that the Priest has no chasuble, but surplice and stole.
Penance. Once again, we see the Angel-Devil dichotomy. Lovely open confessional, too.
Holy Orders. It is entirely unclear to me where the Altar is supposed to be in this image. Nevertheless, the Bishop is wearing a wig, which answers a question of Fr. Hunwicke’s.
Holy Matrimony. A fairly straightforward scene with lovely, somewhat spare Neoclassical church architecture in the background.
Unction. The attendance of two servers is a custom long since out of fashion. One rather wonders when their presence was removed from the rubrics.