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Nursing Mothers in the Preaching Fathers

In early May I had the great pleasure of appearing on Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio show, Heart, Mind and Strength. The topic of our discussion was the Church Fathers’ use of breastfeeding imagery. The Popcaks kindly gave me permission to post the audio of my short segment, which I’ve done right here (choose “Download the MP3”).

My wife, Terri, is a nursing mother of six, and she leads a breastfeeding support group. It was she who first alerted me to the patristic possibilities, back in 1993, when she wrote about the saints and nursing motherhood. Some years later, in New Covenant magazine, Terri published “Milk and Mystery,” an article about breastfeeding and Christian life. More recently, she and I have co-authored a couple of studies of nursing imagery in the Fathers, and I hope both will be available in print by year’s end.

Breastfeeding was a favorite metaphor of many Church Fathers, but especially Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, and Ephrem. They spoke of mother’s milk as a symbol of God’s grace, of His providence, of the sacraments, and even of the Holy Spirit. It’s a metaphor rarely used in modern preaching, at least in the United States, because breastfeeding, once a necessity, is now a rarity — and the female breast is treated almost exclusively as a sex object.

It was not so, of course, in the time of the Fathers. I was thrilled this week to find, posted on a Russian Christian website, a most fascinating study of the subject, “God’s Milk: An Orthodox Confession of the Eucharist.” The article — by Edward Engelbrecht, a Lutheran pastor and senior editor with Concordia Publishing House — first appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies in 1999. Here’s the summary:

The Odes of Solomon and early orthodox Christianity compared a believer’s reception of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist to a child suckling at its mother’s breast. This appears to have been connected with the widespread use of a cup of milk and honey in the baptismal eucharist, a visual aid to explain the Lord’s nurturing presence in the sacrament. The milk analogy did not stem from symbolic uses of milk in pre-Christian religions or Gnosticism but from general beliefs about physiology coupled with Christian sacramental theology. The feminine characteristics of the milk analogy had no significant effect on orthodox beliefs about the Godhead nor did they cause the analogy to fall out of favor at a later date. Instead, as liturgical use of the cup of milk began to disappear, so did the milk analogy.

It’s a profound, well-written, and accessible study, well worth your time. It’ll nourish your prayer ever afterward.

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Straight from the Heart

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Devotion to the Sacred Heart has got to be on anyone’s short list of the most identifiably Roman Catholic customs — right up there with the Rosary and the use of holy water. It’s the likely origin of that staple of American sarcasm, “My heart bleeds for you,” and, of course, “bleeding-heart liberal.”

Historians trace the devotion to the twelfth century, but Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas, followed its prehistory to the Fathers:

The holy Fathers, true witnesses of the divinely revealed doctrine, wonderfully understood what St. Paul the Apostle had quite clearly declared; namely; that the mystery of love was, as it were, both the foundation and the culmination of the Incarnation and Redemption. For frequently and clearly we can read in their writings that Jesus Christ took a perfect human nature and our weak and perishable human body with the object of providing for our eternal salvation, and of revealing to us in the clearest possible manner that His infinite love for us could express itself in human terms.

Those are, of course, recurring themes in the Fathers, especially as they worked through the christological controversies of the fourth through sixth centuries.

To mark the feast day, I asked my favorite expert on the subject, Sister Cora Lombardo, which patristic texts I should put forth for my visitors’ prayer and meditation on her favorite feast day. (Sister Cora is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and popular speaker on the Sacred Heart.) She sent the following to me, and I, in obedience, relay them to you.

Here’s St. Gregory of Nyssa:

He had laid wood against wood, and hands against hands: His generously extended hands against those that reach out with greed; His nail-pierced hands against those that are fallen in discouragement; His hands that embrace the whole world against the hand the brought about Adam’s bandishment from Paradise.

Yesterday I hung on the Cross with Christ; today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I was dying with Him, today I am brought to life with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him, today I rise with Him.

Let us become like Christ, since Christ also became like us. Let us become gods for Him, since He became man for us.

And here’s St. Augustine:

“Sing to the Lord a new song; his praise is in the assembly of the saints.” We are urged to sing a new song to the Lord, as new men who have learned a new song. A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly, it is a thing of love. Anyone, therefore, who has learned to love the new life has learned to sing a new song, and the new song reminds us of our new life. The new man, the new song, the new covenant, all belong to the one kingdom of God, and so the new man will sing a new song and will belong to the new covenant.

There is not one who does not love something, but the question is, what to love. The psalms do not tell us not to love, but to choose the object of our love. But how can we choose unless we are first chosen? We cannot love unless someone has loved us first. Listen to the apostle John: We love Him, because He first loved us. The source of man’s love for God can only be found in the fact that God loved him first. He has given us Himself as the object of our love, and He has also given us its source. What this source is you may learn more clearly from the apostle Paul who tell us: The love of God has been poured into our hearts. This love is not something we generate ourselves; it come to us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Since we have such an assurance, then, let us love God with the love He has given us. As John tells us more fully: God is love, and whoever dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him. It is not enough to say: Love is from God. Which of us would dare to pronounce the words of Scripture: God is love? He alone could say it who knew what it was to have God dwelling within Him.

God offers us a short route to the possession of Himself. He cries out: Love Me and you will have Me for you would be unable to love Me if you did not possess Me already.

Thanks, Sister Cora!

And please make sure to ponder the Scripture readings for the day.

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Merlin the Wizard Peeks Out

At, Chris Bailey shows us our first glimpse of Merlin as a wizard. If you’re wondering what this has to do with the era of the Church Fathers, then you haven’t been following this blog very closely — and you haven’t read the book I co-authored with Mr. Bailey, The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence.

By the way, History News Network just paid a nice tribute to Chris and

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More on the Newest Oldest Crucifix

A couple of weeks back I reported the discovery of Christian remains, including the earliest known image of a crucifix, in the Basque Country of Spain. Aliens in This World — a blog of sparkling reportage on linguistic, cultural, and spiritual themes — has translated much of the fascinating European news coverage into English. The Vatican sent its archeologists to check the place out. And German and French labs have confirmed the early dating of objects found at the site. There’s lots more, too, on a brilliant and very entertaining blog you should get to know.

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Memorial of St. Paulinus

Paulinus was born at Bordeaux about 354 into a prominent family. He became governor of the Province of Campania, but he soon realized that he could not find in public life the happiness he sought. From 380 to 390 he lived almost entirely in his native land. He married a Spanish lady, a Christian named Therasia. To her, to Bishop Delphinus of Bordeaux and his successor the Presbyter Amandus, and to St. Martin of Tours, who had cured him of some disease of the eye, he owed his conversion. He and his brother were baptized at the same time by Delphinus. When Paulinus lost his only child eight days after birth, and when he was threatened with the charge of having murdered his brother, he and his wife decided to withdraw from the world, vow celibacy, and enter the monastic life. They went to Spain about 390.

At Christmas, 394 or 395, the inhabitants of Barcelona obliged him to be ordained. Having had a special devotion to St. Felix, who was buried at Nola in Campania, he laid out a fine avenue leading to the church containing Felix’s tomb, and beside it he built a hospital. He decided to settle down there with Therasia; and he distributed the largest part of his possessions among the poor. In 395 he moved to Nola, where he led a rigorous, ascetic, and monastic life, at the same time contributing generously to the Church.

About 409 Paulinus was chosen Bishop of Nola. For twenty years he served in a praiseworthy manner. He was a prolific author of letters and poems. Many of his letters to famous friends have been preserved — including letters to St. Augustine. Thirty-three poems have also survived. He was a keen observer of detail and a master of description; so his works give us many rare glimpses of ordinary Christian life in his time — of the construction of sanctuaries, the celebration of feast days, and the layout of particular churches, not least St. Peter’s in Rome.

He also wrote letters in verse, including a nuptial hymn that extols the dignity and sanctity of Christian marriage, and a poem of comfort to parents on the death of their child.

Paulinus was known for his fervent devotion to the saints, which even Augustine thought was rather excessive!

But even during his lifetime Paulinus was looked upon as saint. When he died, on June 22, 431, he was honored as he himself had always honored the saints.

Got many of the details of St. Paulinus’s life from the ever-handy Catholic Encyclopedia, but supplemented with other sources, such as the lovely translations in the Ancient Christian Writers series.

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De Dew Dew Dew, De Da Da Da

Father Z has been on an Augustinian tear. In fact, he’s managed to tear half the lines attributed to Augustine out of the quotation books (though not out of my memory, as I explain in his comments field). But today he invokes the great Father to explain the meaning of “the dew of the Holy Spirit” in the soon-to-be-revised second eucharistic prayer.

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Underwater Byzness

According to the AP, Turkish archeologists confirmed yesterday the discovery of a submarine Byzantine site, including maybe a fourth-century church:

So far, archaeologists have found what they think might be a church, an old gate to the city and eight sunken ships, which archaeologist Cemal Pulak says he believes were all wiped out by a giant storm more than 1,000 years ago.

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From the Links

This wee blog, “The Way of the Fathers,” has received some kind notice recently, from grownups we’ve long admired.

The Daily Eudemon himself, Eric Scheske, talked us up thus in early May: “I’m stunned at the amount of great script that Mike Aquilina is cranking out … every day … sex, religion, everything. Easy to read, edifying yet interesting.”

Happy Catholic made us unspeakably happy with this note:”Way of the Fathers has fast become a ‘must read’ blog for me … eye-opening and thought-provoking.”

More recently we hoid the woid from Theocoid: “Mike Aquilina has another great post … At this rate, I might simply need to build in a permanent RSS feed so his post titles will show up in my sidebar.”

My teenage son (and webmaster) — who has devoured all the Prove It books — was most impressed by this comment from their justly famous author, Amy Welborn: “Go read Mike Aquilina on the Church Fathers … His blog should be one of your daily stops.”

I was heartened most recently by a link from a Canadian teacher named Phil, who blogs at a place called Hyperekperisou. (It’s Greek, from the description of God’s power in Ephesians 3:20-21.) Phil had some kind things to say about “The Way of the Fathers” and its author, but best of all he really got what we’re trying to do here: “I stumbled on this blog I know not how, but I’m ecstatic that I did. The writer on the blog, Mike Aquilina, is a (published!) Roman Catholic writer on patristics from the US. What is great about him is that he writes with evident love of patristics and with a readable writing style which makes the Fathers accessible even to those who may not have specialized in them. He has a particular talent in making the Fathers relevant which is a challenge in this very history-mistrusting age.” That blew me away. He got it. He really got it!

And then there’s Rod Bennett, the author of one of my all-time favorite books on the Fathers: “Mike’s blog is … chronicling some of this great [patristic] re-awakening, and I for one am eating it up every morning.”

I hope you, too, are happy with the blog. At three months “live,” I’m still quite new to this world. If you have any suggestions for improvement, please let me know, in comments or by email.

And if you like this blog on the Fathers, you’ll love the books. They also come with good reviews, from people like Scott Hahn, Benedict Groeschel, John Michael Talbot, Johnnette Benkovic, and Archbishops Donald Wuerl and Charles Chaput. But I can’t quote any more praise today without blushing (and, in any event, my son has warehoused much of the praise right here). You’re the best judge, though. Buy the books and see for yourself!

The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers.

The Mass of the Early Christians.

Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians (with Scott Hahn).

The Way of the Fathers: Praying With the Early Christians.

The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence (with Chris Bailey).

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Get Out the Vote

Benjamin Myers at Faith and Theology invites us to vote for our favorite patristic theologian:

Which patristic theologian do you prefer? Cast your vote in the new poll! … Personally, I still can’t decide who to vote for—how does one make a choice between such gigantic figures, such incomparable personalities, such profound creators of thought?

I’m sure you have no such scruples. Cast your ballot now at Ben’s place.