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It’s an Allegory for Something, I’m Sure

Maybe you won’t need your scuba gear to visit the old haunts of Pantaenus, Clement, Origen, and Athanasius. Al Ahram Weekly reports that Egypt’s Ministry of Culture is discussing the possibility of cleaning the sewage out of the harbor and constructing an underwater museum.

I wouldn’t sell the scuba equipment just yet, though. Keep in mind that Egypt has had more than five millennia to perfect the art of bureaucratic drag.

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Kill the Apostles — See Where It Gets You

Rogue Classicism reports on a gigantic head of Nero found in Chichester, England. At least some scholars think it’s Nero. It came from a monumental statue raised around the time of Nero’s reign. But at some point soon afterward it was so badly defaced (literally) as to be rendered unrecognizable. Yep, that would be Nero.

Leave it to journalists to summarize a man’s life in such a concise way. The London Observer described Nero as “a psychopathic, debauched, wife-beating matricide.”

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Why Study Christian History? (Part 4)

We continue our series on history, encouraged by this praise from the venerable historian and bestselling author Thomas Reeves: “I have been speaking and writing about the study of history for more than forty years. But I have nothing at hand that is superior to the three selections you have chosen. Congratulations.” Tom blogs at History News Network. I hope you’ll visit him today.

The fourth installment in our series is the most profound meditation I’ve encountered on the problems of modern Christian history. “Things Hidden Since the Beginning of the World,” by James Hitchock of St. Louis University, first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Touchstone magazine. It is a synthesis of the thought of many great twentieth-century Christian historians, theologians, and philosophers of history — Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, Jean Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Martin D’Arcy, and Herbert Butterfield, to name just a few. (It’s also a mild spanking of Lord Acton.) Hitchcock’s argument is as intricately woven as a tapestry, and so I’ve found it impossible to reduce to representative quotations, as I’ve done with the other essays in this series. But I can’t resist giving you a few appetizers, knowing that they’ll make the feast irresistible to you.

[T]he disappearance of “Christian history” in the past thirty years, while justified as a sign of a new intellectual maturity, was in fact the opposite — a panicky impulse motivated by insecurity before the larger secular culture.

The ideal of historical “objectivity,” first formulated by the “scientific” historians of the nineteenth century, was always misleading, in that such objectivity, implying the complete absence of personal feeling on the part of the scholar, would be possible only with respect to subjects that the scholar found uninteresting, even perhaps trivial. Almost by definition, an interesting and important subject calls forth a personal response from anyone who approaches it…

On one level, “Christian history” proceeds from what Jacques Maritain called connatural knowledge — the understanding of his subject that a scholar possesses by virtue of its being in some sense a part of himself. Maritain noted that, whereas a scientist is wholly detached from the physical world that he studies, a historian approaches his human subject in terms of his entire personal disposition. Great works on religious history have been written by nonbelievers, but they are required to make a prodigious imaginative leap in order to do justice to their subjects, whereas for the believer, there is an immediate sympathetic comprehension of even the subtlest dimensions of religious history.

Thus, all things being equal, the believing historian should be a better student of religious phenomena, able to penetrate its inner meaning more profoundly…

Nevertheless, Hitchcock cautions:

A peculiar temptation for believing scholars (Hilaire Belloc, for example) is to deduce reality from their principles instead of studying the empirical evidence, a habit that more than once has embarrassed Christians when a secular scholar discovers inconvenient information that the believer had neglected…

Rather, faith allows the historian to approach his subject with a certain serenity, as capable as any nonbeliever of being shocked and appalled at “man’s inhumanity to man” but ultimately hopeful nonetheless. As Butterfield said, history is indeed the war of good against evil, but the exact progress of that war is hidden from human eyes.

And among his conclusions:

If evil produces good, although such production is often hidden from human eyes, the ironic view of history that Christians must espouse shows also that good produces evil. To deny this is not to defend the orthodox doctrine of providence but the reverse — a heterodox denial of the reality of human sinfulness, which is able to pervert the most sublime truths into pernicious errors. Drawing on the parable of the wheat and the tares, Maritain recalled, as all historically minded Christians must, that good and evil exist together in the world, and there is a constant double movement, both upwards and downwards. The work of redemption proceeds only slowly, against the inertia of human affairs.

Belief in human freedom finally provides as satisfactory an explanation of evil as men will ever achieve. Most of the moral evil in history can be explained in those terms, in God’s mysterious willingness to grant this freedom and permit its full exercise, even when it is used to thwart the divine plan. As Maritain said, God’s eternal plan operates in such a way as to anticipate these human failings. Butterfield saw the action of God in history as like a composer masterfully revising his music to overcome the inadequacies of the orchestra that plays it…

Belief in providence is once again crucial. History has meaning because Christians know that God chose to reveal himself through history and that his providence works through history. Thus, even though believers cannot understand exactly how this occurs, they cannot dismiss history as unimportant. As Danielou pointed out, divine revelation reveals little about the inner nature of God; it mainly reveals his actions in history.

The Incarnation itself validates history, as the eternal descends into the temporal, and men have no way of working out their salvation except in this life. If history were solely the story of the saints, it would already be infinitely valuable. But its value lies also in the story it tells of sinners, of the entire great drama of human life.

And this:

The fact that history is problematical for Christians is also seen in the fact that, as Danielou pointed out, there can be no “progress” beyond Christ. If Christ were merely a historical figure, he would then bring history to an end. However, he is also an eternal being whose reality permeates time, giving profound meaning to history, but a meaning that is hidden from the eyes of the historian. To D’Arcy, therefore, history is actually a kind of continuous present, although it does not seem that way to human experience.

As Dawson observed, the Christian approach to history is also perplexing to the secular mind because it is not completely linear, as all history is now assumed to be, but focuses around a central date—the coming of Christ—from which time is reckoned both forwards and backwards.

Well, I said I wasn’t going to excerpt much, and look what I’ve done! God forgive me. Dr. Hitchcock forgive me. I couldn’t help myself. It’s all too good. And just wait till you read the material I didn’t reproduce here. Please read the rest now.

In the same issue of Touchstone appeared an essay titled “You Have Been Brought Near”, by R.R. Reno. It’s another one you must read in its entirety, but especially the section titled “Biblical Time & History.”

I certainly hope you’re a Touchstone subscriber. If not, what are you thinking?

Again, this is the fourth in a series of reflections on history by historians. Previous installments featured works by Victor Davis Hanson, David McCullogh, and Rabbi Ken Spiro.

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Huge Scoop: Patristic Books Cheap

I hope it’s kosher to do this … I just got the sale flyer from T&T Clark, and it’s got several books I’ve recommended on this site, but at extremely low prices. I can’t find these sale prices anywhere on the Web, so I guess you can only get them by ordering by phone (1-800-561-7704) and mentioning “order ref. TTWS06.” Maybe they’ll send you the flyer, too. Offer ends August 31.

What’s hot? A few examples:

The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria (0567089002) by Father Thomas Weinandy — was $89.95, NOW $20!
Spirit & Fire: A Thematic Anthology of the Writings of Origen (ed. Balthasar) (0567041611) — was $39.95, NOW $20!

They’re also offering Robert Murray’s great study of the Syriac Fathers, Symbols of Church and Kingdom, which I recommended earlier today — and it’s at a far lower price than on Amazon (see!

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James of Nisibis: Ancient Quester for the Lost Ark

The beginnings of Syriac Christianity are mostly lost in the mists of time, but among the first figures to emerge from the fog is St. James of Nisibis, whose feast is July 15 on the Roman calendar. James was a renowned ascetic who spent his youth living a severe regimen in the mountains of Kurdistan. By popular demand he was summoned to become the first (or second) bishop of Nisibis, in northeastern Mesopotamia, and he served during a period of great cultural change, from 309 until his death in 338. Among his notable accomplishments was the spiritual formation of St. Ephrem, whom James ordained a deacon. James took part in in the Council of Nicaea in 325; and, according to one history, he later distinguished himself by raising a prayer for the death of Arius, the arch-heretic — a prayer that was rather suddenly fulfilled. The Christians of Nisibis also credit James’s supplication for their protection against the advances of the Persian emperor Shapur II. For this last accomplishment he was called the “Moses of Mesopotamia.” He is among the most beloved saints of the churches of the Syriac and Armenian traditions.

The local Church saw tremendous growth under James’s leadership; and he accommodated it by establishing an excellent catechetical school and building a great basilica, whose ruins survived into modern times. It is said that he led the first Christian expedition in search of Noah’s ark, setting the long-ago precedent for very recent newsmakers. James never reached the summit of Mount Ararat; he was too old to finish the climb; but legend has it that an angel retrieved him a piece of the ark as a consolation prize.

The Syriac Fathers are too much neglected in the West. We have a duty to remedy our ignorance, if we’re to be truly catholic. Of course, there are books aplenty to help us in this pleasant task. Hubertus Drobner’s massive manual of patrology — which is due out in English any day now — includes a respectable section on the Syriac Fathers. Jesuit Father Robert Murray’s Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition is pricey, but worth it. An affordable and accessible introduction is Sebastian Brock’s Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life.

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Two Asides on Christian History

A few years back I spoke at an education conference, mostly to history teachers. My talk centered on two statements, which I hope to work into a post someday, when life slows down.

Pope Leo XIII said: “The first law of history is not to dare to utter falsehood; the second, not to fear to speak the truth.”

Albert Camus said: “History [can] only exist in the eyes of an observer outside it and outside the world. History only exists, in the final analysis, for God.”

Ponder those awhile. I’ll get back to them.

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Anniversary Schmaltz

An intelligent, discreet, and pious young woman is worth more than all the money in the world. Tell her that you love her more than your own life, because this present life is nothing, and that your only hope is that the two of you pass through this life in such a way that, in the world to come, you will be united in perfect love.

That’s St. John Chrysostom. I used those words to dedicated my book The Fathers of the Church to my wife Terri. She and I are married twenty-one years today.

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Get Expansive

My publisher, Our Sunday Visitor, has begun taking advance orders for the new, expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church, which is slated to roll of the presses in early September. Advance ordering from OSV will get you quickest shipment. The toll-free number is 1-800-348-2440. Make sure to specify that you want the new, expanded edition.

Several people have written to ask what’s different about the new volume. Well … lots! I revised the text and added much new material. I did, however, try to keep the accessible style that made the first edition so popular.

New in this edition are writers from the Syriac and Coptic traditions and from the lands of modern Africa, Iraq, and Iran.

Also, I’ve added eleven more ancient writers:

St. Melito of Sardis
St. Hippolytus of Rome
St. Aphrahat the Persian Sage
St. Ephrem of Syria
St. Cyril of Alexandria
St. Vincent of Lerins
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
St. Maximus Confessor
St. Perpetua of North Africa
St. Syncletica of Egypt
St. Egeria the Gallic Pilgrim

Careful readers will notice additional material by important ancient authors, such as Irenaeus, Clement, Origen — and some material that’s been unavailable in English for more than 100 years.

In a concession to my academic friends — and an acknowledgment that the book is widely used as a college text — I’ve added an index and endnote references for all quotations. And I’ve expanded the recommended-reading section, which is now more than twice as large as in the first edition, and now subdivided and annotated.

Here’s advance notice from some critics I admire:

“The first edition of this book rather quickly established itself as the standard popular introduction to the Fathers. This new edition raises the standard. . . Aquilina shows us the Fathers as true fathers, and he demonstrates their crucial role as witnesses to Sacred Tradition — indispensable guides to the Church’s interpretation of Scripture. They are witnesses to our continuity with the apostles, and to the unity and universality of the apostolic faith. Yet, as we see in this book, they are not uniform voices. Theirs is a rich diversity that enhances unity. What Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were for Israel, the Fathers are for the Church. Reading this book, one grows more Catholic by the page. It will surely be a classic.”
Scott Hahn, Ph.D.
Pope Benedict XVI Chair in Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation
St. Vincent Seminary, Latrobe, Pa.

Too many Christians suffer from historical amnesia. The Church very much needs a popular rediscovery of the early Fathers, and this book admirably makes such a discovery possible. It will be of great benefit to numerous Christians.
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap.
Honorary Theological Fellow, Greyfriars, Oxford
Capuchin College, Washington, D.C.

Sooner or later, every thinking Christian discovers the duty to study the Church Fathers. It’s a matter of religious literacy, if not a debt of family loyalty. The Fathers fought the first culture wars; we should at least learn from them. They died for our faith; we should at least honor their memory. I hope you’ll enjoy the new, expanded edition of my book!

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Ben There, Done That

How wonderful that the feast of St. Benedict arrives so close on the heels of my Cassiodorus post. Hubertus Drobner, author of an outstanding (forthcoming) patristics manual, links Cassiodorus and Benedict with a third man, Boethius, as a “threesome, preserving the three most important parts of ancient education and culture in a complementary way. Those three parts are philosophy (Boethius); language and literature (Cassiodorus); and study (Benedict). And the greatest of those men, Drobner says, is Benedict.

These men built up an intellectual and institutional retaining wall for Western civilization at the onset of the dark ages. And it worked remarkably well when many other governmental, military, and economic systems were breaking down. In honor of Benedict’s contribution, the Church gave him the unusual title “Father of the West.”

Many commentators bring up precisely these achievements of old Abbot Benedict when they ponder the reasons why the current pope took the name Benedict upon election.

If that were the only reason, it would be reason enough for us to study the life of St. Benedict of Nursia. But there are many other pleasant reasons – for example, St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., which is one of my favorite places on earth. Set in rolling hills, built on medieval models, the place exudes peace, as do its monks, like Father Thomas Acklin, whose books I highly recommend, and Father Mark Gruber, whose name comes up often on this blog. The rector at St. Vincent Seminary is an outstanding scholar of patristics and liturgy, Father Kurt Belsole, and the archabbot, Douglas Nowicki, is a wise and holy man who was a close friend and confidant of Mister Rogers. If you know men who feel the tug toward monastic life, put them in touch with St. Vincent. My colleague Scott Hahn teaches at the seminary, so we spend a lot of time there. The archabbey was also, last month, the site of the St. Paul Center‘s first-ever clergy conference.

Last month’s events take us far beyond the era of the Fathers, but I think Benedict would approve of these accomplishments of his sons today.

One of the popular patristics textbooks in the early twentieth century was by a German Benedictine, Father Bernard Schmid. It bore the simple and functional title Manual of Patrology. I give Father Schmid the final word on St. Benedict as we celebrate the feast of his founder. The following passage comes from the third English edition (1911) of Schmid’s manual (German, 1899).

St. Benedict was born of a distinguished family at Nursia, in the year 480. For his higher education he was sent to Rome. But the example and life of his school-fellows was such as to inspire him with horror and with fear for the salvation of his soul. For this reason, whatever other attractions for learning and piety the great capital of the world may have exercised upon his youth, he sacrificed them all. His soul yearned after God, and to His divine service he wished to consecrate himself and his life. In his twentieth year, he bade farewell to the city and retired to a wild and deserted spot at Subiaco, where, after the manner of the Egyptian hermits, he spent three years in prayer, mortification, and waging war with the powers of darkness. His retreat, however, was discovered by shepherds, and the fame of his sanctity soon spread abroad. In consequence, he was chosen superior of the monastery of Vicovaro. But finding the monks there quite incorrigible and even hostile, he soon abandoned the post and returned to his solitude. But it was solitude no longer. Men from everywhere, seeking his spiritual guidance, flocked to him in such numbers that in a short time he was able to establish and fill twelve monasteries.

For thirty-five years St. Benedict lived and labored at Subiaco, laying the first foundations of that wonderful Order and rearing that extraordinary race of men and women hwich is known in the history of the church and civilization as “the Benedictines.”

Owing to the senseless enmity and vexation of a neighboring priest, the Saint at last left Subiaco and went with a few of his companions to Monte Cassino, with its temple and grove of Apollo. The latter he destroyed and built in its place the famous monastery, which was ever after looked upon as the real cradle of his Order, because here he is said to have drawn up the Rule in its present form. Having converted the people of the neighborhood to the faith of Christ, he ended a life, grand in its moral beauty adn rich in divine favors and blessings, on March 21, 543, in his 63rd year. He was not a priest, but was, as Mabillon states, according to a constant Benedictine tradition, a deacon.

I’ll be talking about St. Benedict on Spirit Morning Show on KVSS Radio. The show runs from 7 to 9 a.m., central time. Eventually, KVSS will post the segment on their Mike Aquilina audio page with my other interviews. I’ll let you know when it’s up.