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Good News About the Expanded Fathers

My publisher sends word that the new, expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers will be available at the beginning of September. Teachers who need multiple copies for Fall semester can arrange to have it shipped directly from the printer. If you’re anxious to get yours ASAP, my editor suggests that you call 1-800-348-2440 and ask for the Customer Service department.

There’s a page up on Amazon, too, but I can’t imagine that Amazon will be shipping before late September.

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Patristic MP3s and Podcasts

Last week I was traveling a little with my buddy Joe the Jaw Doctor. He likes to listen to the Church Fathers as he drives to and from surgery. As he rushes from the car to the O.R., he moves from the sublime to the maxillofacial. If you, too, are wired for sound and fond of the Fathers, check out this list of online sources of free and easy listening.

* Maria Lectrix is the hostess with the mostest. She packs Irenaeus, Ephrem, Prudentius, Ignatius, all smoothly delivered by a smart and sympathetic reader.

* You can grab MP3s of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho right here.

* An outfit called Dead White Guys also runs Justin, and serves up St. Patrick as well.

* This humble blog carries an audio page with three longish talks about the Fathers, supplemented by many radio interviews, all by Yours Truly. I should be adding more material in the next few days. I just taped, for example, a couple of podcasts of The Weekly Roman Observer, but they’re not up on iTunes yet. I’ll let you know as they emerge.

Meantime, listen up! Your Fathers are speaking to you.

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Lion Around on a Sunday

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was a major British poet and intermittent Christian. During a period of faith she wrote “The Roman Road (A Christian Speaks to a Lion in the Arena).”

Oh Lion in a peculiar guise
Sharp Roman road to Paradise,
Come eat me up, I’ll pay thy toll
With all my flesh, and keep my soul.

May Stevie Smith know eternal rest.

Hat tip to my much-beloved godson David Mills (the editor of Touchstone magazine).

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Why Study Christian History? (Part 3)

And now for something a little different, at least for this occasional series on why we should study history. Veering from specialists in American history, we’re turning to an American-born scholar of Jewish history, Rabbi Ken Spiro, whose subject today is “The Bible as History.” Rabbi Spiro did graduate studies at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow; he holds an advanced degree in history from Norwich University; and he received ordination to the rabbinate in Jerusalem. He currently lives and works in Jerusalem, where he is a senior lecturer and researcher on Aish HaTorah outreach programs. Here he explains why Jews care passionately about history.

Of course, I believe that Christians should be no less passionate about the study of the past, especially when we turn to the Scriptures and the Fathers. For us, as for Jews, history has a meaning, a narrative; it follows a discernible pattern.

We assume that people throughout human history always studied history, but that’s not true. As a matter of fact, if you go back more than a couple of thousand years you’ll find people had no interest in history. The first historian in the West is Herodotus, a Greek who lived in the 5th century BCE. And he’s given the title: Father of History.

Columbia University historian Joseph Yerushalmi who wrote an excellent, highly-praised book called Zahor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, says that “If Herodotus was the father of history, the father of meaning in history was the Jews.”

This is a profound idea.

First, not only were Jews recording history well before Herodotus, but while Herodotus might record the events, the Jews were looking at the deeper meaning, and that deeper meaning can be found most importantly and most significantly within the Bible itself.

You can read the rest of Rabbi Spiro’s article right here.

This is the third in a series of brief reflections on history by historians. The first installment was Victor Davis Hanson, and the second by David McCullogh.

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Athanasius in Autumn

Great news: Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy will deliver the St. Paul Center’s honorary lecture this year. A noted theologian, Father Weinandy will deliver his address, “St. Athanasius of Alexandria and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit,” as the culmination of the Center’s annual Letter & Spirit Conference.

Father Weinandy taught at Oxford University for more than a decade, and he is the author of a dozen books, including The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation He is the chief doctrinal official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The theme of this year’s Letter & Spirit Conference is “Love and Sacrifice.” The event will take place October 27-28, 2006, at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh. Other speakers include:

• Dr. David Fagerberg of Notre Dame, on “Divine Love and the Divine Liturgy.”

Dr. Brant Pitre of Holy Cross College, on “Jesus, the Bridegroom-Messiah.”

• Tim Gray of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, on “The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving in the Cult of Ancient Israel.”

• And, of course, the Center’s founder, Dr. Scott Hahn.

Registration costs $69 and includes all meals and talks as well as a copy of the Center’s journal, Letter & Spirit. You can register or get more details right here. Scholarships are available for Catholic seminarians. Call (740) 264-9535 for details.

The Lawler Lecture is named for one of the most remarkable men I’ve been privileged to know, the great ethicist and theologian Father Ronald Lawler (1926-2003). Father Lawler taught Father Weinandy philosophy in seminary. The inaugural Lawler Lecture was delivered by another great patrologist, Robert Louis Wilken.

If you can travel to Pittsburgh, you don’t want to miss this conference. And you really can’t beat the price.

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Bee True to Your School

They called him “The Sicilian Bee.” St. Pantaenus hailed from the same island as all four of my grandparents. You don’t know my grandparents, but you know me at least from this blog. In a similar way, you probably don’t know St. Pantaenus, but I’ll bet you know his spiritual descendants — Clement and Origen of Alexandria, to name just two.

St. Pantaenus is the first known rector of Alexandria’s renowned catechetical school. Scholars tusssle over whether the Didaskaleion (as the school was known) was an actual educational institution or more like a “school of thought.” It seems clear to me from the Alexandrian writings that both Clement and Origen spent a good deal of their time lecturing, so I’m betting on the Didaskaleion’s institutional identity.

Pagan by birth, Pantaenus spent his young adulthood as a pagan philosopher. He converted to Christianity and set off on a missionary journey that took him all the way to India. There he encountered Christians, the descendants of Indians who had been converted by the apostles.

At some point, Pantaenus returned westward and settled at Alexandria, where he continued to teach and preach. He attracted the best and brightest as disciples. Young Clement had traveled for years, over land and sea, in search of a wise teacher. He found what he was looking for in Pantaenus. “When I came upon the last teacher, he was the first in power. I tracked him down hidden away in Egypt. And then I found rest. He, the true, the Sicilian bee gathering the spoil of the flowers of the prophetic and apostolic meadow, engendered in the souls of hearers a deathless element of knowledge.” Now, if that were the Sicilian Bee’s only testimonial from a student, he could be justly proud. It’s a little like being Einstein’s favorite physics prof.

Eusebius and Clement both suggest that Pantaenus wrote as well as taught, and some modern historians believe him to be the author of the Letter to Diognetus.

Was he the founder of the Didaskaleion? Well, Coptic tradition assigns that role to St. Mark the Evangelist. Pantaenus, however, is the first schoolmaster to show up in the historical record.

He probably died around 200 A.D., and he was succeeded at the Didaskaleion by Clement.

Some years later, Origen — who was Clement’s disciple — would defend his own use of Greek philosophy by saying that Pantaenus had done the same thing. And if Pantaenus did it, it had to be good.

Today, July 7, is the memorial of St. Pantaenus. It seems wrong to celebrate the Sicilian Bee with chocolate. Go for the honey — baklava.

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The Copy Cat

James J. O’Donnell is a brilliant and generous scholar of late antiquity, and he now holds the office of provost at Georgetown. I have occasionally bothered him with questions about Augustine’s mother, Monica, and the man — who must be incredibly busy — has always astonished me by answering rapidly and completely.

I’m sorry to see that many reviewers are taking him apart for his new biography of Augustine. But the book is, by almost all accounts, filled with loathing for its subject. One British reviewer says the book is more than anti-Augustine; it’s anti-Christian. I, for my part, had about as much of the book as I could handle while browsing at Barnes & Noble. To his credit, Dr. O’Donnell has posted all the reviews, good and bad, on his web page.

But I come to praise the man, not to bury him. For Rogue Classicism tells us the very good news that Dr. O’Donnell has posted his 1979 study of Cassiodorus (University of California Press) for free online.

O’Donnell describes Cassiodorus (c.490-c.583) amusingly as “a little more than sinner, a little less than saint,” but “a constant source of inspiration.”

Cassiodorus was one of the great minds at the court of the triumphant barbarian Theodoric. He spent most of his life as one of Theodoric’s top men. But in his old age he went back to his hometown and set up a monastery — a monastery with a very specific purpose.

All over Italy, Cassiodorus saw civilization dying. A century and a half of invasions and wars had made books rare and educated readers rarer. The noblemen who had once kept large private libraries—and supported a profitable publishing industry—had mostly been replaced by illiterate barbarian chiefs.

So Cassiodorus scooped up every book he could find from the ruined and abandoned libraries of Italy. Then he set his monks to work copying them. “Of all the fruits of manual labor,” he said, “nothing pleases me as much as the work of the copyists — as long as they copy right.”

It was Cassiodorus who made copying books one of the monks’ most important duties. “Every time you write one of the Lord’s words, Satan is wounded,” he used to say. After Cassiodorus, monasteries replaced the old private publishers all over western Europe. Monks continued to copy old books right through the darkest parts of the Dark Ages and into the high Middle Ages, right up past the invention of the printing press. Cassiodorus had hit on the one sure way of preserving the learning of the past in an age of illiterate barbarians.

We can thank him and his enterprise for some of the editions of the Fathers that we have today — even those of us who are little more than illiterate barbarians.

And we can thank Dr. James O’Donnell for posting — free, and in the spirit of Cassiodorus — the only “thoroughgoing scholarly study of the life and works of Cassiodorus” to appear in the last three hundred years.

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Why Study Christian History? (Part 2)

Here’s the second in a series of brief reflections on history by American historians. What they say about the study of America’s past applies all the more to our interest in the Church’s past. Today’s excerpts I’ve taken from an informal address by David McCullogh, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (and a Pittsburgh native). The address, titled “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” was delivered in 2005. As you read Dr. McCullough’s words, think about the debt of gratitude we owe the Church Fathers, and about our duty to teach their history to the next generation of Christians — especially young children.

Daniel Boorstin … said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers [today] and trying to plant them…

[There is no] such creature as a self-made man or woman. We love that expression, we Americans. But every one who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people … The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted — as we should never take for granted — are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live?…

[W]e have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears … did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away. If you don’t care about it … you’re going to lose it…

The teaching of history, the emphasis on the importance of history, the enjoyment of history, should begin at home. We who are parents or grandparents … should be talking about those books in biography or history that we have particularly enjoyed, or that character or those characters in history that have meant something to us … Children, particularly little children, love this. And in my view, the real focus should be at the grade school level. We all know that those little guys can learn languages so fast it takes your breath away. They can learn anything so fast it takes your breath away. And the other very important truth is that they want to learn. They can be taught to dissect a cow’s eye. They can be taught anything.

Dr. McCullough’s predecessor in this occasional series was Victor Davis Hanson.

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The Eyes Have It?

I grew up in an Italian-American ghetto in northeastern Pennsylvania. My section of town had its own parish church; its own bars and “corpse houses”; its own grocer. Most families were just a generation removed from the old country; and though we spoke English in our house, I often heard the Sicilian dialect around the neighborhood, especially in the grocery store and especially when the old folks stood complaining together.

Sometimes we kids would hear the old ladies mention the malocchio — the evil eye. The idea was that people who looked on you with envy could somehow cause you harm — perhaps by cursing you and wishing evil upon you. I never heard the consequences spelled out very clearly. But Satan and the other evil spirits were always prowling around anyway, seeking the ruin of your soul; surely they’d be happy to lend a cloven hoof to aid your enemies in the neighborhood.

Thus, to ward off envy, the old widows often warned us not to praise people too excessively. If someone got lavish in praising the beauty of a baby, for example, an old woman might stop the flatterer short and invoke God’s protection. Such praise only invited envy.

We kids found the whole matter amusing. We laughed across the generation gap at the peasant superstitions of the neighborhood grandmothers.

Now, however, the Church Fathers have come to the defense of the old nonne. In 1995 Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard’s institute of Byzantine studies, published a collection of essays on Byzantine Magic. The first one in the book is “The Fathers of the Church and the Evil Eye,” by Matthew W. Dickie. It’s not that the Fathers were practicing the evil eye, but it seems that some people in their congregations were, and it was often a matter for grave admonition from the pulpit.

Good Christians today are often scandalized to hear that their forebears in faith kept up such superstitious practices. But they did. And we shouldn’t be surprised, really. Each day, my email box nearly bursts with spam messages that offer me all manner of bodily marvels, if I’ll only shell out a pittance for prescription drugs or herbal creams and potions. And there are probably as many storefront fortune-tellers in the nearby town of Heidelberg, Pa., as there were in an ordinary village of Ancient Syria. If these spam and scam artists had been alive in the Byzantine Empire, I’m sure they’d be practicing magic and cursing upon payment in full.

It’s quite easy to impose an allegorical reading on the practice and on belief in the evil eye. What we should fear is the effect of envy — right? — not only on oneself, but also on others. It’s a “curse” on the individual soul and society.

Yet that’s not at all what the Fathers believed about the evil eye. Indeed, Professor Dickie marshals an impressive array of ancient preachers who believed that the evil eye could very well effect what it signified (with help from the devil, of course). There they are: Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Eusebius, and Tertullian.

It does make a modern Christian uneasy, and I (for one) don’t want to think much about it. But no less an authority than Rome’s chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, recently told the London Telegraph: “It is very difficult to perform a curse. You need to be a priest of Satan to do it properly. Of course, just as you can hire a killer if you need one, you can hire a male witch to utter a curse on your behalf. Most witches are frauds, but I am afraid some authentic ones do exist.” Father Amorth adds that such curses are sometimes the precipitating cause of demonic possession.

God permits all this for the testing of our love and for His greater glory. It’s a frightful mystery. The Fathers sometimes bring up the subject when they’re discussing the biblical Book of Job. Job was tormented by the devil, but he never lost sight of the sure knowledge that his redeemer lives. Job persevered through the trial, and he was vindicated.

Job’s redeemer is our redeemer, too. That’s something I can ponder for hours with gratitude, and I do, when the shadow of evil even faintly falls my way. “I fear no evil; for Thou art with me” (Ps 23:4).

And yet the old Sicilian ladies knew something that we too often forget: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (1 Pt 5:8-10).

One hard thing about growing out of adolescence: It’s hard to smirk with intellectual smugness at the old immigrant ladies when they have an intellectual and spiritual giant like Gregory of Nyssa standing on their side.

Hat tip on the essay collection: PhDiva.