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Make Assumptions

It’s a great feast today. Celebrate it with a festival of good reading.

Always begin with David Scott’s overview.

Then get the patristic take.

Proceed to Jim Davila for the OT foreshadowings.

Buy a good book — like Stephen J. Shoemaker’s The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. The author includes full texts and detailed scholarly analysis of the ancient traditions regarding the end of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life. (My review is here.)

And last, but not least: Pray for me!

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New Yorker Locuta, Causa Finita

Last year, with several others, I got caught up briefly in Father Z’s dispute over the attribution of several chestnuts to St. Augustine. Everyone knows, for example, that the man from Hippo said “Roma locuta, causa finita” (Rome has spoken; the matter is settled). And everyone knows that he said “In necessariis unitas …” (In necessary matters unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity). The problem with these quotations — and several others, including “He who sings prays twice” — is that no one can find them in the works of Augustine.

I proposed that they represent the crystallization of Augustine’s arguments. “Roma locuta” is a summary of his Sermon 131.10. “In necessariis” is a summary of his famous Letter to Januarius. Good teachers tend to distill long treatises into simple, memorable principles. Augustine himself did this, and I think he inspired others to do the same for him down the centuries. It was a habit (and useful mnemonic) in the Middle Ages, when I’ll wager these sayings found their brief and lovely form.

All this came back to me when a friend — who was way behind on his reading — passed me an article from the February 19 & 26 New Yorker: “Notable Quotables” by Louis Menand, in which the author discusses the evolution of “quotes.”

Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” … Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last” … William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words “War is hell” … Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street,” does not say “Greed is good”…

So what? Should we care? Quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation. What Michael Douglas did say in “Wall Street” was “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” That was not a quotable quote; it needed some editorial attention, the consequence of which is that everyone distinctly remembers Michael Douglas uttering the words “Greed is good” in “Wall Street” … When you watch the movie and get to that line, you don’t think your memory is wrong. You think the movie is wrong.

“For lack of a better word” spoils a nice quotation — the speech is about calling a spade a spade, so there is no better word … What Leo Durocher actually said (referring to the New York Giants baseball team) was “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” The sportswriters who heard him telescoped (the technical term is “piped”) the quote because it made a neater headline. They could have done a better job of piping. “Nice guys finish seventh” is a lot cleverer (and also marginally more plausible) than the non-utterance that gave immortality to Leo Durocher. But Leo Durocher doesn’t own that quotation; the quotation owns Leo Durocher, the way a parasite sometimes takes over the host organism. Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do.

I like that. We haven’t been inaccurate. We’ve been “piping” Augustine, “telescoping” him. We’re salvaging his quotes by misquoting him. Such goodness, surely, is even better than greed, and certainly better than finishing last — or, perish the thought, getting dropped from the next edition of Bartlett’s.

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Pope and Antipope — an Odd Feast

Today’s the shared memorial of two former enemies, Saints Pontian and Hippolytus, pope and antipope (respectively). It’s an amazing story. I’ll be talking about P&H with Bruce and Kris McGregor on KVSS radio this morning, and eventually the audio will migrate to their Aquilina page.

Jeff Ziegler leads us to these links:

St. Pontian.
St. Hippolytus.
— The “Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus is the source of Eucharistic Prayer II.
— Dieric Bouts the Elder, St. Hippolytus Triptych (after 1468).

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Intro, Part 3: Who Are the Fathers

The following appeared as a sidebar to my article in Our Sunday Visitor. I’ve posted the main body of the article in halves, Part 1 and Part 2. For the complete story, buy the book!

Not every Christian who wrote in antiquity is considered a Church Father. Theologians have settled on four criteria that must be fulfilled:

1. sound doctrine;

2. holiness of life;

3. Church approval; and

4. antiquity.

Those ancient Christians who don’t meet all these criteria are often described as “ecclesiastical writers” rather than Church Fathers.

Still, there is no official list of the Fathers, no process of canonization similar to a cause for sainthood. The ancient list attributed to Pope Gelasius is of uncertain origin; and, in any event, it was drawn up while the age of the Fathers was still in progress, so it misses some important later figures.

Some scholars say that Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius should be called “ecclesiastical writers” rather than Fathers. Tertullian veered off into the Montanist heresy late in life. Origen seems to have experimented with several weird theological notions. Eusebius was a bit too cozy with the most notorious heretics of the fourth century, the Arians.

Yet recent reconsiderations have been kind to those three men. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Tertullian explicitly as a Father of the Church (n. 1446) and nine times invokes Origen as an authority. A French scholar summed up the matter: “the valuable services that these men have rendered to the Church” make them “exceptions.”

Some early authors would use the word “Father” only to describe a bishop, but eventually the term was extended to priests (like Jerome) and laymen (like Justin).

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Return to Origen

A while back, I reported the arrival (at last) of an English translation of History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen. We have Ignatius Press to thank for this fine edition of a very influential 1950 title by the French theologian (and later Cardinal) Henri de Lubac. The subject of the book is the third-century exegete Origen of Alexandria — one of antiquity’s most renowned biblical interpreters and theologians, yet a man whose life and afterlife have always lingered under a cloud of suspicion. Some propositions attributed to Origen were condemned by Church councils, though his advocates say the propositions, as they were condemned, did not properly represent his doctrine. De Lubac’s study is a systematic examination — and vindication — of Origen’s methods. It begins with “The Case Against Origen,” stated in its strongest terms, then proceeds to a biographical sketch, before rolling out a detailed study of Origen’s teaching on Scripture, especially the importance of both history and the “spiritual sense.” (Origen is sometimes accused of promoting biblical allegory at the expense of biblical history.) De Lubac responds to Origen’s critics point by point, and admirably restores the reputation of this ancient confessor, who suffered for the faith and wished never to have “thoughts different from the faith of the Church on divine dogmas.” De Lubac’s book prepared the way for the abundant use of Origen’s work in subsequent doctrine of the Catholic Church, including the Catechism and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II.

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The Third Temple That Wasn’t

A couple of weeks back, Rich Leonardi put me onto The Jerusalem Post’s feature on Julian the Apostate. To mark the ninth of Av, a fast day that recalls the destruction(s) of the Temple(s), the paper commemorated “the Third Temple that wasn’t,” the emperor Julian’s abortive project to rebuild the Temple. He had no great love for the Jews, but rather he wished to show Christian claims to be false. The project met with several calamities, amply recorded by the Fathers of the Church, and soon enough Julian met his end on the battlefield.

We’ve mentioned Julian often here, and warmly recommended a recent biography.

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From Basil to Baden Powell

Last week I somehow missed it when the pope resumed his patristic audiences with a continuation of Basil:

After this three-week break, we are continuing with our Wednesday meetings. Today, I would simply like to resume my last Catechesis, whose subject was the life and writings of St Basil, a Bishop in present-day Turkey, in Asia Minor, in the fourth century A.D. The life and works of this great Saint are full of ideas for reflection and teachings that are also relevant for us today.

First of all is the reference to God’s mystery, which is still the most meaningful and vital reference for human beings. The Father is “the principal of all things and the cause of being of all that exists, the root of the living” (Hom. 15, 2 de fide: PG 31, 465c); above all, he is “the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Anaphora Sancti Basilii). Ascending to God through his creatures, we “become aware of his goodness and wisdom” (Basil, Adversus Eunomium 1, 14: PG 29, 544b).

The Son is the “image of the Father’s goodness and seal in the same form” (cf. Anaphora Sancti Basilii). With his obedience and his Passion, the Incarnate Word carried out his mission as Redeemer of man (cf. Basil, In Psalmum 48, 8; PG 29, 452ab; cf. also De Baptismo 1, 2: SC 357, 158).

Lastly, he spoke fully of the Holy Spirit, to whom he dedicated a whole book. He reveals to us that the Spirit enlivens the Church, fills her with his gifts and sanctifies her.

The resplendent light of the divine mystery is reflected in man, the image of God, and exalts his dignity. Looking at Christ, one fully understands human dignity.

Basil exclaims: “[Man], be mindful of your greatness, remembering the price paid for you: look at the price of your redemption and comprehend your dignity!” (In Psalmum 48, 8: PG 29, 452b).
Christians in particular, conforming their lives to the Gospel, recognize that all people are brothers and sisters; that life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other, and whoever is rich must be as it were an “executor of the orders of God the Benefactor” (Hom 6 de avaritia: PG 32, 1181-1196). We must all help one another and cooperate as members of one body (Ep 203, 3).

And on this point, he used courageous, strong words in his homilies. Indeed, anyone who desires to love his neighbour as himself, in accordance with God’s commandment, “must possess no more than his neighbour” (Hom. in divites: PG 31, 281b).

In times of famine and disaster, the holy Bishop exhorted the faithful with passionate words “not to be more cruel than beasts… by taking over what people possess in common or by grabbing what belongs to all (Hom. tempore famis: PG 31, 325a).

Basil’s profound thought stands out in this evocative sentence: “All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need”.

Therefore, Gregory of Nazianzus’ praise after Basil’s death was well-deserved. He said: “Basil convinces us that since we are human beings, we must neither despise men nor offend Christ, the common Head of all, with our inhuman behaviour towards people; rather, we ourselves must benefit by learning from the misfortunes of others and must lend God our compassion, for we are in need of mercy” (Gregory Nazianzus, Orationes 43, 63; PG 36, 580b).

These words are very timely. We see that St Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine.

Furthermore, Basil reminds us that to keep alive our love for God and for men, we need the Eucharist, the appropriate food for the baptized, which can nourish the new energies that derive from Baptism (cf. De Baptismo 1, 3: SC 357, 192).

It is a cause of immense joy to be able to take part in the Eucharist (cf. Moralia 21, 3: PG 31, 741a), instituted “to preserve unceasingly the memory of the One who died and rose for us” (Moralia 80, 22: PG 31, 869b).

The Eucharist, an immense gift of God, preserves in each one of us the memory of the baptismal seal and makes it possible to live the grace of Baptism to the full and in fidelity.

For this reason, the holy Bishop recommended frequent, even daily, Communion: “Communicating even daily, receiving the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, is good and useful; for he said clearly: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’ (Jn 6: 54). So who would doubt that communicating continuously with life were not living in fullness?” (Ep. 93: PG 32, 484b).

The Eucharist, in a word, is necessary for us if we are to welcome within us true life, eternal life (cf. Moralia 21, 1: PG 31, 737c).

Finally, Basil was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society’s future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time.

He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living (cf. Ad Adolescentes 3).

Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach – it is a question of true and proper “discernment”- young people grow in freedom.

With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: “Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and colour, so also from these writings… one can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the example of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conform to the truth, ignoring the rest” (Ad Adolescentes 4).

Basil recommended above all that young people grow in virtue, in the right way of living: “While the other goods… pass from one to the other as in playing dice, virtue alone is an inalienable good and endures throughout life and after death” (Ad Adolescentes 5).

Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things.

In the first place, attentive, critical and creative participation in today’s culture.

Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbours; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face.

And, lastly, knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, the common Father, can we build a more just and fraternal world.

Further extending the patristic theme, he ended the audience with a little tribute to Lord Robert Baden Powell, on the centenary of the Scouting movement.

While we’re on the subject: please pray for Junior the Webmaster, who’s very close to obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout, but perilously close to the deadline birthday. It’s gonna be a photo finish.